GOWANUS Winter 2000
By Sung J. Woo
told me she had no past. She told me she had forgotten her past,
and she was a new person but not very different from the person she once
You are who you are, she told me. That doesnít change much. You can start over, too. Move to a different town, get a new name, get a new job, and fake away a past.
But it doesnít work, she said. Eventually, youíre going to be surrounded by the same people, the same job, nothing ever changes because you are you.
I felt the warmth of the candlelights, candles she made herself. Itís what she did for a living, making candles of different shapes, sizes, and colors, some smelly, one even shaped like the head of Ralph Kramden.
It happened when she was in high school, in a car. The driver at the time, a girl named Suzanne, was driving a little too fast and it was raining and they had to make curfew and the car slid off the road and slammed into a telephone pole. Most of Suzanneís vital organs were crushed when her ribs rammed into the steering wheel, killing her instantly. Molly, the girl sitting on the passenger side and Kellyís best friend, went through the windshield and broke her neck when she hit the ground. She, too, died immediately.
I told her I was sorry.
Donít be, Kelly said. I donít even know who they are, or who they were.
Both Kelly and Christine, the girl sitting next to her, broke their legs. Kelly told me she was lucky, that she almost completely recovered. Christine was not so lucky. Sheís still in a wheelchair and will be for the rest of her life.
But life is fair, she said. I didnít know who I was, didnít know who my parents were, didnít know the two dead people, didnít know who Christine was. I couldnít even feel guilty for her, she told me. She was going to be able to walk again and Christine was a cripple for life, and she couldnít feel guilty because she simply didnít know.
I didnít know, she said. I didnít know. Her voice was getting thicker, the onset of sadness, the sure sign of tears, but somehow she fought it off. Practice, maybe.
I told her she was brave, so brave.
Yes, she said, sounding exhausted.
When we met, she was a friend of a friend of a friend. It was at a get-together at Marianaís place. I was perched at the farthest end of the sofa, holding onto the sidearm, sitting rigid and uncomfortable. I was still getting used to living without sight. When I met Kelly, only three weeks had passed since the accident at work.
It was the first night that I ventured outside my own home. Mariana had insisted: Richard, you canít stay in your apartment forever, you have to get out.
I counted nine people at Marianaís place. I was getting pretty good with my hearing. I knew I was getting good when I could listen to a soap opera and realize who was sleeping with whom just by their voices. There were nine distinctly different vocal chords vibrating above and around me.
See, Richard, this isnít so bad, Mariana
said, throwing her body next to mine. The smell of alcohol gushed
out of her mouth.
Oh no, she said. Iíve been a good girl.
With that, she was gone. She was the one who drove me here, the only one who knew how to get me home. It wasnít the first time she had done this. There were many nights when one of her friends dropped me off, but on those nights I was only drunk, not blind. I couldnít imagine taking directions from a blind man, so I couldnít imagine giving them to someone else. Even with proper directions, finding my little cottage in the middle of nowhere, especially at night, was a challenge.
Iíll just spend the night here, I thought. What else to do? I listened to the conversation between Fast Talking Man and Husky Voiced Woman for a while. They started off talking about politics, but after a few drinks they were discussing the various sexual positions with which they had experimented. Fast suggested that gravity boots should be an essential part of everyoneís sexual repertoire. Husky agreed wholeheartedly, even suggested the brand of boots she used. Here was a couple made in heaven.
A hand grabbed my shoulder and I jumped up in my seat like a frightened cat. I felt the guilt of a teenager getting caught for staring at an illicit issue of Playboy.
I didnít mean to scare you, the voice said. This was the Deep Voiced Woman. I felt her sitting down next to me on the sofa. While the party reeked of cigarettes, beer, and potato chips, she smelled of a refreshing, sweet perfume, just a touch.
I told her that it was quite okay, itís my fault, really, I canít see.
I know, she said. Mariana told me about it.
Was she one of Marianaís friends? And I had thought I knew them all.
Iím actually Jerryís ex-girlfriend, she said.
