In the Eye of the Beholder

By Cristina Hartmann

When he heard the voice, he stood still.

It was whispered across the room, the Californian softness rounding her vowels. “Do you need a new book, Craig? I love The Velveteen Rabbit.” The words floated throughout the open room, skimming over the chairs and shelves to reach his ear.

“Who’s that, Marjorie?” He tilted his head toward the voice.

The librarian rasped. “That’s Evie, our new children’s librarian. A lovely girl from Los Angeles. Can you imagine giving up beaches and sunshine for this icebox? Wait till winter comes. See if she thinks it’s charming.”

He squinted. Halos of light shimmered amongst a morass of shifting silhouettes. The visual fog muted colors, during everything dull and dingy.  As he searched for the voice’s source, the mist hid it from him until something happened.

A ray of light burst through the shadows. It looked as if a corona surrounded someone’s head. Before he could focus, the radiance vanished.

“I—Is she blonde?” he asked. “Lots of blondes out in California, isn’t there?”

“Oh! I didn’t know you could … Yes, yes, she’s blonde.” Marjorie cleared her throat. “Another audiobook, Greg?”

He dreamed of the voice and luminance that night. The next day, he returned to the library to borrow tapes he had no intention of listening to. As Marjorie told him about the goiter that made her collar pop a button, he strained to hear the voice again. When he heard “Oh, Julie, why don’t you try The Phantom Tollbooth? Milo is such a card,” he told himself to go over. His feet didn’t obey, and he listened to Marjorie talk about how hard it was to buy buttons these days.

After the fifth time of loitering at the circulation desk, he tapped his way toward the voice.

Tap._ Tap. _Tap. A tall shadow told him that he had just passed the mystery section, where a revolving book display always lay. Smack. The tip of his cane slammed into an upholstered chair. It slid between the legs, making him stumble as he ventured into uncharted territory. A rush of air passed over him as he stepped into an open space, his white cane hitting the carpet. The children’s squeals and the smell of baby shampoo greeted him at his destination.

“Wait right there!” the voice cried. “It’s a mess here.”

Soft footsteps approached, as did the scents of ambrosia edged with shampoo. “How can I help you?” the voice said.

He turned toward her and peered at the humanoid silhouette with smears of beige—or what he assumed was beige—where her face should have been. Smiling, he said,  “As you can tell, I’m a bit old for this section. I’m more of a mystery fan, personally.  But I’m in a bind here, and I heard you’re the new children’s librarian?”

“Yes, I’m Evie.”

He introduced himself and explained that he needed a book for his nephew and didn’t know a thing about such things. Throughout, he reminded himself to smile because his brother said it made people like you more.

After exclaiming about what a kind uncle he was, she pressed a thin book into his hands. “He’ll love this,” she said.

“I’m as blind as a bat”—he grinned–“so I’m trusting you not to take advantage.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “I would never!”

He inhaled the smell of wet soil as he opened the door.  The pitter-patter of raindrops surrounded him, with the hollow ping of droplets hitting puddles, the splat as they splattered on concrete, and the tiny drip-drip of water coursed down the building’s exterior.  Nobody had to remind him to smile: Rainy days were his favorite.

“This sucks!” a voice muttered from beside him. “This’ll ruin my 50-dollar shoes!”

* * *

After a month of borrowing children’s books for a nephew who loathed books—“Why stay inside and read when I can play ball? And … trains are stupid. I like flying cars!” Chad said when he handed him the book—he decided to do it.

His brother had told him the rules as they wrestled. When he got Greg into full Nelson, he imparted his fraternal wisdom. “Listen up, little bro …” he panted. “Girls are gonna talk all about feminism and shit. That doesn’t mean that they’ve got the balls to ask you out though. You gotta do it yourself.”

