Love is Blind
Where is my goddamn toothbrush?
I don’t get it. My toothbrush was right on the ledge of the sink when I knocked it off in my attempt to pick it up. I didn’t karate kick it off the ledge—I just knocked it off with the back of my hand and heard a clattering noise as it landed. Which means the toothbrush should presumably be on the floor, within a one-foot radius around the sink.
Except it isn’t. I have gotten down on my hands and knees and felt every single inch of the floor in a two-foot radius around the sink, and that toothbrush is nowhere to be found. It has disappeared into a toothbrush vortex, entering an Evil Parallel Toothbrush Universe in which, I don’t know, toothbrushes are used to clean people’s toes instead of their mouths.
But that’s my life these days.
My fingers hit the porcelain of the bathtub and I contemplate feeling around inside the bathtub. It couldn’t have gone in there, could it?
I kneel beside the bathtub, weighing my options. I have just spent at least ten minutes searching the bathroom for my toothbrush, without any success. I’m sure it’s somewhere really obvious and I’ll find it if I keep looking, but I don’t know how much of my morning I want to dedicate to this stupid search.
On the other hand, I could get my mother and ask her to find it for me, which will probably take her all of five seconds. She’s right down the hall in her bedroom. I opened the door to the bathroom, intending to go find her, but then I didn’t. I’m trying to prove to her I’m capable of some modicum of independence—I can’t let her see me struggling.
The last option is I don’t brush my teeth at all. That’s more tempting by the second. But eventually I do need to find my toothbrush. I need a toothbrush. Plaque buildup, gum disease, etc.
“Goddamn it,” I mutter under my breath.
I should start feeling around the bathtub, but I don’t. Instead, I collapse against the tub, the tile ice-cold against my boxer shorts. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been defeated by a fucking toothbrush.
I jump in surprise, straightening up just enough to bash my head on the sink. It hurts so much, I can’t believe I didn’t draw blood. I swear to myself, rubbing my head. I’ve done this so many times in the last year, I’ll probably have serious brain damage by the time I’m forty.
“What are you doing?”
My mother’s voice. I look up and can just barely make out a fuzzy dark outline in the doorway. Must be her. Or the boogeyman, impersonating her. There’s no way I could tell the difference.
“I dropped my toothbrush,” I admit, dropping back down against the floor. “I can’t find it.”
Ma is quiet. I assume she’s looking around the room. I have spent fifteen minutes searching, and she will undoubtedly spot it within seconds.
“Oh, Colin,” she finally says.
Instinctively, I pat myself down. Where is the goddamn toothbrush? Is it stuck to my shirt? Where is it? Is she going to tell me already?
“Honey, it fell in the toilet.”
It did? Shit, I didn’t even consider that possibility. The toilet is a good three feet from the sink. And why did it clatter as it fell? Shouldn’t it have plunked? I never would have figured that one out.
My chest tightens. What if I’m living alone someday and I knock my toothbrush into the toilet? What would I do?
“It’s okay.” Ma’s hand is on my shoulder. “I’ve got a spare. I’ll go get it for you.”
I don’t get up. I stay on the cold floor of the bathroom, waiting for her to return. I can’t fucking believe this is my life. I fought in Iraq. I saved the lives of two of my buddies out there. I drove an M-ATV. I’ve hiked miles through the desert.
And now I can’t even brush my teeth.
“Colin?” It’s my mother voice again. “Here’s a toothbrush for you.”
I don’t move to take it from her.
“I opened up the packaging for you,” she adds. Her voice is so goddamn cheerful, like I should be dancing cartwheels with excitement over my great new toothbrush. “All you need to do is brush.”
“I’ll just put it on the sink ledge for you,” she says. “It’s on the right ledge.”
I wait for footsteps to signify her going back to her bedroom. But I don’t hear them. She’s still standing in the bathroom with me.
I drop my head. “What?”
“Are you going to get up and brush your teeth?”
