WEDNESDAY: Unheard

BY JESSICA MILAM

Copyright is held by the author.

MYRNA’S VOICE sounds like crackling radio static or cat claws scratching on sandpaper. At least, that’s what she imagines based upon the unsolicited feedback she receives on the daily. The other night, at the grand opening for the new tapas restaurant on the town square, the waiter brought her a cup of hot tea with lemon. “You sound awful,” he said. “This should help.” She’d ordered a glass of chardonnay.

Jason looked up from his menu. “Why? Just. Why?”

“Poor guy’s trying to be nice.”

“Fucking rude if you ask me,” Jason said, fidgeting with his glasses. Their table was too small, too tightly pressed against the wall, in the back corner. The restaurant’s decor was a local cliché: urban industrial exposed pipes and brick, with abstract art depicting skulls and roses and distorted faces. And the menu was half vegan crap. Myrna wasn’t feeling the place, not at all. She decided she’d have at least three glasses of wine before the night was through.

Sometimes, she looks at Jason and sees her former fresh-faced, Depeche Mode-obsessed, best pal from high school. That night, he was a vision of middle-aged cynicism with thinning grey hair. Their history had taught her to treat their friendship with care. Every two to three years, he would profess his undying love. She’d reply with how much she valued their friendship. Then they wouldn’t speak again for a year or two.

The waiter finally brought her wine. “Hope you feel better soon,” he said, with a squeeze of her shoulder and wink of his eye. Jason looked irritated, but her smile exposed her flattery: she loves that guys the waiter’s age still flirt with her at her age.

“How do you deal with this without getting completely pissed off?” Jason asked.

“How else is there to handle it?” She tugged at a strand of her auburn hair. “Might seem weird to you, but I consider myself lucky. I didn’t have cancer. I’m not debilitated. It was a benign growth. So I have a hoarse voice. Who the fuck cares?”

“Well, it’s worse than hoarse, you know.” Jason scratched at his five o’clock shadow. “It’s like, well, somewhere between Donald Duck and the Exorcist. I’ve been trying to pinpoint a precise description for months now . . .”

Myrna rubbed at the red lipstick stain on the rim of her wine glass. “Okay. Now you’re pissing me off. Shut up and let me figure out what to order.”

The ordeal had happened just over a year ago: the cancer scare, the surgery, the nerve damage that lead to partial vocal cord paralysis. The operation was done through endoscopic laser, leaving no external scars. It didn’t hurt her to talk, and her voice sounded fine to her own ears. Really, the only irksome side-effect of the whole damn thing was having to constantly deal with other people’s idiotic commentary.

On the way to the restaurant, her Uber driver had remarked, “Wow, sounds like somebody needs to stop smoking. You’ve seen those commercials, right? You could lose your voice permanently.”

“Yes, sir. You’re right about that,” she said as she climbed out of the car. She thought cigarettes smelled like ass. Never had smoked one in her life.

“Professor Klimko!”

Jason stood up. “Shawn! Love your place! Meet my friend Myrna.”

Tattoos and spiky hair clashed with the guy’s toothy, cheeky face. He looked like a Lifetime movie dad trying to be Tommy Lee. His blue eyes met hers with the vacancy of someone who hasn’t figured out who he is yet.

“Shawn’s part owner of this place. Used to play guitar with the Southlake trio — they opened the restaurant together. Myrna’s a recruiter at the university.”

His smile was too broad, too eager. “Happy to meet you,” he said. “Order whatever you want. On the house. I suggest the vegan gumbo. So good you won’t miss the seafood a bit.”

Gumbo without seafood sounded like a cruel joke. She decided to just keep drinking and pick up some street tacos on the way home. “You know, you’re very pretty,” Shawn told her. “You look a lot like Diane Lane. I bet you hear that a lot.” He grasped her arm with a gentle squeeze. “But you sound like Nick Nolte. Ha! No offence. Movie buff here. Just saying your voice sounds nothing like how you look.”

“Excuse me. I need another glass of wine,” she sad.

This Shawn guy wasn’t her type, but she would have flirted with him before her voice ordeal. She loved to flirt. She’d felt secure in her attractiveness throughout her adult life. Now she felt like a freak. “Easy on the eyes, but makes your ears bleed,” she imagines men must think. Rejection is a new experience, and she’s befuddled by it. It seems to be attacking her from every direction these days, like ice pelts stinging her face in a winter storm.

Her job is in jeopardy. The university is an at-will employer in a highly competitive college town outside of Dallas. Her public speaking gigs and orientation presentations have suffered, and students have complained that they can’t hear her or that she’s “painful” to listen to.

