I dream that I speak.
Tuesday night: our house has been plucked from Trafalgar Street and moved downtown, so that a river of polyester skirt suits and slouching backpacks shuffle past me instead of lonely Mr. Sherborn and his ancient Great Dane. I stand at our steps and hand out scraps of speech: scribbled notes to Mum; printouts of comments left on YouTube videos and Reddit threads; bundles of text messages, somehow tangible; ripped-out pages of my Ready to Learn! workbooks. I read them out loud as I thrust them at the swarm, broken sentences strung together:
much like the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which Jefferson
and Romy at 3 today, I’ll just take the RTS back
but the eyeshadow is honestly so creative that i dont think you even need a bold lip. Like its a stronger aesthetic to just accent one part of your face at a time otherwise
Nobody is looking at me. In desperation, I beg people to take my words from me. Hear me, I scream hollowly. Zip me back up. Dream-Milo knows she’s making noise, but the words feel like nothing as they leak out of my throat. No substance, no vibrations. Ooooh, bop bop, good vibrations … such a sweeeeet sensation, my disoriented brain sings to me in the final seconds, and I wake up thinking of Brian Wilson and Marky Mark.
After these dreams, I sit up, take a sip of room-temperature water, swallow, and open my mouth wide. I push out air at different frequencies. I click my tongue, chatter my teeth, lap wetly at my cracked lips. Anything to make noise.
Words don’t come. It is like scooping at an empty bowl, every time.
The first thing I noticed about Romy Meyer-Katz was her hideous glasses. Cheap plastic magenta frames, perched on her face like a joke. They make her look like an off-brand comic book villain. I spend an hour with Romy every Wednesday, and I still have not gotten over those three dollar glasses, cat-eyed and just a little too small.
I go to Romy’s house so that she can read to me. This is not what Mum hired her to do. She was supposed to cure me with “alternative techniques”—Mum’s way of saying that she couldn’t afford to pay real doctors for weekly failure anymore. Mum came with me to the first session, the time Romy wanted us to play with fine white sand in a black plastic tray.
“What do you want us to do with it?” Mum was uncertain.
“Just play,” said Romy, flashing her perpetual encouraging smile. “It’s a form of tactile therapy. Sometimes the sensory distraction allows sound to flow out.”
Laughter bubbled in my lungs. I’ve been to the beach, I told Romy with my eyebrows.
Mum trailed a manicured pinky in the sand, leaving a curve like a C. When I came back alone the following Wednesday, the sand was nowhere in sight.
It took Romy twenty weeks to run out of “alternative techniques”. She acted like the reading idea was something she had worked hard to come up with, but I knew that it was her way of giving up as much as her kindness and determination would allow. Post-sand, post-hypnosis, post-electrocurrent therapy, I showed up to our appointment one day to find her empty-handed.
“Okay.” Romy exhaled and plastered on a toothy smile that dug creases into the rolls of fat on her neck. “We’re going to take a break from physical stimulation, and work on Emotional Response,” she said, like she was trademarking it. It’s amazing to me how people can capitalize words with just their tone or italicize them with an inflection; how sarcasm happens in the ear, not on the page; how emotion carries itself through sounds and becomes a quaver or a crack. Who teaches you how to do that?
“I want you to take the whiteboard and the marker,” Romy continued, giving me instructions she had given twenty times before, “and if something I say makes you think, start writing. Then, if you want, we can discuss that further. Remember to keep your mouth open as much as you can, and try to hum. Okay, Milo?”
The first few weeks, I hated that directive: Keep your mouth open. I felt awkward and dirty, like a supermarket fish. My gums dried out. I kept forgetting and letting it drift shut, which made Romy admonish me in her unbearably friendly way. Now it’s become second nature; I walk into her house with my jaw loose, even though my chin is saying: Nothing but drool and empty air has come out in almost twenty years, what do you expect is going to happen? Romy ignores my chin. She has decided that sound will slip out of my mouth one day, and that my lips had better not be in the way when it does.
She handed me the whiteboard, and as always, I marveled at her huge fingers, the middle one swollen around a silver band. Even her cuticles were puffy, like her fat was running out of places to spread. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a library book, opening it without preamble. It had no dust jacket, but I recognized the story within minutes of hearing Romy read.