“Yes, I am.”
I wait. No footsteps.
She’s still here. Jesus Christ.
“Do you need help getting up?” she asks me.
“Nope, I can handle it.”
Another silence. No footsteps. “Have you been taking your pills?”
“Yes.” I can’t keep the irritation from creeping into my voice.
“Yes,” I say, but now the medicine cabinet creaks open. Pills rattle and I know she’s checking to make sure I’ve made a dent in the sixty-tablet bottle of Lexapro, the antidepressant I’ve been dutifully swallowing every day even though it does fucking nothing.
I give her a minute to complete her inspection. “Satisfied?” I say.
“Can you just…” She sighs loudly. “Can you get off the floor, Colin?”
I grab for the edge of the sink to heave myself to my feet without bashing my head again. I look in the direction of the dark, fuzzy blob that is my mother. “Happy?”
She sighs again. But this time I hear the footsteps signifying she’s gone down the hall, back to her bedroom. When the footsteps disappear, I shut the door to the bathroom. I sink back down onto the floor and sit there for another fifteen minutes before I manage to work up the motivation to brush my teeth.
“My name is The Big Bad Wolf. Yes, I’m a wolf. Yes, I have sharp teeth that might look scary and a lot of dark fur, but let me assure you, I am not a bad person.”
I hover with my hand in the air, holding up the picture book so that the six kids forming a semi-circle on the carpet around my wooden chair can see the illustration of the wolf, who is actually not such a bad guy. The book I’m reading is The Three Little Pigs, but it’s told from the point of view of the wolf. I like books like that. Ones that show every character in a book has their own perspective on a story. The big bad wolf didn’t have evil intentions. He just had a bad cold and kept accidentally blowing down the pigs’ poorly constructed homes. I mean, who builds a house of straw? Seems like a dumb idea to me.
Just as I’m attempting to turn the page, Ava C shoots up her hand. (I call her Ava C because in this small group of six kids, there are two other kids also named Ava. We’ve got a fifty percent Ava rate. Yes, it’s a nice name, but come on.) Ava C is one of my favorite kids who comes to Storytime. She’s half a head shorter than any other kid her age with big puffs of hair arranged on either side of her head.
But I hesitate to call on her. It’s not that I want to discourage questions, but Ava C has constant questions. Which never have anything to do with the book. In fact, they’re usually not even actual questions.
I turn the page, trying to ignore Ava’s hand. But before I can read another sentence about the plight of the big bad wolf, she is bouncing up and down on the rug, stage-whispering, “Miss Sophie? Miss Sophie?”
I lower the book and smile at her. Maybe she needs the toilet—I don’t want a puddle on the rug (again). “Yes, Ava C?”
Ava’s round face beams up at me as she lowers her hand. “Yesterday, my mom took me to the doctor and I got shots. And then you know what else?”
“Um,” I say. I cross my legs and the wooden chair I’m sitting in creaks softly under my weight. The library desperately needs new chairs, but it’s not in our budget right now. One of these days, a chair is going to collapse under somebody and we’re going to have a lawsuit on our hands.
“I got a sticker,” she says proudly. “Because I was so good and Mommy said I could pick out whatever sticker I want.”
“Oh, that’s great,” I tell her. “But what does that have to do with the story we’re reading?”
“Because I picked out a pig sticker,” Ava says, shaking her head at me like the answer should have been obvious.
I laugh. My best friend Morgan always says I have a “ridiculous” amount of patience for these kids. But the truth is, I find them funny. If I didn’t love books so much, I might have considered becoming a preschool teacher. But working as a librarian and getting to read to kids twice weekly is my idea of the best job ever. Hell, I’d read to them every day if I could.
But Carrie won’t allow it.
“Um, excuse me?” a voice says from just outside the semicircle of children. “Is this Storytime for preschoolers?”
