On the Beach

The vertigo attacks settled into my head every other day by the autumn of 2013. When I could stand up and walk, I bought a cane. It looked clinical: gray foam and metal. My friends asked whether that was the only cane my insurance would pay for. What they didn’t know is that insurance didn’t pay for anything—I bought the cheap cane because Walgreens was the closest place that sold them and because the height was adjustable. When I turned thirty-seven on November 18, Elisa got me a nicer cane, mahogany. 

“Only for when you need it,” she said. “Only for now, until they can figure out what’s wrong.” 

She gave me Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book against suicide, but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. “It’s about why not to do it,” she said. “It’s about why you shouldn’t.” 

I had quit teaching by then, quit driving a car. Elisa had spent her own days telecommuting at nearby coffee shops the prior semester so she could chauffeur me to class, sometimes walking me as far as the classroom door so I didn’t fall over, but she couldn’t keep it up. Her own job—editing for a tech company in Boston—was increasingly busy and, hand in glove with that, increasingly lucrative. I was mortified to be so crippled and dependent in what ought to have been my best working years. As my own bank account emptied and my debt increased, Elisa came to assume a larger portion of the household bills. I knew I had to get well as much for her sake as my own. 

Sometimes she’d fly back east for a meeting while I lay in bed in Denver, feeling as alone as I’d ever felt. My mind kept itself busy through the vertigo—the sensation of falling through what at times felt like total deafness— by wondering how I would kill myself if it didn’t stop by morning. 

Getting into the bathtub with something sharp seemed the best course of action, letting my blood run out. Most days it felt like nothing more than a reassuring fantasy, something to calm me, the notion that there was a way out if I needed one. Other nights, as winter set in and I spent more and more of my time alone on my back, it was less of a fantasy—it felt urgent. I’d call the suicide hotline and couldn’t make out what they said. I’d try to message them online, but my eyes couldn’t focus enough to make out the words on the screen. (The deafness takes your ears; vertigo takes your eyes.) 

Even if I’d been able to talk to them, I’d have been circumspect. Chat rooms warned me the whole thing was a trick, to get me to confess I had the intention and the means. As soon as I fessed up, they’d lock on my signal and send an ambulance or fire truck. The last thing I wanted to see was a rush of cops. 

On March 24, 2004, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran a story beginning with, “A woman suffering from a rare disease apparently killed her children and herself.” Sub-headed “Ménière’s Disease” [sic], the article goes on to describe how Jo Anna Miranda left a note before starting the fire and how she’d become increasingly desperate when no doctors were able to treat the strange noises in her ears. In a subsequent article, someone described as a “longtime family friend” goes on to plead: “If anyone in your family is affected by this disease, please be with them, please have the patience, please have the love.” Later: “It comes on slowly and gradually and it got to the point, like in this case, where no one can handle . . .” 

The reporter cut him off there. Where no one can handle . . . This terrified me, but so did the skirl in my head. Suicide was desperate but felt altruistic. I tried to explain to Elisa, and then to other friends, how my absence from the picture would brighten it. How I wasn’t doing anyone any good here. I could see that what was wrong with me was taxing her. I felt like a prisoner of my own bed, or of the futon in my home office, where I spent sleepless nights and sick days when the ceiling wouldn’t stop spinning and the roar wouldn’t quit inside my head. 

“I can’t work. I can’t even look at a screen,” I’d tell her on the afternoons when I hadn’t collected myself. 

“Don’t you think I’d be destroyed by that?” she said. “Don’t you think I’d blame myself?” 

“Of course you would. But you’ll be heartbroken if I stay like this. I can’t stay like this. How can I stay like this?” 

Her nerves were frayed. Like me, she felt as though time had been reduced to a series of short highs and long sloughs. She’d walk me out of an appointment with a neurologist or audiologist or a tech taking MRIs. I’d shuffle with my cane as she tried to charm my chaos into calm. 

“We’ll call that new doctor as soon as we get home,” she’d say, meaning whatever additional specialist we’d been referred to, palmed off to. One specialist suggested the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles. 

“It’s a real Dr. House!” She said, “Maybe he’ll figure it out!” 

