Nonfiction by Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter
My son Declan sits in my lap as I rock, watching the Golden Globes. Katy Perry walks on stage to present.
“Mom’s on TV?” Declan gasps.
I laugh. “What? That’s Mommy?”
“Look, it’s Mom.”
Ross, my husband, chuckles. “You think that’s Mommy, huh?”
“Yeah, Mom’s on TV.” He points.
Finding it cute that my three-year-old thinks I’m a celebrity, I post the comment on Facebook. Replies are posted stating it’s a good comparison. “Makes sense, you’re pretty like her.” “Wow, not a bad thing. She’s pretty, like you.”
Pretty. A word I’ve heard for years. But I’m imperfect now.
Fifteen years ago, I started losing my sight. After battling pneumonia, ouroceptis and a viral infection, my vision grew dim. Within a year, as blood vessels hemorrhaged, my sight faded, existing only in the realm of dreams and memories.
Before we knew the diagnosis though, I sat calmly listening to the optometrist explain that nothing could be done. “It could be a matter of months. It’s difficult to tell,” the doctor said.
Hands wringing, eyes squinting, my dad’s nose flared as he sniffed. Placing a hand on his arm, I reassured him it was okay. His response confused me.
I should have prepared myself for this type of response. In the following months, I consistently encountered family and friends and strangers who tearfully told me how brave I was, and how sad it was since I was so young. One would have thought I was being eulogized the way everyone was carrying on around me.
I knew my life wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. I was ready to move forward, even though no one else was ready. I never once thought I was no longer capable; I just now had to figure out how to do the things I wanted to do. I didn’t latch onto some hidden strength reserved for life-and-death challenges; I just faced the future and walked forward.
So why fifteen years later am I suddenly struggling with being blind? I’m married to a good man who’s also blind. I have a child with another on the way. I have two college degrees and I’m working on a master’s; I encourage other people to accept their blindness and learn how to move on, and yet, I’m deeply affected by my blindness in a way I never was. I feel imperfect.
Lining my eyes with eyeliner, brushing on eyeshadow, I wonder why I’m doing this. Sunglasses will just cover up all this work. After fifteen years, my eyes have begun to atrophy. My once bright blue, almond shaped eyes are now beginning to sink in, receding from the socket. Eventually, they will be completely sunken in, resembling a vampire, a corpse. Now I wear sunglasses in public, hiding my imperfection.
Sitting back in the retina specialist office for an annual exam, I’m told how imperfect I am.
“Do you want me to set up an appointment with the prosthetic specialist?” the doctor asks.
“Is there a medical reason for considering prosthetics?”
“No, it’s all cosmetic.”
I stare directly at him, deformed eyes daring him to speak. Silence forms a barrier pushing against the tension wound between the two of us.
“I’ll say this and then stop talking. Because you have a son now, you may want to consider it. With friends and teachers and other parents—I wouldn’t want you to be treated differently—I mean, you don’t want to be deemed incapable.”
“So I will be treated differently because of how I look? That’s what you’re saying?”
“I’m done. I’ve said enough. For you, I would just consider it.”
The implications are threads stitching through my head. My brow bones have seemed more pronounced, but I didn’t realize how collapsed my eyes are.
Later, returning home, taking staccato breaths, leaning into Ross, I burst out words. “I’m-ugly-now.”
“No, you’re not. You’re beautiful.”
“You can’t see me; you’re blind too.”
“I can see you well enough. Trust me, you’re still gorgeous.”
Wetness rims the basin once containing eyes. Eyes often referred to as one of my best features.
“No, I’m different. I’m deformed.”
I’ve never been comfortable with my body. Always a foreigner to me, never understanding why it acted like it did. Mirrors were never my friend. Now touch is difficult at times.
Achieving a perfect body has always been drilled into my consciousness, despite the fact that no one in my family has achieved this standard. Or at least, not kept it. Intellectually I understand the dangers of seeking perfection, but emotionally, the pull to be beautiful drags me down. My identity feels split at times.
At ten, going through puberty, my thin, little girl body developing teenage curves, I was put on a Slimfast diet. The difference between my seventh and eighth-grade school pictures is stark.
One has light brown hair, no make-up, a natural beauty shining through an innocent smile. The other shows a platinum blonde, make-up applied to a thinner face, the “perfect size six” achieved. Eyes twinkling, it’s the shot of a model or actress.
