The eyeball, the organ responsible for the majority of a sighted person’s perception of the world, is a little sack of jelly. Throughout that sack are wired the tiniest, most delicate veins. If an object hurling towards an eyeball happens to be timed so perfectly, if the eye’s owner doesn’t have the impulse to flinch, and if that object achieves a direct hit, the cornea will genuflect backwards like an umbrella caught in a gust of wind, and, now concave, will tap the lens. That tap will leave a bruise of sorts, which will snuff out vision temporarily. As this happens, the iris, the colored part of the eye, a muscle that contracts and relaxes as we move through high and low lights, is damaged, transforming the pupil into a slack, black hole.
But the big problem in the case of an injury such as this isn’t so much the cornea or the lens or the iris — it’s if one of those little vessels pops and spurts blood into that once-balanced space. If that bleeding doesn’t stop, if the pressure within the eye rises beyond a point, the whole thing can burst — aqueous humor oozing down your face, I suppose.
The night we met he wore what appeared to be a women’s rain jacket. He looked like Conan O’Brien and was the loudest man in the bar. After he slept in my bed we spent a manic chilly Easter weekend together. Over hamburgers and beers and in one another’s bedrooms we talked, we talked as if silence would be both our ends. Our talking felt like puking, like good puking, the sort that pours from you with a force that is surprising and pleasing and threatens to overfill the bowl. After that weekend, and after each subsequent night together, I walked home exhausted, and tottering in my heels.
Iowa City was small enough that when we weren’t out together we ran into each other anyway. Sometimes I guessed as to where he’d be, and found him, or didn’t. Other times I swear I did not intend to find him and heard his brassy voice, his imposing laugh, cut across a restaurant or a street. And when that happened, when I realized I was nearby him, globs of sweat dripped down my torso.
I’d been in love before but I’d never before felt love like this. That meant something, I reasoned.
So when he sometimes said he didn’t want anything serious I didn’t entirely care.
That day we were supposed to go camping it threatened rain. All day I prepared. I drove over to the cheap grocery store and bought hotdogs and buns and cherries and the makings for s’mores. I went to the pharmacy across the lot for a bottle of Zinfandel and beer and cigarettes — he smoked Marlboro Reds — and then to the gas station for firewood and charcoal and ice. He didn’t know how seriously I made all these decisions, contemplating whether he’d prefer watermelon or cherries.
Watermelon or cherries.
He was chatting with some woman as I pulled into the parking lot. I didn’t know her but presumed she was part of his PhD-related world of committees and panels and things. I sometimes wondered whether he loved someone else, whether that was the problem. Or if he was gay. I sometimes imagined, months or years in the future, running my hands through his strawberry hair and telling him, “I used to hope you were gay because it’d be easier to handle than you not loving me,” and he’d laugh.
I rolled down the window.
It’d begun to drizzle.
He was just joking with her, I could hear.
In the last months I’d been realizing that a lot of the things I liked about him — his enthusiasm, his intensity, his wit — were things people didn’t like. “He’s an asshole,” some friends had said to me. Or they’d repeat his name incredulously when I said it. Or they’d tell me stories about this bad thing he’d done, that woman he’d hurt. Other people, I told myself, did not understand him in the way that I did.
Finally he laughed goodbye to the woman and got in my passenger seat. Whenever he was near me, I experienced a sort of relief, like that first inhale when you’ve finally given in and quit quitting smoking.
“Who was that?” I asked and he explained who she was.
I had to turn on the windshield wipers even before we were on the highway. At least, I reminded myself, the tent had a rain fly.
“Sweetie,” he said. It was a thing we did, calling each other sweetie but with a tinge of irony because we weren’t actually a couple, “are you okay?”
The windshield wipers slapped and squealed and slapped.
“I don’t know what’s up with me today,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
The park was half an hour north of town. We found the campsite and stood for a moment looking at the water and then at the sky. At least the dreary weather meant we were relatively alone.
He surveyed and selected a flat patch of mostly dead grass and unfurled the tent, which I’d borrowed and was baby blue and big. We eventually figured out its orientation and erected it.
“Is this the right rain fly?” he asked as we tried to cinch down its elastic cords.