I wanted to keep things cheerful, but my head felt bare and full of echoes. Construction noises amplified in the hearing aids—I didn’t know where they were. I hadn’t slept for three nights for vertigo, just a few hours in the afternoon. I couldn’t drive myself anywhere, couldn’t walk far with the cane. Spinning was bad enough but pain came with it, and roaring. I couldn’t hear music. I had too much time to think. 

“He said celebrities go to the House Clinic. Maybe we’ll see Ryan Adams there. You think maybe Ryan Adams will be there?” She’d try a tentative smile—would jokes work? “You have to be patient. There’s an answer and someone will find it.” 


If directing The Designated Mourner had been a hobby, I’d have quit. But I wasn’t teaching anymore; I’d gone on leave from the book review site I helped to run, and I’d quit writing. The Designated Mourner, our three-person play, was the only part of the external world I could touch and change. We’d canceled the last two rehearsals because I was throwing up from vertigo, but tonight I was doing all right. I listened, helped by the hearing aids, while Elisa read her part. Her character, Judy, was part of a small group of intellectuals in a country going authoritarian. In the first act of the play, the poor, the “dirt eaters,” rise up; in the second act a far-right cabal puts them down. Judy’s father, Howard, sympathizes with the poor, and because of it he’s beaten, jailed, and killed. Judy’s husband, Jack, abandons her and Howard to save his own ass. 

Elisa’s character had given up on life. She resented Jack—of course she did—for leaving her. But she also pitied him, because he was so pathetic, and because they had a history. 

“Meanwhile,” Elisa read on, “some awful trick of the night or the mind made me remember him as he’d been once—his confidence, the warmth, the directness of his touch.” 

“You’re too distant,” I told her. “You’re reading like you’re talking from the moon.” 

I’d directed a few plays by then, but I’d never directed someone I was so close to. Elisa was hurt by the notes I gave her. She thought I was being extra hard on her to prove to Aaron, a real actor, I knew how to direct. 

“There’s not enough on the page,” she said. “The character’s not fully written enough.” 

Aaron pushed his teacup a little forward, pulled it back. 

“Don’t read it like you’re reading poetry at a poetry reading,” I kept on. “You’re just talking. This is happening for the first time. Remember, you’ve never said these words before.” 

“I think what John is saying,” Aaron told her, “is that it’s much more interesting to see an actor make a discovery onstage than to have them just recite something they know. So as you’re saying all these words, you’re discovering them too.” 

“Okay,” Elisa said, “but these lines have a very written feel. Yours actually sound like you’re thinking them.” 

Aaron carried about him the coy reserve of a strong personality in check. “Listen,” he said, as though he was discovering the advice for the first time. “Play love first.” 

Aaron’s tone was more even than mine. Half of a director’s job is just to keep the wheels greased. When I gave Elisa notes, they would freeze her up. Aaron knew what he was doing. 

“Always play love first,” he went on. “It’s always much more compelling when the first choice you make with another character is that you love them. I’m always going to choose first that I love Judy. Everything else comes second. Always remember that you love him. It makes everything interesting.” 

It was better advice than I’d ever given an actor. I’d been picturing Judy talking to her interrogators all the while. I’d pictured the audience as her judges at a trial, judges predetermined to find her guilty. 

“I figured this out when I was doing Much Ado About Nothing,” Aaron said. “Beatrice and Benedict don’t work as characters unless they love each other from the start.” 

Elisa poured herself red wine from the open bottle. “Is Benedict the Keanu Reeves character?” 

“That’s Kenneth Branagh. He probably gave Keanu the Don John part because it has the fewest lines.” 

“Have you heard people pronounce that ado like ‘goodbye’?” Elisa felt better. “They say, Much Adieu About Nothing. Without further adieu.” 

Elisa notices small language things. I like pun jokes but she makes better ones. Lying in bed, she’ll say, “Who’s a pickle’s favorite old-time comedienne?” 

I guess, “Phyllis Diller?”

“Actually Dillis Diller.”