“—light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul—”
How funny to hear Nabokov in Romy’s frank New England accent, when I had always read him in a non-comic mixture of Alan Rickman and Patrick Warburton.
“—gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” Romy wasn’t a particularly expressive reader, but she pronounced every word carefully and never took her eyes off the book. A smile played at my open mouth. That first session, I wrote nothing; I listened to the first few chapters of Humbert Humbert’s great pedophilic manifesto with interest, and at four o’clock, I picked up my bag and left.
I didn’t think we would continue with the same book every week, and I was right. The next week Romy read selections from Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Some excerpts, explicit in their description of bodily function, were clearly chosen to prod an ‘ugh’ from my unyielding throat; others I couldn’t figure out at all. Romy began by opening to a random page, instead of to the first chapter as she had the previous Wednesday. After a while, however, she halted mid-sentence, flipped to the beginning of the book, and began tonelessly reading out the table of contents. This went on for less than a minute before I marked an impatient ? on the whiteboard. She glanced at me and my trout-mouth offering the question mark up to her aggressively, like it was a gift instead of a query.
“Anything you want to comment on so far, Milo?” No.
She smiled as she continued reading.
The next fifteen weeks were a blur of Toni Morrison, Aphra Behn, and Haruki Murakami. There were Western Civilization textbooks, medical journals, a shockingly flowery love letter that Romy claimed her grandfather had written her grandmother when they were teenagers. Memoirs. Old college research papers. Children’s books.
I made the occasional comment on the whiteboard. One word, sometimes two. I didn’t want to give too much, to let the word progress tease the corner of her mind.
Today, Romy holds a sheaf of printed paper instead of a book, and I remember, for a microsecond, last night’s dream. She explains that it is a piece she found on a blog called “Fat Logic.” Her arms wobble gracelessly as she flips through the paper, searching for the beginning, and dread courses in my marrow.
“I don’t understand why they don’t just lose weight, like have some fucking self-respect,” she reads, her voice even. “The worst part is when whales make some bullshit medical excuse. Like honestly if diet and exercise truly won’t work for some reason, then just kill yourself because no one wants to look at you, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” She reads out the machine-gun fire of the ha’s so tonelessly that it is almost funny.
My mouth is closed. She reads for another minute or two before glancing up and promptly reminding me to open it. Instead, I write: Idiot.
“The writer, right? Not me?”
I nod, my mouth shut tight, unable to believe how widely she’s smiling. Creases appear in her neck again, like folded paper.
I take the RTS to and from my appointments with Romy. If Mum isn’t working, she insists on driving me, and then acts so reluctantly that I hate her by the time we park. There’s a Transit stop at the end of Trafalgar Street and another one two blocks from Romy’s one-story duplex in Pittsford, Rochester’s nicest suburb. The twenty minutes on the bus is easier than ten minutes in a car with Mum’s sighs and drumming fingers. Everyone on the RTS is so bleak and disinterested that no attempts at conversation are ever made. Besides, headphones make an effective wall.
The woman staring at me on the way home today has wild red hair and an enormous mole. It sits right where her eyebrows meet, making them look conjoined. I bet she hated it growing up. I remind myself to ask Google: How expensive is mole-removal surgery? Then I manage to tuck away my morbid curiosity.
I think of Romy and her ugly glasses. I think of her boa constrictor ankles stuffed into those white polyester socks, which always peek out from beneath her hundred-inch-waist dress pants. I think of her non-chin; I look at my sharp one in the bus’s wet, filthy window. That silver ring like twine around her doughy middle finger. Romy, all six hundred pounds of her, who read hate aloud to me today and smiled at it. I find myself cowering away from this strength.
Thoughts of Romy’s fat and Romy’s voice and Romy’s smile carry me to my doorstep and fade as I unlock my house. On Wednesdays, my daily schedule of sleeping and reading and withering gets interrupted by our meetings, and by the time it’s four-thirty and I’m back in my bedroom, I’m drained.
