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37
Issue 37, April-June 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Swallow a Fish
by Madeline Perett
Followed by Q&A

​“I was drowning.”

It’s the middle of the night and my husband is sitting up in bed panting.

“There, there,” I say and pull him back down to his pillow. I rub his shoulder and kiss his neck. “It was just a dream,” I whisper.

“What?”

“It was just a dream,” I say louder.

“You don’t have to yell.”

“Sorry,” I say and kiss his ear.

“It was really quiet,” my husband says. “I was in the middle of the ocean and I couldn’t hear a thing.”

“This reminds me of something.”

“And I couldn’t scream. I was deaf and mute and drowning.”

“I’ve heard this before.”

“It’s recurring, sweetie. It’s a recurring dream,” he says. 

“I’d hate to be deaf.”

“I’d hate to die that way. Drowning.”

“I dated a deaf guy once.”

“Hmm? You never told me about that one,” he slurs, sleep in his voice.

“It didn’t end so well.”

He yawns. “Did he break your heart?”

“No. I ended it.”

“How?”

I’m ready to tell him the story but he’s already falling asleep. “I was a bad person then.”

“Uh huh,” he says and turns on his side away from me.

His name was Daniel Cole. He was a regular guy except that he was deaf. He could read lips, but I had to talk clearly. I mumbled. I rarely looked someone in the eyes for more than five seconds. It bothered me. I have a gap in my front teeth and I’ve never embraced it, though others told me it was a unique characteristic to be proud of. I was uncomfortable with him always staring at my mouth, afraid that he saw only the gap and not the words.

I had developed an early habit of turning my face away to speak. I was shy, self-conscious, like my father. We both mumbled. My mother on the other hand was loud and confident and, like everyone else, never bothered to hear what I had to say. In the middle of a sentence I would trail off because I realized that what I was saying probably wasn’t important enough to be heard. 

But then I met Daniel. I worked at a café downtown. He worked across the street at a Parks & Recreation site in Boston Common. He would walk into the café with so much confidence and look directly at me. I didn’t figure out he was deaf until he spoke. He said “How are you?” in that nasal voice so characteristic of deaf people. 

The first time he came into the café, he appeared no different from any other guy. He was average and forgettable. He was white, a little shorter than me, and wore a Boston Red Sox hat. But when I discovered he was deaf, I scrutinized every detail about him. He was interesting, a creature to be studied. 

He looked young. He had a baby face. But when he smiled, the deep creases of his forehead, his laugh lines, his crow’s feet, made him look his age. He always wore paint-splattered boots and worn, dusty jeans. His shirt always advertised a New England sports team.

Sometimes I would watch him at work. I could see him from where I was behind the counter in the café. There was another guy he worked with who appeared to be deaf or at least was fluent in sign language. I loved watching them converse. The animated facial expressions, the fluid hand movements, it was like an art. It was different; it was foreign.

He began to come in regularly.

I was overly nice to him, always smiling and locking eyes so he could understand me when I spoke. I also wanted him to see that I was not as mean as I appeared. The furrowed brows, the frown—that was my neutral face. My fake cheery voice was lost on him. He saw only my smiles and bright eyes. He was the one customer I acted kindly towards. I gave him pity, as if he needed it.

One day he came in, got his usual soda and sandwich, and said, “When we going out?”

“Me and you?” I said, pointing.

He nodded.

I hesitated, unsure if he was serious. I’d been fooled by other boys before and I assumed he wasn’t being sincere.

I used to believe that no guys liked me, and so I never played with them like other girls did. Once, in sixth grade, a boy I liked had sent me a note in class. He knew I had a crush because he caught me staring at him. His note had read, “Wanna date?” I had replied excitedly with a “Yes.” He’d sent it back saying, “I was just kidding.” That was one of the first cruel boyhood jokes I had fallen for. I did not understand the game, and it hurt me.

I finally replied, “Today?” I know he didn’t hear the uncertainty in my voice, only saw by my face, my raised brows, that it was a question. Maybe he thought I said it as confidently as he might have.

He said, “I’m off at four. You?”

“Five,” I said, holding up my fingers.

