I’ve always been a turtle behind the wheel, slow and steady. I didn’t get a license until I was twenty-four and I totaled two cars by the age of forty-eight, uncertain of where I was in space. I routinely drove off steep curbs. Somehow missed the dip that signified a driveway entrance or exit. Could never tell how far my own car was from the one just ahead. On mountainous roads I’d ask someone else to take the wheel, lie down on the back seat or crouch on the floorboards. Edges terrified me. I rode the brake, gulped fear, heart pounding. Never looked out the window with pleasure, even on planes. Didn’t care about seeing a carpet of clouds. I slid the porthole cover shut as soon as I sat down. Turned the overhead reading light on and zoned out.
Distance. Heights. Crowds. I couldn’t deal with everyday space and time. Scooped out just looking at a clock. Immediately convinced I was late, I’d grab my purse, eyeglasses and keys, and head for the door. I was the woman who always showed up too early and waited out front in her car, the woman who claimed a seat closest to the plane gate two hours ahead of the flight.
Transitions were hard.
“Read the letters on the chart for me, please.”
They looked like Celtic runes or the Cherokee syllabary. E was easy, the top letter on the chart and one I knew well. E was the initial of my son’s first and last names. Also the first initial of my adopted last name, and the official surname on my birth certificate, not the name I was born with but the name of StepDad. S — my initial from Real Dad — was long gone.
My biological father left when I was three years old, and didn’t come around again until I was ten. Looked at me wary. Looked at me weird. Told me I was like him. Told me I was like her. Took me for a ride in the country and spewed scary stories. “Never forget what I’m going to tell you,” he said. “Opposites attract. They attract all right. Then they fucking kill each other.”
“Were you ever hit in the head?” my ophthalmologist asked.
Fingernails in my arms hang on hang on. Head bounced against the wall. Run. Run. Run, you little idiot. Get out of here. Slip out the door and out of her way. Move. Two years old on my trike, twenty blocks gone.
I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’m out of here.
Not enough to go around. Not welcome, not wanted, no room for any of us.
Not in her.
Born to a woman who had to parcel out love to her nine children.
- Moody Sister
- Baby Brother
- Tomboy Twin
- Platinum Twin
- Meanie Lee
- Lawyer’s Son
- Last Girl
- Last Boy
Only the twins had the same father: a man my StepDad tried to kill one night with a bottle opener.
Tore him apart and set Mama rambling.
After that night, she never lived in the same place for more than a year or so. She took off to avoid questions she didn’t want to answer from people paid to ask those kinds of questions: social workers, doctors, school counselors and law enforcement officers.
She distrusted authority and instilled that distrust in all of her children.
Mile-high moxie, ruthless disregard of authority, and freedom of a kind I left behind, left behind and sometimes longed for.
Afraid. And ashamed of my fear and my weakness, ashamed I wasn’t strong enough to carry my siblings away with me when I left. Afraid of being run over, demolished and obliterated by the hate and disregard that had lived in Mama and lived on in them. That didn’t die with her. That would never die.
“Here’s the thing,” the doctor said. “There isn’t a prism insert big enough to correct this. I’m going to have to send you to a strabismus expert.”
Strabismus? As soon as I got home, I looked up the term.
Strabismus, sometimes described as: crossed eyes, walleyed, lazy eye, wandering eye, or deviating eyes, an imbalance in the muscles responsible for the positioning of the eyes, preventing the eyes from tracking together in a coordinated way.
Psychological difficulties included: social inhibitions, anxiety, and often, emotional disorders from the loss of normal eye contact with others.
Traitor is what my half-sisters called me, and worse.
When the twins were three, Mama had Meanie Lee, the parting gift of some stranger in the night, and I knew that once again I would have to love her as my own. And I did. I loved her so hard and so strong, she called me mommy. She toddled toward me, arms wide open and trusting.
I held on to her the way I needed someone to hold on to me.
And then Mama had another baby, this time a boy. The kind she hated, the kind she never even tried to like. Born seventh in line, with a full head of black hair and dark inquisitive eyes. Eyes that took it all in from the get-go. I could tell. And I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of there, couldn’t try to love one more loveless baby one more time. The last I saw him he was fourteen months old, standing in his crib, watching and silent. And I was off to live with Real Dad and his new family.
