To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Guest Post 1: Miriam's Words

Hi, all. I', going to do my regular post for the week on Friday, so I can talk about Thanksgiving. In the meantime, here is a guest post--its protagonist is also its author (she decided third-person works better stylistically). "Angela" is a pseudonym, but I'll use it for her hereafter. She is--and this is incredibly good news for all sorts of reasons--a reader who identified with Ebony's descriptions of transability and got in touch with us recently.--D.

Angela took the wrong bus to Amherst. She realized this after the fact, when she texted John, Dr. Da Silva’s son. She was new to her iPhone, and the text-to-speech software had mangled the information on her electronic ticket, plus her excitement had made her a little flighty, a little reckless, even though she had spent last night digging her toes into the carpet, as her yoga teacher had taught her.

“I thought you were supposed to get in at two,” John wrote. She hadn’t even gotten there yet, and she was already inconveniencing everyone.

But when they met at the bus stop, he was perfectly good-natured and didn’t seem at all bothered by her mistake. Neither did his sister, Miriam, whom they picked up on the way to Dr. Da Silva’s house. The siblings instantly began to bicker--about the messiness of John’s car, about his obsession with electronic cigarettes--and she found herself a little surprised that they were so unguarded around her.

“I’m nervous about the experiments,” she confided.

“Don’t be,” John said. “My mom is really cool. You’ll like her. Plus, I can hold you entirely responsible for getting her to chill out about weed. She used to be pretty hard-core about it.”

They chatted about this and that. Miriam was a lawyer, and her voice reminded Angela of a certain public radio reporter’s. It was a voice that asked pointed questions, that encouraged the speaker not to shy from complexity. They discovered that they both had been addicted to Serial though they agreed it was a little bit of a let-down.

Angela could tell immediately, even with no visual cues, that Dr. Da Silva’s house was beautiful, that it in fact shared some unnamable characteristic with her mother’s. Later, her supposition would be proven correct; she’d pad across the hardwood floors in stocking feet, and run her fingers across granite surfaces.

“You must be hungry,” Dr. Da Silva said. She served lentils and quinoa and spiced chicken.  They ate in what must be the living room; Angela was seated in a chair that reclined so steeply that the balancing act required to spare her lap and the carpet took almost all her concentration.

They got down to business after the lunch dishes were washed. Angela was only in Amherst for a day and a half and already time seemed to be getting away from her. Of course, Dr. Da Silva wanted to begin with the dermo-optical perception (DOP) experiment. The idea of perceiving contrasting colors by touch was what had piqued the researcher's interest in the first place. She had only agreed to observe how marijuana affected Angela’s vision because Angela herself had insisted on it.

John and Miriam stayed to help with the experiments, and Angela tried not to think that was odd. They showed her the apparatus that Dr. Da Silva and her colleague, Dr. Meadows, had devised. It consisted of a box to completely cover her eyes, as well as slits for her hands. Even before she’d finished examining the thing, she knew that the experiments would be a failure. When her DOP was consistent at all, which it rarely if ever was (she’d told Dr. Da Silva this many times), her success depended on her ability to explore the image freely.

It soon became apparent that the bulkiness of the apparatus was just one of many problems. The images they gave her smudged easily, and she began to recognize each of the cards, not by the roughness or smoothness of the colors, but by the shapes of the smudges. The more she rubbed her fingers up and down the pages, the smudgier they became. After many of her answers, Dr. Da Silva conferred with her children in Spanish, and Angela knew that these whispered conversations meant that she was doing poorly. She was back in ninth grade, hastily scrawling answers on the French quiz she hadn’t studied for.

“It’s not a test,” Dr. Da Silva told her.

“I know,” she said. “I’m trying my best. I think I’m experiencing cognitive collapse.” She had learned about cognitive collapse in educational neuroscience last semester, and playing Hermione Granger with Dr. Da Silva made her feel less like a research subject, even though that’s exactly what she was.

They abandoned the apparatus. They tried just about everything else to entice her DOP: glossier paper; regular printer paper; black and white images; simple images and more complicated images; smaller sheets of paper and bigger ones. Still, Angela performed at or below chance. Dr. Da Silva didn’t say it, but it was obvious that she was disappointed. Neuroplasticity was a hot topic, and Angela’s DOP, if substantiated by experimental data, would be an intriguing and novel example of how the brain of a blind person could rewire itself.

