How the Blind See
Katie sent the dinner tray flying, the remnants of baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and cauliflower landing on those around her, and she stood silent, her chest heaving in and out with each quick breath that she took. Storming out of the room would have been a perfect finale for watchful eyes, had there been any. Under the circumstances, however, she sufficed to plop herself down in the floor, legs crossed Indian style, and sob.
An aide came to her, tried not to console her but instead to get her to her feet, which eventually erupted another bout of kicks and screams, which resulted in Katie being carried out of the cafeteria and strapped to a bed, alone in a quiet room someplace, out of sight, and sound.
She fought the aides, fought the restraints, fought the nothingness until she wore herself out, cried herself to sleep and woke, only minutes later, to be bruised and bound, still alone, still out of sight and sound, unable to gouge at what had once been two seeing eyes. She cried until she got sick, the cramps in her stomach from not eating making her cringe, yet she was unable to curl into a ball as she so wished, was unable to disappear as she so desired.
By the time she couldn't cry anymore and was too sick to do anything but lay there, her body chilled and aching, she heard two voices outside the room, she guessed from a hallway, by the echoes. Voice one came from the head aide, a big woman by the name of Clarisse, and Voice two came from John Bremnar, the director of the institute.
Katie listened to them talk and debate what to do with her, as though she were a problem child who'd disrupted class. But, unlike a problem child who'd disrupted class, whose punishment would have likely been sitting in a principal's office awaiting a parent's arrival, Katie was strapped to a bed, alone, awaiting no one.
The door opened and she heard feet slide across the floor, a few steps, a few brushes of air, a chair being scooted, something being set atop a table across the room, the chair creaking with the weight of a body sitting on it.
A few clicks and pushes of buttons, and then a song, melodic and soothing and soft, filled the room, and then Mr. Bremnar spoke.
"You have to understand our position, Katie. When you act out like that you scare the others. Talking has had little effect on you since your arrival." He paused. "I know how frustrating and upsetting all of this is, but you need to accept what has happened and go forward, the best that you can. We're here to help you."
"I don't want your goddamn help," Katie spat, and Mr. Bremnar sighed.
"I am trying to be reasonable about this. If you can't accept the way things are here and learn to live your life accordingly, then I have no other option but to send you to back to the hospital where you'll be placed on the psychiatric floor for supervision. Instead of living a productive life, you'll sit in therapy meetings two to three times a week, or more, under the circumstances," he added, "be drugged and tied down, in an environment full of people who aren't properly equipped to deal with your situation. Is that what you want?"
Katie sighed, and with little left, she fought back tears.
"I want my life back."
"Then take it," Mr. Bremnar replied, his voice less harsh, and Katie heard him walk to the door.
"I'll have Clarisse bring you something to eat. Afterward you can take a shower and go back to your room." He opened the door, said goodnight and then left, as fresh tears rolled down Katie's cheeks.
She stood under the water until it got cold, and then slid her hands up and down the wet wall. Once she found the faucet and its handles, she turned the water off and groped the wall again for a hanging hook and its towel. She dried off and got dressed, tasks that, until now, wouldn't have taken so long. She fumbled with the fabrics as though she'd never felt clothing before, feeling for tags, wider threads, any assurance that she was putting them on properly.
Clarisse walked alongside her as she made her way back to her room but didn't guide her: Katie walked slowly, keeping her hands along the wall, paying close attention to the formation of the dots that would soon become accustomed to her.
She went inside her room and closed the door, began feeling around the space, taking and counting steps, listening to the sounds of the institute in its slumber. She finally lay down in bed and pulled the sheet and blanket up to her neck, breathed in the smell of detergent and bleach, and drifted to sleep.
"It is seven-thirty a.m.," the robotic voice alarm chimed, and Katie kept her eyes closed as she felt for and pushed its buttons. She sighed and sat up in bed, threw back the blankets and swung her legs over its side. Her toes touched the cold linoleum first, followed by the rest of her feet, and she opened her eyes (not that it mattered much). She stood up and made the bed, taking longer than needed, but today, she decided, she was willing to make an effort.
She moved around the room, found the dresser and took out socks from a top drawer, a shirt from the next, and pants from the last. Clarisse had told her that everything was white, and Katie chuckled at the thought of being dressed in plaid and polka dots, that perhaps the clothes weren't really white at all, that Clarisse and John Bremnar just had an odd sense of humor about things.
She got dressed and stepped out into the hallway, felt her way along the wall, using her nose to guide her to the cafeteria. Once inside, she took three steps to the right, leaned against the wall, and listened to the sounds around her. Silverware clanged, trays banged, feet shuffled, people sniffled and sat and ate. Cooks spoke softly, aides directed and guided; Katie's stomach growled.
"You'll be standing there all day if you expect someone to feed you," she heard, and Clarisse walked to her.
"The line is to your right. Trays, silverware and napkins are in a bin before you get your food. Tray first, then napkin, then silverware. Place them accordingly, then set the tray down and slide your way down the line. The cooks will tell you what they have, if you want it, hold up your tray. At the end of the line turn to your left, walk slowly, and find a place to sit. I assume you know how to feed yourself."
Clarisse walked away and Katie frowned; she wished she hadn't been so disruptive now.
She moved to her right, taking baby steps, and when she reached the bin, placed her silverware and napkin on the tray as instructed. She slid the tray down the line, stopping when she heard a voice ask, "Bacon or sausage?"
She held up her tray, feeling like a beggar, and felt the weight of the meat hit the tray. She put the tray back down and took a few more steps, stopping again at another voice. Two voices later she had a breakfast of bacon, eggs, gravy and biscuits, and she moved slowly across the room, scooting her feet along the floor in case she were to bump into something or someone.
Her shin hit the edge of a table and she felt its surface, cold and flat, and asked if anyone was sitting there. Someone a few tables over snickered, and Katie swallowed the knot in her throat and sat her tray down. She felt for a chair and pulled it out, sat down, and picked up her fork. She used her index finger to touch the food as she cut it, and then began to eat.
"You forgot your drink."
Katie swallowed and looked up, rolled her eyes at the thought of it.
"May I sit down?"
She wiped her mouth and nodded, said okay, and Mr. Bremnar pulled out the chair across from her and sat down.
"How are you feeling this morning?"
"Good." He paused. "Good," he repeated, placing a carton of milk on her tray. Katie felt for it and opened it.
She took a drink and cleared her throat.
"Mr. Bremnar, I want to apologize for my behavior the past few weeks."
Mr. Bremnar laughed, and Katie's brows furrowed.
"Why are you laughing at me?"
"Don't be so defensive, I'm not laughing at you. And my name is John."
"Well, John," Katie said more sternly, "I'm sorry."
"That's the fiercest apology I think I've ever heard, but thank you."
"So what was so funny?" Katie asked after a moment, shoving a piece of bacon into her mouth.
"You, thinking that you're the only person to ever come here with a holier than thou mentality. No one asks for this life. But, for some reason or other, we are given it, and we have to make the best of it." He paused. "Eyesight is overrated, if you really think about it."
Katie laughed. "Eyesight is overrated? What is that, your slogan, or something?"
"No. What do people do with their eyes?"
"And what do they see?"
Katie sighed. "They see everything."
"They see hurt and anger and pain. They see poverty and greed and bigotry, war, disease, hunger. They see nothing that matters."
"Oh yeah? What about…sunrises or sunsets, or flowers, or babies?"
"You're right. Sunrises, sunsets, flowers, babies…these things are beautiful. But who takes the time to notice them? Fifty years from now our skies will be so polluted that a sunset or sunrise will be a thing of the past. Flowers are cut down for prisons or money hungry companies. Babies are found in alleyways or trash cans. But you can feel the warmth of a sunrise, feel the cool of a sunset. You can smell the fragrance of any flower, breathe in the scent of a baby's skin, feel its smoothness and its warmth. See it with your mind, see it with your heart, not see it with your eyes, and you'll remember it always."
Katie was quiet a moment and then she grimaced. "It's still not the same."
"No, it isn't," John said, "but it's all you've got."
Katie stared at the unseen figure in front of her and shook her head. In an instant she felt the anger again, and she grabbed her tray and stood up, turned to storm off but only made it a few steps before tripping. She fell flat on the floor, her chest landing in the tray, chin hitting the floor, silverware sliding, and almost at once, there was silence.
She sat up, felt the blood drip from her chin. John stood up and moved toward her as her hands, now her only sight, scurried to pick up the scattered utensils. She scooted along the floor groping for the fork and spoon, bumping into John's knee when he knelt down beside her.
She tried to hold back her tears, wouldn't let him see her cry again if she could help it. She found the fork and spoon, clutched them tightly against her.
"It's okay, I can manage."
"You're bleeding. Stop it," he repeated, his voice calm, and he rested one hand on her shoulder and took the silverware from her with the other.
Across the room, Clarisse crossed her arms and hesitated when John beckoned.
"Help her clean up and then take her to my office."
The woman said nothing, but Katie heard her sigh, imagined her large chest heave in and out, thinking her nothing more than a nuisance, mundane work not worth doing.
John stood up and Katie heard his footsteps as he walked away, the sounds becoming less and less until they weren't there at all. A bell rang and she heard other footsteps, trays being emptied and stacked, a few snickers and quiet conversation; Clarisse walked away and returned as she stood up, and after a few moments the institute was quiet once more.
The peroxide stung and Katie grimaced, wondered if Clarisse was grinning at her plight, finding satisfaction in it.
"You've gotta get with the program, Katie," she said, placing a band-aid on her chin. "This has gone on for weeks now. Your anger isn't helping anyone, least of all us. We're here to help you." She paused. "If you've noticed, we don't treat people like invalids, or children. Most of the people that come to us are adults and therefore they're treated as such. We teach you how to live your life to the best of your abilities."
"What's left of them," Katie added, and Clarisse sighed.
"You see? That's what I'm talking about. That attitude of yours has got to go. You may have John Bremnar concerned about you, but honey, let me tell you, pains in the ass come and go, and if you want sympathy, you've come to the wrong fat lady."
Katie frowned. "John Bremnar is a hypocrite."
"And why would you think that?"
"He just is. He thinks he knows everything. Why, because he runs a school for the blind and claims to help people? I'm sure he gets paid well enough to keep up the façade of being a concerned director."
Clarisse shook her head and stood up.
"John's office is out this door and down the hall, the last door on the right."
Katie heard her open the door, and then she added, "And by the way, John pays the bills around here out of his own pocket. He has two master's degrees and a PhD. Not bad for a hypocrite, wouldn't you say?"
The office door closed and Katie listened to the rubber soles of Clarisse's shoes squeak against the polished floor as she waddled down the hallway.
Katie sat down, noticing at once that leather seemed to feel differently once she couldn't see it, and she wondered what John Bremnar With Two Masters Degrees and a PhD's office looked like.
"How's your chin?"
Katie felt there absentmindedly. "It's okay."
There was silence for a few minutes, and then John chuckled.
"What's so funny?"
The chair across from her creaked, and she imagined him leaning forward, placing his elbows on his desk.
"You're listening, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm listening…"
"But now you hear, right?"
Katie sighed. "Hear what?"
"Hear everything. You hear the subtle creaks of chairs, the clicks of shoes on the floor, lights buzzing softly, the quiet hum of the air conditioner in this office, for example."
She was quiet a moment and then smiled. "Yeah, I can."
"It says in your file that you used to be a curator of an art museum."
"Used to, yes."
"I have a proposition for you," John said, adding, "with a condition, of course."
"What's the condition?"
"Aren't you going to ask what the proposition is first?"
"Okay. What's the proposition?"
"That you teach art classes to the students here. You'd be paid the same salary as all of our other instructors."
Katie laughed. "Are you insane? I can barely get around."
"That's where the condition that you begin regular classes comes in." He paused. "You'll learn Braille, which will enable you to read, you'll be given a cane, if you wish, be taught to use it, as well as learn basic techniques for day to day living. Once you've completed those classes you can begin advance courses, which will ready you to teach for the blind."
"Is this how you get your staff?" Katie joked, and John laughed. "Not usually, but it is a requirement that all teachers and aides here either have a vision problem themselves or have an immediate family member who's impaired; the sighted aren't fully equipped to deal with the blind, partially because of misunderstanding, and, a lot of times, general stupidity."
"So who's blind in your family?"
John laughed, avoided the question, and Katie frowned.
"I still don't understand, even with all of the classes, how I'm supposed to teach colors to people who've never seen them. They'd have no understanding of crimson red, or ocean blue…"
John stood up.
"Come with me."
"It's a potato."
"How do you know?"
"I can smell it."
John chuckled. "Yes, but that's not the point."
He said thank you to someone and then sat down across from her, the cafeteria smells and sounds becoming familiar, now.
"Hold out your hands."
Katie held her hands forward, palm side up, and when something hot landed in them, she jerked away.
"Ouch! That's hot!"
"Hold your hands out again."
Katie grimaced, waved her hands in the air.
John laughed. "Last time, I promise."
Katie put her hands out again, cautiously this time, and John placed three ice cubes in her hands, which she left there and moved about, feeling them; she was grateful that they were cold.
"The hot potato is your crimson red," John explained. "The ice is your ocean blue." He paused. "We may see things differently, Katie, but we all have the ability to seethem. When the time comes, teach them with touch, with smell, with sound, with taste; use the senses that they do have---most times they're heightened once vision is lost---and then they can gain a picture of things with their mind's eye. Despite what one may or may not see, the ability to express oneself artistically is a grand thing, I think."
Katie nodded in agreement.
"What does your office look like?" she blurted, and John smiled.
"It's small, has a desk and a chair, a lamp, and telephone. There's a window with a plant on the sill that's half dead because I keep forgetting to water it." He paused. "A trash can, coat rack, clock, filing cabinet, typewriter; the necessities, I suppose."
"What do you look like?"
"Well, I could tell you that I'm 6' 1" with dark hair and eyes, but you'd conjure up who knows who in your mind," he replied, and Katie giggled.
"Give me your hands."
Katie held out her hands once more and he took them in his, placed them gently on his face.
"Why'd you do that?"
"You wanted to know what I look like."
Katie barely touched his face, felt his breath against her palms.
"This is how the blind see," John explained.
Katie moved her fingers slowly over his face, feeling a high forehead leading to thick hair, full eyebrows above closed eyes leading to a straight nose and thin lips; there were a few hairs on his chin despite his probable morning shave, and he had a small scar on the left side of his face. She thought him to be a handsome man as she pulled her hands away.
"Wanna see what I look like?" Katie asked jokingly. She laughed at herself, stopped when she felt John's hands touch her face.
~ Tie Rose...and Other Works
© Adie Bishop, 2008