Broken family, wrecked finances, for years involved with men who didn’t want me, harsh judgmental pricks, not tender or kind at all. The people in my life fluctuating, more acquaintances than friends, not as important as the ones I had left behind—never as important as the kids in the car.
In many ways I was still in that car.
Cramped legs, clenched fists, and squinting eyes.
Stubborn. For as much as I moved forward I also stood still. Afraid of what would resurface, I kept my life fragmented: these people here and those people there. Friends never met family. Family never met friends. I lived my life on the edge of every family system: biological, adopted, step, foster and married in.
The only way I could deal. The only way I could keep it together. Then I fell in love with R, the first letter of relief, and the initial of my current last name, surname of the man I kissed under a bright light in the sky. “What is that?” I asked him that first night, because I’d never seen the moon so high, the world so bright.
In the first photo taken of me with my second husband and his two children, I stand apart from them, arms crossed, head cocked to the right, squinting eyes aimed left. Body contorted. Inward. Hidden away. Protected.
The way you look at us, friends would say.
Lighten up. Don’t sit so far away. Don’t look like that.
See it this way.
Ten percent of the general population has strabismus; four percent of children have strabismus. Age of onset for naturally occurring strabismus: two to three months or two to three years. The condition might be congenital, acquired or pathological. As for a fix, the odds were not good. The chance of achieving stereoscopy in adult life was slight to none. I examined photographs from childhood. I studied my gaze in infancy, in early childhood, and found a level gaze at two and four. Sad eyes, yes, but eyes able to look directly into the camera, until age six and then not so much.
At six, I remember looking across the room at a favorite toy, a gyroscope. I remember seeing it split apart and become two. One gyroscope levitated, the other stayed on the bed. I was in awe. Transfixed by the magic I had made. I thought everyone looked so hard they made the objects in the world split and float apart.
The wonder didn’t last long.
By age eight, I avoided eye contact. Shied away from the camera. Looked down, to the side. Covered my face with a book. Adopted a stubborn stance of defense and resistance. Sat as close as I could to the TV and squeezed my eyes together. Pressed in on my temples as hard as I could. Struggled to bring the doubled images on the screen together in my head. Couldn’t see to catch softballs lobbed my way, failed to judge the distance between my bike’s fender and a friend’s and crashed. I stayed inside more and more with my Moody Sister. Upside down, we flopped backwards into the canyon between our twin beds. And watched our lips move, striking and odd and so comforting. I became obsessed with viewing the world that way. Wondered why all doorframes weren’t inverted, allowing you to step up and into a room instead of mindlessly gliding through portals.
“Look at the world and paint a picture,” my fourth grade teacher said. “Make it look the way you see it.”
I chose the bloom of a blue iris, stuck in a water glass on her desk. I mushed the wet end of a watercolor brush into a cake of violet and transferred the flat world I saw onto the flat world of the paper with deceptive ease.
Transcribed the world of my vision onto the world of the picture plane.
The code for depth already buried in the back of my brain, disconnected.
To “put” something in perspective is to place it within a contiguous space, in sequence, with clear boundaries and borders, in context. Seamless.
Art blows that map apart. Has to.
Life never stays the same, in sequence with clear boundaries and borders.
In my twenties I made a special trip to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see Picasso’s Guernica before it was returned to Spain. I sat on the floor in front of that monotone mural and took it all in, transfixed by the light and the lack, by my recognition of the fractured world depicted: horrific conflict, child in the center, torch lighting the way. Cubistic. Drawn as much from what we know to be true as what we see in the world.
All art an abstraction, all vision an interpretation. The brain was an organ of interpretation.
“They’re not finished,” observers would say about my drawings and paintings. “Why don’t you ever finish them?”
“They are finished,” I would answer.
I was so sure I knew what I was leaving out. So sure composition was a choice I made, that what I left out was purposeful.
Drawing was my skill, my knowledge, and my way to get attention.
Life was so hard.