I lift my eyes from the group of children surrounding me. There’s a woman standing just outside the semicircle, dressed in the typical yoga pants and low ponytail I’ve come to associate with stay at home moms. There’s a boy of about three years old clinging to her hip, his face entirely buried in her yoga pants.
“Yes, it is,” I say.
The woman looks down at her son, who whimpers, “Mommy, no.”
I’ve never seen this woman or her son before, which is somewhat unusual. At our small library in Dorchester, there are maybe a couple dozen kids who come to Storytime with any regularity. I know all those kids by name and they know me. Actually, I know most of the kids who come to the library. That makes it easy. New people—I don’t do as well with new people.
“Declan,” the mother says, as she attempts to gently pry the boy from her hip, “this nice lady is reading a fun story. Why don’t you sit down and listen?”
“She’s not a nice lady,” the boy, Declan, mumbles into his mother’s pants.
He lifts his little blond head just enough that I can see one blue eye staring at me accusingly. “She’s a monster.”
The woman’s face colors. She is, actually, very pretty herself in a blond, fresh-faced sort of way. I’m sure if she were sitting in my chair, reading a picture book, nobody would be calling her a monster.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman says to me.
I wave my hand like I don’t care, as if this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. After all, it’s a response I’ve been dealing with my entire life.
The truth? I do care. Every time someone calls me a “monster” or some unflattering synonym of the word, it’s like a dagger in my chest. Yes, even after all these years, I care. Of course I do.
“Declan,” I say in my gentlest voice, “won’t you please join us for story time?”
He shakes his head, smooshing his face further into his mother’s hip.
“Miss Sophie is really nice,” Ava C volunteers. Bless her little heart. “She reads fun books. She’s reading us a book now about little red riding hood.”
Little red riding hood? Well, close enough.
“Declan?” his mother prompts him one last time.
“No, no, no!” he sobs.
She shrugs helplessly. “We’ll go play with the train set then.”
“Go ahead,” I tell her, “and if he changes his mind, he can join us.”
The woman lets out a laugh that’s more like a snort. “Oh, I doubt he will.”
Little Declan can’t wait to get as far away from me as possible. He’s trembling with fear. I can’t blame him though—kids are frightened of things that are different from the norm. It’s up to the parents to educate them.
I am essentially illiterate.
If you look up the definition of the word “illiterate,” it means someone who is unable to read or write. Therefore, I am illiterate. I can’t read. I can’t read words on street signs. I couldn’t read the messages on any of the cards people sent me during the four months when I was in the hospital. If someone gave me a book, I wouldn’t be able to do much with it besides turn the pages.
As for writing, well, I can technically do that. If someone gave me a piece of paper, I could write a sentence. Every letter of the sentence would be in a random place on the paper, but I could do it. But so what? Fat lot of good it does me. The only time I pick up a pen is to sign my name on a check. I’ve got the special checks with raised dots to tell me where to write in the numbers, but the few times I’ve had to write a check, my mother filled everything in for me except for the signature part. I just signed my name, hoping I was at least somewhat near the line.
In the VA Hospital where I did rehab—at least before I checked myself out against medical advice—they taught me braille. I know all the letters and numbers by touch, but it’s far from automatic. I feel the dots, think a second, then my brain slowly makes the connection between what I’m feeling and the letter. I can’t even begin to read a book in braille. It’s almost never useful outside of this house. Correction—it’s never useful. Nothing in the real world is in braille.
I know what you’re thinking—the military tough guy can’t read books anymore, big godddamn deal. But to hell with stereotypes—I always loved to read. The guys all thought it was wicked funny that I always had a book stashed in my rucksack. I’ve got two bookcases filled to the brim with books in my bedroom at home. Two bookcases filled with books I can’t read anymore.
Right now, I’m lying on my bed, my eyes closed, a pair of earbuds stuffed in my ears. I’m being read to. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I saw the movie The Da Vinci Code on cable just before my last tour of duty, then read the book right after. I always wanted to read this one, but I never managed to get my hands on it. So now it’s being read to me by some guy with a nasal voice that grates on my nerves.
