BellaOnline Literary Review
The Stairway by Debi Gardiner


The Optometrist

Kate Dillon

“Chin on the cup and forehead against the bar,” the nurse tells me. “Now sit still, and try not to blink.”

I peer through the viewfinder. Several rows of letters appear in neat lines.

“Can you read line four?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I tell her. She nods, and I make my way slowly through the chart. “A, R, K, O, X, P and, uh, F.”

She tightens her lip disapprovingly, as if I´ve done her some grave wrong. “Hmm,” she grunts, and strides toward the door. “The doctor will see you shortly.” And just like that, I´m alone.

This is my seventh eye exam in four months. I´m farsighted – my eyes are just shy of spherical and I need glasses to bend the light that hits my retinas in order to keep my vision clear. My glasses have thick black plastic frames, and the little pieces that rest on my nose are always a little bit crooked, no matter how many times I have them adjusted. I wear them when I´m driving, and that´s about it.

I don´t have glaucoma. I don´t have retinal cancer and my pupils aren´t extra-sensitive to light, though I´ve carefully studied the symptoms of these conditions. My eyes are perfectly normal for a twenty-three-year-old. But I keep coming back to Marsh Optometry for one simple reason – Julian Marsh, M.D.

Julian Marsh has 20/20 vision. He told me during my second visit, back when I was only a little bit in love with him. He shone a tiny flashlight into my right eye and I studied his flickering green irises with my left, searching for imperfections. I found none.

“The eye,” he said, “is a more or less perfectly calibrated machine. The camera of the brain, if you will.”

I know that´s exactly what he said, word-for-word, because I wrote it down on a piece of paper as soon as he left the room.

Julian Marsh is five-foot-nine. He has wavy blondish hair. His face is a bit pinched – thin lips and flaring nostrils give him a somewhat dour expression – but I don´t mind. If I had to guess, I´d put him in his mid-thirties. He has lovely eyes, green flecked with gold. They are eyes that my own pair of tilted muddy brown ones hardly deserves to gaze into. They are eyes to die for.

The door clicks, and Julian Marsh enters the room.

“Hello, Emma,” he says. My cheeks flush.

“Hi, Dr. Marsh,” I say, a bit breathlessly.

“Now, Emma,” he says, his deep stentorian tones making my name a thing of beauty. “What brings you here today?” He sounds resigned. He´s getting sick of my constant visits. My obvious neediness. I have to find a way to hold his interest.

“My eyes have been really dry,” I tell him. “And itchy. I´m blinking all the time. I think I have some kind of problem,” I finish lamely.

And it´s true, my eyes are dry – I´ve been scratching at them relentlessly for the last two weeks in anticipation of my appointment with Julian Marsh. I even dropped a dab of bleach in my left eye last before I realized I just couldn´t take the pain. As a result, the whites of my eyes have turned pink and irritated. My lashes have thinned and my vision is weaker than ever.

“Let´s take a look,” Julian Marsh says. He bends close and produces a pencil flashlight from his coat pocket. He puts out a hand to widen my eye, and my skin instantly warms where he´s touching me. I can feel his breath on my face. Toothpaste and a hint of eggs. I tilt my face toward his with a slight smile, and the moment is over too soon. He pulls away with a frown.

“Have you been rubbing your eyes at all?” he asks.

“Just a little, when they get really itchy,” I tell him. He nods, but he doesn´t seem convinced.

“I´m going to give you a few eye drops,” he says. “You know the drill. Head back, eyes wide. You´ll be sensitive to light for a few hours after, so be careful driving.”

Julian Marsh tilts my head back gently and plunks a few drops in each eye. The solution stings, and when I wipe my eyes, a vile yellow liquid appears on the tissue. He leans close again, and this time pulls out a brighter light. The sleeve of his white doctor´s coat brushes my arm. His leg rests against mine, and I shudder slightly. He notices.

“You alright? Bit cold in here,” he says. He doesn´t notice my elevated heart rate, thank god.

“Pupils look a bit dilated,” he tells me, and stops cold when he gets a good look at my face. I can´t bear it anymore and I reach up in one fluid motion and press my lips to his. He pulls away, of course, but not immediately, and this split-second pause fills me with hope, warm and sweet and wet.

“Emma,” he says. He looks at me. His eyes have never looked brighter. “I think we´re finished here. Check in with Sally at the front desk on your way out. I´ll have her write up a prescription for eye drops. You shouldn´t need to come back for at least six months.” He looks away, and I feel like a pair of floodlights has been suddenly switched off, leaving me in befuddled darkness. My eyes are swollen with the drops.

Julian Marsh turns on his heel and leaves me alone in the office. He was right about the drops – the light bouncing off the clinical white tiles burns my eyes. I get up, whip my keys out of my purse and stomp down the hallway and out the door, leaving Sally, the sour nurse, calling after me from her desk. I squint in the sunlight – it´s almost too much – and sit down on a nearby bench. I´m crying, and it´s not because of the drops. People are staring.