***

He took me to Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain. It was a quiet night. There was one other table of people across the room. We were seated at a booth and the high booth backs secluded us. I kept looking down at my placemat, rereading the same advertisements: “Sunshine Roofing. Got a pesky leak?”; “Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoo: Boston’s Premier Custom Tattoo Studio.” Now that I was so close to him and in a somewhat intimate setting, I could no longer look him in the eyes. And I had no idea what to talk about. 

We sat in silence for a while. He had ordered a beer and he was gripping the pint glass. He stared at the beer and then at me.

“The first time you came into the café, I made such a fool of myself,” I told him.

He smiled and was silent. I was afraid he hadn’t understood. But I continued.

“You were looking at the menu above my head and I asked if you needed help. You didn’t reply so I waved my arms to get your attention.”

He was smiling still and gripping that pint glass.

“That worked but you looked like you were ready to spit on me.”

He laughed and reached across the table to pat my hand. “It’s OK,” he said. His hand was cool and moist.

“I feel really bad about it now. It was so stupid.”

He squeezed my hand and said, “Don’t worry.”

He stayed holding my hand.

I asked him if he was born deaf. He said he was and that his parents were also deaf. He smiled at this. He was proud of this hereditary deafness. 

When our food came, he devoured his burger in a matter of minutes while I picked at my quiche. He looked up from his plate and watched me eat as he ate his fries one at a time, chewing each one slowly.

“What kind of music you like?” he asked.

“Lots of different stuff.”

“I like rap,” he said.

I didn’t think to ask what music he listened to.

“If I play it loud enough,” he explained, “I can feel the vibrations. I can feel the bass.”

I nodded and took a bite of my quiche. “I like rap, R&B too, and some rock. But I like to read mostly. How about you? Do you like to read?”

He showed no sign of understanding. Then I realized I had been talking with my head down, talking to my plate.

“Do you like to read?” I asked, facing him this time.

He shrugged. “I want to read more. What do you read?”

“Everything.”

He nodded. “I like you.”

I looked down at my placemat. “You’re very nice,” I told my plate. I remembered to look up. “I like you, too.”

***

“Tell me more about this deaf guy,” my husband says.

We’re at the grocery store in the produce aisle.

I pick up a bunch of grapes. “What do you want to know?”

“How did you two talk to each other?”

“The same way as you and me,” I say and put the grapes in our cart.

Communicating with Daniel was easier than I thought it would be. He was great at reading lips. And when we had a hard time understanding each other, we wrote in a notebook. I never had to talk if I didn’t want to, but I did, and I would sometimes talk a lot. He gave me so much attention, and I talked more with him than anyone else.

“He was a good listener,” I say.

My husband narrows his eyes. He’s holding an apple. “Is that a joke?”

“No, he really was.”

He was the only person who really listened to me. He was the only person who forced things out of me, pushed me to my limits. He asked me questions and compelled me to be honest in my answers. I used to lie all the time, not necessarily on purpose; it’s just that I didn’t always like what I had to say. Sometimes I wouldn’t say anything at all. Silence kills some people but what did that matter to Daniel, for that was all he knew.

***

I spent some time at Daniel’s apartment one rainy day. His apartment was messy but he didn’t seem to care. His roommate, who was also deaf, was home. Daniel introduced us, then his roommate disappeared into another room. We sat at the kitchen table across from each other. Sometimes, we would spend hours just staring at each other or touching. We would have a day only of sight and touch. He would stare into my eyes, then stare at my hands, holding them, then rest his hands on my knees.

This day, I put my hand on his cheek and stared at his lips. He had stubble from a day of not shaving and his lips were slightly chapped. 

He smiled.

“What?” I said.

“You’re beautiful,” he said.

I should have been flattered. I should’ve said thank you. But instead I only stared back at him. I didn’t believe him. I had never been called beautiful—cute, pretty, maybe. But never beautiful. Not even my mother called me that. “You’re such a pretty girl,” she always told me. “When are you going to find yourself a nice guy?”

He waved a hand over his face and repeated, “Beautiful.”

“Is that how you sign it?” I asked.

He nodded and signed something else, wiggling a hooked index finger into the air. “Butterfly,” he explained, and then added, “You’re a butterfly.” And we both laughed. Then he signed “giraffe” and pointed at me again. He laughed a loud, honking laugh. He would sometimes joke around like that and tease me.

