I tap my collapsible red-and-white walking cane in an arc, scanning with audible precision for obstacles in my path. I’m shoulder to shoulder with Sophie, the hand not guiding me wedged deep in a pocket of my coat to avoid the evening chill. We must be in the middle of the sidewalk, because my cane doesn’t hit grass or an edge on either side. We chat on our way to the dining hall, my methodic footsteps setting our pace as the tap tap tap of my cane blends into the background.
Someone behind us calls for my roommate. Sophie turns around, lifting the arm that was previously against mine to wave and respond, “Hey!” Footsteps get louder as Cameron jogs towards us. I pull my cane closer to my body to make room for him on our walk. He slows down, confusion in his tone.
I take off my sunglasses and smile his way. My vision may be severely farsighted, but I’m wearing my contacts, so I can see his expression when I respond.
“It’s a social experiment.”
“Oh, cause I was gonna say, last time I saw you, you were not blind.”
When I blurted out that I should try to live without sight for a week, Sophie didn’t think it was a very good idea. She asked me to do something else for my writing assignment, something more realistic. Sure, the essay was supposed to be about experiencing a situation outside of my comfort zone, but as any good friend would, she reminded me that not being able to see was dangerous and wanted to know how I was going to make it to class while crossing streets and avoiding oncoming traffic. I’ll admit I was too hooked on the possibility of learning to use a cane to foresee any complications, pun intended. I had read an article that detailed a legally blind woman’s experiences while in a six-month program that taught her how to read Braille and walk guided only by he herher cane, which in retrospect is probably why the idea came to me in the first place. That, and my own history with blindness. I tried to convince Sophie by by quoting a book I had been reading for class, replying, “It’ll be an opportunity for some pretty grand acting! And besides,” I added, tapping the frames of my think lenses, “already halfway there, remember?” We settled then on me only pretending to be blind; or at least, she suggested that rather than stumble around like an idiot for a week, I judge people’s reactions to my supposed disability. I contributed to the compromise by muttering in distracted agreement while looking up cane prices online.
It’s early morning, already overcast and almost too gray for me to see while wearing my sunglasses. I nearly laugh at the irony. I’m heading off to my first class, letting my cane lead me as I walk out the door. I swing using only my wrist, keeping my elbow against my side as was instructed by a cane travel reference book. I make sure to sync my tapping with my stride, always protecting my back foot as I march my way down the street. There isn’t much foot traffic, so I’m only a bit nervous that someone will notice me and be able to tell I’m faking.
By the time I get to the first street I have to cross, I’m feeling pretty confident in my technique. Using my cane to “find” the tactile paving, I wait by the road’s edge and listen for a break in the traffic. A 20-some-year-old man who had crossed the street just before me stops, turns around, and jogs back over to where I am. He taps me on the shoulder, oblivious to the fact that I can see him.
“Hey, I’m going to help you cross, okay?”
I look vaguely in his direction, playing my part.
“Oh, thank you very much.”
He holds my arm gently as we cross, my cane still swinging in front of us. Once we reach the other side, he calmly lets me know we’ve done so. I thank him again with a smile, and we part ways without another word. I do not know what reactions I expected to get out of this experience, but I feel slightly stunned as I continue towards class. The kindness of strangers, huh?
There’s a group of five or so girls watching me as I walk along the road. They’re standing at the other end of the bridge I’m about to cross, and they’ve all not-so-subtly turned their bodies towards me as my cane taps the sidewalk on my left and the railing on my right. When I reach the other side, I can catch their expressions out of the corner of my eye. Some seem concerned, some smile to themselves with an odd mix of relief and anxiety. I wonder what they were thinking. I continue towards central campus without any interaction.
Cameron crowds under my lofted bed, oblivious the fact that I’m trying to do homework. Back bowed, he fiddles with the cups and books that litter my desk and almost whacks me in the head when he turns unexpectedly.
“Why do you have a blind person’s cane in your room?”
At a crosswalk, I pause when I feel the edge and choose to stand a little too close to the street in order to see how the woman next to me will react. I stare straight ahead as cars round the corner, and I can feel more than see her flinch towards me. She does not, however, make any move to speak to me. At the walk signal, she strides ahead of me, purposefully stomping on the concrete so I will know that it is safe to cross.
Today, I receive a white metal-tipped cane from the National Federation of the Blind, which I had requested before realizing that it was actually easy to find a cane online elsewhere. I didn’t have to pay for it; the NFB has a no-questions-asked free program. This one is likely worth more than my collapsible. It’s surprisingly light, made of fiberglass, and when I try it out indoors I get a better response from the tip.
I shouldn’t have this.
I thought I had cancelled my application.
The next morning, I wake up feeling manipulative and self-conscious. I do not have the courage to play blind today.
After class, I walk with Avery to our usual spot in Angell Hall. She thinks what I’m doing is “really cool,” and even though I tend to get fewer stares when I’m arm-in-arm with someone, it’s a nice break to be able to remember that the tap tap tap doesn’t define me.
“We’re going to turn right, now.”
I can feel eyes on me as I swing my cane in long sweeps, using now-familiar technique to search for the bend in the sidewalk. A student holds the door open for me much in advance of me actually reaching it. Once we’re inside the building, I remove my sunglasses and hastily shove the cane in my backpack. I can breathe again.
It’s almost midnight when I notice that I have a a missed call and voicemail from an unknown number. Lying in bed, I press play and bring my phone to my ear.
“Hello Haley, my name is—“
“I’m the head of the Ann Arbor Low Vision Support Group. I got your number from the National Federation of the Blind’s cane list, and was wondering if you’d like to attend a group meeting on—“
I’ve never felt this unsure about myself. I’m beginning to think that this “social experiment” is nothing but a sick joke. There is something heavy reaching up my throat, sitting in the cavity of my chest, trying to beat it’s way out of my ribcage and drag me to the floor. I almost let it. I want to get rid of the white cane, bury myself in my guilt, and seal my eyes shut so I at least won’t be lying anymore.
What’s the point?
Was there ever one?
I erase all record of the call from my phone and try to sleep.
I started wearing glasses when I was two years old, so I don’t remember the “A-ha!” moment when I realized that trees had leaves, or that light came from bulbs and not bright floating circles. In school, I never had to squint, or move to the front of the class to see the chalkboard. Instead, I lived behind a barrier, inside a very small window through which I could see the world. My purple wire-rimmed glasses were the dominating feature of my appearance, sorting me into the categories of “bookish” and “timid” even though I was loud and stubborn and ready to embrace each day with dirty hands and big ideas. I tried, but I was never able to connect with my classmates, who were themselves growing up in an environment that taught social judgment’s unwritten rulebook as if it was the ABC’s. Middle school was a challenge that I completed with no great success. By the time I was done, I was insecure, defeated, and ostracized. Looking back, it’s easy to notice how my inability to see without that protective shield has influenced the way I interpret the world, although I couldn’t say if it’s for the better or the worse.
When I was a child, my room was decorated in a dainty manner not befitting my rowdy personality. What I’ll always remember the most was the wallpaper; a motif of pink and blue flowers in bunches tied with olive green ribbon. Without my glasses, each bouquet blurred to look like a face that my younger self liked to imagine had a distinct personality. My first stories were a soap opera about the disagreements between a grumpy-looking bouquet with a large mustache and the ladylike posy with a small waist.
It’s strange how that small detail has stuck with me over the years. I like to attribute my love of reading to the dialogue I invented about those flower-people. The fact that my thoughts expand inwardly forever, allowing me to conjure anything using only my imagination has always comforted me. Even now, I often find myself stepping back into my mind while trying to solve real-world problems, because there, I’ve never needed glasses to see clearly. Although I’m still close to legally blind, I’m no longer afraid of losing my sight completely. My low vision has taught me how to “fill in the blanks,” how to get by without being certain of exactly where I’m going. That attitude once made me hesitant, but now encourages me to believe in the non-physical aspects of human existence: in my feelings and dreams and, ultimately, in myself.
“Here, let me try!”
Cameron snatches my cane off its hook and clumsily starts pushing it along the floor with his eyes closed. I humor him until he starts banging it against Sophie’s leg. She grabs her lacrosse stick and starts hitting him back. That’s been the typical first reaction when people see the canes: either to use them, or start fencing.
“Here, you’re not supposed to drag it on the ground, you’ll destroy the tip that way!” I snatch away my collapsible and demonstrate the proper technique. “Look: two taps, like that. And don’t grab the handle like a fist, hold it like… like a handshake, thumb and index fingers pointing towards the tip, see?” I demonstrate, then switch automatically to a secondary grip that’s meant to be used in crowded spaces. I toss Cameron the white cane, saying, “Check how bouncy this one is! Straight canes typically give much better feedback than sectioned canes can, and that metal tip will last me longer, but I really prefer the texture of my collapsible’s handle.”
I suddenly realize that, no matter what I do for the rest of my life, I will have an informed personal opinion about differences in walking canes. The thought strikes me as hilarious, but when I start laughing I can’t find the words to tell my friends why.
It’s my last day of being blind. Avery and I’d been talking at the library about my week, how I was relieved to be done but glad to have done it. We realize it’s getting late, so Avery stands up to walk with me back to my dorm, smiling as she says, “Well, put your blinders on and let’s go!”
“Yeah, like on a horse.” She cups the sides of her face in explanation. “They make it so that the horse can only see what’s in front of him and he isn’t frightened by the crowds during a race. These,” she continued, pointing to my sunglasses, “are your blinders. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.”
Although I’ve never been a horse person, I can’t say her analogy is wrong.
This week, I’ve seen strangers go out of their way to hold open doors, move out of my path, and help me across streets. These people have always held the capacity for great kindness, and yes, they wouldn’t have done those things if I hadn’t appeared disabled, but I don’t think the discrepancy is at all important here. They didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, they only knew I needed help. Although I had panicked once my experience began to overlap with my personal life, I was able to realize that I wouldn’t get anywhere if I couldn’t move forward. It’s often been said that a person starts to become who he or she pretends to be, and by now I’ve found that the more I learn about being blind, the less I have to pretend at all.
What’s the point?
Was there ever one?
I put on my sunglasses, contemplative as I snap open my cane like it’s a logical extension of myself. Linking my arm through hers, I think about how nice it is to be able to rely on other people. But when I actually close my eyes and stick my cane out, letting it lead both of us, I think that it’s nicer knowing that I’m able to rely on me.
I hang up my cane for the last time.
Sophie and I haven’t had dinner yet, so we put our coats on and I move to grab my sunglasses. Realizing that I don’t need them anymore, I drop them in my backpack as we head out the door. I consider using the cane to walk to the dining hall, but the walk is too short to get any good data, and as Avery said, I have already finished my race. When our boots hit the pavement, I can’t help but miss the familiar weight now absent in my hand. Snug inside my coat pocket, my wrist moves back and forth in the ghost of that metronomic motion. Sophie’s talking to me, but my mind is elsewhere. My footsteps are deliberately paced, and the sound my heels make match the tempo present only in the back of my head.
Tap, tap, tap.
(Nominated for a First Year Writing Prize)