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Legally Blind

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. — Dorothy Parker

When I was six years old I had an imaginary friend named Jesus. Like most children, I attributed nearly everything that happened or didn’t happen to my make-believe buddy. When things didn’t go my way, I would become angry and wave my middle finger — the way I’d seen adults do it — at the sky because, like the Care Bears, my omnipotent friend lived in a cloud. When I wasn’t blaming my invisible friend for my daily disappointments, I was begging him to play the role of fairy godmother and make my dreams come true. And the thing I wanted most of all was to be afflicted with a visual impairment. People who needed glasses to see were different, and I’d been taught that different meant special. It was clear from the sizeable goggles on their faces that my father and my sister Heather were special. I wanted to be special too.

I was 12 when it finally occurred to me that my imaginary friend was just that. I gave up my dream of being special and focused my attention on being liked — which meant blending in rather than standing apart, a difficult task given my ever-increasing pudginess. It also didn’t help that I sat in the front row of every class, where I could best see the board. I did so all through junior high, which was, not coincidentally, my straight-A phase.

I was in the ninth grade when my best friend Nancy’s mom, Mrs. Opfer, forever changed the way I viewed the world. We were watching a Steve Martin comedy, My Blue Heaven, on the television in Nancy’s living room. Mrs. Opfer sat in the chair closest to the tube, and I was next to Nancy on a couch about ten feet from the screen. Between scenes, narration would appear in the form of white text against a blue background. Each time the words came up, I’d ask Mrs. Opfer to read the text aloud. At first I think she assumed I was a slow reader. But by the third time, she said, “Can you not see those words?” I told her I could only make out blurry white lines and that her TV was too small for people to sit as far away as Nancy and I. “You should be able to see those words from there,” she said. Nancy nodded. Then, in her matter-of-fact Midwestern way, Mrs. Opfer voiced aloud the conspicuous truth that had been overlooked by my teachers, parents, sisters, and even me: “You need glasses.”

My mother was horrified — not because I needed glasses, but because she had failed to detect my need and because the same kind of thing had happened with my older sister. (It wasn’t until a free vision evaluation was offered at Heather’s elementary school that she learned not being able to read the time on the VCR without putting one’s nose against the machine wasn’t normal.) During my evaluation, I couldn’t tell the optometrist which direction the big E on the chart was facing, as I saw nothing more than a fuzzy rectangle. Normal vision is 20/20. Mine was 20/300.

When I collected my first pair of corrective lenses, it was as though I had been given a superhero power. No longer were trees composed of green cotton balls on a brown stalk — I could actually see individual leaves silhouetted against the azure sky. Objects were cartoonishly outlined. As Heather once put it, everything was so precise. The difference between pre- and post-glasses was so drastic that for the next month, I spent half the time lifting my specs up and down just to observe their effect — clear, not clear, clear, not clear, clear…

Disappointment set in when it became apparent that needing glasses did not make me special. Compounding my torment, it was around the same time I got my frames that my grades began to decline, dispelling the myth that people who wore glasses were smarter. When the novelty of 20/20 vision faded, I became self-conscious about looking nerdy and struggled neurotically to protect my lenses from scratches and dust. By the time I was a senior, my eyewear had gone from godsend to curse; for the first time in years I thought of my imaginary friend and how, like a mischievous leprechaun, he had been wily about giving me what I’d wished for.

In the name of vanity, I took to wearing contacts. A few years later, at a party in West Hollywood, my interest in eyewear was renewed. While I was chatting with a flamboyant, four-eyed friend-of-a-friend, he mentioned that in a few days he’d be getting Lasik eye surgery. He wore dainty wire frames with ultrasmall lenses that he kept referring to as his “dick-knees.” When I complimented his hip eyewear, he insisted I try them on. I obliged, and he became even more exuberant. “Those look fabulous on you! They look even better than they ever did on me. Take them.” I resisted, he insisted, and so on, until he said, “I won’t need them after the surgery, and I’m not planning to do much running around before, so just take them.”

It was only after the party that my friend Stephanie explained that “dick-knee” was the nickname for DKNY — Donna Karan New York. “You just scored a pair of frames that would have cost you a month’s rent,” she said. I had my prescription installed the next day. Finally, my glasses lived up to their potential — they kept me from running into things while making me look cool. All I needed was to find the perfect pair. I stopped spending money on contacts and started collecting frames as if they were shoes.

My sister Heather underwent Lasik shortly after she graduated from college, as did a handful of my myopic friends. Despite the success of their optical adjustments and their happiness with the results, for me, laser eye surgery was always either too expensive or too risky. Eventually, it was no longer a matter of money or fear, but a matter of preference. Whereas in school they were uncool, in adulthood my glasses had become fashion statements. I knew people who wore clear, nonprescription lenses in stylish frames because they liked the way they looked.

Though sometimes I wish I didn’t have to scramble out of bed and find my glasses in order to see the bird chirping right outside my window, or that I could watch what’s happening on the ceiling-mounted TV while I sweat away on the elliptical at the gym, I don’t mind my minor handicap. Quite the contrary. David has told me that my glasses were a huge draw for him when we first started dating. Something about finding women in glasses more attractive and how funky frames make a bold statement about the woman behind them.

Looking back on my life with 20/20 hindsight, I now realize that I was one precocious six-year-old.

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