Mute (Essay)

Words by Sydney Boles. Illustration by Tessa Chiu.

The apartment draped itself in mold and earth-tones like a 1920s film star gone to glorious rot. She gathered for herself the unwashed and the washed up, a counter-cultural collection of mismatched shit and mismatched humanity, the dregs of the digital generation. Jane and Katie modeled nude when they needed money, which was always; PJ worked nights delivering greasy pizza to greasy people; nobody could find the tempeh.

“Check the fire escape!” PJ hollered. He was porn-ing the internet, his pupils dilating over the bodies of women who had lost their names. I lurked in the screen’s sick glow. “What?” he said. “It’s like a fridge out there.” And not even hiding the porn. How refreshing.

I wished I could tell Katie that if she wanted to be a vegan so bad she should eat her vegetables like a goddamn grownup.

“Found the tempeh!” she yelled.

“Is somebody crying?” PJ asked.

We all paused; our collective head tilted to the left. It couldn’t be Jane, could it? It must be the Lithuanian woman upstairs.

When the apartment became unbearable I twisted myself up the fire escape, through the darkening corridors between tenements, until the nighttime rooftop welcomed me like an orphanage caretaker accepting an abandoned infant. I brought my sketch pad, because sometimes I like myself when I draw, but the whir and grind of the city-gray darkness kept away any novice muse I might have attracted.

The fire escape trembled, creaked, and birthed another orphan. Jane collected herself.  Her hair was in that awkward phase between dirty and dreads, and a beedi dangled from her finger-less gloves. She leaned against the railing, transferring the beedi from hand to mouth and flicking her lighter to life. For a moment, the yellow light threw her face into stark contrasts and she became monstrous. “Wanna smoke?” she asked. Maybe she thought that if she kept asking me questions, one day I’d be able to respond. She wore Birkenstocks, which were funny because they were Birkenstocks. At least she had the good sense to be ironic about it.

“Can I see?” My sketch pad was on the receiving end of her little gesture.

In pencil, a dandelion puff. A crushed soda bottle resting on a storm drain. In pen, PJ’s fuck-me-I’m-Canadian face.

“You know, you should really learn sign language,” Jane said. The city screeched metallic obscenities. I felt her heat beside me. “Or at least write stuff down instead of drawing.”

I kissed her then, because I had to say something. I tucked poetry into the wet corners of her mouth: the gospel of Jane, calligraphy made of four lips. Her body sparked against me. When I pulled away, she drew a long, hard pull on her beedi and blew smoke into my face. Her gaze slid down to my breasts; she appraised them unapologetically. She devoured me the way PJ devoured the naked plastic women on the internet. “At least tell me your name,” she said. “You live with us, we have to know your name.”

Don’t blame me if you don’t understand silence.

She smoked. I imagined undressing her, the feel of it, her smell; I imagined drawing her in broad arcs that extended beyond the edge of her body. And then I did it: Birkenstocks and overalls first, coarse on my fingertips; her bra falling away as she stood there passively. She allowed me to slide her panties down her legs. The finger-less gloves stayed on. In the indigo city glare, I brought her to life in two dimensions. She was knees, fingers, hair like dark electricity, eyes wide and alert like twin moons. Charcoal dust blackened my fingers and haloed her paper copy.

Her charcoal hair was my charcoal dust was the charcoal I coughed when I breathed.

“Show me?”

Nope. I closed my notebook; she raised her arms to cover her breasts. As I passed her on my way to the fire escape, I smelled her scent: smoke and loam, Athena risen from Gaia’s maw.

Palsied linoleum shifted like tectonic plates and PJ stuck some Pizza Pockets in the microwave.

“That’ll kill you, you know,” Katie snarled as she and her soy burger vacated the kitchen with a pop of displaced superiority.

With three minutes on the timer, PJ asked me if I wanted to know his story.  I wanted to eat my granola, but I nodded, because the truth is relative, and it was relatively true that I cared about this porn addict, drug addict Canadian dropout.

“I’m Canadian,” he said. “Sort of. I was born in India but I don’t know India. My parents brought me there when I was a baby.”

