“They are struggles which question the status of the individual: on one hand, they assert the right to be different, and they underline everything which makes individuals truly individual. On the other hand, they attack everything which separates the individual, breaks his links with others, splits up community life, forces the individual back on himself, and ties him to his own identity in a constraining way.” – Michel Foucault
Being blind means you can’t see.
It means you can’t see the way your mother looks at you when she talks to you. It means no matter where you walk, that stick tapping in front of you, you know people are staring. It means hearing whispers, “blind,” “look out,” “I wonder how…” everywhere you go, despite how polite people are when they talk to you.
The world is no longer the vibrant blue of the sky and green of the grass; now my world is one of darkness.
Before the accident, before those chemicals fizzled up and took away my sight, my best friend was Kent Ashby. Never mind the fact that he was a 75-year-old man who lived in the old folk’s home on the outskirts of town, I just liked hearing him talk.
People would comment on how “noble” it was to help out with the elderly, how kind of a person I must be. Honestly, I just liked listening, and if old people are good at one thing, it’s talking your ear off. I talked to a lot of people, men and women, about their lives. But I’d always make an effort to go see Kent, mostly because he had the spirit of a young man, and the wisdom from all of his years.
He and I would sit down for hours and play Go, his favorite game. He told me once, that a game of Go is like a snowflake; no two games have ever been the same. He was a smart man, Kent was; he would go on and on about his first and second wives, about how he used to be such a successful lawyer, or how living in Spain was the best five years of his life; his stories were pictures he painted with his words, and they always left me yearning to live a life as fulfilled as his.
I guess it felt sort of good, helping out, but the main reason I went to the home was just to hang out with people I felt I had similar interests with. Kent was fun to talk to, much smarter than the dumb-ass high school students I was forced to spend the majority of my days with who were always stoked about the stupidest shit, like the latest release of Halo, or who was fucking who.
Sort of ironic, that sort of stuff was the last thing I wanted to associate myself with, and now all that stupid shit seems to be the only thing on my mind. A week after I was released from the hospital, the effects of the accident began to sink in. Of course, the initial scare of not being able to see anything was pretty awful, but the worst part about being blind was knowing that I would never be able to play games like Halo, where I’d need to see what was going on in order to react. I probably wouldn’t be fucking anytime soon; who wants to fuck the blind guy?
One year later, and I’m living days and nights in darkness, seldom leaving this new home my mother, for some reason, decided to move into. Her response was normal, right? Her son went blind, so she decided to get knocked up and move somewhere he’s not familiar with, with someone he’s not familiar with, and have a new little sister he’ll never be able to see. Honestly, I hardly have a clue where I live now. I can’t drive anymore, so all I know is my address, because someone told it to me.
Everyday, all I do is listen and imagine the new world I’m living in. I know my new little sister is blonde, with curly hair, because my mother raves about it, but I don’t know what her blonde, curly hair looks like, what her face looks like, how many teeth she has, or anything like that. I have to imagine an entire person from scratch, because I know I’ll never be able to see her, and the way her face looks when she giggles, or eats, or looks guilty. I have to base my sister off of girls I have already seen. What she looks like will be left up to my imagination. The best I can do is listen to how people describe her and do my best to piece her together in my head.
I guess my inclination to listen comes in handy now; I feel like listening has become my whole world. Sounds are more powerful; voices bare more character. I’m endlessly made aware of the constant forward motion of time through the sounds of the world: people scratching themselves, wind blowing dry leaves, the ticks of the clock in my room. All non-visible signs of life, of nature, of the world moving forward are the signs that I, too, am still alive and moving forward.
I lost a helluva lot when my sight went, but at least I didn’t lose my hearing. Maybe then I’d have gone completely crazy. Or maybe I would have just learned sign language, and assimilated, just like I’m trying my damnedest to assimilate to this new life, sans sight.
But people tell me I have changed.
I hate even the thought of the old folk’s home now; the idea that they have to stare at their wrinkled faces everyday in the mirror, and just accept the fact that time has worn away their beauty. I can’t even stand to think about the lives they’ve lived, the places they’ve seen, the beautiful people they’ve met; I can’t stand to think about Kent’s years in Spain, or his transition between wife number one to wife number two.
I want to separate myself as far as I can from that place, from Kent. I couldn’t stand to endure their sorrowful looks as they gazed upon me, and saw I could no longer look back at them. No thank you, I don’t need more pitiful looks on their faces I don’t have to see to feel. I’m afraid if I went back to the old folk’s home, they’d start asking me questions, they’d make me do some talking, and that’s the last thing I want to do.
I don’t want to talk.
Listening has become my whole world, but the things I’ve had to listen to lately are driving me insane. I listen to my baby sister Carolina screaming all the time. To my mother’s haggard voice nagging at me to contribute around the house. To the unscrewing of my step-dad’s whiskey bottle from behind the closed door of his study. To songs with lyrics that pump me up with adrenaline, make me feel alive in the moments I’m listening to them, but leave a bitter taste in my mouth once they’re through. To the undeniable moans my parents fail to muffle in the night. To the tick of my clock. To the tick of the world, always moving forward.
Perhaps these things I listen to give me some sense of power. I guess I could have the upper hand with my stepdad, and tell him I know he didn’t quit drinking. I could have the upper hand with my classmates and tell them I hear the secrets they whisper in the hallways. I could have the upper hand with my mother, and tell her I know she isn’t going to work as often as she should. All these little things I hear from behind closed doors, from hushed words, from hearing my Mom’s car door slam shut on days I’m also playing hooky.
But what good is this power, if I can’t see the effects it will have? If I don’t like the results of sharing what I know? I mean, if I tell my mom that Dan hasn’t stopped drinking, and that I know she’s close to getting fired, what will she do? Scold me? Live in denial? I doubt she’d actually do anything about it.
I doubt I’d ever say anything like that. I’ll just keep to myself, keep listening.
Last Wednesday, I heard my mother’s car drive up in front of the house. Her normal routine to start her domestic evening is to slam the car door, hurry inside, and ask me for help with putting Carolina in the playroom. However, today, she seemed to linger outside longer than usual.
Carolina was having a playdate, I remembered. Maybe Mom is lagging because she’s not with her lovely, curly haired, perfect eyed daughter.
I heard two doors slam on sedan, and her footsteps were slow walking up the stone pathway to our front door. She wasn’t alone.
“Ma? Is that you?” I called out into the darkness.
A familiar voice that wasn’t my mother’s responded. “So I hear you like to hole yourself up now-a-days. Why’s that, son?”
That voice, with that slow, legato, raspy twinge could only belong to one man.
“Kent? Is that you?”
“Don’t you recognize a man when you see him?”
“I, uh, Mom, what’s he doing here?”
In a voice that reminded me of childhood bedtime stories and sweet lullabies, my mother responded gently, “I thought you’d enjoy listening to an old friend.”
My heart sank in my chest, and my face became hot. I felt tears start to rise up within me. With a cough, I pushed them down, and making my voice deeper, I asked, “How have you been? It’s been a while.”
“It certainly has, young man. I’ve been fine, or as fine as someone my age can be, rotting away in that shithole home.”
“And you?” he continued, “How have you been? It’s certainly good to see you, I don’t have any clue why you stopped coming. I thought, maybe he’s tired of getting beat at Go, but I never really assumed you took those games to heart, so, no, that couldn’t be it. Then I thought maybe you found yourself a girl, one with sweet honey blonde hair, like Astrid, I know how you thought she was pretty from all my old photos, but I wouldn’t think that would stop you from coming to see me. So please, answer my question, why did you stop?”
“I’m blind,” I blurted out.
There was a pause.
I didn’t have to see him to know that his eyes were searching mine for signs of response, but when they gave none, he patted me on the shoulder. “Well, I am sure sorry to hear that. Let’s sit down, my old bones are tired, and I have much to tell you.”
We talked about how life in the home had been going, how he was still such a lady’s man, flirting with the nurses, making them giggle and flush red. That man could really paint a picture, and my mind jumped back to long days spent checking out the nurses in the home, who I remembered were actually quite attractive.
For what felt like hours we talked. He spoke mostly, but I occasionally chipped in. I felt like we were back in the home again, and that pang of nostalgia at a memory I had trained myself to despise reminded me of just how beautiful the world is. That the blues and the greens are still there, even if I can’t see them, even if all I can see is darkness. I felt swept up in the joy of the past, until he asked me this: “So, why have you holed yourself up?”
The transition from jovial topics to this question startled me. “I told you, I went blind.”
“That’s no excuse. I knew men in Spain who were blind, but they could make me laugh until my chest hurt. They didn’t stay inside their homes; they saw being blind as an opportunity to experience life in a way few others had the option to.”
“I guess I’m not as vivacious as those Spanish men,” I retorted.
“Now, son, I’m being serious. You can spend your days locked up in here, with your mother, and your baby sister, and that stepdad of yours, being angry, hating the world, wishing for something that will never come again. Or you can just accept that this is your reality now. This is the way you perceive the world. You’ve always been different, kid, the fact that we’re even “old friends,” and you’re not even a man yet, that shows you’re an oddball.
“But lives are just games of Go. They’re all different, like snowflakes. You can either be strategic about where you place your pieces, or you can let life surround you and take you off the board. These are your choices. Me? I’ve had my choices, and although there are some things I wish went differently, those things I had no control over.
“Your life isn’t what happens to you. It’s the decisions you make once things not in your control have affected your life. I mean, it’s not my fault Astrid’s cousin started coming onto me, but hey, Stella and I have two beautiful daughters now. You do you, and this isn’t you.”
“What if this is me now?”
“Well, son, if the kid I just talked to for the past few hours is you, then keep going. You’re a hell of a guy. If not, then I sure did like the person I was just talking to, and I’m sorry he can’t stay.”
After a deep breath that spanned at least five full seconds, Kent rose to his feet. “On that note, I should get back. The nurses are probably wondering what I’m up to. Helen, would you be a doll and drive me back?”
My mom readied her keys, and they were out the door in less than a minute.
All I could do was look down at where the ground would be, and for the first time since I had lost my sight, see who I had become.