THE FIRST CATARACT
by Michael Reilly
The sun lights the bathtub stall through a hole in the window shade, and the cold water falling from the faucet sparkles. I hear the phone ringing and race from the bathroom. "Let it go to voicemail," says Andrew, still in bed. He's pretending to have been asleep. But I know that although his face appears to be pressed against the edge of the mattress, he's really looking over the side of the bed at my sketchbook. His arm hangs down languorously, but it's so he can turn pages without appearing to be snooping.
I pounce on the handset. "Hello!" I say, but it's not the doctor. It's Darcy.
"You gotta come over for breakfast," she says. "I just finished my grad school application."
Issue #67 soundtrack: The Top "Pilot"
Andrew gets out of bed and wanders off to use the bathroom I just left. I was trying to think of ways to make the bath even colder -- adding ice maybe -- but now I hear him turn on the shower, so I guess I'll be waiting, thanks to this phone call. I sit on the bed where the sheets are still warm from Andrew's body. I roll around uncomfortably until I find a cool spot. I pick up my sketchbook. It's an old book. The black vinyl cover's scuffed and the spine's broken.
"I have work to do today. I have to go out and buy some supplies. I have deadlines," I tell Darcy.
"I want you to read my application essay."
I lean over the side of the bed and pick up my cigarette pack. I tap a cigarette out and stick it in my mouth to see how long I can go without smoking it. I turn a page in the sketchbook. The pages, the used ones, are crowded with ancient nudes of Andrew. The pages are filled with the lines I used years ago to get to know him. If I were to draw Andrew now, I'd need different lines. Which is why I probably wouldn't do it.
I did start a new drawing the other day--but not of Andrew. I worry about him seeing it--at least before it's finished and I'm sure it's good. But I'm wondering if my worrying about Andrew's snooping in the sketchbook is really just a way to keep from thinking about Magee's call. I drop the book onto the floor.
"Come for lunch," I tell Darcy. "It's miraculous weather for April. We can have a picnic on the roof. If I'm not back when you get here, just go on up." I plan to sit in the bedroom and not respond when Darcy knocks on my door.
"Okay. Wait till you read this essay. I really piled it on!"
I hang up. I get off the bed, walk over to Clancey's cage and lift the burlap cloth that's covering it. Clancey's a white parakeet. He's an old bird; I've had him a long time. He peers at me in anticipation. While I'm feeding him, Andrew comes out of the bathroom, clean and wet. He has a towel around his waist. Andrew's a beautiful man, with an intriguing pattern of hair on his body. But the best part about him is he has a heart as deep as a wishing well.
I take the cigarette out of my mouth and give him a doleful look.
"What's the matter?" he asks.
"I don't want Darcy to come here."
"You could've told her no."
"It's impossible with her." I sigh, a victim of the impossibility of Darcy. "I'm not in the mood to see people. All I can think about is that the longer it takes Magee to call back, the faster the cataract is growing."
Andrew cups my chin and urges my face toward his. He looks into my eyes. His face looks like a big fish eye to me when he does that. "They look perfectly clear to me," he says softly and kisses each of my eyelids.
"I can't wait till all this is over and we're back on the normal side of things."
I start to hug Andrew – the closest I am able to get to him under the circumstances: I got a bad sunburn yesterday, sunbathing on the roof among the skylights and the ventilation ducts. I decided to sunbathe like a nudist, but as a consequence this time I burned myself worse and in more places than I'd realized. The friction between our bodies chafes my sunburn. So I try not to think about the pain, and I find myself imagining I'm someone else. I imagine I'm Darcy. She looks over my husband's shoulder. She looks down his back, across the whorls of hair. I see Darcy's spindly legs, with their downy sheen of pale blond hair that has never been shaved, cradling my husband.
Around mid-morning, after Andrew leaves for work, I decide to test the answering machine. I need to go out of the house to do that, because we don’t have a cell phone. We never have had one; I don’t like them. So I leave and walk down the cracked front stoop, past St. Thomas the Apostle Church and school yard, flip-flopping in my sandals along the sidewalk, which is so broken it almost forms steps as it leads down the hill. As I reach the pay phone outside the boarded-up video store, I wish I'd worn a T-shirt instead of a tank top, to keep this searing sun off my damaged skin. The waistband of my shorts rubs like sandpaper. The cloth scrapes on me as I walk. In fact the only comfortable clothing would be none and the only comfortable place would be a refrigerator. I try to stand in the shade, in the thin shadow of the beat-up graffiti-scratched phone box, as I pick up the receiver wondering if the payphone will still work. There’s a dial tone, so I drop the coins into the slot and punch in our telephone number. My heart beats hard as I wait through the ringing, as if I don’t really believe a call can go through on this old thing. But then Andrew's recorded voice picks up: "Hello. You have reached the home of Andrew Cork and Helen O'Neill. . . ."
