By René Houtrides
Featured Art: Tree Trunks (study for La Grande Latte) by Georges Seurat
When he was thirty-eight years old, he decided not to see. It was a clear decision, and he was aware of its unfolding inside him. He was standing in the small, small bedroom—luckily, he was not claustrophobic—with the bunk beds, the high-piled desks, the tiny walking corridor within the room. He was stretching his arms outward and realized he could not straighten them without meeting an obstruction. A lamp to his right. A heavy window curtain to his left. It was only possible to walk into the room, climb into one of the beds, sit at one of the desks, or walk out of the room. It was not possible to walk around within the room. He was standing in the walk channel, his arms horizontal, bent at the elbow, and decided not to see. He had two reasons for deciding this.
First, not seeing would encourage him to turn inward, where he could build a secret chamber hushed, but with just enough elbow room. Others would be able to enter only if he permitted it. He needed to form this architecture because he lacked the sedative of space in his daily life. For even this bedroom, small though it was, was not his. If it were, he would have cherished it, in all its close airlessness, for its privacy. No. This room was where his children slept.
He slept in the living room, where a narrow red chair folded out for his nights. From there he could hear his wife, in her own small room, play out her illness in silences and exhaustion and screams and cruel words. Something was growing in her brain. Something that would not kill her. But something that the surgeons determined they could not excise. Perhaps the doctors were wrong. Perhaps what was growing in his wife’s brain was not a thing, but a process. A reverse alchemy: emotional gold transmuting to base metal.
He could not sleep in his wife’s bed. So he slept in the living room. His room. Except that the living room changed, with every doorbell ring, every guest. That was when his wife would emerge from her bedroom. Somehow she would will herself upward from the dark spirits that curled like a fist inside her. She would enter the living room, wearing a false but (to outsiders) convincing smile. How did she find the strength to do this? And where had she found that explosive sniggle? Before the thing began growing in her brain, her laughter had been a gentle and caressing sound. Now, she showed a bright and toothy grin to visitors, until the door closed on their backs. Then, her self-control exhausted, his wife spun downward again.
Not seeing would be his respite, his own room, whenever he wanted it, which was almost always, now. He was tired.
Second, blurred eyes contained a promise of eyeglasses and the chance to choose when to see and when not to see. He could feel the future now, the eyeglass frames twirled casually between thumb and forefinger, the plastic rib placed thoughtfully in the mouth. The click of the case. Glasses on or off. Reality on or off.
After that choice in that close room, his seeing faded. It did not leave entirely, it was a slow process and would take years; he knew that. Initially, details became ambiguous, and then larger and larger objects fuzzed. Broad patterns of movement were still available to him. On Saturdays, at the movies with his children, he learned to decode the vibrant colors and splash of shapes across the screen. The relative speed of a step, denoting anger. Fear in a dropping shift of balance. Love in the tilt of a shoulder. He became expert at reading these clues so he could follow the plot perfectly. This mode of proceeding was not entirely new. He had always gone at the world mostly with his eyes. He had not, for example, been a musical child. All those early piano lessons had been a waste, really.
Now, as a grown man, he could read bodies, even far away. People thought it uncanny how, at distances beyond normal recognition, he could identify individual and mood and walk before anyone else could tell anything at all. “That is our neighbor,” he would say, “two blocks away. He is sad this afternoon.”
But this telling was sensitive only to human form. It did not extend to work, where, suddenly, his intelligence seemed to waver, as markings on boards in conference rooms became indecipherable, no more than mysterious lines on the wall of an ancient underground cave. Soon it became impossible for him to continue concealing his choice. His boss insisted that he visit the company physician, who, in turn, sent him home with instructions to make an appointment with an
ophthalmologist. He told his wife this, but she was undisturbed by the news.
The next day he walked dutifully to the doctor’s office, enjoying the faintly defined streets and the crowds of vaguely outlined strangers. His name was called. He sat in the leather examination chair and waited, pondering the metal geometry of the equipment near him. In the dark room, he could just make out the ophthalmologist’s white coat and reassuring dentures. Eye charts were brought out and he saw only the largest E; tests were given and his not seeing was verified. He was asked, “Is it clearer this way or this way? This way or this way? Is it better now or now? Now or now?” He was given a prescription for corrective lenses.