That hadn’t exactly been true. There was a certain breed of women who approached Greg. They never said Would you like to go out? What they said instead was: “Oh, let me help you with that!” as they wrapped their hands around his elbow. They cut up his chicken without being asked.  When they introduced him to friends, they said, “This is Greg. Just so you know, he’s blind,” with a tinge of martyrdom in their voices. Somewhere along the way, they ended up in his bed without him knowing how. It always took a long time to get them out.

When he heard Evie’s footsteps—light and almost unsure—he blurted it out. “Evie, would you like to go to dinner tomorrow night at Del Amici’s at seven?”

“Oh!”

He gripped the rubberized grip of his white cane and waited. As she remained silent, he said in a rush, “You’re probably busy or have a boyfriend or husband …”

“Oh, no,” her words rushed out. “Um, all right. Let’s do it.”

The next night, he pressed his navy button-down shirt and gray slacks—clothes he bought in bulk so not to mismatch—feeling for wrinkles as he ironed. As he tugged at his shirt, it occurred to him that there might be stains that would transform his clothes from a spiffy ensemble to a slob’s uniform. This led to fifteen minutes of him squinting at the shadow in the mirror, searching for telltale darkness and finding none.

Finally, he asked his next-door neighbor how he looked. “You look just fine, you little dear,” the seventy-something woman croaked as she patted him on the arm. He walked away with the lingering smell of Daphne’s talcum powder and lavender perfume clinging to his nose, wondering if she had told him the truth.

With sweaty palms that made his white cane slide in his hand, he went to the restaurant wishing he knew what he actually looked like. People had told him that he had lovely eyes—“One of God’s little jokes, isn’t it? Giving a blind boy such beautiful blue eyes!” a teacher had said—and he knew he had brown hair and a broad build. Beyond these details, he didn’t know where he lay on the attractiveness spectrum.

His mind boomeranged to the stain that might or might not exist as Evie spoke. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful back home. Perhaps too beautiful. Next to such beauty, even small imperfections look grotesque.”

His spirits lifted. “I suppose you’ve come to the right place. People keep telling me that this is a gloomy place. All gray skies and crumbling old factories. I can just say this—I like gray days. The sun hurts my eyes. I sure wish it was warmer, though.”

“See? You can appreciate what others can’t.”

He concluded that even if there were a spot on his shirt, Evie wouldn’t care. After that, he gobbled down the spinach ravioli and entered in a rousing debate about the best mystery writers. He voted for Lee Childs and Elmore Leonard with a nod at Dennis Lehane. She preferred the British cadre of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, neither of whom he had much liked. Instead of telling her that Ruth Rendell wouldn’t know action—real action, like guns and car chases—if it hit her on the head, he promised to give them a try.

He curved his fingers around her elbow to let her lead him out.

The intimacy of the elbow told him a lot. A meaty elbow belonged to someone with heft, their body wrapped with dense muscle and fat. Skeletal people had bony elbows that poked you as you held on. Flab on the elbow meant flab on the body. If he wanted to get a feel for a woman, he touched her elbow.

Evie had good elbows, neither too sharp nor too soft. His fingers could wrap around half of it, the perfect amount. Any less, he couldn’t hold on; any more, it felt as if he were holding onto a pencil.

As they circled the reservoir during their next date, she told him why she was a children’s librarian. “There’s something special about children. A sort of innocence and guilelessness that you lose as an adult. They always see the world with such optimism. To them, everything is possible. It’s when we grow up that things become impossible.”

He inhaled the smell of autumn: the singed smell of leaves shriveling up and falling off the trees. “Maybe it’s just us becoming more realistic. We all have to grow up sometimes, I suppose.”

“But must we grow into such jaded and ugly creatures?”

It was on the third date that she asked the question so many wanted to ask, her voice mild and shy. “W—What do you see?”

“Mostly shadows. Some color but nothing quite … right. One time someone gave me a shirt that I thought was blue. So, I kept seeing a blue shirt until Bryan told me it was purple. Just like that, the shirt went from blue to purple. How’s that for a trip?”

