Booze, dope, maybe sex, can happen at a party. All quite normal things, but being deaf adds a certain frisson.
A PARTY is like a vegetarian barbecue – a contradiction in terms. Do hearing people go to parties to relax? As a Deaf person you work harder than ever. Do hearing people go to parties to meet people? As a Deaf person you end up feeling as welcome as a vegetarian at a butchers’ picnic. Only hearing people could have invented parties. In one huge, noisy cauldron, parties stir together everything you were told to avoid in your ‘How to Cope with your Hearing Problem’ classes. The noise of the CD player obliterates everything you want to hear. The little lighting there is wreathes every face in shadow. And parties do strange things to people. Party-goers take on the watering, feeding, noisemaking and behavioural attributes of the apes in Tarzan movies. It opens with the ordeal of the introduction.
The art of hearing when you are deaf, is the art of the second guess. Introductions demonstrate this perfectly. Think for a moment of the vast possibility of what names you will be forced to guess. They could be anything from Aaron Ablett to Ziggy Zwitkowski. You stare grimly into the face of your polite party host who is trying to introduce you to a strange little man who wears a Ziggy Stardust T-shirt. You don’t say anything because you remember the last time this happened, when you gave a polite laugh and said, names are so difficult to lipread unless they’re easy ones like Smith, or Brown, or Jones. That was when you found out your introductee’s name was actually Jones.
By this time you are easing yourself away from your new acquaintance whose name is probably not Smith, Brown or Jones. You smile, and say you’re off to get a drink. It’s true, but it’s not the kind of drink he thinks it will be. You need to drink in the atmosphere of the gathering. Is it tense? Subdued? What is the demeanour and expression of bodies? Do people look bored? Polite? On different planets? Then you get a real drink because you have a feeling it’s going to be long night. It’s because of your state of mind, and it’s because of the noise.
The detail of the noise is unimportant. Be it a juke box, laughter, conversational roar or the dishes being washed, it deflects the punch line of the joke, strangles proper nouns, and obliterates key twists in the narrative. Noise is the group intoxicant, the invisible force that defines and shapes the party. You must fly through, above and around it.
Full glass in hand, you survey the little knots of humanity, and join one. You join this group because the people look interesting, and they’re animated or drunk enough so they talk with a lot more than their heads. Or maybe it is the noise. What you think might be a voice is only another layer on top of the bashing cacophony from the CD player. You fight down a snigger when you realise you came here to “meet” people. To “meet” people you must talk to them and worse, you must “hear” them.
How? You stand amongst four or five men and women, and work out who appears to be saying something. You wait for a pause. It is like waiting for a break in heavy traffic. Then, you plunge in and take the conversation by the scruff of the neck. The others will look at you, and you have a slight chance of catching a word said in reply, because you started this new tack. But unless everyone is sufficiently drunk to be beyond caring, you cannot keep this going indefinitely. You need a lot of confidence and an ability to discourse on any topic for several minutes, like an air-headed television host. It is not communication with your fellow revellers. You have turned communication’s two-way street into a one-way superhighway that runs in your direction.
It is more subtle to motor along in the middle, between conversational bullying and parroting “I beg your pardons” all night. With everything you do, your top priority is, what are we talking about?
What are we talking about? That is the eternal and practical question you ask. Because people talk, endlessly, incessantly, infinitely, eternally. Cabinet ministers talk, shop assistants talk, taxi drivers talk, public transport authorised officers talk, lovers, ballet dancers and poets talk, and so do apes probably. The tired and the bored talk, so do the pleasant, the polite and the stoned. What are we talking about?
There isn’t much point begging people’s pardons. This assumes you will hear the next time. If nothing else has changed, if the background music continues to overwhelm voices, then you will not hear the second time. Why beg a pardon a third time? You won’t hear that either. Every person on the planet has a tolerance of exactly two IBYPs. There has to be something better than parroting IBYPs all night. There is.
