STELLA

About a week after I went blind, my friend Dorman dropped me off on a bench in Funes 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 and a beer can with his boots as he climbed the slope to the sidewalk that ringed the park like a crust.

“What am I looking at?” I called over my shoulder.

I could feel him standing there with his hands in his pockets, peering at the back of an eyeless head.  That image gave me the fantods. The cigarette batting up and down in the corner of his mouth as he spoke. “Gay guys playing volleyball.  Asian hipster trying to teach his bulldog to sit. Cute dog.”

I was partial to Funes Park in part because of the courthouse tower creeping over the park’s western corner and just as Dorman opened his mouth and said, “Well, adios,” the bells in the tower began to swell with dark pride as they were beaten.  Soon they were no longer struck and they were simmering down and Dorman was long gone, having scrunched back down,  into his daydream of a diesel-burning car,  with a promise to return for me at shift’s end.

I’d never truly appreciated the totality of the experience of sitting in sunlight on a late-spring day before I acquired this condition. Less and less did I think of light as light and more and more as pure motion;  motion as geometry; 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 savor the gray of an overcast day and the dregs of twilight would reek of aching blues. I sat there in my sunglasses, arms folded over my chest, face tilted towards the restrained eternity of that perilously huge and proximate star. I could reach right up and stick my hand into the center of it. I respected that warmth because I and this world exist as incidentals of it and so I sat there serenely inhaling God through my forehead. I positioned and repositioned my head in one way or another, pretending to be watching things. As frauds go it was harmless.

The sun felt so good. I could feel the smack of red palms on dirty white volleyball flesh, the ruddy grunt (in a bouquet of gasps) preceding the smack each time and the grass-ripping skirmish and pell-mell 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 fifteen yards, metered out in human barks: “Sit.”

“Sit.”

“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.

Once every twenty minutes or so there came the cavernous flush of the public toilet behind, above and to the left, up the slope, on the other side of the sidewalk. I could taste it, too, the 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. The odor from such deposits as sharp as blunt thumbtacks.

Holding my arm, Dorman had shepherded me to the toilet for one last tinkle before he could take me down to the bench and park me here for a few serenely helpless hours. Some shade was planted like a marksman at a stall already as Dorman and I entered, arms linked, and I could feel the shade’s neck bones crack as his shoe-leather flexed in the twist of his weight-shift. His subsequent sniff and hasty exit. Dorman tensed defensively but being blind I was far beyond embarrassment.

I had gone blind on a Friday. During the early hours. A dream of a mangy fox, licking my pupils dry, caused it. Dorman suggested it was possible that an actual fox had slipped in through the window above my bed.  I sprawled there in bed,  for the longest time,  with an un-locate-able ache of not-rightness that seemed to drift around the room. What was it that had broken overnight? My Television? The refrigerator? Something that I couldn’t replace?  I prayed that I was dreaming. It was as dark in that room as I had ever seen it on Earth but the noise I heard, through that window above the bed, was morning-yellow,  the terrifying hustle of a wide-awake city.

“Sit.”

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 it too naturalistic to be trained? Or too dumb? Is there a difference?

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 system, 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 an ungodly erection.

“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 soup-kitchen slobber on the grass.

“Bulldog, right?”

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 quickly. They’re ideally suited for elevator exchanges in buildings of ten stories or less, or in line at a very fast bagel or coffee shop. Then the painful out-dated-ness of the term “Yuppie” shamed me, as if the Asian Yuppie had read my thoughts.

Then it occurred to me that he’d probably seen Dorman lead me to the bench and sit me there, an ambulatory invalid, and so it was probably clear to him that I was blind. I had looked to him as either pathetic or insane for pretending that I could see. He had crept off, embarrassed for us both.

The volleyball game jolted 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, 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 beyond the circle of itself, helped the older ones hide the high stakes of their stake in the game.  I got caught up in it, hearing it that way, volleyball as bleak Germanic opera, the ominous strings and poignant French horns and fatal timpani, and I noticed, especially,  that the weak, the sick, the old shades among them, were making a very particular kind of noise, the sound of the beginning of the end.

Then I smelled coffee.

