Before an ophthalmologist diagnosed me with extreme myopia, my mother thought I was mentally deficient.
She was particularly upset because I couldn’t read. The letters squiggled in front of me like worms. Words resembled amoebas. My mother started researching special education schools in our neighborhood. I was lucky that a doctor diagnosed me right before I entered first grade. I had to wear lenses that were so thick that my classmates called me Mrs. Magoo.
One doctor told me that only one percent of the world’s population was as near-sighed as me. Another described my retina as looking like an explosion from World War II. The examination room felt like a jail. I spent endless hours in dark rooms, reading rows and rows of gradually shrinking letters on a white wall from a projector. I always failed the tests.
“Can you try a little harder?” a kind nurse would always ask. “Is 1 better than 2, 2 better than 3, 3 better than 4?” It didn’t matter how much they adjusted the lenses, I could never see a thing.
Whenever my father took a photo of me, he always ordered me to “take off your glasses so you’ll be pretty.” He asked me to do this so many times when taking pictures at my brother’s bar- mitzvah that the party afterward was a blur. He was only saying what everyone else, from my teachers to my classmates to my doormen, must have thought. I was hideous.
Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, I met Dr. Burt. He wanted me to call him his first name because we were “fighting a war and were soldiers.” He looked the opposite of my father— tall, skinny, dark, with very black hair longer than any other doctor I’d seen. His shirts had oversized collars and sometimes his pants could almost be bell bottoms. He reminded me of a very skinny version of John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever.
Someone at our temple had recommended Dr. Burt. He was, according to my mother, a pioneer in what was to be known as the soft contact lenses revolution. Until the early 1970s, custom- ers had little choice but to wear the extremely uncomfortable hard contact lenses that, when I first tried them, caused me to scream in pain because they felt like shards of glass. When I tried them on a second time, the hard contact lens became stuck in the upper left corner of my eye, which was further torture. Another time, the lenses kept popping out and hitting the floor, like an alien enemy that didn’t want to be part of me.
Soft contact lenses would be my savior. The only issue, according to Dr. Burt, was discovering the right fit, which would take a lot of time. I would have to see him every other Wednesday after school for at least three months.
Unlike many of my other doctors, Dr. Burt’s office was not conveniently located anywhere in Manhattan. His office was in Riverdale in The Bronx, squeezed in between a dental supply store and a hair salon. This wasn’t the leafy Riverdale of exclusive private schools like Horace Mann but the downtown neighbor- hood of Riverdale, a section populated by a mix of Orthodox Jews and elderly Holocaust survivors. I knew because my mother always pointed out the number of tattoos on their arms. I had learned about the Holocaust in Hebrew School but to see these survivors both terrified and fascinated me. I was scared to look into their eyes as if what they had witnessed was contagious.
I particularly was mesmerized by the black ink on the wrin- kled skin of an old lady at the candy store, whose hands shook as she handed me the Hershey bar I always received after every doctor’s visit. Which camp had imprisoned her, I asked my mother. How could she sell candy after living through such hell?
My mother said I was being over-dramatic and to be grateful for the chocolate, which was a prize as long as I’d been good. My mother’s definition of good was correctly inserting a contact lens in each eye. At first, the soft lenses were always too big and slippery, like mini-jellyfish that would slide off my finger. I was lucky if the contact fell onto the table. If by any chance it landed on the carpet, Dr. Burt would be annoyed since that meant foraging around to find the lens to send back to the company. Samples, he told me, were expensive.
My hands would shake so much whenever I tried on a lens that one day Dr. Burt announced we had reached an impasse. When I asked him what that meant, he told me to think of a war, and that the contact lenses were winning. I had to take charge. He suggested that my mother wait outside so I wouldn’t feel so much pressure. With a soothing voice, the doctor asked me what my favorite Beatles song was. Along with his eye charts, he had framed photos of The Fab Four on his wall.
“Michelle,” I said, mainly because my locker buddy had that name.
“Mine too,” Dr. Burt said.
After that, every time I tried to correctly install a contact lens, he would hum the tune briskly as if the speed of the tune would hasten my progress. The contact lenses still hurt me.
“It needs time to settle,” Dr. Burt said.
“To settle,” I soon learned, meant that he would leave me alone in the darkened room with the eye chart while he joined my mother in the waiting room. I could hear their peals of laughter as I sat on a leather chair in the room, trying to eavesdrop on what my mother was saying.
Once or twice, I heard her tell him, “You’re not listening to me,” but not in the scolding voice she used with my brother and me. Dr. Burt’s voice was so low and soft that I couldn’t hear what he said, but whatever it was, it made my mother shriek. Dr. Burt did not have a secretary or a nurse and there were never any other appointments before or after me. How could he possibly support himself with so few patients?
When I once asked my mother this question, she told me I was so special that he had to cancel all his other patients to see me. I didn’t feel very special. Mainly I was bored sitting in that dark stuffy room that reeked of the Bay Rum cologne Dr. Burt always wore, that sometimes made me sneeze. For someone who loved The Beatles, he had no radio or piped in music. The win- dows were streaked with dirt and there wasn’t anything to see outside except the parking lot of a Radio Shack. The boredom felt like a smothering blanket.
How long did I have to wait? I grew tired of looking at the photographs of Paul, John, George and Ringo. Besides the framed diplomas from his optometry schools and several textbooks about eye diseases, there was absolutely nothing to explore. Even his desk drawers were empty.
Only once did I venture from my chair and open the examin- ing room door. Dr. Burt was sitting very close to my mother on the waiting room coach and seemed to be examining something on her neck. Was he a dermatologist too?
My mother jumped and Dr. Burt turned to me with a face I had never seen before: angry and embarrassed. Two streaks of red bloomed across his cheeks. “You need to return to the chair now,” he said in a strangely high voice. “If you don’t sit still, that lens can float up into your brain.”
I knew he was lying. I understood that Dr. Burt didn’t care about me. I could tell by the way his own eyes would soften whenever he saw my mother. He used her first name, which no other doctor ever did. He was always eager to take off her coat, and complimented whatever outfit she wore.
Once, when he didn’t think I was listening, he said, “Your perfume is heaven.” He wore a wedding ring, but I couldn’t find any framed photographs of Mrs. Burt or any children.
I never told my father or my brother about what happened in Dr. Burt’s office. I didn’t even know how to explain it to my best friend. Something felt off, like when the contact lens was halfway in my eye, and I could only see only half of the world correctly.
One visit, right before Thanksgiving, the rules changed. Instead of waiting in the office for my contact lens to settle, Dr. Burt told me to venture outside into the neighborhood, walk up and down the streets, in order to gauge my distance perception. It was one thing to see with my new contact lenses in his office. But the real test was the outside world.
I assumed my mother would join me.
“No darling, I have to stay here and sort out the insurance forms with the doctor. They’re so complicated because these contact lenses are very new. The insurance people can’t make heads or tails of what I’m trying to claim.”
Dr. Burt was not there when my mother told me this. He was downstairs parking his car. He did not have a regular parking spot near his office and sometimes would leave in the middle of the examination because his meter time was out.
“But is it safe for me to just… wander?” I asked.
“You saw this neighborhood,” my mother said impatiently. “Do any of these people seem dangerous to you?”
My mother was deliberately not looking at me, but examin- ing a large stack of papers. The perfume she wore that day smelled stronger, and her hair, which she usually wore in a long ponytail, was spread across her shoulders and shone in the light.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, in a softer voice, and gave me a little push toward the door.
Although it was freezing that day, I did what I was told. I clutched my pea jacket to my chin and dug my hands deep into my pockets. Finally, my eyes were accustomed to this brand of soft lenses and my eyesight, according to Dr. Burt, was excellent. I was an expert now at inserting these contacts in and out of my eyes and once even performed the routine without any liquid solution. Maybe Dr. Burt was right. It was time to discover if I could really see beyond the confines of his chair.
Unfortunately, the sights of downtown Riverdale were very limited. Kosher grocery stores, dress shops with yellowing paper in the windows and card stores that mainly sold Bar-Mitzvah invitations. At 4:30, the streets were already dark. But I could see. Finally. The absences of my heavy frames made my head so light that I felt I could float. Dr. Burt had saved me. I couldn’t wait to tell him we conquered the impasses.
Finally, when I couldn’t take the boredom anymore, I returned to Dr. Burt’s office. The door was locked. Where were they? Since we always took a taxi to Riverdale, I couldn’t look for my mother’s car and I didn’t know what kind of car Dr. Burt drove. I leaned against a station wagon and jumped up and down, suddenly wanting to pee.
I waited for what seemed like eternity but Dr. Burt finally did show up without my mother.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“She went to the post office,” he said. Never once had I known my mother to enter a post office.
“How did those lenses work out?” the doctor asked. I noticed his hands were shaking when he opened the office door with a key.
“Fine,” I told him. “Better than fine. I can really, really see now. My vision is crystal clear. I can’t wait to tell my Dad.”
Did I really know what I was saying at thirteen? How could I calculate what my words would mean to Dr. Burt? I just wanted to let him know I was so happy with my new vision. But he had taken my mother away from me and my family. I had to frighten him.
Dr. Burt’s eyes were wide as he stared at me. Then he seemed to leap up the stairways to open his office. I went directly into the restroom which was down the hall.
When I returned, my mother was there, her coat buttoned up to her chin, her hands covered with her leather gloves. “The taxi is waiting outside,” she told me. She practically pushed me down the very stairs I had just climbed. Dr. Burt had disappeared. What did he say to her when I was in the restroom?
My mother was silent in the back of the taxi that was heading to Manhattan. Although the taxi was warm, her coat was still buttoned to her chin. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she fished out a wad of Kleenex from her bag to blow her nose.
”Dr. Burt said your vision is excellent,” she told me. “I’m very sorry if I ever thought you were stupid because you couldn’t see the words in your books. I was the stupid one.” My mother made a sound that was like a short laugh and a sob. “Adults make mistakes,” she said, twisting her wedding ring.
I moved away from her in the seat, pushing my body against the taxi door. I did not want to touch or comfort her.
We never saw Dr. Burt again. My mother found another eye doctor, a woman whose office was directly across the park.
Contact lenses changed my life. No longer did I have to dance with boys with glasses. I could play any sport. By fourteen, I had so many boyfriends that at one time I was triple cheating.
Now, decades later, I thought I had forgotten about Dr. Burt. Yet a few weeks ago, I found myself in the same Riverdale neighborhood of his office. The neighborhood had changed. Those elderly refugees, the camp survivors, are long gone. Now there is a thriving Latino community, and you can hear salsa music as you walk the avenues.
My parents appeared happily married. When my father was gravely ill, my mother took loving care of him until his death. I understand marriages can be both fragile and strong.
Did my mother have an affair with Dr. Burt? I have accepted the fact that I’ll never know. My husband points out that this happened so long ago and no one was hurt.
“Except for me,” I told him.
I saw my mother differently after that autumn day in Riverdale when she disappeared with a man who was not her husband. I was too young to realize that she wasn’t only my mother, but a woman who perhaps had made a bad decision. Dr. Burt did give me the gift of vision.
But vision can be a gift or a curse, especially when you see something you weren’t prepared to see.
Penny Jackson is the author of the novel Becoming The Butlers and the short story collection L.A. Child. She is also a playwright and screenwriter. Visit her at pennybrandtjackson.com.
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