I went to the eye doctor on Tuesday. I had to. Well, I didn’t have to have to. When I first got my New York State driver’s license, the expiration date was set as my birthday in 2023. I have no idea why. I can renew online, but I needed to go through an eye test first, and since I am a normal human being (kinda), I waited for the last possible moment to get that done. So, I spent an hour of my 2023 birthday at an eye clinic.
I’ve been privileged with perfect eyesight for the first 29 years of my life. Not even 20/20, but 15/20. I don’t mean this as a boast. If you know me, you know I don’t voluntarily offer anything complementary about myself. Perhaps that’s an ironic statement. Either way, I’m telling you my eyesight is perfect to contextualize the fact that I’ve not been to an eye clinic in eons. I was unaware of the technological advancements eye examinations have undergone. I thought I’d walk in, read some letters with one eye covered, and walk right out. Instead, I found myself chin-deep in some plastic mechanism staring through two tiny lenses into what seemed to be a red barn at the end of a long and winding farm road. I had no idea why. I guess it was meant to gauge my visual perception.
The image of the meadow looked like that scene from the movie Gladiator, except if the scene was shot in rural Montana. Actually, I don’t think I needed to add the ‘rural’ there.
After that, the clinic worker came around with some device that looked like it could put the finishing touches on a crème brûlée. Except instead of caramelizing a layer of sugar, this lady used the device to make me cry. It was some sort of circular laser thing, I assume, that was supposed to scan my iris or something. The laser was red, and she had to bring the device up close to my eye until it was precisely in front my iris. I think. It turned green whenever it was in the exact right spot, and she had to hold it there for a couple of seconds. I think. However, every time she brought the device up close, she encountered a problem my mother identified years ago.
I have long eyelashes. I remember, for some reason, my mother telling me, when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, that whoever my girlfriend ends up being one day, she’s going to be extremely jealous of them. I’m currently single, but my mother was correct. I don’t bring this up as another boast. When I say that my eyelashes are long, I’m just stating a physical fact. A physical fact that rendered Tuesday’s visit to the clinic irritating, since every time that lady brought that optometric crème brûlée burner outrageously close to my eye, she pressed my lashes, causing me to either blink or tear up, preventing the laser from turning green for more than the briefest of seconds. She didn’t say anything other than tsk tsk tsk her way through the process, seemingly not realizing the role she’s playing in the problem. All I could do, meanwhile, was sit there, silently, as the tears made their presence felt.
After a series of more tests (I don’t know why this was so complicated, I just needed a fucking form signed, it was all bureaucratic, I don’t even own a fucking car I just needed this so I wouldn’t have to carry my passport when I go to bars that ID people), I was moved to another room where I awaited the doctor. He came in wearing cargo shorts, Sperry’s, and calf-high socks. He whipped out some mini magnifying glass and brought his face so close to mine to examine me eye-to-eye that I was 38% certain he’s going to kiss me. Our cheeks touched. He held my neck. It was weird. He didn’t kiss me, but he did try to make small talk, and asked me what I do for work. I think he saw something that suggests I stare at a screen a lot, as if only people with jobs that require a computer are impacted by whatever it is screens do to our eyes. Yeah, no, it’s not the 19 hours of Instagram Reels I watch a week. I told him I tutor, and he said, “Ah that’s a lot of screen time,” and I said I actually go in person for some of them, and he was oddly taken aback, and he asked what I teach, and I said that I tutor all kinds of things, but mostly math, English, and Hebrew. That’s where I fucked up.
Whenever I’m done writing anything, I read it out loud. It’s good practice. To find typos, tense issues, things that don’t flow properly. The first time I read out loud what I wrote last Saturday, I bawled my eyes out. I know that’s a phrase people use flippantly sometimes, but I mean it literally. I’ve never had anything like that ever happen to me. I started crying profusely when I reached the bottom of page two of that document, stopped to compose myself, sniffled and sighed and wiped and shook and blew my nose, restarted, and profusely began crying by the middle of page four again.
I had to talk to a lot of people on Tuesday. Actually, that may not be the best way to put it. I was privileged to hear from a lot of people on Tuesday. I was lucky to have a video call with my best friend of 25 years, who was stationed in a base somewhere. A soldier walked into his office midway through our call, asking for some piece of equipment or another they’d received as donations. This soldier, who I never met in my life, saw me on the phone screen, then asked my friend why is he talking to a terrorist, and all three of us burst out laughing in a way that only three people who go as far back as we do could.