In a sentence of say, twenty words, you understand, say, two. These two words are your opening. You repeat them, and pitch your voice a bit higher, if it’s possible to do so in a loud sort of way. And you will get most of your twenty words repeated afresh. This gives you an extra opportunity to understand more words. Suppose you collect another two.
Now you have four words. In your mind you put them together in various combinations. You reply in an imprecise, encouraging way, and gesture a lot, being careful not to spill your drink. Those in your group will nod in agreement, and someone else will say something more. It is now likely people will be looking at you, hopefully, for good reasons. And some people might even expect you to reply! You must be brave, and because you have the conversational gambit people will not mind if you ask what is being said. This is the moment when you are like a dragonfly on the wing, when you catch your morsel of conversational prey. If you miss, let it go, but if you gain the morsel, you can feel your confidence grow, you stand a little straighter and take a good pull of your drink. If it doesn’t work, you can call upon your old and faithful friend, deception.
Deception is pretending to hear when you don’t. Deception keeps others talking. Deception laughs at the jokes you never heard. Deception helps you laugh at laughter. After several drinks, the way people laugh is indeed cause for laughter. Deception is why deafness turns laughter into a sound to be hated and feared. You learnt a long, long time ago never to ask anyone to repeat a joke to you. Because laughter, real belly-shaking heaving tear-streaming laughter, exists just for a few moments. The lesson you learnt was that to ask for a joke to be repeated was to ask to laugh alone, was to ask for a joke already stale and spent, was to have everyone watch as you tried to smile as you pretended to hear. That is why a group of Deaf people hold back their laughter, waiting until everyone in the group gets it, because they remember feeling like gawking halfwits in the company of the hearing. That is why deafness turns laughter into the most joyful sound on Earth, because only you know how hard you worked for it.
Now you peer into the gloom, among the thick crowd of partygoers, who smoke and drink, who shout, gesture and laugh. It is as though the light flavours the noise. In the lounge room, the gloom is deeper with the pulsating bass from the CD, but in the kitchen, where you go to refresh your glass, the brighter fluorescent light raises voices higher and sharper. In the half-light of doorways and halls, the noise is in-between. But everywhere it accentuates shadows and obscures the contrasts you need to read faces. At least you have a fresh drink. It is like an ID card.
One of the advantages of alcohol is that it does away with everybody’s quota of two I beg your pardons. Drunks never get impatient, and it’s easy to jolly them along a little. You could speak French or Farsi and they will nod in absolute agreement. This of course raises the intriguing question, who’s the more deaf? The major hazard with partying drunks is their over-enthusiasm to help you hear. They will decide the best way is to shove their muzzles into your ear. So you step backwards, in order to keep their face in view, and to keep a distance from the alcoholic fumes. Alas, the inebriate will simply repeat the process, forcing you to keep stepping backwards. You soon realise you did not come to this party to do lounge room laps in reverse.
If it is too dark, too noisy, the conversational morsel remains elusive, you don’t know the music, and a vaguely interesting person has vanished somewhere, there is always one of the joints floating around. Dope absorbs partygoers in either profuse giggling or in blissful speculation on the nature of the galaxy they inhabit at the present. Such profound cosmic contemplation induces such serene and beatific smiles. Dope replaces a dull social paranoia with a galloping artificial paranoia, enlivened with the happy frisson of the contemplation of the infinite. In its soothing way, dope removes the mortal need to hear.
And of course, there is also your glass, which by now you have refreshed four or five times. The more you drink, the more you become with the noise, and the little more people’s faces match what you think they say. You are lipreading a little better because you are more relaxed. This means you hear better. Ergo, the more you drink, the better you hear. You are at the point where Southern Comfort becomes Deaf-at-a-party Comfort. This is a temporary phase. If voices become louder and lighting becomes harsher and you shout without realising you shout, alcohol is no comfort. But by this time no-one else is making much sense and you may as well speak in French or Farsi.
