The question harked back to stories I’d heard about how, if you lost one sense it wasn’t such a tragedy because the other four kicked in. Weren’t blind people like lizards, which grow a new tail if the old one is lost? Aren’t the blind said to experience better hearing, a stronger sense of smell, a keener touch? In the end, maybe Linda and Kevin knew something about beauty that I didn’t. Maybe a glorious red sunset streaking the sky hangs about the shoulders like a cashmere collar and the blind person recognizes that imperceptible weight. Maybe a pink-and-buttercup-yellow Rothko painting tickles the air and makes it taste sweeter. Who knows.
“Would you be more specific?” Linda said.
“Okay, right now,” I said, prepared to start with basics, “at this very minute, what are you seeing?”
Kevin turned his head slightly, pinning me down by the direction of my voice.
“That’s interesting,” he mused, and paused a moment. “I don’t see anything.”
In the presence of blind people, I am more aware of voices, my own and theirs. Both Kevin and Linda have voices that are nicely modulated, sweet-sounding. Hers is like silver bells, a voice perfect for the crisis intervention she used to do, silvery tones that would calm a man and lure him down from a rooftop. Kevin’s is more mellow.
“Me either,” said Linda.
“How can you see nothing? That’s a contradiction in terms.”
“Okay,” said Kevin. “What I’m looking at is a blank, literally.”
That was, I snapped, just another contradiction in terms.
My frustration was immediate and intense. I felt like when I failed to understand a woman’s unhappiness or a teenager’s angst — the first because I was an insensitive man and the second because I was too old and out of it. A chasm of differing experiences had opened at our feet, leaving us feeling separate and isolated. Kevin may have never seen anything, but I had never been blind. I was basking in the privileged assumptions of the sighted, that to be without vision was to be diminished, to be less-than.
Of course I’d wondered what it was like to be blind. As a kid I’d played blind man’s bluff and pin the tail on the donkey. Secretly, I imagined being blind was like that — a child’s game that ended when the blindfold was removed and you opened your eyes. And if you couldn’t open your eyes, then being blind was like the dark moment just before falling asleep, when I closed my eyes and took the images that had accumulated during the day and drew them down into dreams. So Kevin said that he was seeing a blank, and, all right, I’d go with that, and I came up with two images of a blank — the wall in my living room and the blank TV screen set to channel 3 before I put in a video. They were the only blanks I could think of, but neither was really a blank. Both had color.
“When you say you’re looking at a blank,” I said, “I bet it’s probably more like a black wall. What do you think?”
“What’s black?” asked Linda.
The apartment Linda Flores lives in is half a block off El Cajon Boulevard, on a street with unremarkable front yards and no trees. Her two-story building sits sideways, a camel-brown affair eager to lose itself in a desert of anonymous apartment units and modest single-family stucco boxes planted on hard dirt. However undistinguished the neighborhood may be, it feels safe. When friends drop her off evenings and she makes her way alone from the curb to the stairs to her front door, Linda has no fear of what she may meet.
Mornings, she heads for the corner where she catches the #115 that runs along El Cajon Boulevard to go to the San Diego Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired on 59th Street, where she and Kevin work. Mornings are the domain of curious children.
“Can I pet your dog? Does he bite?”
The girl was the tallest of four children who ranged in age from three years to six. They were on their way to the grocery store and had run ahead of their mother, who was halfway down the block wheeling a baby carriage.
“What’s his name?”
Joe, Linda’s guide dog, is a Labrador retriever with a thick coat of chocolatebrown hair. At the moment he bore the patient expression of a farm animal, maybe a cow. The youngest child, with dusty skin and uncombed hair, eyed Joe, whose actual expression notwithstanding, undoubtedly looked mean, for the child kept his distance even as his older sisters and brother moved closer. The second girl stretched forward. “You sure he don’t bite?” she asked as the others — carefully, tenderly — laid on hands.
“What’s his name?” they whispered.
Linda said his name was Joe. Her head slightly cocked, she held firmly onto the leather harness and leash so that Joe stood in place. The children marveled at his size, his thick brown coat, his large head.
“Hi, Joe,” they murmured, bending close, talking directly to him.
After a moment the oldest girl looked up at Linda, studying her. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
“I’m blind,” said Linda. “My eyes are broken.”
“Can you see me?”
“I see you with my mind.”
“Does he bite?” piped the youngest boy, who had at last sidled closer, one small hand gingerly extended.
Joe’s portrait hangs in Linda’s living room. The day of our luncheon, his harness was looped around the doorknob; Linda’s backpack and belt pack were dropped on the couch along with a light jacket and some papers. Linda spends her days at the center and many of her evenings attending community-action meetings and sitting on committees. Both she and Kevin call themselves “people persons,” and she (more than he) is happy on committees, a social-rights activist with little time for housekeeping. Joe’s photograph and a mud-brown cuckoo clock are all that relieve the bareness of her living room walls. Linda can hear the clock and feel its hands, the tiny door, the little birdie. But there are few ways she can enjoy the photograph, which seems, finally, to have been put up as an accommodation to sighted visitors. I gazed at the photograph from my place at the table.