Lit Thursday: The Glass Eye

Read an excerpt from Jeannie Vanasco's debut memoir, The Glass Eye.

More From Books
20 articles
The Best Books We Read This Year
This Young Woman Escaped the ISIS Slave Trade
How to Battle Chronic Illness With Humor
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Mental Illness

Of course I hallucinated my eyes had fallen out. My dad lost his left eye to a rare disease when I was a child.

And of course that first major breakdown came one month shy of college graduation. My dad died one month after I started college.

But patting my bedroom floor, feeling for my eyes, I couldn't see the significance of my hallucination.

I couldn't see my eyes.

"So you could see everything else," a doctor asked me, "just not your eyes?"

More From Books
20 articles
The Best Books We Read This Year
This Young Woman Escaped the ISIS Slave Trade
How to Battle Chronic Illness With Humor
The Evolution of Title IX
How to Go Out to Eat Alone

"My dad had a glass eye," I said.

The doctor, despite clipboard and pen, wrote nothing.

I tried again.

"So the hallucination makes sense," I said, and he started scribbling.

I told the doctor that my dad had died. Then I told another doctor. And another.

I told the doctors that my dad had lost his left eye to a rare disease.

"He had a glass eye," I said.

It seemed relevant, a metaphor that explained my grief for my dad: How did he see me? Could he see me?

I told them that he'd lost a daughter named Jeanne. I tried to explain that her death at sixteen almost destroyed him, and that his death was destroying me.

"He added the letter i to my name," I explained.

I repeated "eye, i, I" to them. I had solved the equation that was my identity: eye + i = I.

"Do you see now?" I said. "It's all related."

But nowhere do my medical records mention his eye. Nowhere does Jeanne's name appear.

Instead, the doctors focused on my eyes:

"Attractive, slim woman with long eyelashes carrying three books including the latest Paris Review. Cooperative, yet avoids direct eye contact."

"Pleasant but looks frightened. Her affect is blunted and eye contact is poor. Social worker just shared that the patient feels strongly she does not want her mother to know she is here."

"She looked down most of the time during the discussion today and seemed less open in the one-to-one meeting today than in the meeting where there were four of us yesterday."

I tried to talk about my feelings.

"This is grief," I said.

The doctors said grief operated differently.

"Had you known him," I said.

But instead of asking about my life with my dad, they asked how he died.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"I don't know," I said. "He was eighty. He had a lot of things wrong with him."

Natural causes? they asked.

The coroner wrote "throat cancer," I said.

When did he die, they wanted to know.

I told them again and again that he'd died the fall of my freshman year.

"I was eighteen," I said. "Why do you keep asking when?"

***

My memory tells me I was hospitalized a few weeks. My medical records tell me a few days. I slept mostly. I have no cinematic scenes. A friend brought me a stack of old Paris Reviews. Another patient grabbed mashed potatoes off my plate with her bare hands. My roommate, a middle-aged philosophy professor, never said a word (electroconvulsive therapy). At the medication window, a nurse spoke to me in French, and I thought I was losing my mind again—the Paris Reviews caused her confusion, she later told me. I wrote, and rewrote, the same lines of poetry: "Massaging his iris, a dab of brown, in a soapy film, / cleaning my father's eye in my palm / while he lies between the silver rails of his bed: / this is what the end looks like." And then, in the margins: "But I never touched my father's eye."

What I remember most clearly is sketching my dad on scrap paper: the outline of his broad face, his wide nose, his large brown eyes. I made quick marks on the sides of his otherwise bald head, indicating hair. I used a plain pencil, and so the olive stain of his skin was invisible, the deep brown of his irises invisible, the white of his hair, whiter than the white sheets of paper—invisible.

"What was it about your father?" the doctors and nurses on the ward asked.

What they really meant was, You're not normal for behaving this way. And maybe I wasn't.

Maybe I mistook the emotions I felt for unconditional love when in fact they were part of some illness.

Maybe my dad's death triggered something already inside me, some bad gene, or maybe the something already inside me that it triggered was even greater love for my dad.

"What was it about your father?" they always asked, and I always replied the same way: "He loved me."

Jeanne

I left my dad the night before he died. Would Jeanne have done such a thing?

"I wasn't with him," I reminded my doctors again and again.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But they were more concerned with my writing, or about how I was writing: "She reports a decrease in appetite and inability to sleep 'five nights out of seven,' during which she stays up to write."

Elsewhere in my records: "She also states that she 'needs to write.' She further went on to say that she does not have a desire or drive to write but states that she 'shouldn't have to want to write, I just need to write.'"

What did I mean that I lacked a desire or drive to write?

"I'm fine," I said, according to the records. "I just want to go home. I need to be writing."

The records also say: "Obsession, Phobias: has been working/obsessing on one poem the whole school year."

Most Popular

Maybe my dad's death triggered something already inside me, some bad gene.

The poem was about him. The obsession was him. Why didn't the doctors direct their attention to my love for him?