Elisa, like me, like Aaron, does her best to dance light on her feet while she’s poised, always, above a gulf of emotion. That was our idea for the play too—to play the characters as forcefully breezy, always afraid of letting the conversational ball drop. Because, were that ball to drop, it wouldn’t stop falling. 

Nearly everyone dies: murder, murder. Jack is the play’s only survivor. He adapts in the way he has to adapt. He’s got fight in him. I wished I had more fight. 

One night alone in a hotel, Jack rationalizes abandoning his wife by rejecting the idea of the self: 

And so what is it supposed to mean to me if someone tells me that the trousers I’m wearing were worn “yesterday” by a man with my name, a man who did this, a man who did that, or that they’ll be worn “tomorrow” by a man who is going to be doing something or other? It all means exactly nothing to me, because none of these people actually exist. 

Like Jack, I was struggling with that famous problem, the mind-body problem. Was the mind itself the body, was the mind something else? And the soul? Sitting there in what should have been a quiet room, pain in my left ear like deep-sea pressure, I saw very nakedly that the body and the mind, or the soul, were one and the same. Not that the soul invented the body, but that the body invented the soul. The self is the body. I thought of those old pulp novels from the nineteenth century with titles like A Most Bloody and Cruel Murder, Committed on the Body of Mrs. Elizabeth Wood . . . titles that implied it was not possible to murder the soul. But you could murder the soul, of course you could. You could sicken it unto death. We didn’t know what was wrong with me, didn’t know if it was potentially fatal or what it would do as it worked its course. But I didn’t want to find a cure to recover my body alone, my body as something external. My mind—my soul—felt sick. 


Like Jack and Judy in the play, Elisa and I came together over poetry. 2006: we met at a summer party in Quincy, decamped it for bourbon, and wound up reciting poems at each other for much of the night. Elisa was and is a brilliant poet. I was better at reading the stuff than writing it, but that’s all the more reason to fall in love with a poet. 

On our first real date we went to a poetry reading. (Years later, when the story came up, Elisa appraised it as “not even a date—you were just like, There’s this thing, and I’ll be there, and maybe you’ll be there too.”) Afterward, a group came back to my place. I offered Elisa scotch but she explained that it tasted like Band-Aids, so we drank bourbon with my friend Golaski and talked about spirituality. Golaski was stepping away from Catholicism, after a long ambivalence. “One thing I can’t seem to let go of,” he said, “or, rather, a question I keep asking, is the idea of the numinous. I do feel that there’s something— some controlling force—but the idea that it’s a man in the sky, or that we know his name—” 

“I know exactly what you mean,” I cut in. “I know exactly what you mean. When I was a kid, in the woods, the wind in those trees—you have the sense there’s huge forces, even huge questions you just can’t get a handle on.”

Eliza asked what numinous meant. I said it was a pretentious way of saying spiritual. She rolled her eyes. “The wind in the trees!”

She smirked at me. I liked this. I liked being challenged. 

“John’s right,”Golaski said.“I think it’s New England. I think it’s just being in the woods—both of us grew up on the edge of the woods. You walk in there and it feels dangerous.” 

“You weren’t in danger in Connecticut,” Elisa said. 

That’s numinosity!” I said or shouted. “Numinosity can make you feel endangered when you’re safe. It puts your soul in peril.” 

Golaski was drinking and nodding. “The trees are a cathedral.” 

“I think,” I said, “that maybe you just didn’t feel it in El Paso because it’s the desert.” Elisa grew up in El Paso. My impression of El Paso resembled the landscape of road-runner and coyote cartoons. “It’s kind of pitiless, right?” 

Golaski put his head back in the chair. “You feel the numinous more when it’s pitiless.” 

“Are you crazy,” she said. “People feel spiritual all the time in the desert. Haven’t you ever heard of the mystique of the desert?” 

“And you don’t feel awe?” I said. “If you don’t like numinosity, let’s go with awe. Do you ever feel awe in the desert?” Elisa paused in a way I’d later come to see as characteristic. She was thinking about how to best get an idea across, figuring how to phrase it. It was a pause that set her listener at attention. 

