Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
It was a Friday night during my junior year of high school, and I was on a very high-school mission: hanging around my local coffee shop, hoping to see my crush. The temperature was unseasonably cold for autumn in the South, so I’d pulled winter clothes from the farthest corners of my closet to dress for the occasion: a knitted scarf, a heavy cardigan, a wool peacoat as red as flustered cheeks.
My own cheeks were often flustered, though not from the cold. Not even because I was a 16-year-old girl with a crush. I had been born with a stutter, a rare fluency disorder with neurological and genetic origins, though I didn’t know that much at the time. All I knew back then was how abnormal my stutter made me feel. I was always searching for ways to avoid it, employing peculiar accents or stringing words together like a song. I would eventually learn that these were temporary solutions, hopeless attempts to bury a condition that could never be reversed. At 16, I had long passed the age of recovery. My stutter was lifelong.
The coffee shop that night was crowded — every chair claimed, the line for service pushed toward the door. I waited in line and scanned the room, not trying to seem too eager or to give my feelings away.
I opened my flip phone and distracted myself by changing the wallpaper — swapping out generic celestial rays for equally generic snowcapped mountains — but it wasn’t enough to keep me calm. When I spotted him at the stage front, squatting beside an amplifier and adjusting his electric guitar, my heart throbbed wildly in my throat. My neck felt warm, sweat gathering under the tightly wrapped scarf. He glanced up and saw me, then smiled and waved. I did the same, no longer able to hide my enthusiasm.
By then, the service line had shortened and it was almost time to order coffee.
I began rehearsing what I would say to the barista. Mocha latte, please. No, that wouldn’t work. I stuttered on words starting with “M,” holding the sound out and out, Mmmmmmmmmm, lips clamped, buzzing like an insect. Could I get a mocha latte, please? This option had more merit, allowing me to begin speaking with sounds that felt less tricky, but only if I could manage to relay my order in one breath: CouldIgetamochalatteplease? If I paused or took a breath halfway through, I would likely start blocking — a vocal stoppage without sound, with no guarantee of ending. If I was really desperate, there was always the roundabout option: Do you have any coffee with chocolate in it? The question would make me feel idiotic — the ingredients of a mocha latte were well known, and I frequented this coffee shop on the weekends. But I had spent my whole life avoiding the stutter, and I wasn’t about to stop.
Finally, it was my turn to approach the counter. The warmth I had felt moments earlier, waving and smiling across the room at my crush plugging up his guitar, had evaporated. I was sweating frantically, wilting in my carefully selected winter gear.
“What can I get you?” the barista said, speaking loudly over the crowd.
“I-I-I…” I started to say, feeling panic rise into my chest. “I-I-I…w-w-w-wo-would like a mmmmmmmm …”
The barista leaned forward, face scrunched in confusion. “What was that?” she asked.
I forced myself to smile in apology, as if the stutter was some strange accident that surprised me as much as it surprised her. It would be years before I found the courage to self-disclose to strangers, before I could say the words: I have a stutter.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, but the barista didn’t respond. I felt the other customers in line grow restless. The man behind me stepped closer, hands flapping in the pockets of his coat, beckoning me to speak so he could order his coffee.
“I-I-I-I-I’ll have a … I’ll have a … mmmmmmmmm —”
“Macchiato?” the barista interrupted, already writing the order on the sleeve of the paper cup.
“Um,” I mumbled, stalling, unsure of what to do. Mocha latte, I thought. Just say mocha latte. “Sure,” I answered instead, worn down by the encounter. I paid for my drink and waited, eventually retrieving the cup at the end of the counter. Afterward, I stood against a nearby column, swallowing the bitter espresso.
“Hey,” my crush called, his voice coming from behind.
“Hey,” I reciprocated, turning around and smiling.
He nodded his head at the cup in my hand. “Whatcha drinking?”
“Macchiato, though I wanted a mocha latte,” I answered, shrugging sheepishly. I felt satisfied finally getting the words out. Mocha latte! I wanted to shout at the barista, just to prove that I could. Mocha latte! But I would never do that — would never feel brave enough to try. I knew my interaction with her would be totally different.
“Oh no,” he said slowly, looking concerned. “Did they give you the wrong order?”
I shrugged again, not wanting to explain, to mention how badly I had stuttered. I knew he had heard me stutter before — maybe a little in class, or occasionally in conversation — but never like that.
“No worries.” I waved a hand casually. “This is pretty good,” I said, forcing down another sip.
“Oh, good,” he said. A quick moment of silence passed between us, but I didn’t feel pressured to fill it. He had a calm and unhurried demeanor. He spoke slowly, leisurely, as if time was not an issue. He paused whenever he wanted, taking time to gather his thoughts, and never pressured me to speak more quickly. I didn’t stutter much around him.
Part of me thought this was the result of some predestined, romantic magic. But even at 16, another, more logical part suspected that the severity of my stutter was just situational, a theory I’ve since confirmed: It can change depending on the environment and the listener. I speak more fluently when I’m interacting with someone who is attentive and patient, who doesn’t find my speech too slow or laborious. These listeners always maintain eye contact and wait for me to finish speaking — even if I’m stuttering, there’s no awkward shuffling or interruptions on their part.
But perhaps the most surprising factor is how their spoken behaviors positively affect me. When someone naturally speaks in a relaxing way — stopping or pausing when necessary, speaking intentionally — I’m instantly at ease. Conversation doesn’t feel competitive or strained. Sometimes, I stutter less as a result. It wasn’t romantic magic at all — it was just the way he talked.
Still, I was an adult before I recognized the pattern. As a teenager and throughout my early 20s, I had naturally gravitated toward men who eased my stutter. There was Ed, a laid-back co-worker who I suspected smoked exorbitant amounts of weed; Michael, a librarian with a quiet demeanor; Joseph, a good-natured mechanic. These men had almost nothing in common — not appearance or occupation or interests. But they did have one similar quality, one that I still struggle to define. Do they share an easygoing nature, a personality trait that influences their speech — or is there something more profound happening? Is their impact on my speech rooted in their gentleness, their patience? Or am I simply attracted to a specific type, whether I’m stuttering or not? I’m not sure what’s more complicated: my speech impediment, which remains an enigmatic, scientific mystery; or attraction itself — why I’m drawn to the men I am, and what magnetism pulls me in.
What I do know is this: At 25, I’ve finally stopped trying to hide my stutter. It’s been the source of romantic disappointment and difficulty, and I’ve been overlooked and mocked and misjudged because of my speech — but at this point in my life, I’ve also met kind, magnificent people who have helped me accept the way I talk. People who make me wish I had a time machine to reenter that coffee shop in my hometown, that Friday night when I was 16, and order a mocha latte no matter how long it takes.