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Eye of the Beholder

a short story
by Tamar Yellin

The latest art-form, they say, is the internal organ. We live in paradoxical times. Artists expose their viscera to the public, yet if we brush a stranger in the swimming pool we are expected to apologise.

Last month I was called for my annual eye exam. It was the start of a disturbing experience for me.

There was nothing sinister in the summons. Some people, I am aware, never test their eyes from one year to the next. But I am severely short-sighted and I wear contact lenses. Check-ups are a necessary inconvenience. I have never bothered to investigate too closely the dire rumours regarding prolonged wear of contacts. Unpleasant terms like 'hardening' and 'sclerotic' and 'oxygen starvation' have sometimes winged past my ears, but I have always ducked them. I like my lenses far too much. I go for my annual check-ups and hope for the best, though I don't go for medicals of any other description: so far as the rest of my body is concerned I would rather not know. But eyes are irreplaceable. Blindness is more frightening than death.

Not long ago I joined an up-to-the-minute clinic. A fancy place with gold windows I passed in town. It had recently opened and had all the state-of-the-art equipment. I took up their special introductory offer. I had long been dissatisfied with my own optician, an elderly man who worked from a back room and had known me since I was a child. When I complained to him that I couldn't see, he seemed to think the problem was psychological rather than prescriptive. This place was staffed by elegant young women, and for two hundred pounds or so I could have the whole package: six-monthly replacement scheme, cut-price solutions, and a full yearly check-up using the latest technology.

By means of this, they assured me, they would not only be able to prescribe the best contact lenses for my needs, but could also keep tabs on the hardening-sclerotic-starvation thing and, by deep examination of my eyes, rule out certain lethal diseases which (if we but knew it) first make their presence known in there.

On first impression the Vision Clinic was not as revolutionary as I had hoped. It was clean, certainly, and full of chrome and carpet, and an easy-listening compilation played at low volume in the waiting lounge. A girl in an Alice band offered me refreshments. Then Ms. Patinkin ushered me towards the dreaded chair. The chair was new, and upholstered in maroon leather, but with its complexity of gadgets, flaps and levers it was in essence no different from Mr. Brill's or any other authoritarian chair.

I am not an artist. I work in an office block. I do not know if this reluctance to expose myself--any part of myself--to the scrutiny of strangers (however well-qualified) is a common feeling. But it is what has kept me from the doctor's surgery for the past nine years. And even though eyes are a wholesome organ, nothing secret or shameful--anyone, after all, may look into our eyes--nevertheless I submitted myself reluctantly to the beautiful optician.

She smiled at me. She placed on my nose a pair of hideous frames, into which she flicked, by sleight of hand it seemed, a succession of little lenses. She said: "Are the symbols clearer on the red or the green?" and asked me to read out lines of blurry letters. Eventually I found myself sitting eyeball to eyeball with her, my chin in a sort of stirrup, looking up to the ceiling, over to the left, over to the right, blinking, while she swept my eye with a strobe, so that I could see a whole rootwork of red veins across my cornea I never realised I possessed.

All this, however, was preliminary. Mr. Brill, in his less sensuous manner, might have done as much. I was now invited to enter the inner sanctum: a darkened room with mirrored panels in its ceiling and a fearsome technological array. The door closed and a figure in a white coat led me to a swivel stool.

"Just make yourself comfortable," the technician said. I was curious, I admit. I placed my chin in the stirrup, my forehead against the Frankensteinian bar. What did I see? Lo and behold, a blue yacht floating in an infinite ocean, now blurred, now clear: an almost beautiful experience. I would have asked its purpose, except that the technician must have taken this wondrous yacht of modern science so much for granted that to ask her anything at all, I felt, would be an irrelevance.

So we proceeded to the next piece of apparatus and in a voice devoid of expression she assured me that it would not hurt. Saying this, she adjusted the piece so close to my very eyeball that I felt it brush against my lashes. Still I didn't withdraw and in a moment a puff of air hit my cornea, one, two, three, making me jump and, involuntarily, laugh.

She did not smile; she repeated the procedure for the other eye and when I jerked back three times more seemed bored, as though I had proved myself no different from the rest of the human race. And this was no laughing matter; though when she did sit me down in front of the final instrument and said, without flinching: "Now I am going to scan the back of your eye," something happened which threw her whole demeanour effectively out of kilter.

It was a black cyclops with a single lens: she placed her eye to one side and I to the other. I was continuing my meditation on power and submission when snap! my eye-back had been photographed, and all that remained was a disc of white light where my sight once was.

"My God," I heard the technician say.

She applied the cyclops to my other eye. This did not interest her, and she impatiently turned it back. She gazed for a long time, rather as an astronomer must, when he has spotted a new star.

