The day I went blind was a sleepy suburban Saturday.
I was hidden away in the corner of the dining room, curled up on a
cushioned Danish-modern chair, reading a book. We lived in a
ramshackle, three story house built in 1914. The dining room was
dark, with dark, almost black walnut paneling and a heavy walnut table
that seated eight at Thanksgiving. We ate in the kitchen, so the room
was empty most of the time. The only reason anyone came in there was
to feed the fish, housed in a large, lighted tank in the corner. The
motor for the pump hummed quietly, and bubbles rose through the pale
green, slightly murky water. Iridescent neon fish darted to and fro.
Orange goldfish and black mollies swam at a stately pace, fins
fluttering. Green water plants swayed. At the bottom of the tank, in
multi-colored gravel, sat some Asian-looking ceramic structures, a
mysterious ruined city, with arches and small buildings missing half
of their roofs.
I often escaped to the dining room, only one of my spots for reading,
which I did constantly, all of the time. Every Saturday I would ride
home from the library, a skinny, freckled kid on her bike, wire
baskets packed with books. I would lug the tall stack to my room and
spread the books out on the floor, excited by all my choices, skimming
a first page there, a first page here, lingering over my decision of
which book to read first. Mountain Lakes Public Library was small,
but I was an indiscriminate reader, and didn't mind. I read myself
out of the children's section quickly, moving on to adult books,
devouring Marjorie Morningstar and Butterfield 8 along with older
classics like Little Women and Jane Eyre and romantic potboilers like
Forever Amber and Dragonwyck. I wanted to be all of the heroines,
questing or cynical, hopeful or doomed. I wanted experience. A wider
world than suburban New Jersey.
My mother disapproved of my reading. "You read too much," she told me
every Saturday. "Go outside and play." I sensed a profound
disapproval of the girl I was turning out to be, her desire for a
different daughter -- more popular and outgoing, less bookish and
studious. She was unlikely to discover me in the dining room and
chase me outdoors, though. I felt happy and safe in my shadowy
Outside the sun was shining, a gold-green blur through the tall,
overgrown bushes obscuring the dining room windows at the front and
side of the house. I could hear the far off drone of lawnmowers,
faint shouts of children playing, louder hammering and the whine of
the electric drill in the kitchen behind me. Renovating the kitchen
was a project my father had been working on for as long as I could
remember. Right now half of the kitchen had the old aqua cabinets,
and half had the new burnt-orange cabinets he'd built himself. There
were no countertops yet. Tiny swirly brown tiles were affixed to the
wall above the cabinets, but hadn't yet been grouted. Every weekend
he sawed and hammered, hauling finished cabinets up the narrow
basement stairs. He must have been painting. The smell of turpentine
permeated the air, sharp and heavy.
It was like inhaling the fumes out of the canister. It made my eyes
water and burn. I caught my breath. I couldn't exhale. Suddenly I
burst out, "I can't see! I can't see!"
My father rushed into the dining room, banging open the swinging door
from the pantry, my mother clattered down the wooden stairs from the
second floor. He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me up the stairs
to the hall bathroom, almost pulling my arm out of the socket in his
grim haste. Gripping my hair, he filled the basin with icy water and
plunged my face into it. I was struggling. I couldn't breathe. My
mother was out in the hall, wailing, "Oh my God. Oh my God." My
father pushed my face into the water again, his hand on the back of my
head. I was choking and spluttering, hair drenched, icy water running
down my shoulders and back, when he let me up for air.
"It's okay," I gasped, trying to push him away. "I can see." He
toweled my hair roughly, a bushy halo around my face.
It's been years, and I can't remember whether my mother and father
were angry or happy in this Lazarus moment. I hadn't been faking, but
I can't remember whether I really couldn't see, which is unlikely, or
whether the fumes simply made my eyes sting. I remember my father's
force, my mother's wails, my fear. I can imagine what they might have
said, probably not expressions of joy.
"Were you lying? By God, I'll teach you not to lie to me."
"It's all that reading she does, Jim. It's just not healthy."
It was a moment of blindness that would be followed by others. Their
blindness to me -- my mother's inability to accept my intellectual
aspirations and definition of womanhood, my father's refusal to accept
my far flung travels, the men I fell in love with, the world I
embraced. My blindness to myself -- my decade of dissatisfaction with a
career that could have been rich and satisfying, my late sobriety
after years of denial. One day I plunged my face into a sink of cold
water, looked into the mirror, and there I was. I toweled my hair
gently. I could see.