I told her I knew Jerry. Her voice was so deep that I could feel it, especially when she said the word ďI.Ē Yet it wasnít masculine; it stayed quite feminine within the confines of that surrounding bass.
So what is it like being blind? she asked. If you donít mind me asking, that is.
It had only been three weeks, so I couldnít tell her much. I also told her that my doctor had assured me it was a temporary condition.
Really, she said. I thought I detected an undercurrent of disappointment in her voice. How temporary?
I told her what Dr. Jasper had told me: As little as six months, though it may be longer. It really all depended on the ďregenerative responseĒ of my nerves.
Mmmmm, she said, signaling me to go on. It was an incredibly soothing sound and I wanted to hear more.
I told her that being blind was like living a different life. I didnít live in space anymore, that time was all I had. I always had a radio on, even when I went to sleep. Without external noise, without the sure evidence that the world still did exist, I often felt scared. It didnít make much sense, considering everyone is blind when they are asleep, but when you never wake up, when itís always dark, itís a whole different story. The doctor told me, Youíre used to constant stimuli, and you donít even know it. You donít realize how much stimulus your vision provides until you lose it, of course. You wake up, you open your eyes, and you have colors, movement, everything.
So Mariana bought a radio for me in every room, even in the bathroom. Every room is tuned to a different station. The bathroom is on the all-news station, so I would be informed of all the happenings of the world when I was on the can.
Thatís funny, she said. Do you want to feel my face?
Why in the world would I want to feel her face?
Isnít that what all the people in the movies do, all the blind people? She took my hand and put it against her cheek.
I ran my hand from her right cheek to her chin, to her left cheek and up to her forehead, down with thumb and index gliding over her eyelids, her eyelashes long and curled at the ends, to the bridge of her nose and to the tip, jumped to her left ear, and her right, and back to her right cheek.
I told her that I had no idea what she looked like, which was true. I still had problems remembering which buttons on the remote control changed the TVís volume. My fingers werenít quite able to see yet.
You donít see much for a blind man, she joked.
I told her that I was still learning.
She drove me home that night. I warned her that we were going to get lost.
Itís okay, she said in the car. Weíll manage.
She described everything she saw, and I gave her directions to the best of my ability.
We didnít get lost.
Making love to her was exhilarating and cold. All the things that those little scientists in their lab coats say about blind people, how their other senses take up the slack, it was completely true, even for an amateur blind man like me. I felt her all around me, her body magnified.
But at the same time, I felt detached, cold. As if it wasnít me doing this, it wasnít me on top of her. I felt ashamed, as if I had breached the intense privacy of two people. I told her that afterwards.
I donít know, she said. I donít know a lot of things nowadays.
In the morning her voice was even deeper, the way peopleís voices are in the morning right after they wake up. She made breakfast for two, eggs and toast, simple stuff. Having someone else in the house felt strange, hearing the independent movements of another person. We didnít talk much. We were both very hungry.
That evening, over a candlelit dinner, candles that she made herself, she told me about her accident, her loss of memory. I told her about my accident, my loss of vision. We exchanged stories of loss, a bartering of nothingness.
I told her that I thought she sounded disappointed last night when she found out that my blindness was temporary.
I was, she said. I donít know. I was hoping for some kind of evenness, you know? That we are both people who have lost something very special. Then she added quickly: Not that Iím unhappy for you or anything like that. Iím glad youíll be able to see again.
I asked her if there was a chance of her regaining her memory.
Hasnít happened in six years, she said. I guess maybe, in some way, I donít even want to remember. Iíve become a different person.
But of course not too different. She loved her mother more than her father, and according to her mother, that was the way things were before the accident. She never really got along with her sister Dianne and that, too, stayed the same. When her mother met Jerry, Kellyís first relationship since the accident, she said that he was a facsimile of Brian, the guy she was going with before the accident.
God, what a disaster that was, she said, referring to her and Brian. Although it was a high school romance, they had been together for four years, and of course talks of future commitment were frequent. Although what bothered him the most was the fact that we were on the verge of sleeping together.