I made the meaning I could.
I was so adept at adapting; I was eleven years old before someone in my life noticed something off with my vision. Grandma Iola watched me struggle to see the TV and took me to an eye doctor. After the examination, she let me pick out a pair of cat-eyed frames, along with a silver chain to hang them around my neck. So I would never lose them. There’s one photograph of me wearing those eyeglasses, a black and white Kodak of a solitary girl standing on a gravel driveway in front of an old Chevrolet. A nerd girl in peg leg jeans, a button-down white Oxford shirt, and a corduroy jacket lined with fake shearling. Suede loafers with white socks on her feet, hair in a ponytail, stray bangs hung over and into the brand-new eyeglasses on her solemn face.
I didn’t even make it into Mama’s house with those cat-eyed frames. The instant she saw me, she ripped them off my face and threw them back into my grandmother’s car.
“Ugly four eyes. No kid of mine will ever wear glasses.”
Mama didn’t like doctors. She only took us to one when we needed shots for school attendance. Doctors were nosy. She didn’t trust them. She hadn’t gone to them when she was a kid and she didn’t want their questioning eyes on any of her children.
“Mercy,” my grandmother said.
Mercy was the word she used whenever she had cause to wonder. She said it in surprise or disbelief or whenever she needed time to think. I would hear her say that word whenever I was afraid. Petrified that day, I adopted her invisible faith, hoisted myself up from the curb where I had fallen and followed Mama into the house.
The next time I wore eyeglasses, I was forty-two years old, working as a photo researcher in the Los Angeles Times editorial library, with so much eyestrain I could barely think. For hours a day I looked through magnifying loupes, searched through Lektriever files for the best negative frame, browsed through online databases for this or that particular image, eyes in a squint, head throbbing. Queasy and disoriented, prone to double vision when I was tired, unable to pull my lazy right eye into alignment, make it cooperate with my overworked left.
A body holds a head to suit the senses. I held my head askew. Turned my face to the right and looked at the world crossways, eyes aimed in the opposite direction. I trained myself to look at the world sideways. Shot the people around me endless side-eye like some kind of perpetual doubter.
Torso twisted to support my misaligned vision.
Head rotated to reposition my wandering right eye.
Neck and shoulders torqued to the right to accommodate my head.
Right hip rotated.
Right leg followed and right foot splayed.
I had some support to go to college from my foster parents but all the loans and work-study jobs were on me. It took me eight years to finish my BA because I married young, too young, and had my son when I was twenty-three.
I do not recommend that—going from unsupported child to raising one.
The waiting room of the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles was full of parents with young children. Most of the kids were under three. Some were still in strollers; many wore eye patches like little pirates. I wondered how they could test pre-verbal kids with an eye chart.
Strabismus, if not detected and treated early, contributes to loss or lack of development of central vision. Early diagnosis increases the chance for complete recovery.
In the examination room, I took a seat in the exam chair and laughed. Across the room, shadow boxes held a menagerie of stuffed animals.
Above that was the Snellon eye chart.
The nurse came in and gave me a preliminary exam.
She showed me a card of geometric designs: nine rounded squares, and within each of them, a set of four concentric circles. “Point to the three-dimensional circles in each set,” the nurse said. “The circles that seem to rise off the page.”
As usual, I simply guessed. I did not know.
The world was a flat road stretching into the distance, parallel lines seldom converging, with objects and people popping into my field of vision as if from nowhere.
Twenty percent of murders take place within families. Reactive and regressive people respond with violence to upsetting or provoking stimuli. I’d read all about the makeup of criminals; I couldn’t get enough of the subject. I’d searched myself body and soul for the marks of Cain: odd lines in the palm, strange spaces between toes, creases on the tongue, and ears too low on the head.
The nurse left but told me to wait; the doctor would be in soon.
While I waited, I checked my phone for messages. I took a photo of the room and posted it online.
I’m here. Right here in this place.
We are animals with forward facing eyes. Eyes that converge to see close up and diverge to see into the distance; eyes that scan the world as we move through it.
Stereo and peripheral vision helps us do that.
I didn’t have either.
