Best, she likes to play things by Ysa˙e, the Belgian violinist and composer. Ysa˙e liked Bach the best. She likes Ysa˙e, then Bach.
Bach didn’t play violin, but the sonatas he wrote for it are the most beautiful. They say Bach was the bridge between the old and new music; listening to Ysa˙e’s music, you know he knew that about Bach.
Even before she touches the bow to the strings, she knows that Ysa˙e’s music is a bridge between Bach and her violin, and that, when she starts to play, the music will be a bridge between her violin and herself.
So she plays in her funny way—letting her shoulder go as much as she can and tilting her head more than other violinists do. In order to hold the violin as far back as possible, to get its sound as close as she can to her ear.
It’s a wonder she doesn’t have an off-center, sideways kind of look—not only from the way she plays the violin, but also from moving her head around so much, trying to see what people say. Trying to hear.
But she doesn’t look any the worse for it; she’s good looking. And blond hair. And blue eyes. And breasts that rest nicely on the rib cage. No, she looks good. And she talks OK. And she plays the violin well. She plays it very well.
Never in bed, but always when she plays the violin, she wears a rubber band in her hair, to hold it behind her, so it doesn’t get in the way. And she takes off her earrings when she goes to bed, and when she plays violin, but the rest of the time she leaves them in. Her mother had her ears pierced when she was just one or two.
She knows it’s nobody’s fault, and that one thing had nothing to do with the other, because it was this way for her since she was born; they just didn’t figure it out for a while that with one of her ears she could hardly hear, and with the other, she couldn’t, not at all, hear.
Ysa˙e had an unusual way of holding the bow—she doesn’t think anyone really knows why he held it that way, just three fingers and a thumb, the little finger off by itself, angled into the air. He could hear OK; he didn’t hold the violin like she does, way far back. But that’s how she started using just three fingers holding the bow, because with her right forearm reaching around so far, keeping her little finger also pressed down seemed to make her wrist tired.
When you play Ysa˙e, you get to play Bach too, because Ysa˙e liked Bach’s music so much he’d put little recognizable bits of it into his own.
When she plays violin, because she plays solo violin, she never plays Vivaldi. Vivaldi could play violin, but he wrote for so many instruments in so many ways, he didn’t spend much time writing things for just one violin at a time. And Paganini—Paganini was such a good player that it’s hard for anyone who’s not a virtuoso to really do justice to the greatest things that he wrote. But Ysa˙e wrote his best things specifically with individual violinists in mind; Ysa˙e’s things, she could play all night.
Solo violin. Really, solo only. Having someone accompany her on the piano—maybe. But solo violin with no piano is easier for her.
Her in a string quarter? It wouldn’t work. Almost as unlikely as her in an orchestra—without a hearing aid, she couldn’t really hear the others playing, but with one, it would be a mess. Because a hearing aid isn’t very useful to her when there are a lot of sounds around—it brings them all up at her, each with nearly the same loudness; she wouldn’t be able to listen to all those sounds and hear herself play.
But at least she’s always had the latest in hearing aids, ever since her parents found out she couldn’t hear well. She still has the first one in a drawer, the one she started wearing when she was two and a half. So she’s always been hearing something, either that way or through special earphones hooked up to tape recorders and record players, things like that. Out in the world, though, whether her hearing aid’s in or out, if she’s talking to people, the way it’s best for her is one person at a time. And it’s the same with dancing—she couldn’t really enjoy going out to a dance, because, with a hearing aid, there are too many sounds, and without one, it’s really not possible to hear the music and talk and have fun.
She started a long time ago with boys. Just talking. Maybe kissing. “I’ll ask you a question in your ear and you answer in my ear,” she'd start. Then, “Do you think I’m prettier than…?” And she’d say the name of a girl she thought was the fifth-prettiest in her class at school. And the boy would always give the same answer: “Yes.”
And then she’d ask the question again but with the fourth-prettiest girl’s name.
And it would go like that until she said, “So I must be the prettiest.”
“Yes.” And then he’d get a kiss.