“Look, I think the desert’s beautiful. But I’m an atheist. A thing can be beautiful without God being involved.” “Not God,” I said. “Awe. Do you feel awe in the desert? A connection to things you can’t understand, can’t possibly understand?” 

She paused again. Golaski rose and patted his pocket for his keys. I’d kiss Elisa the second I heard Golaski start his car. 

She spoke slowly. “Obviously, there’s a lot I don’t understand, but I think it’s just because I don’t understand it, not because I can’t.” 

I said, “I feel like all the poetry I love is about the numinous.” 

“Poemy poems about stones,” she called the stuff I liked, as I rose to hug Golaski goodbye. 

When he started his car, I did kiss her. 


Late in 2013 we entered the terminal at LAX, hopeful. Elisa pretended to be startled by a giant poster of a lemur at the zoo and her alarm made the menace playful, the menace that shadowed us anyway. Leaning on her shoulder, I gestured with my cane at the unremarkable passengers-in-waiting with their sweatpants and their overstuffed duffels. “It’s all so glamorous.” 

Elisa said, “Have you seen any celebrities yet?” 

We took a cab to a hotel by the airport where she settled down with work emails and I closed my eyes. The noise in my ears was unusually loud that night. I tried to play white noise on headphones, but I couldn’t make them loud enough. I took an Ambien. Two hours later, still awake, I took another. I may have hallucinated—I remember attempting to read Gulliver’s Travels with a flashlight—Jonathan Swift had bad ears too—but the words didn’t make sense and there seemed to be gold tracing between the letters. 

The noise in my ears confused my doctors because it came and went, like my hearing itself, like the dizziness and the pain. Vertigo comes and goes, of course: that’s what vertigo is. But tinnitus shouldn’t shift like this. 

“Does it get worse before the vertigo begins?” the doctors asked me. I said sometimes yes, sometimes no. But I got the sense they didn’t hear me, not precisely. Or, rather, they didn’t mind about the “sometimes no” part, because it didn’t accord with diseases on file. 

The first time I heard the phrase Ménière’s disease was at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Clinic, about a year after Elisa and I first met. I’d had a pair of vertigo attacks—my first—within a week of each other, and although I wouldn’t have traced the problem to my ears, my doctor referred me to an otologist. The word comes from the Greek otos—ears. I took the train to Charles/MGH and took a hearing test and waited to learn what was wrong. 

The doctor shook my hand with an easygoing, commanding assurance and told me I probably had Ménière’s disease, which meant “your ears are like a beat-up old car that runs good on some days, and other days doesn’t run good at all. Eventually, the engine won’t ever run.” 

Did that mean I would lose all of my hearing? How soon? 

“There’s no way to predict it. Maybe yes, maybe no. Avoid salt. That pepperoni pizza? Maybe give it a pass.” 

On my own, on the Mayo Clinic website and some chat rooms and Wikipedia, I discovered that Ménière’s is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning if you’re subject to vertigo attacks and tinnitus, and your ability to hear worsens with time (dipping first for the low tones, then the high), and there isn’t anything else identifiably wrong with you . . . well, then we may as well call it Ménière’s. There’s nothing else to call it. The condition—such as it is, remains vastly overdiagnosed. Fifty years from now it will be ten conditions, each with a different prognosis. Some will involve pain in the ears and some won’t. Some will resolve over time and others will progress. 

Over weeks of emailing doctors, calling in a second opinion, then a third, I learned there’s no reliable test for Ménière’s, no reliable treatment, and no consensus on its cause. Low-salt diets and diuretics may help to prevent attacks, but few studies support their effectiveness. Regular steroid injections through the drum of the ear possibly reduce the frequency of vertigo, but they won’t do anything for the ringing in your ears or the loss of your hearing. Repeated injections have been known to damage the ear, often badly. They don’t work for everyone. They didn’t work for me. 

What really damages your ears is destroying their function completely with the antibiotic gentamicin. This is a last resort doctors have turned to when the vertigo is unremitting—when it literally never stops. They will not use it, however, if the patient has trouble with both ears, which I did. In such situations, few options remain, save the search for a new treatment, a more specific diagnosis. 

