Dancing in the dark

I was going blind but thought I could still tell who turned me on. That was until I took home a Bettie Page look-alike who turned out not to be the pinup I'd envisioned.

Published August 1, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

On my 18th birthday I was diagnosed with a genetic condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. My retinas were slowly scarring themselves, as if giving up on their duty and will to live. By 18 I was already night blind; one day I would be totally blind. For the next 10 years I looked down the barrel of my own sight, until, well, lights out.

Now for the bad news. Not only was it hard on my body and psyche to lose my sight at such a slow rate, and at such a formative age, but partial blindness was particularly nasty on my love life. "Dancing in the Dark" wasn't just a popular and stupid song: It was my soundtrack. For a decade I lived in a curious netherworld of identity, as neither an entirely sighted guy, nor a purebred blind man. Like some sort of B-movie werewolf, the midnight hours were my nemesis, and they transformed me. In the clear-eyed light of day I acted confident, eggheaded and ambitious, but when the sun went down I became accident-prone, disoriented and downright peculiar, when not plain drunk. If the lighting was good and I could get away with staring, I might manage fine. But other times, under poor lighting, I saw only the outlines of shadows and fog, a world reduced to simple smears and silhouettes. Appearances were more than deceiving, though. They were often trouble.

During my tenure as a poser and roustabout in Vancouver's post-punk scene, I had my first instructive catastrophe in the perils of blind romance. Specifically, I was in a grungy, fledgling goth club called the Twilight Zone. Some would call that irony -- all I know is that it was an apt name for my hangout, and a good description of my physiology. The Twilight Zone was one of those joints with ultraviolet lighting. If I recall correctly, it also had dismembered mannequin torsos in go-go cages. My friend's band, Bleeding Sack of Kittens, was onstage the night I met a girl -- let's call her Lisa -- and we danced to their signature medley, a relentless hybrid of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and Kiss' disco atrocity "I Was Made for Loving You Baby.

Afterward we drank beer at a table under the dark purple light and eventually made a date for the next night, when we met again at a table in a different bar. Again, under dark purple light, we drank beer and talked till closing. We got along swell. Lisa was funny and bright, listened mostly, and made a charming snort when she laughed. From what I could tell, she had long, dark hair in a Bettie Page cut, a sharp jaw line and high cheekbones. Her nose was long and articulated, her skin fair, bordering on transparent. She was pixie-like. Dramatic and nymphish -- all things that punched rapid-fire on my desire buttons, and always have.

Because it was late when our second date ended, and because Lisa lived somewhere way down the bus route, she asked if she could crash at my place. I said something about how small it was, and she answered something about that being all to the good. She flagged down a cab and we sped off to my crummy basement suite. When we arrived, I fumbled with my keys in the dark. Then, when I opened the door and turned on the living room light, it flooded my apartment and retinas with a fluorescent wash.

That's when I turned around and looked at Lisa, only to find that the person looking back at me was a total physical stranger. Her name was Lisa, but she didn't fit Lisa's description. Watching her take off her boots, I realized, for the first time in my life, that I'd confabulated most of somebody's appearance. The blind do this all the time, it turns out. We concoct images in our minds, project them into the world, and, if we're not careful, we dance with them. In this case, I'd confabulated a Lisa in a dark nightclub and cab ride, one who didn't exist. While it was sort of thrilling to recognize that I'd achieved a new level of blind experience, my astonishment was quickly eclipsed by another feeling: regret.

As I stood in the brightness of my living room, my remaining sight told me I had a fresh problem, one that was more immediate and undeniable than my blindness. I wasn't attracted to Lisa. Not anymore -- not this Lisa. Sure, it was her voice and snort as she laughed and nearly toppled over, still pulling at her boots. Some of her mannerisms persisted, such as the way she rubbed the side of her nose when she laughed, then moved her hand to cover her mouth, perhaps a habit to conceal something about her teeth, something that embarrassed her. Those gestures remained, as did the light citrus fragrance of her perfume. But that's about it.

She didn't have long hair, it turned out, nor a Bettie Page cut. Rather, her hair was a closely cropped buzz -- imagine Sinead O'Connor due for a trim. I'd mistaken the silhouette of her dark, baggy track hoodie for hair. Her skin was fair -- I had that right -- but peppered with freckles on her cheeks, nose and forehead. Shadows from the nightclub lighting must have accentuated her nose, because it was shorter and rounder than I'd imagined, and her jaw line had probably also been refined by the harsh club lighting. Now I was greeted by the surprise of a slight second chin. I'd imagined a body for Lisa, too, but never having seen her in good light and never having touched her -- not even so much as brushed up against her as we danced -- it had remained a willowy silhouette. Now it was clear that Lisa wasn't only wearing baggy clothes, but was actually a bit heavier, pleasantly so, but a different shape all the same. Simply put, the shock of her change in appearance overwhelmed me. It augmented the difference between my blind man's imagination and my remaining sight. That was all I could focus on.

What followed was an uncomfortable night. I slept on the couch while Lisa took my bed. My sudden change in mood puzzled her, and perhaps even pissed her off. Meanwhile I balled up inside with a kind of guilt I would normally associate with duplicity, and resented the feeling, too. It's not as if I'd planned to mislead her about my attraction. I hadn't planned to mislead myself, either. I deflected and dodged her advances -- advances I had previously planned to make -- until she gave up and went to bed. Not explaining myself was chickenshit, I admit, but I didn't know how to do it. What could I have said? Sorry, Lisa, but until now I thought you looked like a different person. Just found out you're not my type -- just this sec, in fact.

Although I'd said I was partially blind, and that hadn't fazed her, now it was clear to me that neither of us really understood what that entailed. I was someone who, although technically blind, still perceived and conducted himself according to the social expectations of a sighted person. Think about it this way: Sighted folks typically eyeball one another from the edge of the dance floor, or from way over by the punch bowl, and basically look for an image of their desire. It's sort of a quiet act of discrimination, but it's OK because nobody is made the wiser, and we all do it. But make no mistake, the social expectation is to do this at the beginning, first thing, not two nights later, after two terrifically fun dates.

I never knew bad timing would be a side effect of blindness. And I didn't know what to do with desire, or how to act, when the stages of attraction were so completely backward. Nobody warned me about this sort of thing. Still, I feel the need to apologize to Lisa, and so I do, if she's out there. It's a curious fact, too, that even now, although the visual world is gone, I still haven't let go of appearances. I still want to know what people look like, as if their hair length or fashion can mean anything to me, or really does. Even blindness doesn't extinguish my need for visuals, nor my craving for their code. Either that's testimony to my own shallowness, or perhaps it catches a glimpse of just how deeply socialized we are to lending meaning to such sights. You can go blind, sure, but in some ways you never totally do -- not really.

By Ryan Knighton

Ryan Knighton is the author of Cockeyed: A Memoir.

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