The Weight of Brightness

This morning, a call came through to remind me of my appointment at the ophthalmologist’s office. If I had recently made a doctor’s appointment, it was beyond my awareness.

“I’m busy this afternoon,” I told the receptionist, which was true. I meant to spend the afternoon at the library.

“This isn’t the kind of appointment that can be rescheduled,” she said, her voice snappish.

I stared at the remains of breakfast: eggs, hollowed grapefruit shells, an ounce of coffee. I watched the sun slice the clouds and beam pale winter light on the table. My vision blurred, and a headache stole up my neck, where it settled at the base of my skull.

I agreed to keep the appointment—I don’t know why. My vision was perfect, despite my head cold that gave me double sight—two phones, two coffee cups, and ten fingers on one hand.

I laid my head on my arms and fell asleep while considering my latest thesis statement: “This paper is meant to wake you up.” My eyes snapped open and slid closed again. No, that wasn’t it. It was much more complex than that, having to do with mitochondrial disarray and . . .

Later, I locked up my apartment and commanded myself to drive to the library. But I didn’t. Instead, my car coasted across the bridge and carried me into downtown, where I took a left on Broadway and entered a parking garage on the same block as the ophthalmologist’s office, which I’d never visited before, but there it was with a bright yellow eye and monocle painted on the window. As I passed the window to reach the door, I observed that the eye was a 3-D prism, painted in such a way that the pupil appeared to follow my movements—otherwise known as the phenomenon of the observer observed.

Inside, I sank into a chair and opened an outdated issue of Sky and Telescope. I was intent on reading an article on red dwarfs, but the receptionist informed me the doctor was waiting. I glanced at my watch, which I had precisely set by my cell phone. I was ten minutes early.

Magazine in hand, I followed the receptionist’s directions to enter the first room at right. A man in a doctoral lab coat sat on a standard stool while he studied the contents of a file. Surely, he didn’t have a file on me yet.

His face was like an old friend’s, though. The wiry blond curls that sprang from his head, the domed forehead and beaked nose—his familiarity niggled at me in that knowing and not knowing way. He raised his face and smiled, revealing two rows of square, horsey teeth. He was my high school history teacher, or the man’s doppelgänger. What an odd retirement job.

“Mr. Montpierre?”

“Call me Dr. Randall,” he said. “Put the magazine down and have a seat, please.”

“All right, but I don’t know what I’m doing here. I have 20-20 vision.”

“Says here you’re nearsighted.”

“You must have the wrong file.”

“No, I don’t think so. Why don’t you rest your forehead and look through this eyepiece, tell me what you see?” He pressed my head to the machine.

Wonder of wonders, I clearly saw an eye chart. I read off the rows of letters until he told me to stop. Then another chart appeared. I read off the first line, which contained black arrows moving in various directions, so I read them off as if I were a navigator: southeast, northwest, true north. The next row was composed of figures that might have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. My stomach churned in the same sick way it used to when I hadn’t studied properly for his history exams.

“It’s an Egyptian equation,” I guessed. “A math problem. Those birds represent numbers.” The figures disappeared. I raised my head and allowed my eyes to refocus. “See? I have perfect vision. All’s clear.”

He looked at me and shook his head sadly, as if I’d betrayed his faith in me.

“Didn’t I pass the test?”

He slid a pair of hideously unattractive bifocals from his coat pocket. “Try these,” he said.

“But I don’t need them.”

“Just try.”

He slipped them, a perfect fit, over my ears and rested them on my nose. The room snapped into focus. How had I not noticed the world was fuzzy before? And dark—the world was once dark, and now the air glowed as if touched everywhere by sizzling photons. I jumped from the chair and witnessed everything—every crag in his face, every looped fiber of the reddish-brown carpet, every spot on the ceiling. There were approximately 10,000 spots for every 4×4 ceiling tile. If I subtracted the light panels, there were . . .

Who cared? I had a world to explore. I left the examination room, wandered past the receptionist’s desk, and opened the door to the outside world, where the light flooded my new sight. I heard babbling behind me, but my ears were as dim as ever. Instead, the light sang to me, along with the world in every particular.

I heard yelling, but I didn’t listen, couldn’t make out the words anyway. I wandered up the hills and valleys of the sidewalk, following the edges of brightness until the sheer weight of it landed on my skin, and I collapsed.
I collapsed under the weight of brightness, the sheer bliss of it blindingly cold.

I pulled off the glasses, and the world dimmed and swooshed with noise, gagged me with the odor of mud and grass. I lay on the riverbank—on the verge.

I slid the glasses back on, sat up on the wet grass and stared at the water because it lapped with complexity, much more than being awake, much more than mitochondrial disarray.

Only one thought dulled my pleasure at such minute beauty: I wouldn’t reach the library this afternoon, and perhaps never again. It would take me too long to get there.



  1. just found your blog by linking from decompose. you are a great writer! loved this story. i always love it when i find people who handle the English language/grammar/punctuation in a respectable manner.

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