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I look down and thank God for the advent of shoes. I have ugly feet. They were once beautiful. That is probably an overstatement, but they were passable at least. Then one day I snapped a picture of the floor to test my camera’s shutter speed. In that photo were two apparitions with uneven toenails, fat halluces, and distended second toes. When did my feet get so ugly? My birthday was last week, so I blame my advancing years. Time is the enemy of my body. I fully accept that its progression will mangle parts of my body, but did it start with my feet or has it already ruined other parts that I’ve yet to notice?
I do have poor eyesight, but I can’t blame that on aging. I have been wearing glasses since six years old. Even now, while looking at my shoes, trembling at the thought of my naked feet, I am waiting to see my ophthalmologist. I am not optimistic about seeing my ophthalmologist. That comes not from fear of a dire prognosis, and of course my eyesight, while weak, would be perfectly sufficient to see him, if he existed. I have been coming to this doctor’s office for several years now, and each time, I see a technician, an assistant, an intern. One time I think it was a janitor who called me to the back room and pointed lights into my skull. But I have never seen Dr. David Blithe even though his name haunts the front of the building, the insurance forms, and the bills.
The woman behind the counter is pleasant, with a slight overbite, crooked front teeth, and dark hair. She is always wearing medical scrubs and a lab coat, although I never see her doing more than answering the phones and collecting the sign-in sheets. Still, every appointment I walk in the office, intending to slam down my fist and insist on seeing Dr. Blithe, but I lose my nerve. Her medical apparel saps my resolve. She looks so official. I whisper my name, sign three consent forms without reading them, and sit down to contemplate my ugly feet.
The female assistant who calls me to the back examination room is wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a denim shirt decorated with pink patterns that look like a radiated thorn patch. She is new, and she is definitely not Dr. David Blithe. I expect her to leave me in the room, but she hands me an eye patch and starts my reading tests. She nods as I read each letter, showing no indication as to whether I guessed correctly at the 2, the S, or the Z. Then she uses the same set of letters to test my left eye. I remember what I said before so I offer the same recitation. Correct or not, at least both eyes will be treated equally.
“Tilt your head back,” she says as she hands me a tissue. Then she dilates my eyes and leads me back to the waiting room.
At this point I again consider talking to the toothy woman at reception, demanding that I see Dr. Blithe, but when I look up, my eyes flush with tears. The room is flooded with light from a full wall of blinding windows. The prospect of talking to her without seeing her is as intimidating as the severe image she strikes in her medical outfit. Perhaps if I engaged her socially. I could ask her to dinner – or maybe just lunch. Coffee would be too short because she might not change clothes and I couldn’t be comfortable if she were still in her medical outfit. As I think of these possibilities, I realize I would enjoy the date. In my wet blindness, I recall her face, ignoring for a moment the scrubs and lab coat. She is pretty, and I don’t think she has a husband or boyfriend. Surely he would insist she fix her teeth before the relationship could proceed. It would be easy for her to file all the insurance forms since she already works in the medical field.
A man’s voice calls me back to the examination room. I see only a dark featureless cloud where his face should be, and I don’t recognize the voice. He is another stranger who gets to peer deep into my defenseless eyes. He sits me down, tilts the chair back, and moves lights like spaceships across my dwindling field of vision. Tears start to roll down my face, and then he tells me I am done and escorts me back to the front desk, staying two steps ahead so I have to put my hand on the wall to keep from falling.
I hear him exchange papers with the receptionist, and she says, “Thank you, Winslow.” So it wasn’t Dr. David Blithe with the thundercloud head, but someone who got a free look inside my head. I can’t imagine the face of a man named Winslow. I squint, but I think he’s gone. All I can see is the receptionist’s pale balloon head atop a hazy mixture of white and light blue. The hard edges of lab coat and scrubs are gone, blurring into soft colors of a peaceful day, the muted blues and blurry white you would see when lying down, staring up at a clean sky with pillow clouds. Is this what it is like to fall in love?
“How do you want to pay?” she asks, and I am tempted to hand her my wallet, let her take what she wants. But I already have my co-pay counted out in my front pocket. It limits my exposure, especially when my pupils are as wide as train tunnels.
