Planet of the Blind (Stephen Kuusisto)

book cover

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  I've entered Grand Central Station with guide dog Corky, my yellow Labrador. We stand uncertain, man and dog collecting our wits while thousands of five o'clock commuters jostle around us. beside them, Corky and I are in slow motion, like two sea lions. We've suddenly found ourselves in the ocean, and here in this railway terminal, where pickpockets and knife artists roam the crowds, we're moving in a different tempo. There is something about us, the perfect poise of the dog, the uprightness of the man, I don't know, a spirit maybe, fresh as the gibbous moon, the moon we've waited for, the one with the new light.

So this is our railway station, a temple for Hermes. We wash through the immense vault with no idea about how to find our train or the information kiosk. And just now it doesn't matter. None of the turmoil or anxiety of being lost will reach us because moving is holy, the very motion is a breeze from Jerusalem. This blindness of mine still allows me to see colors and shapes that seem windblown; the great terminal is supremely lovely in its swaying hemlock darknesses and sudden pools of rose-colored electric light. We don't know where we are, and though the world is dangerous, it's also haunting in its beauty. Even to a lost man with a speck of something like seeing, this minute here, just standing, taking in the air as a living circus, this is what tears of joy are for.

A railway employee has offered to guide me to my train. I hold his elbow gently, Corky heeling behind us, and we descend through the tunnels under the building. I've decided to trust a stranger.

Welcome to the planet of the blind.

pages 1-2

Dusk is the hour when I'm most likely to misjudge the speed and flow of traffic. It's rush hour--people hurrying home in the autumn rush hour, some on foot, some in cars. In such moments I often feel prematurely aged: I want some help in crossing the street. I want to reach for someone's arm.

Ironically, though, as things visual are in doubt, they grow in unconventional beauty. Dear Jackson Pollock, I've entered your Autumn Rhythm. The irregular or sometimes certain flight of color and shape is a wild skein, a tassel of sudden blue here, a wash of red. The very air has turned to hand-blown glass with its imperfect bubbles of amethyst or hazel blue. I stand on the ordinary street corner as if I've awakened at the bottom of a stemware vase. The glassblower's molten rose has landed in my eyes.

I shift my glasses--a slow moon rises on my path, things appear and disappear, and the days are like Zen-autumn.

page 68

In the old student pub--a dark cellar, I meet a strange new girl named Bettina. We talk and drink German beer. Bettina is a polymath, angry, rebelling against her father, who is an executive at a television network.

"The bastard, he'd have been comfortable during the Crusades!" she says, and stubs her cigarette out in an ashtray on the bar.

With this altogether irreverent young woman, I experience puppy love. She's an Irish country girl with long, thrilling, unkempt red hair. Red leaning back toward gold. Bettina cooks spaghetti over a gas ring in a basement. (She never has an apartment of her own, instead she occupies other people's places without self-consciousness. She knows everyone.) I accept a glass of wine, I'm wrapped in earth tones and sparks. My hands stink of Gauloises cigarettes, my fingers spasm from the nicotine.

She squeezes the juice of a lemon into the salad. Puts Tabasco in the pasta sauce. She throws raw carrot chunks in there too.

"Why are you putting carrots in the tomato sauce? That's disgusting!"

"Oh, shut up, if you'd eaten more carrots, your eyes would be better."

"I ate lots of carrots! My eyes went bad from masturbation!"

"Well, maybe you don't need to do that anymore."

I can't speak, because she's kissing me. It's a potent kiss, her tongue is wet and vital in my mouth.

She draws me to the floor, pulls down my pants, guides me inside her. I can't believe how quickly she does it, my brain is still stuck on the word carrot.

She's on top, loosening buttons down the front of her black dress. As her breasts touch my outstretched hands, I come with every ounce of my viscera. I come the way all virgin-boys should--with surrender and reverence. I'm trying to say something.

"It's okay," she whispers. "I'm wearing a diaphragm."

I start to rise on my elbows.

"I'm sorry, I--"


Her face closes in, her red hair falls over my eyes, tickles, smells faintly of shampoo. She guides my fingers gently to her clitoris. She's an open meadow! A birch tree at midsummer, the sunlight seeming to be above and inside her.

Like all virgins, I'm a narcissist: surely no one has ever experienced this abundant wet circle of girl before? Not like this!

I'm on a rug in a spot of lamplight. The sauce simmers behind us. There's a clatter of water pipes, there are apartments above. Dishes rattle somewhere. Bettina is astride me, and leaning, she kisses me forcefully, filling my mouth with her sip of cabernet.

For the first time the vast silence that follows sex expands in my chest.

"I love you!" I say it. "I love you!"

I begin to cry. I who cannot see a woman's face, who can't look someone in the eye, I, I, who, what, never thought this could happen. I'm crying in earnest, copious sparkles.


She arches her back, I slip from her, a little fish, laughing and weeping. Bettina refastens her dress, retrieves a tortoiseshell hair clasp, arranges it, sings very softly some lines from Yeats: "'Ah penny, brown penny, I am looped in the loops of her hair.'"

pages 69-71

At guiding eyes there are soldiers from Israel, a scientist, a schoolteacher, an auto mechanic, a carpenter....

We have diabetes, glaucoma, retinopathy of prematurity, cataracts, war wounds.... We are a democratic group.

One of us is rich. Some of us are very poor.

One goes to AA.

One woman who plans to become a social worker refers to the blind as "blindies."

One is afraid of dogs, but she is going to overcome it.

One is a connoisseur of beer.

One of us hears a brutal drumming in his ears wherever he goes.

All of us have been lost, fallen down stairs, driven cars on wild sprees, had flings with gluttony, God, and a hundred other fumbled embraces.

Some of us still know how to play.

One of us bought a motorcycle when he went blind. He goes out in his yard each morning and turns the key and stands listening to the Harley sounds.

Hank, my roommate, is a study in profound survival. He lost his eyes in a shooting accident. Bird shot in his eyes, some in the front of his brain. Then he had a stroke. He taught himself to return to the world of speech by singing in his head, remembering the lyrics of a song.

We sit on opposite sides of our dorm room, which smells faintly of floor polish and wool blankets, and we share Fig Newtons and listen for instructions from the intercom. We unpack our suitcases feeling as if we're in a barracks. Outside in the hallway people move past slowly feeling the walls.

Hank is recently blind. His eyes are hand-painted and made of plastic. He wins my affection right away by telling me how he dropped one of his eyes on the floor at the school for the blind he'd been forced to attend back in North Carolina. His description of groping for an eye on the floor is sheer poetry.

He is happy that I can see a little, figuring that I might find his dropped eyes before he steps on them.

We laugh over my story about a girlfriend who dropped her diaphragm--before she could retrieve it, her dog raced up and ate it.

Then I tell him about T.J., who woke in the night and drank a cup of bedside water, only to discover in the morning that he'd swallowed his girlfriend's contact lenses.

We imagine our dogs picking up the dropped stuff in our lives.

A new world.

pages 159-160
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Excerpted from Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto. Copyright © 1998 by Stephen Kuusisto. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.