by Michelle Ross
When the optometrist enters the darkened exam room, he doesn’t say a word to me. He slides the door shut. He sits. He breathes. He exudes an odor of wood and earth, like he’s just emerged from the wild, though outside the optometry office is merely a bagel shop, a taco joint, and a mattress store. Without my contact lenses, I see only his general shape. It’s like when a character in a movie wakes from a chloroform-induced unconsciousness: The director shoots the scene out of focus, substitutes sound for sight. An erratic drip. The ticking of a clock. Footsteps echoing against concrete. Neither the viewer nor the character knows yet what’s happening, but they’re both alert, hearts quickening.
This is what I know: The man in this tiny room, the size of a custodial closet, isn’t my usual optometrist. My optometrist asks me how I’m doing. He talks about his children, two boys who both take karate lessons and subsist on a diet of cheese, potatoes, and sugar.
When the optometrist in the room now finally speaks, he says only, “Are you satisfied with your contacts?”
I say, “Uh-huh.”
He says, “Excuse me?”
I say, “Yes.” Before a woman in black scrubs told me to wash my hands and remove my contact lenses, the mirror before me reflected a tiny black and white birthday cake on the eyechart behind me. Now I can’t see even a smudge of the cake. Being unable to see is like not comprehending the language people are speaking. The optometrist is privy to information I don’t have. He could have replaced that birthday cake with an image of two people fucking. How would I know?
The optometrist stands and presses the cold metal of the phoropter, like the name of a dinosaur, against my face. It’s an industrial carnival mask. I imagine that I look like one of the orgy guests in Eyes Wide Shut, only with clothes.
When the optometrist slides a lens, “Better at one or two?” metal brushes my eyelashes. I worry they’ll be guillotined.
I say, “I’m not sure.”
He shifts the lens back and forth again. I say, “The first?”
He says, “Excuse me?”
I say, “One.”
We repeat this exchange a few more times. The optometrist leaves the room and returns. I hear the tearing of cardboard, the release of a seal. He turns toward me on his rolling chair and holds out a transparent contact lens on the tip of his finger.
I am nearsighted, not blind. His finger is so close, I can see the grooves of the swirl on his calloused skin. I wonder about what I can’t see—bacteria, dirt, a speck of urine or fecal matter or sperm. I read a news article about a guy who killed patient after patient for years on end in terribly botched heart surgeries before officials discovered that he’d forged documents, wasn’t even a real doctor.
I hear my husband’s voice: Why didn’t you just tell him you’d rather not put a contact lens in your eye that has been on someone else’s finger?
A stranger in a movie theater once let his hand slip from the armrest between us and onto my seat. His finger twitched, then grazed my thigh. It happened so slowly that I told myself that perhaps he was innocent. I was seventeen at the time. He was an older man. Fifty? I reasoned that he’d lost the feeling in his fingers. I continued to tell myself this after his finger grazed my thigh again and again.
Also, my words would fumble. The optometrist would say, “Excuse me?” and I’d have to start all over again, my mind a warehouse of phoropters clattering back and forth. One or two? One or two?
I take the contact lens from his finger. I put it in my eye.
The optometrist offers me the second contact lens in the same manner.
My eyes tear up. I rub them with the back of my hand. I worry about eye infections. I blink.
Even with blurry vision, I can see that there is a box of tissues on the optometrist’s desk. But the optometrist just says, “Problem?”
I say, “It itches. I can’t see.”
Without a word, the optometrist leans in close. I feel the heat of his breath on my cheek. Smell coffee on his lips. I hold my own breath the way I did in the movie theater.
Then, without warning, the optometrist’s finger is on my eyeball.
I have the sensation of standing at the edge of a cliff, leaning into the column of air.
The optometrist pulls away, says, “Better?”
I close my eyes. I’m ashamed to look at him. But once again, I’m uncertain about what’s happened. I don’t fault my dentist for putting his hands in my mouth or my gynecologist for swabbing my cervix.
Then again, this is not my optometrist. How do I know he’s not some pervert who gets off on touching people’s eyeballs?
No one, not even my husband, has ever touched my eyeballs.
I think about the other parts of me that no one has touched—my bones, the bundle of nerves encased in my spine, my heart.
That heart surgeon imposter, there must have been details his patients chose to overlook: Misused medical terms? A wildness in his eyes?
As the anesthesiologist put the mask to their faces, did they wonder, not for the first time, if the man about to dig into their chests and unearth their glistening, defenseless hearts wasn’t in the business of healing? Maybe they felt a strange thrill at the idea that the man wanted only to put his hands where no one else had been. Maybe they welcomed the grogginess of the anesthesia, the way it quieted the mind’s clattering.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her writing has appeared in Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Hobart, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer and serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review. More of her writing can be found at michellenross.com.