I’m bored. Bored out of my goddamn mind. I don’t want to lie here in bed while I’m being read to. I could lift weights again, but I’m getting sick of that. I wish I could go for a walk, but I need my remaining senses intact when I go outside, so I can’t walk and… well, do anything besides walk. I can’t let myself be distracted by a bad reading of Angels and Demons.
And going out for a drive is off the table. For fucking ever.
I rip the earbuds out of my ears and toss them somewhere I’ll probably never find them again. I punch my fist against the bedspread. I wish I could have a go at a punching bag—it would feel good to beat the shit out of something. But it would probably swing back at me and smack me in the face.
Although at this point, I might welcome that.
I turn my head in the direction of the voice. It’s an automatic response, because the doorway to my room is too far away to see shit. And no matter how close a person gets to me, I can’t make out any distinguishing features. Everyone looks exactly the same to me—like a dim blob.
Whenever I hear a loud noise or crash, I still turn my head in that direction, even though it doesn’t give me any extra information anymore. How long will I have to be blind before I quit doing that? Two years? Three?
“Hey, man. How are you doing?”
I recognize the voice now. It’s Major Reggie Floyd. Floyd was assigned to be a liaison for me after I discharged myself from the VA blind rehab program in Connecticut. He lost his sight too, about eight years ago. He was on a bomb squad, and a bomb blew up in his face while he was trying to deactivate it. He lost both his eyes, so while I see only shadows, he sees nothing. He probably has other scars too, but I’d never know it.
“Hey,” I say.
The legs of a chair scrape against the ground. He’s found my desk chair. He’s good at finding things, even though he can’t see.
“So.” Floyd’s baritone nearly makes my bed vibrate. I think he’s African-American, but I’m not entirely sure. It’s not the sort of thing I feel comfortable asking. I don’t care if he thinks I’m an asshole, but I don’t want him to think I’m a racist asshole. “What are you up to?”
“I’m playing a game of ping pong,” I say. He doesn’t respond—he may be blind, but I’m sure he realizes I’m being sarcastic and not actually playing ping pong. “What the hell do you think I’m up to? I’m lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling.”
“That sounds boring.”
“You know what? It is.”
The chair creaks under Floyd’s weight. “So how about if we go for a walk?”
I snort. “Two blind guys tapping their canes around the neighborhood together? Shit, we’d have to charge admission.”
“So is that a yes?”
“It’s a fuck no.”
A long sigh resonates around the room. “So this is what you want your life to be now? Lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling?”
I don’t answer that one. I’m not in the mood for Floyd’s inspirational bullshit. I’m already aware he can give a helluva speech. Since losing his sight, he managed to earn an MBA and he now teaches military leadership. He competed in a triathlon last year. He’s amazing.
I know what he’ll say. If I could do it, you can too! Except I don’t want to be an amazing blind guy. I just want to go back to the way I was. Back when everything I did wasn’t so goddamn inspirational. I just want to be a normal guy who could read and find my toothbrush when I drop it.
“Your mother told me you’re refusing to go to the low vision clinic anymore,” he says.
“I guess,” I mutter.
I shudder as I remember my last appointment at the low vision clinic at the Jamaica Plain VA. We were going to learn to take the T. The fucking train. The thought of it made me sick like I used to get in Iraq, when we were driving through an area littered with IEDs. I wasn’t getting anywhere near the train. No way. If that’s what low vision clinic was going to make me do, I wanted no part of it.
“Let me ask you a question,” I say to Floyd.
“Did you drive here?”
He’s quiet for a moment. “You know I didn’t. I took a taxi.”
“Right.” I turn my head to face the ceiling. “And when the taxi driver stopped in front of my house, did you ask him to help you find it?”
“I asked him where it was on the street.”
“Did he offer to get out and guide you here?”
“He did. But I said no and got here without him.”
“Wow. What an accomplishment.”
