Chapter 29 part 1
Ok, so this is the whole truth about what happened between me and K.
I was about to start my senior year of college, just returned from my junior year abroad. I moved into a shared house with my best friends Nam and Kara, who I hadn't seen for a year while I was overseas. My time abroad had been lonely and frustrating, with obnoxious classmates who flat out told me junior high style that they didn't like me, and multiple failed attempts to date guys who stood me up or flaked out after one or two dates. I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts, and I came to realize that I was not really interested in any of them. I still hadn't come out as a devotee yet, in fact I was years away from even knowing the word or realizing I was not the only one in the whole world with these feelings. I had done my best to bury it but after a long, lonely summer, I knew I had this one dream that I could not deny. What I really wanted more than anything else was a blind boyfriend.
Within days of us all moving in together in the shared house, Kara mentioned offhand that she had recently met a girl who had a boyfriend named K___ who was blind. Suddenly, in that moment, all those random thoughts that had been floating around in my head all pointed in one direction, like iron filings pulled by a magnet: I was going to meet K, no matter what it took. But I couldn't tell Kara this directly; even though she was my best friend, I could not tell her about my bizarre fixation. I was still many years from telling anyone.
So instead I nudged and hinted and reminded until we got ourselves invited over to their house for a party. Like us, K and his girlfriend lived in a shared house with a bunch of other people. To my dismay, I discovered the girlfriend was someone I knew already. Her name was Lydia. We had been in the same class sophomore year, a medieval art history class which still stands out and one of the worst classes of my college career. Lydia was best friends with the professor. This was just one of the many differences between us. Which is all to say, even though my opinion of Lydia is irretrievably biased and unfair because we were rivals for K's affections, my dislike for her began long before I even knew of K's existence. Really, she never had a chance--I was judgmental and jealous of her right from the start.
To me, everything about Lydia seemed affected and contrived. She spoke in the high-pitched but plummy tones of a dowager countess in a Hollywood movie. I judged her for constantly talking about how marginalized she felt as a "queer" person although there has never been a time in her adult life at that time or since that she was not dating or married to a cis man. I judged her for believing that her degree in library science entitled her to join support groups for women in science. I even to my shame judged her for being fat, something I would later notice seems to be a thing with a lot of blind guys. Yes, I know I'm being petty and mean, but the truth is even if I had loved and respected her as a sister I probably would have acted in the same selfish and single-minded way.
I went to the party at their house honestly not expecting anything. K had a girlfriend, and I was not going to throw myself at him in front of all their friends. Within minutes of our arrival, they mentioned that they had recently become engaged. My heart sank. Clearly I had no chance.
But two things changed my mind. First, K was even sexier and more attractive than I had imagined. He had dark brown hair that he wore long, hanging in thick waves to his shoulders, and a slim mustache and goatee. His dark hair contrasted with his bright blue eyes, opaque and scarred over with glaucoma. I had only ever seen actors on TV pretending to be blind, but it was nothing, nothing like the real thing. His eyes rolled and twitched on their own, and he never wore sunglasses to hide them. I couldn't stop staring at the way he moved his hands, feeling around, at the way he held his head always tipped down or to the side, unless he was really excited about something, then it was like his whole face opened up as he faced right at you. He was the most captivating person I had ever seen.
Second, and more importantly, Lydia told me that she and K had an open relationship. Kara went home early from the party, but I stayed late, later than anyone else, and Lydia gave me a ride home. In the car, she told me that she had K had been together since they were teenagers in high school.
"I'm bi," she said in confidential tones as she drove me across town. "We're getting married, but I still want to have, you know, other experiences."
"I'm bi too," I said, because it's true. It wasn't until months later when K pointed it out that I understood that she was coming onto me. I guess from her point of view, I used her to get close to K while rejecting her advances. But at the time I was too clueless to see that. All I got from that conversation was that it was ok for me to flirt with K. Which I did, shamelessly.
