The study room on the third floor of the public library is crowded and hot; the air stinks, a strange, medical smell that is at once antiseptic and BM-y.
Twenty-some students press and prod their assistive communication devices, while staff members stand behind them, facilitating all that interaction.
This is Conversation Club, a special time of the week devoted to the kids who lack speech as it is traditionally defined. That part in italics is my way of nodding to neurodiversity.
Much of the talking is done in robotic monotone, think low budget Stephen Hawking, but the surreal exception is my own voice.
For awhile, there was a shortage of males in the staff pool, so I was usually tapped to do the recordings for all the talk boxes.
I could walk by a classroom and here myself say, "I like ice cream", in response to someone else making my voice say, "It is rainy".
Eventually, they had a black man come in and record voices for all the black kids, so they sounded less white and whiny (my voice does not hold up well to recording).
But vestiges of me remain.
An occasional button press springs me to life: "I would like french fries, please." "I need to take a break."
It sounds like HAL and I are having a conversation consisting entirely of mundane non sequiturs.
A large Samoan-looking girl begins to weep loudly. She rolls her body forward and shoves a hand firmly down the front of her pants. Three staff converge on her, frantically asking questions in order to get to the bottom of her problem.
She repeatedly stabs at her Ipad with a brown finger as big around as my wrist.
With each touch, a sexy, vaguely English sounding woman's voice purrs, "I am fine. I need a break. I-I-I had pizza for lunch. I had hamburger for lunch." The girl begins to shriek.
"I bet she's hungry," someone comments.
I think about how good I have it, calm little Martin in front of me.
The worst thing I have to deal with when it comes to him is keeping him awake.
"Push the button, man." He uses a knuckle like a pointy finger, presses down hard on a little picture of a stick figure shooting a basket, and I hear my voice chirp, "I like to play basketball."
It is so overly enunciated and happy; it sounds nothing like me.
The student he is supposed to be having a conversation with starts to drift off, but I give her a nudge.
"Hey, your turn."
She withdraws a spindly white finger from her mouth, a string of drool linking her lips to her hand, and on down to her Talk Box; she touches a picture.
"Today is Friday."
My therapist stops me there.
"So........it sounds like........you don't really enjoy your job." At that moment, I finally solve the puzzle of who he sounds similar to. It's Kermit. Kermit the frog.
I do one of those moves that people do when they hide the fact that they are laughing to themselves; you know the one, where you clamp your hand over your mouth and snort into your palm.
Kermit would make an excellent therapist; his eyes are so genuine, his default expression is one of quiet listening.
And the way he nods and goes, "Mm-hm"; well, that's all we want, isn't it?
That unique affirmation that only a Muppet can provide.
I realize the doctor is waiting for me to speak.
"For the most part, yeah that's true. But I wonder, if I got a job anywhere else, would I be just as unhappy? Is it the circumstance or something I carry with me?" I talk like that to him because I am trying to convey my elevated level of self-awareness.
I like my doctors to recognize me as their intellectual equal; you know, level the playing field, so we can all just talk plainly, no patronizing or anything. It's why when I am sick, I print out a list of all the possible things I might have, culled from extensive research on Yahoo Answers, and present it to the doctor directly.
"Look, flu-like symptoms, dry mouth, shaky hands, I know it's coprophilia."
"Errr...not sure that's right," says the doctor. They call my mom and tell her to take away my computer privileges for a week.
"We're concerned he is getting into some morally dubious areas of the World Wide Web."
"But he's a grown man," my mother argues.
The doctor covers the phone with one hand, slowly looks me up and down, and apologises for wasting her time.
"Why do you believe that to be true?" I forgot I was supposed to be listening to the real doctor in front of me, not the pretend one in my mind who just called my mother.
"I dunno," I say, conceding the entirety of the playing field to the doctor's superior intellect.
"Maybe ahs jus an idgit."
Imagine Kermit leaning towards you, one green hand flapping your knee in comfort.
"Now I don't think that's the case, do you?" he asks.
I shrug my shoulders.
"Let's do some word associations."
"Okay," I answer, while wiping my runny nose on my sleeve.
"Just close your eyes and say the first thing that comes into your mind when I say the trigger word."
I lean my head back into the strange, body-swallowing embrace of the doctor's couch.
"Phone call," says Kermit, in a flat, nuetral voice.
"Death," I respond, operating on pure, verbal instinct.