One side effect of my deafness is that I’m always presuming a physical intimacy, usually where there is none. It can get me into trouble and often has. I can’t tell you the number of ill-conceived affairs I’ve had as an adult that started with me putting my hand on someone’s collarbone (which conducts sound like a hollow reed) and fastening my gaze on their lips as if it were all I could do not to bite. It was an inadvertent pickup technique I ought to have found shameful (but didn’t) and misleading. When I was 11, though, I was tied into knots over that excessive need of mine to touch and be touched. All my easy sexual play with the boys was turning furtive and guilty even as my romantic awe of the girls was metamorphosing into something sweaty and insistent. I didn’t know what my racing heart was telling me about desire, but there was no mistaking the root of my longing—to connect. Hearing is usually the way people connect without touching. Sans that sense, I had no way of keeping people at a safe psychic distance while I tussled with my impulse to wrestle them to the ground. My young body felt burdened by itself, by all the things it craved doing but didn’t dare, by the inertia of that “special” world it had been thrust into, and by the naked exposure of my secret failings.
Our family life that year was undergoing its own transformations. In 1961 my father retired from the army and got a job driving a cab. As an army family, we’d been used to a certain degree of privilege. The army bases where we lived were mini worlds with their own doctors, housing, schools, and stores, called post exchanges, where military personnel could buy cigarettes, toilet paper, milk, and leather coats at a steep discount. You could get a physical, work out in a gym, or have your teeth fixed, all courtesy of the United States government. In Germany we even had live-in help, paid to keep the house clean, watch over us all, and fix dinner at night. We felt flush and cared for. When Daddy mustered out and the props were snatched away, we suddenly realized we’d only been playing at being well-to-do. When we moved from Fort Hood to Austin, it was to a modest house on the south side, then one of the poorer parts of the city. My sister Trudy, by then 17, had changed her name to Gail (a change she’d been planning since her very first day of ballet in postwar Stuttgart, when the German dance instructor pronounced her name Truddy, as in Cruddy). As Gail, she ditched her glasses for contacts and enrolled in the theater department at the University of Texas. She’d won a partial scholarship and worked odd jobs but lacked cash for books and tuition. There just wasn’t enough money to make ends meet, so Mother went to work at the Big Bear food store as a meat wrapper. We still had a maid, this one a lean, dark woman who, like my mother, resented having to work and slapped her iron against our shirts and blouses as if she were punching someone in the solar plexus. Tenley and I were wary of her. We knew there was no love in her for us. She’d look at us with cold, accusing eyes as if we were the reason she couldn’t be with her own two children, exactly our age, who were at home by themselves while she folded our clothes and fixed us dinner.
That year everyone in our house was busy dealing with their own upheavals, even dreamy little Tenley, who faced the cold awakening of first grade. If I were going to make my life a happy one, I’d have to do it on my own. That may be why at age 11, I made the calculated decision to quit acting pissed off at my glasses and hearing aids and use them instead as comic props. Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton, the Three Stooges, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Jerry Lewis, and Daffy Duck: that was the comic cluster of gods at whose feet I worshipped, so I’d learned all the good tricks. With their movie and TV guidance, I started cultivating a talent for risk and self-mockery that turned me into my own early version of Jackass. I’d open the classroom door with a too-quick jerk and whack myself on the nose so hard it would send my glasses flying. I’d aim for the wadded-up napkin on the cafeteria floor and pratfall right on my butt. I’d flatten my body against the school staircase and bump down the filthy steps like a steamrolled cartoon cat. I’d run full tilt toward the outside cinderblock wall of the gym and scrabble up it until gravity lost me and I’d drop. My no-holds-barred clowning made my deafness just another part of the joke, and when I’d jolt or thump or wallop or bang, I made sure my hearing aids would ring like mini sirens so I could scream, “I’m a bomb!” and explode in a shower of spit. I even embraced the despised slurring blur of my speech after I inadvertently discovered, when my English class took turns reading Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory aloud, that a lisp could be used to great comic effect.