We had a Halloween party at my house, and I made sure K and Lydia were invited. While we were getting ready, as Kara and I were moving the heavy coffee table from the living room to the hall to make more room for dancing, I smashed my thumb and fractured it, but I didn't care. Nothing was going to stop me from being at this party. I bound up my thumb with cardboard and scotch tape, downed a few shots, and promised Kara I would go to the ER in the morning. By the time K arrived, I was drunk enough not to care about anything else. We were playing traditional Irish music (in case there was any doubt how nerdy and deeply uncool we were) and I tried to show K how to dance a jig. He gamely went along with my efforts, even though he insisted (correctly as it turned out) that he really can't dance. I was wearing a kimono as a costume, and it kept coming open but I didn't care. I was dancing, or trying to dance with K, that was all that mattered.
Nothing happened between us that night. K went home with Lydia, that's all. After I finally went to the ER the next day and got my thumb set, I had a heart to heart with Kara. It took me hours to work up to confessing to her.
"I like K," I murmured in great embarrassment.
"Well that's bloody obvious," she snorted.
"But what do I do? He's with Lydia!"
"I don't know. That's up to you. But she won't shut up about how they have an open relationship. Why not take them up on it?"
So I called K on the phone and asked him out for coffee with me and Kara.
"The girl with the exploding kimono!" he said. "Yeah, sure!"
It was awkward, the three of us on a not-date. I thought it would be less terrible of me to have another person there, but as the three of us crowded around the little café table, the conversation faltered. I was dying to ask him about his blindness but I didn't want to be rude. Instead Kara and I chatted idly about the upcoming wedding of a friend in which we were both enlisted as bridesmaids.
"The dresses are so ugly!" I complained. "The bride promised us that she would pick nice ones that we could wear again, but that was a lie. They look like they were made from motel curtains. And they're teal. Ugh!"
"Yeah," Kara agreed. "Not just that but everything in her registry is teal. It's like she's going to have a teal life."
"Well I suppose that's better than bright red," K chimed in, smiling artlessly as his blue-white eyes rolled back and forth like a metronome. "I imagine that would get tiresome."
"Do you know what colors are?" I asked in a rush, before I could lose my nerve, my heart pounding and my face flushed with embarrassment.
"Yeah, I had some vision when I was a kid. Enough to see colors. I still sort of remember."
I was relieved that he didn't seem bothered by my question but I had the feeling that despite what he said he wasn't thinking of colors the way a sighted person would; something about saying that red would be exhausting seemed more like a guess. But it would've been rude to press him on that so instead I went for the more obvious question. "Um, do you mind--can I ask how come you're blind?"
"I don't mind, it's ok to ask. I have congenital glaucoma."
"Really? I thought glaucoma was a disease of old people," I blurted out without thinking.
K did seem slightly annoyed by that. "No, you can be born with it. It just means that fluid in the eye doesn't drain properly so it builds up pressure and causes scarring."
"So do you smoke pot for the headaches?" Kara asked. Nam was a huge pothead but we were not, and she was still working out how she felt about it.
"Nah, I've met too many blind people who used it as an excuse to be flaky stoners. I never wanted that to be me. I've been lucky; it hasn't caused any headaches for a long time."
Real interactions always change the fantasy script. A few months ago, even just sitting there talking with a handsome young blind guy was beyond my wildest dreams but talking to him only made me want to do more. I knew right away that just being friends would not be enough. So I asked K out on a real date and he said yes.
We went to a vegan restaurant. I was beyond happy to be talking to him one on one at last, and this time the conversation flowed easily. We had a lot of the same nerdy interests in common--science fiction, singing, classical music, Asian culture. He was smart and well-read, with a boyish enthusiasm that I found instantly endearing. When dinner was over, we went for a walk in the park near campus. Walking with him holding my elbow was exhilarating, like flying a kite. I led him to a wild, overgrown hidden corner of the park where I used to go with Kara, Nam and Borek to have campfires late at night.