I was stereo blind. Stereo is the Greek word for solid. Real. Objects seen in three dimensions look solid, in and of the world. Located in space.
From early on, Mama wasn’t real and solid to me. For as long as I could remember, she was split into two people in my mind’s eye: the loving Mama who I imagined had been taken away and the mean version left in her place.
Get a grip, we say. Meaning: hold it together.
A couple of months before I found out Moody Sister had died Last Girl — the sister born after I left — called my landline. I didn’t recognize her number on the display but I answered anyway, uneasy and unprepared for what I was about to hear.
“Another one of our sisters is dead.”
Platinum Twin, seventeen the last time I had seen her, in the Tulsa Juvenile Detention Center, staring at me with dread, a truer blonde than her full-blood sibling, with spooky blue-green eyes strangely tuned out like Mama’s.
“They found her in her bed. Pretty as she always was but not breathing.”
“How? How did she die?” I asked. Wishing I had taken all of them with me when I left Mama and then the Midwest.
“She’s in heaven now, at peace with her savior,” Last Girl responded.
Still I pressed, needing to know. “What exactly happened?”
“I haven’t seen the death certificate. They won’t give it to me.”
Jesus! Couldn’t any of them answer a simple question? “Okay. Forget about the death certificate. Don’t you think it’s strange she died so young?”
She was only forty.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you remember who our mother was? What she was like?”
“Look, I haven’t ever met you,” Last Girl said. “I was a baby in the front seat of the car when you ran away. So, you know what, you don’t know anything about me and I really don’t know anything about you. But I’ll tell you what. I have faith and I do like my faith tells me to do. I forgive. What about you? Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior? Do you even believe in God?”
The earth, the ancients said, is a great island floating in a sea of water, hanging down from a solid rock sky suspended on all four sides by tenuous cords. Someday those cords will break and our only earth will fall. That’s what I believed. But I didn’t know how to explain any of that to someone I’d never had to keep quiet in the backseat of a speeding car, a baby I was never around to protect, never took care of through a dark wandering night. So I got off the phone as fast as I could, and sat down on the kitchen floor quaking.
Couldn’t keep it together.
Mama couldn’t keep it together. She died in her car in a hospital parking lot. All she owned was in a cardboard box stashed in an unpaid storage unit. Dead, but never gone, not for me, and not for all seven of her surviving children, and their children and their children and their children. She was still alive in them and in those to come, and in me, her oldest girl, the one not included in her obituary, the one who ran, the girl who got away.
Two of Mama’s six girls were already dead by the time she died. Two of her three sons left before they were grown, before they had reached the age of accountability.
Mama had nothing. Moody Sister’s real father paid for Mama’s grave and I paid for her headstone.
Daughter. Mother. Sister. Mother. Daughter.
When the nurse came back, she was with a portly man in a white lab coat. Finger puppets were stuffed in both his pockets. He introduced himself and sat down on a stool to read my chart. Then he handed the chart to the nurse and swung the phoropter over my face, a whirl of lenses, knobs, and prisms.
“Look across the room,” the doctor said. “And tell me what you see.”
“A pink pig, a blue elephant and, I think, a raccoon.”
He smiled. “No. I mean the letters on the chart. Start at the top.”
While I read as well as I could, he measured the distance my eyes roamed as I moved them from side to side, trying to recognize every letter, to prove to him and myself that I was okay.
“You should have had this done a long time ago,” the doctor said. He slid the phoropter off my face and told me what he planned to do.
Operate. Once, twice, maybe three times. Whatever it took to correct the misalignment of my eyes. It had to be done. The difference between my left eye view and my right eye view were too great for my brain to combine into one contiguous picture. So my brain suppressed the information from my right eye and only used the information from my left eye.
I stared at the doctor’s toupee and tried to absorb what he was saying.
He was going to fix me. Put his hands inside my head. Cut the translucent white skin over the surface of my eyes. Roll my eyeballs in the bony cradle of their sockets. Find the faulty muscle and alter it. Clip the loose muscle and tighten it. Cut the too-tight muscles off the surface of my eyeballs and move them down a notch or two. Stitch it all back down and call it done for now.