I heard from so many people on Tuesday. People I knew in college and haven’t spoken to in five years, guys I went to middle school with, a random girl I went on one Hinge date with three years ago and now lives in New Orleans. I love them all. Platonically. And I don’t blame anyone for what I’m about to say, but every single call, wish, expression of joy, just made things more difficult. Again, I don’t blame anyone for mentioning the circumstances—it’s an unavoidable truth. I would’ve done the same. It is impossible to wish joy or happiness or celebration without qualifying it with the moroseness of reality. That’s what a time like this does, I guess. The sorrow is inescapable, it metastasizes into every facet of your life, it becomes the only thing your eyes can see.
I don’t really care about my birthday. I’m not just saying that now because of the circumstances. I wrote an essay four years ago where I talk about the issues I have with my birthday. I really don’t care, and don’t even want to waste your time by making some argument about how birthdays become inconsequential in times of war. I guess, on some level, I’m doing that by saying I won’t do that. Anyway. The circumstances of the two events coinciding at such proximity meant that I couldn’t talk about one without talking about the other. So, on Tuesday, I had to talk. A lot. To so many people. To so many kind and loving and caring and compassionate people, who, because of their humanity, their solidarity, felt inflicted somehow. They told me it must be tough being so far at a time like this, which may be true but is also the least important thing in the world. People felt bad for me, despite the fact I’m so far down the list of those who merit compassion. I’m not even on the list, frankly. But that’s what war does—it creates boundless ripples. You know someone, or you know someone who knows someone, or you know someone who knows someone who knows someone. Every human link in this chain has had its gut punched and its heart squeezed, and all that makes you do is want to give them a hug. To talk to them, let them know you’re here, let them know they can cry to you if they want to. And every person that wished me happy birthday on Tuesday expressed that sentiment in some form. I heard you; I heard all of you. I just don’t know how many more ways I can tell you that I don’t have any words to say.
When you’re the only ____ someone knows, and shit hits the fan in ____, there’s a good chance people will ask you about it. People who’ve been your best friends for years, people who you know through friends of friends, people you work for, people you haven’t spoken to in eons, and, yes, even people with questionable sock-shoe combinations and a PhD in optometry. People simply don’t know, and they want to know. They want to understand. And, yeah, maybe you don’t feel like answering the questions, maybe you don’t know feel like you have any more words to say, but just know that if you don’t answer people’s questions, someone with a flawed understanding, an agenda, and an Instagram account may do that for you.
There’s a chance I just implied that I have an accurate understanding of what’s going on, which could be some form of boast. But we’ve been through this already. I’m just trying to give you what I know to be facts. And the fact is that, as I’ve had to talk to pretty much every human being I know over the last week, it’s been nearly impossible. It’s been, just, sad.
I haven’t been able to speak words out loud, but I’ve been able to write. Frankly, I’ve needed to write. I’ve been able to write in the confines of my room, where no one can see me try to sound the words as I choke up; where no one can see if I start to bawl.
I tutored two kids on my birthday. I met the first, a 13 year old boy, at a public library. His mother is Israeli. She’s taken charge of circulating fundraisers across the US, trying to combat fraudulent organizations that aren’t actually forwarding the money to those who need it. We sat in the kids’ section upstairs, surrounded by dozens of other teenagers hanging out after school. I asked him about his family there. He visited them two months ago. He asked me about the city I grew up in. No one knows the city I grew up in. I asked him if he knows the neighboring city. People tend to know that one. It’s like our big sister. He did know it. He said he didn’t want to go to a pro-Israel rally in front of the UN because he has a math test on Friday and he wanted to study with me. We then distracted ourselves for 90 minutes figuring out fractional exponents and the radical simplification of 2,940. He crushed it.
I then walked from the public library to an apartment where a family I work for lives. On my walk, I spoke to a brother of mine who’s somewhere I can’t imagine being. He shared a news video with me: a woman finding out, while interviewed, that her husband had been killed. I kept pacing down Columbus Ave, then my friend told me he just heard news that his friend—his friend who he described as the most positive human being in the world, as someone who always found a way to see the good, as someone who’s practically a cliché of how good a human can be—has also been killed. I told him I am so, so sorry, because what else am I supposed to say. He asked me about the discourse on this side of the world. Whether the kids and families I work for are discussing this, and what they’re saying. I told him it is being discussed. I told him I’m trying to talk.
