I count three people ahead of me in line and four people behind me. I breathe in through my nose and repeat the words “iced coffee” in my head over and over like I’m cleaning out a stain.
It’s my turn now. I swallow a lump of spit. I take a step forward and prepare to order. The cashier has light brown hair twisted into a long braid, perched on her right shoulder like a parrot. Her face is square and her skin is olive and I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. “Hi, what can I get for you?” Her voice sounds like a slushy from 7-Eleven, cold and refreshing with no frills.
I open my mouth slightly and try to sound out the word “iced” through an avalanche of pressure suddenly inflating in the back of my throat. “I-I-I…” I hate myself for getting nervous over this. “Um, I asked what can I get for you,” she says again, confused as if her first question caught me off guard. As if I hadn’t just waited in line to order. I smile and nod, a reflex I can’t control. My face feels hot, another reflex. She looks at me and I am speaking another language.
“I-I-I…” I’m trying to focus on saying the rest of my order, but I can’t help notice her thin eyebrows arch up. “Huh?” She honks at me like a car in traffic. I’m still pushing over here. Her gaze shifts to her fingernails tapping the ceramic tabletop like a metronome. I continue to make eye contact with her when I see her upper lip peel away from her front teeth. “What?” she says as she laughs like she’s unsure of herself. It is more of a chuckle, but it still echoes in my ears.
I flinch a little, but I know it’s O.K. I know it’s O.K. because it’s the same laugh time and time again. It is not malicious; it’s nervous and awkward and reminds me of a horrible first date. She laughed to remind me that in this weird limbo moment, she is there. It’s as if the more noise she can make, the more she can help fill my silence like filling up a water balloon. It’s as if this empty space where my words should be is her space, when it’s really mine.
When I’m stuttering, my jaw locks, I lose control of my tongue, and my lower back tenses like I’ve been sitting upright for hours. In between the words I can get out and the words I want to say, time lapses and my consciousness spills over the empty pit like hot coffee. I can feel my throat close up like an allergic reaction while I tilt my head more to the right to let whoever is waiting for my words know that I’m still with them, even though it feels like I’m not.
I have stuttered all my life and I have always had two distinct voices in my head: my fluent voice and my stuttered voice. My stuttered voice is broken and out of tune and sounds like shattered glass to my ears. It’s crude and does not know when to stop. My fluent voice is beautiful and exotic. It’s the sound of dripping water. It is deep, blue mountains and pomegranate skies, but it is a mirage. I don’t know which one came first. All I know is that my experiences tell me every time that even though they are both mine and come from the same body, they are not the same.
I was six or seven when I first went to speech therapy. The therapist’s name was Ms. Stacey and she had blonde shoulder-length hair that flared out from her jaw like an A-line dress. She had a voice that sounded like an all-American beauty pageant on a summer’s day. Her office was messy and reminded me of a treehouse. I don’t remember her face, and if I saw her now I surely wouldn’t recognize her as the first woman who tried to save me from myself.
Every time I opened my mouth, Ms. Stacey would tell me to relax. She would smile and say, “Don’t worry you’re doing great.” I wished she would relax. Throughout our year together, we went over how to breathe and how to speak on the exhale. We went over every sound in the dictionary and how to purse your lips, tap your tongue, and release your vocal folds. We read lists of words and sentences and repeated them until they molded so deeply into my mouth that they came out like water. On our last day of speech therapy, she said, “You have come so far and I am so proud of you. Do you remember that little girl who first came? She could barely get a word out and look at you now. Do you hear how you sound?” It was a compliment that made me feel something between filthy and bliss. She had taught me how to talk as if I didn’t know how to talk, as if what I was doing all this time wasn’t talking. It was stuttering, and the two are not the same.
In school, if I was called on to participate, I would pretend I didn’t know the answer because something told me it was better to be stupid than to stutter. During attendance, when the teacher would call my name, I couldn’t get the word “yes” out of my back molars, and I couldn’t find the vowels to say the word “here.” So I would nod and raise my hand, and if that didn’t work, I would pretend I didn’t hear. When hanging out with friends, I would ask the same question again, not because I forgot I had already asked, but because I, by chance, said it so fluently that I just needed to say it again. I built up all these techniques that were backed by anxiety and self-loathing. When I passed as “fluent,” I felt like a fraud, yet when I stuttered, I felt guilty. I had gone to speech therapy. I practiced reading every night in front of the mirror. I loosened my tongue, took deeper breaths, and inflated my cheeks, but I still stuttered.
I was willing to give up everything to feel fluent, to feel the vibrations of my vocal chords to tickle through my tongue like electricity and out my teeth like hookah. I imagined that was how everyone else talked. Yet the more I seemed fluent to everyone else, the more everything felt off. The more I tried to hide stuttering, the more it drained me. I didn’t understand why talking was so hard. If I was really meant to say these things, why did it not come to me like it came to everyone else?
When I was 11 years old, I went to a casting audition. It was early in the morning and my stomach felt like a washing machine as my mom and I walked in through dirty glass doors. My mom checked me in and before I knew it, I was called into a dark studio with five other kids. We stood awkwardly at the front of the room, facing camera and lights, as if we were all suspects in a police lineup. “Emily?” A woman with egg shaped glasses, Coca-Cola-colored hair, and sunspots yelled. Emily was taller than me, had aqua-colored eyes, and nodded like a puppet. “Emily, when is your birthday?” “November seventh,” she chirped and I felt my legs turn into pudding. “How old are you?” “Twelve,” she said like melted butter.
“Spring?” she said to me. “When’s your birthday, Spring?”
I swallowed and attempted to shift my focus to the back of my throat. “Ss-sss-s…” Relax, try again, I told myself. “S-s-s…” My stomach dropped. “S-s…”
“Did you forget your own birthday?” the woman interrupted as she laughed and swung her head back. It was as if she had just told a funny joke. “You don’t know your birthday?” She asked again. My birthday is September 19th. The blood pulsed into my cheeks. My face contorted into all the words I cannot say. My birthday is September 19th. My jaw had turned into cement. My birthday is September 19th.
“Do you at least know how old you are?” She scoffed and looked so embarrassed for me that I barely felt it for myself.
I left the audition saying nothing and never spoke of it again.
It was then I realized that the conflict was not only between my stuttering voice and my fluent voice, but between me and the person I’m speaking to. It’s me and my shame, and the person I’m speaking to, who reduces my whole human experience into my stutter. I have had people interrupt me my whole life. They like to finish my sentences as if they know what I’m going to say better than I know what I’m going to say. Many people like to assume and they don’t like to listen.
I understand what stuttering looks like. It is different and I may seem nervous, like I’ve forgotten what to say. But if people would stay quiet long enough, they could hear it. That space between my words is not empty, as much as the world will try to tell me it is empty. It is filled with intensity, passion and ego. It is anything but empty, and it cannot be diminished down to “just a speech impediment” that I can overcome, as my mother, my 10th grade guidance counselor, and the Uber driver from the Bronx try time and time again to reassure me.
“I-I-iced ccc-coffee.” I finally say like I’m paying the cashier back for dinner. I take the receipt, walk to the corner of the bar, and wait for my iced coffee. I pull out my phone and refresh my Facebook feed every five seconds. I want to tell her that everything is fine. I want to tell her that I come from a hardworking immigrant family, went to college in the city, and have a steady job that pays at 23. I want to tell her that I can talk and explain things eloquently in my own way. I want to reach across the counter and run my fingers through her braid and tell her that she doesn’t need to feel shame, because I feel enough for both of us combined. This is happening to me and this is not happening to you. This is mine and this is not yours.