It’s five in the morning when you yawn yourself awake. Quietly, with the covers thrown back, you scurry out of bed so as not to wake your father, but those damn stairs have been creaking since before you were walking, and a rustle and muffled cough make you stop and turn about face. You fear his anger at your waking him, but that’s it; nothing more comes from your dad’s bed. You tiptoe downstairs.
Next is your mom. She won’t be mad if you wake her, but she’d be worried why her little sweet tart is up and about so early in the morning in the dead of winter. Christmas has passed already and your birthday’s not until March 4.
“What’re you doing up?” she’d ask. “Can I do something for you?”
She’s always there for you, but all you hear from her this morning is the slight snores that put you to sleep every time she holds you close on the couch as the two of you try to watch Nick at Nite. One cannot ever watch enough Full House, you currently believe; but when John Stamos is doing yogurt commercials, you’ll long for the days of yesteryear when he was on ER as opposed to his overplayed Elvis impersonator, Uncle Jesse.
Asleep, your mother looks like what you imagine you do after drifting off to the sound of her reading to you: quiet, tiny, sweet. Every Christmas she reads you the same book, Ed McBain’s And All Through the House, and like clockwork you always fall asleep before getting to the end and asking her if you could open just one present. Whenever you stayed up she usually said no anyway, just because she knew it bothered you. Even so, seeing her so comfortable is worth not opening another Christmas present. You wouldn’t need another birthday or Christmas if you could spend your life listening to her gentle voice as she reads your favorite stories.
You make it to the den or parlor or whatever its proper title is. Everything is dark, of course, but your eyes have adjusted to make out the recliner you never sit on and the broken loveseat in front of the old, failing television set. You’re the perfect size (for the time being) to curl up on that sofa and read or play Pokémon to your heart’s content. But you forget what brought you here to begin with and now you must be light on your feet yet again. It always seems that we forget what we want most when we become distracted with immediate fears. Instead of wasting time and driving yourself anxious over the plastic bin by your mother’s bed in the living room, figure out what you want right now. Some Greek myths? The pictures are horrifying, but the stories are legendary, the kind you hope to live someday. You’ve heard there’s no time like the present, but you’re too young to understand the truth in that cliché—or what a cliché even is. And you know that there are the past and the future bookending the “no time,” but all you care about is the future and what it holds for you. But by the time you begin to see what the future has in store for you, you’ll ironically be looking only for the past. For now, just focus on what you want to read in the wee hours of the early urban morning, and try to stay as quiet as possible.
You make yourself comfortable with that new book about a wizard boy. Santa brought the first four books of the series this past Christmas, and you’ve never read something more than 200 pages. In that one you learned all about Abe Lincoln and how great he is and why his birthday is a holiday. Maybe someday March 4 will be a holiday. Maybe someday, on the fourth of March years from now, you will be able to read whenever and whatever you want. You’ll be able to buy your own books when you’re able to write that well. People will buy them to laugh and cry, and feel, too. Just pray your eyes don’t go first with all this early morning reading in the dim light. But they will go eventually.
Glasses look cool, like miniature, wearable binoculars for people who want to see everything better, maybe so they can read and understand the world more. Your father has glasses, the clunky old-man kind that make him look like a witch with his greying locks. Don’t get glasses like his, if you have to at all; you think you want them now but you will find them a nuisance come college when you have a smart, pretty, funny girl in your bed. You’ll laugh and gently remove her glasses after the pair clicks before your first time together. Your being far-sighted makes you work to see her up close, but damn, is she worth that extra strain. You’ll think about how such an amazing person is giving herself to you and you’ll question how it happened. All you’ll remember is how you learned to appreciate a book at five in the morning during the winters of your youth; now you’re just reading a text of the skin, a silk-soft braille of hair, curves, and beautiful imperfections. Luckily you learned how to appreciate it and her for what they are all because you read about that wizard boy’s adventures.
You hear the stairs creak and click the lamp off quickly. The book rests open on your pounding heart. Your father walks down, peers in the parlor, coughs obnoxiously, and continues on to the bathroom. That went much better than last time, you think as you rub your cheek.
Age brings thicker lenses and more mundane frames. What matter is it to look like you did in your twenties when you have your life figured out? No need to court anyone, or impress any potential employers; everyone wants to impress you, the big man in the publishing house, the one who won’t let that writer obsessed with Hemingway get a page out with your name and logo on it. Besides, Hemingway’s been dead for so long, and his machismo work is outdated and frankly sexist. In plain, anything that “struggling writer” brings you won’t sell, so you won’t waste more of your time to consider trying to sell it.
Everything is blurry when you take off your glasses. The room is a conglomerate of furnished mahogany browns and deep maroon leather, the generic kind that you never thought you’d work in when you wrote stories in your cinderblock dorm room. You reminisce about how you always wished to be something more than a white-collar in an Express suit behind a desk. Instead of drinking aged whiskey, you used to pray that the days of being surrounded by crushed Pabst cans would continue forever while your fingers flew on that old Remington. The bright screen of your Mac hurts your eyes and you rub them behind your glasses.
Your life wasn’t supposed to go this way. Remember when you worshipped the Lost Generation? You felt a kinship with them unlike any other relationship. Now a certain heartlessness renders you unable to recall what it was like to want to be an artist, to desire to take hold of something out there and bring it down in the written word. Instead of words bringing a fire to your heart, dollar signs and numbers bring girth to your wallet, and you can’t tell the difference. Why did you let this happen? You were supposed to be better than this.
