Kassie has felt adrift ever since her dad died when she was in college. Now 24 and living in Seattle, she gets interested in learning sign language through her roommate, a sign language interpreter. One day at a Deaf community event, she sees a young man sitting off by himself. Kassie feels compelled to try signing to him–the fact that he’s strikingly handsome doesn’t hurt.
Jake has been deaf and blind since birth. His disability has cut him off from the world, but beneath his isolated exterior, is a smart, sweet guy with a dry sense of humor. Despite the odds, he’s highly educated, but at 26, he’s gotten stuck in a rut, with few friends and no clear career plans. Until a sweet-smelling girl introduces herself to him unexpectedly, and opens up a whole new world to him.
Jake is more intelligent, more genuine than anyone she has met before, and for the first time Kassie starts to feel like her life has some direction. But as their friendship deepens into something more, the difficulty in communicating with each other only grows, and it seems like everyone they know thinks their relationship won’t work. How can they come to a deeper understanding of each other, and find a future together?
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Kassie asked as she slammed the car door shut behind her.
Erik smiled down at her, his brilliant white grin reassuring. “Of course. You’ll be fine.” He jogged across the parking lot while Kassie dawdled behind, even though the rain was increasing from a mist to a steady drizzle.
“I don’t know. My signing still sucks. What if they don’t understand me?”
Erik put an arm around her, hugging her to his lean tall frame. “Come on, you’re not here as an interpreter. This is just a casual meetup. And since when have you been shy?”
Kassie grinned despite herself, then looked up at the low-slung building before them. A sign over the door read Seattle Deafblind Center. She glanced up at Erik again.
“OK, but you’ll help me if I get stuck?”
“You’ll be fine,” Erik repeated as he pushed the door open.
To Kassie it seemed purely by accident that she ended up in this place at this time. She had moved to Seattle after graduating from college because she wanted to get away, to start over. She had chosen a small school in Indiana near home, but her father had gotten sick in her freshman year and died in her junior year, leaving her to sleepwalk through college in a haze of grief that prevented her from making any friends, let alone boyfriends. By the time she graduated she was ready to start over in a new place where she didn’t know anyone. She found a job easily enough as an administrative assistant (well, secretary really) to the head of finance at the corporate office of a big name department store. The pay was alright, even if the job itself felt pointless and boring. The atmosphere in the office was decidedly stodgy despite the store’s inept attempts to be edgy and hip.
It was because of her housemate, Erik, that Kassie started taking American Sign Language classes at Seattle Community College. Erik was a CODA, a hearing Child Of Deaf Adults, and worked as an ASL interpreter. Learning ASL seemed like a good way to get involved with something more meaningful than her current job, but after over a year of classes Kassie was, if anything, even more painfully conscious of how far from fluent she was. From time to time she accompanied Erik to pizza nights and meetups at the Seattle Deaf Community Center, but while people there were nice, they always seemed a bit mystified by her presence. Inevitably someone would ask if she was training to become an interpreter.
No, I just want to learn, she’d reply, doing her best to make her signs quick and natural. Usually the other person would smile, but somewhat hesitantly, as if that wasn’t really enough of an explanation.
If she signed, I’m Erik’s friend, people assumed they were a couple, which seemed ridiculous to her because he was so obviously gay. But apparently it was the only way people could make sense of her presence there.
Still, she kept going with him every month or so. The meetups, just casual gatherings to chat in ASL for a few hours in the evening, were good practice. Then one day Erik mentioned to her that he had been asked to attend a similar meetup, but for deafblind people. Impulsively, Kassie volunteered to go with him, but the thought of her inadequate signing skills was making her uncharacteristically nervous.
Kassie followed Erik into a medium-sized meeting room with round tables and plastic chairs arranged around the hard linoleum floor, like a school cafeteria. A dozen or so people stood or sat eating pizza, just like the Deaf meetups she had been to before, except everyone sat much closer together, signing in pairs. Erik greeted several people with great animation, hugging them and introducing Kassie. Most of them seemed able to see her signing well enough to understand her, even some of the people carrying white canes. Only one woman put her hands on top of Kassie’s as she spelled out her name.
As Kassie started to relax and look around, she noticed a figure sitting off by himself, separated from the small knot of people. She watched for nearly half an hour, but no one approached him. She gauged him to be about her age. His eyes were closed and his brows pinched up in a frown, but even so he was strikingly handsome, with close-cut, glossy black hair contrasting with a pale complexion.
She nudged Erik, pointing toward him with her chin. “Who’s that?”
“Oh, that’s Jake,” Erik replied. “Don’t worry about him–his intervener will be here soon.”
“Intervener, it’s like an interpreter for deafblind people. Like Mandy there,” he added, waving to a woman who was signing into the hand of another woman seated beside her.
“I’m going to say hello to him,” Kassie said. It seemed wrong to her that one person should be excluded from the group.
Erik looked slightly pained. “Kassie, you don’t understand,” he said. “Everyone else here has Usher’s Syndrome. They’ve been Deaf all their lives–only started to lose their vision as teenagers or adults, and most of them still have some sight. They’re all ASL native speakers. But Jake is profoundly deaf and totally blind from birth. I’m not sure he even knows ASL.”
Kassie stared at him, her eyes growing larger. “How can he not know ASL? He must know something, right?” she asked, a little shocked.
Erik explained, “It’s hard to learn the signs if you can’t see them. I think he uses a different manual alphabet that’s easier for him.” Seeing the look of concern on Kassie’s face he added, “Don’t worry about him, he’s fine.”
Kassie turned to look at Jake again. He didn’t look fine to her. He looked bored and lonely. She knew how it felt to be on the outside, to have no one to talk to. What if he was just waiting for someone to go over to him? It didn’t hurt that he was cute too. If they were at a party she would find some excuse to talk to him. “I’m going to say hello to him,” she insisted.