Brian told her that a few months ago, and he managed to laugh with her. Apparently, it took him more than five years and three girlfriends to get over her while all it took for her was a bump on the head.
I asked her about Jerry, why things didnít work out.
When my mother said that he reminded her so much of Brian, I felt trapped, she said. Itís like I canít get out of my life. Not that the life Iím leading now is so terrible, but my former life ended, right? Iím a different person now. I couldnít stand it when I heard my mother or an old friend saying Oh, you used to do that, Kelly. I still canít stand it. They kept comparing me, the new me to the old me, and I felt violated because they knew that old me and I didnít. Do you understand?
Of course I didnít. I could only understand the idea. But I nodded anyway.
She went away to college and found her passion in sculpture. She saw no use for making clay figures and ceramic vases, but she did like the idea of making candles. At least they have a purpose besides looking pretty, she said. Thereís a duality to their personality. She actually didnít make the candles themselves, just the cast. The wax making was left to Marcus, a Vietnam vet with a missing left ear, blown away in the field of fire. Working together, theyíd become a pretty good team -- and a lucrative one to boot.
You should meet him sometime, she said.
I never did.
I was on disability from work, so I had nothing to do. She was a freelance artist, so work came and went for her. And right then, there wasnít much work coming.
I think I should move in with you, she said.
I told her that she should do whatever made her happy.
What about you? Are you happy?
I will be, I told her, and she laughed. She told me all she needed were a pair of suitcases and a visit from her mother. I provided her with the suitcases, and she provided her mother.
Her motherís voice was almost indistinguishable from her own. Like any other parts of the body, like wrinkles and spots on skin, the voice grows older with time. But twenty-some years ago, her mother must have sounded exactly like Kelly sounded now.
So this is your new man, her mother said.
You could say that, Kelly said. After that, they sat me down on my couch and moved Kellyís things into the house. From the bits and pieces of conversation, it didnít sound like a mother-daughter relationship at all. They were friends, it seemed, very good friends, but no more than that.
Itís been very hard for the both of us, she said when I asked her about it later. She doesnít really know me anymore, and I never knew her until six years ago. Weíre still adjusting.
Then I was going to ask Kelly what her mother looked like, but I stopped. I realized I didnít know what Kelly looked like. I knew the shape of her body, but her face -- the only information I had was from that night at Marianaís place.
Isnít that the beauty of it? she said. I can tell you I look like Marilyn Monroe and you have no choice but to believe me.
I asked her what color her eyes were.
Purple, she said.
One day we went to the studio where Kelly made her candles. The place smelled of open tubes of paint, clay baking in kilns -- it smelled like art class.
It was also very large, for I could hear a bit of an echo when we talked. We artists need a lot of space to create, she joked. Actually, itís an abandoned warehouse, and the rent was dirt cheap, so me and Marcus went partners with it.
She let me hug a huge piece of a round candle. It felt like a squashed ball with ridges, and I knew what it was when my hand came upon two holes shaped like upside-down triangles.
For Halloween. Thatís not too far from now, she said. Itís for the balcony of city hall. The mayor requested it, paid very decent money for it, too. Itís designed to light from the inside, like a real jack-o-lantern, and the wax disappears from top to bottom.
I asked her what she meant by the wax disappearing.
Marcus never uses the kind of wax that melts, you know? He likes the kind that leaves nothing behind but a small, black pile of burnt string, the wick.
I told her that while the pumpkin felt like a pumpkin, I had no way of knowing whether the colors matched.
Of course they do, she said. Youíll just have to take my word for it.
I did take her word, and when Halloween came, when the pumpkin was lit, we were there. She took me up the giant staircase that led up to the balcony. Snow was falling, a bit early for it, small, tiny flakes whisking around my face.
She took both of my hands and put them against the pumpkin. Like when we were in her studio, I searched around for the eyes.
Although I couldnít see it,
I felt the heat of the flame, felt it crawling out of the eyes, the teeth,
the nose, a grown man happily playing with fire.