The song and dance of staff members being let go has played on repeat in recent years. Sometimes it’s because of wrongdoing or incompetence, other times it’s a simple matter of saying the wrong thing to the exact wrong person. Her boss has begun to avoid eye contact with her, and she’s no longer invited to happy hours or office parties. Her colleagues didn’t even acknowledge her forty-third birthday this year. Before her surgery, she’d been popular: the middle-aged “it girl” of the department, front and center of every social event.

A part of her doesn’t blame everyone for feeling put-off. People just don’t know how to react to her anymore. Hell, she doesn’t even know how to react to the world half the time. The truth of the matter is, life these days is so much easier when she just doesn’t speak at all.

Chardonnay wasn’t doing it for her that night. “I’ll take a very dirty double martini,” she told the bartender.

“Honey! You sound like you could use some water!” the bartender said.

Myrna rolled her eyes.

“Hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” Shawn said from behind her. He smelled like leather and cigarettes.

“No worries,” she said.

“I came off like a dumb jerk. Jason’s told me a lot about you. I’d love to talk to you sometime, grab a drink. Can I have your number, your Facebook, maybe your home address? Ha . . .“

“Sure. I’ll text you my number right now. What’s yours?” Leading him on felt like less work than turning him down in the moment.

She glanced across the room, pleased to see Jason flirting with a colleague from the engineering department. Shawn pitched himself as a renaissance man: a culinary school graduate and restaurant owner, a published poet, a drummer, a singer, and an actor who’d performed in plays and a few TV shows. His teeth were an unnatural, uncomfortable white. Myrna wondered if they glowed in the dark like Ross’ in that episode of Friends. He told her he actually had appeared in a couple of Lifetime movies. “Yep, I once played a dad, another time I was a murderous Tinder date,” he said with a grin.

He told her he’d text. She hoped he wouldn’t. Patrick, the love of her life and dean of the history department, was standing across the room, engaged in conversation with his wife, Amy.

***

Sometimes, a downward spiral descends at a snail’s pace, with a few glimmers of hope and sunshine and rainbows on the way down. There may be steps up in between slips toward the bottom, and faith that at some point, life is bound to throw out a salvation rope. Myrna’s descent is a full-fledged free fall: no parachute, no rope, and nothing to protect her when she hits the ground.

At first, she doesn’t remember what happened between her fourth martini and waking up an hour late for work, her mouth parched and her head pounding. After some coffee, water, and ibuprofen, the night replays itself in painful snippets. She winces.

She didn’t fall or slobber or subject anyone to her drunken sarcasm or twerking, she confirms with Jason via text. “You were fine. Really. Whatever happened with Patrick, I’m sure he understands. You’ve been friends for so long. He loves you.”

But Jason wasn’t there. He didn’t see the look of disgust in Patrick’s eyes. Patrick and Amy had arrived at the restaurant in separate cars. He ended up offering Myrna a ride home. Parked outside of her house, she thanked Patrick, hugged him, kissed him. He kissed her back, and not with reluctance. In fact, she remembers his hands exploring her waist and hips, grazing her breasts, slipping under her black skirt, running his fingers through her hair.

When he pushed her away, the usual warmth in his eyes was replaced by anger. “Jesus, I know you a had a bit to drink, but this isn’t okay. I won’t disrespect of my wife.” She apologized, stepped out of his car, and threw up in the bushes as he drove away.

Patrick wasn’t a handsome man. He was bald, with a greying goatee and small beer belly that appeared out of place on his thin frame. He looked every part the redneck; he loved country music and barbecue and guns. However, Patrick supported the local Democrats and marched for LGBT rights and published articles about injustices against African Americans in the town’s history.

They had struck up an easy, natural friendship. He understood her dry humour and they both loved The Turnpike Troubadours and the Beatles and the art of storytelling in film, and literature. They shared stories about their own lives, and about the locals.

Amy had always frowned upon Patrick’s drinking, but Myrna loved him most red-cheeked and beer-buzzed. That’s when his humour and stories were best. They would grab drinks together with some of the other professors at a nearby pub after work.

Once, Patrick brought his six-year-old grandson to campus, and she joined them in a snowball fight during a rare local snowstorm. It was his smile that day that ultimately drew her in. Patrick exuded a certain light, an appreciation for life and embracing a moment. Once she witnessed his vibe, she couldn’t stop wanting to be a part of it. She’d searched for him in every guy she dated, for years.