They decided I had bipolar disorder. They cited mania. One sign of mania: "pressure of speech." Another: "flight of ideas." Another: "clang associations," connections between words dictated by sound rather than meaning.

To me, "eye" and "i" and "I" are connected by meaning. Maybe I was experiencing mania.

I know I was experiencing grief.

Mom

My mom visited the week of graduation. She didn't know I'd been in the hospital, and I made my roommates promise not to tell her.

"You've lost so much weight," my mom said. "Are you eating?"

"I was busy studying for finals," I lied.

Later, she asked Rachel and Elizabeth how I was.

"I didn't know what to say," Rachel told me.

"What did you say?"

"That you're fine."

"You hid that hospitalization from me for years," my mom says. "Why didn't you think you could tell me?"

"You were upset about Dad," I remind her.

"But you could've told me," she says. "I wish you'd told me."

Mental Illness

The summer after college graduation, to save money for my move to New York, I worked three jobs, sold some of my belongings (bookcases, an old computer, bed frame, TV set), went to a free public health clinic for my mood stabilizers, and ate mostly oatmeal. After one month of this, my perfectionism snapped.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I drank until I blacked out. I fooled around with men I barely knew. At a party for a Chicago literary magazine, I drank a bottle of wine in the coat closet. Then I left with a writer and we smoked pot from what looked like a cigarette.

"Don't worry," he said, as we circled the block. "The cops can't tell."

I pulled him into a stranger's backyard and we made out on a picnic table. He lifted up my dress and I stopped him.

"This isn't me," I said.

He followed me back to the sidewalk and I started throwing up under a stop sign. Then I remember sirens and flashing lights and two men telling me to come with them to the hospital. I yelled that if I were a man I'd be allowed to puke under a stop sign.

"Someone called 911 for you," one of them said.

The writer and I looked across the street. A cluster of people were standing outside a restaurant, watching.

"I don't have insurance," I told the EMTs.

"She's fine," the writer said.

The EMTs threatened to call the cops.

I started crying. The weekend my dad died, I'd taken an ambulance. I associated ambulances with letting him down.

"Maybe you should go with them," the writer said.

I wanted to hear my dad tell me what to do.

The EMTs helped me into the ambulance.

"What's your Social Security number?" one of them asked.

"Does this mean my mom will find out?"

"No," he said and smiled. "Just say a Social Security number."

So I made up a number. I thanked him.

At the hospital, the nurses and doctors asked the typical questions: Allergies, illnesses?

Afraid of being hospitalized again, I didn't share my diagnosis.

"None," I said.

Dad

By August, I'd saved enough money to cover four months in New York. My internship, full-time and unpaid, was supposed to last through December. I figured I'd live cheaply and pick up odd jobs as needed. Before I left Chicago, I found a Brooklyn sublet through Craigslist. The man I'd be living with was going through a divorce, a detail that my mom didn't know.

I packed some clothes and books and family photographs in a green tweed suitcase, the same suitcase my dad carried when he left New York for good, and I moved there.

I'd write a book for him in New York because New York was where his life started.

And I'd never been to New York. I was from the Midwest. I graduated from college in the Midwest. I was used to the Midwest. Why not try somewhere new, where no one knew me?

"You're not from here, are you?" a woman asked the first time I rode the New York subway.

"How can you tell?"

"You're chatting with strangers on the train."

***

I rode the trains and buses, but once, just once, I told myself, I needed to ride in a yellow cab.

I'd otherwise been frugal. For free food, I went to book parties. For free coffee, I went to bank lobbies. For free furniture, I went to rich neighborhoods on trash day. I deserved a short ride in a yellow cab.

I remember when I hailed my first one. I was on the corner of Second Avenue and Tenth Street, standing in the rain with a broken bodega umbrella at my side.

"Where you going?" the cabbie asked.

"Can you loop around the block?" I asked. "Bring me back right here."

"I don't follow."

"My dad, he drove a cab in New York City. Back in the forties or maybe the fifties. I just want to ride in one, at least once."

He nodded and began driving.

"It was more dangerous back then," he said. "That was before they had this glass."

I'd never considered that, the lack of the glass partition. I reached in my bag for my journal. "The lack of glass," I wrote, thinking of my dad's eye, how it wasn't even made of glass.

"So I take it you ain't from here," the cabbie said.

"Ohio originally."

"Miss it?"

"My mom lives there. I miss her."

"Well here we are," he said, stopping where we began.

"How much?"

"Tell me, you ever get angry at your dad?"

"Frustrated sometimes. He was strict, very protective, but I liked that about him. He cared."

The cabbie was quiet and I was quiet.

Rain had never sounded so loud.

He adjusted his rearview mirror. I shifted in my seat. Maybe I read too deeply into his silence, but I sensed he had a daughter he felt distant from, or a daughter who felt distant from him, or who was dead.

"Keep your money," he said. "You're a nice girl."

He drove off with his "Off Duty" light on.

Used with permission of Tin House Books. © 2017 Jeannie Vanasco.

More from Lenny Letter: