A Sunday Story About Having One Eye
A long and self indulgent thing about my eye.
Your parents describe your birth as the happiest moment of their lives, followed immediately by the saddest. Your mother holds you and is smiling and happy and your father fawns over you and kisses her on her forehead and she presses your body into her chest and looks down at you and realizes something is wrong. Your eyes are not the same. One is blue, the other is grey. One is hiding under a partially opened eye-lid; the other is extending far beyond it, like a potato exploding out of an egg cup. Suddenly, the doctors are in the room and they take you and rush you out. And when they come back they tell your parents that they don’t know what’s wrong, but something is wrong. There will be tests, there will be lots of tests. Your parents sob. Your father cradles you and tells you that no matter what the tests say, he’ll take care of you forever.
You are born with a rare eye defect called Peters Anomaly. You’re blind in that one eye, but it is only that one eye. Everything else is fine. You are not going to die.
This is not a story about how life is hard. You are very lucky. It struck only your left eye. A lot of people who get this—there are not that many who get it but a lot of the ones who do—get it in both. There is no child in the history of the world who has ever had greater access to medical care than you did. Your father has always had a very complicated relationship with using the advantages of his celebrity, but not here, not in this case. Also, this is just about one eye, you have another, many people don’t have any. And even if you didn’t, you would still have four other senses. People suffer a trillion things every day that are far worse than this. So, this is not a story about life being hard. This is just a story.
Your parents are as naive as you would be in this situation and say, “fine, get him an eye transplant.” Those do not exist. A specialist tells them that there are so many nerves in an eye that to do a transplant would take an entire life to reattach all of them.
The eye goes down in size eventually, fitting underneath the lid, though it remains a cloudy gray and obviously you can’t see out of it. A few years later, around your earliest memories, you start wearing a contact lens to make it look normal. You—people in general, but importantly, you—can’t get a glass eye too early. The face has to grow enough or else it will not work. You have a collection of contact lenses. One has a Batman logo on it. One has a smiley face. But even at that age it doesn’t take long to realize that really what you want is to be normal. So there are then blue contact lenses.
There is a 1991 People Magazine article from around this time that haunts your family.
The cover says “THE POWER OF LOVE” and it is about your parents’ marriage. In the 80s your dad’s career faltered, your mother’s lupus flared up, and you were born, but in 1991 things were on the up and the story (subtly titled “Against All Odds”) is about your father’s resurgent career, your mother’s resilient survival, and your ability to shrug off teasing. You tell the reporter that:
“I don’t like school, because people bother me about my eye,” Ben says, imitating a singsong taunt. ”‘I don’t like you! You don’t have an eye! Ha-ha! Ha-ha!’ So I say, ‘Well, you’re the one that’s being mean, because you don’t know what you’re doing to other people.’”
You are the most evolved 4 year-old in the whole world.
Soon after the story, two things happen: first, you get a glass eye.
The day of the surgery you are scared. You are on the gurney being brought in and your mom and dad are there and you’re crying and they’re crying and you’re telling them you’ve changed your mind and they reassure you and under you go and the next memory you have is him carrying you out of the hospital and bringing you home, and then you spending days in your parents bed watching television. You can’t immediately just put in a glass eye. The surgery is to take out the bad one and implant a prosthesis that has to set and then eventually a glass eye is what you can wear over that. The implant in your eye socket 25 years later is the same one that was implanted that day in 1991. For months, you wear bandages and eye patches. You go to NYC. You were in Bobby Balaban’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Your mom was on an exercise bike in a fitness room that had big mirrored walls. You took off your bandages and looked at the mirror and started to sob and asked her if you had gone through all that to like a monster. Because that’s what you look like when you don’t have your glass eye in. It doesn’t look right. It’s bloody and disgusting and it’s not a finished product. It was the first time that you had ever been shocked by your eye.
The second thing that happens after the People “Power of Love” cover is your parents separate.
The People cover is the Sports Illustrated curse but for Hollywood marriages. Your dad had been cheating on your mom for years and one winter you go to Sun Valley Idaho and you get ill and have to have your tonsils removed. Your mom falls in love with the surgeon who removed them. She moves with your siblings to Sun Valley. You refuse and stay with your dad, but after 6 months or so it becomes clear that this situation will not be tenable. Your dad sits you down in your living room in Nichols Canyon and tells you that he loves you and wants you to stay but that you would never see your siblings. They’d come to LA for holidays and you’d cross them in the night. Nevertheless, you refuse. In the end, he bribes you to move to Sun Valley with a Powerbook 100.
The surgeon is a psycho and that relationship doesn’t last long, but by then your mom is building a house and you are enrolled in school and you all just sort of stayed. You’re in first grade. The school was very small and the people that you met that first year are largely the same ones you would grow up with for the next 10 years. The eye plays a major role in your childhood, but the shock expires. You grow up with friends who never mention it and “friends” who make fun of it. But no one is ever shocked by it. Unless you want them to be.
