By J. Parrish Lewis
For nearly a week, Alice’s intended consequence for her mother, a perpetual cold shoulder, crumbled slowly until she gave in to her reality. No words, no apologies or favors, would get Alice what she wanted. She knew this because she knew her mother, knew that her mother means what she says and says what she means.
By the end of the week, conversations were still chilly, but Alice felt herself letting go, a dog who has relented on the bone its master reclaimed.
She did not see Wren. Once, as quick as a blink, she caught a glimpse of his backpack as he disappeared around a corner in the school halls, but she was already on her way to recess. She had a note ready in her pocket to pass to him, a note that explained everything including the promise of forever friendship, but it was a note that stayed in her pocket.
On Friday night, watching a movie she got to pick out this time, curled up against her mother on the couch, their warm terrier asleep against her hip, she felt her mother’s contagious laughter and looked up at her mother’s face and smiled. She giggled, and this time did not try to stop herself.
It was a captioned movie, but it didn’t really need to be captioned, because this particular movie needed no words, only the silly antics of a silly man on an absurd journey. It was her favorite movie, which she had watched so many times that it had been awhile since her mother had relented and shown a willingness to watch it again.
She knew that the movie was a peace offering, though she didn’t have just the right words to express this in her own thoughts. The movie was her mother’s way of saying she still loved her Alice. The dog was a bonus.
She felt herself forgiving. Not something she decided to do, but an act that she felt happening, in degrees, whether or not she wanted it. A discarding of anger, a letting go, followed by the constant reminders that her mother did love her, even if she did not understand.
It did not take long for life to return to what it was before she met Wren. She was lonely, yes, but it was a loneliness she was used to. In some ways, there was comfort in the familiar, in the lack of drama. Yet still she wondered. A passing glance at a box of crayons triggered thoughts of Wren and his secret language, and she’d lose herself in these thoughts for a minute or two. The fleeting sight of some other boy with that same hair, or the simple act of sitting in the same spot on which she met him, and her mind flashed right back to those brief lessons.
A few more weeks passed without any contact from Wren. Then one day, she boarded the bus to school and found him waiting, sitting alone while most of the other seats were already occupied by the hearing kids who chattered relentlessly and horsed around despite the glare of the bus driver. Wren was already watching her when she noticed him, a calm seashore unperturbed by the waves, as if he expected her. As if he had always been there, the constant friend that she didn’t know she needed this much.
She rushed to sit down next to him and gave him an awkward hug. Her cheeks blushed red.
What are you doing here? she asked.
My mom got a job, she can’t drive me to school anymore, said Wren.
I haven’t seen you in a long time. His gaze was hard for her to meet, for he was so focused on what she had to say, even though she stumbled through a mix of voiceless words and clumsy signs.
I know, I’m sorry. She cast her eyes downward, for a moment, the apology making her feelings sink deeper.
It’s okay, my friend told me they changed your recess, he said.
I didn’t want it. It was my mom.
Yeah. That bites. He shrugged, somehow understanding everything in just a few words. She was grateful for this, and smiled meekly.
I forgot a lot already, she said with a sigh punctuating her frustration. Sorry. I’m not good at this.
Don’t worry. It’s okay. I can teach you again, it’s like riding a bike or something.
I don’t know if I should.
Told you, it’s my mom. She got mad, she’ll get mad again if I keep learning.
He took the time to process this information, but it seemed clear that this was nothing new to Wren, as if he had encountered such a resistance to signing a thousand times over in his life. He looked out the window, and she followed his gaze. A man walked his dog on the sidewalk, the dog being more of the driver than the man, tugging him along, a brute strength in the dog causing the man to take a larger step now and then. But the man was smiling at the dog, and the dog’s tail was wagging with such happiness that it seemed to color the entire world with its joy. So, too, did Wren smile for a moment, before his face fell again and he looked to Alice.
She doesn’t get it, he said.
Why should she? she asked, wondering if he pitied her. No, she doesn’t.