I arrived at the building. The doorman knows me, as I’m there twice a week, and he signaled to the person at the desk that I’m good to go through. I sat down with my student in her room. She struggled with her Hebrew quiz the other day. I tried asking her about it, but she couldn’t talk. She couldn’t get through the sentence. She couldn’t sound the words, take the risk of being seen bawling. She choked up and teared up in that way an eleven-year-old kid does when they think they’re at fault for what happened; when they’re embarrassed to externalize something they think is a vulnerability or a weakness. A pure, childhood innocence that can make a kid believe the world, and everything that’s wrong about it, could ever be their own doing.
I’ve been where she was; I am where she was. I did the only thing I could and changed the conversation. She also has a math test this week. We worked on the study guide for an hour. She crushed it. Near the end of the hour, we heard her dad and younger brother walk through the front door. The little boy, a ball of energy, ran inside screaming hello to his mother. The girl and I laughed. They brought food with them, and soon enough the scent began permeating through the walls. I asked the girl if she can try to guess what the food was. She said she couldn’t, but she said it smells so good as she smiled with excitement. My guess was some sort of lemon and herb chicken concoction. It smelled like Shabbat dinner in the apartment I grew up in. Like a family home.
I sometimes hate talking to the parents on my way out. I have to affirm them that they shouldn’t worry about their kids while still being honest about certain deficiencies the kid may have, despite the fact that parents can only ever see their kids for what they are: their personal, perfect, little ball of light.
We didn’t talk about the kid, though, who went running after her brother as soon as we were done. The parents and I stood by the door and asked each other about what we know, who we know, and who we knew. They weren’t surprised I know more people who’ve been called up to reserves, as I’m younger than them. “How old are you, even?” they asked, and I said “Twenty-nine,” and they nodded, and I added, “today, actually,” and they both beamed up. The dad called his daughter back to wish me happy birthday, and she ran back with a smile on her face, and the dad said to her, “You see, he wanted to spend his birthday doing math with you,” and she laughed in the way a perfect little ball of light of a child should be laughing.
I took the subway home. The 1 train during rush hour is irrational. It’s an amount of people confined into such a small space that would only make sense if they were all seeking shelter. It was hot, and steamy, and packed, and uncomfortable, and somewhere on the other side of the train car there was a baby wailing as loud as humanly possible. That baby cried loudly enough for people on the train, strangers, to exchange looks that mutely said ‘can you believe this’ to each other. That baby wailed, wildly, from 59th to 66th to 72nd where a chick standing next to me asked the guy she was with whether he wants to move to the next car over because maybe the A/C is working there. “I’m suffering,” she said, and as the doors opened, they squirmed out. The baby continued to cry through 79th and 86th and 96th and 103rd and 110th and 116th, then the crying stopped. Maybe the baby calmed down. Maybe they got off. Those are the only two options that would make any sense.
I was standing in front of a couple. A young couple. Maybe 20. I did my best to give them their space, while remaining conscious of the people standing on top of me. She was passed out on his shoulder. I couldn’t tell whether she was passed out because she was drunk or because she was tired. Either way, her face was buried in his shoulder, and her right palm was resting on his right hip. Her eyes were closed, but she couldn’t stop moving her index finger. She moved it ever so slightly, scratching the belt loop of his jeans, the inside of his shirt, the palm he offered her. It was like her finger was battery operated. Merely resting her hand on him wasn’t enough. She had to continuously scratch her nail, tenderly, against this man. As if gauging his reality; as if needing to repeatedly assure herself to his physical, warm, living presence in her life.
I got off at 145th and walked towards my apartment, passing by the eye clinic where my visual perception was put to the test.
The world keeps going, and all I can do, meanwhile, is move with it, allow the tears to make their presence felt, and consider the perspective of what something means.
The laughter of a child. The troubles of a child.
The pride of a parent. The worries of a parent.
The comfort of shelter. The suffrage in confinement.
The freedom to enter. The inability to move.
The celebration of an occasion. The reality of circumstances.
The words you can say. The words you can’t.
The active, warm, living presence of a love. The