Exceptional Results Deserve Extraordinary Evidence
Felicia Luna Lemus
I went to work, I left my diary open on the kitchen
Plates of pink cake balanced on our laps, Xanthie and I sat on the floor directly in front of my disintegrating-black-foam and almost useless speakers. We listened to the radio in complete silence.
An international research team of astrophysicists took the mic. One two, one two, this was not a test. Their announcement:
The speed of light had evolved.
I heard this unbelievable tidbit and realized Id missed the rest of the report. All I caught was that the speed of light was no longer what it had always been. The scientists went on to explain that, as a result, nothing, not even the equations used to calculate the characteristics of nothing itself--nothing, absolutely nothing--remained constant.
Xanthie put her scraped-empty plate on the floor, leaned forward and turned up the volume. Another astrophysicist, not of the aforementioned team, was interviewed. When asked for his professional two cents, he added: Exceptional results deserve extraordinary evidence.
So, the speed of light had evolved. Fucking ridiculous. Who could live in that reality? I imagined walking on cracked downtown sidewalks and I spied with my smart eye endless flux changes squirming as quickly or as slowly as need be to avoid the extinguishing tug of a vortex. This made for an unsteady stroll, an exhausting ride. News report finished, acid jazz played on the radio. The music was loud. Too loud. I stacked Xanthies plate and pink-frosting-coated fork under my own and retreated to the kitchen sink.
And that was when Xanthie began rifling through every nook and cranny of the apartment--through cabinet corners and drawers and boxes that had miraculously remained, up to that point, my private domain. I warned her she might find things she didnt want to know about. I was being sincere, but the warning only encouraged her. She kept hunting. At one point she disappeared into the bathroom, and when she returned she wore something Id preferred to forget existed.
Opaque dark brown lenses framed by bulky rectangular solid side panels, her newfound glasses were an expensive version of the throwaway pairs ophthalmologists gave patients after dilation, a more serious version of those many an old man was fond of putting over the top of regular glasses to filter out all the suns light.
My fathers glasses.
Mind if I wear these? she asked.
You already are.
Is it okay?
Theyre for blind people, I said.
My words were coming out too simple and slow. I sounded dumb. I wasnt angry exactly, but I felt violated on a cellular level, like the sensation of having the air knocked out of you times a million over.
Can I wear them? she asked.
Why would you want to?
Good, she said.
I really wished she wouldnt wear the glasses. They were one of the few worldly possessions I had of my fathers. In the years I had known her, Id mentioned the glasses plenty of times to Xanthie. She knew what she was messing with. A relic if ever one existed--more precious than a drop of milk from any virgins swell perk breast--as far as I was concerned, those blind man glasses should have sat upon a velvet cushion on an altar in some cathedral somewhere.
I was trying to figure out a way to remind her of this without her taking offense, without seeming maudlin, when she plopped down on the floor in front of me and placed her feet in my lap as if they were the most exquisite gift. And they were. Her head tilted back exaggerated reclined pose so the oversized glasses wouldnt slide off, she waved her lovely long toes at me. Those toes were elegant articulated marble toes of antiquity upon a pedestal.
Pink, Xanthie said.
Silver, I said.
I got up and retrieved the little bottle of pink.
As I blew a precisely applied second layer of paint dry, pink toe girl in her blind man glasses said:
Get my coat. Take me out.
I remembered rules my Pilgrim-esque mother had taught me about dressing. Always look in the mirror. Take off at least one accessory. Otherwise youll look like trash, shed said. My mother and Xanthie couldnt have been more different. I adored Xanthie. Her blind man glasses were accessory overload all on their own, but if she could have seen with them on, she would have stopped at the mirror on the way out and she would have wanted another little something to set off the ensemble. I went to the closet and took down the one storage box I knew Xanthie had missed. I shuffled around and found her a prize.
Here, doll, I placed the gift in her hand.
Walking stick. Goes with the glasses.
Delightful, she said, snapped the red-tipped collapsible white cane to full extension.
I helped her with her coat. In the kitchen, I placed a single orange in a paper bag to bring with us. I knew exactly where to take Xanthie.
Our things piled on the corner of rectangular laminate, Xanthie waved her hand slowly in search of a chair and sat.
I know where we are, she said.
I was very pleased with myself. My chosen destination for our evening meal was not Xanthies idea of a tantalizing dining experience, but on this wed never agreed. East Village clichè hell that it was, I couldnt help but adore the place.