When we were behind the trees where I knew no one would see us, I stopped and we stood facing each other in the quiet, chilly night. I asked if he wanted to touch my face and he said yes. He ran his sensitive fingers carefully over my entire face, starting with my forehead and working down to my chin, tracing my eyebrows, the ridge of my nose, my mouth. Then he leaned in and kissed me.
I could hardly believe that my fantasies were coming so wholly and completely true. I had spent so much time dreaming about being touched by a blind man, I felt like if it ever happened, I would faint dead away. But that's not what happened. I felt alive, wide awake and shot through with bolts of energy, white hot desire.
We went back to my house. I took him to my bed, but when it came to the crucial moment, I hesitated.
"You're not a virgin, are you?" he asked with mock disdain.
"Uh...no...I had one boyfriend a year ago, but it, um, really hurt going in."
He promised to take it slow. Maybe it was some combination of him putting me at ease, me being consumed with lust for him, and the shape of his cock, but it was fucking amazing.
K slept over, the two of us pressed up against each other all night long in my tiny single bed. In the morning we woke up late, and I walked him to the middle of town. He insisted he could walk the rest of the way home by himself, so we said goodbye at the intersection.
"When can I see you again?" he asked, his eyes wide and searching, his face lit with the same happy glow as mine. I still could hardly believe he liked me back.
"Whenever you want," I replied, staring deep into his blue-white eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep.
But in all the excitement, he had forgotten to call Lydia to tell her where he was. When he finally waltzed in at ten am, she was livid. This was before cell phones, so she had no way to know he hadn't been hit by a car or something. I was not the first girl to come on to K. He had fooled around with other women before, and she had been with other guys. But I'm sure Lydia could sense from the beginning that something was different with me, and she was not happy. They had a huge fight when he got home, and she demanded that he stop seeing me. He said only if she agreed to be 100% monogamous. She didn't want to do that either. So that was it, she agreed reluctantly that K could keep seeing me, and for two years we were boyfriend and girlfriend.
Today it seems like everyone talks about open relationships and ethical polyamory but back then we didn't know of any models or advice for what we were doing. We just had to figure it out as we went along, with a lot of fighting, resentment, jealousy and tense negotiating. It's not like I was happy about the arrangement, but there was a certain excitement about doing something new and daring.
I was completely, head over heels smitten with K, just stupid, dopey in love, and acutely, painfully jealous of Lydia. I felt like the second wife. He lived with her, and one of the ground rules she established was that he was not allowed to sleep over the whole night at my house. Whenever he came to visit, at least once or twice a week, we would hang out with my housemates, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and eating dinner together, then go up to my room to have amazing, mind-blowing sex. Then she would come pick him up in her car at midnight. Every night, our time together ended with us sitting on the couch together, half asleep and waiting for his ride like she was his mother picking him up after a playdate.
I was so overwhelmed by K I couldn't think about anything else. When I was doing schoolwork, it was like my mind was on a dual track, one half on my assignments, the other half replaying every moment I spent with K. When I wasn't doing work, I spent hours lying on the couch lost in daydreams about him, my own private movies on constant loop--the way his eyes and eyebrows twitched and moved uncontrollably; the way he turned his ear toward the TV; the way he walked around all the trees in the park because he said he could hear them; the same way he could hear where the windows and doors were in a room; the way he reached for things with the back of his fingers; the way he held his hand when expecting me to hand him something, never reaching out but waiting to receive.
One night while we were all watching Star Trek together, there was a scene with Geordie, the blind engineer, complaining about how his hi-tech visor was a poor substitute for real sight.
"Shut up Geordie," K shouted back at the TV, half joking and half serious. "I would kill for a visor like that!" We all laughed.