Hello, Christopher, I say with my fingertips. Christopher is my eight-year-old Macbook. When I first got him, I wrote a horrendous and thankfully private poem about how he is my voice, my one true friend, my connection to the outside world. Title: ‘Portal’. We were all thirteen once.
I open the Internet, feeling acute relief in the anticipation of losing myself for a while.
Here’s what I love about Reddit: Everything in the world is in there, but you have to dig for it. Each community is like its own commune or city or neighborhood or pep rally, depending on the attitude of the page. My favorite type of post is the AMA: Ask Me Anything. Everyone from biologists to World War II veterans to supermodels to presidents to cult escapees, beckoning questions. Drowning in someone else’s answers: beautiful.
I am Leah Remini, Ask Me Anything about Scientology
I was Goofy at Walt Disney World for over 20 years! AMA!
I’m Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak, Ask Me Anything!
Hello Reddit, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen, Ask me anything. Apart from for money.
I open Reddit and go to r/IamA, the biggest AMA community. I do what I always do—browse, trying to convince myself I’m not looking for anything specific.
It isn’t like Mum to buy me expensive gifts. I get the feeling that she doesn’t think I deserve gifts, or that I really deserve anything at all. I got Christopher in the first place because she decided she couldn’t keep working three-day weeks in order to homeschool me the other four days. We sat at the rarely-used dining room table and set up my education apps and websites together, finality in her breath every time she exhaled. You can do it yourself. Finally. When she stood up, she shrugged off thirteen years of weariness like a scarf.
The GED subject tests, which I took two years later, were so easy that they made me feel stupid. I told myself that I would take a year off before enrolling in online college courses. I’ve never felt more hopeful and less scattered than I did then: fifteen, finished with high school, and curious about everything. I fell into a routine of reading books and browsing the internet, peppered with an occasional doctor’s appointment. Six years later, I still haven’t fallen out of it.
I took a health class online my second-to-last year of school, though I already knew the basics of conception from Mum’s explanation of her own pregnancy. I am fatherless in the least traumatic way you can be fatherless. When Mum was thirty-six years old and working for a publishing house in Manhattan, she drove to the South Jersey Fertility Center in Marlton, New Jersey and asked them to artificially inseminate her, please. She was given the option of flipping through a book of donors and choosing one based on height, coloring, education, occupation. She refused to even look. Her only request was a donor with the blood type O+, the same as hers. That way, she said, the baby would have a ninety-four percent chance of matching her; that way, she could donate blood or platelets if her child ever got sick.
I don’t know what Mum expected. I think I know what she wanted: a carbon copy of herself, blond and tall and slate-eyed. An affinity for music and math. Rosacea and early grays. It’s like she thought that if she never saw the donor, she could somehow be my only biological creator. I would match her in her best ways and her worst, and we would be best friends; Leona and her daughter vs. The World.
But I let her down the second I was born. I slipped out in a distressing silence, too small and too swarthy right away; my six percent O- rarity immediately denying Mum her one wish. I grew into pale skin, dark hair, small brown eyes. Ugly teeth. Short and skinny, all bony elbows, and far too quiet.
“You barely cried,” she told me in the car, the only place she could ever talk to me, because she was really talking to the windshield. “You used to whine. You used to make this whining sound. Especially when I played music—God, you hated Chopin.” A wan smile.
She told me this story matter-of-factly when I was eleven, entirely unprompted. On our way to a specialist whose office was a two-hour drive away, Mum explained sex to me, then promptly told me that she didn’t need to have it to become pregnant. She spoke plainly and made lots of room for questions, and I still left the conversation feeling confused about parts of it. I didn’t understand, for example, why she had moved to Rochester. The wistful way Mum spoke about New York City seemed incongruous with her decision to move so far away from it. This was one of the few things that couldn’t be my fault; she had moved, she told me, as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Under the assumption that her daughter would be normal, she moved to a smaller, less expensive city, only to discover years later that our unique psychiatric needs would probably have been better catered to in Manhattan.
What she left unsaid: Her pain when people cooed over me as a toddler, only for me to stare silently at them until their smiles faltered. Has she picked up your accent? asked in innocent delight by friends and co-workers. Mum’s grip on my shoulder tightening.