***

Although all signs have pointed to her termination, she believes she’ll have the good fortune of landing another job first. She’s been sending out resumes for months.

Belinda, the department head, sits at her desk holding a huge pink coffee cup with the words, “Boss Lady,” painted on it. She’s tiny, delicate, and dark: very nearly as beautiful as she seems to think she is, based on the framed self-portrait on her wall. Her voice is light but sharp.

“This is never easy to say, but, um, well, basically, we’ve decided it’s time to part ways.”

She feels the air catch in her throat. Breathe. Keep breathing, deep, deep breaths, she thinks.

Belinda sips from her cup, then says, “You’ve been struggling with your deadlines, you’re frequently late. It’s not about your surgery, your voice. It’s just that you’re not a good fit here now. I’ll provide a good recommendation to help in your job search.”

Myrna doesn’t cry, freak out, or frazzle. At least not until a few days later, in the confines of her bedroom. She packs her box of belongings, says goodbye to people she’s known for years, and grabs a bottle of Tito’s on her way home.

The vodka is gone three days later, and she’s still wearing the same suit she got fired in when she decides to shower and eat something. She scrolls through her text messages: Jason vows to find her a job in the engineering department. Her sweet mom offers some bullshit about everything happening for a reason, and about God’s unforeseen plans and whatnot. A couple of women from the recruiting department promise to stay in touch and do lunch sometime. A text from an anonymous number says, “Do you feel pretty now, you old-ass whore? Going after a married man because you can’t find your own?” On Facebook, she notes a decline in her number of friends: Patrick, Amy, and a couple of their mutual friends are no longer on her list.

As the hot water soothes her skin in the shower, she realizes the unemployment she’ll receive won’t be enough to cover her mortgage payment. She wonders what’s next, and what type of work she’ll be able to do without a voice. She picks up another bottle of Tito’s at the liquor store down the street.

In the weeks that follow, her life becomes a pattern: drink coffee and send resumes out in the morning, take personality tests and skills inventories online in the afternoon. Read books, take walks, and listen to podcasts about finding her authentic self and inner child and rising in failure. It all seems like bullshit by the end of the day. She thinks about leaving town and running away to New England, Nashville, maybe even Alaska. At night, she drinks martinis and listens to music until she passes out. In dark moments, Myrna entertains fleeting thoughts of taking her life. Hell, maybe she’ll just drink until she dies, like that Leaving Las Vegas guy.

She goes on a few interviews, crushed by each “Unfortunately, we’ve decided to pursue other candidates” email. There are weeks when no one calls, no one texts. She puts her house on the market and hopes someone buys it before the bank forecloses. Her finances plummet almost as fast as her spirit has, and when people do call or text, their only question is, “Have you found a job yet?” As if she wouldn’t announce it to the fucking world the minute she got a job.

She buys a microphone on Amazon and applies to substitute teach at the high school because she doesn’t know what else to do.

“Miss, what’s wrong with your voice?” a kid asks on her first day.

“I lost it yelling at the last class I taught. So you guys better keep it quiet for me today,” she tells them.

Her first day is some kind of hell. But each passing day is better than the last, and after a couple of months, she takes her certification test, gets a probationary certificate, and officially becomes “that English teacher with the creepy voice.”

A new girl asks her about her “throat” one day, and Myrna tells the class, “Smoking, guys. Don’t ever do it. Ya’ don’t wanna sound like this.” From that point on she makes a game of coming up with different answers to the question each time.

At the grocery store on a Friday evening, she hears a man yell, “Hey! Nick Nolte!”

She spins around to see Lifetime movie Shawn walking toward her.

“You didn’t reply to my texts. Was kinda bummed. No offence, but why is it so hard for women to just say they’re not interested?”

“Oh, hey. I apologize . . . I’ve had a lot going on,” she says, setting her basket of wine and frozen dinners on the floor.

“We all have a lot going on. A polite “not interested” text takes about five seconds to send. Just sayin’.” He touches his hair, which is glossy and without spikes today.

“I lost my job months ago. I went through a funk, a phase. It’s okay, I’m teaching now. Can you imagine? Me? Teaching? Anyway, didn’t mean to be rude, ” she says.

“Oh, shit, now I apologize. That’s heavy. Why don’t you come over tonight?”

“Uh, I don’t think . . .”

“Na, for real, come over. Guys from the band, their wives. I’m cooking, and there’ll be plenty of wine. I just built a recording studio out back, so you can hear us fool around with some new music if you want.”