I was so happy at the way my friends embraced K. None of them seemed weird or nervous about his blindness or the way his eyes looked. It was just no big deal, which in itself was a big deal to me. He brought over a deck of playing cards that he had shoved through a Braillewriter, and we had house poker games on a regular basis.
Nam and K and I wrote and recorded some fake 1930s style radio shows with silly action adventure plots. K was so good at doing all the voices. I loved to watch his face as he played the villain or the kid sidekick. In every day conversation, K was not expressive in his face; it was sometimes hard to know without asking whether he was irritated, bored, contented or what. But when he was really excited about something, his whole face would open up with boyish enthusiasm. These stories were the origin of Betty DeLuxe, although most of that I wrote later with Nam.
K loved music and had taken lessons in voice, piano and violin. He sang in the university chorus, which I also tried to join. K coached me as I practiced for my audition, but I didn't get in. We would sing together all the time around the house, mostly folk music and classical, although he never hesitated to tell me when I was out of tune or my technique was bad.
January - May 1994
I got one sliver of a taste of what it might have been like to be K's only girlfriend when Lydia went out of town for a week, and he basically moved in with me. For one blissful week, K slept over in my narrow single bed, which we also shared with Nam's two cats. I was so happy, but all that time together only made it more painful when he went back home at the end of that week.
Nam was so kind to me as I was grieving this renewed separation, taking me out to a prayer circle where I tried to meditate my way into numb acceptance. Most of my closest friends were supportive of our unconventional relationship, especially Kara and Nam. They really liked K as a friend, because he was so charming and also a huge nerd like us. They all knew Lydia too of course, but privately admitted they found her kind of annoying. One friend even told me, "You know, K seems a lot less disabled when he's around you than when he's with her," which thrilled my dev heart. After all, I had been practicing in my imagination for years before I even met him.
I did get some raised eyebrows about the open relationship thing though, especially when my friends saw me moping around and miserable. One friend suggested very delicately that K might just be using me, which seemed crazy to me. If anything, I was the one using him. I felt intensely guilty about not telling him why I was really attracted to him, but I didn't even know the word devotee. There was no way I could explain it.
And it wasn't like I didn't think about what I was doing. Being the second girlfriend was not what I wanted, but if it was all I could have, I would take it. As I saw it, I had two choices, either pine for K from afar, or be with him sometimes. But really, it didn't feel like a choice at all. I was so intensely, irresistibly drawn to him that it felt like gravity. I couldn't resist. At least this way, I got to have sex with him.
Even K hesitated about our relationship at first. He thought I seemed too emotionally weak for this kind of thing.
"Don't tell me what I can and can't handle," I insisted. "I'm stronger than you think."
He said, "All I can offer you is a little patchwork of now and thens, but I hope it will be enough to warm you."
Yeah, he was super cheesy.
There was one time when K, Lydia and I went on what I guess you could call a date together, to go listen to a concert by the college orchestra. Lydia had injured her knee and was on crutches, but still insisted on trying to guide K. Every time she swung her crutches forward, her elbow would slip out of his hand, and I would passive aggressively come up on his other side and try to take his other hand. Then she would slow down and shove her elbow back into his side. We made halting, awkward progress through the lobby of the auditorium.
I spent the entirety of the concert itself watching K out of the corner of my eye, and thinking about how much I wanting to be having sex with him instead of sitting here not even daring to hold his hand.
"Well that was bloody awful," Lydia declared sourly when the concert ended, and I realized I hadn't heard a single note.
Another time, the three of us found ourselves at a party together, invited by mutual friends. We stood awkwardly by the buffet. K announced that he was hungry, but Lydia made no move to help him. I didn't want to interfere again like at the concert so I waited to see what she would do, but when K started feeling around on the table to try to find the food on his own, I finally stepped in, describing what was there and filling up a plate for him while Lydia wandered off. Seriously, how could he not realize how much better I was for him?
