This fictionalized memoir is based on the author’s personal experience. The names have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent.
Back when he’d been a kid, Mark Cahill’s mother often took him along when she and her sister went shopping. One of the familiar sights on these trips was an old, legless, blind man peddling pencils at a downtown street corner. That the man was blind hadn’t impressed Mark nearly as much as had the small, wheeled cart he used to get around.
Still, except for a few old folks with failing eyesight, the man with the cart was the only blind person Mark had known prior to his being blinded in Vietnam. That lack of experience meant he faced the loss of sight with no preconceived opinions about being blind. It wasn’t until two years later, in the spring of ’71, when he reported to a blind rehab center for something called a college prep course, that he began to understand what it meant to be blind. The techniques and tools he learned were interesting, but what surprised him most was the wide variety of people in training.
There was Fred, the young electrical engineer with the gorgeous wife, who lost his sight due to diabetes.
Three years after she graduated from college with a degree in Library Science, the vision of cute, little Joann also succumbed to diabetes.
By the age of 25, Sammy had become a championship rodeo cowboy, an alcoholic and, after driving his truck into a tree, totally blind.
There had been too much oxygen in the incubators of both Ray and Gretchen. Now they were in love and, literally, couldn’t see what difference it made that he was black and she was white.
Molly, a statuesque redhead, loved country music and dancing. A head-on collision with another pickup truck while coming home from a dance in rural Tennessee took away her boyfriend, her eyesight, and her right leg below the knee.
Howard had been a fighter pilot during World War II. Macular degeneration was slowly eating away at his once perfect eyesight.
Two other vets from the same war were also going blind thanks to the tertiary syphilis they’d picked up on a weekend pass.
Dean, a preacher’s son, had tried to commit suicide by putting a pistol to his head and pulling the trigger. The bullet passed behind his eyes, missing his brain but snapping the optic nerves.
Small and nervous, Kevin the Kid was born totally blind. When the child protection agency took him away, his body had been covered with cigarette burns. Loud, unexpected noises terrified Kevin.
Mark’s roommate was a skinny, longhaired guy from Vermont named Charley. A few years earlier, he’d been an alternate on the Olympic ski team. His problem was a degenerative retinal condition, but like Mark, he had some usable eyesight. During the weekly fire drills, they made sure the frightened, disoriented Kevin got out of the building.
There were many others. Liz was a perky little bitch who hung out with Todd, an overbearing jerk. Art was a quasi-recovering alcoholic who dreamed of returning to his Central American watering holes. Julie, with her overdeveloped body and underdeveloped sense of rectitude, had a well-deserved reputation as a tramp. One of her most ardent admirers was José, a young, cocky, good-natured Hispanic from Texas.
The person Mark spent most of his free time with was Connie, a fresh-faced farm girl with silky blonde hair and big, blue, sightless eyes. A year before, while home from college for the weekend, she’d gone to church with her family. After Sunday School, she told her mother she wasn’t feeling well and was going home to lie down.
Back at her family’s large farm house, she got out the .22 rifle her father had given her years earlier. After making sure it was loaded, dumpy, despondent Connie knelt on the floor next to her bed. Pressing her face against the bedspread, she positioned the rifle’s muzzle against her temple, then stretched out a finger and pushed the trigger.
As with Dean, the bullet passed between her brain and the back of her eyes, snapping the optic nerve. From that moment on, Connie was not only dumpy and despondent, she was also permanently and totally blind.
Prior to Mark’s arrival at the center, Connie had made two more attempts at suicide. Once she cut her wrists. The other time she hoarded her daily supply of tranquilizers until she could try an overdose. On her first attempt she hadn’t cut deep enough, and there weren’t enough pills on the second try.
Understandably worried a third try might be the charm, the staff decided to throw the newly arrived Mark together with Connie to see if that would help break her cycle of depression. As a result, he found himself sitting with her during meals and some classes. It would be weeks before he learned this matchmaking had been part of a suicide prevention scheme.