Mum’s puzzling explanation of sex and conception left me with questions that I shelved at eleven and dusted off at fifteen. I blushed as I typed words in the Google search bar only to immediately delete them. mute girl+sex, I began. Backspace. mute girl having sex. What I really wanted to know was whether it was even possible. Or difficult—mute girl having sex+hard?
I pressed enter. The result was such weird pornography that I couldn’t even guess how I was supposed to enjoy it. This experience effectively scared me away—for a while—but left behind a pungent curiosity that was impossible to ignore. After a few more days of wavering between delving deeper or wiping Christopher’s hard drive out of sheer embarrassment, I decided to search for information more carefully—by using the Wikipedia widget on my browser. Less disturbing, less informative. Soon after that adventure, I discovered Reddit. Sudden love story: A Girl and The Internet.
Mum made an effort (once) to care about what I do when I’m alone in my room. It was after our first session with Romy. On the drive home, she decided to speak to the windshield about Christopher and expected me to listen.
“Milo.” She always starts that way—my name, declarative, like she’s about to begin a speech. “I just want to make sure I’m doing my job when it comes to—I mean—like, you’re not talking to anyone online, are you?” A pause, always; it’s like she never gets used to the fact that I don’t answer. “Not talking, obviously, but—typing? I just ask because I feel like I never really briefed you on the Internet—on Internet safety. You don’t give out our address, or anything, do you? Or your last name?”
I turned my head toward her very slightly, glancing from behind my half-lowered eyelids. This is the best way I can roll my eyes without actually rolling my eyes.
Mum’s gaze never left the road, but her right hand began drumming on the steering wheel, out of time with the Brahms sonata humming softly through the radio, which is how I knew she was irritated. Even if our communication is dysfunctional, it is there: we know each other’s slightest movements, can read a finger’s dance and get offended by half a look.
“I just feel,” she continued, her voice thorny and stretched thin, “that you are very closed off about what you do on that damned computer. Lately it’s ten, twelve hours a day. You know, privacy is a privilege, Milo. You understand that.” I can feel her wanting to add Right? to the end of her sentence.
It’s not that Mum and I have many conversations. But during the ones we do have, I always feel like she’s waiting for an answer. After twenty years, she bothers to wait. Is this kindness or delusion? Forgetfulness? Hope?
Eventually, I told her with a fist clenched on my windowsill to leave Christopher and me alone.
Now, I scroll mindlessly through an AMA with the manager of a Petco. I catch myself with my mouth open and I snap it shut, annoyed that this habit has spilled over from Romy’s hours to my own. Discussion in the comment section has turned to pets, and one long, rambling paragraph catches my eye. It’s a guy, u/prestochange_o, who claims his older sister has been neglecting her pet hermit crabs. She brags about them to her friends, prestochange_o frets, but she won’t give them any attention at home. Its like she likes the idea of them more than the crabs themselves. Please help what should I do I cant buy their food myself because I dont get an allowance anymore.
At first I find prestochange_o’s concern genuinely endearing, but something about his story gnaws at me. The hermit crabs dont do much and she complains about it, he writes. Why would she get hermit crabs in the first place, she knows its not the coolest pet but at least its something. I read his comment again and then realize dully that his story reminds me of Mum. I’m a hermit crab. My thoughts are punctuated by a bubbling, almost like a giggle. Only there’s no concerned little brother looking out for me.
I can’t manage despair, but I do scrape up some silent laughter.
I shut Christopher’s screen, letting him warm my thighs. After a while, other people’s stories make me feel too small, make my lungs constrict, and my hands shake.
There’s a reason I don’t search mute anymore. There’s a reason I don’t try to collect sentiments of solidarity from Internet strangers, not for this part of my life. I cast out a wary net once and was so nauseated with myself by the end of it that I never tried again. Need help finding resources for trauma-induced mutism? thread titles pleaded, followed by details of the horrific rape or assault or heartbreak that cut her (almost always, her) vocal chords in two. And your excuse is? my subconscious breathed in my ear, and Christopher’s screen seemed to become blurrier with every indirect accusation.
