I shed my clothes and the pain of the week. Forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours ago we were on the couch in your living room. You comforted me as I cried myself to sleep, nightmares of my childhood on repeat. Forty-one hours ago you and Georgie pranced around the kitchen while I cooked us breakfast. You loved my omelets. Thirty-nine hours ago we sat in silence on the bus ride to school. I watched you eagerly stare out the window as we drove down the Champs Elysées. Thirty hours ago we sat at a table, surrounded by friends, tucked away in a corner of the garden at Ralph’s. The turkey burger was your favorite. Twenty-five hours ago our group, some buzzed and some high, stumbled down a crowded street into Chez Georges, our favorite night club. Twenty-two hours ago, you let us know you were going to the bathroom and went down the line sloppily kissing our cheeks. I didn’t know then that it was the last time we’d speak.
When I was 14, my sister Julie and I moved to Paris with our mom. We lived in a quaint apartment off the 17th arrondissement. It was a quiet street during the week and bustling with little kids playing du foot on the weekends. I had forgotten what it was like to play outside and not have to worry about safety. It was odd. White roses and fuchsia lilies lined the window boxes of every apartment. The bright colors of the flora were a stark contrast to the white and gray exterior of the tightly packed buildings. Older ladies gossiped from their balconies, intermittently taking long drags from cigarettes. Every morning, the smell of fresh bread wafted into my bedroom window, the scent seeking me out from the bakery across the way. We tried to go back to Lebanon one summer, but on the drive home from the airport our car had been shot at. Dani, our driver, got hit and died later that night. We were on a plane to Charles du Gaulle the next day.
I didn’t meet you until my second year of school in Paris. I remember you had just moved from Nice and I saw you alone, wandering the hallways, clearly lost.
“Hi!” I walked up and greeted you. “Do you need help finding where you’re going?”
You looked at me helplessly, gesturing with your hands to your ears and then shaking your head.
Oh. I signed to you.
Your face lit up.
I felt like the piece of me I didn’t even know was missing was restored. It was 1980.
What’s your name?
How do you know sign language?
We fled Beirut during the earlier years of the civil war. Papa chose to stay while Julie, Maman, and I moved to Paris. I still remember the day when it was decided we would leave.
It was a week night and I was in my bedroom. Accustomed to the shouting and sporadic gun fire in the streets I could sleep through anything. It was the silence that woke me.
For the first time in months all I could hear was my breathing. In, out. In, out. It was unsettling and I curled into myself. That’s when the mortar fire started.
There was a hissing sound, like an overheated teapot. My bedroom wall exploded. My cheeks burned. I was thrown from my bed. Debris lodged itself into the wall, ceiling, and flew through the doorway. My MVP soccer trophy and my Bible went up in flames. I dragged myself behind my tattered mattress. My skin felt on fire. My ears were ringing. Blood dripped from my forehead, blurring my vision.
I awoke in the hospital in Hadath, 48 hours later, to my father standing over me, monitoring my vitals. The bright lights forced me to squint. My head was pounding, my body stiff. His face warmed when he saw I was awake. Squeezing my hand, he launched into one of his rants, something he usually would do every time I wanted to go out with friends; about the dangers of the city, how it was unsafe, about the patients, bloody and mangled, that he had seen that day, not about the fact that he didn’t want me out where he couldn’t control my every move. At least I think he said those things. His mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t hear anything.
We went to your apartment for the first time, a few weeks after meeting. You hadn’t told me you lived in the 4th district. When we got to your building, a doorman was out front. We had left almost everything behind in the trip to Paris and I couldn’t help but feel out of place, underdressed and unprepared. Our reflections were visible in the freshly polished white marble steps leading up to your apartment. You pushed the door open to reveal high ceilings and a stately entry hall. I remember you dragged me away before I could look around. A baby grand caught my eye as we scurried past the parlor, towards your bedroom.
Collapsing onto your bed, you let out a sigh.
Jerome, what’s up? I signed. No reply. You closed your eyes and rolled over onto your stomach. The bed creaked when I sat on it, unnatural amongst our silence. We stayed like that for a long time.
Your finger poking into my side got my attention again.
Pierre, I hate it here. Paris is great, but in Nice at least all of my friends could sign. They understood what I was dealing with, we went through it together. Here, I’m alone.
I get that, Jerome, I really do. I pretended not to see you roll your eyes. Even after regaining my hearing no one understands why the wrong sound or smallest touch can make me jump. The things I saw in Lebanon are burned into the underside of my eyelids when I close my eyes. I almost died. I watched a man I grew up with bleed out in front of me, and another man shot at his daughter’s baptism.
The war had started quietly, with infighting at the borders and secret midnight raids. Papa spent his days in the hospital and nights in Parliament. Maman stopped letting us go out alone in the evening. I didn’t understand what was happening until we went to a baptism. It was Sunday, April 13th, 1975. I was 10 years old. In the middle of the service I remember a man approaching Papa, their conversation kept at a whisper, before they scurried out of the ceremony. I didn’t think anything of it, that was the nature of being a politician. Afterwards, as we congregated on the steps, shots were fired. Maman quickly herded Julie and I back into the church, but not before I saw Joseph, the father of the baptized child, have his throat torn open by bullets. Blood spattered onto the priest beside him. The baby cried and Joseph’s wife screamed. It was the first time I’d seen someone shot.