“So you can’t really see me?”

He squinted at the smear of beige framed by the light gray and said, “Well, I see something, just not all that well. Right now, you’re a pinkish smear on gray.”

She remained silent for so long that he apologized. “Aw, Evie. I’m sorry. I know it’s strange … you sighted people are so used to seeing and being seen.”

“No, no …” A burst of laughter came from her. “Absolutely do not apologize for it. It’s quite refreshing, really. Being judged not by my appearance but by my character. It’s a nice change.”

Over the next two weeks, Evie’s form took shape in his mind as a mosaic of random body parts. A soft waist that he had slipped his hand around as she guided him around a puddle. Sharp and angular shoulders that jostled against him as she bobbed impatiently at a traffic light. Thin lips that he had finally kissed on the fourth date with him missing the mark and her long fingers pulling him to the right spot. He topped off this disjointed silhouette with a halo of light that he had seen all these weeks before.

He had discovered the mysteries of hair color after the first time he beat his brother in wrestling. As they both lay on the ground, panting, he asked, “I heard Jacob say that Katie Mannion was hot. What did he mean?”

Bryan laughed. “Hell, yeah. Katie’s hot. These long legs and blonde hair, Jesus. If I wasn’t with Meghan …”

“What’s blonde like?”

His brother’s voice deepened. “It’s a hair color. Kinda like straw, you know?”

“No.”

He paused. “A’ight. It’s bright and warm like the sun. Blondes are kinda like that.”

They made love for the first time on their seventh date. Her fingers scraped his chest as she unbuttoned his shirt and exclaimed at how hairy he was. A new terrain opened up as he removed her shirt and pants, exposing what had once been untouchable. His hands skimmed along her contours as she stood still, breathing softly. When his fingers reached the last untouched spot inside her, he knew he had reached his destination. It was warm, moist, and inviting. He entered her with a grunt, and she clutched his shoulders and held tight.

The entirety of her body took form in his mind: colorless but tangible. Silken skin covered the convexity of her stomach, skin so soft that he was afraid he would tear something. Her muscular legs, firm and sturdy from squatting by children as they worked their way through The Little Prince. He had mapped his lover’s body with the attention and precision of a dedicated cartographer. The only alteration he made to this topography was the affixed corona at the top of her head: her blonde hair.

He decided that she was beautiful, gorgeous, hot. So he made love with her every chance he got.

She murmured one night, “I love the way you touch me. It’s so … gentle.”

His fingertips glided along the slope of her shoulder. “It’s like when I read Braille,” he said. “If you press too hard, the contours and texture disappear. It’s the only way you can really see with your fingers, nice and gentle.”

“What do you see?”

“A beautiful blonde.”

She laughed. “You can’t see my hair.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

* * *

It was one of those hip cafes he loathed. Smells of strong coffee filled the air as the espresso machine whirred and belched. Plates and cups clanged from the open kitchen. People’s chatter crescendoed as they tried to be heard. The din bounced off the narrow corridor lined with brick, making him dizzy with noise.

“Over here!” his brother called, his baritone echoing. “It’s quieter int he back.”

As they all settled into their seats, his brother said, “So, you’re Greg’s new squeeze? Emily, right?”

Evie’s hand tightened around his. “Evie, actually.”

“Whoops, sorry. I’m terrible with names … geez, that drove my ex-wife crazy. Of course, everything about me drover’s her crazy,”

“Why’d you pick this place?” Greg asked. “It’s so loud.”

“Yeah, I know. Here’s the thing, I’m really into the waitress here, but she won’t go out with me. I thought maybe …”

“I thought you outgrew that,” Greg laughed.

“Hey, it used to work and why change what isn’t broke?”

When Evie asked what they meant, a bright voice interrupted her. Amy introduced herself as the server with the practiced friendliness of her profession.

“My brother here’s blind. Would you mind reading the menu?”