By the time I was 12, I had cemented my reputation as a class clown with a temper and a streak of the wild. It would take me another two years before I’d slow down on the tricks enough to reawaken to my own body and realize I could use all that excess of feeling as a different way to hear. I owe that discovery to a tendresse I developed at age 14 for Suzanne Wood Brown, my high school speech and debate teacher, just out of college and still something of a teenager herself. She was a tall, bigboned woman with a bit of an overbite. She had shrewd brown eyes and nice thick lips that always seemed to be mildly smiling. In the fashion of the time she wore her light brown hair in a high-rise beehive.
At my hypersensitive age, little things pushed me into furious crushes. Teachers who remembered to spell my first name with a ‘y’ could expect every blessed holiday commemorated by Mardi Gras beads, plastic loving cups, chocolate roses, or minty little hearts stamped with my sentiments exactly. The lack-loves who spelled my name with an ‘i’ could expect an in-class vintage performance of deaf incomprehension the likes of which only the brothers Mike and Nicky had seen. After my string of “Huh? What? Could you repeat that again? I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” had sent the offending teacher into chagrined retreat, I would snicker under my breath, “Terri—the devil’s poodle.”
My crush on Suzanne went way beyond the correct use of ‘y.’ She was one of the few teachers not taken aback when I zeroed in on her. Once when I came barreling into her classroom, glasses askew and hearing aids abuzz, she raised her eyebrows and commanded me to sit, as if I were a skittering puppy. She leaned over, pushed my ear molds back into place, settled my glasses back on my face, then gave my forehead a leisurely little flick with her finger. From that gesture on, I was hers. Suzanne didn’t flinch from the energy and desperation of my devotion. She simply used it the same way Dolores, my Bambi love, had at Lions Camp—to get me to do what she wanted. What Suzanne wanted was for me to learn to speak clearly, without a lisp, without a slur, so that what I said wouldn’t be obscured by the way I said it. I don’t know why she loved me as much as she did. Other teachers gave me their time and attention, but hers was so particular, so physical. I once told her, when I put my hand on her back as she was talking, that it felt as if the words were vibrating in my palm as she said them.
Thereafter, when my voice slipped into a flat, monotonous drone, she’d tease me, trying to coax me out of my habit of thinking how I ought to be hearing so I could concentrate on how the sound was actually moving through skin and bone. She meant to help me find the root physicality of hearing. She’d rest her chin on the back of my head and recite lines from “The Congo,” with all those boomlay BOOM’s. She wanted me to feel the chanting beat of that Vachel Lindsay poem right inside my skull. She’d press her fingers against my windpipe just hard enough for me to feel the pressure of my own breath as speech in its rawest state. Then she’d put her palms on my cheeks or mold my lips into a little moue, to start me playing with the shapes of my teeth and tongue, so I could use them to refine the crude expulsions of air.
Over the next three years, she worked with me like that, using my ardent desire to please her to teach me control over my speech. I would never lose my touch of deaf speak, that dead giveaway of a lateral lisp. Even now, if I let down my guard, the words out of my mouth turn gluey and thick. But by age 16, after two and a half hard years of effort, I had embraced the pleasure of that discipline so intimately, I seldom let down my guard. I was keeping tight rein over one or two other impulses as well. My visions, contrary to the doctor’s long-ago predictions, would still periodically lift me up and away, but the month I turned 16 I put a stop to that. I’d been cast in the old theatrical warhorse of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I’d never been cast as the ingénue before, always as the comic relief, but I’d worked hard with Suzanne to get my speech cleared up, to get a grip on the slur, to mimic the correct inflections of sentences I couldn’t hear. Being cast as pretty, doomed Emily was my reward. On the first night of performance, I’d just set foot onstage and before I could get a word out of my mouth I was pulled up into the air and held dangling above the scene. The cafeteria stage, the school, my whole little world—it was like the top of things had blown off once more. When I saw my body in miniature, mouthing words on that tiny stage beneath me, my thought was almost a gripe: Who is that saying my lines? I felt cheated of the whole experience of finally acting the role of a girl, the easiest and hardest role I’d played to date. I’d been dumbstruck to discover the role of ingénue was all about keeping still. Absolutely no energy required. No need to contort my face into a perpetual grimace the way I did when I played that disapproving old starch, Lady Bracknell, or make my jaw go as slack as it could get without drooling when I played the pesky idiot brother in Antic Spring. All I had to do was quell my inner cyclone, keep my face immobile, my eyes wide, and my voice loud and precise enough to hear. Then die off quickly. During a rehearsal, after my character Emily kicked off and took her place in the town graveyard, one of my male costars blurted out admiringly, “You look great dead!” Since I wasn’t in motion, the boys had a chance to look me over, see I actually was a girl and becoming a pretty one at that. It seemed to have shocked them… I couldn’t wait to test the effect on a wider audience.
