Fiction · 03/10/2021

Frame

It’s because of the colors that she decides to do it.

She’s up on the roof of their house, something she’s never done before, and the shingles are hot and rough against her skin. She digs her heels in, bracing herself, and lets go of the camera. Actually, she more tosses it because she’s a good four feet from the lip of the gutter and needed to launch the thing so it would arc and clear the edge. Even so far back, though, something inside her yaws as the camera leaves her hands as if she, too, is sailing through the air. And then the splitting crunch as plastic, glass, and metal hit the pavement below. She should crawl over to look, to see the scattered pieces, the destruction. That was the point, of course. But she knows she won’t be able to coax herself out far enough, and, besides, she’ll be too far above it all for her failing eyes to make sense of it.

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Making sense was why she’d started taking pictures. She’d been the sort of child who, as soon as she discovered new ways the body could be damaged — clotted arteries, HIV, breast cancer, hypothermia, hypothyroidism, hypoxia, meningitis, drug addiction — began carrying them around in a swollen, tender part of her mind. It amazed her, how the people around her could learn about the endless human vulnerabilities and still get on bikes and swim in pools and use public restrooms. At night, she’d lie awake on her back, afraid that if she didn’t tell her brain to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out that her lungs would just give up, hang limp and useless beneath her ribs.

It was the therapist (because of course there was a therapist, her parents unsure what else to do with her) who suggested the camera. Through the lens, the world suddenly had boundaries, barriers, and she could choose what existed between them. She could experience the world in snapshots, everything around her existing only within the frames she chose.

She began taking her new little green camera everywhere, sometimes holding it in her lap and running her fingers over the aperture, feeling the finiteness of it, especially during lessons about health and biology, which were often alarming to her. When her teachers began discussing the fragile interconnection of the lobes of the brain, or showing images of lungs blackened and gnarled with tar, she would frame other, more stable things in her mind, imagine the room in safe photographs: the orderly horizontal lines of the blinds, the angular intersections of tree branches through the window, fine chalk powder clouds turning light into a jutting, tangible bar.

Outside of the classroom, she took these pictures, developed piles and piles of little landscapes she could control and hold in her hands. Her parents brought her back, again and again, to the store where the sour chemical smell and the rhythmic thunk of machinery meant that her work was taking physical shape. It helped.

As time passed, she got better and better at disconnecting from her body, shutting herself away from its soft, precarious workings, could think of it as another container, hardly her at all. It was easier to be this way, this floaty unawareness. She figured this was how everyone else had always been, and then she stopped remembering what it had been like before she shut out the excruciating press of her own physicality.

But she still carried a camera. She graduated to fancier models, always shouldering a bag large enough for her Nikon to nestle inside. She studied civil engineering in college, delighting in the logic of equations and pieces fitting into one another to build and support. But she also took photography classes, learned how to impose structure on what she had done instinctually to capture light, shadow, balance, depth, color. It was while taking a picture that she’d met her husband, he accidentally walking through the frame as she’d set up a shot of a bridge. Most people didn’t notice or care that they’d walked past her lens, but he had doubled back, apologized so fervently and sincerely that she was already pretty sure she loved him then.

Two years after she’d married him, her body began to glitch. Well, just her eyes, but it was a disease so rare that they had to cross state lines to find someone who could name it and also tell her there was no treatment, no cure. Just a steady march of worsening symptoms, the cells in the center of her eyes beginning to die and pile up like little corpses, this death spreading outwards bit by bit, causing an ever-expanding hole in her vision. She listened with detached interest and concern, the way she’d look at a car on the side of the road with steam pouring from the hood. A quick glimpse over her shoulder at something that couldn’t possibly be her problem.

Her husband kept asking the doctor why the research wasn’t further along, why there were no human trials yet, why there wasn’t anything to sign up for. He turned his palms up, looked at them like they were empty shells. Outside, in the baking glare of the parking lot, he began crying. She pulled him in, said comforting things. Her body was a box. Not something to worry about. She was fine. Everything was fine.

On the way home, she’d told him she’d figure it out, would make it work, and she did. She can still do her job. There’s expensive software the company agrees to provide that blows up text and reads it to her. Some things take longer now, and she gets headaches often, but she keeps painkillers rattling around in her bag. After she explained the changes she’d need to make to her boss, she never mentioned it again, and neither did anyone else in the office. Her coworkers allow their eyes to slide over the massive font on her screen, don’t comment on her increased use of headphones, don’t bring her coffee unless she asks for it. Which she doesn’t because she can get it herself.