Best pastrami and fries in town. 2nd Avenue Deli cant be beat, I said upbeat as a radio jingle.
Her right ear cocked toward me, her untrained blindness entirely following my voice, her gaze not shifted at all to face me, she said:
Frank, darling boy, this place makes me want to beat you.
Dismissive wave of her hand, Xanthie declared the deli the perfect embodiment of nauseatingly forced nostalgia. She stomped her scuffed motorcycle boot foot down into a pile of paper napkins on the ground for emphasis. Rough square paper napkin clouds billowed up and I thought of H-bombs and disaster and end-of-the-world flicks. And of hypocrisy. I took in the hand-sewn sequined mess of Xanthies 1920s evening gown and her clumsy performance of blindness. Crafted kitsch embodied, the girl had nerve to mock 2nd Avenue Deli.
You dont even eat the food here, she said.
True, I didnt eat deli food. Wasnt exactly made for a person who hadnt consumed animals or their secretions, kosher or not, for over fifteen years, but deli coffee was as good as any other fuel sold in heavy ceramic mugs.
You, I love, she said. Dearly. Completely. But this place, this place is dreadful.
Keen on Xanthie like a corsage of violets and honeysuckle on a ballroom damp wrist, I wanted only to delight my girl. And so, struggling for self-restraint, for the heat of the moment to subside, I waved down the waitress and ordered us two coffees. Xanthie gave me the royal. I was going to have to beg for the pleasure of her company. Fuck that. Being her devoted boy was one thing, but whining forlorn was entirely another. I embraced momentary failure to prevent total system breakdown.
I contemplated carving a message. The urge was not original, our tabletop was already etched two layers deep with names and heart-bordered proclamations of miscalculated mathematical adoration: Person 1 + Person 2 = 4ever, and the like on every bit of slick Windexed faux wood surface. I could have smoothed down a patch with my butter knife, made a clean slate, and left my mark. But that would have been far too campy, camp having been defined by a person, whose name I couldnt recall, as failed seriousness. Already sufficiently failed all on my own and, like Xanthie, prone to displays of desperate seriousness, I decided maybe Xanthie was right--2nd Avenue Delis greasy air did smell bitter stale like piss and vinegar.
Lets go, I said.
I havent finished my coffee.
Xan, come on.
Frank, I want my coffee, she said and peaked out from behind her glasses.
Lets go, I said.
Maxed-out sour from Xanthies mood, I took a ten from my wallet and left it on the table. Then, inexplicable knee-jerk reflex, I grabbed a fistful of sugars from the ceramic caddy on the table and shoved them in my pocket beside my wallet. Still watching, Xanthie reached into my pocket, took out the sugars, replaced them to their caddy home, and took twenty Sweet n Lowtwenty--she counted them one at a time--and put those into my pocket.
Take these instead, she said.
I dont use that stuff.
She collected several ridged paper packets of salt from the tables stash and put them in my pocket with the Sweet n Low.
There, she said.
I reached over toward Xanthies ears and rested my fingertips light pressure on the glasses. I let her anticipate for a minute. And then I took the glasses.
My turn, I said and slid the glasses on my face.
Whereas Xanthie had constantly needed to adjust the glasses far too big for her delicate features, the glasses knew the contours of my skull like they were made for me. And they were, essentially. Custom made for my fathers light-sensitive degenerative retinal funk, those blind man glasses knew me.
At the same table Xanthie and I had claimed as our own, a few months before he died, my father had sat across from me at 2nd Avenue Deli and delineated my inheritance on a yellow legal pad of paper. I was nineteen. He was forty-eight, but he could have passed for seventy. Blind man dark glasses--the exact pair Xanthie would later wear--overwhelming his sickly depleted face, black Sharpie thick pen in his hand, my father mapped out a diagram of our family legacy.
Our retinas were ticking time bombs. The eye condition was a variant of retinitis pigmentosa. My father had been born with perfect vision, albeit affected as was common for so many boys with colorblindness. But by the time he entered kindergarten he wore coke bottle glasses. In college he needed a magnifying glass to read newspaper print. This didnt stop Uncle Sam from pulling him away from a lecture hall, ripping his textbooks from his hands, and force-teaching him how to hold a rifle and kill in rice paddies. My father came back from Vietnam blinder still. His first wife was a clearer vision to him at the altar than his second. And when I was born, he held me close to his face not exactly out of intense admiration, but more specifically to make out the features of my person.
My eyes were tucked deep in precarious genetic code. Our familys blindness skipped generations. It actively affected only males, although males did not carry the gene. Females were carriers and could potentially pass the blindness on to their boys. My father was blind like his grandfather had been. I was not affected. I did not qualify. Technically, I carried the genes with me. Any son of mine would have a fifty-fifty chance of being blind.
Frankie, my father said as he drew thick wet black marker lines he couldnt see but tried to feel with his fingers and memory, Frankie, if you ever decided to have a baby, there are options.
He mapped out a circle at the center of the yellow legal pad that I imagined was intended to represent me. My father drew a line that he meant to start at the circles perimeter and extend toward the pages edge. The line intersected the circle. With one stroke, my father cut me in half.
You could selectively abort, he said and wrote a jumble of overlapping letters I presumed would have read abort if he could have seen them. I know it sounds awful. It is awful. But it is an option. Just promise me youll be kind to your body no matter what you do, Frankie, he said.
A searing hot pain surged in my gut. The pastrami on rye Id eaten threatened to travel upward and out. I pressed on my wrists to not vomit. My discomfort was not caused by the thought of having an abortion, exactly, but more the result of being nineteen and at having to have a conversation with my blind dying father about selectively aborting a baby boy who might be blind because of something I inherited from my father.
The situation was fucked.
Dad, I dont think I want to talk about this.
Sweetie, I know, its no fun, but you need to know these things.
I can figure it out on my own.
You could experiment with artificial insemination, he continued.
He found the center left edge of the legal pad, dragged his index finger half way across the page, and drew another line from where he imagined his circle daughter to be.
By the time youd want to get pregnant... he started.
Son, our waitress interrupted, can I get you two anything else?
Son. The waitress was talking to me. I hunched my late-adolescent-angular shoulders even more than usual under my standard three layers of shirts. Tight undershirt tucked into oversized jeans, baggy long-sleeve tee-shirt over that, and an even baggier short-sleeve tee-shirt to top it all off--I had mastered counterbalancing any visual evidence of being my fathers daughter. I pulled the visor of my baseball cap down further over my face, snuffled my nervous skater-sneaker clumsy feet, and cleared my throat to ready my voice for a response.
No, but thank you, my father answered, oblivious to the way I appeared and presented myself in the world, flattered by what hed taken to be flirtation directed to him.
So, Frankie, he adjusted his dark glasses and returned to his drawing, by the time youd want to get pregnant, doctors will be able to control the sex of the baby. Itd be expensive, but it might be worth looking into.
He wrote a long tangled mess of letters--artificial insemination--at the end of the line hed drawn.
It really is amazing what science can control, he said.
He sighed. The skin on his face was pallid and hung loose. He was going to die soon. We both knew it.
Dad. Please. I dont want to talk about this.
He sipped from his ceramic mug of coffee. Black. Two sugars. Plastic brown stirring stick still in the mug. I was grateful he couldnt see the tears streaming steady down my face. I became exceptionally talented at crying silently during the final months of his life.
He reached his dry hand across the table and I met him with mine halfway. With a squeeze as warm as his poorly regulated flesh could afford, he passed my inheritance to me. His concerns would never come to be. That day at the deli with my father, I decided I would be the perfect son.
The world went black. Dark glass and heavy plastic blocked all light out. I layered-up and felt for Xanthies coat in the pile of our things. A table corner jabbed my thigh as I edged my way over to Xanthies side and stood at attention with her coat in hand. Patient pie in my darkness, I waited. Dramatic long pause later, Xanthie stood and let me help her with her coat, wrapped herself in more accoutrements to greet the cold outside, picked up the paper bag Id brought with us, and was finally ready to leave. I found the walking stick on the table and snapped it to full extension.
Give me the cane, Xanthie said. You cant use the cane.
You dont need it, I said.
Give me the damned cane, Frank.
Compromise makes for a healthy relationship. Xanthie clicked the walking stick a few times back and forth on the floor in front of her. Were her eyes closed? Was she staring off into the distance with an unfocused averted gaze? What was she doing with those exposed peepers of hers? Were we both going to be blind?
Paper bag held in her right hand, Xanthie shoved her left elbow at me. Copy that. Signal received. Her elbow in my right hand, I cocked my head toward sound, my fingers tense, touching the air for texture, for moisture, for the movement of any breeze against my skin sudden primed with sensitivity.