“I think so,” I said. The color matched, but it didn’t seem to be fitting.
“The whole thing must be warped,” I said and he agreed.
I got on my knees and was trying to see whether the cord was catching when it sprung from my grip.
I had collapsed on the grass.
I heard him exclaim “Did it hit you in the face?”
He rushed to where I had collapsed on the grass.
His mouth fell open.
“We have to get to a hospital,” he stammered.
I climbed onto my feet.
“Yes,” he said, “We have to go to a hospital right now.”
“What about the stuff, the tent,” I protested.
“I’ll come back and get it later,” he said, almost condescendingly, “I promise, I’ll come back and get it later.” He took my hand, “Come on,” he said, “Give me your keys.” I handed them over and warily got into the car, too shocked to yet feel pain.
“Our camping trip is ruined,” I said. “Our camping trip is ruined.”
We sped along the park’s twisted lanes beneath big green trees.
It was only when we got on the highway that I glimpsed in the mirror what had become of my left eye. It looked like a red marble.
I started to sob. Drizzle splattered fast on the windshield and he clutched my hand. I had one hand over the eye and my head down and as I whimpered, he gave loud updates as to our location, our proximity to the emergency room, all the while clutching my other hand.
He was a good man. I had known it all along. He was a good man.
It was, even then I knew, the most authentic interaction we had ever had.
I don’t recall feeling panicked or even great pain. There was something about the extremity of this news: that either I would lose my eye or I wouldn’t. This was either a big event — the night I lost my eye — or not.
“This is the David Bowie injury,” one of the ophthalmologists said.
Like me, Bowie has blue eyes. On blue-eyed people a slack black pupil is more noticeable than comparatively darker brown eyes. Bowie was punched in the face by a schoolmate wearing a ring; it was a fight over a girl.
Except for when he did go back and get the tent, he was at the hospital the whole night, in the lobby. Or standing outside smoking. At one point he filled a Nalgene with one of the beers I’d bought earlier and shared it as if trying to retain some semblance of the fun we’d planned on having that evening.
Many hours later they prescribed me various eye drops and told me there was nothing to do to fix my eye per se, but that I needed to sit, upright, in the dark, for the next five days. Upright to let the blood drain out, in the dark because of the photosensitivity, and I wasn’t to leave my house for risk that something, anything, could happen — I’d walk into a tree branch, I’d duck from a Frisbee — anything and the responsible vessel would begin bleeding again. The tiniest acts can raise the pressure inside an eye, especially an injured one. I was to rush to the hospital immediately if the bleeding began again. “Or if you see a bright light that you know isn’t real,” a doctor said, “Because that means your optic nerve has detached.”
“Okay,” I said.
It was late when we got to the pharmacy and then to his house. He sat me on his bed and propped a bunch of pillows behind me. He undressed me.
It wasn’t smart to have sex, given that my eye might re-burst and yet at that moment we should have been in the tent, naked, beneath a pattering drizzle.
I held still and tried not to react. The next morning I walked cautiously down the graveled alleyway that connected our two homes. The sun shone. Locusts hummed and gnats darted about the lawn. I climbed the fire escape and, inside, closed my blinds.
I went to the bathroom mirror and stared a long time at the disgusting thing.
I sat on my sofa.
I couldn’t see from the middle of my field of vision to the left. I couldn’t read. All I could do was blurrily watch TV.
It grew hot. I didn’t have AC. Friends called, others visited, and they were unable to mask their horror when they saw me. I talked only about him, about his heroism in getting me to the hospital, of staying there all night with me. He didn’t visit that first day; he was too busy. He had planned to leave the next day to do archival work elsewhere for a month. I didn’t ask him to reconsider because I knew I was not someone for whom he changed plans.
He came over to say goodbye, curled up on my sofa with me, smelling of nutmeg. He was hung over and fell asleep with his mouth open.
When he awoke, he touched my cheek, south of my red eye, its pupil big and lopsided as a lentil. They had said that it may never retract entirely, the iris. In fact it was likely I’d never look quite normal again, whatever that means.
“I’ve left a permanent mark on you,” he said. And he loved this, I could tell.