“Try printing block letters on his palm, he might understand that,” Erik suggested with a shrug.
Kassie squared her shoulders and marched across the room, daring Erik to stop her, but he had already turned his attention to someone else.
Jake did not seem to notice her approach his chair. He sat with his back rigidly straight, but his head dipped slightly down and to the left. Up close he was even cuter, with his strong, slightly triangular jaw. The contrast between his glossy black hair, slightly grown out on top, and his pale skin was startling. His eyelashes were dark and thick too, although his eyes opened only slightly, showing a line of white.
Kassie waited for a moment, but when he still did not give any sign of noticing her she tapped him on the shoulder. Jake jumped so high she nearly retreated, overcome with guilt for having startled him, but he was already holding out his left palm toward her. Realizing it would be even more cruel to walk away, Kassie extended a trembling finger and wrote very slowly in the palm of his hand, H-E-L-L-O.
To her extreme surprise, he saluted her with the ASL sign for hello, then added, My name is Jake, in rather jerky, hesitant signs. At least that’s what she assumed he meant; rather than spelling out his name, he made a name sign, tracing a sort of J against his chest with his pinkie finger.
Kassie made to introduce herself as well, with his hands resting on hers, realizing only too late that when she gestured towards herself, she brought his hand directly onto her breasts. Jake seemed to realize the same thing–he breathed in sharply and flushed from his neck to his hairline, bright pink splotches standing out against his white cheeks. Flustered, Kassie tried again, this time only moving her hand halfway. My name is K-A-S-S-I-E, she signed, fingerspelling her name then adding the name sign Erik had given her, a K at her right temple, a reference to her short, curly blond hair.
Jake did not reply, so she made the signs again, even more slowly, but he kept tugging her hands towards him. She gently tugged back, but that only seemed to agitate him. He brushed his fingers over her palm, then made some rapid signs she couldn’t follow. She stared at him helplessly. He sighed in irritation as he repeated the signs, the splotches on his cheeks turning darker red.
This time Kassie picked out C-A-R-T-E-R, but that was all. What is carter, she wondered, feeling increasingly panicked. She glanced behind her, trying to spot Erik, but instead a small balding man with round glasses set atop a hooked nose suddenly appeared and insinuated himself between her and Jake. Before she realized what had happened, he pushed her aside and put his hands under Jake’s. Immediately they began signing back and forth rapidly.
Kassie shifted from foot to foot, unwilling to end their conversation so abruptly. If you could even call it a conversation, but still, it seemed rude to walk away. “Umm…excuse me, but who are you?” she asked the interloper.
Without pausing his signing with Jake, the man gave her a sour look. “I’m Joel Carter, Jake’s intervener,” he snapped.
“Oh, of course!” It seemed so obvious now. “I’m Kassie,” she said, fingerspelling her name again and adding her name sign at the end, so he could repeat it into Jake’s hand. “I’m a friend of Erik’s. I was just, um, saying hello to Jake.”
Carter passed along the message, then said, “Jake says hello.” Kassie watched their interaction curiously. Carter was not using any ASL signs or fingerspelling she recognized. Jake held out his left palm flat and at an angle, while Carter tapped and brushed it in different places with his fingers, sometimes straight or bent, sometimes one or more than one finger at a time.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Carter, but do you mind telling me what system you’re using? Erik said Jake doesn’t know ASL, but I guess he was wrong about that. Anyway it looks like now you’re using something else. I’m just curious,” she finished lamely, realizing she was starting to babble.
Carter was not pleased with her question. “He knows some basic ASL,” he answered shortly, “but we’re using the deafblind manual alphabet.”
“Oh, I see.”
Carter stared at her but did not say anything more. After a moment Kassie realized what was happening: Carter didn’t want to talk to her. He wanted her to go away, but being an ethical interpreter he was not going to say anything to her he would not also sign to Jake.
“Well, um, ok, nice to meet you, Jake,” Kassie said, and patted him on the shoulder as Carter interpreted. Again Jake jumped a bit, and Kassie fled back to Erik on the other side of the room.
For the remainder of the evening Kassie stuck close to Erik, signing briefly with a few people, but for the most part feeling like an observer. At the Deaf meetups there were always lots of people, and she rarely had a problem finding someone willing to let her practice her ASL. But here she realized it was hard to sign to more than one person at a time, and even harder to initiate small talk with a stranger. She never realized how much she relied on catching someone’s eye to begin a conversation. She ended up chatting with one of the interpreters about her ASL class, although she knew her teacher would scold her for using her voice.
Back in the car , Erik asked, “So what did you talk about with Jake?”
“Nothing,” she replied truthfully.
“I told you his intervener would show up,” Erik said as he pulled out of the parking lot. “But he is kind of a hottie. I don’t blame you for wanting to chat him up.” He turned to wink at her.
“Oh my God, what are you talking about?” Kassie protested. “Not everyone is a horndog like you.”
Erik just laughed. In the two years they had been living together they had grown close, even though initially they only met through Craigslist. Erik was the ideal housemate, a good cook and fastidiously clean, even if he was kind of loud and liked to play techno turned all the way up. After feeling alone for so long, Kassie was glad to have someone to joke around with. She liked going out with him to gay clubs where she could dance however she liked, and no one hit on her. Not that she was against dating–she had attempted a few relationships, but somehow the guys she met all seemed self-involved and shallow.
But even though Erik was fun, he definitely had his own life that didn’t always include her, and she tried not to be too clingy. She tried to find activities that would get her out of the house more, and suddenly she found she was running around all the time.
Now she caught sight of the clock on the car radio.”Oh no, is that the time? Do you mind dropping me off at my yoga class? I’ll take the bus home.”
Lucy May Lennox