The memories of this teenager are imprinted in my mind. Scenes of the girl who used to be stared at for much different reasons than now. She believed her body contained so many flaws. It’s sad really. Images flash through my memories as I wonder why she felt so imperfect.
A thought flickers. She felt isolated too. She never was comfortable in her own skin, around other people. She felt mocked and seen for only one thing then too.
She glides down the corridor, long dancer’s limbs moving in grace. Knees brush together just as she was taught in etiquette school. Fitted denim and pink V-neck top, she’s oblivious to the stares of the boys. She never seems completely aware of this attention. Attention exhilarating and uncomfortable at the same time.
Stepping into homeroom, she eases into a desk.
“Okay, senior surveys are out. Take one and pass the rest back. Mark down your top three for each category. Remember, these labels will stick for life,” the teacher jokes.
Chewing her lip, tapping a pencil against the desk, she ponders the survey.
A group across the room snickers. Voices hushed but loud enough to trickle across the room, they contemplate the survey.
“Who are you putting down for most attractive?” a boy asks.
“Bridgit, definitely,” another boy says.
“Oh my god, seriously? No way,” a girl scoffs.
“Come on, hands down it’s her,” first boy says.
“She’s just tits and ass. Nothing there.” She leads a group of girls in laughter.
“Dude, she’s on the honor roll,” second boy says.
“Whatever, do what you want, but I think you’re crazy. She’s just another dumb blonde, only good for sucking her tits.”
Wouldn’t mind that,” first boy mumbles.
The girl slaps his arm as the rest of the group continues to jeer.
Long hair falling across her face, she stares down at the survey, eyes burning as she completes it.
After Thanksgiving dinner, my mom and sisters and I sit around the table talking. I listen, waiting for a moment to break in.
I clear my throat. “Uh, I have to ask you something, and I need you to be honest.”
No one speaks; the conversation cut off. Their stares weigh against me.
“So the doctor thinks I should get prosthetic eyes. But he says it’s not medical; it would just be cosmetic.”
“What?” my mom asks. “That’s ridiculous. There’s no reason for surgery unless absolutely necessary.”
“He thinks Declan will be made fun of because of how I look. And that his teachers will not think me capable because of it. I mean, if people think something about me because of how I look, that’s their problem. And honestly, if Declan is ever made fun of because of how I look or just the fact that he has blind parents, I think it will upset him because he won’t understand why people think that way. But for me, I now feel really different, no longer attractive. I know, it’s shallow.”
“No, you don’t look that different,” my sister Brook says.
I look at my mom, knowing she will be honest no matter what.
“The shape is gone. They are deep set now, but you don’t look deformed yet.”
I clear my throat again, breathing deeply.
“Maybe down the road you will want to consider prosthetics, but right now, it would be an unnecessary procedure.”
Since then, I wear sunglasses in public at all times.
The girl once voted most attractive in high school has ended up ugly, imperfect. Shallow? Conceited? I know. At my age, at this point in life, I shouldn’t care, but I do.
Lying in bed, I touch my eyes. The almond shape is no longer noticeable. Brow bone defined, eyeballs small and hard. Tears escape from the hallows, lacing with my fingertips, smearing on my cheeks.
I’ve never felt defined by my blindness even though most of the world wants to do so. Blindness has become a part of me, just like my hair color, skin color, and personality traits. I don’t feel different than I did sighted.
Yet now, that’s changing. I feel different. Like I’ve lost something. Some inner part of me has been removed, sliced out. It’s deeper than the aesthetics of it. At thirty-six, I’m experiencing a mid, mid-life crisis.
Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe it’s society’s hang-ups about image ingrained in me. Maybe I’m just hormonal. But I can’t help remembering the pretty girl who never had to hide her eyes. She had a lot of insecurities, a lot of issues with how she looked, but she seemed capable of hiding those dark secrets, capable of acting so confident. I tuck her insecurities away, only remembering the graceful path she cut through life, usually unaware of its shimmering trail behind her. Maybe I don’t remember her as well as I think; maybe it’s now all a projection. But I find myself now longing for some part of her.
She sashays up to the bar. Music throbs through her body, a pulsing bass emanating from the ground. The bartender notices her out of the corner of his eye, pauses, then turns his full stare on her. He smirks.
