The silence in the car was so awkward, Amah sighed in relief when Victor pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot. Inside, the waiter approached their table with a leather-bound menu and a practiced smile. Victor flipped through the pages detailing the restaurants offerings, wondering just how disastrous the night would end up. For one, didn’t people go on dates so they could talk about stuff? Just how would he manage a conversation with Chief’s daughter?
“I’ll have rice and escargots. Oh, and some white wine, please,” Victor said to the waiter. He looked at Amah, hoping his fear of embarrassing her wasn’t plastered all over his face. Should he have ordered for two? He decided to take a chance and ask her. Maybe she’d point out the stuff she wanted on the menu.
“What are you having?” Victor asked, looking from Amah to the ever-smiling waiter.
“I’ll have what you’re having,” she said.
When the waiter closed the menu and walked away, Amah turned to a very shocked Victor and said, “You don’t have to talk on top of your voice. My hearing is fine. And please close your mouth, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Victor gathered himself. He discovered his mouth was actually open. He tried to shut it, to compose himself and ask the questions swimming under his tongue, but all he could manage were a few half-formed words that ended up stillbirth. Had a miracle just happened right before him? Didn’t they say the girl had never spoken a word in her life?
“How?” Was all Victor could manage.
Amah opened her palm and revealed a small device the size of hotel bar soap, and then she closed it again. “Meet Tonia, my voice.”
The movement of Amah’s lips compounded Victor’s confusion the more. Her lips and the ‘voice’ worked in perfect harmony. The device produced a natural human sound, not like the robotic monotone he would have expected. He stuttered over another question, but the arrival of the waiter with their wine saved him enough time to compose himself. The waiter popped the cork and poured into their glasses, and then he turned right around and walked away. Victor took a tentative sip, but his eyes hovered on Amah’s face.
“I’d say I’m surprised, but that would be the understatement of the decade.”
“It’s fine,” Amah said. “Very few people know about ‘my voice’.”
“So what is it exactly?”
“Something I created a few years ago. When I was a child my parents got me a communication board that synthesized speech from text, but it only complicated my issues, as I had to log it around wherever I went. I started work on this model my freshman year, and by the time I graduated college I had created this easy to conceal version. And it comes with various accents too. I plan on creating something even smaller than this…”
“So you’re saying you built this voice thing yourself…”
“Yes. This is my own spin on augmentative and alternative communication devices, which are also called AACs.”
Their dinner arrived on a wheeled trolley. Victor took a satin napkin and spread it on his thighs, then he picked up his fork, stabbed an escargot on his plate and closed his eyes when the sauce touched his tongue.
Amah chewed slowly. The possibility of choking and spitting out her food intensified when she was nervous. She tightened her grip on her fork to control her shaky hand. Was Victor already turned off? Her father had insisted on her attending school for speaking children, and since it wasn’t fair to her teachers or the other students that Amah couldn’t communicate, her parents had bought her an augmentative communication board. She had been teased to tears on various occasions, or stared at by people who didn’t realize that their intense gazes were as rude as the questions they weren’t asking. By the time she started college, she had already perfected the design for the device she hoped to create, something discreet, something that would mimic natural speech. Realising that his daughter was STEM inclined, her father had financed the whole project to humour her, but he was surprised, pleasantly so, when she actually turned out something the medical community still lauded several years after its launch.
“So how does it work?” Victor’s question broke into Amah’s chaotic thoughts.
“Uhm, the sound is synthesised by thumb strokes. It simply means that I run my thumb across the screen and it speaks. It took a while to write the stroke-word dictionary, but I finally managed it, and tests have revealed that my sign language is easy to learn. I mean, the difference between the words ‘son’ and ‘song’ lies in the length of time the thumb stays on the screen.”
“And users also have the option of discarding my words and creating their own unique thumb-stroke language. You simply enter your own stroke and choose a word you intend to represent.”
“And if you lose the device?”
“They come in pairs. I have a backup unit at home. I am currently working on a mobile app that will work the same way as my prototype. I know there is already an app that allows people with speech defects to type words that get converted to speech. Mine works by thumb strokes, so it’s faster.
Victor downed his glass and set it aside. Why had chief made his daughter sound like she was a distressed damsel he needed to save? Surely, a woman this smart couldn’t be so gullible and easy to deceive.
“So what future do you envisage for your creation?” The businessman in Victor emerged in full glory. He recognised a money-making idea when it stared him right in the face. “You could grow quite rich from marketing it.”
