How to Learn My Love Language

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[theme music]
anna martin

From the New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. This week’s essay is written by a Deaf man who’s been let down by every lover he’s ever had. And then he meets this one guy who just might give him everything he’s ever wanted.

The essay is written by Ross Showalter and read by Joshua Castille, who’s an incredible Deaf actor. But I hope you listen really closely to this one. It’s called “A Love Language Spoken with Hands.” It starts out, “On a gloomy January day, my phone lit up. Will had texted me a video.”

joshua castille

Will had texted me a video. Something clenched in my stomach. In the solitude of my bedroom, I hunched over my phone and pressed “play.” In the video, Will stepped back from his phone camera. He wore a striped polo shirt. He signed slowly, carefully, “Hi, how are you? I’m good. Thank you, my friend Ross.”

[music]

When he finished fingerspelling my name, nervous relief flooded his face. I couldn’t really believe it. Will had texted me a few days ago to say that he’d been teaching himself sign language. And I had felt a shock of surprise followed by suspicion. I am a Deaf person. For the past 10 years since I turned 18, hearing men have flirted with me and taken me out on dates.

The only thing they have in common is the promise they all make: “I’ll learn sign language for you.” Not one of them followed through. Not one signed up for a class or studied the texts which I suggested.

As a child, I learned to lip read, parse words from lip movements and shreds of residual hearing. I had speech lessons all through high school. When I communicate in spoken language, I am conforming to society — one dependent on sound. All the men I have dated rely on the fact that I speak. They didn’t need to do work to communicate with me because I’ve done the work for them.

Will is different. Will is the first man in nine years to learn sign language for me. I press “play” again on the video and watch Will’s careful signing, his fingerspelling, his nervous relief at the end. I watched again and again until my disbelief evaporated.

I met Will on Twitter. He lived one state away. At first, we DM’d each other. And then we texted each other late into the night as the pandemic raged beyond our doors. When I started texting with Will, I was grieving a messy separation from a college professor who said they wanted to learn sign language for me.

I told them they didn’t have to. I don’t want to hold anyone to a promise they don’t mean. And I don’t want to be disappointed when they don’t keep their word. I gave them resources and encouraged questions. But they never asked me the questions or sent a single video.

After four months, I gave up, angry that I’d been lied to once again. Before the professor, a finance manager baffled me when he said, “I’ll learn sign language for you.” Before the finance manager, a nurse said he would take sign language classes. Before that, a social worker said the same thing. And before that, so did a data analyst.

It feels overdramatic to say that a lie threads through most of my dating life. But no other phrase captures the truth. When I told Will about the professor, he said that it’s intolerable. If someone wants to be in a relationship with you, the very least they could do is make an effort to communicate with you. And someone agreeing to do it and then not doing it puts all the obligation of communication on you.

I took the train down to his city in mid-April. I hadn’t left my house in over a year. I got on the train because I wanted a change. When I finally met Will, he was taller than I expected. He hugged me tight. And I smelled musk.

In my hotel room, we got to talking. And he reached across the table and grasped my hands. Sitting there, Will was more beautiful than any video could capture. It was hard for me to believe that he was real.

Desire collected weight in my gut. And I couldn’t help but graze his palms with my fingers. I wanted to touch him. I wanted to feel him. I wanted him.

Later, he jumped up from the bed. I want to try something, he said. I knew immediately what he meant. I sat up and planted my chin in my hands.

Will signed every letter of the alphabet from A to Z.

He did J backwards. He confused G with Q. And I had to show him H. But I took it in with a smile.

After his index finger sliced a Z through the air, I got up from the bed and kissed him. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until someone shows you. Sometimes you don’t think it can even exist.

Will and I aren’t dating, technically. He likes to call our relationship a middle ground, a space between friendship and romance. We live miles apart. And we try to be pragmatic. Still, Will sends me sign language videos, two or three a week.

Seven months after we started talking, Will registered for an online sign language class. The YouTube videos aren’t enough anymore, he texted. I want structure. I want a teacher. I want a class. I want more.

Reading his text in that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the professor, the financial manager, and all the ones who had failed to follow through. And I wondered what they would look like signing. I feel a small prick of disappointment whenever I think about them.

There was a blur of false promises. And then there was Will, crystal clear. Will was signifying something more. I hadn’t believed him when he told me he was teaching himself sign. But then he showed me something I could believe in.

Even with Will taking a sign language class, I still feel disbelief and worry. One person cannot undo nine years of frustration. I worry about Will growing tired of signing to a phone camera. I worry that he’ll wake up one day and decide I’m not worth this work and leave me. Will could become part of the blur, another reason for me not to trust men who can hear.

But right now, Will shows me that maybe I can believe people when they say they want to do the work for me. Will did something instead of promising it.

And he made me think twice about being dismissive of other people’s intentions. Whenever Will sends me a video of him signing, it’s as if he’s saying: “The world can be a better place than you think.

Let me show you.”

anna martin

After the break, I talk with Ross about his journey with sign language and get an update on him and Will. That’s next.