One truncated and cautious step after another, we slowly navigated our way past tables and booths and out the delis front door. Down a slight incline of uneven chipped sidewalk entryway, we turned left to walk up 2nd. Sudden gust of wind and expanded acoustic range, we reached the corner and waited until the sound of traffic perpendicular to our route came to a halt. Cold asphalt underfoot. Jolt of knee with miscalculated depth. One more block north on 2nd, to the west side of the avenue, we stepped onto the sidewalk just as a cab flew by and honked. Cold air. Adrenalin. Little kid fear of the dark. Sweat chilled. I was having the time of my life.
2nd and 12th. Destination reached, Xanthie took my wallet from my pocket, paid our dues, and returned my wallet with an entirely unnecessary but much appreciated grope. We walked into stale air and headed slowly up two flights of sticky handrail carpet stench stairs to the third balcony.
The third balcony. It was in the balcony furthest from the stage of that Yiddish vaudeville theater turned movie palace turned crumbling site that one could best mourn the neo-rococo gilded ornamentation as it stumbled up the walls and onto the domed ceiling. Over three-quarters of a century in downtown New York and the space was permanently streaked with soot air settled down deep into its lungs. Just north of the boho-poet-legendary St. Marks Church--but jammed between a storefront car service office and a unisex hair salon that no historic society or tourist association recommended visiting--the lonely theater was our Pandoras box. Pandora, that precocious broad, shed known to claim her prize, shed dug the power that came from a gold lock unlatched. The third balcony was a treasure chest opened up and the world gone awry and chaos and you could finally think for once with all the noise. The third balcony was so nosebleed and tucked back very few people even knew it existed. Originally exclusive designated for colored folk and the poor, the balcony was a place the city preferred to forget ever existed. It was an empty place. And, as usual, so was the rest of the damp, ammonia-soaked theater.
Xanthie and I sat in the second and third chairs over from the left in the first row of the balcony--our chairs. Of course, for all legal purposes, we didnt actually own the chairs, but the fact remained that they and the theater alike were ours nonetheless. Tucked in safe behind my fathers glasses, I closed my eyes. The place hadnt always smelled so tired. Or maybe it had. But when I was a kid and my father and I had gone there for matinees, all I smelled was roses.
He had always insisted we sit in the front row. Practically in the orchestra pit, my forehead parallel to the ceiling for how craned awkward we were relative to the screen, halfway through the previews my scrawny kid neck inevitably cramped. Until the very last few years of his life, he could make out traces of high contrast on the screen. If we sat in the first row. The first row. A panoramic shot of the ocean and he saw blurred abstractions of ships moving across the screen. Crackling revival reels of Fred and Ginger dancing and he saw a soft-edged atom twirl and split and fuse again into a single form. Wed sit in the front row and Id fill in the details for him. Some people went to the movies for escape, to relax awake-sleep trance. For me, going to the movies with my father was work. No popcorn distraction. No soda to make my mouth sticky with sugar. I carried a camping supply bottle filled with water long before the entire country surgically attached little plastic water bottles to their sides. My tongue had to be as slick as a used car salesmans. It was my responsibility to speak all the movies colors to my father.
That was what he cared about most. The colors. His fascination always threw me. What the fuck difference did it make? Since the day he was born, even when his vision was otherwise fine, hed never been able to see colors. His world had always been a place of mismatched brown and blue trouser socks, I just didnt get why he gave a fuck if something was yellow or red. But he cared. And so when wed go to the movies, usually at least one matinee date a week, sometimes more in the drench hot of summer, it was the colors he wanted. And he was not satisfied with generic colors. He insisted on nuanced descriptions. For my tenth birthday he gave me a color wheel and about a hundred rectangular paint sample strips from the hardware store. The color wheel was sort of cool. But the paint swatches felt more flashcard homework than recreation.
Dad, whats up with these?
Theyre bookmarks. But be sure to read the colors.
Bookmarks, my ass. They were stolen goods. They were punishment. They were the worst birthday gift Id ever gotten. But I didnt let my father down. I learned each of the colors detailed on those cards. Polar white, burnt espresso, heather green--wed miss entire scenes of dialogue as Id describe the hues of costumes and the exact tint of the car the lead drove from scene to scene and into a sunset that was dusty salmon pink at the horizon with cadmium red streaks at its center and a smidge of carnation blush high up where the gun-metal silver moon peaked through. But I was a kid. There were times I tired of my assigned duties.
The guy, hes planting flowers now, I said.
Where? my father asked.
In his yard.
Where in his yard?
Down left of the raw sienna brick porch steps, next to the midnight blue-black mailbox.
What kind of flowers?