Who knew if the operations would work or not? The code for depth was buried in the back of my brain, disconnected all these years.
“That’s deep,” Grandma Iola would say.
Depth a measure of seriousness, of sadness, a measure of how far down into the space of our psyche we are willing to go, to integrate, to pick up the pieces and come out whole on the other side.
After Mama died, I tried to reconnect with my three surviving sisters with varying success: one called only to ask for money, another to save my soul, and the third routinely launched all-cap midnight attacks through social media.
TO YOU WHO DON’T LOVE OUR MOTHER THOUGH I DON’T KNOW WHY!!!
A virtual barrage of vicious messages designed to convince me everything that had happened was my fault entirely. I was the Big Sister. If I had stayed, their lives might have turned out better.
What do we care what you think? Who are you anyway?
After the first operation, I was shattered. In. Pieces.
Eyes a kaleidoscope.
Brain cells and electrical circuitry were reactivated and scrambling to make sense.
The eye drops burned going in. “Look up. There,” my husband said. “At the fixture in the center of the ceiling.”
I focused on that light. Every morning I trained my eyes upward. And focused. Took charge of my vision.
What we make of what we see is our story. What we are able to see is our truth.
At fifty-eight I had to learn how to see again.
The monocular cues developed over decades to help me decipher the world were useless to me now. Now those cues were scrambled and I had to live with the reality of my actual vision while I retrained my eyes to work together. I was betting that if my eyes were not misaligned at birth or in early infancy — and I knew from photographs that they were not — my optic box had all the information I needed, and it was not too late to regain stereo and peripheral vision.
But it would take a lot of work.
Every morning as soon as I opened my eyes, I looked at that light fixture in the center of the bedroom ceiling and pulled the two images of that light fixture back together into one solid object.
I was determined to awaken my visual cortex, remind it, persuade it to reconnect to my realigned eyes. I was determined to see what I had never seen before. I wore a pirate patch on my left eye to coax my stray right eye back to center. I binge-watched Six Feet Under on my iPad, a shallow box of light placed six inches from my face. I focused on those tiny scenes and pulled their doubled images back together in my head. Forced everything to come together: my eyes, thoughts, words, and life.
I stopped driving on the freeways.
I clung to daily habits: walked the dog through the streets of our tree-lined neighborhood, sorted the mail: the pieces that fell through the slot in the door and the pieces I scrolled through on my iPhone inbox. Everything was fractured and flat: my sight, my mood, and the weather. Fractured and flat and sequential, it all rolled by, day after day. Day after day I used the same silver spoon, the same cereal in the same yellow-green Bauer bowl, the same uncertainty gathering, and the same debilitating doubt. A year passed that way, unsure of what I thought, felt, saw. Unable to correct badly placed commas, drive freeways or read for very long, I stared out the living room window, watching birds land on a water bowl and promising myself that after this was over, I would get a tattoo on my left shoulder, my dominant side, my weakened side, the side of my body which had held my left eye steady while the right side twisted away in confusion. I would get a tattoo of the first initial of all my last names. Mama on the brain, in my head, in my flesh and blood and bones, in spirals of DNA, undetectable to the human eye, fractured bits of information and promise, of fate and possibility.
We put the world together the only way we can, with our senses. We place what we know in context, and that context gives us a defined location in space.
What we are able to see is our truth, our reality.
Mama had two more babies after I left: number eight, another girl to ignore, and number nine, her last, another boy to hate. Born when I was twenty, five years gone and at last in college.
I had never met either of them when I got the call Mama had died.
Her story over and done, mine just beginning.
A being captive, yet in her heart evolate, flying outward like the ancients, as if springing into being from an embryonic state. Like the ancients I was determined to defeat the cowardice in my heart, the silence in my head and the trouble in my life.
I, eye, aye, this is what I give you, what I see, what I have seen, what I know to be true. Some people will never love you. They will clobber you with their minds and hold you down.
Do not let them.
“Don’t stop painting,” E, my first husband said. “Whatever happens with us? This is your thing. This is what you need to do.” As if he knew.