Ross Showalter was born to hearing parents. At his local school, he was the only Deaf child, so Ross took speech lessons and learned to read lips to communicate with the hearing world. But these days, he prefers to express himself by signing. I don’t know ASL, so Ross invited a sign language interpreter to our conversation. And I greeted Ross by signing, “Hi, nice to meet you.”

ross showalter

It’s nice to meet you too.

anna martin

That was my first bit of sign language I’ve ever learned.

ross showalter

Oh, that’s great to know. Oh, my god. Thank you. I’m so flattered. Thank you for showing that to me.

anna martin

There were so many YouTube videos to choose from.

ross showalter

Yeah, it can be overwhelming sometimes.

anna martin

We settled in with me listening close.

Well, Ross, I’m really interested in your journey with sign language, with ASL.

ross showalter

Mm-hm.

anna martin

When you were growing up, you focused a lot on learning spoken English through those speech lessons and through lip reading, so your fluency with ASL wasn’t super high, right?

ross showalter

It wasn’t. It wasn’t. When I was about, I think, 19 to about 23, 24, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent just because I was out of practice.

anna martin

You were out of practice. So tell me about the process of gaining fluency.

ross showalter

I think the moment when I really kind of decided to become fluent, I kind of started going to Deaf events after kind of a dry spell, honestly.

anna martin

Hm, so you started going to Deaf events with other Deaf people.

ross showalter

Exactly. And I remember I went to go see a play. And I just remember kind of going in and being surrounded by all these Deaf people and just kind of being able to latch in on every conversation that I could, you know, and being like, oh, my god, I can’t understand all these signed conversations that are happening around me.

And so I think that feeling of emotion and that kind of feeling of full and complete understanding, and kind of the validation that I got in that was really what pushed me to become more and more fluent in ASL.

anna martin

Right, because in your life with hearing people, you’re struggling to be a part of conversations. But then at this play, you’re surrounded by other Deaf people. And you can understand them. And you’re saying this play, this event, motivated you to get even better at ASL.

ross showalter

Mm-hm. I think before I then, it was more of something that I was interested in. But it wasn’t really something that I was committed to until I realized, like, oh, OK, this is what it’s like to be able to enter a Deaf space or a space where Deaf people are present and to be able to be a part of the conversation anytime I want.

anna martin

Hm. Did becoming fluent in ASL change how you saw yourself?

ross showalter

I think it really did kind of change how I saw myself, because I also have some body image issues. And so I think I kind of struggled with my body to kind of drive toward something more. It allowed me to see myself and my body as more than just a body.

anna martin

Tell me more about what it feels like when you’re using your body in that way.

ross showalter

Well, I mean, it feels beautiful, you know? I mean, it feels like — yeah, it just feels right.

anna martin

It feels right. What can you communicate through ASL that you feel like you can’t communicate through vocalizing?

ross showalter

[LAUGHS] A lot.

anna martin

You laugh. You’re like, a lot. [LAUGHS]

ross showalter

[CHUCKLES]:: I think there’s a real sense of vividness that I think that you get out of ASL that I think I struggle to find in the kind of linear structure of English.

anna martin

Hm. There’s a sense of vividness in ASL that you can’t find in spoken English. Why do you think that is?

ross showalter

I think that’s because some are a person’s emotion. And some are about a person’s state of being. And some are about the context around what a person is saying, so much of that is communicated through the face.

anna martin

Hm. I’m curious how much ASL you use in your daily life now.

ross showalter

Well, I actually just moved in with a Deaf roommate.

anna martin

OK, a Deaf roommate.

ross showalter

So my use of ASL is constant. Like, I’m signing every day quite a bit. And I [EXPLETIVE] love it. Oops, sorry.

anna martin

No, you can say that [LAUGHS]. You can say that.

ross showalter

I love it. [LAUGHS] And yeah, I just really love being able to kind of come home to a space where everything’s available to me. I kind of dreamed about that space for so long. And so to have it was like, yes, like, I’m here.

anna martin

Your essay was about ASL and your romantic relationships. Are you still dating Will, the guy from the essay?

ross showalter

I am. I am. We just made about a year together, you know, about a year of seeing each other. And it has been the most wonderful year I can say that I’ve ever had with a person. And it’s also my longest relationship to date, which means that I must be doing something right.

anna martin

Well, he must be doing something right too. And these days, how are you and Will communicating?

ross showalter

We are communicating in a mixture of sign language and English.

anna martin

Do you think Will would have a different understanding of you if you could fully communicate in ASL with him? Would he a know a slightly different Ross?

ross showalter

Honestly, yeah. I am 100 percent different in ASL than I am in English. I consider myself, like, a much more quiet, introverted, thoughtful person in English. In ASL, I am pretty loud. And you know, I can crack a pretty dirty joke.

So at the beginning of the relationship, I very much said to him, you know, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. If this is too hard for you, you can stop if you want to. And he said, no, I want to do this because if I don’t do this, I won’t be as close to you as I want to be. So yeah, I think the relationship just is so much more vivid because he just sees me the way I want to be seen.

[music]
anna martin

Ross, I so enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

ross showalter

Thank you for having me.

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, Elyssa Dudley, Christina Djossa and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell, who also created the Modern Love theme music. Original music in this episode by Marion Lozano. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly.

Special thanks to Anna Diamond and Audm, and to Ross Showalter’s ASL interpreter, Saamanta Derna. The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

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