“Love and a Lazy Eye” aka “Oculus Sinister”
by Taylor Tower
This essay was published on nerve.com in November 2011. The site has since disappeared so here it is.
I am a lazy-eyed woman. My condition is called third nerve palsy, which is a pretty terrible name. I’m not one of the fortunate ones to get a sexy eye condition like Marcus Gunn syndrome. While “syndrome” just slides off the tongue in a seductive whisper, “palsy” sits heavy in the mouth.
Third nerve palsy means that my left eye can’t move up, down or in, and my eyelid droops. It’s like having the marionette without the puppet master. I had surgery at six months to bring my eyeball into alignment, and again when I was three years old to cut off half my eyelid so my eye wouldn’t be closed all the time. My mom tried patching my good eye to strengthen the lazy one, but it didn’t do anything, and she stopped. Between the ages of six and nine, the visual system develops rapidly, as complicated connections grow between the eye and the brain. It’s held that treatment for lazy eyes loses all effectiveness after age eight, although a few recent studies challenge that belief. For me, anyway, my eye is as it is and forever will be.
The sight of my left eye upset me as a kid. When I looked in the mirror, I would peer into it as if it didn’t belong to me. It had this lackadaisical gaze that set my skin crawling. In folklore around the world, a lazy eye is an evil eye, capable of casting terrible spells. Scientists refer to the right eye as the oculus dexter and the left as the oculus sinister. I was guilty by association.
I wanted to figure out how it had gotten that way and what I could do about it. My mom was no help, so I called my grandma on my dad’s side. My dad didn’t live with me and I only saw him once a year, so I thought my grandma would be able to tell me if any long lost relatives on that side had a lazy eye. She told me my dad had one when he was a kid. I asked her how it’d gotten that way, and she said it came from sitting too close to the TV and that it had gone away by the time he turned fifteen. I looked in the mirror when we hung up, imagining what it would be like when I was an adult, seeing myself through two perfectly round eyes.
My dad died when I was nine, and at fourteen I made a trip to visit that grandma. I stayed in the spare room, a room plastered with pictures of my father from all the stages of his life. I studied each photo carefully, believing I would see the steady improvement of my father’s eye — the eyelid rising, the eyeball realigning itself as if by magic. A cluster of photos by the door showed my dad, a small, round ball of flesh, lying on a bearskin rug. Others across from the bed showed him standing in the kitchen of his childhood home, dwarfed by the refrigerator. Class photos from elementary school showed him grinning widely.
I stood in front of those walls of black-and-white for a long time. My dead father’s eyes were perfect.
That was the same year I started high school. I wandered through the halls unnoticed, as the popular kids had open makeout sessions at their lockers. All of my friends were boys who considered me one of the dudes. I secretly loved them all. As each of them got his own perfect-eyed girl, I started telling everyone I was asexual.
Then I met Noah at a Weezer concert. A friend and I skipped school to wait in line in the rain. We got there at ten in the morning to camp out for the show, which didn’t start until eight p.m. Noah was already there, curled up in a lawn chair under an overhang, playing Weezer on a little blue stereo. His arms were inside his shirt to keep himself warm, so that his sleeves hung at his sides like deflated arms.
He looked different than the boys I went to school with. I loved how small he was — how manageable. We sat cross-legged on a blanket he had brought from home and played Uno all afternoon, and ate bologna-and-Kraft-single sandwiches. When the line started to grow, he packed his things into the trunk of his hatchback. As he leaned into the trunk to get all his stuff to fit, I caught sight of the rim of his underwear poking out of his pants and felt an unfamiliar rush of warm excitement in my gut. We joined my friend back in line and Noah stood in front of me, shivering as the rain continued to fall. In an act of bravery, I rubbed his back in a mock attempt to keep him warm. He didn’t move away, or ask me to stop. At the end of the night, he drove my friend and me home and gave me a Radiohead t-shirt.
We started dating two months later. He was eighteen and lived in the suburbs. He was a few inches taller than me, but built small. He had blue eyes and Buddy Holly glasses; his lips were full and red against his pale skin, and he gelled his blond hair up in a little swoop at the front. He spoke softly and always sat on his knees, even when he was in a chair. I made sure to sit on his left side, so he wouldn’t lean over to kiss me and recoil at the sight of my stagnant left eye staring at him blankly. I smiled broadly when he took pictures of me, squinting both eyes so they would look the same. Sometimes I’d catch him through my blurry left eye, staring at me.
For our first date, he took me to his old high school, where a younger friend of his was playing in a battle of the bands. I sat with my good eye to him and he tried to hold my hand. I hesitated because my palms were hot and sweaty, but compromised by laying a few fingers over his. My heart pounded in my throat. Once his friend’s band had finished, Noah got up and walked to the stage to say hello while I stayed in my seat. Watching him turn and point at me, smiling, showing his friend, I shivered with the joy of it, fragile and weak from so little self-esteem and so much ridicule. I overheard his friend say, “That weird-eyed girl?”
We spent a lot of time alone together in his room, listening to records. One day, I was going through his drawings as he worked on something in another room. His drawings were everywhere, in piles on the floor and spilling out of his bag and nightstand drawer. I loved them all, each one a window into his world, a world that seemed more complex and beautiful than the one I had known all my life.
I pulled a drawing from the bottom of his drawer, the paper thin and soft from age and crisscrossed with creases from so much folding. At the top, he had written “DREAM GIRL.” It had drawings of three girls, meticulously detailed, with lines sprouting from different parts of their bodies that led to little notes, like an anatomy diagram. A line sprouting from one girl read, “needs to be shorter or the same size as me,” and another, “short hair or long hair doesn’t matter.” The third girl’s face had one eye drawn as a delicate slit, almost like a wink. A line leading from the wink read: “must have lazy eye.”
It didn’t seem possible. Noah, hunched over his desk, had quietly conjured his ideal woman in ink before I came along. I was moved to discover that his vision included the very feature that had cursed and alienated me. Looking at the drawing, I felt I was seeing my face as it really was for the first time. This cartoon world was closer to the world I wanted to live in, closer to the real world than the oppressive one I had built for myself. This face with such delicate features was the face that Noah saw when he looked at me, not the face of my childhood scowling in the mirror.
He came back into the room and sat beside me on the bed, on my left side, and put his arm around me. Through my left eye I could see his blurry face staring and smiling. Then he took the drawing from my hands, stood up, and went to his closet. He stood on tiptoe, pushing the clutter from the top shelf to each side, pulling out a Polaroid camera. Taking it in his hands, he returned to the bed. I didn’t turn my head or squint my eyes. As his finger pushed down to release the shutter, I looked straight into the lens and smiled.