When Jonathan Swift had the condition, at least one doctor blamed it on eating too many apples. Sweetness cloys the brain to madness. Medicine, at least based on the PubMed articles I was reading, had not advanced leaps in the last three hundred years, at least not in regards to Ménière’s. 

And for a while, back in Boston, it hardly mattered: my hearing was fine. There was a little roaring in one ear or the other on odd days, but nothing extravagant. I had vertigo attacks without much warning but they didn’t happen often, maybe once a month. I took a Valium or a Dramamine and it passed. 

Only when we moved to Colorado did the life I had built, or was trying to build, collapse from the weight of the thing in my head. The symptoms grew stronger. New doctors told us they would have favored Ménière’s as a diagnosis, but there were complications. The typical Ménière’s patient—to the extent such a person exists—maintains relatively stable hearing levels over short periods of time. I didn’t. My hearing came and went by the hour. The typical Ménière’s patient experiences no fluctuation in hearing outside of discrete vertigo attacks. I wasn’t typical. 

I let them pierce my eardrums and tap my spine. After several protracted days of vertigo, I asked Elisa to drive me to the emergency room. They sent me home. 


Elisa and I held hands in the waiting room at House Ear Clinic outside Beverly Hills. We had arrived with time to spare. I filled out the paperwork with an unsteady hand. Neither of us could calm ourselves to read. My thoughts leapt around but didn’t make solid shapes. 

The specialist entered the examination room as confident as I’ve ever seen a man. He looked in my eyes, in my ears, he asked me questions. 

“Do loud sounds especially bother you?”


“Have you been treated for ear infections?” 

“As a kid. Long ago.” 

“Okay. Okay, I think we can get you fixed up.” 

I was led to a larger room where a technician fed a tube into my nose with a tiny camera on its end, fishing for data. The specialist suspected a crack in the hard bone that protects the ear. We tested for it. We also tested for a hole in the tiny ducts that carry fluid from one part of the ear to another. I was too strung out by then to remember the details of the tests, only that I had to sit very still and think my thoughts, which were not thoughts but fears. 

“We’ve ruled out superior canal dehiscence and we’ve ruled out the perilymph fistula,” the specialist said when we met again in his office. He looked over the chart for a moment in silence, then wheeled his chair to face me. 

“You are welcome,” he said, “to come and see me anytime. But I don’t think I can be of any further help in diagnosing what’s affecting you.” 

I couldn’t get my head around it. I said nothing. 

“I am recommending a rheumatologist. I don’t think this is Ménière’s disease to the extent that I’m familiar with it, but see if you can get an appointment while you’re still in town. She’ll take good care of you.” 

I asked him to clarify—should I come back to see him after I’d talked with this other doctor? 

He didn’t shake his head, but he did sigh a little. 

There was a car-sized model of the human ear outside the clinic. I stared at its coin sack of a cochlea while Elisa called the rheumatologist. Could we come back in two months? Trying not to feel defeated—we both tried hard—we climbed into the rental car and drove to Santa Monica, talking about how of course it had to be an autoimmune condition, of course it did. We traded miracle-cure stories about people we knew with autoimmune problems, or people we’d just heard talked about. I knew the drill now—two months spinning in the dark would pass a little easier than last time. And hey, we’d get to come to LA again. I still had a line of credit. Once I was cured, I could work three times as hard. I could get the corporate kind of job I used to have before I started teaching, the kind of job that pays a living wage. We would be okay. 

After dinner, we sat on the beach and watched the sun dab its pinks. Everyone stopped to watch: kids with sunburns, waiters in pressed shirts, tourists with Leicas, locals with Leicas; in between them, outnumbering them, sat the people who lived on the beach. I’d been to Santa Monica before, and like everyone I noticed all the homeless residents ringed with worn-out shopping bags and surplus blankets. The swollen ankles of sick livers. Their fate keeps the rest of the country tapping keyboards and running cards with grim smiles on our faces. I wanted to talk with them. But I couldn’t understand strangers’ voices the way I used to. I felt too self-conscious. 

