Captive, Cynthia Lee
My parents and I have spent all day at Boston Children’s Hospital. I’m not sick, but you wouldn’t know that from their reactions. I run off to watch TV while they talk in the kitchen, too quiet for me to hear. We just found out that I was born with hearing loss and my parents are anxious about what could change. But nothing about my nearly four years of life are different for having a name to put to my experiences and their hushed concerns fail to penetrate my bubble of cartoon-watching.
A year later, I’m at the piano, clumsily plunking out a simple melody. “That wasn’t right,” Mum calls lazily from the next room. My hands ball into chubby fists. I try again, slowly, to make sure I hit the right notes. “Still not right,” she calls. She’s watching the news, faint voices trickling out of the family room that I can only hear because of the bright blue and green hearing aids that have been my constant companion since just before my fourth birthday. “But I played them right!” I respond in a whine. A month later, the nice tuner man tells my parents they should’ve called years ago.
I love speech class. Mrs. Kopp has kind eyes and her brightly-colored room is covered end-to-end with shelves of activities and books. She tells me I’ll be done at the end of this year so I won’t have to keep missing reading lessons once I’m in third grade. I try not to let my disappointment show, but she notices. “You’re never mean when I can’t hear things or say things,” I explain when she asks. She looks at me with her head tilted, her most tried-and-true way of getting me to talk. “Everyone else makes fun of me when I can’t hear.” My chin feels trembly and I don’t want to cry here.
Emma and I have been best friends for a full year and our seventh grade French teacher finds us insufferable. She’s moved Emma to be at least three rows away from me at all times, knowing full well that I can’t hear from that far away. “Are you still coming over after school?” Emma manages to ask me when Madame Swearingen turns her back to us. I smirk at our work- around—no one realizes just how well I can read lips—and nod. Emma has to do the talking in this scenario because her lip-reading skills, quite frankly, suck. It’s worth the sacrifice.
The movie is on a low volume and none of my friends want closed captions. “Do you really need them? They’re annoying,” Phil complains. Murmurs of agreement come from some of my so-called friends. I’m tempted to drop it, but this time something flares up in me. “Yes, I fucking need them. I’m sorry that my disability is a minor inconvenience to you for these two whole hours of your life, but maybe you should get your head out of your ass for ten seconds and realize that it’s kind of life-defining when you have to live with it forever.”
The cold air stings my eyes as I walk out of the Porter Square train station and into the wind. Caitlin trails behind me, her presence comforting to my fraying nerves.
“Are you sure it’s okay that I come?” Caitlin asks. Her long blond hair is in a braid down her back, a stark contrast against the black of her peacoat.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine!” I promise, though I have no real way of knowing. “You just can’t use your voice—that’s really rude at Deaf functions.” She nods in understanding.
We walk into the small sandwich shop and the ASL group is impossible to miss. Ten people are huddled around a set of haphazardly pushed together tables, their hands flying as laughter permeates the air around them.
Shyly, I approach them and introduce myself. Instantly, every face is turned towards us and beaming. A tall man with dark hair and the biggest grin of all stands and makes his way to us. “I’m Sean,” he signs and shows me his name sign. “I’m the head of the meet up.”
I finger spell my name in response. I don’t have a name sign yet; only a Deaf person can give me one and I’ve never had a Deaf friend. I indicate Caitlin. “This is my friend, Caitlin. She’s very new to ASL, so she’s mostly watching.” Sean nods and makes his way around the table, introducing everyone.
I find a spot at the table. The knot in my throat has loosened slightly, but I’m still worried I’ll embarrass myself when I try to converse with more fluent signers.
Hours seem like seconds as I have long conversations—funny and serious, surface and deep—with every person at the table.
“Where are you from?” one woman asks as we get to know each other. Mere moments later, she’s tearfully telling me, “I’m worried my son will be bullied for being deaf.”
“He’s lucky to have a mom like you. My parents never learned to sign for me.”
Nearly two years pass before I have time to catch up with Sean again. We spend an afternoon in Harvard Square, eating pizza and exchanging stories. I used to hate the attention my deafness earned me, but something inside me glows at the strange looks we get from passersby.
About the Author
Lissa King · Simmons University
Lissa King is a senior (recent graduate) of Simmons University in Boston. Growing up in a family whose go-to party games were Scrabble and verbal word games, it came as no surprise when Lissa chose an English literature path for their college career and beyond. Lissa is also a Shakespearian actor, often bringing sign language to their performances and advocating for visibility of Deaf and other disabled people. Lissa lives in Boston with their partner, Isaac, and dog, Maya.
About the Artist
Cynthia Lee · New York University
Cynthia Lee is from Taiwan, Taipei and currently resides in New York City, New York. She currently studies photography at New York University. “Captive” was previously seen in Blueshift Journal.