As I stand in line, I take a few deep breaths, gently bouncing my leg to work up a rhythm. “We can do this”, I whisper. I’m at my favorite hideaway cafe in Troy. It’s been a hard day and I’m certain the answer to my problems are tucked inside the Almond Joy Latte I’ve been dreaming of all afternoon. I need the sweet combination of mocha and coconut to rescue my nerves and lull me into the evening. My boyfriend playfully nudges me toward the counter – it’s my turn. I take another deep breath.“Hi. Can I have an Aaaa…Aaaa… a vanilla latte?” I’ve earned a reputation among my friends for being indecisive. I’ll spend all day talking about the guacamole burger I want for lunch…only to get the grilled chicken pasta when the time comes to order. My friends think I’ve changed my mind under pressure or developed situational amnesia. They don’t understand what’s really going on. How could they? Word swapping is the part of my stutter they can’t see. It’s the mental scrabble I play any time I open my mouth to speak. It’s when I have to match the word I WANT to say with the word that I CAN say. It’s not always graceful, but it is effective. Sometimes. Even as a child I knew the importance of word selection. I’d answer the phone with a cheerful, “Thanks for calling!”, not to be clever, but because the breathy “h” of “hello” was too much to bear. When I’d tattle on my brothers, it was never that they “pushed” or “bugged” me. P’s and b’s were too hard. Instead they “repeatedly touched me without consent”. Did this occasionally earn me talks about accusing people of inappropriate touching? Sure. But I was silent during those talks. My teachers seemed especially confused. They didn’t understand how I’d do so well on exams, but would always reply “I don’t know” when questioned in class. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t grasp it. It was obvious. Animals are given claws to protect them from predators. Similarly, I was a walking Thesaurus. Growing up, my stutter never prevented me from enjoying life’s greatest pleasures. Things like ice cream, pizza or hamburgers were mine for the taking. I owed this to my father. He had little patience for my stutter and preferred I point to things on the menu so he could order for me. This should have landed me in therapy, crying about how my father never understood me and how boo-hoo-traumatic it was. But I loved it. I loved the attention and the secret dinner pow-wows on my dad’s knee. I’d point to what I wanted, whisper any instructions in his ear, and he’d order it for his stuttering Lisa Pizza. Our system was flawless. Or it was until I outgrew the age where it was socially acceptable to eat with my parents. Suddenly my word swapping was a liability. To me and my stomach. Word swapping goes hand-in-hand with my people-pleaser gene. Through word swapping, I ease not only my own struggle, but other people’s in dealing with me. I order food I don’t like because it’s easier for me to say and for them to hear. I don’t correct people when they mishear me and accidentally answer a question I didn’t ask. At restaurants, I drive my boyfriend crazy by eating things we both know I didn’t order. As a teenager I’d buy LIRR tickets to Northport when I really wanted to go two stops over to Huntington. Word swapping was a way to take the course of least resistance, but I know there’s been a price. Back in the cafe, I sip my second-choice latte and watch my boyfriend as he reads the paper. I would recognize him anywhere. I know him by his favorite lyric, his favorite smell, his favorite sound. I don’t have that. My favorite lyric is the one that’s shortest. My favorite smell is one that doesn’t start with a vowel. He’ll never know me the way that I know him. I’ll never know myself the way that I know others. Somewhere, without realizing it, I did what I promised myself I’d never do. I became recognizable for my stutter instead of the things that make me. That’s what my father was trying to protect me from. He wasn’t shielding my speech from others, he was trying to shield his daughter from it. I don’t worry about that tonight. I’m tired and right now this vanilla latte has to be like so many of the word swaps that have come before it — a delicious workaround.
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