It was uncomfortable to realize the role my faulty vision had played in my decision to leave our son in Oklahoma with his father when I left to go to art school in California. I wasn’t stupid. I saw the power I gave my ex by leaving. The moral high ground he ascended to when I left my son behind. Loaded up my Datsun and took off with my drunken boyfriend.
My identity as fractured as my vision, I erected walls around me. Hard walls. Flat walls. Walls I made and maintained. Walls consciously and unconsciously made to give me space, to give me time, time and space to pull my vision together. Scarred with profound anxieties, I had already cordoned off my most painful experiences. I’d already accepted my fate.
In art school, the instructors pushed me to pick up a video camera. Put down the brush. Be like us or you can go home, hick girl. Pick up the tools of mass media. Use a video camera and deconstruct the dominant hierarchy. I tried. Put my right eye against the aperture and could not see. Went blind up against that machine. Literally could not see. Aesthetic production, they called it. Not art. Video flickers from expensive machines. A mechanical process meant to circumvent the body. Amend the body. Extend the body. MAGNIFY the body politic. They looked at my paintings of bodies, stacked and layered like history, like communal graves, like the back seat of a car, looked at my efforts and said: “Can you do without this obsession with the body? I mean. Does this say all you need to say?”
Then came the second surgery.
As I was going under the anesthesia, the baby in the bed next to me cried and I let myself be comforted by her mother’s voice. “Everything is okay,” she said. “It’s okay. I am right here.”
I hadn’t seen my son in twenty years.
“You will never see me again,” he told me when he left. “Never.”
Knocked out with his voice in my head, I came back to consciousness propped up. The doctor was asking questions.
“Tell me which is sharpest? Clearest?” Click. Click. “Is it this one or that one?”
The doctor wanted to make sure my eyes were not over- or under-corrected. He wanted to make sure my eyes were coordinated, able to move together like the front wheels of a car.
Not misaligned, continuing to pull me off course.
On the way home, my husband stopped at a Peet’s Coffee to get us each a cup. I waited in the car while he went in. There were bandages over my eyes, the smell of disinfectant on my skin, stinging, and I was so curious. But I waited until we got home, until I got out of the car, to lift the bandages and open my eyes.
And bam! Binocular neurons fired and the world unfurled in front of me.
Distant hills curved into the sky. Every leaf on every Chinese elm, which all grew in a row along our street, spiraled around me, one after the other. Plants grown out of the depths, rooted and round and three-dimensional, like me.
I walked through our front door as if into a new world. A sixty-year-old woman, who saw, finally saw what she had to do to take her place in the story.
One day I danced in the living room to Janis Joplin.
Oh yeah, take it. Take another little piece of my heart, yeah, baby.
No longer staring at the light in the middle of the ceiling, optic box busy unscrambling the chaos, pulling the doubled back together, no longer trapped in that space of powerless cowering, saying: I can’t, you can.
No longer an imposition, in the way and taking up more space than I should.
No longer adapting to the damage done, my center of gravity shifted.
My back swayed. My shoulders shimmied, my butt aligned and my two feet followed.
The pain in my neck went away and new pains moved in.
If this had happened to me, what had happened to them, my siblings? The baby in the crib the day I left, the day I finally got away?
And my son, the child I was too afraid to love. The being I brought into this world and the being I was most responsible for.
I, eye, aye, a blind spot exists before the physical possibility of perception, a blind spot not darkness, but the absence of light. Fifteen degrees from the center of the retina, right where the optic nerve takes off for the rest of the brain. Right where the nerve leaves the retina for the brain. Right in that spot, there are no light-sensing cells. Right in that spot, there is darkness. No contrast, or illusion.
And in that place of emptiness all the pieces come together.
The entire world was my blind spot, self in the dark center, unable to see until I could.
Like the terrapin in the old Cherokee tale, thrown into the stream by wolves: the terrapin dove deep under water into darkness and came up on the other side into light, escaping the wolves, alive but broken. His back fractured against a river rock, the terrapin sat on the opposite bank and sang: I have sewed myself together, I have sewed myself together.
by Chris J. Rice
Runner Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize