I couldn’t breathe. It was the middle of winter but the heat in the room was stifling and it seemed to be rising. He was sweating even more than me. It was odd; I thought he’d be used to it. His eyes scanned the length of my body with a thoroughness that made me nervous. Could he tell I was faking it? “Is everything alright?” I asked. It was taking so much longer than I had planned and I felt a growing frustration at the thought of all the things I would not accomplish before sunset. “Sorry, I don’t mean to rush you only there’s someone expecting me… Is there a problem?” In actual fact, nothing awaited me except an empty hotel room and a phone call from The Bureau but I was afraid of being transparent to him as I stood there, heart pounding. He turned his attention away from my legs and back to the job in hand, stamping my papers with unexpected force. “Everything looks good to me,” he smirked. “Will you be ok on your own? I can call for special assistance”. I took my documents and walked off, guided by my cane. I’d always been okay on my own.
The sliding doors parted and I stepped out into the new air – an icy air that slapped me in the face. So far, it had not been the best of welcomes. Standing with my back to the station, like a woman afraid to jump, I just watched as the returning travelers were met with tears, kisses and intrepid hands that frantically stroked and squeezed. Were they exploring for signs of change? It was too early to draw any conclusions and, in any case, my assignment was purely to gather observations. The glasses were designed for my protection but, standing alone in the cold, it struck me that perhaps the illusion of blindness could work to my advantage. If I played things right, the people might trust me to see through their eyes. Chosen because of the extensive research I had done into kissing back in the early years, I was familiar with The Physical Type but it was already apparent to me that the madness here in Thiego was far beyond any disease I had previously encountered.
An elegant man strode out into the cold. Wearing an expensive coat and a lost expression, he searched amongst the faces of the drivers, the vendors, the beggars but could not find what he wanted. Suddenly, a cry shot like an arrow into the sky and she emerged from the crowd, wildly pushing her way past lovers. Their eyes locked and soon after their bodies, like magnets. The arrow had landed. The madness spread and they danced to a tune that only they could hear, his hand sliding down the back of her skirt. It’s odd what people do when they think no-one’s watching.
“City centre” chirped a driver from the open window of a double-decker shuttle, blithely unconcerned about the subsequent stampede. “Just a single” I said. “That’s a free pass for you then.” He smiled. “I only charge the ones that don’t care.” Before I could react, I was jolted along by the couple from before who were clearly in a rush. “Let’s go to the top!” exclaimed the lady. “The front seats have the best view!” The elegant man emptied his pocket onto the counter and they pushed past me, vanishing up the stairs. I decided to follow. Raising my leg to mount the first step, the floor suddenly disappeared from beneath me as I was swept into the arms of a strong, young man. Who would pick up a stranger without asking? These people really were crazy! He placed me down in an aisle seat and I awkwardly thanked him for a service I truly would have rather not received.
We began our journey to the heart of the city, past steel, smoke and the sludge of over trampled snow – the shadows inter-cut with the occasional slice of bright light. “What’s happening?” I asked the woman next to me. After a long, hard stare at my glasses, then my cane, then my glasses again, she solved the mystery. “Oh! Well, we’re now weaving our way through a maze of glass towers of all shapes and sizes, some soaring upwards as far as the eye can see.” I thought she looked a little embarrassed. “We’re surrounded by windows, each one reflecting another side of the city. Oh, my husband works up there!” She pointed, suddenly overcome with excitement. I pretended not to notice. Continuing her commentary on the passing scenery, there was no denying it looked beautiful through her eyes. It was a shame they were all lies, for whose benefit I could not decide.
The shuttle ground to a halt – my stop. Rising to my feet, I glanced nervously around the deck in anticipation of another attack from the strong young man. He was gone, thankfully, and I capably made my own way out onto the street. The hotel did not surprise me – economical, well-located and functional. That’s what we valued back home. Holding the key to room 11, I ventured down the dimly lit, narrow passage and had not gone far when, all of a sudden, I was knocked to the floor. It was the couple again, still in a mad rush. The elegant man helped me up and offered to escort me to my door, while the lady ran ahead and out of sight. Taking me by the hand, he guided me through the network of shabbily decorated corridors, romanticizing every rubbish shoot and fire exit along the way – the blind leading the blind.
Finally, I reached the privacy of my room and settled by the window to write up the day’s observations. Outside, the snow was now falling hard and the men and women in the streets seemed to cherish every flake. Over the coming months, I would get close to these people; even befriend some, observing the power of a woman’s glance and the rituals that ensued. Each morning, the people of Thiego would awake to a city twice as beautiful as the night before. The filthy streets, ever more pregnant with the waste lovingly produced by their own hands, appeared to them the ideal setting for moonlit walks and waltzes in the rain. I continued the pretense that I could not see the games they played and they confided in me their distorted views, coloured by the madness that had infected this place. Having begun to appreciate my unusual position, I took it hard when summer arrived and my individuality was lost somewhere in a city of sunglasses.
Returning home one day, after a morning spent learning to zumba with dangerously loose-limbed girls and boys better suited to a pool hall than a dance studio, I waded my way through a torrent of rose-tinted shades back to my hotel. By now, I was well accustomed to the lack of physical boundaries imposed during travel and, walking shoulder to shoulder, there was scarcely any need to use my stick. Entering the sanctuary of room 11, I removed my glasses by the door, as had become my routine, and rushed to stop the phone ringing; certain it could only be The Bureau. “No change to report. They still talk of nothing but beauty, idealizing a city that is as ugly as our own”. I had a sense of what might follow, it had been a while coming, and felt the fear creep up on me. “If I may speak frankly, I am not comfortable staying here without glasses”. Silence poured out of the receiver, freezing the room. Obviously, frankness was not permissible. There was nothing else to say. After all, it had never really been a conversation. I collected my few belongings and left. New neighborhood. New home. New eyes. I admit I felt some relief, even excitement, that I would once again be remarkable, at least until the autumn. Mostly though, I was terrified of going blind.