Angela tried not to feel badly. She had told Dr. Da Silva many times that her DOP fled like a spooked deer whenever she felt like she was being tested. She’d even said that it was possible that her supposed abilities had more to do with the happenstance of the texture of ink and paper than any sort of neural rewiring. It was not her fault that Dr. Da Silva hadn’t listened. 

At six o’clock, Dr. Da Silva conferred with her husband and children, again in Spanish, and they ordered dinner from a nearby Chinese restaurant. After that was taken care of, Angela asked Dr. Da Silva if she could eat the pot brownie, which would give her access to some vision, and Dr. Da Silva agreed. “I guess it’s your turn to do experiments now,” she said with grudging amusement. These would not be publishable experiments, Dr. Da Silva had told her. It was unethical and illegal for her to ask Angela to ingest marijuana, but it was possible for her to observe her on an informal basis after she had voluntarily consumed it.

It took about an hour for the brownie to kick in. By that time, the food had arrived, and she was once again seated in the recliner. The first thing she noticed was a flurry of rapid motion, the source of which she could not determine.

“It’s over there,” she said, gesticulating madly.

“It must be the television,” Dr. Da Silva’s husband hypothesized.  Those were the first words he had said in reference to her all day.

Gradually, the room began to take shape around her. She couldn’t recognize any objects or pieces of furniture—not yet, anyway—but there were lines and edges and rectangles, as if someone had taken the walls and floors and couch and table and flattened them. The air took on an elastic quality, as it always did, and it tugged on her eyes and face and hands so that they could explore the drawing of the room that was beginning to emerge. Angela tried to keep most of these revelations to herself—everyone was still eating, after all—but whenever the Da Silvas tried to engage her in conversation, she’d break off in mid-sentence, startled by the flicker of the television screen, or the sudden movement of a hand, or, at times, nothing they could identify at all.

They finished eating, and John got up to take Angela’s plate. “OH!” he said, evidently surprised by something. She asked what had happened.

“You made eye contact with me,” he said. “It’s totally fine; I just wasn’t expecting it.”

Angela smiled to herself. Last night, she had tested out the batch of pot brownies with her friend Ellie, just to make sure they would work, and Ellie had been equally surprised. “I’m not used to being so up close and personal with your eyeballs,” she had said.

Angela was becoming overwhelmed by all the visual stimuli. Her whole body was spinning with it. There was pressure on her face and chest, and her heart was starting to race. This was the price she paid for forbidden knowledge, forbidden sight. She managed to ground herself enough to catch a glimpse of something shiny, and the shininess triggered a vivid recollection of something smooth on her fingernails, and she knew that the smoothness was nail polish. Logic told her that the shiny sensation, and thus the nail polish, must belong to someone else, and because she could hear Dr. Da Silva’s voice close by, she came to the obvious conclusion. And it turned out she was right; Dr. Da Silva was wearing nail polish, and the fact that she was right—and about something so detailed to boot—brought her closer to the reality of the power thrumming inside and outside of her, and that power scared her.

She recognized the scissors on the table, as plainly as if she’d reached out and touched them. Then she saw a big soft thing that Dr. Da Silva told her was a tissue. Dr. Da Silva said that maybe Angela had mentioned the scissors because she knew that they were on the table from earlier, when Miriam had been cutting paper for the DOP experiments. Angela did not know how to explain that normally, her mind didn’t work like that; when she was sober, if she wasn’t touching an object it had no physicality and would never hijack her attention like the scissors had done.

Angela was keen to show Dr. Da Silva what happened when she looked at colored strobe lights, which was how she had discovered that marijuana improved her vision. But her growing euphoria was starting to get in the way. “Yellow lemons!” she exclaimed, apropos of nothing. Miriam hadn’t even started shining the light yet, but the marijuana had flipped a switch, as it always did, and Angela was now able to imagine, not just yellow, but any image she could dream of.

She could tell the moment Dr. Da Silva turned on the strobe light. The colors reached for her; each brushed her cheek with a distinctive weight. But her hungry brain had another agenda. It latched onto the edge of the phone, the back of Dr. Da Silva’s hand, and it wouldn’t let go. “This is a hand,” Angela told herself. The knowledge felt so primal, so beyond language, that it was shocking, and she had to close her eyes for a second to stanch the flow. But as soon as she opened them again, the thoughts surged toward her once more; “This is a phone, and this is an edge, and this is what people mean by tracking objects, and now I understand how hypnosis works; it’s like the phone is pulling on my eyes, and I can’t look away.”