Later, she would get them to hum into her ear while dancing. She would hum in a boy’s ear while he hummed in hers. Because it was really the only way that she felt sure of herself when she was moving with somebody else to music. For her, it was the only good way, but for anyone it’s a good way to dance. So without any other music than that, the boy and her would be dancing; the older she got, the more places that led.
Her parents weren’t hearing-impaired. She’s glad they helped her in the ways that they did, with the doctors and the hearing aids and the special classes and the music lessons, but even though her parents helped her, after a while she didn’t much feel like listening to them. As she got older, their voices got fainter and fainter to her, until, like today, she’s as good as deaf to anything they say.
When she got married, they thought she was finally starting to listen to them again, because she was doing something they wanted. Afterward, she would sometimes think that’s the way it was, too—but no, really no, it wasn’t that way. Anything she’d ever done, she wanted to do. And sometimes the things she was doing—she knows she got pretty wild. But she just wanted to know, to let herself know, she was alive.
So for a while she didn’t care about talking, not more than anything else. Then she narrowed her life down and narrowed it down. And, as she did, she guesses she calmed down. Because she decided what she needed was a man who would talk into her ear. Not just the slow words and short sentences that he might say to her at night, but all kinds of things, before, and after, and the rest of the day, whenever he was around her. Someone who’d bring the world in a little closer. So everything wouldn’t seem so remote.
When you can’t hear very well, you often miss fine points. The trailing-off of some things, the leading-into of others: their directions, where they are going or come from. You hear something said, and later you may say exactly the same thing, but you say it too directly, or not directly enough. Because when you heard it you were concentrating so hard on just getting the words you may not have been able to also pick up on just how it was said. She thinks this might take away from what you say. From what you do.
But even if she’d had perfect hearing, when it came to those things she might have said or done to avoid being alone, she doesn’t know if she would have said or done anything very different.
Besides the violin lessons, she took classes in lip-reading, hand-spelling, and sign. Hand and sign, she doesn’t use them too much, since being able to hear a little has kept her mostly in the hearing world. Still, they’re good to know. Other ways to talk. And she would feel silly if she came across a deaf person and they couldn’t communicate. Lip-reading she does all the time. She really has to. To fill in what she doesn’t hear.
So the violin, lip-reading, hand, and sign—but what wasn’t easy to learn was the Helen Keller thing. You know, being deaf and blind, at first Helen Keller could only do the manual alphabet, letter by letter on the hand, but then she learned how to speak to people by touching their lips and faces and feeling the vibrating of sounds in their throats as they spoke; then putting her fingers on her own face, lips, and throat until she got everything right.
It wasn’t really something that made sense for herself to do, because even if she closes her eyes so she won’t see someone’s lips, if she’s near enough to reach out and feel the sounds in that person’s throat, she can hear them anyway. Hear them with one ear, even with her hearing aid out. She could cover that ear with her other hand so she wouldn’t hear anything, and concentrate on the vibrating, but she knows from trying that if she does that, it’s like being all the way deaf, and she get frightened. Very frightened.
Of course, Helen Keller was using her fingertips to learn how to speak, and she already knows how to speak. But Helen Keller was first learning how, with her fingertips, to listen, and how could she herself be happy with herself unless she started doing at least that?
She had a few violin teachers. None that were so special and none for too long. She was kind of a wary student; she didn’t know if she really wanted to learn or really wanted to not learn. To deliberately not learn, as if there were some responsibility in learning to play. And she was unsure as to why she chose the violin, except that there aren’t many instruments where the sound is so close to your ear. As she got more self-confident, though, she could sometimes relax—if you relax and move your feet as you play, it’s almost as if you were dancing with someone humming into your ear.
If she plays what would sound loud to other people, it sounds just medium-loud to her. Because she’s not used to hearing sounds even that loud. So she plays what would be medium-loud to other people, and, for her, that’s just what she needs. She can hear it; the sound goes right into her ear, but to her it doesn’t sound medium-loud. To her it sounds quiet.
