If I’m honest, I would say that I enjoyed the week you spent in bed. Not confined, exactly—I’m not some kind of monster—but resting, healing, in the apartment we shared. You were no longer in the greater pain of uncertainty, wondering whether or not you might go blind. By then your wounded eye was feeling better, your fever reduced, and you were oh so sleepy. Always just slipping into or crawling out of a nap, the corners of your eyes crusted shut, especially the left—still red and a bit angry-looking, but basically okay.
I enjoyed knowing where you were, where you inevitably would be, when I came home. It made me feel extra competent to return with soup and prescriptions, to administer your eye drops and feel your gratitude with every sleep-heavy kiss. Like Jane Eyre dutifully caring for Mr. Rochester, I had rediscovered my independence, and “perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near—that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand.”
Perhaps. The week before, the optometry specialist on call at the ER had poked and prodded, investigating your eyeball with various drops and through various lenses. We were to report to the authority on retinas the next morning, and there we looked at large photographs of your eye—a globe, a great planet—with cosmic yellows, blues, stardust pinks. The shadowy Milky Way, we were told, was blood hovering just above your retina. “The pupil is not responsive,” the doctor said. We hoped it would be again. But all you could do was rest, and watch, and wait.
Before the accident with your eye, I’d been feeling increasingly distant from you. Struggling with thoughts of dependence and independence. I gather I’m not alone in this—attempting to reconcile one’s understandable yet unnerving reliance on another person with an equal urge for autonomy. Your need, your helplessness, tipped the balance, formalizing the dynamic.In other words, this issue of dependence was made temporarily irrelevant by the fact of it being incontrovertible. A reflex—unremarkable, unremarked upon. And like many a crisis, it drew us back close. On our way from the clinic to the ER, fear lighting up your good eye, I tried to imagine our new reality if you were to go blind in the other. Would things carry on the same? Would they change? Would I be more actively and permanently your right hand? Did I want to be?
Through your left eye, you said, you saw a moving squiggle, like a red caterpillar, a centipede. We began, in the days following, to speak of your eye in terms of this creature: How’s the centipede? Is it moving? Is it still? The doctor adopted our new vocabulary—a fourth party to our reality (mine, yours and your centipede’s)—even as he told us that it was just blood drying in the back of the eye. You began to see more clearly, but the centipede remained. For days your left eye would tear constantly, as if you were silently weeping.
The eye drops we applied three times daily multiplied the rheum—or “sleep,” as we learn to call it in childhood—that you already produced in excess. Your heavy-lidded eyes, lined with thick dark lashes, often made me think of a drowsy child, or a beautiful cow. How could I not love the person to whom these eyes belonged? But your eyes could shut me out, too—drawing the blinds but leaving the lights on so that I knew someone was home, that there was something you weren’t ready to let me in on yet. And would you ever be? A therapist once explained it in this way: There will come a day when she’ll tire of knocking at your door, and she won’t knock anymore.
Though we can agree it’s rude to keep knocking when someone refuses to let you in, for a long while I did. I can only say that it was because you would, occasionally, invite me in. And even when you didn’t, you always kept that one light on. For both our sakes, you might have just cut the light—but then, I believe a part of you really did want me to come in and look around.
“I want a Sunday kind of love,” sings Etta James. “A love to last past Saturday night. And I’d like to know it’s more than love at first sight.” We watched each other across the café for weeks before we finally spoke. Even then, we decided that we would simply have a fling—years later we would laugh remembering it. In another of James’s most famous songs: “I would rather go blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me… So you see, I love you so much that I don’t want to watch you leave me, baby. Most of all, I just don’t want to be free.”
It was ironic, I thought as I lay next to you, asleep, the night we returned from the ER. I’d been reaching recently for how to express what distance I felt growing between us. Was I too much your right hand, or not enough? In what ways were you my left hand—or how might you grow to be? Grasping at clichés—“you don’t really see me” and “if only you could just see things from my perspective”—to explain a feeling that quite frankly didn’t altogether make sense to me, either, none felt right. And now, suddenly, you literally couldn’t see me properly. Had I somehow wished this upon you?
