NOT QUITE SO BLIND
By Thomas Heine
I have never experienced the sensation of sight, but I know a lot about it. I have an understanding of words such as bright, shades, black and white and colors, near sightedness and double vision. I know that sunrises and sunsets can be beautiful in their subtle hues and that staring at the sun can makes one’s eyes burn. But I do not know sight itself, the way I know sound and touch, and I never will. Therefore I do not miss it as some might imagine.
I must have been about four before I realized that my ways of perceiving things were different from other people. One childhood incident remains vivid: I was “watching” television with cousins when they all began to laugh at something they had seen but I couldn’t. When I got up to feel the television set they all shouted at me to get out of their way. I ran to my mother, tripping and falling down steps and landing on a wooden floor. I can remember the smell of the wood.
While being blind is not difficult if it is all you know, raising a blind child must be difficult for sighted parents. In retrospect I can see that my parents were not severe but merely overprotective. They worried that I would get lost in the world or fall victim to unseen forces. They thought I lived in darkness (I know what darkness is even though I have never experienced it). They kept me from playing with neighborhood children. I can remember longing to escape the prison of my house to be closer to their sweet tinkling voices. Whenever relatives or friends with families came to visit, however, my parents never forgot to organize the Blindfold Game. At the time I did not realize that they had devised the game for my sake. All the players began in the living room. Then one was chosen to leave the room and return blindfolded. Meanwhile one or two of the others would retreat to the kitchen. The blindfolded one had to guess who had remained in the living room. Like everyone else I wore a blindfold, but unlike them I could always say immediately who was still in the room and where they were sitting. I remember the sound of their amazement. Of course at the time I couldn’t explain how I did it.
My parents sent me to a school for the blind for several years. The teachers there determined that I had perfect pitch but also a serious learning disability for someone in my condition. I have problems with space. Most people without sight become very sensitive to the proximity of walls, large objects and furniture. They become adept at negotiating their surroundings after a short orientation. I marveled at the kids in my school who were able to race down hallways and up steps and who found their desks with ease. Sometimes I had to wander in the aisles looking for my place long after everyone else was seated.
I have found that the best way to live with my learning disability is to simply yield to it. While I instinctively try to remember my path through every new space ( five steps, then two steps, then two more), I know that once I leave a room, its shape becomes vague to me and my mental picture of it unreliable. It is better for me to assume that I don’t know where the next turn is or the next wall. I let people guide me explicitly or subtly.
When I moved into my apartment, I shared it first for several months with my half-sister Cheryl. She helped me learn my way in the rooms until I could get around without a stick. Then she moved out. I wanted to be on my own and I could sense that Cheryl was growing impatient with the burden of me. I am no burden to myself. I earn a living as a piano tuner and am good at what I do. It brings me in daily contact with new people and space is not a problem. I can easily find my way out the front door when the taxi arrives. I let my customers lead me to the piano and lead me to the door. I am not expected to get around in a stranger’s home or remember the height of a table. I can relax.
During adolescence I began to notice that when I was with some people I felt strange things. A sensation different from hearing or touch that I thought was originating in me. I experienced different sensations depending on who I was with.
I had a boyfriend in high school. Todd was sighted and had a car and was very funny. I liked the feel of his hands, but sometimes with him I sensed emotions that seemed out of place, like giddiness at a tender moment or sorrow in the middle of laughter. And when he took me home to meet his family I distinctly felt something odd whenever his mother was in the room. Like bits of sand under my fingernails, her presence confirmed that I was perceiving these things in other people. Later when Todd was telling a joke on our drive home I sensed something I would call sadness, a soft depression in an otherwise hard flat surface. I asked Todd if something was wrong. “What are you talking about?” He answered sharply and although I could not see his eyes, I imagined them expressing surprise and discomfort. Soon after that he broke up with me, assuring me more than once that it had nothing to do with my blindness.
I made an attempt to talk to my parents about my confusing perceptions. I must have made it sound like a problem they couldn’t solve because they insisted that I go to a support group for the blind. I didn’t need support. I needed an explanation or guidance. I found neither in the group.
