By Zac Zaremba
Whenever I was on a really bad date, I found it comforting to know that, as a deaf person with a cochlear implant, I could enter a world of total silence if I wanted to, blocking out whoever was sitting in front of me. On this one particular date though, I had no choice.
I’d been messaging Sylvia on OkCupid all day and we made last-minute, late-night plans to meet in Williamsburg. I chose a local dive that I knew wouldn’t be too noisy on a Friday night. I had to think ahead.
I arrived early, ordered a beer and sat alone in a booth, playing with my phone, re-reading emails and sending texts in an effort to make myself seem busy and totally not awkward while waiting for someone.
Sylvia arrived and we hugged hello. She was attractive, with milk-white skin, long, dark hair and curves in the right places. She seemed like she wanted to be there and wasn’t going through the motions. We chatted about typical first date topics like where we’re from, what we do, what TV shows we’ve been binge-watching.
“Yeah, I’ve been teaching in the Bronx for about six months now and —”
Suddenly, I heard three beeps. Uh oh.
I wondered if she saw my face tighten as she spoke. Beep, beep, beep I heard in slow succession — shrill, quick noises as the wire surgically implanted in my inner ear and head surged with electrodes, allowing me to hear the sounds of the world around me, as well as special hidden sounds, like these three beeps, that only I could hear.
I was used to the occasional three-beep warning that my batteries were about to die. It was easily remedied by a quick replacement of fresh batteries, discreetly taking off the cover, inserting the batteries and putting the processor back over my ear, the coil magnetically attaching itself to my head before anyone around me was the wiser.
While enduring an internal panic I pretended to listen to her for a few more moments — nodding my head, saying “oh, really,” and fake laughing at her jokes — before excusing myself to the bathroom. I stood in front of a urinal and thought about how the date was going, then reached for my wallet where I kept my pack of spare batteries, which are only slightly larger than most circular wristwatch batteries.
As I reached my fingers into the little pocket where I keep the batteries and a single rumpled condom, I realized, with sinking dread and panic, they weren’t there.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit” I hissed as I searched every fold in the wallet, taking out credit cards, wrinkled singles and old Starbucks gift cards. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have any extras with me.
I stayed in the bathroom, freaking out that I was going to have to explain the situation, and realizing that I had been gone for almost ten minutes and she probably thought I had diarrhea from the free cheesy puffs that the bar gave out.
I have a lot of embarrassment and stress around being deaf and having a cochlear implant. I lost my hearing as a child. My speech is unaffected and thanks to the implant I hear relatively well. But it doesn’t take a person very long to figure out I’m deaf after seeing the small processor on my ear and being asked to repeat something. The anxiety I have going on dates and hoping the girl isn’t fazed that she’s with a deaf guy is very real.
I sat back down at the table eventually and Sylvia smiled. “Look, I know this is sort of awkward,” I said, in a tight, strained voice, “but I have this thing called a cochlear implant; it’s like a hearing aid, and the batteries are going to die, and I need to get extras from my apartment.”
“Oh, that’s OK!” she said. I was immediately touched by how graceful she was. All the thoughts that were racing in my head in the bathroom — that she would be uncomfortable and just want to leave, or that she’d have to lead me out of the bar like Helen Keller to the water pump — disappeared.
We stepped outside and I suggested we take a cab to another bar near my apartment. I told her she could also come with me to my apartment and wait a few minutes while I grabbed the batteries, and she opted for the bar. It crossed my mind that she thought I was using my batteries dying as an excuse to get her to my place, an elaborate deaf-bro version of Netflix and chill.
In the cab, we chatted idly for a couple of minutes when, suddenly, silence. The batteries were dead, all the remaining juice completely gone. I explained, with some embarrassment, that I couldn’t hear her any longer. This was a whole new version of awkward first date silences, but she only nodded, looking concerned but not unkind, and I was relieved that it was only a ten-minute ride to the bar. I told the driver to let her out as we pulled up. “I’ll be back here in fifteen minutes!” I said, uncertain of how loud my voice was. When the cab dropped me off at my building I ran all six stories of my walkup, put in fresh batteries, and sprinted the ten blocks to the bar. I stood outside composing myself, thankful I could hear the sounds of my panting breaths.
She was there, a genuine smile on her face when I sat down next to her. We talked and laughed until last call. She came back with me to my apartment, and when it was time to close our eyes, I took off my cochlear, reached over her and set it down on my night table, comfortably drifting off into sleep with a new person in my arms.
Zac Zaremba is a creative nonfiction writer and world traveler based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Instagram @zachie_z and get some of his recommendations for cheap eats and drinks in NYC at www.thenomoneynewyorker.com.
* * *