About a week after I went blind, my friend Dorman dropped me off on a bench in Roosevelt Park, just exactly as he’d done the day before, so I could sun myself for three hours until the end of his shift. It was Thursday. Dorman said, “Now don’t you go anywhere until I get back, you impetuous kid,” and patted me on the head. He crushed the sharp grass with his boots as he climbed the slope to the sidewalk that ringed the park.
“What am I looking at?” I called over my shoulder. I could just feel him standing there with his hands in his pockets, peering at the back of a blind head. The cigarette batting up and down in the corner of his mouth as he spoke. “Some gay guys playing volleyball. Asian yuppie trying to teach a bulldog to sit.”
I was partial to Roosevelt Park in part because of the courthouse bell tower looming over the park’s western corner and just as Dorman opened his mouth and said, “Well, adios,” the bell began bonging. It was two o’clock. By the time the bells were silent Dorman was gone, scrunched back down into his crappy little diesel-burning car with a plan to return at shift’s end.
I’d never truly appreciated the totality of the experience of sitting in sunlight on a late-spring day before the blindness. Less and less did I think of light as light and more and more as heat; I thought of it also as pressure and I knew that if the blindness kept up long enough the time would come when I could smell it and taste it too. I’d sniff the gray of an overcast day and the last gasp of twilight would reek achy blue. I sat there in my sunglasses, arms folded over my chest, face tilted towards the hum of that perilously huge and proximate star, inhaling it. I repositioned my head in one way or another, pretending to be watching things.
The sun felt so good. I could feel the smack of red palms on dirty white volleyball flesh, the green grunt (in a bouquet of gasps) preceding the smack each time and the grass-ripping skirmish of earthfall, then pell-mells of yelps in pursuit of the ball to the opposite side of the net. And I could hear, at a forty-five degree angle to my right, at a distance of maybe thirty yards, metered out in human barks: “Sit.”
And I’m sure I could tell from the timbre of his voice, with liberal horror, that the person speaking was Asian. Dorman had told me as much; “Asian yuppie trying to teach a bulldog to sit.” So it’s possible that I’d colored the sound of his voice with the taint of prior knowledge.
Once every twenty minutes or so there came the cavernous flush of the public toilet behind and to the left, up the slope, beside the sidewalk. I could taste it, too, that deli tang of piss. There’s the brownorange of saturated vintage and the greeny-yellow of the day’s fresh pressed. Men like to piss outside the toilet bunker too, of course, much like those who helpfully toss their trash near a litter basket and the odor from such deposits has the sharpness of thumbtacks.
Holding my arm, Dorman had shepherded me to the toilet for one last drain of the bladder before he could take me down to the bench and park me here for three serenely helpless hours. Some lug was planted like a marksman at a stall already as Dorman and I had entered, arms linked, and I could feel the lug’s neck bones crack at us as his shoeleather flexed in the twist of his weightshift and his subsequent homophobe’s sniff and exit. Dorman tensed defensively but being blind I was far beyond embarrassment. Safe in my pod.
I had gone blind on a Friday. During the early hours. I wonder if a certain dream caused it. I sprawled there in bed for the longest time with a menacing sense of un-rightness. It was as dark in that room as I had ever seen on Earth but the noise that blew in on a temperate breeze through the window above the bed was the bright hustle and quarrel and stutter and screech of a wide-awake beast called a city.
That bulldog was having a hard time paying attention to his master’s command to sit. Was it just not sitting at all, the bulldog, or sitting and standing again too quickly to constitute a proper sit? Was the guy pushing the dog’s flatulent rump down with every command? Was it a comically disobedient dog, with floppy jowls, peering up cutely from under a droopy brow? Or was it a bad seed, this dog? Destined to disappoint?