"My God," I heard her whisper once again.

"Just a moment please," she said, and got up and went out, leaving me in a state of mind one might well imagine.

She returned with Ms. Patinkin and someone else in tow. Ms. Patinkin sat down at the cyclops and took a look. She was a cool customer: she kept her professional manner. Nevertheless I could tell she was affected. Then the other optician had a squint. He said: "Wow." Then they all went off in a huddle and discussed me.

What had they seen? I longed--and was afraid--to know. A more assertive person might have demanded answers. I, however, waited patiently until they chose to tell.

Ms. Patinkin returned and smiled at me. I was comforted by the presence of Ms. Patinkin. If she told me everything was normal I would quite happily believe her. Ms. Patinkin said: "There's nothing to worry about. But we'd like you to come back for some further tests."

I asked if there was something wrong with me. Ms. Patinkin repeated:

"It's nothing to worry about. You can continue to wear your lenses as usual."

So I made another appointment with the girl in the Alice band. Then I went off home to worry.

When I got in Ivan was watching the six o'clock news. A dozen dead bodies were strewn around a burnt-out church.

"Barbarians," Ivan said, shaking his head.

"If you were there you'd be the same."

"If I were there I'd be behind a camera."

Wearily I unpacked the few items of shopping I had brought. I said: "Do you want rice or potatoes with your chicken?" I wondered whether to tell Ivan about my eye.

Ivan has twenty-twenty vision. He takes his eyes for granted. He takes everything for granted. Nothing has ever gone wrong for him. His indestructible optimism, while sometimes annoying, anchors my desperate life.

"And they told you nothing," he repeated, gravely, when I had spilled the beans. "But why didn't you just ask?"

I had not asked because I knew the answer: it was my own death they had seen there at the bottom of my eye.

"Rubbish!" Ivan exploded. "Which eye was it?"

"The right."

"Turn your face to the light."

I did so obediently; I tipped my head back and he examined my eye.

"Well?"

"It's blue." He smiled at me. "I wouldn't worry about it."

But I could not help worrying, and before long I had conjured a sharp pain like a needle piercing the back of my eye. Ivan sent me to bed with a cold compress. And behind the double darkness of the compress I painted visions of the anomaly haunting me: a parasitic amoeba, a disgusting clot, a tiny fatal tumour fed by straining vessels.

I crawled out of bed and into the dazzle of the living room, where Ivan was watching the late night film. A tangle of naked bodies rolled across the screen.

"I daren't close my eyes," I moaned. "I see things."

He pulled me onto the sofa and embraced me. His own eyes were tired, his face pale: he should have been in bed, he had an early shoot tomorrow. "Watch some telly," he said. "That'll take your mind off it." So we curled up and watched the film together.

By the time of my next visit to the Vision Clinic I was ready to face the worst. I strode through town with an air of dignified sadness, sensed rather than saw the young derelict seated in the shadow of its gold windows and ran upstairs, afraid of delaying the dreaded hour, but my watch was fast. When the door finally opened a man in a white coat bedecked with instruments spoke my name, and ushered me into a room I had not seen before.

It was dark except for a central pool of light, and bare except for a single instrument: a mammoth cyclops, twice the size at least of the one I had previously encountered, and more advanced; a terrifying object, but also splendid. The man must have sensed my hesitation, for he pushed me slightly in the small of the back and encouraged me, in the most friendly manner, to take up my position on the subject side.

I placed my chin on the stirrup and applied my right eye to the scope, and he sat down opposite and fixed his bushy eyebrow to the viewer, and we remained like this, in silence, for some considerable time.

In due course he sat back with a loud sigh of satisfaction, and I heard him crack his knuckles. Looking up I noticed he was smiling. But he immediately said: "If you don't mind," and we took up our positions as before. At last he straightened, rubbed his neck and murmured: "Remarkable." As if on cue another white-coated figure stepped out of the shadows.

In the bright light of the cyclops my eyes had not adjusted to the surrounding darkness; now however I became aware of not just one but several spectators standing in the room. Indeed, if my senses didn't deceive me, we were seated in the centre of a ring of observers whose presence I had not suspected when we first entered.

The chief optician gave up his seat to his colleague with some reluctance. She in turn sat down and adjusted the scope with an avidity I couldn't fail to notice. She gazed. What was this disease, so unique and beautiful they actually took pleasure in its contemplation? Was such detachment possible in the face of a person's impending blindness or death? As one spectator after another took their turn before the cyclops--some acknowledging me with a sheepish smile--I grew increasingly resentful, feeling myself and my suffering reduced to nothing more than an alluring spectacle.

Only after the twelfth or thirteenth did I sit back and protest, quite meekly, that my neck was hurting. The disappointment in the room was audible.

"Yes, yes, that is quite enough for now," the master of ceremonies said, and flicking on a phalanx of switches he flooded the room with light. Apart from ourselves it was empty.

"Do you think you know what is the matter with me?" I asked.

He was writing on a clipboard; he did not seem to be concerned with me just then. At last however he clicked his pen and thrust it into his pocket. "It's nothing whatever to worry about," he said. "Miss Patinkin will have told you; you can go on wearing your lenses."

"Ms. Patinkin hasn't told me anything at all," I insisted. "Is it something serious? I really feel I ought to be informed."

I noticed now that he was avoiding my eyes; but he repeated: "I'm certain the condition isn't dangerous."

Not dangerous! My limbs were flooded with a cold dread. I demanded to know the name of my condition. The chief optician looked inexplicably amused.

"I don't know; we'll have to think of one! How about 'Personal-Retinal Transparency'--PRT?"

I chewed this over.

"No," he continued; "we'll have to think up something much sexier than that."

He went on fiddling with his clip-board, got out his pen and made a few more notes. I tried to take in the implications of his words. My heart was beating in a harsh erratic manner. "What exactly," I said, "do you see when you look at me through that thing?"

"I can't put it into words."

For answer I placed my chin once more in the stirrup.

He hesitated, then succumbed. He couldn't help himself. Off went the lights; we were locked in transference again.

"Well?"

"I can't. It's--" His voice was taut with suppressed excitement. "It's indescribable."

"Describe it."

Silence. Then: "It's beautiful. Terrifying." He pulled back almost in desperation. "There aren't any words for it because it isn't like anything I've ever seen before. And yet there isn't a doubt in my mind of what it is. You know what they say--the eye is the window to the soul? In your case that seems to be quite literally true."

I sat back also, my heart pounding, feeling--what? Fear, panic, anger, wonder? I trembled with cold. Yes: I felt violated, and instinctively I clutched myself in my own arms. But there was this too: this exhilaration.

But the man was speaking. He was pleading with me. "You will come back, won't you?" he was saying. "There are others who would like to see it. So many others. It's an absolutely remarkable phenomenon."

I did not say much when I got home that evening. I let Ivan think I was sickening for a cold. He showed me some shocking pictures he had taken and I let them pass in front of me one by one. After a while I said:

"Do you remember that puppy at Santa Maria? It had such beautiful eyes, and sometimes I used to stare into them and it would stare back at me and it seemed as if it knew everything."

Ivan, carefully gathering up his pictures, said: "Yes. I've also seen that in young children sometimes."

I turned and looked into Ivan's eyes. They were brown. "And yet, supposedly, they know the least of all."

Ivan smiled his lop-sided smile. "Well; perhaps they don't. Perhaps we forget little by little as we grow up."

"The place we came from," I completed; but neither of us knew quite what we meant. Later in the darkness of the bedroom I was still thinking--the pain in my right eye never left me--and it seemed quite clear for a moment how things stood: how my eye had become the window to my 'I', and open to a desired and devastating violation.

"Deeper than sex," I said aloud; and Ivan, whom I had thought asleep, turned slowly on his pillow.

"The only thing deeper than sex," he murmured sleepily, "is sex." But no, I thought, there is a deeper violation, and even as I wanted it I knew it would destroy me. Hadn't the chief optician called me beautiful? And terrible? My vanity wanted that. It wanted all the eyes of the world to see my inner beauty. Yet there are some things, surely, which were never intended to be seen by others.

Why did I keep on returning to the Vision Clinic? Some strange compulsion apparently took me there; made me sit for hours at a time before the cyclops; kept me immobile while the endless stream of observers looked their fill.

Would anyone else have acted differently? I loved to hear their gasps of amazement, their murmurs of horror or delight; I longed to glimpse the expression on their faces as they moved away. Rapture, shock and revelation: they had seen my essence, and I needed to catch the reflection of it in their eyes.

Sometimes I felt like a madam receiving clients. The girl with the Alice band deferentially brought me coffee; the chief optician crushed ten pound notes into my hand. I wouldn't take them. I was compelled; a victim. I walked home feeling ravaged, angry, sickened.

Ivan once suggested he come with me. He was suspicious; he wanted to know what was really going on. The notion appalled me. It was as though I should invite him to watch me having sex with strangers.

Was it my imagination, or did my clients leave increasingly with grimaces of horror on their faces? Was the fascination with which they gazed more poisonous than before? For now I offered them not my beauty but my vanity: the rapture they took away with them was born of lust, pride, envy, all the darker passions.

And then, one day: "Yes; apparently it is true," the chief optician said. "The anomaly is coming closer to the surface."