This is frustrating and exhilarating. To make yourself understood you begin to use sign language in order to emphasise your non-sense. Sign language helps square the ledger. You can’t follow them when they speak, so they can’t follow you when you sign. This also helps you ease up on drinking, because in order to free your arms and hands for signing, you have to put your drink down somewhere, and chances are excellent you will never find your drink again.
Then you become dimly aware that you are slurring signs when your attempt to sign FRIEND becomes the sign for VERY BIG WANKER. Fortunately no-one is in any kind of state to understand your indiscretion. Then you realise five women have gathered around you. They saw you trying to sign. You are unclear about how or why it started, but you find yourself teaching them how to sing Christmas carols in sign language. Your new signing class for Silent Night holds together quite well until you get to the third line and the sign for VIRGIN. That is when those in your little signing class howl with laughter and stagger off to try it out on their friends. From the crowd all around the living room erupt little signs for VIRGIN. A man with a beard scrabbles among the pile of CDs spilt on the floor. He bellows into your face, and eventually you work out he is trying to find the Madonna CD to play the track Like a Virgin and will expect you to sign the lyrics. But all you really want to do is stop looking for your drink and find a sofa and curl up.
It could have happened the other way. You could have met the vaguely interesting person, who could have hitched a ride on your one-lane superhighway to become a very interesting person. You could have gone with the very interesting person to a corner where the light and noise could have been tolerable. You could have talked fast and loud to this very interesting person who could have become a very wonderful person because he or she let you have as many IBYPs as you needed. You could have laughed, and your eyes could have widened while you discovered the joy and the wondrous complexity of another human being. Your joy could have soared as this VW person discovered you, discovered the deaf side of you and still wanted to know more about you. You could have held hands, and kissed gently with the VW person as your mind became both hyper-alert and gooey. Because you wanted to know and hear more about the VW person, the question arises easily and settles smoothly, your place or mine?
In bed, all the rules of communication decorum fly out the window. All of your “How to Cope with your Hearing Problem” classes warn about people having their backs to you. But your new lover will have very good reasons indeed. And what will you do with your hearing aid? You will decide, on balance, to keep it on, and risk the happy little farts of feedback as you hold and snuggle together. But how will you keep passion going if a sweeping caress sends it whistling and flying into the knickers that lie crumpled on the floor? You will laugh, and you will hope your new lover also laughs. What if he or she doesn’t? And what will you do afterwards, as you lie in your lover’s arms? You sense the vibrations as your lover murmurs to you. Do you break the clinch to see the face of your lover? Do you sigh and give an ambiguous multipurpose “mmmmm” in reply? How do you keep your lover’s face in view while you snuggle and hold and kiss? What are we talking about? Do we need to talk at all? Will your lover sense another side of deafness? What will you do if you glimpse a sudden shaft of impatience in their eyes? Perhaps you will explain in the morning, perhaps you never will. You will cope with too many questions with too few answers. You will wonder what it might lead to.
At least you can walk home. You find and kiss the host goodbye, and you almost trip over the man whose name is probably not Smith, Brown or Jones. He sits crosslegged in the hallway, gazing glassy-eyed at the cover of a Jimi Hendrix CD. Looking in the lounge room, the first thing you notice is how nearly empty it is, with couples in shadows and no-one dancing, and how the music sounds spent and wasted. There’s no-one at the front door as you let yourself out. You pull shut the door on the blasting bashing tumult, and you are glad as the soothing solitude of deafness enfolds you once more. You are glad, too, of the cold night air, and you become dark-night alert. And even as you reach the front gate, the party is fading from your mind.
A reading of this article was presented at the ‘Art of Difference’ Block Party, Port Melbourne, in March 2009, and at a conference for Better Hearing Australia in October 2010. An earlier (and gentler) version appeared in the Taralye Bulletin in 1985