One prank he always pulled was pretending he couldn’t understand me, forcing me to repeat things over and over, making me write things down, and he would still not understand. I always fell for it. I was afraid to accuse him of his prank. Whenever he tricked me, he told me I swallowed a fish and signed the idiom, running his finger down his throat then wriggling his hand forward.

***

I’m going to give my husband a heart attack. We like to play this game where we try to scare each other. The first time was an accident; I get so easily startled. I was sitting in the office and didn’t hear him come in. When he put his hand on my shoulder I almost fell out of my chair. 

“Sorry,” he said, smiling.

It’s like a game of tag. I scare him, and then he scares me. Tonight, I hear him in the kitchen as I’m coming in from work. It’s deathly quiet throughout the whole house. I creep to the kitchen doorway and wait. When he starts making a racket with the pots and pans I see my chance. I sneak up behind him and stand still as a statue. When he turns around he inhales a startled breath and says, “Jesus Christ!”

We’ve never had children; we probably never will. We’re both in our late 30s. I’m 37, he’s 39. It’s ridiculous, but we still feel like children ourselves. 

He is laughing now and asks me, “Do you ever feel like an adult?”

“Sometimes,” I say. “Sure.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Don’t you?”

“No, never. Never ever.”  

***

Daniel and I went to Macy’s one day to browse and wander around. We never had to do anything too exciting. He seemed to be happy just to be in my company and so was I with him. The store was neat and bright, not one thing out of place. He didn’t seem to fit in. He was wearing raggedy jeans and a dirty hat. I kept turning around, expecting to see a security guard following us but no one paid us any attention; not even the clerks offered their assistance.

I was trying on some perfume when I turned around to test it on him and he wasn’t standing next to me. He wasn’t anywhere in sight. How could he have snuck away so fast? I started to panic a little. I didn’t like this game. I was nearly an adult but really still a kid, only 20. I was afraid of so much. 

Daniel grabbed me from behind and I almost let out a yelp. He laughed and I slapped him on the arm.

We went back to browsing and when he was looking at watches I decided to play his game. I backed away slowly and hid in a circular clothing rack. I used to love hiding in my parents’ closets behind all their clothes. It was always so quiet and safe. I used to imagine I was hiding from burglars and I would hold my breath so they couldn’t hear me. I peeked out of the clothing rack and watched Daniel. A woman pushed some clothes aside and startled when she saw me. We stared at each other for a moment, and then I put my finger to my lips and pointed to Daniel. She nodded and mustered a smile then walked to another rack. When Daniel noticed I was gone he looked upset. I felt bad hiding from him then. Why wasn’t it okay for me to play his silly games? I always pitied him. But then a smile spread across his face and I knew he was going to look for me. When he found me we decided to keep up this game. We used the entire store. Bathrooms were off limits. I found him in Kitchenware behind a Le Creuset display. He found me in the Children’s department amidst some baby shoes. He even hid in the lingerie department. It was my turn again to look for Daniel when a security guard approached me and said we had to buy something or get out. 

“This isn’t a playground,” he said.

I found Daniel and told him it was time to go. 

***

Boston was hit with a bad storm in early February that year when I was with Daniel. I was at his place when it started to snow. I told him it wouldn’t be a bad storm, just typical Boston hysteria, but that I should get going. He asked me to stay with him for the night. He hated to be alone; his roommate was staying at his girlfriend’s. I hadn’t spent the night with him yet. We’d been dating for almost a month.

He brought out a bottle of red wine after we ate dinner. We drank the whole bottle, then made our way to his bedroom. I felt good but my nerves killed the buzz. I sat at the edge of his bed while he undressed for me in the bright light. He was very hairy and rail thin. For a moment he left his hat on. He must’ve noticed me staring at his head because he snatched the hat off, then let out a drunken snicker. He turned off the lights and got into bed and undressed me, slowly.  

He was confident. So I calmed down. We held each other and kissed for a while. Then he started to touch me all over. I tensed up a few times when his hands went below my waist. This was only my second time with a man. He got on top of me, and then he entered me. He was gentle. He was quiet. He kissed me intermittently. Then finally, almost simultaneously, we both started feeling it. Our breathing deepened. I muffled my sighs, but he was loud; he breathed out throaty prolonged moans as if he was in pain. When he came, he collapsed on me, breathing heavily into my neck, and said, “That was great.”