For when I had gone to Mr. Brill the day before, desperate for reassurance, even his primitive instrument had picked up inklings of the phenomenon.

He had raised an eyebrow when I appeared in his shabby surgery. I told him my story and he shrugged his shoulders. He seemed to consider I deserved my fate.

"What you must remember," he intoned in his fragile, foreign voice, "is that these places want your money first and foremost. What seems to be a problem here," he pointed to his eyes, "is more often than not a problem here." He tapped his forehead; but he agreed to perform a cursory examination of my eyes. When he quickly fell into a catatonic stare I realised what he was seeing, and filled with nausea, fled from his battered chair.

I had no wish for Mr. Brill to see into my soul.

"Yes; it is becoming clearer," the optician said. "It's my estimate that in a week or so it will become visible to the naked eye."

Ms. Patinkin, standing aside, gave me a sympathetic look: I think she was the only one who realised I was prostrate with anguish. Others seemed to emanate a sort of jealousy, as if they wished they, too, could reveal their all.

I went out that afternoon and bought a pirate patch. Ivan said, when he saw me: "Stylish. I suppose you don't want me to see it either."

I shook my head. Standing before the bathroom mirror I gazed into my own eyes, which showed no sign except a slight discolouration. I remembered certain myths: Narcissus frozen by his own reflection, Medusa who turned all who met her gaze to stone. Either way the precedents were hardly cheerful. I wondered what would happen to me when I finally saw myself.

"We could project it," Ms. Patinkin said.

"I strongly advise against that," said the chief optician.

"Why?" I wanted to know.

"There would be a distortion," the chief optician said.

"Not really," Ms. Patinkin countered.

I sat between them, incapacitated by the pumped-up chair, my head pinned behind enormous binoculars through which I could see nothing. I heard only their disembodied voices, arguing with cool anger the rights and wrongs of my viewing the contents of my own eye.

"I cannot be held responsible for the consequences," said the chief optician.

"I'll take responsibility." Ms. Patinkin rigged up a screen and dimmed the room. She fitted something cumbersome across my eye.

"I think I should warn you," the chief optician said. But Ms. Patinkin switched on the apparatus.

"Now keep your head very still."

I kept my eyes closed. I could hear the humming of the apparatus. Also the beating of my own heart. Terror, excitement. There was no need for me to open my eyes. I could still say to Ms. Patinkin: "Switch off the apparatus." I did not have to look.

What was there, after all, to be afraid of? Did I not fundamentally know myself? And what, in that case, was there to be surprised by? My soul was nothing special, nothing rare. It was one of the billions enfleshed, trapped now in a sticky teardrop, exceptional only in its untimely appearance. Soon no doubt there would be others like it, discovered in clinics the world over, photographed, catalogued, ogled as the latest, craziest art. And as I thought this I felt my soul contract, freeze, shiver, shrink into itself. And as I thought this I tore open my reluctant eyes.

I looked at last. No words can describe my disappointment.

That night, in the privacy of our flat, I became hysterical. I smashed the mirror. I seized the kitchen knife. Ivan had to restrain me from injuring myself. He had just succeeded in bringing me to some measure of calm when the doorbell rang. It was Ms. Patinkin, more elegant than ever in a camel coat. She carried a brown envelope under her arm.

She held it out to me where I lay on the sofa. "I thought you should have this," she murmured. "It's your scan."

I opened it and looked. It was beautiful. And unforgivable.

Ms. Patinkin gazed at me with infinite sympathy: her eyes were grey. She said: "I am so very sorry." Then, without another word, she left the flat.

Ivan closed the door behind her. I held the envelope towards him. "Do you want to look?" I said. But he remained where he was, exhausted, leaning against the door. He shook his head.

"I don't want to look at photographs," he said, "I want to look at you." And he came across and sat down very close to me.

He put a hand towards my face, and instinctively I placed mine over the pirate patch. "What are you afraid of?" he said, and very gently pulled my hand away. "Don't I know you better than anyone?" Ivan insisted, and gently, very gently, he peeled back the patch and looked into my tearful eyes.

For a long time we gazed at each other in silence, in apprehension, in tenderness. For a long time Ivan fixed me with his steady gaze. It was like that first moment, the long delicious moment, when we had mutually agreed on love.

"What can you see?" I asked.

Just as on that other occasion, Ivan lapsed into a twisted smile. He shrugged his shoulders.

"What do you think?" he answered. "They're blue."


© Tamar Yellin 1998, 2005.
An earlier version of "Eye of the Beholder" was published in TTA 16.

Tamar Yellin's first novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher was published in February 2005 by Toby Press; ISBN: 1592640850.
The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin

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