Even the sky didn’t want to be here. As Brandon and Tyler waited for more daylight to come down, piece by piece, they sat by an equally uninspired fire. The flames crackled in fits, reluctantly, but Tyler needed no assistance in the heat department. He was already fuming. In his hands he held the broken transmitter to his cochlear implant; it was now shattered, useless. Brandon had already apologized, a convenient story cobbled together about how he had left the tent in the middle of the night to pee, and the magnet of the transmitter must have somehow gotten attached to the metal shoelace loops of his boots.
“Now you’re really deaf like me!” Brandon joked, waving his hands, the universal way of applauding for deaf people—which Tyler hated. He thought it was stupid. Just clap.
Camping? What were they even doing? Tyler allowed himself to sink further into self-pity. He thought of that day they had gone to REI. The naïve, fanciful way they’d walked around picking the things they were sure would make this weekend great. This was supposed to be the right step in the right direction. Something new, something substantial they could record in their history books together.
“Gonna change my clothes,” Brandon announced, having given up on waiting for the water to boil for some coffee. Good. Tyler was grateful for the extra quiet and space as he watched Brandon awkwardly enter the tent, squatting and moving on all fours, before he zipped the tent closed behind him. Tyler looked around the campsite as he tried to reconcile the calm landscape with the way he felt, a human sized fist of anger. The morning fog was still clouding the tree line, so it looked like the rest of the world had disappeared, falling away. It was just them here, just this exact spot of earth.
Only a few months ago he would have loved the idea.
Tyler wasn’t angry because he couldn’t hear anything in the moment. He wasn’t angry about the inevitable lump of money he’d have to pay out of pocket to fix the broken transmitter. No, he was furious because he was sure Brandon had broken it on purpose. Another memory had come rushing back to him earlier, while he was trying to convince himself there wasn’t guilt on Brandon’s face.
The night before, they’d gotten into a minor argument while setting up the tent. They both felt vulnerable, unable to follow basic instructions, their masculinities somehow on trial. As soon as they zipped up the pitched tent from inside an hour later, they were on each other. A tangle of lips, hips, fingers pulling, pushing. He felt the frustration in Brandon’s movements, knew he wanted to fuck it out of his system.
Tyler remembered, in the silken darkness of the tent, taking his transmitter off. There was a moment of waiting, as he always did, for the fluid quiet to envelop his head. He looked up to see Brandon’s eyes, instead of being fixed on him, were looking at where Tyler had placed the transmitter so it would be out of their way.
A few months earlier, as one of the last slow stretches of humidity hung over Washington, D.C., Brandon strolled into a bar on the Georgetown waterfront. The place was playing host to the August edition of DPHH, or Deaf Professional Happy Hour, and Brandon was fully aware his friend Lilly would be introducing him to a guy.
Lilly was one of the new adjunct professors at Gallaudet University, where Brandon also taught. During a faculty mixer at the president’s house, Brandon had been the only one who laughed when Lilly accidentally curtsied while introducing herself. After everyone else finished introducing themselves sans curtsies, Lilly cornered Brandon by the cocktail shrimp only to be disappointed when he mentioned an ex-boyfriend, dashing all hopes she had except for one:
“You have to meet my friend Tyler!” Lilly told Brandon. “You two would make such a hot, hot couple.”
Now, in the bar, Lilly was jumping up and down, trilling as she waited for Brandon to cut through the crowd. Brandon waved to a few people he knew, zigzagging, holding a finger up as a blanket explanation he’d be with them in a second. Tyler was still obscured by the other attendees, making the journey across the bar feel longer for Brandon whose mouth went dry, realizing he was more excited than he thought he’d be. As Brandon was about to convince himself that this all would turn out to be, of course, anticlimactic a stranger moved out of the way at the last possible second to reveal Tyler. Brandon’s mouth stayed dry, but it did begin to curve into a smile.
Good height: check. Nice hair, sculpted enough to show effort but not too much: check, check. Electric, intelligent green eyes: check, check, check! And then Tyler turned to the bar, to put down his drink, revealing the transmitter of a cochlear implant on the side of his head.
“I’m Tyler,” he said, extending his hand. Only he hadn’t quite said that. Brandon noticed he’d finger spelled his name messily, but not because he was lazy. T y l r, skipping over the e. It was becoming more and more clear to Brandon that like Lilly, Tyler was definitely a Hearing-Head deaf person: late to sign language, late to the culture, late to it all. Ignoring the little sliver of doubt that told him not to, Brandon took Tyler’s hand, some animal part inside of him making the decision.
By the time Brandon came back out of the tent, dressed in the expensive, weather-appropriate clothing they’d bought at REI, the water had finally begun to boil. Brandon poured the hot water into the by now cold cups that already had the instant coffee grounds waiting in them. Tyler put out the fire, telling Brandon to go ahead and hang their food in a bag from a tree because, yes, bears.
“Let’s take a selfie before we head out,” Tyler said, finding he wanted to begin to lighten the mood himself. They still had a little more than twenty-four hours left here together. He didn’t want Brandon to tiptoe around waiting for Tyler to attack, like some vengeful snake. He was going to be better than that.
Brandon took his phone out, setting it on the picnic table, turning on the autotimer. He jumped backwards, spinning on his feet smoothly—this being something that was attractive to Tyler, Brandon’s athletic prowess, his ease on both feet, compared to his own two left feet. Tyler wrapped both his arms around Brandon’s stomach, telling himself this was going to get better, it would have to—
Brandon’s phone toppled over before the image could be captured, requiring a second attempt. And then a third. Tyler didn’t want to admit how everything seemed to be doused with doom. Did it count if it was only him finding things portentous? The wind kicking up, was it a cold whisper down Brandon’s neck too? As he peed one last time before their hike, Tyler eyed a dense cluster of bushes that seemed ready to shatter so a wild creature could burst forth.
“Alright,” Brandon announced. “Let’s make Old Misery our bitch.”
Another portentous thing: the name of the trail. Tyler remembered reading the description of the trail in the car while Brandon drove the way he always did, one hand on the wheel like he was some high school quarterback with a secret.
The toughest trail in Cunningham Falls State Park, you’ll follow this steep, strenuous trail with many switchbacks, and scenic views through dense woodlands to the stunning views atop Cat Rock.
There were a few other options for hikes, different trails, all of which were shorter and easier, but Brandon had looked at Tyler with challenge in his smile as he said, “Let’s do that one,” and of course Tyler could not say no and appear to be the sissy, right? This was the moment Tyler kept replaying in his head as they set off.
The fallen leaves on the ground looked like they were undulating, the light shuttling over them in waves. This, combined with the fact the trail was beginning to slope up, made Tyler feel increasingly off kilter. Gone was the optimist that had been there only minutes earlier, the one who was sure they could salvage this weekend. Tyler was beginning to think of the exact right first comment he could make to push Brandon to confess he had broken the transmitter on purpose. Yes, he was back to that again.
But before he could string the right words together Tyler noticed that Brandon had come to a full stop, just ahead of him, staring at something on the ground. Tyler caught up, standing by his side, following his gaze to the ground where the smell wafted up before he could make sense of what he was looking at: fresh poop, or scat, as he knew people who camped regularly would call it.
“Told you there were bears around,” Brandon said.
“The guidebook said it, not you,” Tyler reminded him. He urged them to keep moving, as if the bear had stuck around to see who was having discussions about the shit it left behind.
Soon enough the boys came to understand why exactly switchbacks were called that. After only a few feet of going in one direction, the trail suddenly changed course, going in the opposite. Back and forth, back and forth, as if the trail was fucking with them. Their knees began to ache. It didn’t look like they were making that much progress up the mountain.
“Killing me,” Brandon said, lifting his hands over his head to sign, too lazy to look back at Tyler, who was a little more in shape of the two of them. Tyler wanted to use this opportunity to poke fun at Brandon for not working out at Vida, like he—and every other gay in D.C.—did. Brandon worked out at the campus gym. This was weird to Tyler, especially after Brandon had made a comment about “always being cruised by twinks at the gym without being able to sweat in peace.”
“Judgy Judy,” Brandon had called Tyler when they’d tried to talk about it. Sometimes Brandon would stir up what felt like incestuous, fraternal feelings inside of him that he could recall from childhood when his asshole of an older brother Travis would mock him at the dinner table with an exaggerated deaf accent: Waaaah, waaah, poor little Tyler.
Tyler realized Brandon was staring at him.
“I’m fine, just keep going.”
Brandon shook his head, placing his feet apart as he put his hands on his hips. He had decided he wasn’t letting this go, it seemed, not any longer. “No, come on,” he said with the air of someone who was suddenly in tune with his own emotions. “We’ve both been in a mood since yesterday, let’s just talk.”
Tyler especially hated it when he wanted to talk but talked himself out of it only to have it turn out Brandon did want to talk. So, he wasn’t going to give him this one. Nope. Tyler waved it off and told Brandon to keep going.
“Fine,” Brandon said, which was also subtext for: “Remember this when we do finally talk, because I was the one who said we should talk first.” He turned around, Tyler’s baleful gaze on his back, and felt his right foot give away suddenly. The odds were so small that he would step on this particular rock which had, over the course of the last few, wet days, begun to slide out of the soft earth but stopped halfway through as if changing its mind, and yet—
Tyler watched Brandon tumble to the ground hard, and though he knew he didn’t, he thought for a second maybe he had pushed him.
In a new Indian restaurant on H street, on a Friday night somewhere slipping into month two of dating, Brandon was walking back to his table from the bathroom. The sight of Tyler chatting and laughing with his friends nearly stopped him in his tracks. It was still wild to him this was happening. It’d been two years since Chris. Tyler caught Brandon’s gaze as he was approaching and saw something sad in there. As Brandon slid back into the booth, Tyler asked him if everything was alright.
“Fine,” Brandon said, trying to chuckle at himself; his dramatic ass.
“What is it?” Tyler wrapped an arm around Brandon’s shoulder.
“Nothing,” Brandon said. But what he really wanted to say was: I think our lives are beginning to fit together.
The next morning, Tyler needed to go to his office to pick up a memo he had printed out but forgotten to bring home. Brandon was excited to finally accompany him to “the Hill,” he said, adding a dramatic pause before waving his hands. Because it was a Saturday, and Tyler didn’t think anybody would be in the office he thought it would be okay. As he swiped his ID and led Brandon into the building, Tyler couldn’t help but feel a sense of superiority when he saw awe slip over Brandon’s face.
“Ten years I’ve been in DC,” Brandon said, not finishing his sentence…
Inside, Tyler thought he better take the opportunity to print a few other things while they were there. As he powered his computer up Brandon took a seat, opening a game on his phone. Soon Tyler heard footsteps and knew it would be his boss, suddenly regretting every single decision and step that had led him there that morning.
“Who’s this, Tyler?” the senator asked, peeking his head in. Tyler stood up quickly, trying to put on his best smile, and failing.
“This is Brandon, sir. My… Boyfriend.” He mumbled this quickly, not having bothered to sign for Brandon’s benefit.
“Oh! The elusive boyfriend, at last we meet,” the senator said, holding out his hand. Brandon had not understood him at all, but he got to his feet regardless, picking up on the sense of formality that had entered the room along with the senator. “Hello,” the senator said again, laughing politely at the awkward silence.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you,” Brandon said, his hands a flurry of snow, making the senator step back.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize!”
And in that moment, despite not knowing what had been said, Brandon figured out what had not been said. Brandon took the senator’s hand, shook it like nothing was wrong before he looked at Tyler and said with a perfect smile that betrayed everything: “I’ll be outside.”
Brandon tried putting weight on his right foot, but he couldn’t.
“Put your arm around me,” Tyler said, helping Brandon try to stand up again. He impressed himself with how much weight of Brandon’s he was able to bear, and hoped Brandon was as surprised. Tyler thought just maybe they could get through this. They would come down the mountain together, and this could become a story to tell over and over again.
That time we went camping.
The high of the first two months of dating, gone as quickly as the changing of seasons. With autumn came a new chill in the relationship. Tyler tried to explain why he hadn’t thought to bring up the fact Brandon was deaf to his own boss, but to that he only received a lecture from Brandon that had included “you’re ashamed” and the phrase “internalized audism” before Tyler had shut him up by breaking down into sobs, a move that he had very consciously pulled out, though he didn’t really need to cry.
Tyler thought of Lilly, a happy hour with her presence might be a good idea. Harkening back to their beginnings, or something like that. So they agreed to all meet at Nellie’s for a Happy Hour. Brandon was running late, a student keeping him after class. By the time he arrived he found Tyler and Lilly losing their minds over someone who was also at the bar: Dylan, a sign language interpreter who was gaining massive followers and notoriety on Instagram for his sign language covers of popular songs.
“He sucks,” Brandon said when he figured out who they were fangirling over. Dylan was the kind of interpreter who would interject his own opinion into whatever he was interpreting simultaneously. Verboten. A no-no. Once, during a linguistics conference at American University that Brandon had attended, he was watching a lecture about malapropisms and when the speaker had mentioned the word flamingo (in place of flamenco, of course) instead of fingerspelling flamingo, Dylan went ahead and lifted a leg, standing like one, making the audience collapse in peals of laughter. The speaker, Dr. Harold Jurgenson, did not mind, though he would later wonder if he had gotten no questions during the Q & A because of that. Dylan was crowded by everyone afterwards, having stolen the show.
Dylan also rustled something loose in Brandon, with his carefree strut and the way he would wink at people from across the room, hips swishing. Something he wasn’t ready to dig into yet.
Lilly was aghast. “He doesn’t suck!” she said, coming to the defense of @DylantheSigningSinger as if they were discussing Barack Obama.
“Someone’s jealous,” Tyler said, trying to tickle Brandon.
“No, I just don’t like it when hearing people try to monetize or gain followers off my language and culture,” Brandon said sharply before he left them to get a drink at the bar. He made eye contact with Dylan who, of course, gave him a wink. Though Brandon would never tell Tyler this, in that very moment, he wanted to take Dylan to the bathroom, push him to his knees and make him choke on his dick.
The bartender sidled up to Brandon, who took out his phone to begin typing out his order. When he looked up Dylan was gone and he returned to the table where Tyler was making pouty, baby faces at him, the second vodka soda he finished having given him an invisible armor from under which he was now unafraid to ferry an opening shot.
“Are you still mad at me?”
After they struggled back down the trail some, Brandon said he needed a minute to catch his breath. They stopped to take out their canteens, gulping down water. The view from this point on the mountain surprised them, the sea of trees unfurling in shades of green, creaking with wind and sunlight. They had made it up the mountain further than they thought.
“Sorry for ruining this,” Brandon said.
“Shut up, it’s fine,” Tyler told him.
“I did it, I broke your stupid cochlear implant on purpose, okay?” Brandon said, and waited for a punch, though he knew Tyler would never do that. Habit, though enough years had passed since that had last happened with Chris.
“I told you, for the millionth time, it’s called a transmitter,” Tyler said before he allowed himself to really understand what Brandon just said.
On their way, as Brandon drove, Tyler reminded him to watch the speed limit. In response, Brandon sped up. He wanted to race the sun, anyway, because he was already worried about arriving at the campsite after it got dark.
“Remember, it’s hard for me to see in the dark and I don’t like that,” Brandon said. He kept his gaze on the road, thinking about the last time he’d camped. He must have been seven or eight years old. He could still remember falling into the mostly extinguished fire. How it hadn’t hurt at first. But he never got to tell Tyler this part of the story.
In the car, Tyler nodded and said without thinking, “That’s why I like hearing things, it helps.”
Nothing but a passing remark, something as minute to Tyler as saying the sky is blue. To Brandon, it was a slap, another one. Tyler looked out the window, clueless, as the sunlight caught on the transmitter on the side of his head.
Brandon gunned the engine once again, and moments later, red and blue lights exploded in his rearview mirror. Tyler held back an “I told you so” he didn’t have to say as Brandon pulled the car over, instead moving quickly to open the dashboard compartment to find Brandon’s registration.
As the police officer walked up to the car, taking his sweet time, Brandon told himself it would be okay, trying to calm the quiet rumble of his heart trying to pound out of his chest. Predictably, the officer seemed perplexed when Brandon began signing, signaling to his ears that he could not hear.
