“Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, soda?” he asked, getting up from the bench we’d been sharing in the hospital waiting room. He was there to see a friend, admitted the day before. I, as my readers will guess, was waiting for news of my father.
“How about a cup of tea?” he insisted. I hesitated. The vending machine was on the other side of the room and I had burnt myself before trying to get a steaming cup through a hole too small for human hands. I was about to suggest I’d get something for him instead, when he said, “I can manage.” I chose tea.
He walked with sure footsteps across the room, his cane lightly touching the floor, right and left and center, like an animal’s antennae. I watched the nurse watching him from behind the desk, hands on patients’ files, eyes on him, eyebrows arching in rhythm with his steps. She raised her head when he went round a column, and then again when two nurses came through the swinging doors, inches away from the tip of his cane. But he moved assuredly and efficiently. Coins soon clanked through the metal slit. Two drinks, two trips.
We sat side by side again sipping from our cups and talking. It is not often people strike a conversation in hospital waiting rooms. We avoid each other’s fears and hopes, try to keep our composure, knowing a word from a nurse may have us sobbing in the presence of strangers. We hold on to our privacy by staring at photos of Paris Hilton in magazines, or at the drama on the TV screen, though we do not follow the plot. At times we gaze at the blue walls with strange intensity; or we hide behind laptops like I had done that morning. I was trying to get some work done and might have succeeded if it wasn’t for the man sitting beside me. He was not pretending to read or watch TV; he was not quite staring at the wall either.
We’d been sitting there for some time when he exclaimed, “I was afraid this place would feel more claustrophobic.” He seemed to be talking to me. I looked up and saw his eyes moving erratically in their sockets. “Really?” was all I could think of saying. How does a blind person experience claustrophobic space?
Earlier in the week I’d listened to a radio program about blindness. A blind man told the journalist he had fallen in love with “a beautiful woman.” Here is what I remembered from that program:
“What do you mean when you say that?” the journalist asked.
“I mean I loved her smell. And her shape too, the shape of her body.”
“There was physical intimacy, then?”
“Oh no, it never got that far. But, I could see she had a beautiful body.”
“So, how did you see that? Did someone tell you?”
“No, I never talked about her. I saw by the way she moved.”
I kept thinking of this interview the following day as I discussed Sophie Calle’s Blind series with my students – the human eye, the eye of the camera, and what beauty means to someone who cannot see. Now at the hospital blindness crossed my path for the third time in a matter of days.
“I like wide, open spaces,” he continued. “They’re beautiful.”
Here’s this word again, I thought: Beautiful. I chose not to ask him about it though. Instead, I asked where he went when he wanted to be in an open space. The beach? The city park?
“A park isn’t open space, is it?” he answered. “Too many trees breathing, moving.”
“Moving? In the wind, you mean?”
“No. Have you ever touched a tree? They’re never still.”
“I’m not keen on the beach either. It’s hard to walk on sand. The sea is too loud; it sounds like it’ll swallow everything up.”
“So, where do you find wide, open space in this city?”
“My house,” he said. “My friends too, like the friend I’m here to see. I can breathe when I’m with her.”
A nurse called out his name. He sprang up, said goodbye, and walked lightly down the hallway. I thought of opening my laptop, but decided to go for a walk instead. Outside, there were some trees. I wondered if they would move for me.