On a Monday afternoon in early September he texted asking if I could meet up. Recently, and somewhat begrudgingly, he had started calling me his girlfriend. We had finally gotten out of town, to the state fair, where we watched delightedly as retirees participated in a spelling bee, and sang a duet about being in love with a live band. And one evening just a week before, he had laid me down flat backed on his bed and kissed every spec of my skin. And yet there was something about this text.
“You aren’t breaking up with me, are you?” I asked as I walked up, employing the logic that said asking this would ensure that he wasn’t.
His expression was just sad.
“I’m sorry, Sandy,” is all he said.
We were standing on a street corner next to a jewelry store.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
He nodded. Said he never meant for things to be serious.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” I said to him, over and over again. Because I couldn’t. Because that he could opt out of this was preposterous; I had no such option. I insisted we talk about it. We sat on the picnic table in my backyard, picked at buckeye leaves and chain smoked. The thing was we got along so well. Maybe we were supposed to just be very good friends. Jerry and Elaine. We walked downtown, got hamburgers. He went out after without me, got really drunk, friends later reported, because he was upset we’d broken up. That didn’t feel fair at all, I said.
On the phone that night, nicotine manic, I told a friend I was totally fine with what was happening.
We were supposed to just be very good friends.
I cried for the next several months. I didn’t stop seeing him. I went out of my way to go where he’d be. I went out of my way to avoid him and run into him anyway. He’d drink too much and come onto me. I’d drink too much and sleep with him and feel rotten for being the girl he was just sleeping with and then feel sick realizing that’s all I ever was. I once left a bar where we’d been and crawled into his bed and when he awoke confused I pretended as if we’d gone home together and he believed me, I think.
Sometimes we tried to be good. We made a standing date to get dinner, just dinner, each Wednesday, watch late season baseball on the television and the whole time it stung like elastic snapping into your eye. He saw other women. He even had the gall once to ask advice about restaurants in Minneapolis, where he was meeting up with one of them, and, smiling I was so shocked at his cruelty, I told him he was fucking insane.My friends repeated to me all the things they didn’t like about him; I acknowledged that they were correct and yet I did not agree.
Every time I went to the ophthalmologist they praised how well my bowie eye was healing.
There’s a melancholy song by a lilty Norwegian singer I’d taken to playing a few dozen times a day. Its chorus went:
I was going to love you til the end of all daytime
I was going to keep all our secret signs and our lullabies
I was made to believe that our love would grow old
We were going to live in a treehouse and make babies
We were going to bury our ex lovers and their ghosts
Baby we were made of gold —
I played it on loops and wept. If I were in public, I’d have to go to the bathroom to do the latter. If I were at my house I could just weep and not care that no one knew that I was listening to a sad song pantless and weeping, eating olives at my kitchen table.
I was sitting at a café listening to the song on a Sunday afternoon when he texted and asked what I was up to, asked if I’d like to come over. I packed up my bag immediately. I had no face to save.
It was one of the last nice days of late fall.
He was in his backyard, at a white table with the Times. I strolled up, my nonchalance intentional.
“Oh hello,” he said. I felt all the things I knew I should no longer feel.
“Oh hello,” I said.
He went inside and came back with a shaker and gin and prepared us two martinis. We shared the paper, occasionally looking up to comment on one thing or another. This was it. Whatever was happening, this was right. This was how I wanted to be when I was thirty, and forty, and seventy. I knew this. I realized how wrong this was and yet somehow this moment, the rightness of it, the chance that through this I could still be right eclipsed everything.
I got bold.
“What,” I broke the silence, “Would you say is the likelihood we marry?”
He loved a question like this, a daring one. And this was the most daring thing I’d ever asked him. He thought for a moment.
“Thirty-five percent,” he said.
The number hung.
He extinguished a cigarette. The lawn was green and the table white.
“I love you,” I said, which I hadn’t actually said to him before.
“I know,” he replied.
He scooted his chair a bit closer to mine.
We kissed and kissed.
At some point he started to cry.
“I just am so sad inside,” he said, as if this explained anything.
“I know,” I lied.
We went inside and had brief sex one last time. We curled on the couch and watched Godzilla, the old one. I was very happy. The bugs had finally stopped chirring and that night was cool in the way that announces that next everything will be dead.