Erin perched on the edge of my ink-stained desk, and haloing wispy platinum hair, the Thai sun crept in through gold curtains behind her. I had not gotten used to this yet, the relentlessness of the light. Leaning in to smell the spiced pear candle–my one vestige of North American Christmas–she got that thoughtful crease in her forehead.
“It’s not the photography that makes me insecure anymore.” She shook her head, dipping an absent finger in the wax and jerking it back when it was hot. “I see something, I can envision it, and I know what I have to do to get it. But even the things I see. It’s just fashion. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s weird and artsy. But what does it mean?”
“Scoot over a bit.”
After I opened another tab in Chrome, next to the YouTube video on American Deaf humor, she typed some words into the bar.
White digital space appeared. Wide as a sky or a hospital room ceiling, everything crisp, clean. Women ranged the page, women caught in forever sensuous youth with crimped perms, racer muscles, amber tiger eyes–a photographic lineup of smileless, symmetric haute couture models.
“Like this one,” she said.
It was an enormous portrait of a purple-haired girl.
“What does that even mean?” She pointed, frowning at her own work like a narrow-eyed food critic lingering over a mouthful.
“Everything means something.”
I studied it. “But it’s beautiful.”
“But is that enough?”
Art for art’s sake, I think, though I don’t know how much advice I would actually take from Oscar Wilde.
“Just looking at her, though, the teal of the sky, her hair and makeup, the expression of her face. Even that stain on her finger. That’s a story,” I said.
She bit her cheek.
I developed my argument further with some descriptors, including “Americana,” “iconoclast,” and “nicotine-skinny,” and Erin’s face turned. By now, the light had fallen, and I could not see the meaning of the change. It was always that way in the house, endless gold brightness until it seemed, suddenly, someone had snuffed out the sun.
“Well, in that case, would Melody be free for a shoot?” she asked. “Her face has a story.”
A few Line exchanges later, a combination of Melody’s Thainglish and my hesitant signing, we hopped in Erin’s songthaew-sized truck, and I clung to the OMG-handle as she raced us across town to pick up Melody.
“Are the police after us or something?”
“Do you think she’ll feel weird posing?” she asked.
“Nah,” I said. “You should see her Instagram.”
Darting out from her dorm and down the crookedy cement road, Melody slid into the back seat.
Sawadee ka! The way she signed was both beautiful and confusing, a steady lyrical dance of the hands, no natural hesitations that served as Deaf punctuation. Have you eaten already?
I wai-ed in return, two hands to my chin. We already ate. You?
She smiled and nodded.
Ready for photos? We have some clothes for you to wear, and if you like, you can keep them afterwards.
Melody leaned forward slightly, smiling still. Not a girl of many words.
Once we were at the house, she whipped into the first round of clothes that Erin suggested and stood, a precise obedient self-moving statue, in the spot she was placed in. Erin could not sign, and Melody could not speak, but they never turned to me for help as I climbed the old Grecian column between our living room and kitchen, Insta-crazy that I am, for a snap of my own.
Click click click. Erin flew through what would have been rolls of film, pre-digital era, and marveling, hmm-ed to herself. “How does she know exactly what to do?”
I wanted to say the reason but did not know how. Or even, could I? I am not Deaf, I am not the true hard-of-hearing (almost deaf, usually Deaf-cultured) that many of my Thai friends assume I am. I am, forgive me, hearing through and through. But in the months of studying this language, this worldview, it seemed to me then that I understood how I did not understand. Because my brain is not as theirs is: a world of images. Of course, her face told a story. Voices do not need words.
It was a repeated pattern throughout the afternoon that, in whispered tones, Erin would remark in a sort of verbal jaw drop–“Gosh, she’s good.” Melody eventually stopped looking to her for directions and began to pose herself: lowered eyes over the shoulder; dead pan at the camera; arms crossed over her chest; away from the lamp, toward the window; with my street rescue, Jet, sitting with a strange intelligence in her arms; wide-brim hat drawn down, tilted over those dark eyes.
I have often since harbored a suspicion of words. How frail we are to impart our deepest meanings to tiny, slippery conveyors!
Erin wants to know if you are Thai, I asked at one point.
Hill Tribe, she said. When I am not at school, I live in the mountains.
Do your family members sign?
She shook her head.
It’s not a problem. They understand me.