“I am not exactly hurting for money, Victor. And recently, I have come to think that I was made…this way, and given all these resources for a reason. You could call it a rich man’s burden if you want.
The passion shinning in her eyes gave Victor pause. Here was a young woman who had found her purpose. And it was the sexiest thing ever.
“You know what?” Victor asked.
“What?” Amah replied, cursing her raised heart rate. Was he already rethinking this damned date where they had done nothing but talk about her flaws?
“My plate is scraped clean, yet I am still as hungry as the moment I walked in here.”
“Well, that’s one of the downsides of fine dining. A few stalks of runner beans and the chef’s name signed with ketchup isn’t meant to fill your stomach. It is art. It is meant for your senses,” Amah replied.
“Well I came to stuff my face. I’m only about the food, the art can go to a museum.”
“But no one forced you to order fried snails,” she said, laughing at his comical frown.
“They are called escargots! Escargots, Amah!”
“Escargot is still fried snail, nau. Don’t be such a snob, Victor.”
“I thought you were a rich kid. Shouldn’t you be sniffing the wine and saying words like à la carte and à la minut? Why are you now calling escargots fried snails like the rest of us civilians?”
“Rich kid or not, my idea of a filling meal is a big mac and coke.”
And then she laughed, and Victor found himself getting warm from the knowledge that he had put the light in her eyes. She threw her head to the side as laughter shook her, and her hair moved to the direction her neck was tilted. Victor mentally restrained himself from leaning in to rearrange the hair around her face, or maybe pick a fistful of it to create a halo above her head, but he just sat there, poised on the edge between satisfaction and curiosity, and watched her uncontainable mirth. She was so beautiful. And so intelligent. And in a different life he would have…
Victor felt Gloria before he saw her. Maybe it was her citrusy perfume, a secret scent she never disclosed to him. Or it could have been the fact that having dated her for two years, he was so tuned to her he could register her presence from afar. Gloria sashayed into the restaurant with her younger sister in tow. Victor froze. Gloria’s eyes searched him out and landed on him, like she had also caught his scent, and while Victor prayed she would just ignore him and his date and find her own table, Gloria strutted over to his side with a forced smile that hardened her features.
Amah’s laugh fizzled out when she noticed the intensity emanating from Victor’s pores, and she turned around to see what had distracted him. She recognized drama as it stood beside their table. There was obviously history between Gloria and Victor. It was plain as day.
“Hi, Vic,” Gloria said.
“Hey,” Victor replied. At least Gloria had the sense to call him by his name rather than a flowery endearment.
“Fancy running into you here,” Gloria said, her eyes moving from Victor to Amah.
“Gloria meet Amah, Amah meet Gloria,” Victor said.
The women exchanged mechanical smiles and a loose handshake, and then Gloria went to a table her sister had already occupied.
“Your girlfriend?” Amah asked when Gloria was out of earshot. She tried to keep the bitterness from her voice. Why had she assumed that a man like Victor was single?
“More like my ex,” Victor said.
He caught her slight wince and sighed.
“You know what, Amah? I am still ravenous, and I need to eat before I devour someone.”
“If I knew these people would serve me two grains of rice, I would have offered to cook you dinner at my place instead,” Victor said, keeping his eyes on her face, hoping she’d bite the bait. Her shoulders were still stiff even though Gloria was long gone, and it pained Victor to see that he had already lost the trust and friendship he had managed to build at the beginning of their dinner.
“I am so good I can cook noodles ten different ways,” Victor replied with a wink.
He leaned back and watched the smile spread across her face. Good thing she found every word he said funny. He would regain the lost momentum. His phone beeped on the table and, picking it up, he saw a text from Gloria. A quick glance in Gloria’s direction revealed a smirk that prompted Victor’s immediate reading of the message: I know who she is. Chief is dying. You left me for his daughter. 2 + 2 = …
It was time to flee the restaurant.
“So, would you like to take me up on the cooking offer?” Running away would mean his escape from Gloria, and taking things to the next level with Amah.
The smile on Amah’s face disappeared with the speed of a comet. Was Victor asking really asking her what she thought he was? He had enjoyed her company then. Or why else would he want to show her his home. She cleared her throat, dropped her napkin on the table and lifted her eyes to his.
“Okay. Let’s go to your place and check out your noodles game, Victor,” she said.
Photo Credit: Paul Hakimata | Dreamstime.com