I did not resist going to the group. On the contrary, at least initially, I enjoyed getting to know a new circle of friends. After several meetings, however, I grew restless. Although they talked about important things like careers and relationships, nothing they said gave me the impression that they had ever experienced other people as I had. Finally I asked if any of them had a sense beyond the standard five minus one. They had lots to say about sensing objects and feeling a person’s presence, but I could tell that none of them really understood me. “It’s like pressing against something you can’t touch or hearing something that doesn’t make a sound, like wood or metal…” The more I tried to explain, the more acute the sensations I felt became. Distracted by wave over wave passing through me, I stammered and then fell silent. I suddenly felt very blind indeed and very separate from them. I did not talk to anyone about my special sense for a long time after that. I concluded that people, sighted or not, did not understand me or did not believe me, especially since I am so clumsy, bumping into furniture and knocking over glasses.
I never felt the need for a man in my life any more than I long for sight. I can live by myself and with myself. But my attraction to Ed and his to me developed on our first ride together. Ed drove a taxi and aspired to be a songwriter. After my second ride with him he asked to take me out. I accepted. His voice was soothing and I perceived kindness in him, like a gentle stroke on my neck, and hope. We soon were spending all our free time at his place or mine. Although my apartment was the smaller of the two, I refused to move out. I could not bear the thought of being a stranger in someone else’s space. And so Ed moved in with me.
Ed was the first person I felt at ease with when talking about my special sense. I made him promise not to divulge my secret for I had learned from experience that some people don’t like to find out that I can know what they keep hidden from the sighted world. Ed was intrigued by my ability. Whenever we met people while we were out, he would always ask me afterwards what I had noticed in them. I tried to describe the sensations. “Like metal grinding in my hands…a balloon rising inside me…a tinkling bell I don’t hear. I just feel the longing…something like a warm cloud.” I don’t think Ed always understood, but he never said stupid things like, “How can you know what a cloud is?”
Ed came to me with a song he said I had inspired. I was flattered, and when he played it for me I was touched. Even more than the song itself, the feelings I perceived in Ed as he played the song made me happy. He admitted that it still needed polish and some of the notes strained his range, but as he played I sensed in him an inner concordance, like bringing a string to the right pitch.
The first time Ed made plans to visit his brother in North Carolina, a six-hour trip over the mountains, I had a bad feeling. Every time he mentioned the drive, there was something like an unpleasant tightness in the back of my head. Finally I asked him not to go. “Are you sure?” he asked. I was only sure that I did not want him to go. “Perhaps I’m afraid to be alone.” Ed called his brother and made up a story why he had to cancel the visit. From across the room he seemed to be holding my hand. Then on the day he would have left for the drive he ran into the room and said, “It just was it on the news. There was a rock slide. Took out a quarter mile of the highway. That would have been me.”
After that Ed made jokes, like asking me first thing in the morning, “Do you have any advice for me today?”
I played along. “Yes. Get back in time to take me to the store.”
“I predict that we both will be hungry tonight if you don’t take me to the store.” Ed laughed but I sensed disappointment, a soft grinding.
Whenever I enter a stranger’s home I sense things about them. If the impression is strong, I make small talk to get to know them better. For example, if I feel something unpleasant, I try to cheer them up. If I perceive a smile in them, I let them tell me why. It gives me a feeling of intimacy. If the sensation is too strong, it can distract me from my work and I have to ask to be left alone in the room. At one job I was nearly overwhelmed with despair. Reaching into an empty jar again and again, and having to feel the emptiness. The woman who met me at the door and guided me to the piano hardly spoke. She was not the source of the despair but it touched her as well. She deflected my attempts at conversation and went out of the room until I finished. The sensation persisted like a muffled moan behind a wall.
“I’ve got to go back there,” I said that evening and asked Ed to drive me.
“Call a taxi.”
“I will if you don’t take me.”
My insistence convinced Ed, a curved line straightened.
“What are you feeling?”
“Intense anguish. I want it to be over.”
“What are you going to do when we get there?”
“I have no idea.”
Ed drove fast until we approached the house. Then I heard cars and a crowd. Ed left me in the car and returned a few minutes later.
