Originally published in WILDNESS Literary Journal
High off a combination of gas station wine and cheap weed, Cayden and I parked peacefully on an empty hillside, glassy eyes facing west through a haze of smoke and steam. I held the skinny brown joint between my fingers, tapping off the ash with rose-painted fingertips. Staring out into the cotton candy sunset, we smoked and kissed, smoked and kissed, puffing, puffing, passing.
“This one’s my favorite,” she said. “Look, it’s exactly the color of your eyes.”
It was Arbor Day, April 29th, and she had just gotten me a small wooden box, the interior of which was lined with a handful of colorful Venezuelan bills. The notes came in a variety of shades, each more vibrant than the last. Cayden didn’t believe in holidays, at least not the way most people do, and she decided when we started dating that we would get each other presents only on the lesser-known celebrations, and that they had to be surprises.
She handed me a bill of the Venezuelan money and pointed to the bottom where a deep shade of teal bolstered the majestic head of a woman I’d never seen before.
“My eyes aren’t that blue,” I said.
“Yeah they are.” She grabbed my chin and turned my face towards hers. “Let me see.”
I looked back at her face, a galaxy of freckles orbiting freely around two bright stars. Her eyes were rich emeralds woven through a stream of soft, dark sepia. Mint chocolate chip, that’s what I called them when we first started dating.
Cayden leaned across the gearshift and kissed me. I could feel the smile on her lips as they pressed against mine.
“Pretty girl,” she said as our lips parted. “It’s called a Bolivar Fuerte,” Cayden said, trying her best to accurately portray the currency’s native accent. She picked up the box. “And look, Ell, she’s beautiful.”
The woman on the bill, who we later found out was Josefa Camejo, a brave Columbian revolutionary, stared out and over towards the same vibrant terrain that we did. She looked to be full of hope. Not a hope that was built upon wishes, but a hope of which she’d had a direct responsibility for. She was proud of a future that she knew she might not get to see.
“A beautiful woman,” I said.
“Not as beautiful as mine, though.” She reached across the center console and grabbed my hand, our fingers dancing around one another for some time before finally landing comfortably interwoven. She pulled her hand away slowly before grabbing the box and throwing it into the glove compartment.
I followed her pale, slender fingers with my eyes as they made their way up my thigh and into the polka-dotted sundress that hung loosely on my skin. She took her other hand off of the glove box, pulled a dandelion out of her auburn locks, and pushed it into the hair over my ear.
We made love there with the windows open, our fingers following the rich smell of pine as it showered over our bodies. The sunset massaged our glowing skin.
* * * * *
The first time my parents moved, I remember saying goodbye to everything in the house. The tall lamps that bent at the neck, lurching over you as you walked in through the foyer; the mismatch assortment of furniture, my favorite of which was a bright yellow love seat whose fabric changed colors with each caress of your hand; the faux-mahogany blinds that only seemed to direct the sun’s rays towards your eyes as you watched cartoons each morning before school. There was no one thing that I would miss more than the others.
By the fourth move, the farewells were replaced instead with shy eye contact at most, the way that you pass by an ex-boyfriend in the hallway. Eyes forward, head straight, without even giving them a glance. I had the immense feeling, the knowledge that fills you with heat from the inside, that things would never stick to me the way that they once did.
It was in that last house, planted in the middle of acres and acres of rich Virginia farmland, that my mother died. The cancer seemed to eat away at her very being, piece by piece, until there was hardly anything left to put inside the casket.
My father spoke dry-eyed at the wake, and his steady hands patted my mother’s picture at the burial. I resent him for it to this day. It is this, the strangest facet of masculinity that does not allow boys to feel, to truly understand sadness, that eventually lead me to a resentment of all men.
Two months later, I met Cayden in the back alley of an all-day breakfast diner, smoking weed out of an apple.
* * * * *
It was May 22nd, Harvey Milk Day, when I first started to notice that something was wrong.
I had just bought Cayden a set of jigsaw puzzles based on vintage horror movie posters. If there was anyone else in the world that Cayden may have been in love with, it was Boris Karloff. We sat down on the floor of her living room and started working on Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” but when Cayden went to put the final jigsaw in to complete Boris’ left eyeball, she missed by about two inches.
We both laughed, but as she went to pick the piece up and try again, she missed, her hand careening into the small portion of the puzzle that we had already completed. She sat there in astonishment for a moment before squeezing her eyes shut and placing her hand on her head.
