Linda Flores and Kevin Kelly, both born prematurely. It was discovered, eventually, that an excess of oxygen damages the infant’s retinas and optic nerves, but the fruits of this medical research came too late.
  • Linda Flores and Kevin Kelly, both born prematurely. It was discovered, eventually, that an excess of oxygen damages the infant’s retinas and optic nerves, but the fruits of this medical research came too late.
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They were being murdered by the light. I watched and said nothing.

When we began our lunch, the sun was just burnishing the windowsill. It was a hot day and Linda had left the window open so that air could circulate. But because the sun moves, by the time we finished eating, a great deluge of sunlight was pouring into the room. Light crashed onto the dining table, where it reduced our luncheon things — the knives and forks and glasses and plates smeared with the remains of our meal — to a single intense glare. I shut my eyes, squinching them so tight that neon shapes pulsed against my lids.

When Kevin graduated from the School for the Blind, he typed 80 words per minute, played the piano, and was fluent in Braille.

Meanwhile, Linda and Kevin talked about their birthdays. Over the years they have marked those days by doing something special: a La Jolla bed and breakfast with fat, downy pillows and warm croissants and freshly squeezed orange juice in the morning; a room at the Catamaran hotel; dinner at the Afghani restaurant Khyber Pass, where they ate lamb with vegetable curries over saffron rice. For Kevin’s last birthday, the pair taxied to Loews Coronado Bay Resort, a swank hotel–restaurant–recreation center with a marina. After dinner in the elegant restaurant, they strolled the grounds before settling into a deluxe guest room for the night.

Linda (center) at cooking class. They taught the students how to prepare a spaghetti pie, salad, and spicy oatmeal cookies.

“We had a beautiful time.” Linda sighed. “Didn’t we?”

That was when I opened my eyes.

She was sitting a little forward in her seat, mindless of the sunlight or the luncheon’s bright wreckage. Both her hands were on the table. White light sliced across her fingers and cut off her nose. Next to her, Kevin had a bright blade buried in his forehead.

Kevin, Linda, and Joe. For her 44th birthday, friends had presented Linda with money to take Joe to a dog psychic.

Linda Flores and Kevin Kelly were born prematurely almost 50 years ago, at a time when it was common medical procedure to bundle preemies into incubators where oxygen was piped in to keep them alive. It was discovered, eventually, that an excess of oxygen damages the infant’s retinas and optic nerves, but the fruits of this medical research came too late for an army of middle-aged men and women who make their ways through U.S. streets today, tapping along with red-tipped white canes or led by solemn guide dogs. That afternoon, Linda, 49, and Kevin, 47, had not a clue that across from me they looked like they were being bludgeoned by the light. Indeed, if I’d eaten my lunch with a spoon or picked my teeth with my fork, they would not have known. They have never seen me or anyone else.

Linda, who was married to a Mexican (hence the Spanish surname), has straight dark brown hair that falls to her shoulders and takes a golden-wheat sheen in the sun. Her dusty-rose-colored Guatemalan blouse had a crocheted collar. She told me she tried applying makeup one time and made such a mess of herself that she never tried again. That afternoon her pale skin was buttery-soft. Kevin has a bald pate surrounded by a wreath of soft gray hair; he clips his beard close and stays in shape with an exercise schedule so that he looks like a hip and healthy Santa Claus. The middle child (and only boy) in a family with four girls, he spent 13 years under the strict regime of a residential school for the blind. He is always neat and well put together. His shoes are kept polished.

Both their faces seem slightly naked. Their eyes are a little sunken and their lids fail to fully cover the eyes, like drapes that just miss reaching the floor. I’ve heard of cases in which blind people’s eyelids were sewn down to cover empty sockets, but not here; the bit of Linda’s right iris that I can see appears to be brown, the other blue, maybe. Kevin, with the fair complexion of the Irish, has gray eyes that change color. That afternoon he wore a polo shirt with wide blue bands running across his chest and his eyes shown light blue.

“What does beauty mean to you?”

Linda and Kevin stopped dead in their conversation.

“You just said you had a beautiful time at the resort,” I said, “and I wondered what you meant.”

Linda said that it was a really nice place to be and that they’d had a great time.

“Yes, but you said the word ‘beautiful,’ and it makes me wonder what beauty means to you. What is your experience of beauty?”

Some sunrises and most sunsets, or when I see leaves lifted, shimmering, by a breeze, sometimes when I stand before a painting with its wash of colors — all these can be like whiskey to my senses. The experience of beauty has left me buzzing as if I’d chugged down a Starbucks double mocha or gasping as if I’d been slapped in the face with cold water. Beauty can stun me into silence or leave me rapturous and jabbering. But Linda and Kevin have never seen a cloud or a bird. What is beauty for someone who has never seen anything, and how is it experienced? My question had sliced deep in the middle of their conversation, but that was okay.

The three of us talk easily together; we argue, we debate, we laugh a lot. With me they are easygoing about their blindness. They joke about the insensitivity the sighted sometimes show in their dealings with blind people, and they nail blind folks for their dependencies and plaintive cries of entitlement. (What are the first words, they once asked me, that blind people say when they die and go to heaven? “Help!”) But they are conscious of the social ills that affect the blind and the sighted alike. According to them, if people were to take greater delight in their surroundings, to explore what gives them pleasure, there would be little need for rehabilitation centers. So maybe my question had been rudely put, but I had no reason to believe that they were annoyed by the attempt of a sighted person to inquire into the world of the blind.

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