How does a person in sign language study maintain a relationship with a deaf person?

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Answered by: Jonathan, An Expert in the Write Short Stories Category
The winter snow fell in buckets outside as I awoke suddenly. It was midnight and I could hear John storing lightly beside me. He was on his back, so I smiled, hugged his waist, and rested my head on his chest.

     But then, it wasn’t okay. Nothing was okay. The world began to blur. I started to shake. My stomach sank, a pit of nausea. My heart began to race. I broke out into a cold sweat, alternating between hot and cold flashes. I rolled over and grabbed my knees, billions of questions running through my mind.

     What if John becomes tired of taking care of me when I’m like this? What if he doesn’t believe how debilitating this can be? What if he stops loving me? Does he love me? Did he ever love me?

     I felt a strong arm around me. I turned toward him and buried my face in his chest, but not before looking into his eyes.

     -- PANIC? He asked.

     -- YES, I replied.

     He got out of bed and came back with a glass of water and some Xanax.

     --FEEL BETTER, he said.


     --I-LOVE-YOU, he said, flashing his long index finger, pinky, and thumb simultaneously.

     I clung to John, still trembling as the medicine began to take effect. I tried to think of the diversionary tactics my psychiatrist described, envisioning a safe place, but to no avail. That is, until I came past the day that John and I met.


     It was October of 2008, just as the leaves were changing, heralding the beginning of autumn.

     At about 2:30 in the afternoon, I was released from my American Sign Language III class. I was walking out of the Deaf Studies building when it hit me. Sheer and utter terror. Time stood still.

My heart was racing so quickly I could hear nothing but the blood pumping in my ears. My stomach became sick. I nearly vomited, but just ended up spitting a couple of times. I was doubled over, unable to stand, paralyzed by the fear that right then would be the moment that I would die.

I then felt a large hand on my back. A neon green slip of paper with a grocery list on the back came into my center of vision.

Are you okay? it asked, the letters scrawled in barely legible handwriting.

I looked up and calmed down quite a bit. Looking down at me was a very large blond man, at least six foot three and 210 pounds. He obviously worked out quite a bit, and all I could think of at first was that some douchey meathead wanted to fuck with me.

But then I looked closer into his blue eyes. There was no disgust or anger. Only concern. His angular, chiseled face was soft, showing only an expression of worry.

“I-I-I’m having…” I started but then he shook his head.

--DEAF, he signed, passing his index finger from the corner of his mouth to his ear. I nodded, realizing that that’s why he handed me the slip of paper. Any form of verbal communication would obviously be lost at this point.

For some reason I felt better, so I started to stand. He helped me up, his big hand still on my back.

--YOU OK, he asked.

--THANK-YOU, I OK, I responded.

--MY NAME J-O-H-N, he offered.


He shook my hand. It was strong enough to be nice and manly, but not strong enough to hurt. A nice, firm handshake.

     I smiled for the first time since I met him. He smiled too, patting me on the back. I have no idea what possessed me, but I hugged him. Perhaps I was grateful for his help. Perhaps I just wanted to hug a hot guy before I drove home.

     --WHERE YOU GO WHERE, he asked.

     --HOUSE, I replied.


     I thought about it for a second, at first thinking no. After all, someone as attractive as he probably just felt like he needed to help “the little people,” of which I may be one physically, but certainly not mentally. But then I realized that it would be a good opportunity to practice my signing, so I said yes.


     --WHAT YOU THINK? John asked.

     --THINK ABOUT YOU, I said. He smiled.

     --WHAT, HOW BEAUTIFUL, ME? he asked, exaggerating beautiful, moving his palm slowly and emphatically in a circle front of his face. I giggled.

     --YOU D-O-O-F-U-S.

     --WHAT D-O-O-F-U-S? I made the sign for IDIOT, bringing a “Y” handshape up to my forehead, and he laughed.

     --YOU SILLY, he signed, hugging me closer.

     I had calmed down significantly, partly from the medication, but mostly because John consistently had the ability to make me feel better.

     Judging by John’s deep, regular breaths, I knew he fell back asleep. My mind started to wander again.


     Several months after we met, John invited me to dinner on Thursday night, as he usually did. What he didn’t tell me was that dinner would be at his parents’ house. Had I known beforehand that we were going to his parents’ house, I would have at least changed into something nicer (or flaked at the last minute because I’m terrified of meeting parents.)