Leaning in, he asks, “Hey, gorgeous, what can I get you?”
A half-smile plays on her glossed lips. “Just a diet soda, please.”
“Soda? Come on, don’t you want a drink?”
“I don’t drink much. Just soda please.”
“Well, for a pretty girl like you, it’s on the house.”
She blushes, long, dark lashes turning down. “Oh, that’s okay, really.”
Later, she walks with her friend to the car through a sea of chattering co-eds. Her black heels click along the pavement. The air shimmers with summer humidity.
Bartender stands at an exit smoking. Noticing her, he stamps the cigarette out, and sidles up to her.
“Hey, pretty, saw your moves out there—not bad.”
“Thanks. So, you were watching me?” She smirks at him.
Bartender slides his hands into the pockets of his form-fitting jeans. “Hard not to watch you out there.”
She averts her eyes towards her friend, red blossoming through the pink of her rouge.
“So, just wondering if I can give you my number.” He moves a hand through his hair.
She pauses, blue eyes taking him in. “Yeah, okay.”
His fingers rest a second in her hand after placing a strip of paper in it.
It’s one in the morning when she pulls into the drive at home. Exhausted, she performs a clumsy parade to the backdoor.
Cold water rinses off face wash and make-up. She stares into the mirror. Long, blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. Thin, oval-shaped face now dusted with a summer tan. Bright, blue almond-shaped eyes reflect a moment of sadness.
The color of this memory washes across my face, projected like a movie. No one pitied her. I want her youth; I want her beauty. My finger traces the hollow around my shriveling eyes as I replay the image.
Did he want her? Did he see her? She longed to be seen for more than her looks. She sought a true connection moving beyond the exterior. I know what most men saw; what most men wanted from her. We are not so different. We both desire to be viewed as a whole being, capable of multiple things. And yet, I want something she had, or something I think she had.
I find myself touching my eyes a lot lately. Tracing the defined bones circling the socket, marking the absence of a shape. It’s become an involuntary action.
Maybe nothing’s changed. Maybe I replaced one type of isolation with another, one single characteristic defining me for another. Always the desire to be seen as a whole person, her and I yearn for that acceptance.
Why the hell do I care so much about my looks? I never dwelled much on them until I felt like I lost them. Feeling shallow, conceited and petty, I feel guilty.
A knock raps on the door. Pausing, I take a second to decide whether I want to grab my sunglasses or not. Declan opens the door, making the choice for me.
It’s just a delivery person dropping a box off, but I hate the silent stare. Sputtering, he fumbles the package. “Oh, um… Can you sign? Sorry.”
My hollows look in his direction. Grinning, I thank him, sign where he points and shut the door. My heart is racing as I lock it again.
I hate how noticeable my blindness has become. My life is spent revolving around it, reassuring people it’s not the worst thing ever. Rarely do people get to know me; they just want the dirty details about being blind.
Walking around the block, I pull my son in a wagon. A neighbor walks by us. Hearing footsteps drawing near, I smile in the direction of the person. “Hello.”
“Hello. God bless you. Must be so difficult relying on your child to help you out.”
I look back at my son in the wagon, raise my eyebrows at the man then continue walking down the sidewalk.
Rushing to a doctor appointment, I pant towards elevators. Sliding my hand across the wall searching for the buttons, someone grabs my wrist, beginning to manipulate my hand for me. In shock, I don’t know how to react. The hand pushes my finger against a button.
“There you go,” a voice says beside me. “Good job, you did it.”
I stare at the person. “Good job to you.” I mimic the kindergarten teacher voice she used before I step towards the ding and onto the elevator.
Watching movies with friends, one of them turns towards me. “No way could I be blind.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I could no longer work.”
“Blind people work.”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t use a computer anymore.”
“Blind people use computers. You know I’m a writer.”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t run my business.”
“Blind people run businesses too. Some very successfully.”
“Well, I just couldn’t do it.”
This is my life now. It has been for the last fifteen years. So few people seem willing to see beyond the blindness, to see me as a whole person. But was it so different before?
Growing up, I thought I was stupid, especially once I reached my teens. People seemed to look at me and assumed I didn’t have the intellect for a lot of things.
