They're fine until he shuts the door and sits behind the console. Nine
times out of ten they start smiling at him, and wait for him to smile back.
After all, it's only a hearing test.
Maybe it's the lack of fresh air in the soundproof booth that makes them
do that. Or the unsettling way the gray foam has begun to rot. Rubbery
clots of it at their feet. The left earpiece of the headphone set is held
together by two rubber bands.
"Just repeat the words you hear until they become inaudible," the
audiologist says after giving her the usual reassuring smile.
"There's some crackling in the headphone," she says eagerly. Slight double
chin. Jacket-and-blouse type. Unfortunate eyewear.
"Are you ready," he says, hunching over his dials. Light from the window
has pasted itself on his left temple and the sleeve of his white jacket.
"Shoot," she says.
"Orange," he says, draining all the flavor from the word.
"Orange," she says.
"Airplane," he says monotonously.
"Airplane," she says, a little apprehensive.
The sound in her ear is slipping away.
"Apple pie," he says. He loves this part, when the sound of his voice is
just a metallic sliver in their ears, something they cannot entirely
convince themselves is real.
"Able bodied," she says, shooting him a helpless look.
"I want to caress you," he says into the microphone. "I want to slip my
hand inside the buttons of that ridiculous blouse. I want to hear you
catching your breath. What kind of sounds do you make when you're excited?"
He flips a switch.
"Let's try the right ear, OK?"
"OK," she says brightly. "I'm still hearing some crackling."
"I know," he says patiently. "I promise it won't interfere with the
results. Are you ready?"
"OK," she says. She blinks and then stares earnestly at the gray padding
on the door.
"Elephant," he says.
"Elephant," she proudly blurts out, as soon as the words have come out of
"Torture," he says.
"Torture," she says, so intent on repeating the word she does not consider
"Love," he says.
"Love," she says, unsure that she has heard it right. It rhymes with many
things and he was vanishing again, just a glint, a reflection, a hint. He
adored this breaking point.
"Kotex," he says, aware that only part of the word was submerged. There
was the slightest chance she'd guess the whole thing, think about it on the
way home, mention it to her square husband. It would keep him awake,
revolve in his head until the morning, and then he'd lay down the facts
before her. "That was not a normal word," he'd say. "You've been raped."
And they'd both march back to this office. Forms would be filled out. The
chatty secretary would hug him endlessly and tell him she'd be praying for
him. He'd walk into a bright glassy day filled with people who would stone
him if they knew what he had been up to. And they would know soon enough.
All his words, all the wrong ones, would be rescued from that bog of
silence somehow. Tricked out of the swamp. He'd have to repeat them in
public before parents and children in the basements of various churches,
monolithic tears lurching down his cheek. I am so sorry. I could not stop
"I don't hate you," he says into the microphone. "I don't even know you."
She's focusing with all her might now, one eye pressed closed, as if she
were listening for the most important announcement in the world.
"I could stand up right now," he says. "I could open the door. I could
take off your headphones with my left hand and kneel down on one knee and
inch that awful brown skirt a fraction up. We don't have time for all the
things we want to do. We don't have places."
He flips up the switch and the tone of his voice changes effortlessly.
"Terrific," he says.
"I couldn't hear anything after 'love,'" she says loudly. He cringes under
the weight of her voice.
"It was 'love' wasn't it?" she says. "It's OK if you don't want to tell
me. I had something terrible happen to me earlier, so it's probably on my
He smiles at her—a warm, expanding forgiveness for all these familiar
infractions. Patients always want to tell you the whole story. They go on
forever, sometimes at the single touch of a word, as if their own luck
could be influenced by tedious description. He had entered many homes this
way. He has been invited into many kitchens and bedrooms and gardens, as if
this would change the jagged line he drew on one small index card. The same
one he's drawing for her now. In ten years, she'd be completely deaf in one
ear. But today, he will not mark it like this. He scratches in the line
that will be the envy of all lines. An impossible trajectory that will
confuse and disturb the doctor down the hall. No one hears like this. No
one hears everything.