I don’t remember when it started. My tinnitus, that is. Some say it’s like a ringing in the ears, but in my case, it’s more of a high-pitched tone. Sometimes it’s annoyingly loud and others it’s so quiet it almost disappears… almost. But it’s always there. I remember having it as a child. Sometimes I would embrace it when it blocked out the incessant droning of a teacher. Other times I could almost control the volume and lower the intensity to enable me to listen to a lecture that I found interesting, or a television program or film in which I was totally absorbed. But the tone was always with me.
Some say the cause is listening to loud music, or working in an exceptionally noisy environment, but neither of these was the cause of my tinnitus. If that were the case, it would have happened to me before I could remember. What parent would have been that irresponsible?
Please don’t feel sorry for me, though. It’s more of an old friend than an enemy; if it ever stopped, I think I’d be lost without it.
As the years progressed, I realized that it was more difficult to control if I was in a crowded room, or a movie theater, an airport, or a sports stadium. I just assumed it was all the opportunities for distraction… distractions that stopped me from concentrating and blocking or reducing the tone.
I never complained about it because I assumed that everyone had tinnitus. My reasoning was they never pitched a bitch about it, so why should I?
It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when it happened, eleventh grade if you prefer. In either case, I was seventeen when I met my first boyfriend. We became fast friends and told each other many personal aspects of our respective lives. For instance, we were both gay. (Duh.) We were also both virgins; in fact, we had never even touched another guy. In addition, although we were both raised as Catholics, we doubted the existence of any god or gods. We were in the closet about both being atheists and being gay, and we were going to remain there until our final college tuition checks cleared the bank. You see, we both are from very conservative and religious families.
It was strange that we hadn’t met sooner. As it turned out, we were in the same parish, Saint James. Marty’s family… oh yeah, Marty’s my boyfriend and I’m Jon. Sorry about that. Well anyway, Marty’s family lives in a different grammar school district than my family, so we didn’t meet until high school. In freshman and sophomore years, we didn’t have any classes together. In addition, Marty’s family always went to nine o’clock mass on Sunday mornings and my family went to the six o’clock evening mass on Saturdays.
It was about halfway through the semester and Marty and I were talking at lunch. I asked him how he deals with the constant tone in his ears. He froze in place, looked at me in the most peculiar way and asked, “How did you know I had tinnitus?”
“Tin-what?” I answer.
“Tinnitus. It’s a ringing in your ears. How did you know I had it? Do I have a ‘tell’ or something?”
“Yeah, did I do something that told you I had tinnitus?”
“No… I just assumed that everyone has it… Don’t they?”
Marty tried to hide his ever-growing grin. “That’s not the way it works, Jon. Only ten or twelve percent of the people in the U.S. have it.”
“Really?” I asked incredulously, “I’ve had it all my life, so I just thought… you know…”
“All your life? That’s unusual. I’ve had mine for as long as I can remember too. Go figure.”
“No kidding? What do you do to send it to the background?”
“Well, I have better luck if only a few people are around. It seems that when more people are around, it gets louder.”
“Yeah, me too. That’s why I hang out in the library so much. Not many people seem to spend much time there… other than around finals.”
“Ha ha! Yeah. Say Jon, do you like hiking?”
“Great segue! Ha ha. Yes, why do you ask?”
“Well, I know a place where no one else is around and I’ve been able to completely stop the ringing.”
“Wow! I’d love to go there!” Then I whispered, “Wait! Are you trying to seduce me? Please say you are…” then in my normal voice I added, “Let’s see, today’s Friday, how about tomorrow?”
He laughs and says, “That’d be great! But I have to mow the lawn in the morning, so meet me at my house around ten. I should be finished by then.” Then Marty lowered his voice and added, “As for the seduction, we’ll have to wait and see,” and he followed it with an evil grin.
I laughed and then told him, “That sounds great, but I have to be back by five so I can clean up for mass.”
“We should be back in plenty of time,” he assured me.
The bell ending lunch sounded and we got up to leave for our afternoon classes. As we walked off in opposite directions, I turned and looked over my shoulder for one last glance at Marty. When I did, I saw that Marty was doing the same. We smiled at each other before continuing on our separate ways.
After school, Marty and I walked home together. We live only a couple of blocks away from each other, but, as I said earlier, that was enough to put us in different grammar schools. I think we met just when we needed each other most. As we got to Marty’s street, we did our usual fist-bump, but before I started on my way again, Marty reminded me of the dance at school that evening. “I’ll pick you up at seven,” he told me. I gave him a thumbs-up and we went home.
= = =
The dance was fun, but it would have been better if I could have danced with Marty instead of just the girls who kept stopping by. We left about an hour or so after we got there. It was too early to go home, so I thought nothing of it when Marty drove off in the wrong direction. Before I knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot of a gay bar. “Marty, we’ll never get in there,” I told him.
“No, but we can park in the back of the lot without attracting attention.”
Marty was right; not only did no one pay attention to us, but I also saw some activity in a couple of cars around us. After he parked, Marty suggested that we get in the back seat, away from the console. As I started to open the door, he said, “No, dude, like this.” And then he leaned his seat all the way back and just slid across it, into the back seat. Then he patted the seat next to him and, good dog that I am, I shrugged and did the same.