“There was a murder. A murder suicide” He didn’t know any details but I didn’t want any. My sense of urgency had passed. There was nothing to be done.
“You should go talk to the police.”
“Because you knew about it.”
“I didn’t. I don’t know anything about it. Take me home”
Ed was affected by the incident more than I was. His initial sense of wonder at my feelings gave way to something else and he wouldn’t let the incident rest. Didn’t I care about the woman who was murdered? She was a stranger to me, just a name in the paper. I didn’t even know for sure if the woman I met was the victim. She didn’t let me near. Didn’t I feel somehow responsible with the foreknowledge? “No.” I am an antenna that receives random impressions.
“Then why did you have to go back?”
“I needed to feel the relief.”
“Relief?” Wood cracked. No gentle stroke on my neck. I know he stared at me and thought I was heartless. I felt the chill.
Just as every face is unique, so too is every person I encounter with my special sense. Most leave no lasting impression, but I know that at least ever since the Blindfold Game I can recognize individuals and distinguish them from one another. In a large group of strangers, however, I can only perceive the collective presence. I go to church sometimes to feel the serenity of hope and the purity of contrition. For that same reason I used to enjoy going with Ed to the writers nights at local clubs. Especially if the crowd was large, I experienced the intense swirling and crackling of ambition. Unfortunately Ed’s inquiries into my perceptions became increasingly insistent, like needles.
“What did he think of my song?”
“I can’t read minds.”
“But what did he feel?”
“Nothing in particular.”
Although my lack of sensation meant nothing, it added to Ed’s growing self-doubts. And then there was the incident with Bret. When Ed introduced us and Bret shook my hand I felt a sudden – and exhilarating – spark in my spine. I foolishly asked Ed about Bret when we got home, and he became suspicious. Reacting to the grinding and scraping I assured Ed that he had no need to be jealous. Several weeks later news came that Bret had signed a record deal.
“You helped him, didn’t you?”
“You told him Roundtree was a good place to start.”
“I was only repeating what I’ve heard you say.”
Ed did not answer but I felt the chill in his silence. He thought I had given to Bret what I withheld from him.
When Ed made plans again to visit his brother I did not try to stop him.
“Don’t you love me anymore?” Ed laughed out loud but not inside. I had to be careful how I answered him because whatever I said could be a prediction, adding more fuel to his fantasy.
“I’ll see you when you get back,” was the emptiest phrase I could think of.
“Yeah, in your special way.” It was the first time he had said something so stupid. Dishes rattled in a distant cupboard. And there was something else I sensed, but I didn’t know what it was.
Of the friends Ed brought home I like Kenny least. Something slimy and elusive. One evening Kenny stayed for dinner, and as soon as the table was cleared he and Ed began with the racing forms.
“When I told Kenny about you, he wanted to try this. It was his idea.”
“Yes, but I agree. There’s nothing wrong with putting your talent to good use.”
“I can’t help you.”
“Should I bet on Breezeway?”
“Should I bet on Carumba?”
“No. You shouldn’t bet on anything. Kenny, think of your kids. You can’t afford to throw money away.” I was a fool to think I could dissuade a compulsive gambler with words. Kenny went to the track and lost on every race.
“It didn’t matter which horses he picked. He was going to lose.”
“And you knew that all along?” Scratching, pointing.
“Now I know that I knew. I didn’t realize that I knew at the time. It’s not like that.“
I could feel Ed’s ignorance and disgust like the pressure of overcoats under my skin. Increasingly he returned from jam sessions drunk and with bones rubbing against themselves. Sometimes he was too hung over for work the next day. One night he came home and said, “This is my latest.” He played with clumsy drunken fingers and he sang off-key. The chorus was memorable. “She’s a girl that watches them die. She watches them sink and won’t say why.” I know Ed meant to hurt me with that song but I only heard his frustration and sensed something else, slipping.