Two minutes on the timer, and I stopped listening. Your story is boring, PJ, you are one of a million vagabonds telling themselves stories about a home that is better than millions of identical shit-stained heres. PJ, your story is a lie. You aren’t romantically rootless, a noble boundary breaker, an Indian-Canadian-American with a sob story. You are the delivery boy who works the munchie shift. That’s it.

3. 2. 1. Ding. Pizza boy’s Pizza Pockets delivered in record time.

That night Katie left her crystals in a bowl of water on the eastern windowsill. “The full moon cleanses them,” she explained, and believed it.

Pizza Boy smoked acres of weed and pretended it was spiritual enlightenment. I claimed THC addict. The apartment walls, which absorbed fungus and emotion without discrimination, swelled to accommodate the exhale of his addiction. You are what you deliver: kind of hot, but mostly greasy.

Jane pretended nude modeling was a legitimate career path, like the dreadlocks made the bohemian. You think you’re developing a portfolio? No, darling, you’re developing a file folder of your own shame in black and white and tasteful sepia.

Katie pretended hippie bullshit and homeopathy gave meaning to her stagnation.

I pretended my mangled vocal chords made me mysterious, except sometimes, when the others had meandered to their beds, when I pretended they were an excuse to get drunk alone off someone else’s Johnny Walker. This was my  offering to the god of the lost: drunkenness as sacrifice. I pawed at my throat. My silver scar sliced me open again and again, bleeding rivers of crimson silence.

“Let’s get you to bed,” Jane murmured. She slid finger-less gloves under my armpits, lifted me while I moved my mouth in silent protest. She eased me into my bed and climbed in beside me, brushed hair from my sodden brow, and her head propped on her gloved hand. “Who are you?” she whispered.

In darkness, the mute can only communicate with touch.

Katie burnt the tofu and the cacolalia of the smoke alarm sent me fleeing up the fire escape once more. Jane was already there, her aroma proof of a recent smoke. Dark hair prickled amid urban white noise. There was something tragic about her, one sad hippie silhouetted against the metropolis.

She turned, registered me, and arranged herself around my presence. “Can I ask you something?”

I could have tried to stop her, but her truth was a flood.

“How am I supposed to get to know you? And I mean, how are you going to get anywhere in your life if you won’t communicate? I’m trying to get through to you, Jesus Christ. I’m trying, but you have to meet me in the middle! Just… just start with your name. Just your name! That’s all I need.”

Something crepuscular rose in me. My tongue stirred unbidden, swelled until I gagged on my own impotence.

“Just say something!” Jane begged.

I pulled away down the iron staircase into our smoky grotty. Katie was waving a towel at the smoke detector. I ripped the towel from her hands, slammed the tofu pan onto that sick linoleum. Salt shaker, tea kettle, somebody’s hideous Matryoshka dolls crashed to the floor around me. How’s that for language, fuckers?

Call me Katrina; Call me Sandy; Call me Irene. Silver scar be damned, the levees are breaking and I am bursting through.

PJ put himself in my way. He was immovable. “What. The fuck. Are you doing?” Marijuana greened his expression. “You’re going to clean this up.” Katie peered out from the kitchen holding the smoking frying pan.

The fire escape creaked and Jane appeared inside. She dreamed up beaches and I littered them. She wrote symphonies with her words and my silence was off key.

In the company of mismatched, washed up humanity, I signed. I had sworn never again to sign, because some languages are best left where they belong. But my fingers explained everything my tongue couldn’t: my history, how I had ended up on this third-floor walk-up with a bunch of hippie wannabes and no future. I signed about the desolation I came from and why I left, how I got my silver scar, and what happened the day my fingers caressed their last signed syllable. And then, accompanied by choking sobs that made no sound, my tears their own floodwaters, I signed how desperately I wanted to belong. I signed to Jane, and she watched. Like an infant, she understood none of it.

“I can’t,” Jane said. She shrugged, washed her hands of me.

“You heard her,” said the threat vice-gripped between PJ’s eyebrows.

I couldn’t even grab my sketchbook.

The stairway sneezed mold spores at me, chewed me up, spat me out onto the sidewalk. The city whisper-screamed untrue rumors. I looked up: proto-dreads leaned out of a third-floor window; finger-less gloves clutched the sill. I think she wanted to tell me something, but I can’t be sure. From her expression, it almost seemed she’d lost the ability to speak.

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