to 5

    on the 5ives


They're fine until he shuts the door and sits behind the console. Nine times out of ten they start smiling at him, and wait for him to smile back. After all, it's only a hearing test.

Maybe it's the lack of fresh air in the soundproof booth that makes them do that. Or the unsettling way the gray foam has begun to rot. Rubbery clots of it at their feet. The left earpiece of the headphone set is held together by two rubber bands.

"Just repeat the words you hear until they become inaudible," the audiologist says after giving her the usual reassuring smile.

"There's some crackling in the headphone," she says eagerly. Slight double chin. Jacket-and-blouse type. Unfortunate eyewear.

"Are you ready," he says, hunching over his dials. Light from the window has pasted itself on his left temple and the sleeve of his white jacket.

"Shoot," she says.

"Orange," he says, draining all the flavor from the word.

"Orange," she says.

"Airplane," he says monotonously.

"Airplane," she says, a little apprehensive.

The sound in her ear is slipping away.

"Apple pie," he says. He loves this part, when the sound of his voice is just a metallic sliver in their ears, something they cannot entirely convince themselves is real.

"Able bodied," she says, shooting him a helpless look.

"I want to caress you," he says into the microphone. "I want to slip my hand inside the buttons of that ridiculous blouse. I want to hear you catching your breath. What kind of sounds do you make when you're excited?"

He flips a switch.

"Let's try the right ear, OK?"

"OK," she says brightly. "I'm still hearing some crackling."

"I know," he says patiently. "I promise it won't interfere with the results. Are you ready?"

"OK," she says. She blinks and then stares earnestly at the gray padding on the door.

"Elephant," he says.

"Elephant," she proudly blurts out, as soon as the words have come out of his mouth.

"Torture," he says.

"Torture," she says, so intent on repeating the word she does not consider it.

"Love," he says.

"Love," she says, unsure that she has heard it right. It rhymes with many things and he was vanishing again, just a glint, a reflection, a hint. He adored this breaking point.

"Kotex," he says, aware that only part of the word was submerged. There was the slightest chance she'd guess the whole thing, think about it on the way home, mention it to her square husband. It would keep him awake, revolve in his head until the morning, and then he'd lay down the facts before her. "That was not a normal word," he'd say. "You've been raped." And they'd both march back to this office. Forms would be filled out. The chatty secretary would hug him endlessly and tell him she'd be praying for him. He'd walk into a bright glassy day filled with people who would stone him if they knew what he had been up to. And they would know soon enough. All his words, all the wrong ones, would be rescued from that bog of silence somehow. Tricked out of the swamp. He'd have to repeat them in public before parents and children in the basements of various churches, monolithic tears lurching down his cheek. I am so sorry. I could not stop myself.

"I don't hate you," he says into the microphone. "I don't even know you."

She's focusing with all her might now, one eye pressed closed, as if she were listening for the most important announcement in the world.

"I could stand up right now," he says. "I could open the door. I could take off your headphones with my left hand and kneel down on one knee and inch that awful brown skirt a fraction up. We don't have time for all the things we want to do. We don't have places."

He flips up the switch and the tone of his voice changes effortlessly.

"Terrific," he says.

"I couldn't hear anything after 'love,'" she says loudly. He cringes under the weight of her voice.

"It was 'love' wasn't it?" she says. "It's OK if you don't want to tell me. I had something terrible happen to me earlier, so it's probably on my mind."

He smiles at her—a warm, expanding forgiveness for all these familiar infractions. Patients always want to tell you the whole story. They go on forever, sometimes at the single touch of a word, as if their own luck could be influenced by tedious description. He had entered many homes this way. He has been invited into many kitchens and bedrooms and gardens, as if this would change the jagged line he drew on one small index card. The same one he's drawing for her now. In ten years, she'd be completely deaf in one ear. But today, he will not mark it like this. He scratches in the line that will be the envy of all lines. An impossible trajectory that will confuse and disturb the doctor down the hall. No one hears like this. No one hears everything.