Since the day I was born, I have intermittently gone blind. ‘Episodic blindness’ the doctors call it. There’s no cure, and no known cause. Most specialists think it’s something to do with the arteries behind my eyes – they’re too narrow, damaged maybe. Every now and again they become that little bit narrower, blood flow is cut off, my optic nerves are starved of oxygen, and I go blind. I should never smoke, they tell me. My vision always comes back. Eventually.
Sometimes I can even control it by getting myself really heated. I think of something anger-inducing or exercise until I go red. Like the time I did jumping jacks outside the classroom until I was wheezing, then the familiar closing of curtains, and I stumbled into English and said I couldn’t write that essay today – couldn’t see.
In my final year of university, I met Bobby. We quickly became firm friends, despite having next to no overlapping interests. Something about our shared politics, no doubt. Bobby was a fine art student. He had specialised in photography. He walked around in multicoloured linen trousers and t-shirts. He had long hair and painted his nails but wasn’t gay. He didn’t mind people thinking he was gay. I liked that. I liked looking at him – he was pretty. Bobby wasn’t into me though, I didn’t think. I was too blobby in physique and clean-cut in mind. Bobby went out with svelte, foreign girls who knew where to buy marijuana and went to street protests. Bobby could be an arse.
One night, Bobby came over to watch a film. We had been meaning to watch this film for months. I wouldn’t meet up in the week so close to exam season, and Bobby liked to go out on weekends. Bobby had tried to see me before parties, after I’d finished revision, but without success. So, we’d waited until a hole appeared in our respective schedules. It was a cheesy zombie B-movie. No substance, only slashing. We were chewing through packets of popcorn and cosying up for warmth, wrapping our legs together under the fleecy blanket in my freezing flat. Bobby mock-startled after each zombie attack, laughing and miming choking to death on the popcorn. It was a silly evening, and what I needed to unwind.
Gradually, the scares got more intense. The blood and gore started to make me feel queasy. Bobby was used to me taking a turn part way through a horror film, so he knew to put his arm round me, and helped shield my eyes during the worst parts.
Then, I felt the wheels start to crank. The familiar static muted the edges of the room. From the corners of my eyes two big, heavy curtains were pulled. Everything went black.
I waited a moment in the hope that my vision would reappear quickly. But then I heard the movie music climax, heard a television scream and felt Bobby jump beside me. I felt him turn and shake my shoulder with one hand.
He stage-whispered “Did you not see that Tilda!” He laughed when I laughed and shook my head.
“No, can’t see a thing.”
Bobby paused the film and started chatting to me about the scene I’d missed. He pulled on my curls as he talked making a ‘boing’ noise to the tune of ‘Oranges and Lemons’. I listened and told him to go back to touching my hair when he stopped. I don’t like not knowing where the people around me are, whether they’re still nearby, when I go blind.
I started to see the glow, like a wind-up torch being turned on in the far, back corner of the room. Like an old cathode ray television crackling into life. I could see Bobby’s hand moving up and down as he stroked my head.
For some reason, I didn’t tell Bobby. I didn’t say anything as my sight came back, even once I could see as clearly as ever. I kept my head still and tried to give my eyes what I hoped was a vacant glaze.
Bobby stood up and said he was going to the kitchen to make more drinks. “I’ll be back in a min Till, shout me if you need anything.”
I sat listening to the clink of glasses in the kitchen and the running of the tap. I didn’t dare move my eyes from the spot on the wall in case Bobby noticed.
Bobby came back in, carrying two cokes and two teas. I could just see him in my peripheral vision. He walked in near-silently, stepping first on his toes then gently lowering his heel to the carpet. I watched him bend slowly to the ground and place the cups and glasses on the floor. I wondered if he was planning to sneak up on me, frighten me, and felt disappointed in him.
Instead, he padded over to his bag, and eased open the zipper. He slipped in his hand and took out his camera. He walked towards me, around the back of the couch, and passed out of my field of vision. I didn’t dare move my head. I didn’t dare move my eyes. I kept still, then thought that might give me away as much as moving to look at him, so I fidgeted, scratched my cheek with my mouth open and ugly, as if I hadn’t realised he’d come back into the room.
When Bobby reappeared from behind the couch he was looking at me. He came close and lifted his camera. He looked through the lens and played with the angle, then dropped to his knees to shuffle even closer. He pointed the camera at my face and held the shoot button down, taking a stream of rapid shots. Each time he pulled the camera away to study my face he stared at me, and though he didn’t realise it I stared back. He stared at me with a perfectly relaxed face, one eyebrow hanging naturally below the other where the muscles were slacker.
As his eyes wandered over my face his expression flickered, showing shades of kindness and disgust, love and fear. It was like the face of someone watching a baby sleeping, knowing the little life being observed cannot possibly watch you back. It was the most honest anyone had ever been about me, the most innocent gaze I’d ever seen directed my way. Bobby watched me for a minute more and took more photographs. Then he snuck his camera back to his bag and picked up our cups. As he picked them up he let them clatter together, and I took the cue to turn his way.
“Hi Bobby, you took your time.”
“Yah, sorry. Water took ages to boil. Can you see yet?”
“Not yet, but it’s coming back.”
We finished our film and Bobby walked the short walk home. I forgot about our film night, and Bobby’s photos, in the chaos of the January exams. I didn’t think about them again until Bobby invited me to his house to see his new photo series.
I was looking at the prints he’d hung on the wall (they were mostly candid shots of commuters, taken from the pavement into the window of a bus passing by, or from inside a coffee shop out into the street) when I felt the familiar blurring. Suddenly the lights cut out, and I called for Bobby. He didn’t appear. I thought perhaps he went outside while I was looking at the photos, maybe to smoke. I leant back against a desk for stability and waited it out. When my vision started reappearing I saw Bobby was in the room with me. I hadn’t heard him come in. He had his camera to his eye and was taking close-up pictures of my face. Like last time, I pretended to be blind for longer than was true.
The third time was different from the other two in that we were outside and in a rush. Bobby was snapping pictures of passers-by, and I said I’d run ahead so as not to be late for a lecture. It was the exercise which probably triggered it. Bobby caught up, held onto my arm and said he’d guide me. When my vision came back, Bobby had kept one hand on my arm and in the other was holding up his camera, inches from my face.
I didn’t want to confront Bobby about the pictures because I didn’t want him to stop taking them, and it was clear to me that my not knowing was important for whatever goal Bobby had for all this, otherwise he would have asked, or told me. Being the subject of Bobby’s secret photos was thrilling, made me special. More special, I sometimes thought, than his girlfriends, especially when Bobby looked at me between shots, with that soft look that was stripped free of all embarrassment and affectation.
When I did confront Bobby, it was because I was afraid.
I was walking back late from the library when I felt the sudden, awful feeling that one gets when being watched. I turned around, left then right, but saw no one there. I walked quicker and pushed my keys between my knuckles. My heart rate rose and rose, until I knew it was unavoidable. The world went black and I stood alone and blind on an out-of-the-way dirt path.
As I waited for the lights to come back on I heard a rustling in the leaves beside me. I spun towards the direction of the sound and almost lost my balance. Then the rustling was coming from my other side, then from in front. I spun and tripped and felt myself land in the mud. Hard. Sensing danger, my body scrambled, and finding some new short-cut, like flipping on a generator to compensate for a faulty fuse, my brain restored my vision in an instant. The lights came back on. I saw Bobby, camera in hand, leaning over me. His face was impassive, focused on mine, which looked up from the dirt.
I found Bobby a few days later, eating with friends in the canteen. I waited until he went to take his tray to the clean-up trolley and asked him for a quiet word.
“Sure Tilda. Everything ok?”
“No, it’s not. And I need to speak to you about it.”
Bobby looked concerned. I wondered if he was worried about what I might ask.
We walked a few paces away, into a quiet area of the hall. I said, and I’d thought carefully about how and what to ask first, “Tell me again what your current photo series is about.”
“That’s all?” He looked doubtful, but continued when he saw I was serious, and, staying mute, would say nothing more until I heard his answer. “It’s a study of people’s faces and bodies, un-posed. I’m trying to get shots of people’s micro-expressions, the ones they try to smooth away when grinning for the camera. The daily stuff. The stuff you and I see but can’t record – expressions which flash across the face too quickly, or which are half-imagined anyway, projections of our own ideas of the person. Stuff we’re too busy or ashamed to share, or which goes against the way we want to be seen by others. Humility. It’s proving really difficult to get enough detail in the shots though – people notice when you stick a camera close to them, then the whole un-posed thing disappears.”
I got angry then. “You pompous prick! And you thought this pretentious piece of student coursework was a good enough reason to nearly frighten me to death, to leave me rolling around in the mud?”
Bobby went white, stuttered. “How long have you known?”
“Since the time at my flat, during the zombie film. Was that the first?”
“How many times?”
“I don’t know. Dozens.”
“Why Bobby? Can’t you imagine how creepy this is for me? How invaded I must feel?”
“Yes – I’m sorry Tilda. I’m so sorry. I know it’s wrong – but – no, that’s it. I know it’s wrong, but I keep doing it. Look, before you make any decisions, will you look at the photos? I’ve not shown them to anybody else yet. You were always going to be the first one to see them. Once I was done.”
Bobby started flicking through pictures saved on his phone. Before I had time to say anything, to hit him maybe, he held up the screen.
A hundred, a thousand, there are some pictures which can’t be exchanged for words, at least not mine. You’re just going to have to believe me – I looked beautiful. Beautiful, and painfully exposed. As beautiful as a porcelain-skinned baby in floods of tears, or the guts of a dog on a dissection table. As distinctive as petrichor. The photo showed a tight frame of my face, cutting off my hair and the outer edges of my cheekbones. I was looking into the space around the camera, not seeing the lens itself. My eyes were deep but clouded – you could look into them, but you couldn’t read my mind – as if the person behind the eyes was struggling with difficult thoughts, thoughts tied up in a Gordian knot, thoughts which were at the same time precious.
My jaw was a touch slack, like I was breathing through my mouth, and you could see my lips turn down at the corners, like I had been daydreaming about something unpleasant, or was in slight pain. There was something simultaneously disgusting and ethereal, welcoming and closed-off, happy and sad, naive and ancient about my plain face. Utterly sincere. Utterly willing to be flawed where I was flawed, and clear-skinned and symmetrical where I was not. Nothing like the magazine covers, social media pics, or even framed family photos at home. I was just me, and I both hated the photo and what it revealed of me and wanted a permanent copy, so I could always look and remind myself just who I was and how human. I followed the fine lines on my forehead, lingered on the half-a-penny sized mole above my left eye. I thought of looking at Bobby the first time and his drooping eyebrow.
I let Bobby keep the photos, but he must consult me before he submits them anywhere. I still haven’t let him. Maybe I never will.
Grace Roberts has been published in STORGY and has performed her poetry at open mics in Nottingham and London. She works in a library. She tweets here.