“Seeing” by Maureen Connolly


The night before she found out she was going blind, Ana saw a Quentin Tarentino film. On screen, men vomited in cars, smashed faces, ground bones. In the midst of this action the dialogue was creative and sharp, a little dazzling.

She had her eyes checked in the same ophthalmology clinic in Chicago where she worked as a medical photographer. The technician who dilated her eyes was a friend. Raul took care of his aging mother during the week, and got to see his boyfriend on weekends. She liked him a lot.

Querida,” he said, the slight lisp of his Castillian Spanish carrying over into his English. “What is this? You’re having un problema with your eyes?”

“I’m having trouble focusing, Raul, things aren’t clear.”

“Oh, m’hija, it’ll be okay.”  He was putting drops in her eyes, touching her shoulder.

But it wasn’t.

“Corneal dystrophy,” the new young ophthalmologist said, “it’s genetic.”

Dystrophy.  Ana didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded like sloughing, sloughing of some part of herself she might not really want to lose.  Dystrophy… dysfunction… dissolute… dissolve… dissemble… disappear. 

“The single layer of cells underneath the curve of the cornea is deteriorating,” the ophthalmologist was saying.  “What it does is remove excess water from the cornea, keeps it dry.  Once those cells go, they don’t regenerate.”

She caught a blurred image of herself, dark eyes and hair, honey-colored skin, in the chrome of the paper towel holder.  Oh, so that’s how it is… too many tears. But she didn’t say this to the young doctor.  She asked him instead how fast the disease would progress.

“There are no long-range studies. Could be slow, but I can’t really tell you that.”  He was enjoying his professionalism, overlaying some kindness as he’d probably learned in a course on bedside manner at the end of his medical training. “If you notice increased blurring of your vision when you wake up in the morning, it’s getting worse.”  He seemed only vaguely aware that they were co-workers at the eye clinic.  He spoke to her as if she had not gone through her own professional training, like she might be intelligent but he wasn’t taking any chances.

So far her sight was minimally affected, but she did need glasses for close work. “If your vision gets too distorted and your eyes too painful, there is a surgery,” he said.  “It has a pretty high success rate.”  He handed her a prescription and moved on to his next patient.

Ana didn’t know very much about corneas.  The retina was what she knew about; she had photographed thousands of them in her seven years at the clinic.  Thousands of retinas with little arteries and veins, and optical nerves, sending what comes in through the cornea up to the brain so people could see.

After the doctor left, she sat in the dark red leather chair in the ophthalmology examining room, staring down the peculiar elongation of the room used for vision screens. A picture flashed in her mind of her mother in a pale cotton housedress, distant, as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

Forty-five was too young to have to stop looking around at the world. 

She thought about the man she’d been with in her thirties. They’d been crazy about each other.  But every so often, when life felt like it was getting away from her, she wanted him to be someone other than himself.  Someone she couldn’t seem to find inside herself.  Then the rages came, leaping up inside like fires.  “Get away from me,” she would scream, “damn you!”

He went for long walks.  When he came back, she’d be spent, could hardly remember what she had said. He’d hold her, resting her head against his chest, until she fell asleep listening to the even beat of his heart.

Then he left.  “I’ve given up on you and your anger,” he told her.  After that, the rages came rarely but so did the fire inside.  And Ana missed the fire.

That year, she was invited to exhibit her photographs in New York City.  She’d become bold while she was with her lover, playing with her work, altering negatives by drawing on them, experimenting widely in the development process.  She’d begun to combine her photographs with pieces of organic material like tobacco and types of seeds.  Other photographers were interested and patrons bought her work; it felt good to have the respect of the competitive New York arts community.

But when she came home to Chicago, she took the job at the hospital eye clinic, doing a little portrait photography on the side.  Ana had created nothing new since New York.

In the last few years, she’d grown tired of photographing the backs of eyes, and infinitely weary of portrait photography.

She talked about it with Raul.  The predictable way people pose for posterity, with this desire to please, to put the best face on things. It’s boring, whether they’re trying to look attractive or wise, or even jaded.

* * *

After the diagnosis, she tried to go back to the familiar clutter of her life.

“I saw a blind man today,” she told Raul.  “He was walking down the sidewalk extending a white cane in front of him.  He didn’t really tap the cane but waved it from side to side down near the ground, as if he could sense his relationship to the earth through the few inches between the cane and pavement.”

“Maybe he can sense things we can’t,” Raul said.