One day, I showed up at K's house for a date to find that he had shaved off his beard, and shaved his entire head. He was bald as an egg, and he looked like an entirely different person. A much less attractive person.
I was taken aback, to say the least. He knew I loved his long hair and beard, which made him look like a pirate or a Musketeer. I've never been good at hiding my emotions in the slightest, and he quickly soured when I did not share his excitement over his radical transformation.
"I can't believe how shallow you're being," he said petulantly. "Judging me by my appearance! I mean, come on!"
But it wasn't just his appearance, although that really was jarring. I knew (because he told me) that this was all Lydia's idea ("a negative feedback loop" he called it) and she had done it at least in part to get to me.
We fought for over an hour, until he seemed almost ready to break up with me over my pettiness. I apologized and backpedaled; after all, what could be done at this point? It took me a long time to get used to his new look but I tried not to mention it again.
Luckily for me, he was too lazy to keep up with shaving his head on a regular basis, so his hair eventually grew to a normal length again, but he never regained that piratical look I had fallen in love with.
In books and movies, a blind person's house is always meticulously ordered, every item in the exact right place so it can be found later. This was not the case with K. His house was a chaotic disaster area--clean and dirty laundry everywhere, dishes strewn about and never washed, books stacked up wherever, cat litter all over the bathroom floor. One of the few times I was visiting, K suggested making waffles. With great difficulty, I located the basic ingredients in random places about the kitchen, and washed a big mixing bowl that was sitting in the sink. But when I dug the waffle iron out of the back of the cabinet, I found it encrusted with burned-on batter from a long past attempt. We gave up and went out to eat instead.
K bitterly recounted a recent fight with Lydia where he threw a blindfold at her and said, "You try making lunch in this kitchen!" To be fair, it wasn't all her fault; they lived with three other people who were also to blame for the mess, and it's not like my house was particularly neat. But at least Kara and I periodically organized cleaning brigades.
Adding to the chaos at his house, K's cat got out and because she was not spayed, she got knocked up. A few months later she gave birth to four kittens in his bed. The kittens were cute but constantly underfoot. He got in the habit of shuffling slowly about the house, barely lifting his feet, to avoid stepping on the kittens that swarmed around him wherever he went.
For someone with a congenital disability, K was pretty independent. He walked all over town on his own, he had studied aikido and karate and was generally pretty confident physically. He could even do a bit of echolocation to avoid walking into things.
But in other ways, it seemed to me like he had developed all these skills then kind of gotten stuck. K had gone directly from living with his parents to living with Lydia, and I thought he relied on her far too much. He was eligible for free taxi vouchers, but didn't bother to go through the application process because she drove him everywhere. Figuring it would be less humiliating if he went home after our evenings together by taxi rather than having her pick him up, I pushed him to get the vouchers. Although in the end the taxis were so unreliable, it was hardly worth it.
I was shocked when he admitted that he had never learned to write by hand. He was proficient in Braille, and always had immense towers of bulky Braille books and magazines collecting dust around the house. He was fast at typing, but beyond a jerky scribble that served as a signature even though it never came out the same way twice, he never bothered with handwriting. I discovered this when he owed me a small amount of money, and brought over his check book to pay me back. The oversized checks had raised letters and lines so he could feel where to fill in the blanks, but instead of doing it himself, he asked me to write out the amount and the date.
"You know, you could easily learn to do this yourself," I suggested.
He shrugged. "Lydia always does it for me."
"What about when she's not around?" He didn't answer. "What if there was an emergency and you needed to write a note for someone? Don't you think it would be useful to know how?" I pressed. Truthfully, this was a very unlikely occurrence, and I was more interested in the dev thrill of teaching him to write. I grabbed one of my school notebooks and we practiced writing letters together. Of course, he wasn't starting from zero; he had learned the regular alphabet as a kid, but he didn't have much practice writing. I watched him moving the pen deliberately, with the finger of the other hand following each letter. I showed him how to fill in each field on the check, but as far as I knew, he never actually used this skill in real life.