I drive in a daze. Light is everywhere, refracting off stop signs and through puddles and between clouds. I can´t find respite anywhere. A beam of white-hot sun bounces off a heavyset man´s dark glasses. I cry out and swerve. Someone beeps - a long, shrill sound. I pull up to the curb and slam the gearshift into park. I pull the sunshade down and cover my eyes. Hot salty tears slide between my fingers. It´s a long time before I can bring myself to drive home. I pull on a deep, dark reserve of resolve lodged between my ribs and string it up past my pounding heart, past my puffed throat and into my head. Sundown, finally, and on the way to my apartment, I avoid eye contact with the streetlights.

Julian Marsh´s phone number is listed right between Laura Linden, M.D. and David Overton, Skilled Professional Optometrist. I´ve had a few hours to calm down, and after finishing off a fruit salad my sister had dropped off a few days ago, I´m ready.

Press one for English and two for Spanish, the operator drones. Listen carefully, as our menu options have changed.

I listen for a while, then press the button for emergency contact information, and just like that, I´ve got Julian Marsh´s cell phone number. I fold the paper with the numbers written on it four times over and slip it into the pocket of my jeans.

I flip open my laptop and search his name on Facebook. His page is private, but I can still see his profile picture. I´ve visited his page many times before, but this time, his profile picture has changed. It´s no longer the shirtless shot of him standing in front of a blue-green lake with a sweating can of beer in his hand, the color of the lake matching his eyes. I like looking at this picture; I´ve even saved a copy on my computer. But today, it´s new, for the first time in months. It´s him, alright, his eyes the same perfect, lovely spheres, but there´s a woman on his arm. She´s tiny and beautiful, the kind of woman I´ve always hated. Her eyes are bluer than his, and he´s not looking at the camera but smiling downward, the floodlights of his eyes trained on her face.

A hot rush of hate fills me. I feel my heartbeat in my cheeks. His flared nostrils are no longer endearing but hideous, a mockery of attractiveness. His thin lips are the color of blood. I hate him, and I memorize every detail of the woman to hate her more clearly, too. Her eyes are far too wide and her full lips are pleated into a crooked smile – imperfect. I tilt my head back, remembering the feel of Julian Marsh´s fingers against my cheek as he dabbed drops into my eyes. I count to twenty and back, and I realize there´s only one thing left to do.

I dial Julian Marsh´s number. He´ll tell me the truth, surely. He´ll make things okay. I try, for a few seconds, very hard not to hate him and his leering eyes. The ring on the other end is tinny and brief. I count – one, two, three, four, five rings – and then: “Hello?”

It´s a woman´s voice. “Hello?” she says, again. I picture the blond lady from Julian Marsh´s Facebook photo, and my eyes burn. I snap my phone shut and sit back while it rings and rings. There´s only one thing left for me to do.

Twenty minutes later, I´m parked a block from 784 Hillcrest Drive. Julian Marsh´s very own house. I´ve driven past it before; it´s practically on the route I take to my secretarial job with an accounting firm. It´s a pretty yellow brick place with a well-kept garden, peonies and lilies bursting forth in a cacophony of color. There´s a chipping statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard. The curtains are grayed with age, and the chimney never emits any smoke. Sometimes a fat calico cat is parked in the window, swatting at bugs and basking in the sun. It´s the kind of place I could spend the rest of my life.

I knock on the door. Julian Marsh answers. His face is a mask of dumb surprise.

“Emma,” he hisses, “what are you doing here?”

I smile. I reach up and cup his cheek in my hand. “I´ve come to visit you, of course,” I say.

He flinches back. A woman calls from the back of the house, “Jules, honey, who is it?” The voice is high and sweet. It sounds blond and blue-eyed.

“Nobody,” he calls, and I´m pleased to note that he sounds panicky. He starts to close the door, and I press my foot in the crack. He shoves me backwards. I make a sound I´ve never made before, between a laugh and a shout, and the high-and-sweet-voiced woman comes running.

“Julian, who is this?” she demands, her ponytail swinging down her back. Her eyes are bulging in a comical manner.

He swallows. “A patient of mine. She must be out of her mind. I don´t know what she´s doing here. Emma,” he says, addressing me once more, “go home. Stop embarrassing yourself.”

The woman pushes in front of him. “What are you doing in our home?” she asks, sounding for the entire world like my mother, who I dislike. “What are you doing here?”

I shoulder past her and stand face-to-face with Julian Marsh. The woman presses herself flat against the wall, white-faced. Her breath makes a whistling sound as it escapes her teeth. She must have seen the knife I have behind my back. Julian Marsh looks at her, then back to me, then back at her. He lunges, and grabs my wrist, but not before I dart forward and place a light peck on his lips.

The knife clatters to the floor. Julian Marsh is red-faced and angry. The ponytailed woman grabs her phone, drops it, grabs it again and dials hurriedly. I sit down on the stairs, my face impassive. My eyes are still red and itchy. I ask Julian Marsh if he has my prescription ready, but he doesn´t answer. He won´t look at me. I try and catch his ocean-green eyes, to no avail. My eyes fill with tears for the third time today.

When the police arrive, they sit me down for a while. Finally, a detective brings me a glass of water. As he asks me what I´m doing, he raises his eyes toward mine and I realize they´re the loveliest shade of navy blue. A circular blanket of sky with a pinprick of deepest black in the center. I smile, and answer his questions without a fight.

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Spring Equinox 2012 Table of Contents