“What do you want me to say to you, Colin?” His usually even voice rises a notch. He’s getting frustrated with me, just like everyone else. “Do you want me to tell you that you don’t have a disability? That you don’t have any limitations?”
“No, I don’t.” I feel a vise tightening around my chest. I try to keep my voice steady, not wanting Floyd to see he’s upsetting me. “I just want you to leave me alone. Okay?”
I lie in bed, waiting to hear the creak of the chair and footsteps to signify him leaving. But he stays. I don’t know why. It was easy enough to get all my friends to take off. Some people just can’t take a hint.
He sits there a while. I hear his heavy breaths coming from my left. He must be thinking. God knows, he can’t be doing anything else—I’d hear it if he were messing with his phone. He’s got the same voice setup that I do.
Floyd finally breaks the silence: “Were you reading?”
I shrug, forgetting he can’t see the motion of my shoulders. You’d think I’d be more sensitive to the fact that he can’t see my gestures, given my own situation. “I can’t read. I’m illiterate.”
“Is that so? I thought I remembered you saying you liked to read.”
“I liked to read before. Now I’m illiterate. So.”
The chair creaks again, struggling under Floyd’s weight. I wonder if he’s a big guy. He seems like a big guy. Whenever he speaks, I picture Barry White.
“What about braille?” he says.
Braille in books is hard as hell to learn. In addition to knowing all the letters and numbers, books written in braille have all these abbreviations. Letters that often go together and short words like “it” or “but” are abbreviated. Grade 2 braille has a few hundred characters to learn, and it’s actually fairly complex.
Back in rehab, before I quit, I tried to learn Grade 2 braille. I thought to myself, I’m going to learn to read again. But it was hard. No, beyond hard. Nearly impossible. Not worth the effort. They told me in rehab that people who lose their sight later in life rarely bother to learn braille well enough to read entire books. So like everything else, I quit.
“It’s too hard,” I say.
“Harder than boot camp? Harder than hiking miles in the desert?”
I grasp at strands of my hair, wishing this conversation could end. “It’s just hard.”
“I saw your college transcript,” he says. “You’re not dumb, Colin.”
No, I’m not dumb. I used to be smart, in fact. My mother reminded me of my high IQ a dozen times when she tried to talk me out of joining the army when I enlisted right out of high school. You should go to college, Colin! I did eventually go to college. I did the ROTC program at Boston College, so I’ve got my degree, at least. I wanted to be a career officer—that was my dream.
So much for that.
“I brought you something,” Floyd says.
I hear the shuffling of papers. An object drops onto the bed next to me and brushes against my fingers. I don’t reach for it.
“It’s a book,” he says.
“In braille? Or is it the useless kind I can’t read?”
“Grade 2 braille for dummies.”
“Oh yeah? I thought you said I’m not dumb.”
I can almost hear Floyd smiling. “Right now, you’re acting pretty fucking dumb.”
My fingers slide across the hard cover of the book, grazing the raised dots. Before I can overthink it, I pick up the book. I slide my fingers over the title, spending half a second on every single braille character, searching my brain for its translation to the alphabet in my head.
Grade 2 Braille For Dummies.
He was serious.
“They said in rehab it’s not worth learning,” I remind Floyd. “With computer software, audiobooks, and phone apps, there’s no point.”
“Well, let’s face it. It’s not like you’re doing anything better with your time right now, are you?”
No. I’m not.
“I don’t hear the book being hurled at the wall,” Floyd says. “Should I take that to mean you’re considering this?”
“Sure,” I lie.
“Do you mean that?”
“Absolutely.” I turn my head away from Floyd, forgetting once again that he won’t see my gesture of dismissal. “So anyway, I’m going to take a nap. But, you know, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate it.”
I don’t say another word, and eventually Floyd gives up. His chair creaks one last time, relieved of his weight, and his footsteps disappear down the hall. I wish he’d never come back.
To be continued....