You got to tell your mom. His right hand emphasized one word: Must.
I tried, it didn’t work. She just, well, she just … she lost it.
Okay. He nodded, an emphatic act of compassion.
I don’t know what to do about it.
She found she was bunching up the top of her backpack, which she carried on her lap. Her hands were gripping it tightly enough that the zipper had left a reddened path on her fingers. She rubbed the soreness of them, even as she realized that she had slipped back into completely speaking without her voice, not even signing one word. How easy it is, thought Alice, to forget.
Yet Wren seemed forgiving and understanding, and had not criticized her in the least for forgetting to sign. What do you want?
I want to learn, she signed.
He smiled back, a dimpled curl of the lips. Then learn. She doesn’t need to know. I’ll teach you here and only here. You don’t have to tell her, you don’t have to sign with anyone else. Just me.
I don’t know.
Up to you, Alice. I would if I were you, but I’m me, so… I don’t know … whatever you want.
She felt the fear well up inside her, a tightness in her stomach, a pressure against her throat, a familiar fear that she had felt too many times, far too many. Yet, even with the fear returning, she felt a chill of hope wash over her, and even with such a feeling inside she felt goosebumps scatter across her arms to match the hope inside. It was enough.
How do you sign, let’s start over?
The weeks swept by, much too fast for Alice’s taste, for she disliked the thought of missing out on her secret lessons when winter break came. Normally she would be excited about the time away from school and ready to live in the joy that holidays did bring to her, but for a change the idea of going to school excited her more. Her grey days at school were bearable, truly, for she thought all day about the signs she was learning.
She didn’t really understand why it made her feel the way she did. It wasn’t Wren, really, though she was quickly coming to see that she loved him in her own way. Wren brought a little sunshine to her life. That was it, she decided silently. If Wren was a crayon, he was goldenrod. Another of her favorites, the color she used when creating a sun or a bird flitting through the skies. Wren was goldenrod, yes, the bearer of sunlight.
But the signs that were fed by this sunshine of a person were green, that same favorite she kept returning to time and again. The signs were alive, growing, thriving, buds emerging from seeds and blossoming into something enormous. She felt safer, as if sheltered from the elements by a tree made out of the power of sign language. It was life, really, and she couldn’t remember feeling like something belonged to her this much.
She only wished to keep learning, making this a forever part of herself.
Wren laughed often during their lessons, telling her jokes and funny stories, happy to give the gift he was able to give. A natural teacher, one who delights in seeing his lessons come alive in his student.
Each morning when he walked off to his own classroom, and in the afternoons when he got off the bus before she did, he always finished with the simple phrase: See you later.
It was a Thursday, two days before the start of winter break, that the sky seemed to crash through her life again. It was a cornflower blue, a comforting color, ruined by the cloud of charcoal grey scribbled over it.
Her mother was waiting at school when the bus got there, having driven over to the school after Alice had already gotten on the bus.
Forgot, Alice. You have an appointment with Karen this morning, she said.
Sorry, I’ll bring you back after, let’s go.
Alice started walking faster in the direction of her mother’s car, hoping to get there before it was too late. But she realized, with a sinking feeling, that her mother was not right behind her. Her mother had stopped and was currently watching Wren walk away from the bus to head into school. He had tried not to return her stare, but found himself doing so anyway. His shoulders slumped noticeably under the weight of her crestfallen face.
He shot one last darting glance at Alice before he walked into the school and was gone, followed by other students meandering behind him.
That’s the boy, isn’t it? asked Alice’s mother.
She nodded, a subtle movement that she didn’t really want to make, focusing on the cracks of the sidewalk under her feet. She braced herself for the scolding, but it did not come.
Instead, her mother walked past her to the car, and she meekly followed. She expected the fury to come in the car, but it didn’t. The morning, a silent visit to the audiologist’s office for her annual hearing tests. Although she hated these tests, hated the boredom of it, hated the sidewalk airplane hot dog baseball repetitiveness of it, somehow it seemed better than getting scolded. Somehow, too, it was worse.