That year the Midwestern winter was even more brutal than usual. For a week the temperature dropped to -20F. It was so cold that the tears on my eyelashes froze as I was walking to class. The snow on the ground was the texture of sand, and campus was like the frozen tundra. A water main on our block froze and burst, so for a day we were without water. Nam filled the bathtub with snow, thinking we could at least flush the toilets when it melted. But the snow took so long to melt that the water was fixed before we could use it. I wondered if he had scraped the snow out from under his car, because once it melted, it left behind a sludge of mud, broken glass, cigarette butts and other detritus in the tub. Even after the water came back on, none of us could shower until Nam cleaned it all out.
K and I were accustomed to walking as our main mode of transportation around town, but the extreme cold made it challenging. As we walked across campus one frigid afternoon, he pulled his knit cap down so that it completely covered his face. Normally, I was happy, even proud to be seen with him in public, and I loved that he never covered his eyes with dark glasses. I wanted everyone to know that I had a blind boyfriend. But this hat over the face thing was a step too far for me.
"Stop it," I said. "You look silly."
K instantly turned stubborn. "I don't care what I look like. It's more comfortable like this."
As he often did when he was holding someone's arm, K left his cane folded up in his pocket. With the hat down over his face, he didn't look like a blind person. He just looked like an idiot pulling a stupid stunt with his girlfriend. An old lady walking in the opposite direction stared at us.
"Come on," I insisted. "You look retarded."
"Don't use that hate speech with me," he sniffed, his voice a bit muffled under the hat. "I will not give in to the tyranny of the sighted and your narrow, superficial expectations. You can get frostbite on your nose in the name of fashion if you want but I'm staying warm."
We walked the rest of the way home with his hat like that.
Around the same time as the brutal cold snap, I came down with mono.
"The kissing disease!" my friends giggled, and implied that I had gotten it from being in an open relationship. But in fact I was the only one who got sick. I was worried that I would give it to K and he would give it to Lydia, and she would hate me even more. K wanted to stay away for that reason, but I whined and complained until he came to visit anyway. Luckily, nobody else caught it from me, but I was sick for weeks.
In the spring semester, I became casual friends with a guy in one of my classes. He lived nearby and we sometimes found ourselves walking to campus together. As usual, I managed to mention K in conversation because I wanted to brag to everyone I met that I had a blind boyfriend.
But instead of being impressed or at least surprised, his response was, "Oh, wow, I'm sorry. That sucks."
"What do you mean 'that sucks'?" I replied, incensed. "He doesn't need your pity, and neither do I."
"Yeah, but you can't, like, go to movies or watch TV together."
"What are you talking about? He definitely goes to movies, and we watch TV together all the time. Just because he can't see the screen doesn't mean he can't listen to the dialog. I describe the action and he follows along just fine."
"Oh, uh, ok, I guess. So how long have you been together?"
"Um, it's complicated. Nine months, but we're in an open relationship. He has another girlfriend who he lives with."
"No shit, huh? A blind dude and he's got two chicks at the same time. Damn!"
"I told you he doesn't need your pity," I said smugly.
I thought that was it, but the next week the guy asked me out on a date.
"No!" He had seemed nice enough in an average white guy able bodied kind of way but I'm not even the slightest bit interested in whatever boring mediocrity he had on offer. "Dude, I told you I have a boyfriend."
"Yeah, but you can see other people too, right? Besides, it's gotta be a drag being with a blind guy all the time. Come on, we can go to a movie and I'll show you a good time."
"What the fuck! No! I love K, and I'm not going out with you or anyone else!"
He seemed genuinely surprised that I turned him down. I couldn't believe that my relationship with K would mean so little that a guy would assume I was basically available to anyone. Fuck that guy. I spent the rest of the term avoiding him, but I felt like he had revealed to me how a lot of people thought of what I was doing.