By Sophie Dess
My grandmother’s eyes at times are obscured by two thick sheets of glass placed in cat-eye frames – she wears bifocals, which means she can’t gauge the scale of a decline. I think it’s formally deemed ‘a problem with depth perception.’ Thus, stairs pose a particular problem; her shaking hand is always in search of a surface on which to balance her small – but nevertheless imperious – figure.
I travel with her down to the subway platform and watch her ring-adorned fingers shake until they clasp something stable. My eyes always settle on the shine of her hot pink polished nails, exaggerated against the chafing rail. As she descends in obvious dependence, she looks up at me with an arch smile and wide, laughing eyes. Enchanted by her own sense of self she asks me: “Who the hell is this old lady?” But those eyes, so present, so self-aware, so full of a knowing wink, those eyes retreat from me at any given moment.
We’re in her apartment, she’s reading the paper on a kitchen stool. >La Bohème is playing on the radio, and as a certain aria begins to unfold she slowly drops her paper while her hands ascend into the air. Her eyes are squeezed shut, a move that gathers all her wrinkles together along the corners of her lids: the focal points of concentration. Her chapped lips are pursed for a kiss and she begins conducting an orchestra that belongs to her alone; she is off rhythm and hums along out of tune, the rhythmic dissonance adding to the intensity. She signals for the violas with a slow sweep of a cupped palm. A flute flutters and just then her brows raise, releasing wrinkles in a flourish. How fragile her closed eyes look when the thin skin, worn from years of emphatic gestures, smoothes over them. The piece ends.
Her eyes open and they are glossy, they have turned inward and I am not there.“My father loved that piece,” she says into the now static air. Her brows are furrowed, she’s looking down. Her lids have dropped so that they cover half her irises, as if in defense, in protection of her reverie. She shakes her head side to side. “He loved it.” I am still. I cannot touch her, I do not try.
It’s Sunday night and we’re going out to dinner. I am in her bathroom watching her shaking hand trying to find a way to apply liquid eyeliner to a crease-laden lid. “Gram, come here,” I say. She dutifully places the make-up in my hand and faces me head-on, knowing the routine. “Keep those eyes shut,” I say as I run the liquid straight over the line of her lashes, knowing that the little folds of skin will hide the imperfections. When I finish she says, “Good? I’m going to open them now.” I say yes. She opens wide and stares into my face, only an inch away from hers. Her eyes search mine for a reaction to my work. I smile. “You look beautiful,” I say. She laughs in earnest disbelief but doesn’t break contact. Suddenly she takes a breath and her eyes narrow in focus, yet expand in size. I watch her pupils dilate; they grow slowly, as if to absorb me, maybe, into all the light of her past lives, visions of lives she’s just now brought forth to be in company with her present. Their blackness bleeds deep into the recesses of her cobalt blue irises. I feel naked in her gaze, but disarmed. Without me saying a word she says, “Oh yes,” nodding her head up and down, putting one hand on my shoulder and another on my cheek, “I can see you. I can see you crystal clear right now”.
If it is through her eyes that insuperable distances are created, it through her eyes that they are traversed.
Sophie Dess is currently completing her master’s degree in English at NYU, where she focuses on representations of consciousness, gender, and the art of humor in Irish, British and American Modernism. She is also co-founding president of NYU’s Literary and Intellectual History Colloquium. Upon graduation in December, she simply plans to abide Newton’s first law by continuing to write unless stopped by external force. But even then, she’ll keep going! In addition to literature, she adores live jazz, Malbec, and, most of all, dogs.