The minute she gets home from work, the very second she gets into the apartment, she takes her hearing aid out. And she doesn’t put it back in again until she leaves the next day. She knows, out there in the world, it’s a good thing to have; she accepts it. But there is, and always has been, for her, like glasses might be to kids who can’t see well, something foreign about it. When she was little, she knew she needed to wear it, so she did, but then she refused to wear anything she thought she didn’t need. Like bracelets, or necklaces, or rings. She didn’t even want a watch. And she wouldn’t wear combs, or clips, just a rubber band sometimes to hold back her hair.
But, before long, she was wearing all of that, and more. A woven thing on her ankle. Fine gold chain around her waist. Rings on six fingers.
Now she just wears the earrings, and just one ring. And a rubber band to hold back her hair.
If she had been born all the way deaf, she wonders, how would she have found this feeling she sometimes has now. The first time she heard it, it was as if there was another person in the room, telling her what she was feeling. And it was a new feeling for her—so new it was almost a new word.
Not that there’s not lots of anger in some violin music: there is, but you usually expect it. It’s called for, like sweetness. But one time when she was playing something by Ysa˙e, a sweet part, there it was—something beneath the sound, something trying to come through. And when she came to the angry part, it sounded so full that it was as if her violin was playing to her, playing a word and a feeling.
Lately she’s been thinking of getting pregnant. Except then she thinks, what if it’s born like her. Someone might grow up wanting someone who—but no, she still doesn’t think it’s too much to ask of someone, to talk into your ear. When he proposed, she told him that’s what she wanted most. To have someone who would always do that. To fill her in on all the things she might have missed hearing. To make up for lost time. And to keep her from missing any more things.
“You bet,” he said. He said it all moist right into her ear. She heard it and felt it. “You bet.” He said it and said it.
So during the ceremony she thought for sure he would say “You bet” instead of “I do.” She really thought he would. And when he didn’t and it came time to kiss the bride, she thought for sure that was when he was going to do it, to say “You bet” into her ear. It would have been nice. She doesn’t like to complain, but it would have been nice.
Whenever she plays the violin, she takes off her earrings. She takes off the one from the ear she can hear with, the one closest to the violin, even if it’s not a dangly one that might swing against the violin as she plays. She doesn’t want anything between her and the violin when she plays.
And she takes off the other earring, too, even though it’s not really in the way. Even if it made any kind of sound, it wouldn’t matter. Because it’s on the ear that can’t hear. But she takes it off. To treat it the same as the ear that can hear. To be fair.
Before she gets into bed, and before she plays the violin, that’s when she takes off her earrings, but only before she plays the violin does she take off her ring. It’s not that it would get in the way when she’s playing, and it’s not that she takes any ring off her other hand, because she wears only one ring now. But she takes it off. To be fair. To be fair.
She’s playing two rooms away from him. If there was anything moist about her, it’s evaporated into the room, unless maybe there’s some sweat trapped between her rib cage and breasts.
Sometimes she edges the bow high up on the fingerboard, like they say Ysa˙e did. And that does give a good sound, a resonating sound.
She hears high-pitched tones better than low-pitched ones. All violinists would agree: you hear and you feel the music you play. But when she says that, it means only the higher notes. The lowest notes, she just feels.
She doesn’t have any earrings on. No earrings, no necklace, no bracelets, no fine gold chain at the waist, and around her ankle, no woven thing.
And it’s quiet. In the middle of the night their apartment can get so quiet it’s like what it must be like to be all the way deaf. And she can get frightened. Very frightened.
Even if she’s there in the middle of the day, because of how little she can hear, she forgets that it’s not really so quiet. In the day, if she wants to remind herself how noisy it actually is, she just has to look out the window.
But in the middle of the night she knows it’s quiet. By looking, by the light of the streetlight. On this street at three in the morning, she’s more likely to find moonlight than car lights. Yes, it’s quiet; she can see that it is.
She can see that it is, but if she really wanted to be sure, she’d just stop playing, lay down the bow and do the Helen Keller thing. Put her fingertips against the window. Because, if there’s any sound outside, it vibrates into the glass. If there’s any sound out there, her fingertips could tell.
So all she’d have to do now to be sure that it’s quiet is to stop playing, lay down her bow, and touch her hand to the window. Except she doesn’t want to stop playing.
But it’s quiet. You bet. You bet. Violin quiet.
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