I can open my laptop and leave comments on makeup tutorials; I can summarize someone else’s opinion on British politics; I can scratch out a perforated analysis of the latest Great Millennial Novel and post it to r/books for digital applause. But I cannot lay down the truth: that I have three meals a day and one whole and healthy parent. That I have privacy and clean clothes, a therapist, a library card. That there is no good reason, physical or otherwise, that I can’t speak. And my biggest secret: that I frantically, bitterly want to.
The following Tuesday night I dream that Romy and I stand next to each other against a wall. The red-haired woman from the bus watches us from a shadow cast by her mole, which has become frighteningly huge.
What’s wrong with you? she asks. I know what’s wrong with her, she continues when I don’t answer, her head jerking toward Romy, whose smile is much too wide. But what’s wrong with you? Why are you here? I look down; we are standing in fine white sand.
You can’t tell just by looking at me, I say, before forgetting how to speak again.
At some point on Wednesday morning, I realize that I’ve never seen Romy stand up before. I have no idea how tall she is.
This week, instead of a thin stack of paper, Romy holds a thick book with a speckled navy cover. It looks like a dictionary, but the spine reads American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
No greeting. No reminder to keep my mouth open. Just a smile, the handoff of the whiteboard, and a nod toward the door signaling for me to close it. I wonder if she is trying silence on for size. Maybe she thinks that if she tastes what I taste, she will understand ‘why Milo can’t speak’, even though no one else ever has.
Romy opens the book, and for the first time, I see a bookmark holding a page hostage. “Selective mutism,” she reads, her head very still, “is an anxiety disorder affecting less than one percent of individuals. It is normally diagnosed by a speech-language pathologist, who will often work with the individual’s neurologist and psychiatrist to—”
My spine goes rigid as a knife. Heat washes over me so quickly that it is a moment before I recognize it as rage. It takes seconds for tears to sting the corners of my eyes, and I am surprised at how shallow in me they lived. I don’t want to hear this, I say furiously to Romy. I say it with the clatter of the whiteboard as it falls from my lap to the carpet, with my balled fists, with the slam of her door.
Outside, I gulp damp air. I scream silently, my neck craned, tears leaking sideways into my ears. I never want to hear any of those words again, I tell myself, and fuck her for trying.
I pace around Romy’s perfect Pittsford yard and move from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, year to year, willing exhalation to magick itself into communication. Angiograms, MRIs, oxygen pushed through tubes that run down my useless throat and invade me. Prodding fingers looking for cancer, for inflamed lymph nodes, for blood disorders. Personality tests. IQ tests. Words whispered to my mother while I sit on ugly cloth chairs in the hallway: Schizophrenia. Anxiety. Chronic pain. Concern in these voices, and derision in others: Attention seeking. Psychosomatic. And the worst, finally, because it meant a diagnosis, which meant that they stopped trying: Selective mutism. Selective. As if I selected this.
What do I want?
The question is bursting, desperate, but my answer is swift and clean: I want to get better. I blink. I am calming down. I want to feel like I deserve what I have.
Then you have to try.
The stars behind my eyelids fade away as I work to relax each muscle in my face. After a minute, I turn around and face Romy’s house.
She is standing in the doorway, as enormous and welcoming as land from sea. I feel tears close to the surface again, so I chew my lip to keep them under.
“Come on up, Milo.”
When I reach the top of her steps, I notice that we are exactly the same height.
We weave through the house back to her office. I shut the door as if nothing has happened, settling down on the couch and picking up the whiteboard delicately.
Romy waits, uncharacteristically quiet. No smile, just eyes behind those magenta glasses swallowing me whole. I bite my lip harder—a burst of pain and the taste of coins erupt in my mouth, and Romy absently hands me a tissue for the blood.
The marker is slick in my hand. It feels like Romy’s magnet gaze is picking it up and drawing it toward the whiteboard, even though her eyes never leave mine.
In my head, again: I want to get better.
Then you have to give something.
I uncap the marker. Then I look at her blankly, finally asking for help. Zip me back up.
“Begin at the beginning,” Romy says.
Begin at the beginning.
I hate your glasses, I write.
by Phebe TenBroeck Miner
Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize