leanring-to-stutter

One: Prologue

My name is Kenneth, but don’t make me say that out loud, he thought to himself as he stood on line at the bookstore, waiting for the well-known author to sign a dog-eared copy of one of his more famous novels. There is no word more unavoidable, more dreaded for a person who stutters than his own name. What seems like a simple greeting, through years of negative reinforcement, becomes a battle that begins raging before the stutterer ever opens his mouth.

The simple interaction, the casual introduction, a mere formality for most, reminds the stutterer of his countless fiascoes at this selfsame task through time immemorial. This, in turn, floods his system with a toxic mix of anticipatory neurochemicals, locking his vocal folds and rendering him speechless, helpless, gasping like a fish out of water.

Why is the name so difficult? Perhaps because there is no way to reach into the verbal bag of tricks which every person who stutters carries with him in a desperate attempt to seem normal. Word substitution (the favorite of all stutterers who block more on certain sounds than others) is impossible when the name is fixed and finite. Linking the end of one sound to the start of another to increase fluidity is impossible also, because the name begins with a specific sound, and most stuttering occurs on the initial syllable of a word.

But the great author, unaware of Kenneth Kocher’s internal trauma, was in a hurry, and only scribbled his name and gave a cursory nod before moving on to the next person in line. It was only as he was walking away that KK realized that he was fixating on his own name, and hadn’t said a single word to one of his personal heroes.

On the heels of this humiliation, he still had one more errand to run, and it was better to get it over with early in the day. When he entered the toy and game store, he really didn’t know what he was looking for. He walked up and down the aisles of the small shop, but couldn’t find anything that struck his fancy. Finally the shopkeeper, a jovial man in his fifties, horseshoe bald with a red pate and dramatic waxed moustache like the character from Monopoly, came over and played the part.

“What are you looking for, son?”

“A gift for my six-year-old nephew,” was the sentence that formed itself with perfect clarity, sonority and resonance in his brain. But just after the sentence was formed, he scanned ahead and found a stutter reflex embedded in the /g/ in gift. Automatically, he sought to substitute a synonym, but in this case he couldn’t even substitute the word present, because the /p/ was his nemesis, the hardest sound in the lexicon and one to be avoided at almost any cost. So he got past the opening vowel and then hit the hard /g/ like an electric fence. His larynx locked and he started pushing against it with brute force, but it wouldn’t budge. His face and neck started twitching, and his left eye was blinking out of control. The harder he pushed, the harder he jerked and twitched.[1]

Finally he caught hold of himself and let go of his breath. Inhaling anew, he substituted one sound for another. “^Ssssssomething fffffor mmmmy nephew.” It was stilted and spasmodic, but got the point across, more or less.

He could see the surprise in the storekeeper’s face, but he was used to seeing this. All his life, he had been watching people try to figure out how to respond to his twisted speaking voice.

“Well,” the man said, maintaining an amiable front, “what is your nephew like?”

The second interaction of the day, and it wasn’t going well, either. He was floundering in a neurological rut, and he couldn’t make it stop. His larynx slammed shut on its own accord, his left arm shot into the air like it was connected to an invisible string, and the muscles in his face and neck began quivering under the strain. He pulled himself together and responded slowly, too slowly, “^~I…. ^d-d-don’t know. I nnnnnever see him.”

“Hmm,” the shopkeeper tugged at his moustache. “That makes it a bit more difficult, but I’m sure we have something. Are you looking for something educational, mechanical, sports-oriented, or just plain fun?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Sssomething he ‡can ^g-grow into.”

The paunchy man nodded sagely from behind his suspenders and his bowtie. “I’ve got just the thing,” he said, and went into the back roozm. The shopkeeper returned with a magnetic construction set, simple enough for a young boy but advanced enough for his father to enjoy as well, and handed him the box. “What do you think?”

KK nodded his appreciation and gave a thumbs-up, too taut to say anything. On other days, he might have made the effort to ask the man to gift-wrap the box, but when a day began like this, every word was precious.

“This is a gift for a nephew who lives far away?” the man deduced. “Would you like me to wrap it for you?”

Exhaling a sigh of relief for the man’s telepathy and compassion, KK nodded his head and handed him a credit card. Walking out of that toy store, he was unable to even thank the man. Cursing himself and vowing to never shop in a store again for as long as he lived – he’d shop online instead – he stuffed the gift in his backpack and started power walking through the streets.

*  *  *  *  *

The doorbell rang, but Ilene heard it as if from a great distance. Her mother got up and crossed the living room to answer the door. Ilene barely lifted her head. Over the past three days she had gotten visits and food from family, friends, neighbors, and all sorts of people who had crept back in from the remotest corners of her life to see her in her time of grief. The battles and the hospitals and the tiny remissions between fiercer backslides had drained her beyond exhaustion, and she simply let everyone say what they needed to say to make themselves feel better, given the awkwardness of the immense tragedy. They were doing the courteous thing, and Ilene knew that visiting a widow while she sits shiva is a way to give small thanks that it’s someone else’s grief and not your own.

Ilene took a piece of mondel brodt and tried to eat it, but its corners were burned and blackened, and it felt like sawdust in her mouth. She took a slug of water and defocused her eyes. The house was full of food and a few people, but very soon everyone else’s life would return to normal. She was too numb and tired to cry at that very moment, but there was more sadness inside of her that was biding its time.

She left her plates in the kitchen and walked up the stairs to her room, the room that was hers for her teenage years. She came home instinctively the night Brian died, never going back to the apartment that she and Brian had shared on the Upper East Side. Eventually, she’d have to go back in there and take inventory, but not until she was ready. She took off her glasses and placed them on the nightstand and dropped her head of curls onto the old pillows. Her two sisters were coming to the house in the evening with their respective husbands, and Ilene would wake up when they arrived.

*  *  *  *  *

On gangly, jangly legs Ray Romanov climbed the stairs to his sixth-floor walk-up three at a time. Two keys later, he ducked his head to get through the doorway of the alcove that passed for an apartment, then hung his work backpack on a hook behind the door.

With the exception of a tiny breakfast/computer table in the corner, there was nowhere to sit in the apartment after he stood the Murphy bed up against the wall in the morning. Ray had moved here thinking this would be his first apartment in Manhattan, but after more than ten years not much had changed – same job, same apartment. The only thing different was Jamie, and he was going to meet her in a few minutes. Some weeks when he worked enough overtime, Ray left at four on Fridays, and he had arranged with Jamie earlier in the week to meet for coffee at five.

He was standing now, riffling through his junk mail and tossing it into the recycling bin. Recycling was a joke, of course, under the mountain of garbage which suffocated Manhattan, but Ray was as eco-friendly as a city pigeon could be. When that was done, he changed from his work shoes into hi-tops, took the other backpack off of its hook behind the door and slammed the door behind him. He bounded down the stairs almost as quickly as he had climbed them, and he was out on the street, walking towards the subway. It was one of those stops that was mostly underground, and the dank smell never really went away, but Ray, like most New Yorkers, pretended it didn’t exist.

He was alone at the station, except for a woman about his age reading the map from the kiosk that most people used as a leaning or scratching post during rush hours. New Yorkers hardly ever read the subway maps, so she had to be from out of town.

“Do you know where Carroll Gardens is?” she asked him in what might have been a Pennsylvania accent.

Ray knew exactly where Carroll Gardens was, and in fact he was going there himself, but the anxiety roused by this direct question started his jaw bobbling before he had uttered even a sound, and he simply nodded his head in affirmation.

The woman seemed a bit unnerved by the combination of Ray’s silence, his tremors and his immense height, but she persevered. “Could you show me on this map?”

Ray walked over and pointed to the Carroll Street stop, then pointed to the orange line marking the F train. He couldn’t bring himself to speak.

“This is Carroll Street, is that the same as Carroll Gardens?”

He nodded ‘yes’ and tried to smile at the woman, which probably made her even more uncomfortable. Instead of just telling this woman to take the F Train with him to Brooklyn, she was now afraid of him and backing herself to the other side of the platform, hoping he wasn’t a psychopath. I’ve got to start talking again, he thought for the thousandth time as he watched her walk away.

Talking to Jamie was different, because he talked with his hands. Ray had begun taking American Sign Language classes at the Deaf School over two years ago, just to have a way to talk to somebody, anybody, fluently. But it didn’t work out the way he had hoped. He found that at the beginning even his hands stuttered, which made him rethink the entire nature of the syndrome. Something was amiss in the complex chain of signals that brought the speech as a clarified thought all the way through to its manifestation in the spoken word, or in the case of ASL, the hands. Its roots were neurological, before speech.

His hands stuttered less now, but he still was nowhere near fluent in ASL, and he had to admit that the experiment had been a failure in terms of improving his overall level of communication. But he had made a few deaf friends he could talk to in his halting ASL, and of course there was Jamie, who had been the biggest surprise of his foray into the deaf world.

When the F Train finally came, Ray and the woman boarded on opposite ends, and Ray took a Backpacker’s Bible out of his pack. He did all of his reading for enjoyment on the subway. The other hours of the day he was an editor in the fiction department. No sense in reading another novel for escape.

He got off at the Carroll Street stop automatically and when he emerged, the woman was on the other end of the platform. He waved goodbye to her sheepishly and emerged above ground again in Brooklyn, where Jamie lived with her brother in an older railroad apartment. As Ray walked to the café, people were just starting to leave their offices and crowd the streets. At a little before five, he arrived to find Jamie and a guy he didn’t know talking in animated sign language. She looked electric, positively animated. When she saw Ray, she waved and with her hand offered him a seat at the table.

“Ray, I met someone,” she signed, wasting no time. “This is Diego, he is a new teacher at the Deaf School.”

Ray shook Diego’s hand and sat down in the chair like he was punched in the stomach. She had said it so simply, so directly, with her hands. “I met someone.” Jamie had never attempted to formalize any kind of relationship with Ray, and he never complained about it. Friendship with benefits had distinct advantages, the most common being this one, the ability to meet someone more compatible.

Jamie looked so comfortable with Diego, so good, with her red curls touching his brown sweater when the breeze came through. He was Hispanic and hairless, handsome and quick-handed. As the three of them talked in American Sign Language, Ray receded inch by inch from the ease and fluidity of the communication. He had no place here, at this table, with Jamie, in the deaf world. Ray could hear perfectly, he just needed to figure out how to talk.

[1]* stuttering syntax:
^ for a secondary tic, twitch, or tremor of the eye, face, or neck.
~ for a bobble or tremor of the jaw or mouth
‡ for a syllable voiced on the inhalation, most common with the /k/ sound.
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