It’s the middle of the week and Sharon gets a call from the interpreting agency she works for. Since the quarantine began, she has declined several jobs she has been offered, many of which take place in crowded hospitals where protective gear is scarce. Sharon doesn’t have to weigh the pros and cons to know that the risk is greater than the reward, but when she hears about the client she’ll be interpreting for, she knows she won’t decline this job.
Sharon is the child of Deaf adults, and sign language is her first language. She grew up in a Deaf household where the doorbell was a light that flickered and where closed captioning flashed at the bottom of every TV show. A household where TTY technology and video-relay services were a way of life before video conferencing became mainstream. Though she herself is hearing, her upbringing within Deaf culture is her most defining characteristic. Her job as an interpreter is a labor of love.
Sharon combs her long blonde hair and looks at herself in the mirror. She hasn’t left her house in weeks. She remembers to take off her jewelry and file her nails and forgo any products with a strong scent. Before heading downstairs, she remembers hospitals are cold, so she grabs a sweater. She walks over to her dad and waves her hands. He doesn’t notice her, so she turns the lights on and off to get his attention. She tells him she’s got an interpreting assignment and might be home late.
Isolation has been particularly difficult for Sharon’s father, a gregarious Deaf man who communicates by signing and lipreading. For him, the world is now lonelier. Though he is not a stranger to the isolation that comes from language barriers, the pandemic has taken a toll on him. Mandatory mask orders have made running simple errands nearly impossible, as he can’t rely on facial expressions and lipreading.
When Sharon steps outside, she notices that the hood of her Hyundai Elantra is covered in a thick film of pollen. It’s been sitting under a Magnolia tree. The tree’s branches extend far over the driveway. Sharon gets in the car, turns on the radio, and heads north. The highway is clear because of the stay-at-home order. While she breezes through the traffic-free miles, her mind drifts to her client, a deafblind woman she has interpreted for on numerous occasions. Sharon is one of few adept tactile interpreters in her area, a form of interpreting that requires intimacy, as both the interpreter and the client are in close proximity to one another, communicating by signing into each other’s palms.
Once in the hospital, Sharon is overwhelmed by a rush of emotions. She has been in isolation so long that the world around her is dizzying. Colors are brighter. Sounds are louder. The sensory overload, a by-product of isolation, is almost paralyzing. But she takes a few breaths and brings herself to zero. She has an important job to do.
In the hospital, Sharon sits across from her client and begins fingerspelling into her palm. The client moves her hands abruptly and interrupts her. She appears to have much to say before their session begins. Visibly afraid, she moves her hands erratically. She tells Sharon that one of her symptoms is difficulty breathing. As the doctor and nursing staff come in and out of the room, Sharon stays by her side and tries her best to comfort her.
Downstairs in the lobby, the air is cold and sterile, even more so than usual. Everyone seems on-edge. Sharon stands in a corner and is afraid to touch anything. Before leaving, a nurse tells her to take care. Although most of the nurse’s face is covered, Sharon can see her furrowed brow and a look of genuine concern.
Sharon walks across the parking lot and gets into her car, where she hugs the steering wheel and weeps. She doesn’t know what’s pouring out of her. She just knows she can’t stop. Though she has washed her hands thoroughly, she’s afraid to wipe the tears from her face.
When she arrives home, she removes her clothes and shoes at the door. She rushes to the bathroom, where she washes her hands again. She feels depleted.
During the fourteen days that follow, Sharon monitors her body for symptoms of Covid-19. As concerned as she is for her own safety, she can’t stop thinking of her client, of her hands, of how every emotion was literally palpable.
Sharon will tell you that even though isolation has metastasized across the globe, for some it has always been there—in the faces of people like her client, and in her dad’s face, when his eyes dart back and forth, trying to capture movement long enough to turn it into words.
It’s been fourteen days, and Sharon doesn’t have any physical symptoms; however, some things have changed. Lately, she finds herself increasingly aware of the world around her. Time alone has given her pause. And although she longs for some semblance of normalcy, her increased empathy is a by-product she intends to keep. As she grapples with her own isolation, she redirects her thoughts to her father, and to people like him. She imagines that what she’s feeling now, others have been feeling all along.
She thinks back on that day often. Though she has communicated with deafblind people countless times, something about that encounter still lingers. When she closes her eyes, she’s back in that sterile room and sitting across from her client. She can still feel the woman’s hands. The desperation in her touch.
Annell López is a Dominican immigrant. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Cagibi, Crack The Spine, Ponder Review, Bending Genres, The New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. Annell is an Assistant Poetry Editor for The Night Heron Barks. She is working on a collection of short stories. In her free time, She tours independent bookstores across the United States and documents her bookish adventures on Instagram. Follow her: @annellthebookbabe.