Your calloused hands don’t remove your glasses as gently as you took hers off in your dorm room half a lifetime ago. You haven’t held her hands in awhile, and memories of how soft they once were flood your palms. Instead you toss the spectacles in frustration on your desk as you go to call her and say you won’t be home for dinner because you have too much work to finish.
“Again?” Her voice is quiet. You sense how disappointed she is.
“I’m so sorry.”
“You aren’t,” she says. You hang your head with the receiver still pressed to your ear. Maybe she’ll ask something, say anything to bring you back and make you come home to her. The finality of her words, however, suggest otherwise.
You have no words outside of the conversation-ending “I love you.” A click reciprocates the feeling. You know she knows something is amiss. If you make it home tonight, you damn well better not try to share the bed with her. Both of you know you deserve the excommunication, and a simple breakfast and Saturday with the family can only make up for “late nights at work” so many times.
Your twentysomething secretary walks in with multiple galleys for you. She’s wearing those red heels again, the ones that pronounce her calves like music to a formerly deaf man’s ears. Her hips look ready to burst from beneath her subtly striped pencil skirt. You don’t need your glasses to see what’s under there.
Pick up your glasses and read the proofs. You’re stupid to have done it once, but twice is no accident and your moral grave will only be deeper. How will you live with yourself to cheat on her after everything the two of you have been through? She deserves more, better; she deserves nothing like you.
Be more and be better; you can do it. The hardest part is always starting.
For a while there after graduation, contacts were a thing. Your brother convinced you to try the overnight ones that shape your eyes similarly to the way retainers hold your teeth in place after the arduous journey of braces. He swore by them, but his word wasn’t too important to you. Every other night he’d text asking for some money so that he could smoke, ingest, inject, etc. the latest drug on the street. Being aware of where the money was going, you gave in a few times at the very beginning. He knew you knew, and you both seemed to be okay with the parasitic relationship that developed. Eventually you stopped giving him money and then altogether stopped seeing him. You haven’t heard from him in awhile; perhaps that is for the best.
You tried using the overnight ones for a few months after graduation, but they quickly became annoying as guests came and went. After doing your thing you’d have to put them in or else you’d be a blind man the next day. One does not simply cuddle to sleep after sex, you thought too often. The lack of eyewear during the day detracted from your overall look. Instead of being seen as a stereotyped intellectual, you had resting bitch face all the time and came off more angry than anything else.
You go back to glasses eventually. People stop thinking you’re angry, but instead the glasses just obscure your thoughts and your eyes as windows to them. You go back to her, too. She’s a fucking saint for taking you back when you show up on her doorstep drenched at midnight on a Sunday. Did you even imagine how horrible an action it is to just waltz back into her life? She’s built a life without you in it after college, and she’s happy. Let her be happy. For some reason (You think it’s love but what the fuck is that anyway?) you need to be with her. You know it’s acidic and wrong, but you can’t help yourself.
“I was trying to read,” you say. She looks at you but you can’t make out the expression too well; your prescription needs to be intensified. The contacts weren’t worth the time, effort, money, or, worst, your eyesight. The nights without her in exchange for others’ bodies were not worth the pain you caused her or the loneliness that only multiplied.
She knows all the same that you can’t muster much more than that lackluster non-greeting. She knows what those words mean: that you couldn’t read, that something is wrong. Your glasses, the old ones that clicked up against hers on all those rainy nights on Long Island, are fogged and you can only make out her face so much. It looks concerned, pained even. For the first but not the last time in your life, you wish you were blind.
She isn’t wearing glasses. Her pajamas are baggy in the attractive way where you know she doesn’t care how she looks; all that matters is herself and her comfort. She steps aside and lets you in without a word. She’s too good for you. She’s perfect ink on a page, blots and all. The door lands with a heavy thud like thunder.
She’s been gone a few years and you’ve taken to donning the thick old-man glasses that you remember your father wore when you were a boy. At some point or another she found out the truth behind your late nights at work. She never left, but she made sure that nothing was ever the same between the two of you again. In return you made sure that the red heels and hips stopped delivering galleys altogether as a means to show your sorrow, as a penance for yourself as opposed to her. It wasn’t enough, but she came back to bed that night.
Nevertheless you and she were both too old to take care of one another without the other. She would cook and do the laundry while you would clean and maintain the home with whatever handyman capabilities you had. Other than that the two of you hardly crossed paths. You’d give her the pleasantries, ask how she is and if she had any plans with her friends or the kids, but she never encouraged conversation between the two of you. There were many times when you wanted to kiss her, not even on the mouth; just a peck on the cheek or forehead would suffice. But you lost that privilege. She made you wish that those red heels never waltzed into your life, and that you never walked out of hers.
It was a Tuesday when you first woke up alone. You had to put on your glasses to discover that her chest wasn’t rising anymore.
Your kids cease to visit because they were always closer with her anyway. They call and leave voice messages now and then to see how you are, but you suspect they’re just waiting for the day when you don’t call back. Although they would never know it since they only see and empathize with their mother’s side of the story, you’re waiting for the day when you don’t call back, too.
It’s five in the morning on a Saturday during winter, and you can’t sleep. You think how you would have killed to be awake and alone with the book du jour when you were young. Now, though, sleep is a rare commodity and books are being phased out faster than Betamax. You get up and head to your living room. The silhouette of a cracked hardcover rests on the arm of your chair. You hobble over, turn around in front of the chair, and hear a snapping noise underneath you. Upon finally getting up after making your way into the chair so carefully, you turn on the lamp and see your glasses with the arms broken off. Suddenly feeling tired, you turn off the lamp and return to bed.