first person

What Would You Do If You Knew You’d Go Blind?

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Nicole C. Kear was 19 when learned she had a degenerative eye disease that would leave her blind in about a decade. In Now I See You — her new memoir, excerpted here — she describes coming to terms with her diagnosis in the midst of college life.

Something magical had happened while I was having adventures in Italy; my eye disease had been lifted out of the present tense, had been gathered together, all the loose ends tied up, and flung far, far down my timeline, beyond the vanishing point of my distant future. Now, it was as if someone had gazed into a crystal ball and told me that in ten to fifteen years, I’d suddenly be struck blind. It would happen at some point but it wasn’t happening now.

What made this possible was the fact that over that long, eventful summer, my eyesight hadn’t gotten any worse. Not as far as I could tell, anyway. Intellectually, I knew that that the deterioration of my retinas was slow, largely imperceptible, and that the steady elimination of my visual field happened even when I didn’t notice it. Of course, intellect, particularly in teens, is exceedingly easy to ignore. All that mattered to me was that in September, I could still see as well as I had in June, could still read my copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, could still sew buttons on my pants, could still make out a professor’s scrawl on the whiteboard if I sat in the first few rows of the room.

Nothing was different — at least, with my vision. Which was funny because all the rest of me was changing, more and more every day.

I returned to college looking very much the same, seeing very much the same, but in the midst of a personality makeover. Of course, the transformation didn’t happen overnight; learning to make bad decisions and do stupid shit, like anything else, takes practice. I got the ball rolling the way any nineteen-year-old would, in the bedroom. If your destination is Life in Living Color, it goes without saying that the fastest shortcut is the Indiscriminate Sex highway. My experience in Venice had proved to me that if I wanted to “Find Great Romance” I couldn’t sit back and leave it all up to the men. If you want something done right . . .

In the beginning, the whole thing was pretty clumsy. My inaugural attempt at seduction targeted a cute freshman who was hanging lights for a Mamet play I was rehearsing. My roommate and best friend Beth masterminded the affair, so that all I had to do was follow the script she laid out. At her coaxing, I called him one night and invited him over and at her suggestion, I answered the door in a red teddy and knee-high leather boots.

What the hell do I do now? I thought, as the flannel-clad freshman looked around nervously, probably wondering the same thing. Beth hadn’t scripted this part. So I regurgitated phrases I’d seen in movies, wincing internally as I said things like “Glad you could make it,” while lighting the wrong end of a Dunhill. I’d left the lights off in my room to create an atmosphere of romance, but it ended up backfiring when I couldn’t see jack and nearly lit my hair on fire. Of course, the promise of no-strings-attached sex is so blinding to a teenage boy, the freshman probably wouldn’t have noticed had I set his hair on fire.

Afterwards, I was very pleased with myself. I was taking life by the horns, becoming mistress of my own destiny. I called the shots, not some eye disease.

Screw you, Dr. Hall, I thought, I’m making changes but not the kind you had in mind.

Just like that, before you can say, “woefully self-deluded,” I’d persuaded myself that casual sex was a crucial part of my Carpe Diem strategy.

The rest of my college career was filled with brief dalliances each pretty much indistinguishable from the next, save for a tiny detail, some small remembrance — listening to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” for the first time while a Texan made breakfast; the chiseled biceps of a king-crab fisherman; opening a gift box containing silver earrings brought back from Barcelona. These moments were little shards of color and if you put them all together the right way, I thought, they’d make a mosaic showing a grown-up, gutsy girl living life out loud, a girl who didn’t take orders from a fat doctor on Park Avenue.

The whole idea was, of course, bullshit. I was doing nothing more bold or original than any other college co-ed does, desperate for attention and distraction — just tarting up, plain and simple. Still, I loved my new-and-improved persona. I loved being the kind of ballsy broad who wore Geisha Red lipstick and skirts short enough that you could catch a glimpse of garters. I loved cursing like a sailor, adopting pets without asking my roommates first, taking late-night skinny dips and generally undertaking asinine antics that would make my parents gasp, just because I could. Still could.

All of it was so terrifically exciting, I hardly ever thought about my eye disease, except every once in a while, and then only to convince myself that the diagnosis might just be the best thing to ever happen to me. It had woken me from complacency, given me a new lease on life and all without me actually having to grapple with any real consequences because my vision was, as far as I could tell, untouched. And since I wasn’t thinking about the disease, and it didn’t really affect me in any way, there was no reason to tell anyone about it.

I’d shared the news of my diagnosis with a handful of people, my close friends, right after I visited the Park Avenue doc, while I was still reeling. But once I’d found the cloud’s silver lining, I decided not to share the news with anyone else. I didn’t want the awkward pep talks and looks of pity. I didn’t want my tale of woe to undercut the sexy, coming-of-age story I was improvising.

Besides, who knew what the future held? By the time the shit hit the fan with my eyes, I’d be like, 30, maybe even older. Ancient, in other words. Who knew if I’d even live that long? And anyway, it was personal. Sort of like how I didn’t go around volunteering my bra size when I ordered a cup of coffee or announcing to my Introduction to Fractals class every time I was on the rag.

It wasn’t like it was a secret or anything, I convinced myself. I knew about keeping secrets and this wasn’t that. You had to protect a secret with lies, like when a wife of my dad’s colleague asked my mother for her famous cheesecake recipe and my mother maintained she’d lost the index card. My mother knew precisely where that stained and crinkled index card was; she just thought the lady should do her own legwork if she wanted to be known throughout downtown Brooklyn for her prizewinning cheese-based confections. Yes, I reasoned, I knew secrets and this wasn’t one. This was an omission.

From Now I See You by Nicole C. Kear. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

What Would You Do If You Knew You’d Go Blind?