In the haze of twilight, she felt both confident and then, suddenly, at a loss when she tripped over a pile of garbage on Broadway. It was light enough for her to see, but dark enough that in this moment she had been careless, not double checking her path, but proceeding boldly forward, just like the others out at dusk. But she was not like the others. She thought all this in an instant, hands out in front of her, grasping at straws that poked through black plastic. A rat scurried out from the pile, startled by her interruption. She would have laughed to avoid tears, but it was already too late.
She wasn’t embarrassed not to have seen the trash. She was embarrassed by the assumptions of the passerby: that she was just a drunk, or drugged-up, or an idiot. She always got the last assumption when she mispronounced a particularly difficult word, or when she had to ask someone to repeat themselves for the third time.
She got up on her knees, examined her palms. No blood this time. She scanned the street. There was a man mouthing something at her.
“I’m fine,” she snapped. She assumed he had asked her if she was alright, if she needed help. No help. That, she was proud of. No help.
She walked on, slower, scanning the ground in front of her, glancing up at the cross-walks, double checking for cars. This disease was like a cup of poison that she drank slowly all the time. She got used to the taste, but the effects were getting more serious as time went on.
That was a negative example. She was upset. She would feel better after a shower. She would remember herself under the hot water with silence all around.
But she still had to get home.
Her walks had become more careful, slow. When she was a girl, she had bruised her shins almost every day. Her parents had thought she was just reckless. They hadn’t gotten her full diagnosis, yet.
She thought back to last November when a bicycle hit her as she crossed the street. He had yelled at her, but she didn’t know whether to go forward or back, or to stay still, and so he had hit her. Then he had asked her why she didn’t move when he yelled.
Her mother wants her to use a cane.
When she got the diagnosis, she had imagined herself a bird travelling from shore over sea to the land of the Deaf and Blind. She didn’t think, then, that she’d still be travelling fifteen years later. There was no far-off shore, or maybe there was, but the sea that stretched out in front of her was murky and dark, a mix of contradictions, like the tide, a sense that grew and faded from day to day. She longed for a definite answer, but found that some days she could see, some routes she could walk, some people she could understand. Nights, she was blind. Sometimes she fell, some people appeared, mouthed words. She would hear every other syllable.
She was embarrassed again last Tuesday when her coworker forwarded a video of a toddler getting his cochlear implant turned on for the first time.
“Isn’t it just so inspiring?” Angela raved.
She did the smile and nod she always did when she hadn’t heard someone. But she had heard Angela. The video was just offensive.
Simpering Angela smiled. “I knew you would just love it, Sofia.”
Why, Sofia wondered, but she nodded again. People acted like cochlear implants, or even hearing aids, were just like glasses. Put them on and presto! you can hear. At this thought she smiled a bit. Even when she explained that speaking required years of speech therapy, Angela had still responded, “Oh, yeah, but it’s better than the alternative.”
The alternative? Signing? Going to a school for the Deaf? She had begged her hearing parents to let her go, to release her from the pain and humiliation of mainstreaming.
By now she had reached her door. She dug in her pocket for the keys. She felt for the lock with her left hand, carefully aligned the key, and twisted. The hall was dark, but she had memorized the number of steps to the elevator, and as long as there were no packages underfoot, she would be alright.
Last December, there was a blizzard in New York City. She had been late for a first date and miscalculated the depth of a puddle. She fell, hard. That time she needed stiches. But she had finished the walk to the bar and sat there with a guy who played music, holding a tissue to her leg. The next day in urgent care, the nurse scolded her for toughing it out.
Another date that winter, the musician had walked her home, insisted on it, took the subway with her, even though he lived way out in Flatbush, and she lived in Harlem. At the corner before her building, she had paused to thank him, and he told her about his addiction and the pain that comes from a different kind of poison. She had felt lucky a month later when she got a message from him, full of regret, but he had relapsed again, gone into recovery again, and was making amends, again.
At her own door now, she breathed a sigh of relief and stepped inside. She hung up her coat, took off her shoes, padded down the hall to the shower that promised release from the stench of garbage and pee. And the water washed it all away, the embarrassment too, and she was joyful again within her body that was still full of youth and promise.
Catherine Bloomer received her MFA in fiction from the New School in 2016. She is currently a PhD candidate in Italian Literature at Columbia University, where she is writing a dissertation on the representation of disability in Dante Alighieri’s works and times. Catherine serves as the Associate Director for the arts education program WriteOn NYC, bringing creative writing classes to underserved schools in the New York area. She has a poem forthcoming in The Gateway Review. Follow her on Twitter @bloomersea or check out her website: catherinebloomer.com.