The next time I heard Ed drive away for the evening I went into a sudden frenzy. Without a plan or forethought I began pushing furniture in every direction until I had turned every room into chaos. Then I felt my way through the rooms. Again and again I went through the rooms. I tried to memorize the arrangements but of course I couldn’t. Once I stepped out of a room, I couldn’t pass through it again without groping. If I didn’t move slowly, carefully, I would get hurt and suddenly the purpose of my frenzy became clear to me: the rooms now mirrored my relationship with Ed. Now he could see what he was doing to me. Concrete so that he could understand.
I fell asleep on the sofa, waiting for Ed to come home. I awoke to strong pulsing. The sensation was so strong that I thought it was coming from me. I heard Ed moving from room to room and the pulsing grew. When he reached me he shouted. The voice was angry and fearful and confused.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong with you?”
I tried to explain. “That is what you are doing to me.”
“You’ve gone crazy.”
“I can’t move without bumping into something.”
“Because you’re blind, you fool!”
“But you can see.” Every time I said that the pulsing intensified. But I could not keep the words back. “Look. What you see, that is what you’re doing to me. Don’t you see? Are you blind?”
Ed took me by the shoulders and shook me. I remained calm because all at once I knew that everything would soon be all right. Ed slapped me two, three, four times and with each I sensed ever more clearly that he was slipping into a pit from which he would never emerge. I wasn’t afraid. As he slipped, I felt relief.
In the morning Ed was apologetic and offered to put the furniture back right. His voice sounded far away as if it were already receding into the past. I told him to leave everything the way it was.
“We can’t live in a place looking like this.”
“I can.” I felt his confusion again, the same as last night, a gusting wind that kept shifting direction. What a mistake it would have been to move in with Ed. I would have been bound to him for the sake of a familiar space. I now knew I would rather move cautiously through rooms than have to be cautious inside. I told Ed he had to move out. He didn’t argue. He apologized again but I felt him relax, not unlike the way Cheryl relaxed when we had our talk and agreed that she should leave.
Like grass in the wind.
After Ed left I felt the absence intensely. Never again would I wake up in the morning and feel his glow. Never again would I recognize his touch from across the room. In moments of self-doubt I longed to hear his voice again. When I finally went to call him I tripped over a low table and crashed with it onto the floor. I remembered the overcoats and the pressure and the caution, and realized how relaxed I had become since Ed’s departure. I got up from the floor knowing that I could survive alone and that it was time to return the rooms to some order. As I rearranged the furniture – something I had never been trusted to do – I made an unexpected discovery. I imagined I was merely bringing a terribly neglected piano back into tune. Each chair, each table or shelf was nothing more than a note. The final arrangement became a song. To be sure, it was a song that only I could perceive but afterwards I was able to learn my way around easily and on my own. For the first time in my life I had made progress with space. I thought that Ed would have understood my song of space but he was gone. He disappeared from my life.
To avoid the long evenings alone when the rooms were still and the human voices in the distance made me feel disabled and isolated, I began to invite friends over. It wasn’t something I had done much. If they asked about the break up with Ed I told them he had left me at home alone more and more and we kept bickering. I never mentioned the occasion of violence. It had been so unlike Ed, and also I felt slightly responsible with the foreknowledge and with my subsequent sense of freedom. Apparently Ed had told stories about my special sense, the prediction of the rock slide, of a murder and of someone else’s good fortune. Some of my friends had heard those stories, and while they agreed that I was better off without Ed, they also agreed with Ed that I had a gift. Eventually some returned to ask questions about themselves and their futures. The ground beneath some was shifting and threatened to crack. Even as I assured them that Ed had exaggerated my abilities, I could sense a balloon rising.
Some offer money but I don’t take it. I cannot see their futures any more than I can see their faces. And I don’t know anything except what I can’t explain. When I think back on the incidents with Ed there are many good explanations. Coincidences. Misunderstandings. The unpredictable mystery of life. But people come to me now and I can not turn them away. I sit across from them sensing their hope and their expectancy and their fear, and I feel a stranger knocking on a door noiselessly somewhere inside me asking for intimacy. I open the door.
About the Author:
Thomas Heine wrote and staged plays in Nashville Tennessee from the 1980’s until 2010. Recipient of the Tennessee Arts Commission Fellowship in Theatre in 2002, Heine teaches German at Middle Tennessee State University.