Blindness, when plotted, often comes as the ultimate punishment for wrongdoing (Oedipus, for starters). Castration-like, the removal of perspective reduces one in power.
“[Is it] better to see clearly or to remain short-sighted?” one character asks another in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. (They’re sitting in a hospital waiting room, and her companion is nervous about her impending eye surgery.) Before her comrade can answer, the first says, “That’s absurd, you know that”—and then sends her off to be unwittingly blinded under the knife.
We sat in the dark of the movie theater, watching this scene unfold and peering at one another through the corners of our vision as if we were on a first date. Your eye was much better—this was one early expedition into the world since the accident—though you still had trouble in the bright light. “The glare,” you said, “makes everything foggy.”
It was the same word your uncle, who still lived on the Caribbean island where you were born, had used to describe his own failing vision, which had gotten so bad he sometimes put his shoes on the wrong feet, his eyes glassy from glaucoma. When we visited him with your mother she made an appointment for him to see an eye doctor, giving the money to someone else so your uncle couldn’t drink it first. He’d once been successful in the sugarcane industry in that small town where you were born in the middle of the island, and your mother reminded him bluntly how he’d been greedy, how he hadn’t treated people well when he’d had the chance. (Was she implying that this, in fact, was the fate he deserved?) I remembered in the movie theater how, when we drove him home that evening, as twilight turned to darkness, he couldn’t identify the house where he was staying. He got out of the car many times to check. Finally, a young man from the neighborhood took his arm and led him down the lane to the right house, the two of them illuminated by the car’s headlights as we watched—you, me and your mother, who began to quietly cry. I’d wanted to ask you about it afterward—what would I have asked?—but I imagined you might close your blinds, and I don’t remember if I ever did. On the same trip we visited the house where you were born. I held you, hoping to close whatever distance remained between us. And sometimes I felt that, even for a few moments, I had.
In the dystopian world of The Lobster it is illegal to be single, and people must go to a hotel to find a match, within 45 days, with whom they share a “defining characteristic” (a limp; frequent nosebleeds; a nice singing voice) or they’ll be turned into the animal of their choosing. Living illegally in the woods is a band of single loners who exist within a parallel but opposing authoritarianism: no coupling, no kissing, no flirting allowed. The fierce leader of this lawless pack blinds her fellow loner because she’s discovered that this woman and a man-loner have fallen in love and plan to escape to the city together as a couple. Their shared characteristic? Short-sightedness. By blinding her, she ensures their incompatibility. (Unless, unless—now you see where this is going—the man is willing to blind himself too.)
I was reminded, seeing the woman, her newly blind eyes covered with gauze, of Saint Lucy. Patron saint of the blind, she was tortured and killed in the year 304 in Syracuse, Sicily, and became a Christian martyr. Some legends tell it that her gouged eyes were part of the torture; other stories say Lucy took them out herself after the governor of Syracuse sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. In yet another version, Lucy removed her eyes to discourage a persistent suitor who admired them.
When I was eleven, my parents gave me a bronze pendant, about the size of a thumbnail, with Santa Lucia depicted on one side. In one hand she holds a feather quill, in the other she carries her eyes, laid out on a platter before her. The back of the pendant reads “Proteggimi”—and for many years I wore it with this idea of protection in mind, though from what exactly I wasn’t sure. There was no religion in our house, but I gravitated to Christian props with an aesthetic understanding of the sacred. The shell-pink and gold rosary from the Vatican that I would bury and unbury at the Jersey Shore the same summer I got it. The red, purple and blue geometries of stained-glass windows at the university chapel. A book of Bible stories, the spine worn down from generations and a migration north, leaving behind a climate where the air and history felt thicker, more substantial—like something you might slice through, then inspect the newly raw edges. And, finally, there was Santa Lucia, worn around my secular neck with the faith and pride of a true believer.