Back in the Da Silvas’ living room, she was vaguely aware that Miriam was asking her what color the light was.

“Like an apple,” Angela answered, “Or like a tricycle. Wait, it’s changed. Now it’s like milk.” This part of her brain didn’t seem to have access to color names, only a string of associations.

Dr. Da Silva must have leaned toward her then, because she was distracted away from the strobe light, and she was aware of her eyes like fingers tracing something rough, like a peach that was just beginning to shrivel.

“It’s your face!” she said. “See, I wasn’t lying to you. I really can see!”

“Yes,” Dr. Da Silva said. “I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but the signals to your retinas do seem to be boosted somehow.” Dr. Da Silva’s voice was scratchy, and Angela realized that it was almost midnight, that she had been keeping Dr. Da Silva and Miriam up with her antics. In hushed conversations that didn’t involve her, they worked out the sleeping arrangements. Angela would sleep in Miriam’s room.

“It’s cold in there though,” Miriam said.

Dr. Da Silva started gathering things, presumably the scraps from the failed DOP experiment. “I’ll bring her the electric blanket. And I’m sleeping late tomorrow. My foot is killing me.”

Angela could have kicked herself. Dr. Da Silva had broken her ankle a few weeks ago, and Angela had been oblivious. That was the deceptive thing about her new sight; when she could see, she felt more present, more connected to the solidity of the world than she ever did with only four senses. But maybe it was a selfish, deceptive sort of presence.

The room was freezing, even with the electric blanket; this was yet another similarity to her mother’s house. For two hours, Angela lay in bed, shivering and nauseated. The brownies often upset her stomach. At first, there was the usual euphoria; she had seen and seen and seen, and there were witnesses. She wasn’t crazy. She wasn’t making things up. It had been six years since she had discovered that marijuana could help her see, but that discovery had torn a hole in logic, and the doubt that came rushing in was as big and powerful as the discovery itself. “Never again,” Angela promised. “Never again will I torture myself like this. I can finally let the doubt go.”

In the morning, the euphoria was gone, and she felt drained and sheepish. She tried to find her way to the shower on her own, but Dr. Da Silva’s husband saw her and got his wife out of bed, even though Angela insisted she didn’t need help and that he should let Dr. Da Silva sleep. She managed to leave her clean underwear outside the bathroom door, and Dr. Da Silva had to hand it to her, while she stood wrapped in a towel, her hair dripping onto the tile.

They all had breakfast at IHOP. It was March 14th, the day Angela’s father had died twelve years before. When she was little, they’d always go to IHOP on Sundays, though they called it the Pancake House. Angela shared all these details with Miriam, and even let a little sadness creep into her voice. She rarely let herself become intimate with her grief. Miriam responded sympathetically, asking the appropriate questions and making the appropriate reassuring noises, and Angela had to remind herself that she had known the woman for two days, that they probably would never see each other again, and it had been unwise and perhaps a little desperate to reveal so much so quickly.

On the long bus ride back to Boston, Angela tried to mold the story of the trip into a success. She could finally cross “showing a researcher what happens when I see after I eat a pot brownie” off her bucket list; it had occupied the top position for years. “Your retinal signals have definitely been amplified,” Dr. Da Silva had reiterated that morning, but her pronouncement kept shifting and melting and reforming itself, like a clock does in a dream when you try to check the time.

At breakfast, she had asked Miriam what she had thought of last night.

“It was hard to tie what you were saying to people and objects in the room,” she had said. “For me, last night was less about what you could see and more about the movie that was going on in your brain. You didn’t say anything that definitively demonstrated that you were seeing. It was a cool movie, but we outsiders only got tiny glimpses of it.”

She was met with the same hollowness she’d experienced when she’d finished Serial. She’d gotten what she’d come for--the stamp of approval and legitimacy from a neuroscientist, someone who understood how cannabinoids and retinas and optic nerves worked. Months later, her friend Jess would tell her the story of a woman who loved hiking so much that she gave up everything: her husband, her children, her comfortable suburban existence. For this woman, the aliveness she felt when she hiked trumped everything, even loneliness. Angela never felt more alive than when she was seeing, but she could not become that woman.

What good was a movie if only one person could see it? Miriam was a lawyer, not a neuroscientist, but it was Miriam’s words, not her mother’s, that Angela would remember.

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