Marty took my hand and when we turned to look at each other, I stole a kiss from him. After that, we just leaned against each other and sat in silence for a few minutes. Nothing was going to happen; we both knew it. We just wanted to be with each other. It’s been so difficult these last few months. We’re both gay, we like each other, but we’re scared to death to do more than kiss. Our parents would know for sure… at least that what we think. And to be honest, just sitting with each other is enough to make us happy. We’ve done this before a few times. Not in the car; on a bench in the park near our homes. It’s funny. We hold hands and sit together silently for a while, and then when it’s time to go home, we start talking a mile a minute. Neither of us wanting to go, but we know it has to happen. Tonight is no different. We share a few more kisses before we slide back into the front seat for the ride home.
“Jon, you’re gonna love the hike tomorrow. Bring a sandwich and something to drink. I don’t think there’s a Burger King for miles.”
“That sounds perfect. I’m gonna wear shorts… or do I need blue jeans for the hike?”
“Nah, shorts are fine.”
We talk for several more minutes, and then Marty started the car. Before we drove off, I gave him the final kiss of the night. We doubted that anyone would see us, but neither of us wanted to chance getting caught kissing in front of my house.
= = =
When I woke up Saturday morning, I took a quick shower before I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen. Dad was reading the Sports pages and Mom had the Family Living section. Mom looked up when I entered.
“Good morning, Mom; good morning, Dad. Is anything interesting in the paper this morning?”
“My, you’re up early for a Saturday,” Mom comments, “No, just the usual.”
Dad looked up at the kitchen clock; it read 8:05. Then looking at me he said, “When I was your age I had to be dragged out of bed kicking and screaming on a Saturday morning. Is something special going on? Is the Rapture coming early? Hehe.”
I laughed at Dad’s comment and said, “No… I don’t think so,” and I paused for effect before I said, “Marty and I are going on a hike this morning and I have to be at his house by ten.”
“Oh, that sounds like fun,” Mom says, “Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure, to be honest. It’s a place that Marty found; he says he goes there to ‘commune with nature’, whatever that means. Hehe.”
Dad took a sip of his coffee and said, “Be home in time to clean up before mass, son.”
“No problem, Dad, I already told Marty and he said we’d make it with time to spare.”
“Jon, your father and I had pigs in a blanket. Would you like some?”
“Yes, please!” I said excitedly. “They’re my favorite!”
“Well, get a plate and silverware and sit down. They won’t take long. And get a glass for your milk.”
I did as instructed and Mom was right. Almost as soon as I sat down, she was putting the food on my plate. All I had to do was add butter and syrup and I was a happy camper.
= = =
After breakfast, I made a couple of sandwiches and packed them in my backpack with the two apples and two bottles of water that were already there. It was only 9:00 am, but I was impatient and left for Marty’s place. I knew he said 10:00, but maybe I could help him finish the lawn and we could leave earlier. Marty was surprised to see me, but we were on our way at 9:40, so my plan worked.
Marty was dressed like I was – T-shirt, khaki shorts and hiking boots. We each had our backpacks and our smartphones, as well as our lunch and water. Marty gave me the coordinates for our destination so I wouldn’t keep asking if we were there yet. He he.
We talked about a lot of stuff on the walk, everything, from baseball to football to our schoolwork to hot guys we knew from school. We walked side by side when the path was wide enough, and Marty took the lead when we had to walk single file. That’s how we were when we finally arrived.
“I think we’re here. Check the map,” he said.
I glanced down at my phone and he was right. “Yep. We’re here,” I said.
I looked up and saw that Marty was squatting down and looking into his backpack for something… a bottle of water. As he pulled it out he said, “That wasn’t too bad; it only took an hour and a half. By the way, Jon, how’s your tinnitus now?”
“Wow! It’s gone! I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Is yours gone too?”
Marty stood and faced me. I heard him say, “Almost. I can only hear you.” As I said, I heard him say it, but he never opened his mouth; he never spoke a word!
“W-what? Oh… I get it – you’re a ventriloquist, right?”
“No. Remember a few minutes ago when I said, ‘I think we’re here. Check the map.’?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Jon, I didn’t say that to you. I was only thinking it… but you answered. I haven’t said a word since we got here. I’m not speaking now.”
“Does that mean I’m reading your mind?” I asked.
“I think so. Let’s see if this works two ways. Can you do it too? Think something, don’t speak it.”
I thought, ‘This is stupid,’ but when I was about to respond, Marty said, “Yeah, but indulge me, OK?”
“I think it works both ways,” I said. “Now what? How is this happening?”
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s related to our tinnitus. Let’s think about this… neither of us hears the tinnitus tone, but we can each hear the thoughts of the other. When we go home, let’s see when the tone returns, and if or when we can differentiate any added thoughts.”
“I get it. If we can hear other people’s thoughts, and as we hear more of them, the true tone will form again. But of course, we still have a couple more hours before we have to go home. Do you have any ideas as to what we should do in the meantime?”
“Yes,” he said. Then he pulled a red-checkered table tablecloth from his backpack and spread it on the ground. “Let’s have lunch and talk.”