“The grass upon the mountain sides had turned to gold.” — Heidi, 1881
I didn’t know when I woke up this morning that something horrible was about to happen, but in hindsight I should have, because my glasses, when I reached for them blindly from my position in bed, were not where I expected them to be: they were a few inches to the left. It was 8:15 am, and we’d all slightly — happily, I thought — overslept. My daughter needed to be at school at 9:00 am, so we had to move pretty quickly to make that happen. I jumped out of bed, went into the bathroom to splash water on my face, brush my teeth, and put my contact lenses in before going to get my daughter up. This is what I do every morning: Even if the baby is crying in her crib, I at least do the water and the contacts. I can sometimes get away with not brushing my teeth for a while, but I cannot abide by wearing my glasses for longer than it takes me to get from my bedside to the bathroom.
Less than a decade ago, I got into “wearing glasses” for a while even though my vision is so poor that contact lenses are really the only option for seeing clearly. Glasses offer some distinct advantages over contact lenses: They’re for lazy people, and though I’m not r e a l l y lazy I am slovenly, so the idea of plunking some glasses on my face rather than going through the whole contact lens ritual — washing hands, washing lenses, removing them at the end of the day, repeat — appealed to me. I also thought, in that phase, that glasses might make it less obvious that I didn’t wear makeup and sometimes had bad skin; I looked good in glasses, my boyfriend (now husband) assured me. I got a few pairs of very cute frames, some of which I still wear to this day for one minute each morning as I stumble from the bed to the bathroom.
That phase ended abruptly one afternoon in 2008 when I went to see my optometrist — the one who had fitted me for all of my new fashionable glasses — and he asked me how I was feeling. “I can’t really see anything,” I told him. One of the upsides, I went on, of living in New York City was that I never really needed to drive anywhere, so my vision didn’t have to be a hundred percent. “Your vision is 20/20 with these eyeglasses,” he assured me, “but it’s true that going back to contact lenses would bring a lot more clarity.” I had heard this story before.I started wearing glasses in second grade when I failed an eye exam at school. I’d known for some time that, clinically speaking, I “couldn’t see shit,” but I hadn’t said anything to anyone because I didn’t want to wear glasses. This was in 1986, and far pre-dated the notion of sexy geeks or cool librarians: Wearing glasses was likely to subtract my cool points, and I already had so few to spare. I didn’t even have front teeth yet, so I definitely couldn’t risk eyeglasses. But there in the optometrist’s office a few days later, with my mother by my side, I saw the world as I probably had never done before: well. Things suddenly appeared sharp and vivid. Life seemed full of new possibilities, like seeing the blackboard or the television clearly.
I decided then that I would wear the glasses as prescribed. I wouldn’t pull them out when I needed to “read” or “see” something. I would wear them from the time I awoke until the time that I went to bed. Of course, I was only seven or so, and this meant that numerous pairs of glasses died in my possession, carelessly stepped on while wrapped up in a towel poolside at my friend Allison’s house. I was a ball of anxiety there in the pool, calling “watch out for my glasses!” to the obnoxious group of girls — my “friends” — cavorting near my life-saving medical devices. “Not my fault!” I cried later that night after walking through what I thought was an open door but was actually a closed sliding screen door. I walked right out onto that fucking deck like it was no big deal. The screen was destroyed; wasn’t my fault that door was in the way. How many times did I proudly get on the school bus with taped up glasses, explaining breathlessly “my new pair will be in next week.” I never successfully had a backup pair of glasses for more than a few months. My vision kept getting worse so, inevitably, when my primary glasses died an awful death, my backup glasses got pulled out of my top dresser drawer, they were always a few prescriptions behind, resulting in even more minor injuries to myself or my surroundings.
1992 was a big year for me, and not just because I saw Ministry and Ice Cube at Lollapalooza. I was in tenth grade, and my parents finally deemed me “responsible” enough for contact lenses. I was fitted with expensive, non-disposable gas-permeable hard contact lenses. They cost like a hundred dollars a pair, and if I lost one, I had to wait at least a week for a replacement. Of course my parents bought me two pairs, but they flew out of my eyes on roller coasters, were easy to accidentally bite in half when I put them in my mouth to clean them off, and they were nearly impossible to find if I dropped one. They were so tiny and fragile, I was chewing through a pair every month or two. But they were also life-changing. For the first time since that first time at the optometrist’s office in second grade, I could see EVERYTHING. It was amazing, how much detail I’d missed out on! Never again would I make the mistake of wearing glasses when the contact lens option was present, I thought.
“It’s true,” the optometrist said to me in 2008, “that contact lenses would give you more clarity.” I agreed. After months of breaking my own rule never to wear glasses, I was done. I decided I should get some contact lenses, immediately. “Would you like to try soft contact lenses, instead? The vision won’t be quite as good as the hard lenses, but it will be much better than your glasses.” Yes, yes I would like to try them. And it turned out they were just fine.As I washed my hands this morning, blindly feeling around for a hand towel, my mind flashed to last night, when I’d fallen asleep on the couch with my contact lenses still in. This happens all the time, and though back in the hard contact lens days that spelled instant tragedy (corneal ulcers, infections that can cause blindness), these days it rarely does. But I knew, too, that when I had stumbled into the bathroom to remove them, I had still been half asleep.
I opened the right side of the case and there it was: my contact lens was destroyed, ripped in half by the screw top of the container the night before. I briefly thought about trying to put it in my eye before laughing and reaching in the cabinet under the sink for a new pair in the box. But the box was empty. I scrounged around in there, pushing away unused face masks and lotions, a Sephora fire sale explosion, grasping desperately for what I absolutely must find and for what I suddenly knew was not there: I was out. Kaput. All done. No more vision aids in here! I haven’t run out of contact lenses since I have had control of my own finances. I have always — even in the hard contact days — made sure I had other options. But my daughter was awake and I had less than half an hour to get her to school. I looked at my glasses sadly and put them on my face.The rest of the morning passed, to the view of an external party, uneventfully. I drove my daughter to school without crashing into anything, even though there were truckloads of city employees on my street who had somehow decided that today was the day the town’s trees should be pruned. I came home, had coffee. I read some emails. I oversaw the building of my new little desk (I’m writing at it right now, it’s great!) in my new little office. I counted out the minutes until 10:00 am when the optometrist’s office opened so that I could call and make an emergency appointment. When I did call, at 10:03 am, the woman who answered the phone was having computer trouble and asked me to call back in five minutes, so I did, and made an appointment for 1:30 pm. Nothing wrong here, but inside was all turmoil. I counted minutes. My glasses kept slipping down my nose, and though I could see alright, nothing felt right. Everything seemed off. I’d woken up with at least a small dose of “seize the day” and now I felt that life wasn’t even worth bothering. I was so irritated I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I harassed myself silently for acting like a baby, but it was inescapable: I can’t see shit! Of course, I can see shit: having grown up with a parent who was actually nearly blind made me profoundly aware of just how irrational my feelings were; and yet, I couldn’t stop feeling off.
This was the first time I’d ever been to this eye doctor’s office, because we just moved a few months ago. She was great, she was funny. She understood — my prescription, -7.50, speaks for itself. “I know it’s crazy,” I said, still pissed off about having to undergo the pressure test where the machine blows air into your eyes, “but I don’t feel like myself. I can’t see well, I’m angry. So even if they’re not the right contacts, I hope you can give me some today.” She fiddled with the machines and turned knobs, taking notes and making jokes with me. “Read the last sentence for me, if you can,” she said.
“The grass upon the mountain sides had turned to gold,” I read slowly, stopping and starting a few times, not because I couldn’t see but because the sentence didn’t sound right. I scrunched up my nose. Nothing was right today.
“What’s wrong with that sentence?” she asked, “if you don’t mind me putting you on the spot.” I wasn’t sure. “Mountain sides should be one word, I’m pretty sure,” I said, “but it’s all around a kind of weird sentence, right?” She laughed, “I’ve always wondered where that’s lifted from, but I’ve never looked.” “That’s interesting,” I told her, “I should write about that.” Ten minutes later, I was on my way, new contact lenses in my eyes, my glasses discarded on the passenger seat of my car, where they remain.