She waited for the storm to come, but it never did. Her mother showed the weariness of anger in the furrows of her brow, showed the frustration she felt in how guarded she treated Alice for the next few days, as if any mention of the subject would lead to a meltdown.
The holidays passed much too slowly, though things gradually once again felt somewhat normal, especially when the chill within the family began to thaw. Alice accepted that the lessons were over, one way or another. She tried, she told herself, at least she tried. In a way, although she felt both angry at her mother for not understanding and sad that all of this had ever happened, she wanted normalcy above all. In a small way, a very small way, she found herself wishing that she had never met Wren, then she felt guilty because she did miss him already. She missed the lessons, but she distracted herself with thoughts of Christmas decorations and cookies, thoughts of opening presents and snow falling on the ground.
When school started again, she was surprised when her mother drove her. At first, she thought her mother’s solution to Alice’s defiance was to disallow her to use the bus from now on. When they drove a different route that morning, however, she glanced up at her mother with confusion.
You have a new school now, Alice, her mother said, her attention focused on the road. She said this with lips drawn tight, her facial muscles tensing with stress. I’m sorry, but it was the only thing left I could do.
Alice looked away as her mother began to talk of the new school and how she would learn so much more there, the only deaf student in a school of hearing kids. She thought of Wren, of Erin, of the scattering of friends she had at her old school, even of her teachers. She rested her head against the side of the car, feeling the cold glass of the windowpane against her forehead, and watched the ground pass by.
It seemed there was so much litter in the world, so much discarded.
Alice is 25 now.
She is finishing up her final year of college, after years of taking too long, in her perspective anyway, and she knows who she is now. She is a person with strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and opinions, desires and fears, a person with dreams that feel possible and dreams that feel impossible.
She stands with friends, all hearing and currently chatting with each other, while she stares at the scene taking place down the boardwalk from where she is. The sun is too bright, the air too hot, but the wind is cool and smells of the sea. The boardwalk is alive with the crowds of people going in every direction, chasing after rollercoaster lines and ice cream stands. There is sand everywhere, wet and dry, and she likes the feel of this under her sandals.
She remembers the feeling of being able to sign, at least being able to sign what she knew how to sign, but the words have faded with time. They are air, a faint wisp of memory she tries to cup into her hands, hoping to be able to do it again. But she has forgotten, for the years will do what they often do, dulling the edges of these memories, making them elusive.
She remembers the secret joy she felt, all those years ago when she was learning those secret signs. She still carries that within her, though now the secret joy is touched by the sadness that those passing years bring. Sometimes, it is a deep sadness. Other days, it is a passing cloud, slightly dark, this feeling she dares not linger over.
She adjusts the volume control on her hearing aids, the ones she wears now most days, out of habit or necessity for the life she lives. She turns the sound down, just enough to subdue the sounds of children shrieking as they jump into the icy waters of the ocean nearby, just enough to lessen the whir and clank of machinery of the roller coasters and the constant babble of countless conversations everywhere merging into one.
She focuses her attention on one particular group of deaf adults, three women and a man. She has been watching them for a number of minutes. They are about her age and they are laughing. She hears their laughing. She sees it, both on their expressions and in how they sign. The language they share is a familiar mystery. She thinks she catches a word here and there and for a moment she thinks she knows their meanings, but it slips through her grasp.
For a moment, she locks eyes with the man with light brown hair. Her heart skips a beat, but he returns his attention to the woman he is conversing with, his hands telling a story that Alice does not know. She finds herself lost in the telling, mesmerized for the moment, remembering those days she left so far behind her that she wonders if they can ever be found again. The man smiles.
Alice, are you coming?
Secret Signs is a work of fiction by J. Parrish Lewis. All rights reserved by the author. Reproduction or reposting of this work requires permission by the author. Links and shares are, of course, welcome.