A relationship is a shared story, a book written by two. The times, the places, the sex – all experienced and recorded together. Though when it ends, the manifesto is thrust under a lawn mower, the expensive kind that rips up the grass and spits it all over the yard. As we scramble to capture our freshly shredded chapters we often look upon our scrap pile and ask, “Who got more?” or, “Did I get less?” Are we happy to give our wisdom away? Can we be proud to be a stepping-stone, the training wheels or a lesson learnt as your lover moves onwards or have we simply lost out?
I met him online. We had been speaking for a few weeks in a chat-room before we decided to bring each other to life through the magic of webcam. The dial-up struggled as the choppy video player revealed him: Blue eyes, short blonde hair and a sprinkling of freckles on his cheeks,
“Nice earrings.” I said.
He paused and didn’t say a word, I heard him typing,
“That is my Hearing Implant – silly.”
And so went the start of our tale. He could hear reasonably well, phone calls were a battle and sweet-nothings weren’t worth whispering, but it wasn’t Profound Deafness. He liked Big Band, music that could shake the floorboards. As he signed to friends through bus windows and across party rooms I became so intrigued, watching his hands dance with expression and fluidity, I enrolled in a two year course in AusLan: Australian Sign Language. One of the most rewarding choices I’ve ever made.
Five months into our relationship I was invited to his house. He lived in a two-story apartment with his firefighting father in the suburbs. At all hours the phones would ring and reports would crackle on the in-house radio. It was a man’s house, a bloke’s house. They watched cricket together as mates; I don’t dislike cricket, I loathe it. And yes, I understand how it’s played, I know what a silly mid-off is but five days of it?! Needless to say it was not quite the environment for a limp-wristed ballerina like myself, as my boyfriend had texted me:
“Gawd Brendan, you’re such a flamer I thought Dad was going to hit the alarms when he met you.”
It seemed more of an instruction for my next visit than a joke and I knew the procedure; I play the role of “The Friend” very well. Though with one visit under the guise of heterosexuality complete I then performed what I consider my greatest faux pas to date: Indeed it was not my silver shoes or purple nail-polish that gave us away, it was instead replying, rather intimately, to that same text message without noticing he’d sent it from his father’s mobile that really got the sirens blaring. (Please tell me someone is working on an “unsend” button?)
Then came the serious stuff.
The biggest hurdle was not his hearing ability, nor his love of the gentlemen’s game but that he was not “out.” I was his first boyfriend and through a single text had exposed his newfound sexual identity to his father whose only real input would be, “Life has already dealt you one difficult card, are you really ready to play this one?” Who knew that being gay was such a debilitating affliction.
Much of the following months were spent tiresomely introducing him to Planet Homo: The name-calling from the outside, the bitterness from the inside. I made him comfortable with holding my hand, kissing in a quiet bar, and yes – close your eyes if you’re squeamish – GAY SEX. I was proud, yet like a parent explaining where food at the grocery store comes from (again), I couldn’t help think I was repeating myself and putting my part of the story on hold to assist his.
Soon my boredom began to show; I found myself frustrated retracing steps I had walked years before and worse, becoming cynical of his enthusiasm for the discoveries he was making. We decided it would be very adult of us to take a holiday to a Beach House. Why do people think paying to be locked in a room together will make things better?
I hate the beach and, being me, made no effort to enjoy it. On the third morning of our stay I woke to a post-it on the fridge:
“I’m going for a run.”
I had breakfast. I had lunch. It started to rain. I tried calling but got nothing. I sat on a cliff with Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ blaring in my headphones.
“You’ll go deaf,” he would say.
Hours later he returned to find me crying in a garden of weeds, pink faced and blubbering in self-pity. He had taken his implant out in case it got wet. It gave an ear piercing whistle as he plugged it back in – they do that. Then came a long pause. We knew how this conversation would end; it seemed harder to start but when it did it was brief. He knew I had called, he needed space to find himself, he did and he didn’t want himself to be with me anymore. I crumbled.
The next day his friend drove for nine hours to take him home, leaving me in the holiday house; alone, exhausted and envious. I had given him a new life – a new identity. Was that all I was to him: a leg up in the world? How dare he leave me!
Well that’s what I told myself anyway …
It took five months for us to talk again. We met at McDonald’s and had thick shakes. He sat patiently as I explained what had made me so frustrated, that I felt robbed of time and that my roller coaster had come to a plateau while he jetted off into some great adventure. But as the angry memories shot out my mouth it became clear how irrelevant they had become. Time apart had changed us: In him I saw contentment, a comfort within himself and in me a willingness to understand his perspective. I knew exactly where and who these traits had come from. When I finally shut up he said, “I always loved you when we fought. It was the only time I knew you cared.” Trust a deaf guy to be the best listener I have ever met.
We said our goodbyes and despite my former apathy and indignation, or perhaps in spite of it, five years later we still find time to send the odd message.
So maybe his side of things was a little more dramatic than mine; maybe I was simply his first love – the foundation for the next. But being a stepping-stone does not make us the loser; good relationships aren’t designed to be won. We guide people, change their lives for better or for worse and even if we don’t know it at the time they do the same to us. And if sharing your experience has improved life for someone else, inspired them or made becoming the person they want to be a little easier than damn it, you should be proud. After all someone was your stepping stone once, someone helped you along the way, someone gave you part of their story to tell.