A Love Language Spoken With Hands

On a gloomy January day, my phone lit up: Will had texted me a video. Something coalesced in my stomach. I knew what the video had captured, but I didn’t quite believe it. In the solitude of my bedroom, I hunched over my phone and pressed play.

In the video, Will stepped back from the camera (his phone). He wore a striped polo shirt. Behind him was a multicolored shower curtain. He signed slowly, carefully: “Hi, how are you? I’m good. Thank you, my friend, Ross.” Nervous relief flooded his face when he finished fingerspelling my name.

I fell into a state of disbelief. Will had texted me days earlier to say that he had been teaching himself sign language. Reading his texts, I had felt a shock of surprise — followed by suspicion.

I am a deaf person. For the past 10 years, since I turned 18, hearing men have flirted with me and taken me out on dates. The only thing they have in common is the promise they all make: “I’ll learn sign language for you.”

Not one of them followed through. Not one signed up for a class or studied the textbooks I recommended.

As a child, I learned to lip-read, to parse words from lip movements and shreds of residual hearing. I attended speech lessons, which technically stopped when I graduated from high school. Today I get coached on word pronunciation from kind hearing friends.

My parents gave no explicit reason for putting me through speech lessons. The implicit reason was for me to do the work of communication that non-signers aren’t interested in doing. Communicating in spoken language means conforming to society, one dependent on sound.

All the men I have dated rely on the fact that I speak. They didn’t need to do additional work to communicate with me because I’ve done the work for them.

Will is different. Will is the first man in nine years to learn sign language for me. He never promised to learn sign — he just put himself to work.

I pressed “play” again and watched Will’s careful signing, his fingerspelling, his nervous relief at the end. I watched again and again until my disbelief evaporated.

I met Will on Twitter a year ago. He lives in a neighboring state. At first, we sent direct messages to each other. As our friendship deepened, we texted each other late into the night as the pandemic raged beyond our doors.

When I started talking with Will, I was grieving a messy separation from a college professor — a person who uses they/them pronouns — who said they wanted to learn sign language for me. I told them they didn’t have to; I don’t want to hold anyone to a promise they don’t mean. And I don’t want to be disappointed when they don’t keep their word.

But this person gave me another reason for wanting to learn sign: They work with deaf students so they would be learning sign language not only for me but for themselves.

That convinced me the professor was serious. I gave them resources and encouraged questions, but they never asked me questions or sent a single video. After four months, I gave up, angry that I had been lied to once again.

Before the professor, a finance manager baffled me when he said, “I’ll learn sign language for you.” In remission from laryngeal cancer, he was still in danger of becoming mute, and I wanted to ask, “Why not learn for yourself?” Worried about crossing a line, I went on autopilot and said, “You don’t have to.”

Before the finance manager, a nurse said he would take sign-language classes. Before that, a social worker said the same thing. Before that, so did a data analyst.

It feels overdramatic to say that a lie threads through most of my dating life, but no other phrase so succinctly captures the truth. For hearing people, the promise to learn sign language is less a promise of action than a placation, as if they are attempting to comfort themselves more than me, perhaps shedding some guilt. Past attempts at relationships have failed because the intent to learn isn’t genuine.

“It’s intolerable,” Will texted when I told him about the professor. “If someone wants to engage in a relationship with you, the very least they could do is make an effort to better communicate with you. In your case, that would be learning sign. And someone agreeing to do so and then not doing it puts the obligation of communication on you.”

Will showed me that not everyone makes promises they don’t intend to fulfill. I don’t have to invest in someone who promises an action they’ll never do. Relationships only move forward once the work of communication begins.

I took the train down to his city in mid-April, my first trip during the surreal swirl of the pandemic. I hadn’t left my house since March of the previous year; instead, I had stared at the same walls in my home, read and reread all my favorite books, and celebrated birthday after birthday on Zoom and FaceTime. I got on the train because I wanted a change.

I met Will on that trip. He was taller than I expected. He hugged me tight, and I smelled musk. In my hotel room, we got to talking, and he reached across the table and grasped my hands. Sitting there, Will was more beautiful than any video could capture. It was hard for me to believe, even with him right in front of me, that he was real. Desire collected weight in my gut, and I couldn’t help but graze his palms with my fingers. I wanted to touch him. I wanted to feel him. I wanted him.

When Will said he should go and let me work, I hugged him goodbye and kissed him on the cheek. He kissed my cheek in return. I pulled back to stare at him, then I leaned forward, my eyes flicking down to his mouth.

Later, he jumped up from bed. “I want to try something,” he said.

I knew immediately what he meant. I sat up and planted my chin in my hands.

Will signed every letter of the alphabet, from A to Z. He did J backward. He confused G and Q, and I had to show him H. But I took it in with a smile. After his index finger sliced a Z through the air, I got up from the bed and kissed him.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until someone shows you. Sometimes, you don’t think it can even exist.

Will and I aren’t dating, technically. He likes to call our relationship a middle ground, a space between friendship and romance. After all, we live many miles apart. We try to be pragmatic.

Regardless, Will still sends me sign language videos, two or three a week. His last video was of him excitedly signing opposites (“like is the opposite of don’t like!”). I corrected him on placement: “You’re doing the sign for opposite that makes it look really close to ‘but’.”

Seven months after we started talking, Will registered for an online sign language course. “The YouTube videos aren’t enough anymore,” he texted. “I want structure. I want a teacher. I want a class. I want more.”

Reading his text in that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the professor, the financial manager, the ones who had failed to follow through. I wondered what they would look like, signing. I feel a small prick of disappointment whenever I think about them.

There is the blur of false promises, and then there is Will, crystal clear. Will signifies something more. I hadn’t believed him when he told me he was teaching himself sign, but then he showed me something I could believe in.

Even with Will now enrolled in a sign language class, I still feel disbelief and worry. One person cannot undo nine years of frustration. I worry about Will growing tired of sending videos, signing to a phone camera. I worry that he’ll wake up one day, decide I’m not worth this work, and leave me. I worry that this kernel of disbelief — because no way can equitable communication be this easy — will somehow be justified. Will could become part of the blur, another reason for me to not trust men who can hear.

Right now, Will shows that maybe I can believe people when they say they want to do the work for me. I don’t have to settle for relationships constructed on empty promises and false compassion. I deserve something real, meaningful. Will did something instead of promising it, and he made me think twice about being dismissive of others’ intentions.

Whenever Will sends me a video of him signing, it’s as if he’s saying: “The world can be a better place than you think. Let me show you.”

Ross Showalter is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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