Your mom was dating some guy a few years later. He was a cop from Seattle. The first time you met him you flicked your glass eye out of your head with your eye lid, a trick you will stop being able to do around puberty. They broke up.
For almost a decade you grow up in this idyllic place with the same cast of 20 people in your grade. And though you are teased about your eye and it stops you from having girlfriends and being popular in the ways that we all wish we were, you all know each other so well that it is…soft? It is not vicious. You don’t hate them and you know they don’t hate you. But you resent it and feel isolated and when you become a teenager and get into high school and meet older teens, you come into yourself a bit and do what every film about teenagers says you do when you become popular after years of being teased, you bully all those people you’d grown up with out of revenge. And then it’s something behind your back. People won’t say it to your face anymore. Instead, it’s winning “best eyes” in the yearbook competition and having the yearbook staff give it to the second place winner to protect you, while also telling you about that decision.
The teasing is complicated. There is an inverse relationship between viciousness and pain. On the far left of intentional cruelty is kids in a Spanish class giving you the name “uno ojo.” That’s not a nice thing to do but you were in 6th grade and 6th grade boys are terrible to each other. It’s how they bond. They didn’t mean anything by it. But at the same time when you’re a 6th grader you don’t recognize that and it means the world so it is in the far right of “things that make you sob.” In the opposite corner you have a drunk person at a frat party in South bend, Indiana who wants to fight you and threatens to “fuck your eye-hole to death.” That person was being very not-nice, but they were such a demonstrable clown and villain that it meant nothing. It made you laugh then; it makes you laugh now. That inverse relationship holds well into adulthood, when the only time shit like this happens is on the internet. People who are trying to be cruel, at least in your experience, are the ones that are least effective at doing it.
For 11th grade, you move to New York to live with your dad and attend a tony private school that seems massive because there are about a hundred people in a grade. Your personality is so defensive and sense of humor so caustic by then that you honestly don’t remember whether your eye was a problem at Fieldston. You would imagine that it just was something that happened behind your back.
But one day you were sitting on the subway and you were alone and it was your first few weeks in New York and a panhandler came up and asked you for money and you reached down and found a dollar and as your gaze rose to meet his, his face contorted in strange ways and he couldn’t mask his shock. “What the fuck is wrong with your eye?” You don’t remember what you said but it was probably something like “it’s glass.” He didn’t mean to offend you and felt bad and apologized and took the dollar and walked away. But it shook you because it was the first time since you had been very young that someone had been shocked by it.
You don’t take it well and embark on a series of elaborate procedures to make your eye look better. There is now a pin in your implant that catches on to the eye and moves it a bit. This is a very traumatic procedure. They do not knock you out. They load you up on painkillers and anesthetics and then put your head in a thing and drill into your eye socket. The sensation is a bit like dentistry where you can only catch certain angles of the action but the noise is indelible.
This would take care of the lack of movement, you think, but what about the pupil problem? A glass eye has a static pupil but a real pupil changes size with the light. If they don’t match up right-ish then you look like you’ve had a stroke. Most glass eyes are for this reason painted with a standard medium sized pupil. You had that one, but you also have two more made: one with a very small pupil (for outside) and one with a very large pupil (for what? Being in a darkened basement? On drugs? Pupils wide as saucers?).
It doesn’t really matter. It will never look perfect even under the best circumstances. It’s painful. It’s in a constant state of irritation and that gunk that people wake up with in the corner of their eyes? Sleep? That grows around it all the time. And it’s rough and it cuts. And you ignore it until there’s blood all over the whites of your eye.
People have always told you—and it’s true—that no one notices it as much as you do. It’s all you can see. You can’t look at yourself in the mirror or take selfies or anything because of it. You have over the years forced yourself to do both those things as some sort of therapy. Your left eye lid droops ever so slightly lower than your right. No one has ever mentioned this to you. But you have spent countless hours blaming that droop for all the ills of your life and countless more looking into surgical options to fix it. It’s almost imperceptible. But it’s there. It has almost certainly had no effect on your life beyond the great effect you have let it.
Eventually you come around to the idea that much more noticeable than the eye itself is your reaction to it. You couldn’t make eye contact with anyone for decades. Upon this realization, you decided to make piercing eye contact with everyone. Whoops. But also it was very painful to do. It was torture. As an adult, the sight in your good eye deteriorated yet you refused to get glasses and became increasingly unable to see details, mostly because it helped you not see the details in your own reflection and allowed you to look at other people (or at least their blur) in a more painless and consistent way.
But the consequences—the isolation and loneliness and willful ignorance about the world— of that are obviously far worse and more significant than an imperceptible eye-lid droop.
And there is an irony to it. Since you were young you have valued the vision that you have above all else. You have told yourself since you were a child—too young to know about things like this—that if you ever lost your eye in an accident you would kill yourself before anyone could stop you. You have said this to yourself a zillion times from the age of 8 on. If you lost your eye in a car accident, you’d walk into traffic before the paramedics arrived. Etc…But you never truly believed that would happen because like all young people you think in the end, you’re invulnerable. You may have treasured that sight, but you didn’t treasure it enough to wear protective goggles during middle school basketball. Because you wanted to look normal more than you wanted to protect against the infinitesimal chance you’d lose your one good eye.