It was a Friday when I woke up and the world wasnít black. I opened my eyes and saw a few spots of grayness.
Thatís your first sign, my doctor said. You should have the majority of your sight back by the end of the weekend, Richard. Take it easy and slow. I want you to stop by Monday morning.
Kelly was staying with her parents until Monday, so I called their house, but nobody was home. I thought about leaving her a message, but I decided against it. I told myself that I wanted to tell her in person, that I didnít want to speak into the receiver and leave a recording of my voice on a tape with news like this.
I lay back down on my bed. When I had my eyes closed, it was black. When I opened them, it wasnít. I opened and closed my eyes again and again, as if something was in my eye and I was trying to get it out.
Of course something was in my eye. It was my sight.
But Sunday came and I still hadnít called her. I told myself that I wanted to surprise her, that it would be a big surprise, and she would hug me hard and fast and maybe even cry. That morning I woke up to sunlight. I turned all the radios off in all the rooms and just looked and stared at everything. Except for a couple of things Kelly had brought from her place, not much had really changed. All the rooms were just as I had remembered them. I went outside and looked up at the cloudless blue sky and took a deep breath. I walked out to my mailbox and looked at my cottage, a brown house with black trim. I looked, I stared, I sighed.
I was disappointed. Maybe I had expected the sky to be bluer, but that wasnít the case. Having my sight back was, incredibly enough, not a very big deal.
I went back inside and watched TV with a bag of potato chips, not watching any one channel for more than five minutes. It was amazing how quickly my previous life returned, amazing that in just one day I had already begun to take my sight for granted.
I heard the turn of the doorknob and my heart thudded away. I was never so scared in my entire life; compared to this, being blind was nothing. Sitting in the recliner, I put my feet up and closed my eyes. There were two voices, one of them being Kellyís, but the other one was unfamiliar. Although it sounded like her mother, I was sure that it was someone else.
I opened my eyes and stood up from the chair.
They both had blonde hair; the girl on the left had hers in a ponytail while the other let hers fall to her shoulders. While they both had thick eyebrows and oval-shaped faces, the girl on the left had blue eyes and the otherís were brown. I looked at them both, and they looked at me. They had great family resemblance; one was Kelly and the other her sister Dianne. Nobody said a single thing. We just stared and breathed.
Purple eyes, I thought, which one has purple eyes? I had no idea, so I stood there, my hands deep in my pockets. Then brown-eyes came forward and took my hands and spoke in that deep voice of hers and I knew it was Kelly and I hugged her hard.
ďYou can see,Ē she said, stating
the obvious, although at that moment my eyes were closed. But I could
see how different this was, how strange it felt to finally see her.
We tried hard. I know we did because we were both hurting. So we stopped trying hard. We just lived life as it was, but life wasnít the way it was because things were different.
One night we were in bed together. I parted her hair away from her face and looked at her nose. It was a fine nose, slightly curved at the end, neither sharp nor flat, a medium nose. And for the first time, I thought about what it felt like to be her, to have your past wiped away, to be reborn. I felt pity.
ďStop looking at me,Ē she said, her deep voice vibrating the darkness.
So I kissed her on the forehead and she started sobbing, first quietly, the tears from one eye rolling over the bridge of her nose and into the other eye and soaking into the cotton-white of the pillowcase. I brought her closer to me, her face against my chest, and she cried and cried. I held her like that. I wanted to cry with her, but the tears wouldnít flow. Instead my eyes were dry as sawdust, so I closed them and tried to sleep.
When Kelly fell asleep, I quietly got out of bed. I walked out to the living room and sat on the sofa. Dawn was quickly approaching, the sky at that beautiful shade of icy blue. I held onto that color and closed my eyes, trying not to think about anything but that color, holding on.
I listened to her footsteps as they came closer. She sat down and we were silent for a while.
ďI liked it when you couldnít see,Ē she finally said, and I let her deep voice wash over me. She touched my cheek.
ďI know,Ē I said, and held onto her hand for as long as I could.
(Sung J. Woo is a writer living
in New Jersey.)