I may be able to hear but I remember what it was like not to. I am alone in my pain. But we can be alone, together. You threw your arms around me. I flinched, then relaxed into your touch.
We didn’t share any classes, since you were in a special program, but we ate lunch together. None of our friends could communicate with you. You didn’t strike me as someone who would have spoken much, regardless. At first, we only ever saw you at school. Your life outside those walls was a mystery, the lack of social interaction isolating. I knew that feeling well.
We had to move to a friend’s house after everything got destroyed. After the explosion, I wouldn’t go outside. If no one saw me, if I didn’t face the world in my current state, then it wasn’t reality. I couldn’t stomach a meal. I would sit at the dinner table and stare blankly at the kibbe and hummus laid out before me. It all tasted like cardboard. Every night I would lay down and stare at the ceiling. Sleep never came. The sheets were too soft, my new room illuminated too much by the street lights, anything and everything reinforcing the silence.
The first month without hearing, Julie and I spent most of our days with a tutor who taught us sign language. It seemed futile. We had to learn how to sign Lebanese, Arabic, and traditional French. Every mistake felt like a slap in the face. I felt useless. I couldn’t hear. I was still in a wheel chair. Everyone else’s life kept going.
I hated my tutor. Hilda, an awful name. Dark curls perched atop her head, and she had a large mole to the right of her nose, like a third eye that stared at me. She wanted me to work for 4 hours, nonstop! Julie and I would sneak fake bugs into her meals, her wide eyes and silent screams left us giggling. I didn’t want to like her. I didn’t get the point and I didn’t understand sign language.
Then one day, Julie came home and signed to me, asking if I wanted a snack. And I understood her. Without realizing the gravity of the situation, I signed back, toast with foie gras. The moment hung in the air before she started jumping up and down, the smile on my face automatic. Tutoring sessions became easier. We started using it as a way to say everything we couldn’t in front of Papa and Maman; how we snuck sweets at night and the wine Julie had absconded with. Then one night at dinner, Maman looked Julie directly in the eyes and signed Did you like the Chardonnay? We both went white. I should have never left my study books out.
Hilda stopped coming. I didn’t need her anymore. Nor my wheelchair. I grew accustomed to the silence, a reprieve from the gun fire and shouting. At times, I did wish for the burns that scaled up my legs and fractured rib cage to slow their healing because as I got better, the closer I knew we were to being sent off to Paris. It was too dangerous for our family to stay any longer.
I taught our friends the basics of sign language and it got us through the first semester. In the three weeks we had off for Christmas, while you went back to Nice to visit family, Julie and I set up a schedule with them. When I couldn’t hear, everyone around me worked to make sure I didn’t feel alone. I wanted that for you. We’d meet up every morning and between mouthfuls of breakfast crepes, the guys would learn the basics. Getting them to learn how to sign wasn’t all that difficult, it became muscle memory after the first week. Rather, they struggled with understanding what I or Julie was signing to them. Turning their understanding into a competition motivated everyone. Georgie would stay late every night pouring over my old books with Julie. It was obvious he was doing it to spend more time with Julie, but soon he understood and could sign better than the rest of the guys. Three weeks was not long enough to master it, but by the end of vacation, the boys could have conversations on their own.
When lunch rolled around on our first day back, I had gnawed at my finger nails down to the stubs. A bunch of our friends were already sitting when you and I approached them. The table fell silent. After a beat, several guys engaged you and I in conversation. Henrie eagerly turned to you, his eyes ablaze. Jerome, how are you? How was your holiday?
Georgie tugged on my sleeve. I bet Jerome starts crying. I smiled. He winked at Julie from across the table.
I remember how stunned you were. And when you started to cry, your tears triggered mine and I found the two of us swathed in an embrace.
Three weeks after we moved to Paris, the ringing started. I thought I was imagining it. I tried to ignore it. Sitting at dinner in the apartment with Julie, I noticed her teary eyes.
It was the first time I saw someone cry since I stopped hearing. I couldn’t speak words of comfort, so I just held her. Julie’s shaking body in my arms, put my nerve endings on edge. Everything was heightened. As her crying grew more intense so did the ringing. It was a nuisance at first but then it became painful and I couldn’t hold her anymore. I dropped to the cold kitchen tiles in fetal position, and just like that Julie was no longer a broken girl. She was my fiercely loyal older sister. Her hand traced patterns on my back to bring me back down into the present moment.
The ringing was unbearable. Julie cradled me. I prayed for it to stop. As it got louder, it sounded like there was interference. Whispers, breathing, I couldn’t make it out. The ringing dissipated, and in its absence I could hear Julie’s breathing. It was the loudest thing I’d heard in my life. This couldn’t be real. I rolled over to look at her. She breathed, in and out, the motions perfectly in time with the sounds that expanded and filled the room. This couldn’t be real. I spoke. “I think I can hear.” It came out a whisper, a drawl from being silent for so long, but the words rang true.