What kind of roses?
Frankie, a rose bush, tea roses...?
I dont know, just roses. Hes being careful to not stick himself with the thorns.
What color are roses?
Jeez, Dad, theyre just roses for fucks sake.
Watch your mouth, Frankie, he said.
And then he slumped down in his chair and went silent. Frustrated with me, with his dependency on my eyes, with having taught me how to talk. More than half the film passed in that silence.
Climbing roses. Canary yellow with smears of brilliant persimmon orange, I finally said, at least an hour late in my response.
He shifted in his seat, sat up intently and faced the screen.
Canary yellow with bright persimmon orange. That must be something, he said.
The curtains, which I knew were ash-grey-soot-covered crimson red, creaked apart. The movie began. There was no orchestra.
Can I have the glasses back now? Xanthie asked and I heard her shift impatiently in her rusted theater chair.
Tell me what you see. Please, I said.
Several long minutes passed, and she didnt respond. My brain began to overheat. The neither here nor there spaces that filled so much of life made my cranium throb. Xanthie once suggested it was a lack of oxygen doing the damage. Youve got a ghost sitting on your ribs, she said. Ghosts were most definitely not feasible in my schema. But the pressure at the base of my skull persisted. Subtle and almost euphoric, it wasnt entirely unlike strangulation ecstasy. Listen, Xanthie had said, dont just sit there and get off on that light-headedness. The ghost is there to check you. Take a giant step, mother may you. Press the emergency escape. Stop, drop, and roll because you are about to burn yourself, she had said.
About to burn myself, I needed a cigarette, a stick of licorice, something to preoccupy myself. I leaned forward in my chair and groped air close to the floor, mindful to not touch my fingertips to sticky concrete. Locating what I sought, I reached into the brown paper bag Id packed for us. The reused paper was soft and wrinkled. Cool and dense comfort, I took the orange out of the bag and peeled the fruit with disoriented searching jitter fingers. Not hungry, I only chewed particles of bump thick peel until a bitter chalk taste coated consistent the quadrants of each tooth. I balanced the orange on my lap, sectioned it and cleansed each sticky wedge of its foamy white veins.
Xanthie pushed herself up out of her broken spring sunken chair. A rusted metal sound and then the retreating silence of her cane on theater matted carpet. When she returned, several long deafeningly quiet minutes later, I smelled the tart stench of melted artificial butter. Xanthie sat down, reached into my pants pocket and took the packets of salt. I listened to the muffled sound of paper tearing, and then her wet mouth spitting paper. I strained my ears to catch soft sandy rainfall as she poured all six small packets of salt onto popcorn. She pressed her fingers against my lips and pushed in a few kernels doused in salt. Being with Xanthie made me thirsty.
You want the orange? she asked.
No, I said.
Xanthie took the fruit, one section at a time, from my lap and ate.
I think we should talk, I said.
She rattled a paper cup filled with ice-cubes, most likely with just a splash of soda--enough soda to give the cubes sugar, but not enough to be charged for a beverage. I couldnt see her, but I knew the ice princess routine from glasses of water in bed, on the couch, in the park, wherever we went and she drank water. Xanthie brought the cup to her mouth, mouth huge wide open, this was not an act of dainty sipping. Gaping hole and tongue fishing for an ice-cube melted down enough to fill snug the cavernous oral pit usually camouflaged by closed lovely elegant lips and a pretty smile, she avoided the liquid soda, hunting for solid form, only stopping once shed found the perfect cube to warm in her mouth. She loved the feel of the cold square diminishing under the roof of her mouth, the audible crackling of its surface against the heat of her tongue, polar pop rocks clear and satisfying to the primal artic mammal I imagined she might have once been. Such a dainty girl in some ways, so entirely lacking in etiquette in others. Pleased little brute, she savored her piece of ice and still did not respond.
I dont want to talk during the movie, Frank.
She crunched on the ice, reveling in its decimation.
I mean I think we should talk. There are things we need to talk about, dont you think?
I dont know what you mean, she said, rattling another piece of ice into her mouth. Will you please give me the glasses already? I need them.
And with that reply, I understood. Xanthies self-induced blindness wasnt just another eccentricity to compliment her layers of silk gown and tattered glamour and raggedy loveliness. She was desperate to turn a blind eye. To pain, longing, frustration--and betrayal. Although for completely different reasons and by entirely dissimilar means, like they had for me, my fathers blind man shades were Xanthies way to mourn.
I gave my girl her glasses.