     --YOU NERVOUS WHY? He asked. We were in the car in front of his parents’ house. I was so nervous about meeting his parents that I couldn’t form my thoughts well enough to sign my response, so I had to text my response to his phone.

     >I’m nervous because A) you didn’t tell me we were meeting your parents, and B) I look like shit.

     >You could never look like shit. You’re beautiful inside and out, and I wanted you to come just as you are, he responded.

     I started to cry, partly from nerves and partly because no one had ever said anything like that to me before.

     >Don’t cry, Andy. I hate to see you cry. Do you want to skip this for now?

     I wiped my face and took a deep breath.

     >No. I want to meet your parents. This fear is irrational, and I need to get over it.

     He smiled at me and kissed my forehead.

     --I SAY ONLY TRUTH, he signed, pointing his index finger to his chin and then to me. I smiled back.


     We sat for a minute in the car. Silence makes me uncomfortable, so I wanted to get out, but then I realized that John spends his entire life in silence, so I sat. I grabbed his hand and squeezed. He brought it to his lips.

     We walked up to the door, and I took a few more deep breaths. Realizing that I had forgotten to ask if either of his parents were deaf, I started to sign, but was interrupted by the door opening.

     “John, hi!” A tall, slender woman with long hair the same color as John’s and big brown eyes pulled her son into a hug as she simultaneously signed and spoke. She spoke with no speech impediment, so I figured she must be hearing.

     “And who is this?” she signed and asked John about me.


     “Nice to meet you, Andy. I’m Rebecca, John’s mom. He’s told me quite a bit about you.” She spoke and signed with such grace that I wondered if she was an interpreter. Then I wondered what exactly John had been telling his mother about me and if I should be worried. “Come in, come in, you two. Dinner’s almost ready.”

     My nerves were nearly shot, but I was able to stay calm to meet John’s dad, Dan. Dan was built like John, just as tall and broad. He had brown hair cut in a military style, but John’s blue eyes. I realized that Dan was deaf, so I would have to gather my composure to attempt to sign.

     --I SORRY. I A-S-L STUDENT. MY SIGN BAD, I signed.

     --I THINK PARENT DEAF, he replied. I just realized that he gave me a very high compliment. When a hearing person signs well, a deaf person will often ask if his or her parents are deaf.

     --NO, PARENT HEARING. THANK-YOU, I offered. He smiled and shook my hand. I then realized he was definitely John’s dad because he pulled me into a big hug, which was comforting and slightly frightening all at the same time. I just smiled and went along with it. Obviously they were a very affectionate family.

     “How did you two meet?” asked Rebecca as we ate dinner.

     --OUTSIDE DEAF STUDIES BUILDING, signed John. A-N-D-Y GO OUT CLASS. I SAY HI. Rebecca smiled.

     We talked for a while. Rebecca signed for me to make it easier, but I signed when I could to practice.

     Later, Dan pulled me aside as John and Rebecca cleaned up. I offered to help, but Dan said he wanted to show me something.

     --WHY YOU NERVOUS? He asked in his office room.

     --HOW YOU KNOW I NERVOUS? I asked.

     --I DEAF, NOT STUPID, he said. I had to laugh at that. YOU LIKE J-O-H-N?

     --YES, I LIKE J-O-H-N.

     --YOU LOVE J-O-H-N? My heart sank instantly. I was not prepared to answer this question, and just thinking about it made me nervous as usual.

     But then I realized, there’s no way I was good enough at sign language to lie.

     --YES. I LOVE J-O-H-N. A-LOT, I conceded. I figured he would probably kick me out for being so candid, so I went for it.

     --TELL J-O-H-N, he signed, and turned me around. Sure enough, there was John, standing in the doorway. I gasped a bit in surprise.

     --YOU SCARED? he asked. Dan left the room, and I could tell he had a sneaky smile on his face like he had this planned all along.

     --NO, SURPRISED. YOUR DAD PLAY DIRTY TRICK, I said. He laughed, a hearty loving laugh, and picked me up to meet his lips to mine.

     Sitting me on the end table, he looked straight into my eyes.

     --YOU MEAN WHAT YOU SAY? he signed.

     I nodded my head. He bent down and kissed me.

     We had our first kiss in his dad’s office.