His house is on the outskirts of town, on a couple of acres scattered with Live Oak and horse apple trees. The inside looks much like his restaurant did, all brick and metal and abstract art. Shawn’s face is beautiful, technically. His hair looks like he dips it in varnish.

The gathering is a small one, just two band members and a couple of wives.

“Aw, Gawd! Where the hell’d your voice go, sweetie?” one of the wives asks.

“The wind,” Myrna says. “Gone with the fucking wind.”

Shawn serves her drinks and a plate of vegan lasagna and treats her like a date. He’s not her type at all:  boyish and buff and trying so hard. She’s into older men, and imperfections and contradictions, like Patrick, the erudite redneck. Still, she makes out with him after everyone leaves, because she’s lonely and he’s boyish and buff and trying so hard. She takes off his shirt and flinches: the skin on chest looks like it’s been peeled away and replaced by a leathery, bumpy, topographic map.

“Sorry, should have warned you. Bad car crash in high school. My cousin died, I was burned. You, uh, okay?”

“Jeez, so sorry. Can’t imagine.”

“I still go to therapy, to this day. PTSD. Guess it’s partly why I got so into acting, music. Needed an escape, you know?”

She kisses him. “Do you have condoms? I’m pretty sure the ones in my purse have expired.” She loves the feel of his body pressed against hers and the ease of their intimacy. She’s even able to overlook the faint odour of cigarettes in his hair.

***

Myrna’s never been good at relationships, but she falls in step with Shawn without much working at it or annoying discussion or defining of things. It’s not going to last, but hell, she’s long past the age of happily-ever-afters. She’s 10 years older, and he wants children. She’s too old to have a child naturally and has no interest in putting her body or finances through what it would take to have one unnaturally. She’s working on living in the moment and relishing the bits of pleasure and happiness that manage to spring up through life’s muck

Her students find it amusing to share amongst themselves all of the crazy answers she’s given to the “What’s wrong with your voice?’ question

So far, she’s told people she damaged it from smoking, swallowing a bee, accidentally inhaling Lysol, and drinking too much Dr. Pepper. There’ve been rumours about vocal cord nodules from Opera singing, a high-school cheerleading accident crushing her voice box, and a most unfortunate one about an abusive ex-boyfriend choking the voice right out of her.

She’s a decent teacher, helping her students become stronger readers and writers and appreciate the art of storytelling. After feeling silenced by her voice ordeal, she knows how important stories are: everyone needs to be heard.

Myrna ran into Patrick a couple of months ago at happy hour with a couple of her new teacher friends. She pretended not to see him, but he approached her. “Hey, could we talk for a second?”

She followed him to the outdoor patio.

“I was so sorry to hear that you lost your job. That must have been devastating coming on the heels of your voice, the surgery.” he said.

“It’s okay, Patrick. I’m fine,” she said. “I’m doing great now.”’

“I’ve missed you,” he said, tugging at his goatee. “I know you were just drunk, understandably a mess that night. I forgive you for the weirdness. I really do.”

She fiddled with the gold and diamond lotus necklace Shawn had just given her for her birthday. “Forgive me?” she asked. “Forgive me for what, exactly? Letting you feel me up in your car?”

Patrick shifted his weight and cleared his throat. “You initiated it. Sure, I got caught up in you for a minute. You’re a sexy woman, you know. But I never. . . .”

“You’re ridiculous, Patrick. All those nights you chose to drink with me instead of going home to your wife. Rubbing my back, squeezing my thigh under the table. It was like you were always pushing the limits, getting closer to crossing the line all the time.”

“I never intended to send any false signals, Myrna. You’ve always just been one of my dearest friends,” he said.

“I shouldn’t have kissed you,” she said. “But did you have to tell other people about it? I was totally shunned. I’d already lost my voice, my identity, then my job. Did you have to fuck with my reputation, too? Did it make you feel like the good guy? You’re right, I was drunk, and down. You could have just said “no” and moved on.”

“Fair enough. I messed up. I’m so sorry. I just really miss you.”

“I bet Amy misses you while you’re out drinking with other women. We’re getting old as fuck, friend. We’ve been selfish assholes. Let’s do better.”

Back at the bar with her friends, a guy asked, “Hey, lady, what happened to your voice?”

“Well, you know the expression, ‘the cat got your tongue?’” She sipped from her wine glass. “A cat literally ate half my tongue.” Her friends erupted into laughter. The voice situation still sucks ass sometimes, and there are days when she wants to sink into a vodka oblivion and not have to deal with people. Most of the time, though, she’s glad she didn’t drink herself to death or give her house up for an RV or run the fuck away to Alaska.