In high school, I was dissuaded from taking certain classes that interested me like marine biology and AP history. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that pretty girls didn’t need classes like those. In fact, this is a phrase I would hear frequently in life. Even though I was on the honor roll, I found a few teachers and counselors who felt I should steer away from classes outside the fine arts.
Classmates snickered, saying I received As because I was sleeping with teachers. Or I traded sexual favors with boys and cheated off them.
I don’t have the fingers to calculate how often I was told pretty girls don’t have problems. I was a hot mess, slipping through the cracks as a young girl. Apparently I had no problems, no pain. My face dictated so.
I rarely dated, and only had one boyfriend in high school because it felt like boys wanted some perfect statue with bubbles for brains. The minute I shared opinions or tried to have intellectual discussions, they grew disinterested. One man-child point-blanked asked if I would have sex with him, and when I said no, he had the nerve to say, “Then why the hell did I ask you out?”
Even my mom seemed determined to focus solely on my looks. When I expressed interest in law school, she told me I wasn’t smart enough for that. She didn’t appear eager about assignments I had, but news about cheerleading or dance team were greeted with enthusiasm. My mom was going back to school to get her teaching degree, but when we discussed college for me, she was skeptical.
For a long time I thought I must be dumb. Nothing more than a one-dimensional picture to look at. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t true, but if so many people treated me this way, maybe…
And now it’s happening all over again, just for different reasons. I’m blind and deformed, and society has preconceived notions about this, so once again, I’m defined by my physical traits.
Staring in the mirror, a reflection I can no longer see, I wonder what I look like now. I squint, as though an image will appear. What I picture makes me sad and wistful.
I hide behind sunglasses now. A vanishing act. I didn’t think I cared so much about petty, concerns, yet here I am, cursing the loss of beauty. My confidence dragged into the mire.
Enjoying dinner with friends, one of their children asks, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
I don’t skip a beat. Smile plastered on, I respond, “Oh, they just don’t work well.”
I go about the evening, laughing, joking, sharing news. We leave, hugs given, well-wishes repeated. Arriving home, I prepare Declan for bed then myself. I say nothing to Ross. We talk in bed before he drifts off to sleep.
Chastising myself, I feel a mental punch as I tell myself, “Just shut the fuck up and get over yourself.”
I want to be normal, considered normal. I don’t want to be a faded portrait of something once beautiful. I don’t want to change into a gorgon, terrifying those who look upon me.
My dreams plague me with past images. Needing a visual, my mind casts a thinner, svelte, bright-eyed version of me to play the role of current Bridgit. It’s a torment.
Cane tapping side-to-side, I walk down a corridor. My eyes roam the scene. Matte, gold elevator doors reflect long legs, sliding up into a tiny waist. Long hair swings across my back. I study the reflection.
Dreams do not distinguish between blind and sighted. I’m both when I slumber.
Pivoting, I find myself in a bathroom, staring into the mirror, the corridor vanished. My hand pats each eye. The perspective of my dream closes in on just my eyes, blue, surprised, now looking right at me.
Before waking, I have the thought, “Oh, my eyes still look normal.” The image disintegrates as I wake, pixels breaking off the picture as reality comes back into focus; the TV fuzz I now call vision.
My arm moves without thought, tracing my pronounced brow bones. Draping an arm across my eyes, I stare off into the fuzz.
Arms clasped around my neck, Declan stands behind me, chin resting on my shoulder, watching a show. Ross comes in and lays on the bed next to us.
“What’s happening?” Ross asks.
“Watching show,” Declan says. He flips around to my front, landing in my lap.
“You monkey.” I nuzzle him, his baby-soft skin gliding across mine.
Placing hands on either side of my face, he smiles then plants a sloppy kiss on my lips. “I kissed you,” he taunts.
I act disgusted, which makes him giggle.
He moves behind me and removes the clip holding my hair up. “You be a princess, Mommy.”
As my hair falls down my back, he plays with it.
“Mommy is a princess, isn’t she?” Ross asks.
“Yes,” Declan says, fingers combing through my hair. “Mommy, you play with me?”
This sweetness envelops me, causing me to forget what the world thinks for a moment.
Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. She is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Breath and Shadow, Emerging Nebraska Writers and an upcoming issue of Hippocampus. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Image by Anemone123