Whatever the motive, he didn’t protest being around Connie. While she was emotionally fragile, she also had a friendly smile, a first-rate mind, and very good looks.
Connie had been a life-long loser in the battle of the bulge. Being overweight played a major role in her low self-esteem and first attempted suicide. However, the bullet that snapped her optic nerves also destroyed her sense of smell. As a result, she lost almost all ability to taste. Since she couldn’t taste food, she no longer cared about eating, except to satisfy real hunger. With her eating curtailed, she began to lose weight.
By the time Mark met her, the once chunky farm girl had shed so much weight she had developed an attention-getting figure. The irony was that she’d never be able to see her new, slimmed-down shape.
It didn’t take Mark long to realize he was walking a tightrope with Connie. While he enjoyed her company, the last thing he wanted was for them to get into an emotional relationship. With a student nurse named Gwen Kaplan already in his life, his relationship quota was full. On the other hand, he didn’t want to hurt Connie’s feelings or do anything else which might trigger another suicide attempt. Besides, being with her could be fun.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the college prep course, Mark went through the standard orientation, getting an overview of what the center had to offer. To most people, a blind person is someone with absolutely no vision. Within the blind community however, there are several classifications of blindness.
Some, called the congenitally blind, lost their sight before, during, or shortly after their birth, and have no visual memories. Adventitiously blind individuals became blind after having learned the difference between such concepts as: red and blue, deep and shallow, high and low, and far and near.
Within the blind community, a “total” is someone with no functional eyesight. A person with limited but useful vision is a low partial. The final category, high partials, includes people who have a relatively high level of usable eyesight. Connie was a total. Mark and his roommate Charley, high partials.
No matter how a person was classified, everyone was expected to learn Braille and how to travel alone using a white cane. Other classes were on subjects such as how to manage around the house and how to operate the new technology that was just becoming available.
During this period, Mark spent most of his free time with Connie. In the evenings, they’d often slip away to an unlocked storage room behind the gym for intense make-out sessions.
In Mark’s opinion, it made for a fun, harmless way to spend an evening. Connie, however, kept pushing the sessions to ever greater levels of intimacy. While Mark had no objections, he didn’t want the responsibility of being the one to give the virginal Connie the ultimate sexual experience. Besides, he already had an emotional entanglement with Gwen back in New York.
To his relief, Connie hadn’t made any more attempts at suicide. Still, he found himself constantly having to balance physical desires, both his and Connie’s, with her mental health. He was also beginning to worry about how she would react when they parted at the end of the course.
That problem would be solved, but not in a way he wanted. Sensing his vision was getting worse, he made an appointment to see a local ophthalmologist. The new cornea was beginning to reject, said the doctor. If Mark didn’t have another transplant on his one working eye, he’d go from being a high partial to a total who could see little more than light and faint images.
“So what are you going to do?” asked Charley, before taking a hit on the joint he had just rolled.
“Shag ass back up to New York for another transplant,” said Mark while accepting the joint. “I’ve already checked with the powers that be and they say it’ll take all day tomorrow to get squared away here. So with any luck, by Wednesday I’ll be a rehab dropout.”
They were sitting on a log in the middle of a small grove of trees a few blocks from the rehab center. Smoke from burning cannabis filled the warm, late-evening air. While Mark preferred Scotch to grass, he was grateful for Charley’s company and for his weed. Not that Charley was over-supplied with either dope or good cheer. That morning, he’d learned his father had incurable cancer.
“Like I always say,” intoned Charley after exhaling, “life’s a bitch and then you die.”
“For what it’s worth, I much prefer my bad news to yours,” said Mark. “A guy can have many transplants, but only one father.”
“That’s pretty profound,” said Charley with a forced smile, “for something coming from a dumb ass redneck.”
“No charge. You know how it is, even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
“True, so true. Still, thanks just the same.”
A silence fell over the two men as they passed the joint back and forth and thought about how much their lives had changed that day. Finally Charley spoke, “So what are you going to tell Connie? I mean, about your leaving and all.”