So I say to the machine, "I hope Magee calls before I get home."
On my way back I see children in wrinkled Catholic school uniforms going into the church. I follow them. The children are here to practice their first confessions. Ordinarily the church nave vibrates with the mystery of silence; the air fills up with a million stale particles of incense and prayer and fear. But this morning that's masked by conversation and excitement as a regiment of untucked shirt tails, askew belt buckles, baggy tights and loose knee socks goes marching in. The children sit in the pews and become attentive to the nuns who will lead them through a mock confession. They turn silent, they look into their consciences, they prepare to encounter guilt.
I sit at the back of the church. I gaze toward the altar, a stack of marble in the dim distance. The sight is blurry, either because of the distance, or because of the cataract. Would a normal person be able to see that far?
Then the church strikes me as a pleasant place to sit. It's cool in here, and the children’s restlessness is like my own. Sunshine hits the stained-glass windows and the colored panes glow like light boxes with pictures of saints: St. Peter, who denied he knew Jesus on the night of the trial; James, who marveled at the transfiguration of Christ and then slept as Jesus was arrested; Matthew, who worried about money; jealous Paul, who became obsessed with atoning for his past; Teresa, who wanted to be comfortable; Jude, the patron of lost hope.
And the most honest of saints, the Apostle Thomas, who admitted he could not believe without holding Jesus' wounded hand.
I get up from the pew and go into the confessional room when it's my turn. Inside the tiny room, a nun acts the part of the priest. I sit down facing the nun, whose eyebrows spring upward in astonishment. "Who are you?" she says.
"Helen O'Neill. I'm your next-door neighbor."
"This isn't confession. This is practice. For the children. You have to leave." The nun appears distressed, worried that someone--the principal, perhaps the pastor--will learn I've disrupted the rehearsal.
"I know this isn't confession. I felt like talking."
"I can't talk to you now," says the fretful nun.
"Please." So I grab the nun's hand. "I may be going blind. I have to have an operation. They're going to cut my eye open." I hear myself speaking quickly, trying to say everything before the nun's shock wears off, before she throws me out.
The nun yanks her hand away. "I am not a priest. I can’t hear your confession. You need a priest,” she says, her face turning as red as my skin. "This is for the children. They're waiting to come in!"
I stand, shove open the door and run from the room, fleeing down the aisle, past the practicing children.
When I open the church door to leave, the brightness outside explodes at me. Then Darcy is there, in the explosion, on her way up the hill toward our house, clutching a piece of paper. She appears to be wearing only a red-and-white softball shirt, but I know one of her bikinis is underneath. Probably the blue-and-white striped one. That's the one she likes to wear.
"Um, hi," I say.
"You're coming out of church," says Darcy. Darcy often states her observations of the obvious; the statements are simple, but they contain a hint of inscrutable judgment: "You'll put a lot of work into this place," she said, when she first visited our house; "You sure have a lot of pencils," she said, when she looked at my drawing table.
Darcy is six years older than I am. She started out as my baby-sitter when I was eight. As I got older, closing the gap, Darcy turned into a surrogate sister, and, eventually, my friend. At my wedding, Darcy turned into my maid of honor. As my marriage developed, she turned into a nervous wreck.
Then she got sick. Darcy is as thin as she is because of a thyroid condition. She feels lousy much of the time, but people look at her and don't see her blackened, bulging eyes; they see that she can wear a bikini at forty and they tell her she looks great. They ask for her secret.
I'm embarrassed that Darcy finds me stepping out of church, though I’m not sure why – I’m still reeling from my foolish confrontation with the nun, and I imagine Darcy and the merciless nun commiserating about me. I walk quickly away from the building, as if being quick will hide where I've been. Walking fast in clothes when you have sunburn is hard. Every step I take is pain.
"I don't want to go up to the roof today," I say. "I got a pretty bad sunburn, especially on my sit-down."
"You really kill yourself to avoid tan lines," Darcy says. "My little exhibitionist."
"It's very private up there."
We walk into the house and climb the stairs. "The plaster in the stairwell is flaking," observes Darcy.
So I run my hand over the flaking plaster and feel defensive. We go into the apartment and I say, "Do you want a Diet Coke?"
"I'd rather have a root beer."
"We don't have any."
"Let me see what you do have." She walks into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator.
I follow her in and go straight to the answering machine; I listen intently to my test message, as if beneath the sound of my voice might be a hidden message from the doctor. Then I rewind the test message and play it again.
"That's your voice," says Darcy, taking the bottle of Diet Coke out of the refrigerator.
"I'm making sure the answering machine records okay."
"It does a good job with your voice. Who's Magee?"