He looked at me with an expectant smile and I nodded. He rolled off me but held my hand. We stared up at the ceiling. I heard a snow plow go by outside and its lights cast a shadow of Daniel’s profile against the wall, and then it was dark again and very quiet. Daniel’s breathing grew softer and I knew he was asleep. I tried to block out all the sounds of the night as I imagined what it was like to be deaf. But then sirens burst through the silence and red lights flickered across the ceiling. I looked over at Daniel who was undisturbed and in a deep, peaceful sleep and I thanked God that I was given the gift of hearing.

***

My husband and I are at a reading by an Irish writer. The writer has an assistant, a woman with red hair. She sits in the front row, and I watch her as he reads. She seems as enraptured as the rest of us. At one point, he refers to her as his “beautiful assistant.” She laughs and leans away from him; a curtain of her red hair falls over her face. He has a slight Irish accent, nothing indecipherable or distracting. He is easy going. The excerpt he’s reading is very interesting but I’m in danger of being lulled to sleep by his Irish lilt. 

After the reading, my husband tells me, “That old guy over there fell asleep.” I laugh behind my hands, then take my book to get signed. 

His assistant stands next to him and looks over his shoulder at every book he signs. She smiles slightly at every flourish of his pen. I think, She loves him. She thinks he’s perfect, every last word he’s ever spoken and written is perfect. I understand how she feels. I felt that way about every guy I dated, at least in the beginning. I feel that way about my husband. I felt that way about Daniel Cole. 

I can’t say that everything about him was great. That would certainly be a lie. I’ve made him sound much better-spoken than he was. In reality, his sentences were broken and he mispronounced words. But I was able to decipher what he said and sometimes I just filled in the blanks. It was easy for me to ignore his imperfections.

Once, when we were communicating through notebook pages, I wrote, “Why don’t you get a cochlear implant?”

“I don’t need one,” he wrote back.

“But it could be so good for you.”

He banged his fist on the table and yelled, “I’m happy the way I am!”

I flinched. I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid he’d hit me. I knew he wouldn’t. I was afraid of his words and the anger in his voice.

I still have those notebooks. There are several of them. I looked through them recently and saw how broken some of his sentences were. The words were all there but they were sometimes out of order. “Sound you happy,” he wrote once. “What do you will?” I had to reread it several times before I could understand: “You sound happy. What will you do?” I can’t remember now what we had been talking about. 

The Irish author is signing my book. I tell him my name and can think of nothing else to say except, “I like your accent.”

He smiles and hands me my book. My husband is laughing beside me.

As we’re leaving, I open the book to read the inscription: “All best wishes. Many thanks.”

“He spelled your name wrong,” my husband says. “Also, he left the ‘s’ off ‘thanks.’”

I read it again: “Many thank.” It looks like an unfinished thought.

***

One day, Daniel and I decided to go to the New England Aquarium. I always chose simple activities that he would enjoy and benefit from. The Aquarium was very visual. I didn’t realize I was treating him like a child.

We decided to take the train. But I was slightly embarrassed by him. He always had a hard time knowing how loud he should talk because he couldn’t gauge the train’s sounds. He didn’t know if the train was rumbling over his voice, so he was almost yelling as he spoke to me.

I overheard some kids sitting only a few seats away.

“That dude retarded?” one said.

“Hear the way he’s talking?”

Daniel saw me looking and turned to the kids. 

One of them said, “Retard,” then looked away and cackled.

I hoped he hadn’t seen it. He turned back to me and asked, “What are they saying?”

“Nothing,” I told him.

We were quiet the rest of the way to the Aquarium.

When we got there, I pointed at things and smiled dumbly at him. On the ramp by the right whale skeleton, I watched him read the information plaque. He mouthed each word, and I saw him stumbling over some phrases. He stopped in midsentence and looked at me. He wasn’t happy. I raised my eyebrows in question. 

“What were those kids saying?” he asked.

“What kids?” I said, looking around.

He gave me a stern look and said, “I saw one of them say ‘retard.’”