The blind man’s clothes had fit him tightly, his flesh bulging over and under his belt and around the short sleeves of his shirt.  Would she too comfort herself with food, indulging her sense of taste to make up for the absence of sight?  She thought of how she looked now: dark, waist a little thick like her ancestors, eyes at times flat and opaque.  Would she unknowingly become ungraceful in her clothes, and no one having the kindness to tell her she no longer presented herself to the world with any style, or any basic symmetry?

She developed and printed film at work, finding relief in the details of her job.  But her mind drifted freely.

Did the blind man have some electrical charge in his body that grounded him in a way that couldn’t be explained?  Sometimes when Ana touched someone, perhaps a patient whose eyes she photographed in the clinic, she would feel a little jolt.  Then she’d regard that person more closely.  And see that—even though this might be an elderly person, quiet, Eastern European, unlike her—somehow they reverberated in a way that accelerated on physical contact.  The universe was after all a floating piece of energy.  And the planet, and everything on it.  

Did sounds stay the same when you could not see?

What about touch?

Would things taste the same? 

And how poor her sense of smell was! For her to enjoy a scent, something had to be abundant, like a heavy-laden lilac bush, or generous garlic cooking in a small kitchen.

Would sperm still smell like alfalfa sprouts?  

One evening there was a power failure in her neighborhood.  Out of candles and batteries for her flashlight, she felt her way through the hallway to the bathroom.  Behind her eyelids floated a male face on an oblique angle. She brushed her teeth in the dark, then sat down on the toilet seat, overtaken by long wracking sobs.

In the middle of the night, she recorded a new message for her blinking answering machine, with background music.  Persistent piano arpeggios interspersed with whimper-moans that sounded like a wounded animal.

* * *

Ana’s small house backed up against the edge of the city.  She loved the containment of it.  If she did a full body stretch at the tiny breakfast table near the back door, she’d practically be outside in the walled-off cubicle of sun and grass created by the huge oaks in the yards on either side.

Now, with her eyes closed, she tried moving from stove to refrigerator to table, and negotiated the front porch and steps, holding onto shaky railings.  The house was badly in need of repair.

The following morning a flier was stuck in her door. “Very Odd Jobs” it read.  What kind of person would write that?  

The man who came to fix her house was lanky and angular, with deep wrinkles around blue-green eyes.  They’d crossed paths in the neighborhood but she had never really looked at him.  “I write music,” Michael said, “and I give music lessons, and do this, for more income.”

His son Jack had written the flier.  He was seventeen, hip and geeky at the same time.  She could see he bit his fingernails, but he had the same wide-open smile and lit-up eyes as his father.

“What’s the oddest job you ever did?” Ana asked.

“Once we cleaned out a woman’s basement that had sewage backed up in it,” the boy said.  “It stunk! We used tons of bleach water and then saged the whole basement to purify it.  The sage was her idea, but I thought it was pretty cool.”

“Another time, we hauled away newspapers this guy had stacked in piles all over his house,” Michael said.  “He’d hung onto them for years, but he had to move out of state, and I guess even he realized he couldn’t take them with him.”

They surveyed the problems with her house, and repaired her gutters.

She dreamed that night of dolphins swimming and twisting in a deep outlet to the sea.  They were making faint squeals separated by periods of silence.

* * *

Through the spring and early summer, Michael and Jack returned to her house, reclaiming it from years of neglect.  They replaced rotting wood, patched the roof, yanked weeds, caulked and puttied and painted.  Ana sat on the front porch with them in the late afternoon, sipping iced tea or lemonade.  Sometimes Jack left early for a soccer game, and then she and Michael talked.

She told him about her eyes, that she was seeing better with her glasses, ready to go for a second opinion from a corneal specialist.

She found out Michael’s wife had died when Jack was eleven, that Michael used to

smoke, that he loved blues and jazz as much as symphonies. And that she wanted badly to photograph him.

Ana began to get rid of things.  Things she’d been hoarding for years—books, articles, photographs, clothes, jewelry. She gave half of it away.  She let go of half of her friends, ones she’d been keeping around just in case.  She stopped needing to talk so much. A funny light feeling grew inside her, and a bit of the old fire she used to have with the anger.  But the anger was gone, and the warmth stayed.

One hot June night, she offered Michael salad and cold chicken and red wine instead of iced tea.

“What kinds of things do you think about?” she asked him.

“Oh, pace and rhythm, the way things are connected,” he said.