My bench jolted and creaked with slender company.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” I said, smiling in the direction that the “Hi” had come from. It was an unusually well-modulated, even sensual,  “Hi”.

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 my shoulder 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 apart…” 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.  But he drives a Skoda.  One word: why?”

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. Heather Graham 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. Your friend looks too much like a struggling writer.  I’ll bet he collects jazz records.  I have to admit I like the sideburns, though.”

“Sideburns?”

Dorman had been talking about doing that for years, growing sideburns, but I always gave him shit about the unoriginality of the notion.  “The Skoda he bought in Berlin. Shipping it cost him more than the car is even worth. His theory….”

“Whatever works. Beats swimming upstream for a little salmon.”

“So how do you feel about painters?”

“Painters. You were a painter?”

“Were? Am.”  One smart nod.  “You have admit it’s one helluva gimmick. I could even do you.” I leaned towards her. “By touch.”  I reached but she pulled out of range.

“Sorry,” she said.

“No, no…”  I waved.  Why did I wave? I smiled. I was shaking.

A very long minute stretched and segmented and gave birth to a rubbery second and my shaking stopped.

I could feel the traffic back there and the drama of the much abused volley-ball and I could hear and feel her privilege-intensive sips.

I imagined saying I’m blind, life’s short, I’d like to touch, with surpassing tenderness, your perfect, God-given, cunt.

I could feel the half-hearted pleas, for forgiveness,  of inland-wandering gulls, above the trees that could be any shape or color.  The trees could be flaming Menorahs for all I knew.  They could be huge blue bloody fingers. Maybe I was a tiny plastic toy.  Maybe this was an electric train set.  Having eyes would cut down on the frequency of such thoughts.  I heard a shuffling  tree-shadow encroach on my left like an Injun ambush as the sun rolled right to track it. I shrugged and smiled that ever-upwards smile of the blind and said,  “Spring.”

She made the cup-muffled interrogatory mmmm? of somebody busy with her socially acceptable pleasure. 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 rue. 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.”

“Am I an actress? You’re hearing the awful  years of Snob School, probably. You’re hearing some of that good old debutante shellac. If I were an actress, I could only get certain parts, anyway. Along those lines, there’s something I should probably tell you….” she tapped the top edge of the bench.

I had another disappointing intuition. The voice was so deep. Deeper than Heather Graham’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, as if there was poison in the drink and her conscience had triumphed, “Wait.”

“You’re a man,” I blurted.

“That’s right,” she said, “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, there was an accident. And I’d really rather not go into in any detail now, but …. the surgeons were very expensive and very very good… but, uh, what can I say? I’m no longer quite the prom queen. It’s not bad but it’s bad enough. People stare; the very old are as bad as children. Yuppies… does anyone use that word anymore? They try so hard not to stare that it’s the same difference. It shouldn’t be a big deal but it is.”

She shifted on the bench. She said:

“God…”  

“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 mean, I suppose I could have kept it a secret and you never would have known.”

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.

“Do you wanna know the weirdest thing about my condition?”

I could smell her dry saliva on the lip of the coffee mug from all the way where she sat. She wasn’t wearing lipstick. She scooted closer. This poor wounded beauty. But how wounded? She smelled like Persian Mocha Royale and herbal shampoo and something else, something forgotten.  I wanted to eat her. Oysters are ugly 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.”

I was selling her on blindness. She touched me through my light jacket and this left sweet soft lingering burns of romance wherever her fingers landed. She kissed me twice, a peck on the side of my face and then she took my totally black blindness in her hands and kissed me hard on the mouth.

“I’ll keep in touch,” she said,  “Okay?” and she was gone.

I was stunned.  I’d just lived a month in fifteen minutes. I had a  premonition of coming back to this park, this bench, at the same time,  every day, for years of hours of hoping. Tilting my face towards the sun or her balcony. Whichever was which.

“Hey,” called the Asian hipster. I cocked my head.

“Are you alright?” The panting of Stella at his feet. “She sure can spin a tale, can’t she? That homeless sister can talk,” he chuckled. “I always give her a buck or two because she’s so old. It can’t be an easy life.”  He patted his mildly disobedient Bulldog. Or maybe he was scratching her belly.  He cleared his throat. He put a clean tissue in my hand to wipe my mouth with.

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