In adulthood, people generally get better at hiding their reactions. Aside from times where you’ve wanted to shock people, it almost hasn’t happened since that time on the subway. And there have been times that you’ve used it. You’ve taken your eye out and put it in your pocket while waiting for a cop to walk from his cruiser to your car a dozen times to get out of speeding tickets. “My eye fell out and I just have to get home!” It’s worked sometimes, it hasn’t worked others. One time you tried to use it to get out of a public urination citation in New York. “Sorry to hear about your eye, but that doesn’t mean you can piss in St. Mark’s Place” and handed you a ticket.
This is why you think that you’ve deserved some of the worst things that have happened. You have taken advantage of this when it’s suited you. You have. You have skipped the line at TSA by playing up your blindness. You saw the security line was long and so you put on some sunglasses and went back to the check-in agent and said “I’m so humiliated to say this but I need help” and then raised your glasses and tapped your glass eye with your cell phone. You were rushed through the line. You boarded the plane and sat down, thinking it was over. But then a flight attendant came over and introduced herself and started to treat you like you were mentally impaired. You were shocked that this person thinks all blind people are mentally impaired, but you played it up. The whole five-hour flight. You got a row to yourself.
This is a funny story. There are lots of funny stories—though they are something approaching victimless they are not actually victimless since they are you taking advantage of a really lived experience suffered by many people worse off than you—but they are humorous. And if they were it, then that would be that, but there are also other ones. Times when you didn’t ask for it and broken to find out about it. You remember how in your mid-20s you went back home to Idaho for Christmas and ran in to someone from your youth and how you’d slept together. And then you’d gone back to NY and thought not a lot of it until a year later when you came back and found out she’d told everyone she’d slept with you out of pity. And you remember breaking down. And thinking about how lucky you were when people wore their reaction to your eye on their face.
Who else has slept with you out of pity? Who else thinks you’re a charity case? You think about this all the time because far and away the most common reaction in your life is people who care about you trying to protect you and telling you that no one could ever notice or care. Obviously, that’s not true, so what else are you being protected from?
The fact that people want to protect you from things is something you know you can’t be mad about. It means you are lucky enough to have people who want to protect you. But it makes you crazy. It makes you paranoid.
You think about it when you’re told that a film/tv thing fell through because your eye was distracting. You are sad to hear this confirmed because it confirms all the nightmares you’ve had since you were five. But when you confide in friends about it they all almost react the same way: why would they tell you that? And it’s bewildering. Because the person who told you that didn’t do anything wrong. They told you the truth. Would it have been better to let you think it was something else? Indeed, even the people who made that decision didn’t do anything wrong. You understand more than anyone that your eye is distracting. You get that those people are professionals and have jobs to do and they have to think about the finished product and the audience experience. You’re sad about it and you have anger, but it’s not for any character in the drama. It’s for God. You’re angry at God. You wish you had two eyes. You wish that more than anything. “Of all the words of mice and men the saddest are what might have been,” you think when you let yourself fantasize about if you did.
You wish you had two eyes. It’s that simple. For all the years in therapy, it’s just that obvious fact.
And you’re sad, but more than sad you’re tired, because regret is exhausting. And there’s probably nothing more exhausting than regretting things you didn’t really cause yourself.
And so one day you’re cooking. You don’t cook a lot but you’re cooking. The last time you cooked was probably a month ago. You open the cupboard and reach for a baking sheet and when you pull it down a cutting knife plunges down and hits you in the forehead. You must have left it on the there a month ago. You’re fine. You have a cut on your forehead but it’s nothing. It clatters on the ground. You stand there in your kitchen thinking about how close you came to losing your good eye. You have not thought about this enough to realize that had it actually hit you in your eye you could have lost far more than your vision. You look at the knife on the ground. You think about the thing you had said so many times before. If you lost your good eye, you’d kill yourself before anyone could stop you. You imagine having the knife in your eye. You imagine screaming and crying and you ask yourself if you really would have found your way to the service elevator, gone to the roof and jumped off. You imagine what life would be like without your sight. You imagine the things you’d never see. You think of lost love. You think of your family. You think of fine art but also you think of terrible television shows. You think of that time you watched a sunrise in Auckland and how you’ve always wanted to see one set in Corsica. You stop. You pick up the knife and bake whatever the fuck you were trying to bake in the pan. You breathe. Would Corsica still be worth going to if you couldn’t see that sunset? You don’t have a firm answer but you strongly suspect the sound of the waves on the beach would be worth hearing all by themselves.
Nevertheless, the next day you go to an optometrist and get glasses with protective lenses. In fact, you get multiple pairs, each with different types of lenses and glares, because you decide to put all that vanity and insecurity and fear into something you can control, like your eyewear and your weight.