A pause. “Of course,” she said, her voice softening as she listed all of the specials. “I like the spicy turkey sandwich, personally.”

“Thanks, Amy,” his brother said as she collected all of their orders. By the time she had left, she and Bryan had entered about the Steelers game with her voice soft and genuinely friendly.

“I never understood it,” he said. “How they just completely change when they find out about me.”

Bryan chuckled. “Beats me. When I beat up kids for calling you names, girls were all over me. ‘Course, nothing beat the day when you did it all on your own.”

“You taught Greg to fight someone?” Evie gasped.

Bryan launched into the story, leaving out the bulk of the beginning and calling Doug Fletcher Derek Flint. “Lemme tell you, everyone thought Greg was Daredevil after that. Nobody dared cross him after that.”

The more accurate version of the story went more like this: When Greg emerged from the showers one day, he found his white cane gone.

“Hello?” he called out. Ellll-oooooooo? bounced off the concrete and metal of the locker room back at him.

The ventilation system clicked on, the sound reverberating throughout the small space. He whirled around and shouted, “I know you’re there! Give it back!”

The gym teacher found him crashing into benches and shouting, “Come out, you ass!” When the teacher asked him what in the hell he was doing, Greg replied that he knew there was someone there.

“Nobody’s here! Jesus Christ, you really are blind.”

The teacher turned out to be right. Doug Fletcher, a student whose pranks were his only claim to fame, was found tossing the white cane like a javelin by the benches. The school suspended him for a week with all of the teachers and students shaking their heads at how Fletcher had hoodwinked the poor blind boy. Doug wrote an apology letter: I’m real sorry about the whole thing. It seemed funny at the time but now I know it wasn’t. Sorry, man.

After Bryan read that note aloud in a mocking voice, he said. “What a spaz. Someone should give him a beatdown. Someone like you.”

His brother delivered on his words when he brought Doug Fletcher behind the bleachers one afternoon and told Greg to have at him.

“Hey,” Doug squeaked. “I’m real sorry and everything. Just a joke, bro.”

“It wasn’t a joke to me,” he said before slamming into Doug’s soft and skinny body. The next ten minutes were spent with him shoving the boy into the dirt as he babbled his apologies. As he got up, covered in dirt and grime, Bryan and his friends whooped and cheered him.

“See, guys?” Bryan hooted, “Nobody can fool my little bro and get away with it!”

Evie’s soft gasp followed. “Was that really necessary?”

“Had to be done. People always want to trick you when you’re blind, so he  put a stop to that like a champ,” his brother said.

The conversation meandered as Bryan recalled the good ole times when Greg used to sneak into the girl’s bathroom by claiming that he had gotten lost. “Tricky bastard,” Bryan chortled. “Nobody had the balls or the sense to call him on it.” To which Evie responded with silence that deepened as Bryan complained about his alimony and child support payments. By the time his brother reached the subject of his profession, Evie was fidgeting, which left Greg puzzled. “Tax season’s a bitch, let me tell you,” his brother said in between bites. “But once that lets up, my schedule’s free. I can go play ball with Chad. Great kid, hard to believe he’s mine.”

When Evie went to the bathroom, he turned to his brother. “She’s great, isn’t she?”

A silence followed. “She seems nice.”

“C’mon. She’s beautiful, smart, and nice.“

“Well … maybe smart and nice, but she’s kinda ugly. Sorry, bro.”

He stiffened. “You’re screwing with me.”

“Aw, come on. I wouldn’t do that.”

That wasn’t exactly true either. When he had been eleven, Bryan had given him a magazine to give to his grandmother. The magazine turned out to be Hustler, which made his grandmother sputter about how perverted boys were these days. His parents had hustled him away as he cried out, “What happened?”

They left as Amy was agreeing to meet Bryan after her shift. “Your brother …” Evie said, her voice discordant. “He’s so crude.”