Suicide may be a cruelty to those around me, but I saw it as a kindness: they wouldn’t have to watch someone they loved fall irreparably apart. I might wake up totally deaf tomorrow, throwing Elisa into a three-month confusion of cochlear implants, a hundred slow walks from the car to the clinic, prematurely aging us until we naturally aged in place. My vertigo might become intractable, something she couldn’t manage on her own; I didn’t want her to pay for my convalescence, or make my mother waste her retirement years looking after me. To dismiss suicide was to give fate more rein, to give up what small power I still had against the course of my life. 

And so the urge to get to know the people who lived on the beach was selfish: one way of breaking through this haze of feeling so worthless would be to come to understand other people whose own lives had fallen apart; my human sympathy would warm, and I’d come to see that if the lives of the broken had value, intrinsic value, my own life might too, because, after all, wasn’t I part of humanity? The phrase fellow creature, and the tenderness of that phrase applied to me too, no? Self-pity is not contemptible in a sane world, not when it keeps you from killing yourself. In any case, I’ve never felt guilty when I pitied someone else—they’re entitled to your tenderness. Aren’t you entitled to a tenderness of your own measure, a self-indulgent tenderness? 

Instead, I was cruel to myself and to everyone else, because the world was cruel (like the father in a book—I can’t remember which book—who beats his deaf son because, “He has to learn that what he does not hear, he will feel”). 

We didn’t have enough pity for one another. The woman on my left with the matted dreads and the seven layers of makeup: why was she consigned to a life outside society while rich criminals redecorated neo-Palladian estates in Trousdale? You could walk to Trousdale from here. And yet by no higher order than mere chance, she was left alone and Trousdale Man was ensconced in fripperies. 

Tourists surged past me, and shopkeepers and the thoughtful retirees of this town, all their eyes averted from the homeless. There is no squaring pity: we’re invisible to one another because of self-sympathy. And yet that self-sympathy keeps us sane. My thoughts were a mess about this, my feelings were a mess. I wanted to keep from monologizing to Elisa about it like I had on nights before. I vowed to myself we’d talk about the play instead, about life. 

In his 1906 novel of mountain travel, translated by Alan Turney as The Three Cornered World, Natsume Sōseki’s narrator floats down the Ōi River toward Yoshida and muses to himself: 

If you stood on the approach to the Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo, which hundreds of people cross every minute, and were able to elicit from each individual that went past what turmoil and confusion lay buried in his heart, you would find yourself bemused by the knowledge of what this world can do to a man, and life would become unbearable. 

I wanted to stay on this beach until nothing scared me. Elisa pulled me to my feet. I followed to the car. 


At the hotel, Elisa and I were careful not to talk about the clinic. She lay in bed reviewing her lines. 

I said, “I love how Aaron can mix registers, as an actor I mean. He’s so mild-mannered in real life. Where does he get all that emotion from?” 

Elisa looked pained. “You compliment Aaron all the time. But you never compliment me. You’re always like aaa ooo eee, here’s what you’re doing wrong.” 

I defended myself: “He’s been acting for twenty years.” 

“You’re not listening.”

“Sure I am.”

“No, you’re not.” 

“I’m right here, I’m listening.” 

“No, you’re not, because I’ve been saying this all year: I’m saying I want you to believe in me.” 

I kept thinking I had. I kept thinking I’d said it. How could I pay attention to the feelings of others? In the state I was in, all I could do was not walk into traffic. Fuck the drivers. 

“Look,” I flailed my arms. “I’m sorry I can’t be more sensitive. I’m—I’m going through some stuff right now.” “I’m going through it with you,” she said. “I’ve been going through it with you the whole time. It wouldn’t kill you to be nice to me.” 

She was hurt. I said I knew she’d been there for me all the while and I felt guilty about it. I wanted to get well and buy a new suit and make some money so she could write poem after poem. I didn’t feel like myself; I wanted the way I felt not to be myself. 

“Then try not to be so impatient with me. You yell at me. Like if you need me to make a phone call for you, you say do it right now. You yell at me if I can’t do it right away.” 

It ended in the best way, as our talks often did, with me stroking her hair and apologizing. We have a private language designed to soothe, much of which has to do with the proposition that Elisa is, in fact, a cat, one very dear to me. We talked about this until we were both calm. I put my arm around her and she set her head against my chest. 