Julie began to cry again. We held each other. Our sobs echoed throughout the room. I felt our beating hearts. I could hear them.
You, Julie, and I navigated the crowded street. People waited, packed together like sardines, to get into the Rolling Stones concert at the Hippodrome. We didn’t have the money for that. We didn’t need it. Earlier that day, I had stolen a length of rope off a work bench at the edge of a construction site, and the three of us scoped out the lines of trees near the stadium. In a dimly lit alley across from the concert we found our friends waiting.
“Yellah, guys. We’re going to be late,” Henrie coughed out between pulls from a bottle of vodka.
Seeing the liquor, you pulled a baggie full of small candy hearts from your pocket, offering it up without a word. I made eye contact with Julie across from me and saw the familiar the twinkle of rebellion in her eye.
It was 1970 and The Wild Child had just been released. In a rare family outing, Maman and Papa took Julie and I to see it. We left the theatre quoting our favorite lines and acting out scenes. In an unfortunate turn of events, we had spaghetti for dinner that night. Julie and I clawed at each other, words tumbling out of our mouths faster than could be processed on the car ride home. The confined space was not helping anyone. When we pulled into our driveway, before Dani even tapped the brakes, we bolted out from the back, running into the house. The dining room table was immaculate. Porcelain plates evenly spaced, wine glasses filled with some type of red wine, all of it gross to me, and a piping hot serving bowl of pasta set in the middle. The steam was so thick you could see it, feel it.
I followed Julie’s lead. We jumped atop the table and started stomping around, wine spilling everywhere. Releasing raw, barbaric screams, we launched spaghetti into the air with our bare hands. Julie looked at me, mischief twinkling in her eyes.
When people ask how I got the scar, I tell them it was a skiing accident. What really happened, I can’t know for certain. I hadn’t noticed the fork in her left hand, clenched behind her back, knuckles white. Both of us were living out our Wild Child fantasy, a luxury we were not afforded, always being shown off at political dinners and charity galas, the perfect child props. We were bound to burst.
Spaghetti strewn everywhere, my coiffed hair was a mess. As we danced across the table, reveling in the last few seconds before our parents walked through the door, Julie turned to me and shrieked, “THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE WILD CHILD.” Next thing I knew I was on the ground and she was next to me, tracing circles on my back, keeping me calm.
One by one we each placed a heart on our tongue and let it dissolve. Then we made our way to the trees.
We ran down a series of cobbled side streets until the back of the stadium seating loomed before us, casting a shadow across a patch of trees to the left of the Hippodrome. There was never any security. I dragged you along with me, towards a towering oak with sturdy branches, thick in circumference. You gave me a boost up, and I shimmied my way to the first branch before climbing higher and higher and higher. The hands of 40,000 people were swaying in the air, giving the illusion of rolling waves. The stage was illuminated. Pulling out the rope, I tied a bowline knot around the trunk and let it down. After several minutes of shaking, grunts, and heavy breathing, you climbed up next to me. Hair all messy, you faced forward and saw the direct view of the stage. Your eyes lit up.
We could clearly see Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones prance onto the stage, the crowd erupting into screams. The vibrations from the bass carried all the way out and I could feel it in my bones. The reverb travelled down my body, song after song, as I signed the words to you. You bobbed your head along to the beat taking up residence in your body. Our smiles wide, eyes glassy. I was seeing stars and never realized Mick Jagger had a twin, until he appeared on stage that night. Henrie fell asleep muttering nonsense in the tree next to us. Jagger closed out the show with “Lady Jane” and I screamed along in my best broken English. You hugged the tree trunk like a koala. Georgie fell from his branch and remained in the dewy grass, cackling to himself, Julie beside him, their hands intertwined. My voice was hoarse, we were all fucked, and had just witnessed greatness. We were dilated pupils full of music. I could still taste the heart on my tongue.
You invited us over to your apartment the night before Georgie’s birthday. A pre-celebration before the weekend, since Julie couldn’t join us the following evening. Studying for the Bac was consuming her life.
Drinks and food littered the island in your kitchen, tea on the stove. Julie led us in an offkey rendition of Happy Birthday. You were right beside me, beaming, as we all sang and signed in unison.
The kettle went off and everything around me slowed. I was transported to my old bedroom, body felt like it was on fire. You turned to me, fear in your eyes, when my glass crashed at your feet. I couldn’t breathe. The world was silent. I was alone.
Twenty hours ago you dropped acid. The guy with you said you thought you could fly. Eighteen hours ago I found myself in a hospital waiting room. Henrie said that no news was good news. Fourteen hours ago a somber team of surgeons emerged from the OR. “We stopped the bleeding, but Jerome is in a coma. He suffered a traumatic fall. We can’t be sure if he will wake up.” Thirteen hours ago my tears pooled at the edge of your bed as I held your hand. You couldn’t hold mine back. Five hours ago you left us. Two hours ago I stood outside the hospital taking a drag from my last cigarette. “Go home, Pierre,” someone said. The hand they rested on my shoulder felt alien. Ten minutes ago I walked through the door of my apartment. My sister and mother were both asleep.