Collins smacked Durand with the door leading out of the department. She apologized. Rubbing his shiny forehead, he grumbled something under his breath that sounded more apologetic than anything vulgar.
“How are you, sweetie,” he asked aloud.
In response, she sat on the stoop unable to utter a word. Durand joined her. Peering straight ahead, she could see in her periphery that her friend inched away from his usual close proximity.
“I feel no different really,” she Signed finally.
“Are you sure?”
“What do you mean, am I sure?”
“Well, it’s just, um, you seem distracted?”
Out groaned a chortle. Durand followed with a whispered snicker.
“Look around us.” She waved a pale hand at the University grounds where screams and chattering were usually heard. Now, dozens of quiet wandering bodies meandered with no apparent destination in mind or memory of their previous location in tow.
“It’s been a week since all this started. Nothing’s gotten better. They still don’t even know what this is.”
Durand rubbed his hands together letting her know he did not have the words he or she wanted.
“Come to think of it, it hasn’t progressed either.”
“Have you noticed,” she Signed. “There haven’t been any new cases. None of us are getting worse. At least I don’t feel any worse. It’s like the whole thing plateaued.”
She heard her friend swallow hard. It was clear he did not want to speak of her ailment. She did not know if she wanted to either, so she changed the subject.
“Did the Director talk to you yet?”
Clearly excited to be on a less morbid topic, he lit up.
“Yeah. What do you think?”
“Not sure, actually.”
“You’re not going to do it?”
“I need to do something. Suppose that’s what I should be doing, right? Besides, he’s not letting me teach till this all blows over. At least this will give me something to do in the meantime.”
“That’s the spirit,” he said, almost convincing them both of his mock excitement. “Truth is, I’m kinda glad you said you’d do it.”
“Don’t want to teach the seminar yourself? You’d be perfect.”
“Well, yes, that. And the fact that I already sent out the form message through the University’s mass email system.
“You did what?” Collins could not tell if she was impressed by his gumption or irritated at his assumption that she would say yes. Deep down, she knew he only meant well.
Nobody will actually show up anyway, she thought to herself.
She taught for years. Teaching was the only paying job she ever held. Still, she had no idea how to plan a lesson for Sign Language, or any language for that matter. With a Curriculum Vita spanning more than a dozen distinct courses in several different subjects, she felt her training wheels come off too early.
As stressful as the thought of teaching a subject she had no formal training in was, there remained a sense of need. Her boss’ falling apart in front of her and her watching the vagrant receive assistance from three students lead Collins to a feeling of seriousness, of permanency, or reality.
Having looked it up previously, out of sheer curiosity, Collins knew the University offered no Sign Language courses. No groups or clubs existed. Collins and Durand were two of the only Signing people in the area. She knew it was her job to do what was necessary. Durand was too busy; she was not.
Occasionally over the previous decade, Collins felt the pang of needed companionship. Growing up a hearing child in a house of deaf parents and deaf sibling, she adjusted to solitude and silence. Even the most hidden hermit seeks human interaction in moments of weakness.
All that sense of solitude melted away when she stumbled upon Durand.
Around midday during any semester, she could be found meandering down from her cubbyhole in the University library or from her cluttered office to the Union for lunch. One of the major drawbacks to being a vegetarian, she always had to cook her own meals. However, an upside to working on a university campus was that she was no longer the lone herbivore floating through the halls silently in the dark.
Where there is demand, there is supply. This supply came in the form of what Collins believed to be one of the best vegetarian restaurant shops in the area. For the first time in her life, she did not have to rely on her own forethought and ambition to prep for later lunches in the week. No longer did she have to rely on bag lunches.
Every day she bought her avocado tacos or grilled sun-dried tomato sandwiches and sat at the same small table. Always first on campus, she was always first to have lunchtime hunger pangs. That also meant she usually sat and enjoyed her meal the same way she enjoyed her research and her evenings in her apartment: alone.
One particular day, early spring, four years ago, Collins was biting into a cucumber sandwich with basil pesto mayonnaise when her eyes caught a short man in a parka too big for him ordering at the same vegetarian shop she ordered at so often.
Nothing unusual caught her attention at first. Her eyes just needed somewhere to fall as she bit into her lunch. Not wanting to start reading the book she brought with her just then, she watched the short man in the parka make his way to the cashier.
Handing the young cashier money, he fumbled, dropping much of his payment on the floor. She sat too far away from the encounter to hear him apologize before he scooted around the floor collecting the change he dropped. When, she assumed, he said he was sorry again, he lifted his right hand in a fist and rubbed it into his chest puffed out by his oversized coat.
She stopped chewing.
Nearly a dozen years passed since she witnessed another soul use Sign Language. Until that moment, she figured her knowledge of Sign disappeared with time as any skill does.
She watched the awkward man’s face redden as he handed the young woman the appropriate change. This time he did so without fail.
He took his tray, walked two steps from the cashier to make room for those lining up behind him, and stopped. He peered around the Union for a place to sit. She wondered if he was looking for anyone in particular or if there were just no empty tables. Before she realized what she had done, she waved at the red-faced man who looked more like a balding child in a lunchroom than a grown professor in the University eatery.
Unsure why, Collins spoke only in Sign to the man for the rest of the afternoon. They both taught, but neither had classes the rest of the day. Their conversation lasted well past their meals and the two subsequent cups of coffee each.
He was not deaf either, but they never used their tongues during their first encounter. Thinking back, Collins could not pinpoint the first time they spoke verbally to each other.
Durand, like Collins, grew up just outside of town. Like her, Durand went to college to escape the world. Before he met Collins, he did not even own a cellphone. Any attempt to contact him at all that did not involve cornering him in his office disappeared into the ether. Luckily for him, want for seclusion and repulsion to conflict was genetic.
Durand fell into learning languages. Sign Language just happened to be one of the many languages he studied. Until recently, though, no need arose for seminars teaching Sign.
Tonight, he would help her teach Sign to anyone who wanted to learn.