She said, “Don’t you think I’d be lonely without you?” 

She said, “That rheumatologist has an office in Beverly Hills. Rich people get all the good doctors.” 

She said, “Why is a pickle container never completely closed?” 


On the night we were set to perform the play at Lighthouse—a writing center in an old mansion on Capitol Hill in Denver—I busied myself with my headphones in the office we were using as a greenroom. I had a small acting role in the performance, and I like to zone out before I act. Since college I’d readied myself by playing some Gavin Bryars on headphones, a little ritual. 

Bryars is a minimalist composer who sometimes makes pieces that sound fourteenth century. They’re often old mandolin things he’s set for cello and strings. These particular settings, Oi me lasso, are full of cathedral echoes. It settles my pulse, relaxes me the way petting Elisa’s hair relaxes me. It allows me to hold a single thought in my head at once. 

But I couldn’t get it loud enough to distinguish. If you picture sound waves as mountains, I could hear only the summits, incoherent without the rest. As I fussed with the controller, the sounds thinned out and distorted. 

I knew Elisa was speaking but I couldn’t make out the words. 

“Are you speaking loudly or quietly?”


Aaron: “Listen John, we know your cues. We can just kick your legs under the table if you miss them. Right, Elisa?” 

How could this be the same world as the one I woke into, the one where it seemed as though my ears would be okay for the day? To Aaron and Elisa it looked the same—they didn’t even think about their ears. They didn’t walk into rooms and panic at the acoustics, or get spooked by a sound of rubbing inside their heads, one that would steal low tones from them any moment. They didn’t feel that sick feeling when you’re sitting two feet from a voice you didn’t know had been speaking, a voice that sent the room into action, got heads nodding, your head the only head that didn’t nod, your head the only one stuffed with cotton, one-fifth dead to the music of reality, the shuffles and scrapes that swayed listeners the way wind sways trees. 

We walked upstairs. As soon as we joined our audience, Aaron boisterously went around shaking hands. “Hi, I’m the designated mourner. Good to meet you, I’m the designated mourner.” 

Like that, the play began. The characters soliloquize most of the time, only sometimes addressing each other, correcting each other or falling over each other’s lines, the way couples do when they tell the same story. 

At one point, Elisa and Aaron, a couple in crisis, argue about what went wrong, and Aaron bangs the table. He banged it hard that night, shouting, “Jesus Christ, will you stop bothering me?” Elisa started crying. We hadn’t rehearsed that. 

I heard my cue, delivered my line, and disappeared downstage during intermission. My character doesn’t appear in the final act. When I returned, an hour later, the applause had died down and the room was a chaos of conversation. Aaron and Elisa circulated. Smiling attendees shook their hands. 

A woman I didn’t know approached me and started talking. Later, I learned she was the arts editor at our local public radio station. I couldn’t understand her. I took my hearing aids out, thinking I’d be spared the echoes, but I still couldn’t understand her—she was too faint. I leaned in, cupped my ear, felt tired. I heard Elisa laugh, the laugh she laughs when she’s really happy: that sound cut through the cloud, and so I moved in her direction. I couldn’t hear what Elisa said either, even when I asked her to shout, lean in and shout, really shout. 

One after another, new people approached me and moved as though they were praising the play. If I was lucky enough to catch a stray word, I made a general statement about that word and hoped it counted as conversation. I pointed to my ears, apologized. I stood there in the warm burble of inaudible voices and shook my head. It went on like that for a long time. 

Excerpted from Losing Music: A Memoir by John Cotter. Copyright © 2023. Available from Milkweed Editions.

John Cotter

John Cotter is the author of the memoir Losing Music, published by Milkweeds Editions, portions of which have appeared in Raritan, Catapult, Indiana Review, and Guernica. His novel, Under the Small Lights, was published by Miami University Press in 2010, and his fiction, essays, criticism, and theater pieces have appeared–or will soon– in New England Review, Epoch, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Georgia Review, Adroit, The New York Times, and Commonweal.

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