"My eye doctor," I say impatiently, because I've told Darcy about the cataract, and about Magee. I rewind the machine urgently. "He hasn't called. I don't think he's going to."
"I hope Magee calls . . ." the recording begins again. Darcy turns off the machine.
“Cataracts are rapids.”
"I may be going blind!"
“In Egypt, the rapids on the Nile are called the Cataracts. There are a series of them.”
“What…are you talking about?”
"No one's fate happens overnight. It happens so you can get used to it."
But Darcy's wrong: The life of things passes by like a rushing, galloping horse, changing at every turn, at every hour.
“So you can do something different," Darcy continues. "Just like me and grad school. I'm letting my illness guide me toward knowledge."
"Very wise. But we're not talking about you," I say. Then I say abruptly, "I have to change into something else," because my clothes are killing my sunburn. I walk into the cluttered bedroom.
Andrew and I live in just this one room, it seems; our lives have started to happen in just this one room. I've set up my drawing table beside the large window. When Andrew works at home, he uses the bed as his desk as he bangs away on his laptop. Magic markers, colored pencils, gum erasers, and storyboard pads clutter the room. We keep telling each other we'll spread out as soon as we fix up the rest of the house. So as I strip off my clothes, I realize the arrangement irritates me. Before we can go to sleep every night, we have to move everything out of the way. We put Andrew's work on the floor in neat piles surrounded by the rest of the paraphernalia of our one-room life: printed coupons, aborted, crumpled drawings, ash trays, the digital camera with images still needing to be organized, wine glasses, and socks.
I look into the closet and clench my teeth as I wonder what I can endure wearing. I wish Darcy weren't here. I pick my cigarette pack off the floor, stick a cigarette in my mouth and decide to light it. When I strike the match, the flame ignites loudly.
"Your skin looks like a ripe plum. You could probably glow in the dark."
Darcy's followed me into my bedroom. She stands in the doorway with her glass.
"Skin cream is good for a burn."
"I don't have skin cream," I say.
Darcy spots my sketchbook on the floor and picks it up. She flings herself onto my bed, her softball shirt sliding upward, showing her bikini pants and the white skin of her back, and she opens the sketchbook as if it were a novel.
"Can I take a look at these? Oh--God. These are me. Helen! Right here in the bedroom where Andy can see them!" Darcy has always called Andrew "Andy," to suggest an intimacy exists between them.
I imagine myself turning, right now, and walking out the battered door, down the flaking stairwell, down the steep-sloped street, to disappear: How easy it feels, walking away from Andrew and Darcy, leaving them to heave together in the cradle of each other's lives.
And, how's this: I would never have to see either of them again. I begin to laugh out loud.
While I chuckle at my own joke, Darcy studies my old sketches, looks at the rendition of her more youthful nudity with the horror, and fascination, of one hearing her own voice on tape. She does not ask me why I'm laughing. "I look weird," she says. "But I guess you didn't make me look too bad. I was plumper then. You do a good job of drawing skin that looks like skin."
She turns the page: "This drawing isn't finished. Who is . . . ? Helen, you're drawing me again…” Darcy smiles. "It looks just like me--or will! That's incredible. Without even seeing me. From memory!"
"I'm using old lines." I snatch the sketchbook away, becoming aware that my heart is again beating hard. Actually, the drawing is not supposed to be Darcy. It's supposed to be a self-portrait. I want Darcy to forget her self-indulgence, just once--to be the older one again. I want Darcy to ask me how I feel.
But she merely changes gears as immediately as she usually does, gazing across the room to Clancey's birdcage. "He must think it's night all the time," she says.
So I take another drag on my cigarette and when I exhale, the plume of smoke hangs like a fog. "Sometimes I let him out. He's noisy."
Darcy gets off the bed and lifts the burlap cloth off the cage to peer at Clancey. She points her finger toward him. He spreads his feathers and hops from perch to perch.
"Don't menace him!"
"I'm just looking. A bird isn't a cat."
"Do you have your essay?" I say peevishly. "Let's hear it." I step between Darcy and the cage, and I drop the cover over the bird.
Later, I say to Andrew, "Darcy says my skin is a plum." I lie on the bed and Andrew sprays the back of me with Solarcaine.
"Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb, and pulled out a plum . . ." I can't see what Andrew does, but it feels like he sticks in his thumb. It hurts.
"Darcy has a lot of hostility," says Andrew.
"So must you."
"She makes every decision I make feel shameful."
"You take her too seriously."
"I've known her for twenty-six years. Better hope I take you seriously in twenty-six years.
"You need to develop a tougher skin."
"Right. That's what we all need to survive: A tougher skin. A series of cataracts."
"One thing I'd do if I were you is I'd stop sunbathing for a while." He sounds like a scolding father. He doesn't sound like a husband. Not like my husband, anyway.
I stub my cigarette into the ashtray, which sits filled with ashes on the bed beside my shoulder. I put my head down and lay my arms at my sides as if I am sunbathing. "Yeah. Well. I promise not to go up to the roof again. Unless it's to jump."
"I'm sorry Dr. Magee didn't call today," Andrew says.
"I don't know what the big deal is. It's just surgery. It's just blindness." Then I say sadly, "More spray, please?"
". . . And said, What a good boy am I!" Andrew sprays my back and it feels wet and cooled.
After midnight I give up on sleep. I lie on my belly, in the same position I was in when Andrew sprayed me, and he sleeps on his back alongside me: We lie feet to head, head to feet; dark red skin, bright moonlit white; marriage's yin, its yang.
Beneath his burlap, Clancey's uncharacteristically restless. Hidden, he makes the cage quiver and swing as he hops about. I listen to the scratching and peeping, and the bird sounds take over the room.
I crawl off the bed and wander into the kitchen. When I find myself next to the telephone, I pick it up to listen to the dial tone. But I hear nothing. So amazed, I panic. It can't be dead, it has to work, it can't be dead, it has to work, my thoughts chant as I study the phone. If it is dead, then the answering machine, which connects directly to it, is dead too.
Barely resisting the urge to jump up and down with the childlike frustration I feel, I notice the cord going into the wall has an unusual bit of slack to it; then I discover it has come out of the phone jack, and I can't believe it.
Darcy must have pulled out the cord. I surrender to my urges and, in a fury, cursing Darcy, I hurl the machine across the room. It smashes itself against the refrigerator door. The machine shards rain down.
I begin to cry because I feel foolish, because there is no logical reason to believe Darcy would disconnect the cord, and the evidence is only circumstantial. I fall to my knees, like I'm in church, and, as I collect the scattered pieces of the answering machine, I fear what Andrew will say when he finds out about my tantrum. I stand, resolved to hide what's left of the machine, and decide to throw the pieces into one of the other apartments.
I unlock the front door. My stepping into the openness of the stairwell exhilarates me. We have no tenants yet, but wandering around what will become a common area makes me feel powerful. I transform the house. I become a ghost, holding the broken pieces of the answering machine she had in life.
As the ghost climbs the stairs I realize that instead of cursing Darcy I should call her, tell my friend what my own fear prompted me to do. We could laugh about it: talking on the phone in the darkness of the night, laughing at life's unearned harshness with the alacrity that marked our less complicated, more innocent friendship of childhood.
I imagine us having a good laugh together, and it is as if she were accompanying me like a guide up through the black, stifling heat of the stairwell as the two of us feel, and giggle over, the creaks of each step beneath our bare feet. We reach the top landing, unlock the roof door, and when we walk outside we encounter a cool night air that washes over our awful skins like holy water.
This is the first time I have ever come up here at night, and I stand at the edge of the roof, marveling at this sweet miracle that is sight--at the eyes' ability to adjust to bright and dark. The neighborhood is a field of black stretching out beneath me, dotted only here and there with a light. Next door, the stone crucifix on the great roof of St. Thomas the Apostle Church is brightly lit.
I sit down on the roof, surrounded by the delicious night. A breeze blows through my hair; it tickles my shoulders. I let go of the answering-machine pieces and lie back. The warping roof seems to have anticipated me with a mold of my body, fitting underneath me like the palm of a hand. In this position I now gaze upward, at the stars. The moon must have set, for the sky is full. I watch a meteor shoot across the sky, a single drop in a shower of light.
Carried by the cool night breeze, the faint shrill sound of someone's telephone, ringing unanswered, reaches my ears.
Michael Reilly’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, SWARM, A Twist of Noir, and the Glens Falls Review. He currently makes his living as a freelance writer, and lives in northwestern Connecticut.
Ellen Mueller has exhibited nationally and internationally as an interdisciplinary artist exploring the shared, everyday challenge of resisting change and maintaining control. She received her MFA in Studio Art from University of South Florida. Recent exhibitions span a variety of venues including CNN.com, the Cardiff Story Museum, and the Taubman Museum of Art. Recently, she has been selected for residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Ucross Foundation, and Santa Fe Art Institute. Visit her online at ellenmueller.com.
The Top is a Brooklyn-based band led by Clemens Knieper, a composer's son from Berlin who moved to the Berkshires as a youngster to live with family friend and Orange Twin artist Sibylle Baier, who both taught him to write songs and to drive. Now he makes sepia-toned folk and pop as The Top, where he’s joined by Dan Stern (drums), Aaron Green (keys) and James Preston (bass). The band is unsigned, and released a new EP entitled Hands on April 23rd. For more, visit The Top online at thetoptheband.com.