     I had calmed down quite a bit, but I couldn’t seem to go back to sleep, so I decided to go make some herbal tea.

     I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. I smirked because I thought it was funny that I could be as loud as I wanted and John wouldn’t complain.

     As I walked into the living room and sat on the couch, John walked in, looking concerned.

     --YOU OKAY, RIGHT? he signed.


     He nodded his head.


     I smiled and scooted down. He laid down and put his head in my lap. I sipped my tea as my mind wandered again as I stroked his hair, just staring off into space.


     --WHY YOU NERVOUS AGAIN? John asked.

     --MY DAD SCARY, I answered simply.


     --YOU DON’T-KNOW. He frowned.

     It was to be our first Valentine’s Day together. My father and I had a long-standing tradition that we go out to dinner the day before Valentine’s, my mother’s birthday.

     I was still struggling with complex signs, so I had to write it down. I was glad that John was patient when I did that. I loved writing him things because I had grown to love his handwriting, however sloppy it was.

     >My dad is a very complicated man. He was in the military, but he wasn’t that strict, just abrasive and neglectful. When my mom died in my junior year of high school, he became extremely withdrawn, even more neglectful than he used to be. He started drinking a lot and didn’t talk much. Obviously, I never told him about the gay thing either because I was afraid it’d be too much for him and he’d disown me.

     >Maybe it’s because I have awesome parents, but I’m sure you’ll be okay. I’ll be with you.

     I hugged him and nodded. Maybe it would be okay.

     Later, we arrived at my father’s house. I took a few deep breaths and walked in.

     “Hello? Dad?” I signed as I spoke.

     “I’m in the den,” his rough voice said. He was always in the den drinking a beer and watching the History or Military channel. When he had too much to drink, he would flip it to the Military channel and stare at the screen blankly, almost as if he hoped the television would transport him back to his military days. The thing is, he was involved in the First Gulf War but never saw any combat, and I never heard him talk much about being in the military.

     “Hi Dad,” I said. John put a hand on my back. I could see at least four beer bottles on the end table, and there were probably more in the trash. Dad stood up and turned toward me, his face expressionless.

     It was sad because Dad used to be very handsome. His strong brow, nose, and chin were striking in his wedding and military photos. Over the years, though, especially since Mom died, his chestnut hair had aged to gray, his demeanor had turned sullen, and he lost weight. A yellow cast had developed in his skin, and through his increasingly lined face and sad eyes he simply looked old and tired.

     “Hi Son,” he said. “Who’s your friend?” As soon as I began to sign, he frowned.

     “This is John. He’s deaf.”

     “How am I supposed to tell him who I am if he can’t hear or talk?”

     “I can sign for you, Dad.” John wasn’t a very good lipreader.

     He looked at John with almost a glare.

     “Anderson Walrath,” he said dryly and loudly, sticking out his hand only out of obligation. He made the classic mistake of shouting slowly at a deaf person.

     --HI, MISTER WALWRATH, NICE MEET YOU, signed John. John could be a very charming fellow, and I was hoping he’d win over my dad in spite of his deafness.

     “What did he say?” Dad asked.

     “He said, ‘Hi, Mr. Walrath. Nice to meet you.’”

     “How do you know he said that?”

     “I’ve been in ASL studies for over a year, Dad.”

     “Why are you in that? I thought you were going to business school.” My hands shook as I tried desperately to keep up with him to interpret to John. I was a business major for a while, but I discovered sign when a friend of mine told me about it. I quickly changed majors and never looked back since.

“Why are you doing that now? I’m not talking to him,” said Dad.

     “It’s rude to have a spoken conversation in front of a deaf person and not at least try to communicate with them,” I replied.

     “Who told you that?”

     “My Deaf Studies class.”

     “Where are ‘Deaf Studies’ going to get you in life?”

     “Hopefully a job with the government as an interpreter. It would pay a lot of money.” His sneer turned into a look of exasperated resignation. He sighed. Meanwhile, Andy was still friendly and patient.

     It surprised me how direct I was with my dad. Usually I would avert my gaze and mumble because he made me so nervous, but with John there I was able to manage.

      “Where should we go for dinner?” Dad finally asked.

     “Maybe to that little Italian place on the corner?” I suggested. Dad almost smiled for a bit.