“Cay?” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s fine, this happens sometimes.” She began massaging the side of her temple. “Shit, it hurts, Ellie.”
“How long has this been going on?”
She slid her arm along the ground, pushing the puzzle pieces aside as she eased down into my lap.
“A few weeks, I think. It isn’t always this bad, though.” I could see tears start to fall down her freckled cheek.
Three weeks later, I finally got Cayden to go see a doctor. The date was June 11th, Kamehameha Day, and I asked for my present to be a visit to an eye specialist.
“They’re supposed to be surprises,” she said. Cay was never the type to ask for help, and doctor visits were no different.
“Fine, consider it my gift to you. Surprise, you’re seeing a doctor!” She ran her fingers through my hair before ruffling it playfully.
She took a moment, staring back at me, and looked as though she was trying to focus on something but couldn’t.
“Fine,” she said. “Only for you, pretty girl.”
Later that day, we sat hand in hand in the waiting room flipping through pages and pages of healthcare brochures for what felt like an eternity.
Eventually, nurse came out through the swinging door that leads to the back of the practice. She stepped into the waiting room. Her face was soft, her thin lips ever-so parted. She had eyes that receded deep within their sockets. Her pupils were almonds hidden in a pocket of bronze. I smiled at her as I walked by.
“It’s called open-angle glaucoma. Basically, the internal fluid behind your eyes isn’t draining properly, creating intense pressure on the inside of your eye and damaging your optic nerves.”
The doctor spoke to us both in the examination room. An older man, his words were as soft as his wrinkled cheeks. Once he finished speaking, the doctor stood there for a moment, leaning heavily on the pristine examination room counter.
“Okay, so treatment, right? There’s treatment for this kind of thing.” I spoke for Cay who sat there silently. A very rare occasion.
“Well, yes, but only to a point. Plenty of people have some level of glaucoma for a very long time without ever seeing symptoms.” Cayden’s hands rushed to her temple while the doctor spoke. “And Cayden here has been showing physical symptoms for some time now. Her vision has diminished significantly since her last appointment, which according to our records was nearly five years ago. We have medication that we can use to try to reduce the blockage, but much of the nerve damage is already done. It may only be a matter of time before you begin to notice even more substantial vision impairment. It’s likely that you will lose your vision completely.”
I looked back at the doctor and wondered what he must have looked like when he was younger. I thought again about the male nurse who escorted us from the waiting room. Cayden’s hand clenched my own and would not let go. I imagined that it was hers.
It was the summer solstice, June 20th. There were no gifts on this day, only the curse of seemingly endless daylight.
Cayden took a long hit from a freshly rolled joint, letting the smoke roll out of her lips in billows before quickly inhaling it back in through her nose.
“Isn’t this stuff supposed to be good for you?” she asked, her words restricted as she held back a breath.
“What, the weed?”
“Yeah,” she said. “This is like, prescription medication for glaucoma. I should be able to see through walls by now.” Cayden passed the joint as she exhaled contentedly.
I pursed my lips, pressing them against the butt of the joint. Cayden was right, I thought as the smoke filled the inside of my mouth. It seemed appropriate that my girlfriend would be a medical anomaly. I thought about what I had been doing to self-medicate, and how it probably wouldn’t matter in the end either.
“You mean you can’t see through walls,” I asked. She brought her mouth towards mine, motioning for me to shotgun the smoke into her own mouth. She pressed our lips together before looking me up and down.
“I promise that I would only use my x-ray vision for good,” she said. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of Cayden losing even her not-so-super powers, and still yearning for something greater. That was just like her, and that was once a reason that I loved her. Now, it simply felt like a reminder of the injustice of it all. I let the smoke roll out between my lips just like Cayden had and tried to inhale it into my nose. Sadly, I only ended up blowing it into my eyes, burning them.
“What is it like?” I asked her.
“Well, it’s a lot like normal vision, except for when you focus really hard, you can see behind stuff.”
“You know what I mean.” Her humor started to have less and less charm.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” Cayden said. “It’s kind of like when your foot falls asleep, and you don’t really notice it until you try to move it. You almost forget that it’s happening, until you try to do something that used to be so easy and you realize that you can’t.”