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Before work this morning, in the slanted light of almost-day, she got up ready to jog, moving cautiously so as not to disturb her husband, who believes time doesn’t exist before 7 a.m. She followed her usual route, running on the smooth, reliable surface of the road — no sidewalks because they could have unexpected dips and rises she might miss. Her husband’s practical suggestion. When she got home and pulled the sweat-soaked socks from her feet, she discovered that she was wearing one blue and one purple. This was clear, now, with the sun screaming through the window. One blue, one purple.

Before, in light that had once been plenty for her to read by, she’d sworn they were the same. Both blue.

Going color blind, now. No one had warned her. The hole in the center of her vision, yes. But this, this unexpected side effect she hadn’t steeled herself for. The surprise of it, the unfairness that this, too, was slipping from her, would worsen with time.

She can’t take pictures. Not like she used to. She’s noticed it more and more, in the last weeks when she’s wanted to capture the cold freshness of spring mornings, the crisp way it turns new flowers translucent. It’s her favorite time of year to photograph, but the vividness she’s searching for is only accessible in her memory, not in front of her when she walks along the river. Her peripheral vision, which is the area that is still intact, can’t identify the tiny, precise details she needs to line up her shots, to get the focus just right, to achieve balance, contrast, color. And, without acknowledging it to herself, she stopped taking out her camera, turned her early-morning hunt for the exquisite into runs, everything streaming past her too quickly to notice.

She sat there in the hallway, holding the soggy mismatched socks and, like a sudden snap into focus, she was back in her body — fully — and sizzling with connection, awareness. She felt the blood move through the tiny vessels in her eyes, sensed the struggling cells in her retinas, probed the accidental twists of protein in her DNA. It was all there, every broken part of her that she’d practiced ignorance of, waiting for her to discover it.

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Now that the camera is on the ground, she’s embarrassed. She hoped it would feel good, cathartic somehow, to break something, to put the anger and frustration that have flooded her so suddenly and powerfully into irretrievable motion. She doesn’t feel better.

So she can’t use the camera anymore. She could have sold it, used the money to invest in some new text-to-speech technology she could use at home. This is what her husband would have suggested had she asked him. He has been all about finding solutions, researching the newest devices for the vision impaired, ordering products that will make everything possible for her. He surrounds her with the things she needs to live a totally normal life, is all about innovation-fueled positivity, fixing the problem. She’s always smiling and thanking him, trying them out. He didn’t ask to be married to someone who is disabled. She’s been acting like it all works, acting so well that she’s convinced herself, too, that he really is fixing her. That the ride app is just as good as driving herself, that the auto-magnifying, auto-focusing glasses make watching TV and recognizing faces so easy, that the computer voice that reads to her is just as good as her own internal monologue.

But it isn’t. Here on the roof, she allows herself to know this. None of it is as good as simply seeing — like everyone else, like she used to be able to.

She should get off, climb back through the window and grab the broom and dustpan from the closet and sweep up the pieces, prevent the little glittering bits she imagines are down there from imbedding in her husband’s car tires when he pulls in, in about five hours. She can bundle it all up and throw it away, erase her sudden and irrational violence. She can act like she went into work and spent the day squinting at her monitor. Act like she didn’t call in sick and, for the first time since her diagnosis a year ago, stay home and feel sorry for herself. When her husband notices that her camera isn’t a bulky mass in her bag and she hasn’t been taking pictures (he will notice, because he’s the sort of man who pays attention to even the little things, like when she’s running low on her favorite cereal), she can make up some story about giving it to an organization that helps troubled teens, and she’ll smile reassuringly like she has since the parking lot outside of the doctor’s office.

Or she can stay up here on the roof. She closes her eyes. It’s bullshit what they say about other senses becoming heightened when one begins to fade. She’s not turning into some superhero who magically develops the ability to taste fear or whatever. Still, she likes the feel of the sun warm and heavy on her arms and thighs and scalp, the spiky mineral smell of the shingles, the dry shush of wind in the maples. She decides to leave what used to be her camera for her husband to see later, decides to sit here inside her fractured, breaking body to listen to it, let it talk to her in its imperfect language. She decides to stop acting, at least for now, like everything is fine. Because, as her body reminds her in the thrum of her pulse, it isn’t.

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Wendy Elizabeth Wallace is a queer writer with vision loss originally from Buffalo, NY. Currently, she teaches English in Connecticut and writes when her dog is not demanding walks. She is the co-founding editor of Peatsmoke: A Literary Journal. She met the good people who are willing to suffer through her rough drafts at the Purdue University MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, The New Orleans Review, Longleaf Review, jmww, and elsewhere. See this aging Millennial struggle to Twitter @WendyEWallace1.