     “Your mom liked that place.” This I knew, which was why I suggested it. I figured if I could get Dad to not be his usual M.O. of sullen and withdrawn as much as possible, it would be a successful venture.

     Dinner started off well. Dad nearly ignored Andy, mostly because he didn’t know how to approach him. Usually I would get upset, as deaf people aren’t stupid—they just speak a different language. However, I figured him ignoring Andy was better than him trying to talking to Andy by yelling at him.

     He finally opened up a little more. Of course, this was post glass two of wine.

     “Where did you meet him?” Dad asked.

     “Outside of the Deaf Studies building.”

     “How can he go to school if he can’t hear?” I turned bright red when he asked this, as I didn’t want to sign it for John. But, figuring that was better than leaving John in the dark, I signed it anyway.

     “The Americans with Disabilities Act requires universities to have interpreters on hand for students. John learns just as well alongside everyone else.”

     “We didn’t have anything like that when I was in school.”

     “I like it. It allows many more opportunities for people with disabilities. Plus, it’s always nice to have a diverse student population.” Dad huffed at this and dismissed it.

     “You got a girlfriend yet?” My stomach lurched at this. John put his hand on my leg under the table.

     “No, Dad.”

     “Why not? I met your mother in college.”

     “I know, but I’d rather focus on school right now.”

     “The opportunity’s not going to be around for long. You have to pick while the picking’s hot.”

     “I’m not interested.” I paused, gathering the strength. “Besides, I think I’m already fine in that department.”

     “Well what the hell is that supposed to mean?” I took one more breath. I had plunged the knife in, now all I had to do was twist it.

     “Dad, John and I…” I trailed off, but my dad wasn’t that dense. He got it.

     “Oh. I see. You’re going to let some deaf asshole with a bone to pick with the world decide to screw up your life for you.” I had no more patience after this.

Because it was all just the same. I was six and brought home a “C” on a math test, even though Mom had gone over the material with me. Math was hard. Instead of recognizing that it was the very best I could do, I was sent to my room. I was eleven and had gotten beaten up by another boy for being different. Instead of comforting me as I cried, he belittled me for not putting up enough of a fight. I was sixteen and had just lost my mother after sitting by her hospital bed nearly every afternoon for six months. Instead of hugging me, he retreated to his den, largely ignoring me. I had to seek comfort from my aunt, my mother’s sister, not my own father.

I put my hands down and looked him straight in the eye. My response was not fueled by courage, but by anger. I might have been resigned to the fact that my dad would belittle me, but I was not about to let him do it to John.

     “That’s absolutely enough,” I said calmly, but firmly. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to leave without making a scene in the middle of the restaurant, but I didn’t care anymore. “All John has been trying to do is be friendly and courteous to his boyfriend’s father. Yes, dad, I’m gay, and yes, it’s another big fucking disappointment in the laundry list of why I’m a bad son. But I don’t really give a shit anymore. If you want to wallow in your misery, that’s your prerogative, but meanwhile, I found someone who is to me like Mom was to you, and that should be enough. Until you can talk to me without being a complete asshole, I’m giving up. Goodbye.”

     I quickly threw down a twenty for the meal and vehemently signed LEAVE to John before Dad could respond. Dad grabbed my arm so hard it hurt but John stopped him, furiously signing.

     “He wants to know if you’ve ever had your ass kicked by a deaf person.” Dad realized that even his military training wouldn’t help him, his arthritic knee and his cirrhotic liver, so let go and just glared at the both of us as we walked out the door.

     As we waited for the bus back to my dad’s house to get the car, John finally started signing.

     --WHAT HAPPEN? he asked. I started sobbing.

     --SORRY I NOT SIGN, I replied. DAD SAY MEAN THINGS TO YOU, ME. I pulled out my phone.

     >He said that I was letting some asshole with a bone to pick with the world decide to screw up my life for me. I looked up at him, just making the sign for sorry, rubbing the palm side of my fist on my chest. >Then I told him that if he wants to be miserable, that’s fine, but I found someone who’s to me like my mom was to him. Then I told him not to talk to me until he could do it without being a complete asshole.

     John looked in my eyes and hugged me as I cried softly into his chest. I stayed there for a while until he pulled me back.


     I nodded my head.

     --YOU BRAVE, BRAVE MAN. I-LOVE-YOU, he said, pressing the sign into my chest.

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