Myopia, or the Chest of Drawers

“I’m basically pre-computer, you know,” Harry said. “I have handwritten notebooks galore. Of course, long-hand is impractical, but so is working on a text that is stuck in the computer. The closest I get to the effect a computer has on me when I’m trying to write a novel is when I put all my manuscript pages on the floor and imagine I’m short-sighted.”

Bill looked up from his breakfast plate. Of the two, he was the one wearing glasses, so he wanted to be sure he wasn’t being mocked in this equation. The early-morning silence in the café was interrupted by the swishing sound of the door and the stamping of feet. It was snowing outside. A man with two little girls in tow stepped in, followed by a few scattered snow flakes driven inside by the sharp wind.

“Manuscript means something written by hand,” Bill said after the tumult created by the new customers had settled. “It’s absurd to use the word for anything else.”

“I am actually a bit short-sighted,” Harry continued, “but here I’m talking serious myopia. The eyes are so bad you have to get on your hands and knees and bend down to see where the hell you are. Let’s say the manuscript has reached novella-size, 51,000 words give or take, but you are not done with it. Mine is actually longer already. So you need a good-sized apartment – figure the math! — and crawl around to see what you’ve got. Then most of the space is unusable for anything but looking at the text. The space is literally lost. The funny thing is the manuscript makes you homeless. You leave just enough room to hop across to the kitchen to get yourself the occasional cup of coffee, but that’s about it. Unless you don’t mind stepping on the pages.”

“You wouldn’t want to do that!” Bill said. “I actually know a woman like that. I used to see her all the time in the cafeteria, at work. She has glasses like little fishbowls and spends hours scanning the buffet trying to decide what to eat. She is always in front of me. All the sandwiches, you see, come in plastic boxes. I don’t know why they do this but this is what they do. When she finds a sandwich she holds the box an inch away, in front of her glasses, to look inside and find the sticker with the price. I’m sure wherever the sandwich doesn’t touch the plastic from the inside she can’t see it; it becomes a single blur. She moves the box sideways to find a spot where she can see the sandwich clearly while her head is shaking with concentration.”

“That’s funny! Of course, I mean, that’s terrible!”

“Then, listen to this, she spends another five minutes at the checkout in front of me trying to find change in her wallet. I say five minutes since I don’t want to exaggerate unless I have to, but it sure feels like an hour. She is no beauty either; it seems she is a victim of gross unfairness in the world-wide distribution of talents. There seems to be no reprieve from the curse of systematic imperfection.”

“I like that”, Harry said, “The Curse. Of Systematic. Imperfection. It could be the title of a book! Think about this outline: The hero, a slender pimply man in his 30s, makes an effort to change society. But his shyness, his pathetic build, gets him nowhere. — At any rate, this is how I feel in front of the computer trying to work on a novel. Or, perhaps, I should compare the feeling to the feeling I have in front of a chest of drawers that I’m certain contains a pair of socks in one of the drawers, except I don’t know in which. And even if I happen to open the correct one, there is a good chance the socks are hidden underneath a sweater I don’t wear anymore, a sweater I wouldn’t even recognize as mine. But even if I do find the socks, I might find only single ones; the companions have been lost to the sock fairy.

“So, what does she actually eat?” Harry continued, chewing his omelet.

“You mean the woman I’m talking about? Mainly soup, though I never figured out her preferences. Also, occasionally, macaroni and cheese. Never any of the stuff she deliberates on and never orders.”

“And where do you think she lives?” Harry said.

“I don’t have the foggiest idea. But from the looks of it, she could be in a little house in the suburbs; I mean, that is totally possible.”

And so the woman — whose bottom, they decided, was shaped like a lens, as though her whole body had developed the ability to stare at some pattern on the floor — began a new life in Bill’s and Harry’s imagination. They gave her a well-meaning husband, and three well-groomed kids for good measure, all afflicted with the same visual imperfection (genetic, dominant), stumbling along horizontal lines painted along the wall of their apartment in various neon colors. There was disagreement on the place where they lived, suburbs or inner city, but that could be settled later.

Those lines, Bill and Harry agreed, connected points of vital interest in the family’s myopic existence: the stove, where grits are simmering all day, with the kitchen cabinet, where brown sugar and flour and other cooking supplies are kept, in containers recognizable by their shape; and the sofa where they sit every day to listen to TV. There were many iridescent lines that ran into a single grandfather clock standing in the hallway. Because they were in constant need of passionate contact, congregating by the clock. “What time is it?” they would ask each other, but what they really meant was “I love you.”

People kept arriving, with blasts of frigid air in their wake. There was a waiting line right next to Harry and Bill’s table. A tall man looked impatiently into their coffee cups from high above. The waitress arrived to see how they were doing. It was obvious that tables were in high demand, with all the cold and snow outside and nothing to do on a Sunday early afternoon.

“We’ll get the check,” Harry said after exchanging a quick glance with Bill.

Thinking about the intensely tactile lives of this family in an apartment that was like a folded map, all organized around the grandfather clock, made the two friends uneasy: what would they do with a story like this? It could not be told from the woman’s point of view, because the most perceptive observations that portrayed her affliction and her heroic struggle to lead a normal life could not come from her; they had to come from someone else. But if the story were told by someone else, that person’s interest in observing her so closely required a convincing motive. For, in the absence of a motive, the narrator would become nothing but a thinly disguised stand-in for the author, and the interest in observing the poor woman could be attributed to a morbid curiosity, to a fascination with the freakish, the same type of fascination that gives rise to indulgence in watching dwarf-tossing and worse.

So this is how they decided that in order to portray this woman in a way that might instill empathy, she must be made into a character in a story that is told by a man to his friend over breakfast. This way, the reaction to the admittedly comic traits in her story could be counterbalanced by commentary that reflected true compassion. But this was the part, they agreed, that needed a little work still.