A funny effect of the blindness, which became evident after the initial panic subsided, after the first screaming-into-a-pillow day was out of my sytem, was the sexiness of it. I’d noticed a similar syndrome while travelling. I’d come into a new city, unpack a suitcase in a hotel room and develop a boner, an erection of adolescent persistence. Probably the possibilities implied by a maid-fingered bed in a virgin space, the thrill of knowing that anything can happen in a strange room simply because nothing had not happened there yet. And so it was in the Black Hotel Room of my blindness, my Pod; a state of constant arousal. I would crawl to the bathroom and finger the walls and fixtures until I oriented myself to face the blank mirror and milk the stiff udder of my imagination into the facebowl two or three times a day. Afterwards, I’d pull the silver knob that stoppers the sink, run the warm water and sluice them towards the pipe-encased sea of the city, my wiggling little atoms of need.
“How old is he?” I called out, boldly, wondering exactly how long I might fool somebody into thinking I could see. I tried to call out at a directed volume that might sound like I was aiming at him. Too loud would be a dead giveaway.
“It’s a she not a he. Five months. Stella.”
“Beautiful dog,” I said, nodding. I knew he was probably petting her, scratching behind her ears with pride. And the dog’s tongue was hanging out the corner of its messy mouth, ladling slobber on the grass.
He didn’t answer; had I offended him? but then it dawned on me that the owner was grinning and nodding. Then the silence stretched out until the bell tower bonged three and I realized that the Yuppie and his bulldog had gone, of course. Yuppies become uncomfortable after three or four minute exchanges. They’re ideally suited for elevator quipping in buildings of ten stories or less, or in line at a very fast bagel or coffee shop. Then it occurred to me that he’d probably seen Dorman lead me to the bench and sit me there, an ambulatory invalid, and it was clear to him that I was blind and I had looked to him as either pathetic or insane for pretending that I could see. He had crept off, embarrassed for me.
The volleyball game raged on. I could hear, in the out-of-breathness of some of the game’s participants as they shouted out scores, or good-natured taunts against the other side, that some of the players were a bit older than others, or at least in worse shape and were playing the game on a different level altogether. The young ones were just batting a ball around in the sunshine; the old ones were involved in a life-and-death struggle. The exuberant selfishness of beautiful youth, never looking at anything other than itself in any real detail, helped the old ones camouflage the terror in their efforts. I got caught up in it, hearing it that way, and noticed that the weak, the sick, the old, were the ones making all the noise. Gasping jokes. Desperate screams with the winning points. Then I smelled coffee.
My bench jolted and creaked with slender company.
“Hi,” I said, smiling in the direction that the “Hi” had come from. A female “Hi”. A throaty, sexy, televisiony “Hi”. The kind of “Hi” that sounds like it knows full well it’s welcome, barging benevolently into your livingroom at primetime to sell you some kind of frozen gourmet dinner, or to warn you about the dangers of pre-natal smoking. Hi, I’m Lauren Hutton.
I cocked my head. “Actress?”
She hesitated before responding and I knew she was examining me with a skeptical squint.
“But you’re blind aren’t you?” she said. I reached out for her and we both laughed. She apologized. “I’ll bet that’s the bluntest anybody’s been all day.” She touched my shoulder while chuckling and I felt like a tuning fork being pinged. “Isn’t it?”
“Surely.” I pulled off my sunglasses and gave her a quick un-look and winked and slipped them back on with both hands. “Not just blind, I’ll have you know. Nouveau blind. Blind for six days, thus far, but who’s counting? Sitting here trying to pass myself off as a guy with eyes.” I saluted her. “I’m still in the closet. How’d you ‘out’ me?”
“I live in those apartments…” she caught herself, “I live in a high-rise overlooking the park. I sit on my balcony doing crossword puzzles and drinking coffee in the afternoon. This is the second day I’ve seen your friend walk you over to this bench. I like the way you dress… you look kinda displaced. Your friend isn’t bad looking himself. He drives a Skoda, by the way. Vanity plates. ‘2 BAD 4 U’. Oh dear.”
I enjoyed a very clear image of her on her balcony, peering through the eyepiece of one of those expensive little telescopes that were so popular among the hip last year. Lauren Hutton with a telescope. Then I had a disappointing intuition. “You’re not about to ask me if my friend is married, are you?”