On July 24th, Pioneer Day, we stepped flat-footed along the shore of a filthy, polluted river, our bikini-clad bodies reflecting the sun’s light out onto the waterway of grey. The water ebbed with very little enthusiasm. Its only decoration was a myriad of plastic bags and mostly empty beer cans.
Cayden had just gotten me a skimpy black bikini covered in pink polka dots.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to see, but I want to enjoy the view while I’m here,” she said to me as I opened the thin white cardboard box that morning. She began to joke more and more about her loss of vision, even describing her walking cane as “kinky” when she bought it in the pharmacy section of the supermarket.
Cayden had read in a magazine from that same pharmacy that the best way to spice up your sex life was to incentivize it. So, for the past two weeks, we’ve been playing strip-trivia with fun facts about ourselves to see how well we know each other. I am always the one who ends up naked.
On the beach, she walked with her fingers wrapped around my arm and I guided her, the water covering our ankles as we strolled along the riverside.
“The beach, it smells yellow,” Cayden said. “It’s a yellow sort of day.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s called synesthesia. Apparently some people can take impressions from one sense, say, smell, and use it to stimulate another sense, like sight.” She kissed me gently on the shoulder and inhaled deeply as she did.
“See, you smell blue right now. I’m trying to do it with colors.”
“You’re trying to smell colors?” I said. “Isn’t that the kind of thing that people are just born with?”
“Well usually, I think, yeah. But maybe if I practice hard enough…I know it won’t replace my vision, but it will be nice to still see something.” Her head leaned over against my arm and her hands grabbed my bicep tighter.
With her eyes shut, her face was no longer a galaxy; It was one planet riddled with craters and stains. The splotches seemed newly still, docile. Suddenly, the spark of realization caught flame deep inside my belly.
“This is bullshit,” I said. She stopped in her tracks and her eyes shot open, staring forward, empty and hollow.
“What do you mean, Ell?”
“How are we even going to do this?” I ripped my arm out from her hands, her fingers hung there like they were nothing but bones, devoid of flesh or blood.
“What are you talking about? Are you trying to make this about you?” She took a step back, nearly stumbling over her own feet.
“No.” I paused. “I’m sorry.”
But I was making it about me, and I didn’t know how to stop.
I wondered how people could feel more sad for others than they did for themselves. I wondered if that was why my father never cried, and why I hadn’t cried since the funeral. I wanted to hold Cayden’s hand and, with the little vision that she had left, say goodbye to all of the things in this world that she would never see again. I wanted to say goodbye to all the parts of her that I would never see again. But instead, I just kept walking past, eyes forward, head straight, and didn’t even give them a glance.
By October, Cayden had lost her vision completely. Over the past few months, I would sit for hours with her and help her “practice” her synesthesia. For Yom Kippur, I bought her a box of colored fruits: blood oranges, yellow apples, those tiny green bananas. We sat parked on the side of a hill with me in the driver’s seat while I tested her abilities.
“Here, try this one,” I said, handing her a corner piece of a yellow watermelon. She inhaled the fruit deeply, keeping her eyes open as she did.
“This is a watermelon,” she said.
“Okay, but what color is it?” She took a series of small sniffs, working her way around the rind before biting a large chunk out of it.
“Well, it’s delicious,” she said.
“Hey, that’s cheating!” We laughed as she tried to shove the rest of the piece into her mouth. I watched the amber juices flow down her chin.
“Are you afraid?” I asked. She shut her eyes.
“Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ll forget.” I looked back at her while she talked, her bubblegum lips moving only slightly with each word.
“I don’t think that you ever forget the things worth remembering.” She opened her eyes when I finished speaking. Once my favorite flavor of ice cream, they stared emptily past me, out and over the horizon. Cayden looked on towards a future that she would absolutely never see. I wondered if I was really the one who would forget. She leaned in to kiss me.
“Pretty girl,” she said as our lips came apart.
“There are so many things about you to remember,” she answered after a moment. “What happens if I lose one?” A trickle of tears flowed down her face, each another drop of melting mint and chocolate.
I closed my eyes and tried my best to feel the colors on the inside, the way that Cayden did. I leaned into her, pressed my lips against her cheek, and inhaled deeply, waiting for a wash of hues to roll over me the way that I could feel the pine trees and the sunset when we first made love, high, parked hillside.
But they never did, and I knew that one by one, piece by piece, I would lose those colors just as Cayden did.