Next, he went to an optician and selected a pair of pale blue glasses, which were finished in an hour, and which he took off immediately after they were fitted to his face. He did not put them on again until he reached home, and the first thing he saw was his wife crying. His wife, who (he knew—yes, yes, he was certain) had once been the kindest of women, had not cried when he could not see, but she cried now because she did not like him in glasses. From this event, he concluded that he had made the right decision in dimming his vision. His wife had transformed into someone who preferred that he not observe the sheen of the too-perfect smile she donned when the doorbell rang. It had become wrong to see.
He was able to refine his decision. He wore his glasses in the outside world. He went back to work and functioned properly in a job where he was paid a high salary, which his wife’s illness ate away. Her maladies had begun abruptly, immediately following the birth of their second (and last) child. There was the issue of therapies. First, the Freudian analysis and, when that proved ineffective, the Jungian, followed by Gestalt work and then several other systems. There were medications. Finally, after the discovery of the thing growing in her brain (in the MRI printout, even he had been able to see it—the thing that did not belong in a brain), there was the necessity for periodic confinements at Meadows Hospital. These were not covered by his medical insurance. That is why he was forced to live in a house that was too small, and on which he took out a second, and then a third, mortgage.
Five years after he decided not to see, his company sent him on a business trip to Tucson. Flying at thirty-five thousand feet, he put his glasses on and looked out the airplane window. Below him was Kansas farmland and, as his sight picked out one isolated farmhouse after another, he thought, “What if I lived there? Or there? Along that scribble of river or facing that plowed field? What about there, where there’s still snow on the mountains in April, where the pattern of the earth from this height does not match the pattern my home sits in? Drop me out of the plane here, newborn, nameless, to start again with neighbors the sounds of whose names I have not yet heard, where I do not know the roads or where they lead or stop, where the jigsaw puzzle is different, the pieces in place (yet still unknown). And I will forget the attachments that locate me.” Thinking this way, he fell asleep in the cramped seat, with his neck arched painfully to one side.
When he awoke, his glasses had fallen onto the seat beside him. The plane was over Arizona, and the earth had turned to sand and desert. The shadow of the clouds beneath him seemed like blots, coming and going. The houses were now scarce and difficult to see. He made them out by the straight lines not present in nature, the right angles signifying the human touch. Here, a car glittered. There stood a round mesa with a protuberance on top, breast and nipple grown from the earth. As they approached the airport, he saw the Catalina Mountains, ragged and dusty.
When he returned to work, his eyes hurt. The familiar rooms had faded. Every day, at noon, his lachrymal glands exuded a crust which accumulated, almost invisibly, on his eyelashes, and which extrusion he removed, carefully, standing in front of the mirror in the third-floor employee bathroom. It was inevitable that he removed some of his eyelashes in the same process. He had selected this particular bathroom because it accommodated only one person and he was able to lock the door. Then he would leave for lunch, which he would eat in the forty minutes that remained to him. The condition never improved, and his eyesight continued to deteriorate.
The years went by. His children grew up and left home. They got jobs in other states, occasionally called, and rarely visited. Their phone numbers were listed on a sheet of paper next to the refrigerator. He was able now to leave the red chair in the living room and sleep in what had been his children’s bedroom. The small, small room in which he had first decided to shut down his eyesight. For a while he slept one night on the top bunk bed and the next night on the bottom until, finally, he permanently selected the bottom bed for its greater darkness. He left the disorder in the room as it was. It suited him.