Up aloft in the air on opening night, I felt so angry to be missing my anticipated moment of seductive triumph. My next thought was a declaration: I will never do this again. The minute I had that thought, the diffused and floating fabric of my being seemed to regather, narrow into a funnel, and pour back into my body. I hadn’t missed a single cue, but from that moment on I never again had another vision, never again left my body behind. Although sometimes, even now, looking out my bedroom window at a pumpkin moon or at a thin cold sliver of one, I can feel a pull, almost like a call.
My queer impulse was the other thing I was trying to get under control. I think I must have suspected I was queer from age five, and was happy to discover its sexual component at age seven with a blonde my age named Sunny during a game we called—and to this day I’m embarrassed to remember—“milking the cow.” You can well imagine. Around age 13 I was finally able to put a name to my inner roilings when I looked up the word “homosexuality” in a dictionary. I had heard my older sister use the word with some vehemence when describing to my parents how she’d stumbled upon her female college roommate in bed with a woman, and the fact that I found the context intriguing made me suspect the word had particular relevance to me. The definition in the dictionary, “sexual desire directed at a person of one’s own sex,” thrilled me to death. But I wanted further clarification. I thought I was being immensely discreet when I offhandedly mentioned at dinner that night that I’d looked up “homosex—.” I didn’t even have time to finish the word. It was like I’d shot off a gun and stampeded cattle. The commotion it caused left me with the strong impression that homosexual was the wrong side of the sheets to be on.
The dictionary mentioned desire and that’s how I imagined “homosexual”—as being in the throes of longing. I knew longing. It seemed a pretty OK state to be in. Longing had moved me to work hard for all my teachers, but especially the women, because they were gentle with me and that gentleness, besides making me less afraid of disappointing them, made me yearn to please them. That yearning only intensified with Suzanne, who reintroduced me to the pleasures of my own senses. She was passionate with me, passionate about what she saw as my talents. She took chance after chance on me by entering me into dozens of speech competitions. When I finally won one, won a big one, a statewide competition in the reading of poetry, she and her husband at the time took me out for lobster, and she gave me my first sip of champagne right out of her own glass.
It’s no wonder I longed for her, that my longing blossomed into an ache I feared, exulted in, and kept in check. Or tried to. The same way I tried to keep my sexual feelings for the boys in check… But even though I made endless lists of names for the 10 children I thought I might one day have, during those years when abortion was a crime and contraception itself exuded a sulfurous whiff, there was no one more afraid of pregnancy than I, the deaf queer already so taken aback by her own body. I’d touch and let the feeling be mutual, but I wasn’t going to get carried away. Not by sex. Not even, if I could help it, by yearning. I was going to do something with my life. Exactly what, I didn’t yet know, but I was almost sure of it. Suzanne had convinced me I was a smart girl, smarter than the nature of my deafness allowed people to see. I’d simply have to work that much harder to let it be known. All my hard work had to culminate in something extraordinary. That’s what I kept telling myself and what the little horoscope booklet I’d bought, detailing the secret power of Scorpios, was telling me, too. My last year of high school, when we seniors were being called in to consult with the guidance counselor about our paths in life, I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say, what guidance he was going to give me, what great path he was going to suggest.