“Well, of course, you’re a musician.”

“Yeah, that… but I think about cities that way too, and people, and parts of the country,” he stretched his legs out on the porch, “like Montana and Albuquerque.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for example, Seattle is so peaceful and slow compared to Chicago, but Chicago is more lively than Seattle, and New York City is a rumba beat.”

She smiled.  “What about people?”

“People,” he said, “they always have a counter-melody.  Take you. You’re like a violin

concerto, but there’s salsa in there somewhere.”

She laughed out loud.  “And do you compose music like this, mixing up salsa with violins?”

“In a way I do.”  He scratched his head.  “Sometimes the violins really need the downbeat of some drums, or the horns need to be outgunned by the piano.  It’s something I hear in my head, and maybe the rhythm might be three-quarters time, but I don’t know until I start writing down the notes whether it’s going to be a waltz or rock and roll.”

“That’s incredible! That’s the way I like to photograph—how I see something in my head.  The way light hits something, like a wall or a person’s face.  Or the asymmetry of things—a crooked smile, lines on old faces, something bent.  Then I want to photograph it.  Not just what’s pretty or accurate, but what I see.”

“Why don’t you?”

“What’s the point now?”

Michael said nothing.

“I used to fantasize about going into cinematography,” Ana said. “The glamour of it, the power of choosing what people see, putting your images out there.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No. The whole moviemaking scene was more than I wanted to deal with. Besides, I can’t quite catch the wave in cinema anymore.  Mostly everything is very fast or very angry.”

“Nice to have the money though,” Michael said.  “Maybe some day I’ll write the score for a movie and make money.  But I’m easy where I am.”

* * *

Ana began photographing scenes of people on the street: a boy flinching from his mother, a young girl with a furrow in her brow, children with old eyes, women with bleak faces standing with men.

“I want to show you these,” she said to Michael one day.

He looked at the photographs.  He turned to her and touched the side of her face. “Ana….”

“My mother…”  Young Ana and her mother, hidden in the rafters of the old house, her stepfather home on a rampage.  During the lulls, Ana in the crawl space under the front porch.  Thin latticed wood on either side allowed patterned light in along the edges of the space.  Musty, slightly cool, a place people forgot about, even though they knew it was there. “My mother took his blows.”  Tears streamed down Ana’s cheeks.  She struggled for air.  Her skin burned.  “She didn’t stand up for me.”

“You’re all right now,” Michael stroked her hair and her back. “You’re all right.”  She cried as their bodies arched together on the bed, as they cradled each other into the night.

* * *

She and Michael and Jack began swimming in the lake.  Afterward they went back to Michael’s and he played the piano—Scott Joplin, John Lennon, Laura Nyro, Xavier Solis, Duke Ellington.

All that summer Michael played songs for Ana.  At the end of the summer, she quit her job at the hospital to do freelance work.

And Ana photographed.

Michael and Jack, their long bodies, their eyes, Michael’s hands. Parts of their houses, insides of rooms.  A yard full of yellow daisies, irises the color of lapis lazuli, crawling insects on the ground.  Odd juxtapositions against the sky, and the true shapes of peoples’ faces.

In the midst of music, she photographed all that she saw, and things she had never seen before.

Maureen Connolly is a native of Chicago, and a dual national of Ireland and the United States.  Her poetry and fiction has been published in Hammers, Tomorrow, Limina, Ariel, Poets Against the War, after hours, River Oak Review, and the anthologies Freedom’s Just Another Word, Earth Beneath, Sky Beyond and The Country Doctor Revisited, among others.  Readings include Printers Row, Guild Complex, the Chicago Labor and Arts Festival, the Hemingway Museum of Oak Park, Space, the Around the Coyote Arts Festival, Roots Women’s Salon, and IBAM at the Irish American Heritage Center.  She has received awards from Poets and Patrons of Chicago, the Feminists Writers Guild, and the Illinois Arts Council, and a fiction fellowship from the Ragdale Foundation.  She is currently working on a novel.

Read Maureen Connolly’s comments on Kelly Marshall’s “Blue.”
Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor

This story successfully examines one of the most fundamental human conditions: seeing. It shows us how we naturally see things based on our own experiences and cultural conditioning, not necessarily the truth or reality of a situation. It shows us how our perceptions and desires not only cloud the way we see, but also motivates our actions and shapes our lives. Finally, the balance between the past and present action is so flawless, the author effortlessly draws us into the story and guides us easily to the end.

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