“Damned if I know. But this day was going to come sooner or later. I like her, but whenever I get this eye business squared away, I’ll probably marry a student nurse I know in New York.”
“You’ll do what!” Charley dropped the tiny stub of a joint he had been trying to attach to a roach clip. Ignoring his loss, Charley gaped at Mark. “You’ve never said anything about a student nurse. Now you’re telling me there’s one in New York you’re probably going to marry? Why haven’t you said something about her before now?”
“No one ever asked,” said Mark, with just the slightest trace of a smile.
“Oh sure. I always go around asking people if they’ve got a student nurse on the string in New York,” groused Charley, as he began preparing to roll another joint.
Unable to control his curiosity, Charley broke down and asked, “What’s her name?”
“Gwen. Gwen Kaplan.”
“Kaplan? She’s Jewish?”
“And you’re a Baptist or something like that, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
Once again, their conversation trailed off. While Charley worked on another joint in the dimming light, Mark wondered why he had even mentioned Gwen. And why did he say that about marrying her? Maybe he missed her more than he knew.
This was the longest time they’d ever been apart. There had been interesting women in his life since ’Nam. Some were old friends, others new, a few even intimate, but Gwen was special.
Mark forced his mind back to the present. “You know what’s strange is that ever since ’Nam, I’ve had this hang up about people leaving me. Now I’m the one who’s doing the leaving.”
“Leaving is like dying,” said Charley. “It’s a part of life. We’ll all leave this realm sooner or later. It’s just a matter of how and when.”
“That’s pretty profound considering it comes from a godless, drug-impaired hippie,” said Mark, mimicking Charley’s earlier, disparaging comments.
“No charge. I saw it on a wall in the men’s room at a bus station.”
“I thought the words of the prophet were written on a subway wall,” said Mark, quoting from a Simon and Garfunkle song.
“Believe it or not, the Brattleboro, Vermont, underground transportation system is still in the planning stage,” said Charley as he finished his task. “Now, let’s get back to Connie. What are you going to tell her about leaving?”
“Let me run this by you. I’ll tell her my eye is messing up and that I’ve got to go back to New York for a quick check-up but that once it’s over, I should be back.”
“Since we both know you’re not coming back, isn’t that kind of chicken shit?” asked Charley, before taking a long hit off the new, short joint.
“Probably. The important thing is it spares her from having to handle the idea of my leaving forever in one great lump. In a few days, I’ll call and say the docs want to operate immediately.”
“And she’ll then go to pieces,” said Charley offering the joint to Mark.
Mark passed on the offer and then waited while his friend took another hit. “Maybe she will, and maybe she won’t. After all, you’ll be available to ease her trauma.”
Charley almost choked in surprise. “Why me?”
“Because she likes you. To her, I’m a safe, familiar type, the guy next door she’s seen all her life at stuff like basketball games and church socials. You, on the other hand, are a worldly, mysterious, maybe even slightly dangerous, hippie type.”
“You know the way she is, and you also know I’m right. That’s another thing. You really do know her better than anyone else. If there’s any guy here who can help her forget me and transition away from this place back into the real world, it’s you.”
“I don’t know if you’re right about that. But I do know you’re one sneaky son-of-a-bitch,” said Charley as he finished putting away his collection of drug paraphernalia.
“Thanks for the kind words,” said Mark, getting to his feet. “And to think I was an honest, decent son-of-the-south before I started hanging around with you degenerate Yankees.”
Charley snorted derisively and stood. “Don’t blame me for your only being semi-rehabilitated.”
“Meanwhile,” said Mark, while giving his friend the one-fingered peace sign, “I’ve got to get back to the room and make some phone calls.”
“To your student nurse?”
“To my parents and then to Delta Airlines. I’m going to wait until I’m sure I’ll be leaving here on Wednesday before calling New York. I don’t mind if I have to cancel out at the last-minute on Delta, but not on Gwen.”
* * *
© 2015 by Bill Fullerton • All rights reserved