I always thought of Lucia—for this is how I first knew her, by the pendant—as my guardian and accomplice, at once a kind of mother and twin. Both me and not me for our shared name and different languages; our vastly different eras and experiences; the eyes that were set firmly in my head and lay on a dish in her outstretched hands. Our name means light, or clear. I attempted to conjure a sense of deep religiosity while wearing the pendant, trying to conceive of Lucia’s sacrifices, so exotic and mysterious. I may have wondered as a child: Did she truly have to lose her eyes in order to see God? From the St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s Omeros:
I could see through my own palm with every crease
and every line transparent since I was seeing
the light of St. Lucia at last through her own eyes,
her blindness, her inward vision as revealing
as his, because a closing darkness brightens love,
and I felt every wound pass.
This idea that there is some connection between physical blindness and deeper insight (a “brighten[ing] of love”) is not a new one: besides Homer, the most famous example in the Western tradition is Tiresias, blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, whose clairvoyance was a function of his lack of sight. In Christianity this is reinforced by dualism, whereby the material world must be renounced if spiritual grace is to be found. “Just think,” the leader of the loners later tells her blinded friend in The Lobster, “when someone goes blind, one of their other senses is heightened.” We understand that this is a cruel joke. How long, one might imagine, did it take for Saint Lucy to tire of the martyr life—to wish she might give it all up to see just one more day? Did her blindness bring her closer to understanding, to clarity? Or closer to an uninterested, unseeing God?
A malevolent God, even. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the pseudo-Biblical nicety “Under His Eye” is exchanged like “good day,” serving as a reminder of the totalitarian surveillance under which all people in Atwood’s story live—a threat disguised as a benevolent watchful presence. The eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg stare out from their billboard looming above the road, a stand-in, in Gatsby’s world, for the divinity that’s been lost to the new God, capital—virtue and other values replaced by greed and boredom. And burning trash. Under these great vacant eyes, always watching, Gatsby desires—wants to possess—something he can’t for once simply buy.
I wanted to see deep into you. Wanted you to see into me, too. And while I think I understood that there were necessary limits to this possibility, these limits blurred with the obstacle of your tightly closed blinds. I obsessed over blind spots. What was I not seeing? “Orpheus was alone when he invented writing,” Terrance Hayes writes in “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” one of a collection of seventy poems all with the same title, written during the first two hundred days of the current administration:
His manic drawing became a kind of writing when he sent
His beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it.
He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant
I never want to see you again. It is possible he meant that, too.
“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open, with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you were going to die, but you’re not going to.” Pause. “You need to settle down a little.” Alma, the muse of renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, delivers this monologue while Reynolds is eating the poison mushroom omelet she cooked for him in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. And even more queasily delicious than her admission is the discovery that follows: Reynolds is into it. It is the perfect fucked-up match—completely destructive, yet utterly fulfilling for both parties. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, anyway? I liked the simplicity of you tender, open, with only me to help. Did you, too?
Before the accident with your eye, I spent so much time trying to piece together what was unclear to me. To fill in the blanks you left in your wake. There were too many of them, and you were quick to go quiet in the face of discomfort—a common form of self-protection, sure, but one I nevertheless took personally. And so I began to look, both outside and in. Scrutinizing myself for blind spots—what was I not seeing? Had I wished this upon you, I’d wondered. Perhaps the better question was: What had I wished on me?
Mr. Rochester’s sight returns—as did yours—and he acknowledges “with a full heart” that “God had tempered judgment with mercy.” Perhaps that mercy is the love of a good woman (perhaps)—or the fact that, after a few years of blindness, Rochester had expiated his sins—of marrying for superficial reasons, of reaping the benefits of the colony.
But there was no clear ending like this for us. As usual, I am looking for answers and finding questions while you seem content not to ask, not to look. Perhaps this is our greatest difference, finally: this ravenous need to look, that simple faith in looking away. I experiment with small acts of self-blinding, imagining that if I train myself to look less I might be more compatible with you. Happier, even. But it never works for long. And even as you begin, finally, to train your eyes, to test and stretch them—to open your blinds wider, leave them open for longer stretches at a time—I can feel my own eyes beginning to look away.
Art credit: Nikola Emma Ryšavá