“Write it down,” Brandon signed, the gesture obvious but not as obvious as you’d think, as the officer found himself at a loss for words. “Write. It. Down.” Brandon said again, slowly gesturing out the gestures to a point where it became comic. Why was it so hard to figure out he was saying write something down? Fucking hearing people.
“Let me,” Tyler said. He began to sim-com, signing the words as he spoke them slowly: “Hello, Officer. We’re both deaf. He can’t speak, but I can and I’ll be able to hear what you’re saying if you’ll please speak slowly and clearly. Thank you!”
The officer nodded and proceeded to ignore Brandon for the next ten minutes, communicating only to Tyler. But he was one of those people who Brandon could lip read easily, the entire time.
Tell him he was driving too fast.
Tell him I need to see his license and registration.
Tell him I’ll be right back.
Tell him he’s lucky I’m in a good mood today. I’m going to let him off with a warning.
When he finally made eye contact with Brandon again, acknowledging him as a fellow human, he gave him a finger, wagging, scolding. After the officer got back into his car and finally turned off the sirens, Brandon looked to see Tyler was smiling at him.
“What would you do without me?” Tyler asked.
The sun beat them down the mountain, and by the time the boys reached their campsite the sky was beginning to swing into darkness. After Brandon’s confession and Tyler’s correction, there had been nothing else to say. Not really. Tyler still had to help Brandon down, each step a battle for him not to push Brandon down the mountain and leave him to fend for himself.
“Do you want to stay the night?” Brandon asked. Tyler nodded. This surprised Brandon. Made him wonder if maybe things could turn out fine despite, well, despite everything. But this feeling of hope soon went away, replaced with insufficiency as he watched Tyler putter around to gather wood for a fire, taking out the pots and bringing down the bag of food, all by himself. Brandon knew he was worthless and could not do much.
As the fire became the only light in their little corner of the darkness, Brandon was amazed at how much Tyler was rising above. If rising above was defined by the act of putting together dinner. Tyler opened a can of beans, boiled water for the dehydrated packet of beef stroganoff they had bought. He assembled a plate for Brandon, who noticed he only made one.
“Are you not eating?” he asked.
“Not hungry,” Tyler said, and Brandon realized he had not quite risen above after all. He was going to find other ways to stick it to him. “I’ll be back—gotta pee.”
When Tyler’s therapist asked him if he would still do the same thing, if given the choice today, he did not have to think about it too long.
“Yes,” he said. He had just told his therapist about the night before, in Dupont Circle, where he’d gone for the annual High Heel Race. The Tuesday before Halloween was always a special occasion in the city, one in which everyone would converge on Dupont to watch people race in high heels.
Tyler went with some coworkers, staking out a spot on the sidewalk close to the finish line. After the winner—a drag queen named Paul who had dressed up in a buttercream yellow dress reminiscent of Belle’s—had trampled to the finish line first, everyone began to spill over into the streets from the sidewalk. Tyler lost track of his coworkers and began charting a course for home.
He cut through the crowd to get off R Street so he could take a quieter route. That was when he saw a blur of hands from a group of deaf people. Then he heard a familiar crack of laughter that could only belong to Lilly. Sure enough, there she was, accompanied by Brandon. Safely obscured by the crowd, Tyler paused for a minute as he watched Brandon try to finish making a point, his hands spinning furiously. His smile seemed genuine, his hair a little longer. He looked good.
Tyler didn’t make his way to the park entrance right away. The Lyft would not arrive for another half hour, so he circled the campsite. He found a spot in between a pair of thick trees with a clear view of Brandon, as he sat by the fire picking at his food, unaware he was being watched.
Brandon kept looking around, and each time Tyler was convinced he would be caught. But it never happened. Tyler liked seeing the fear on Brandon’s face, the panic and worry creeping in. He wanted to know what exactly Brandon was thinking as he looked out into the darkness. Did he see a pair of eyes, gleaming, and wonder if that was a bear or a wolf? Did he think things were about to take a scary turn? Did he think, I’ve made a mistake?
“And did he?” The therapist asked Tyler. “Did he make a mistake?”