The sound of jackhammers’ rat-tat-tat surrounded him in this neighborhood where former drug dens were now hip bars that charged $15 for a gimlet. The noise gave him a headache. “He’s a good guy.”

“How can he be when he’s encouraging you to fight?”

He removed his hand from her elbow. “People think I’m a sissy because I’m blind. Well, I have to show them.”

She remained silent. He tapped forward as the cacophony of hammers and drills distorted the world around him. Once he reached the intersection, he realized that he didn’t remember how to get to the car and had to wait for her to guide him.

“I’m sorry, Greg,” she whispered as she tucked his hand under her elbow. “I’m sure your brother’s a nice person … he just looks like an overgrown frat boy.”

* * *

He reached for her that night and discovered a few things.  The hips he thought charmingly round now felt downright matronly. Her breasts were lopsided and hair sprouted from around one nipple.  The softness around her jawline might’ve been jowls or ordinary curvature. Brittle hairs sprouted from her toes.

He wondered if these imperfections added up to something grotesque. Or whether the ugliness lurked beyond what could be touched, something beyond his reach. Or perhaps it lay in the composition of her otherwise ordinary features into something off balance, hideous.  

He felt himself soften.

His fingers pressed harder as he measured, weighted, and evaluated.

“Stop!” she cried. “You’re hurting me!”

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, sick to his stomach.

“Let’s go to sleep,” she said.

As he drifted off to sleep, a new silhouette had formed, a dysmorphic one with lopsided breasts and coarse hairs sticking out everywhere. He awoke in a cold sweat after dreaming that everyone was snickering at him as he walked around with the deformed woman. Don’t be an ass, he told himself, but the grotesque form stayed.

He asked Farsad, the cashier at his favorite Middle Eastern takeout place, what Evie looked like. Farsad hemmed and hawed: “Well  … she’s blonde … not too short, not too tall either … um … oh yeah, she’s kinda pale.” The kofte burned the top of his mouth that night.

With old-school Yinz lacing her words, Daphne told him: “My goodness, I don’t know what anyone looks like anymore. These strange plaid shirts … women wearing gym clothes like regular clothes! Nobody knows how to dress anymore. Now, Evie … at least she wears real pants instead of that yoga pants nonsense.”

Clive, the grocery clerk who stank of cigarettes despite his claims that he had given up the cancer sticks years ago, said: “What it matter to you? You can’t see her anyway.”

Bryan sighed into the phone. “I dunno. It’s hard to explain. Something’s just off about her face … her smile … no, her nose … I dunno. Just one of those things.”

He spent the next few weeks thinking about her delicate voice and soft touch—the old, gorgeous Evie. These fond memories faded as he heard the voice hiss at a little boy, “Keith! I saw you hit Grace. That is very bad! Do you want to become a bad person?” Her touch grew firmer and more painful as she steered him through a world full of invisible obstacles. By the fifth time that she complained that he left the toilet seat up, he couldn’t remember the beautiful silhouette any longer.

They sat in his living room listening to the Temptations warbling the lyrics, beauty is only skin deep. His gaze kept drifting to her figure as he searched for her true form. The last few weeks had been spent trying to exorcise the malformed Evie for the beautiful one, which left him with a confusing jumble of body parts, voices, and touches. The question kept arising: Which Evie was the real one?

He blurted it out. “Evie, please tell me if you’re ugly.”

“What?” her voice went stiff and cold.

He patted around for her hands, which lay limp in his. “I I’m sorry. It’s all right one way or another. I just need to know …”

Her hands slipped away. “If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask this.”

“If you loved me, you would tell me.”

The lyrics It’s love that really counts filled the room as she spoke. “You weren’t supposed to be like this, you shallow bastard.” A door slam soon followed.

He put his face into his hands. A bird burst into song outside, an aria of spring. The thought—Is the bird a plain sparrow or a majestic bluejay?—came to him and he hated himself for it but couldn’t help himself.

© Cristina Hartmann