“Me? Heavens no. I don’t date smokers, or Skoda drivers, or guys with vanity plates, for that matter. Your friend looks too much like a writer. I have to admit I like the sideburns, though.”
“Sideburns?” Mock outrage. “He’s grown sideburns in the week of my tragic blindness?” Dorman had been talking about doing that for years, growing sideburns, but I always gave him shit about the notion. “I must say he’s made the most of my handicap.” I shook my head. “The Skoda he bought in East Berlin and shipping it cost more than the car is even worth, but his theory is that the kind of girl he likes likes funky little cars like that, so….”
“Whatever works. Beats swimming upstream for a little salmon, wouldn’t you agree?”
“How do you feel about painters?”
“Painters.” I could feel her frowning. “You were a painter?”
“Were? Am.” One smart nod. “You have admit it’s one helluva gimmick. Arrange the tubes a certain way, work with a limited pallet, I could even do you.” I leaned towards her. “By touch.” I reached but she pulled her face out of range.
“Sorry,” she said.
“No, no…” Hot faced. “You…”
“But you honestly don’t understand.”
A very long minute elapsed. I could feel traffic and the dramatic slaps and yelps of the volley-ball siege and her ladylike coffee-sipping. I could feel inland-wandering gulls pleading for life in a chain of circles across the sky. I heard a tree-shadow encroach on my left as the sun rolled right. I shrugged and smiled that ever-upwards smile of the blind and said, “Spring.”
She made the muffled interrogatory mmmm? of someone busy with coffee. I cleared my throat. “This is the first Spring I’ve ever felt a part of. I can no longer see it, but I smell it and hear it… I am it. Like eyes are these holes in your head you’re always escaping out of. Now that I can’t get out anymore, I’m here… I’m present. Responsible for my atoms. ” I think I was smirking. It’s hard to feel, from the inside out, the difference between a smirk and some rue. In any case, I was thinking that she was obviously an old hand at diverting attention. Ask her a question about herself and the next thing you knew, you were talking about you.
“So, uh, you still haven’t answered my question.”
“Which question was that, sweetie?”
“Your voice. It sounds so… I don’t know… so polished. Well-modulated.”
“Am I an actress?” Meaningful chuckle. Irony there. “You’re hearing the Finishing School, probably. You’re hearing some debutante shellack. I’m no actress. If I were an actress, I could only get certain parts, anyway. Well, not even then. Along those lines, there’s something I should probably tell you….”
I had another disappointing intuition. The voice was so deep. Deeper than Lauren Hutton’s.
“I love this coffee. Persian Mocha Royale. Wanna sip?” She carefully steadied the heavy mug in my hands and as I lowered my upper lip to the hot edge of the coffee she said, like there was poison in the drink, “Wait.”
“You’re a man,” I blurted.
“That’s right,” she said, with what sounded like real pleasure, “you wouldn’t even be able to tell, would you? Well, happy to say, no. But,” she took a deep breath, “when I was younger, very much younger than I am today, ten years ago or so, there was an accident, yes? and I’d really rather not go into in any detail now, but I had to have some pretty extensive skin-grafts… my face, my chest, my right arm…. the doctors were very expensive and very very good… but, uh, what can I say? I’m no longer what you’d call a pretty sight. I have a good body, knock on wood (she knocked on the bench) and I haven’t been a shut-in or anything and I’ve had more than my share of drug-induced one-night stands, because, as you may know, men will sleep with just about anything…but, uh, you know, nobody’s ever walked proudly down the street holding hands with me on a Sunday afternoon in Soho, if you know what I mean? People stare; the very old are as bad as children. Yuppies try so hard not to stare that it’s the same difference. Oh, plus: I get these resentful looks on the rare occasions when I decide that I’m human and want to dine in a nice restaurant… I guess it puts some people off their food. You know, it’s like: doesn’t she have the common decency to stay home?”
She shifted on the bench, getting a leg up on it, hugging a knee to her chest. I think. She said:
“You can’t believe you just told me that,” we overlapped, in near-unison, laughing. She touched my shoulder again. Again I pinged.
“I just wanted to get that out of the way.” From the inclination of her voice I could tell she was staring out across the park, away from me, remembering things. I wanted her very badly. “I mean, I suppose I could have kept it a secret and you never would have known. Until you touched my face.”
I was so glad I couldn’t see her. I found myself almost desperate that she’d stay. I experienced the astounding luxury of not giving a damn how she looked.
“Well, since you’ve already mentioned the unmentionable, how old are you? If I may be so rude.”
“Prefer not to say,” she said as pleasantly as possible.
“Ah. Mysterious older woman?”
“Not really. And there’s nothing mysterious about any woman over thirty,” she huffed. “That’s just a phony consolation prize men give you for your wrinkles…‘worldly’ ‘mysterious’…only teenage girls have any mystery about them and that’s only because they’re mysterious to themselves.” She sniffed. Sipped some coffee. Crossed a leg. I’d touched a nerve.
“What’s your favorite period of Picasso?”
She took long enough to answer that I realized (and I realized that she realized as well) that it wasn’t really just an innocent question on my part. It was a test. Anyone who answered “The Blue Period” failed. I could be friends with someone who answered “Cubism”, but never sleep with them. I was hoping she’d answer correctly, because I really, and not simply out of base biological need, wanted to sleep with her. In a very noisy way.
When I could see, I cared so much more about how I looked and the woman in your life is definitely an extension of your own appearance. Would she, my deformed beauty with the luxurious voice, be the first in a long line of exquisite monsters?
“My favorite period of Picasso.” She sucked a lip. “Well, the last one. Just before he died. When he was painting like a death-obsessed child.” She tapped my knee. “When he was painting those monsters.”
I got chills.
“Do you wanna know the weirdest thing about my current condition?” I could smell her dry saliva on the lip of the coffee mug. She wasn’t wearing lipstick. She scooted closer. This poor ugly lonely girl. How ugly? She smelled like Persian Mocha Royale and herbal shampoo and something else, something nearly-forgotten and I really wanted to eat her. Lick and chew that ugly face. Oysters are ugly too and don’t I love them?
“The weirdest thing about being blind,” I said, as I tapped my nose, “Is that I feel indestructible. I feel immortal. Back before, when I could see, I felt as flimsy as a fruitfly. Now I feel, I don’t know, like I’m in this very safe place, this Kryptonite vault in space. I call it The Pod. I feel like my ties to this tiny world have been severed. I’m only still participating in the banality of everyday life because why not? But in reality, see, I’m flying through space in The Pod. Immortal and unbound. Cozy in the black-box recorder of the jet plane of existence or something.”
I was selling her on blindness, you see. I was offering it to her, to share it somehow, in order to keep her. She touched me through my light jacket and her touch left sweet burns of sex on my arm. She kissed me twice, first on the side of my face and then, giving into the impulse, she suddenly took my blindness in her hands and kissed me hard on the mouth.
“I’ll keep in touch,” she said, and she was gone.
I was so stunned that I couldn’t even say goodbye. I had a sad premonition of coming back to this park, this bench, at the same time every day, for years of hoping. Tilting my face towards her balcony. Wherever it was.
“Hey,” someone called. I cocked my head.
“Are you alright?” The panting of the dog at his feet. “She sure can spin a tale, can’t she? That sister can talk,” he chuckled. He patted Stella the mildly disobedient Bulldog. Or maybe he was scratching her belly. “But you’re fine, I see.”
He settled on the bench.
“Gary Chew,” he said. “She smells good for a homeless, too. I’ll give her that. See, I used to give her money when I first moved here. I look like an easy mark, I admit it! She’d cook up these real elaborate sob stories and it was kinda funny because she never seemed to remember me and came up with a different story every time. But I always gave her a buck anyway. Then one day I saw her approach a brother, you know, a black guy, in a business suit, a successful brother with a real air about him and he just shook his head and kinda straight-armed right past her and I thought, damn! If her own people won’t help her, why should I?”
The Asian slapped his leg and Stella jumped with great effort upon the bench between us and her master rubbed her vigorously as he spoke.
“You a dog lover?”
I felt sick.