He had not returned to the ophthalmologist and continued to use his pale blue eyeglasses outside the house, despite the fact that he now needed to squint even when wearing them, and that they had become scratched over time. What he noticed, now that he was fifty-one years old, was a change in light. He first realized this one evening when he was on his back in the lower bunk bed and he rotated his head to the left and found himself looking at the old lamp with the torn yellow shade. The lamp was shining in a new way, like the space around a saint’s head in a Renaissance painting, or sunlight flowing through crystals in morning air. It was a visitation of softness, and he gazed at it for a long time and was filled with an odd serenity. It was the same the next night and the next, and he came to rely on it, especially those times when his wife was most troubled and he would wake and turn the lamp on in order to rest in its glow. Soon, walking to his house from the bus that carried him to and from work, he noticed that streetlamps had also developed this comforting halo. This was especially pleasing to him in the winter months when he walked home in the early nightfall. He told no one of this; it was a private and quiet joy.
Gradually the halos became more and more what he saw, as if his sight were contracting, leaving only the luminous circular shine around lit objects. Slowly, shapes flattened. He had renewed difficulties at work. His glasses were no longer effective, no matter how much he compressed his eyes, and he was frequently troubled by the thick pressure of headaches. He continued to avoid the ophthalmologist, fearing that a new prescription would take away the halos he had come to cherish.
Things went on in this way until his field of vision had become so constricted that he began to stumble into objects and people. He had a bruise on his thigh that would not heal and that he had acquired in repeated intersections with his desk at work. His coarse motion revealed him, and once again, his boss insisted that he visit the ophthalmologist. He complied. As before, he rested in the chair in the dark room. He was disturbed by the shortness of his wait and was not able to determine whether this was the same doctor who had examined him previously. This doctor, apparently not subject to the laws of gravity, appeared to float in the room’s antiseptic ether. The doctor asked, “Can you see my face? Can you describe my face?”
He sat quietly in the examination chair, unable to recall his responses to the doctor’s questions—or whether he had responded at all.
As directed, he remained very still while a machine took pictures of the inside of his eyes. The doctor showed him the pictures. They were of a red disk, perhaps a sphere. Mars. It was like having planets in his skull.
It occurred to him that he had always enjoyed color.
This time the diagnosis was a case of glaucoma so advanced that intraocular pressure had already caused irreversible damage to the optic nerve. He was given a medication, which he took for two weeks and then abandoned. Soon after, he lost his job. They were sorry, but. . . .
When they heard of his illness, his children visited. And his wife emerged, hospitably, from her room, as she would have if he had been a guest. She made dinner for the first time in many years. He placed his hands on the table. The room was warm and filled with the smells of food and the sound of all the voices that were as familiar to him as his own. The air was like flesh, soft and kind and touching upon all the people he loved. There were pockets of light poked into the darkness. His children discussed something and then something else that threaded out of the first thing. He thought he heard his wife laugh once, a sound like a terrier’s bark. He himself said nothing. He felt a childlike physical release, grew groggy, and slept sitting at the table while the others had coffee and dessert.
That night he caught a last opaque glimpse of himself in a mirror, his face drawn in the classic, downward shape of grief and lined with previous sorrows that visited him quietly, while his family slept, silent as death, just down the hall, two rooms away. He sat in the living room with one light on, and a glass of wine, and whispered, “Here is where age, and all that follows age, will find me. Here, in this room.” Before this moment, he had thought of all the little deaths in his life as separate, but now he perceived them as cumulative. These walls. The fragile light around him, like a thin glove. The furniture, the wood seeped with days of clumsy life and lessons struggled for and still not learned. And the old things he could not rise above, a promise he had failed at, an unrepaired pain in someone whose name now eluded him. This room of warmth and pettiness and seasons dripping one into the next and music played long ago and somehow still echoing against the fireplace stone. These were the last outlines he saw.
His original plan, made thirteen years earlier, was now in full motion and had expanded beyond his hopes. Shapes were gone. His eyes sludged over. The colors of the world switched to gray except for, sometimes, a burst of red or yellow, which faded to gray as he clutched at it. Blindness had its skin up against his; he could smell its breath, hear its noises. In this way the time proceeded, and each day he was compelled to remember more in order to fill the spaces where he used to see. One morning he remembered a small scar, three dainty stitches, on his son’s chin. He also remembered his wife on the day they first met. It was winter. Joy was in the snowflakes that were falling onto him.
His wife was smiling. She was standing in the snow, wearing one blue mitten.