I was guilty. Blood rushed to my face. My heart thudded in my ears. I felt wrong because I said nothing to those kids. I guess I could’ve told them off. I could’ve told them he was deaf and that they shouldn’t have treated him any differently. But I didn’t think of it. And I was not brave enough.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Years ago. I was. . . twelve. Walking home. Some kids pushed me. Called me retard.” He looked at me. He opened his mouth as if to say something else. He was struggling to find words. Then he started signing, quickly and fluidly. 

He pulled words out of the air without pause. I don’t know what he said. He never explained. By his facial expressions, I knew he wasn’t just angry. He was disgusted. He was so beautiful in that moment. He had found places for himself in both worlds—the hearing and deaf community. But this was where he was most comfortable. ASL was his first language, his mother tongue.

He stopped abruptly, then walked away up the ramp, into the black lights, his white shirt glowing a bright, scary blue. I followed after him, leaving the right whale skeleton swimming in midair.

***

Even after we had stopped dating and I stopped working at the café, I used to hope to see him in random places. Because he looked like any other guy, I would see him in every man’s face. I’d look for guys wearing Red Sox hats and ratty clothes. If I noticed two deaf people conversing, I’d look to see if he was one of them. I’d be on the train and see quick hand movements out of the corner of my eye, then stare at the person signing. 

One day I did see him. I was sure it was him. He was looking around, probably hoping to see someone he knew. His face was open, like always. He probably would have been glad to see me but I did not stop for him. He had put his head down for a moment. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me but sometimes you grow familiar with every aspect of a person, his walk, his voice, how he carries himself, the kinds of clothes he wears, recognizing all these things in a split second out of the corner of your eye. I thought he might recognize my steps. I thought momentarily of disguising my walk, but I didn’t. Instead, I rushed by, staring straight ahead, never knowing if he looked up and saw me and thought to stop me. But perhaps he was playing the same trick that I was.

***

Later that night, after our trip to the Aquarium, I talked to him while he slept.

“You’re a good person,” I told him. “You’re very special.”

He stirred and woke as if he heard me, then turned over so I was talking to the back of his head. The shades were up and the moonlight shone on his bald spot. He was only twenty-six then but already going bald. It’s why he always wore a hat. 

“You’re very different,” I told the back of his head. “You don’t seem to care that you’re deaf. You’re so happy. And comfortable with yourself. There’s something that makes you better than me. I’m missing something very important. I can’t be with you.”

I knew I would have to lie to him because I couldn’t give him the real reason why I didn’t want to be with him. I was incredibly self-conscious but even more conscious of who he was. I was going to lie to him and I had to make him believe it. I didn’t know what I was going to tell him but I had to believe it myself. I could never trick him. He could always tell when I was trying to play a joke. He must’ve picked up on the ticks of my face. He was amazingly observant. He was smart.

“You’re so cool, so bright,” I slurred out, drifting to sleep, those ridiculous last words lingering in my subconscious as I dreamed of ways that I could break his heart.





Madeline Perett is a graduate of the creative writing program at UMass Boston. She lives in Boston where she works at a bookstore downtown. This is her first time being published.

Q&A
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: There actually is a deaf guy who works at a Parks and Rec site in Boston Common across from where I work. I don’t know him personally and have interacted with him only a few times. But it was enough to kick start the story. Of course I had to do some research on deaf culture so I could make Daniel a convincing character.

Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: Glimmer Train. Before I had any idea of where to look for a good literary magazine, one of my professors gave me a copy of Glimmer Train. There are so many magazines out there. So what I end up doing is going for anthologies, like the Best American series and any collection by The Paris Review.

Q: What would your ideal writing day be? 
A: I think I’m an afternoon/evening writer. I don’t always have my wits about me in the morning. So I’d have to do something productive during the day to wake up my brain, whether it be working or doing chores at home. After that, I’d still have energy to burn. But first I would relax and collect my thoughts. Then I would get down to business and write through the night.

Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: There are some people walking by, some cars driving by. It rained earlier so the ground is wet but the clouds are clearing. I hear sirens in the distance. 

Q: What are you working on now?
A: A story inspired by my grandmother who passed away several years ago. It’s still in its early stages so I don’t have much to say about it right now.