Today, I wish I had an excuse to stay.
As I hold out the money, she says, “Have you ever thought of wearing contacts?”
“Uhm.” I am not certain if we are flirting or not. I still see the spots of the eye exam and not much else. “I am too old for contacts,” I say. I do not believe this statement. Age enhances the need for contacts. Youth can march barefoot, wearing the ugliest glasses, and still be inoffensive to the eye. Age forces us to compensate. Shoes. Contacts. A hat, if necessary.
But my comment is a test for the receptionist. If we are flirting, she would deny my advanced age and offer some palliative comment about my looks. But all she says is “Oh.” She hands me a receipt and a plastic pair of shades that strap to my face. I am heartbroken. She did seem overly friendly to Winslow. Perhaps she hasn’t had time to straighten her teeth since they started dating.
I step outside and move slowly toward my car. The sunglasses fit beneath my glasses, but the day is still incredibly bright, forcing my eyes to the ground, and I am again reminded of the horrors hidden in my shoes. The inside of my car is burning hot, and the sweat on my face causes the sunglasses to curl in and move down my nose. It is only three blocks to my apartment, where I have the windows covered and the air conditioner running. Anticipation of the return home makes me too eager in my driving, and I don’t see the car that smashes into my passenger side. If someone had been riding with me – if perhaps the receptionist had accompanied me to lunch – that person would have been mangled to look like my feet. The empty seat falls into the dark hole of the impact, and I feel a jolt and the snap of something inside my midsection. There are several different organs in that area — spleen, liver, kidneys, intestines. The wreck could have broken any one of those things, many of them already fragile due to my advancing age. For fear of worsening my condition, I stay in the car. I can hear voices outside. One is screaming, probably the other driver. Then I hear, “What happened?” and recognize the voice of the receptionist. I look up, hoping to see her, to see her placid white and blue, but as the daylight shines into my head, I have an overwhelming urge to shut my eyes.
I wake up in a dark room, and my vision is still dim and missing details. I am in a chair beside what looks like a giant beige mechanical arm stuck in the floor. There are two other people in the room. Both have dark cloudy heads and featureless test-tube bodies. I try to move but feel a pain in my left side and the tug of straps on my wrists and ankles.
“Don’t try to move,” says one person. I recognize the voice of my rival, Winslow.
“Can I help you?” I ask. I am trying to hide my fear. If we are indeed to fight for the affections of the receptionist, I do not want to show weakness.
The other person leans forward, consuming my whole area of vision, but his face is nothing but a dark oval. His head doesn’t move when he speaks.
“I am Dr. Blithe,” he says. “Unfortunately your condition has worsened, so I have to operate on you.”
“Your eyes, specifically your pupils, are frozen open,” he says. “If we don’t correct the problem, the inside of your body will be flooded with light, which could cause irreparable harm.”
I feel a squeeze at my heart and let out a gasp. Winslow misinterprets my sound as physical pain.
“The anesthetic will take effect in a minute,” he says. “Then we can start to fix your eyes. Can’t do anything about your feet though.” He laughs.
“Please remain professional,” Dr. Blithe chides him.
“Yes sir,” Winslow says, but his voice is full of defiance.
I try to close my eyelids, but something holds them open. It is, in all, the worst day possible to fall in love. Dr. Blithe must be a Fury, his bleached lab coat flapping the fires of Hades as he punishes patients at their most exposed. He is on top of me, maybe even sitting in my lap. I cannot tell because my body is numb, as though they have pumped cotton into my bloodstream. They could have removed my shoes, and I wouldn’t know about it.
I hear something click, and a single beam of light, bright red, snaps on, starting first at the far right of my visual field and moving closer and bigger until all I see is a giant crimson cloud. Dr. Blithe’s voice, this time sounding from my esophagus, says, “It’s a real mess in here. The operation could take weeks.”
I feel my eyes drying, the tracks of futile tears drying out the sides of my face, as Dr. Blithe crawls deeper into my head. If your eyes desiccate, will they fall out of your head, rolling on the floor like a pair of marbles? I want to ask this question, but Winslow would just laugh at me. I don’t want to give him more ammunition in our rivalry for the receptionist. He has probably already told her about my feet.