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Still Life

Joel Armstrong is a speculative fiction author based in West Michigan. He has published with Asimov's Science Fiction and Teleport Magazine. By day, he is an editor for an indie book publisher. Find out more at joelarmstrong.com or on Instagram @joelarmstrongwrites.

You pause in front of the small canvas, only eleven by fifteen, and I can tell by your eyes that you actually see it.
A dirty receipt crushed into the pavement. A crumpled fast-food wrapper, a soft drink can with the metal twisted, its red paint too vibrant. Cigarette butts and an apple core, the flesh browning.
Do you like it?
My therapist recommended the rehab facility to me. I'd been seeing her for a while, trying to unravel all the bits of my life that tangled together but didn't add up to a bigger picture of anything. I'm not unique; you've known ten of me. Overcompensating for the shit in my childhood by earning hard, owning a bigger house than my friends, driving a faster car. But even I saw it when my second marriage fell apart, and my kids told me they didn't enjoy the vacation I took them on to Cancun.
"They take away your sight temporarily," my therapist told me.
I frowned. "How does that help?"
I remember as a child going through a phase--probably only a few days, really--when I was obsessed with wearing a blindfold and asking others to give me assignments to accomplish. I imagined what it'd be like to be blind: how I'd have to relearn navigating the house and street I'd always known, how my very perception would change. But of course I could see light around the blindfold, knew I'd remove it as soon as I wanted to.
I don't think I believed her until I was at the facility, in the operating room. The procedure didn't hurt; nothing even touched my eyes. I simply couldn't see. No light. No color. No shapes.
"The panic's normal," an aide said, holding my arms until I stopped flailing. "But you know there's no way we'd still be in business if we didn't really give your sight back in two weeks, right?"
A hundred paranoid scenarios passed through my mind as he led me by the hand down a hallway, but I calmed down after a hot bath in a tiled room with rainforest noises. Then, wrapped in a plush robe, I was guided to an outdoor patio where I sat in a lounger with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. A warm breeze stirred; birds sang all around, and though I knew cardinals and blue jays by sight, I couldn't tell you what kinds of birds were nearby.
"I don't recognize you," a low voice said beside me. I startled; I thought I was alone. "Are you new here?"
"You can see me?" I asked.
"No. I don't recognize your presence. Everyone has a way of carrying themselves: their stride, how they sit, the sounds they make when drinking."
I was impressed. "How long have you been here?"
He was finishing a three-week visit. His family had asked him to come: a stressful career in finance in the city had gradually unbalanced him; he hadn't been sober at a family event in years; he'd recently attempted to kill himself with pills.
I heard a lot of stories like that during my stay, in the dining hall or the massage rooms. Women, men, fathers, daughters, partners, parents, people from all walks of life who woke up one morning to realize they were caught in a cycle, slowly killing themselves and the ones they loved, and they had to do something about it. Those first days, I wanted to see the expressions on their faces, certain I'd understand them better if I did. Only later did I recognize that wishing for a glimpse of them kept me from hearing them as well, observing the fragile nuances of their voices, the sounds of their gestures in the air.
I told my story too, over and over. I remembered new details each time, things that once had been essential facts of my reality. The naive joy of tent camping for my first honeymoon right after college, because we couldn't afford anything else. My love of art class in high school, which I didn't pursue at college because I needed to study something practical.
So many things I thought I knew completely showed me new sides of themselves. Noodles dangling from a fork, covered with pesto, taste different without vision. Steam bubbling up from a spa. Leaves rustling in the wind. The pitches and timbre of music. A hand touching your shoulder.
Don't get me wrong. The first week was one of the hardest things I've done. Everything's out of your control. You have to trust total strangers for your most basic needs. I've never felt weaker.
But I didn't want to leave when my two weeks were up. In the operating room, they gave me my sight again--only blurs of light and shadow at first. My sister picked me up, drove me to the city. When we got out of the car on my street, my vision had finally adjusted, and the first thing I saw was the curb under my shoes: a paper napkin stuck between the red bricks, a candy wrapper, brightly colored bits of sugar half dissolved by rain. I cried, it looked so beautiful.
Your eyes move away from me, back to the canvas, studying it.
Are you interested in this one?
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2021


Author Comments

I recently edited a book by a person who was born blind but later gained sight after a surgery in their fifties. Everyday things I take for granted--clouds, dirt granules, leaves falling in autumn--were unseen marvels to them. I wondered what it would be like to experience blindness myself, and how it would affect my sense of reality. I am a descriptive writer by nature, so I had to challenge myself not to use visual description, to rely instead on sounds, smells, and tastes. After I finished writing the story, the question that remained for me was whether the narrator's change in perception would stick. Would he continue to see the world with greater clarity, or over time would he stop remembering to see the everyday marvels crushed on the sidewalk under his feet?

- Joel Armstrong
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