Sex, Drugs, and Braille
I have a thing for blind people. “Everybody’s got a thing,” says Stevie Wonder, but I don’t think he’s talking about the same thing I’m talking about. I think he’s talking about sex. My thing isn’t sexual and I’ve never actually had sex with a blind person, though I did come pretty close once with that blind marketing executive at Kurzweil I used to work for who sold reading machines to blind people. Mostly she sold them to libraries and colleges and government agencies, because Kurzweil Reading Machines cost fifty thousand bucks a pop back then, and you had to be a super-rich blind person to be able to afford one. She did sell one to Stevie Wonder, though.
She was very attractive and spent most of her time on the phone talking to her customers while worrying the second button of her blouse with her thumb and forefinger. I was her part-time assistant and I spent most of my time staring at her while fingering the braille on her desk and wondering if I would ever get the chance to meet Stevie Wonder, and if I did, would I have the nerve to ask him about the meaning of the words in that song.
But before I got that job at Kurzweil, I was young and horny and unemployed and I smoked a lot of pot and I had only one saleable skill: I knew braille. How I learned braille was I met this blind guy from Brazil who had diabetic retinopathy and liked to smoke pot and lived on the third floor of my apartment building. He was here in the States on a student visa to learn braille and mobility and ADL skills (which means Adult Daily Living skills, which I hadn’t yet learned myself) at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Boston. Edgardo Pereira was his name. He was my first blind guy. He used to get his pot sent over from Sao Paolo. It was really good stuff.
I was vegging out in my ground-floor apartment one mildewy fall afternoon with nothing to do and nada to smoke, looking around desultorily for an orphaned roach in the ashtrays, when I caught the unmistakable scent of cannabis coming from somewhere out in the hallway. I could hear a sort of clicking-sweeping-whacking sound interspersed with merdas and when I opened the door to my apartment, there was this blind guy with a joint in one hand and a stick in the other (I would later learn that the stick is properly called a cane) hopelessly lost in the infinity of the vestibule.
When I opened the vestibule door, he thanked me profusely and offered me the joint, which I sucked vigorously for ten or twenty seconds, then, with popping eyes and farting lips, tried to give back to him. But this was made complicated by the fact that he was blind. I held it out to him but he just stood there with his chin resting serenely on the handle of his white cane. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he asked, as if he could see it--as if he could see the day. The joint he couldn’t see, that much was plain, because I was holding it up to him and waving it in front of his face, and when he didn’t reach for it I figured what the hell and I took a few more hits. Behind him, in the yard outside the vestibule, there was a maple tree with its pants down around its ankles, bare but for the red and orange leaves clinging to its lower branches and pooled on the ground all around it.
“My name is Edgardo,” he said. “Do you live in this building?” His English was excellent, with a charming tinge of foreignness, the faintly drum-rolled r’s, the occasional Portuguese diphthongs.
“Here ya go,” I said, having finally figured out that using my voice was the only way to get him to see that I was handing him back his joint. He immediately reached his hand out in the direction of my voice, and it felt a little like a moon landing or the delicate maneuvering of a cargo ship trying to attach to a dorsal port of the space station as my thumb and forefinger floated toward his thumb and forefinger in space and the handoff was accomplished, quite seamlessly actually. I was impressed. I was also already a little stoned. “Yes,” I said, pointing to my door, “I live right there. In 1A.”
“Then we’re neighbors,” he concluded, smiling big, holding his hand out again, this time for me to shake it, “I’m in 3B.” And in that moment, the thing I have for blind people was born: I liked this guy. I was immediately attracted to him, not in a sexual way, but in a blind way, though I couldn’t have said what it was exactly, watching him puffing that bone with his eyes squinting slightly against the smoke, the two of us still standing there in that vestibule doorway with nothing between us but a diminishing roach and a long white cane which I felt a faint tug of desire to take from him, to hold in my own hands and try out myself, to share with him the way we were sharing his joint.
Over the course of the next twelve months, Edgardo would share much with me. His cane, his elbow, some tips on sighted guide technique, his braille books, his booze, his pot, some excellent coke he got from (see above) Sao Paolo, and his wife Cinzia, though he didn’t actually share her with me--she was the one who shared herself with me--that night he passed out in his favorite chair after one too many, and her dark eyes met mine as if for the first time.
Braille is dots in a cell. Lots and lots of cells. Each cell has six dots, like a building with six rooms in it. There are three floors per building, and two rooms per floor. So if Edgardo and Cinzia are in their third floor apartment, each in a different room, and I am on the ground floor, whacking off in the west room, that would be the letter M, which all alone, stands for the word MORE:
If later I am whacking off in the east room and Cinzia and Edgardo are still upstairs on the third floor in their separate rooms, that would be the braille contraction SH, which all alone, stands for the word SHALL:
If in the middle of the night, Cinzia shall creep softly down the stairs to my apartment and the two of us shall be conjoined in the east room while Edgardo is sleeping alone up on the third floor in the west room, that would be the braille contraction CH, which all alone stands for the word CHILD:
Needless to say, braille is complicated, and it’s very hard to learn, and though Edgardo never quite mastered it, I eventually became an expert at it myself.
It was with Edgardo’s encouragement that I signed up for a correspondence course in braille transcription through the Hadley School for the Blind. They sent me a box that contained a braille slate and stylus, a ream of braille paper, a wooden braille eraser (for flattening out erroneous dots), a braille textbook published by the Library of Congress, and a pile of Free Matter for the Blind labels, because the blind ride free with the USPS. The first five lessons required me to punch dots into the thick braille paper with the pointy end of the stylus, going from right to left--backwards--making the mirror image of each character so that when I turned the paper over the dots would then appear in their proper configurations and order, going left to right. It was kind of dizzying at first, all those backwards, mirrored braille dots in their different combinations, and the many contractions, not to mention all the punctuation marks and formatting signs. The Hadley School made you learn braille inside out and backwards and forwards before they finally let you graduate to a Perkins Braille Writer, a kind of typewriter with six keys--one for each dot--and a space bar. The Perkins is heavy, clunky, and very durable, and after my fifth lesson they sent me one in a big box--they sent it Free Matter--and I didn’t have to do it backwards anymore after that. In fact, after that, all went swimmingly forward in the braille department. Cinzia and I continued to trade pregnant glances and I continued sending my lessons off to Winnetka, Illinois, where my braille instructor--an ardent woman named Ingrid whom I never met in person, because it was all done through the mail--corrected my braille sentences and sent them back to me with her pithy transcriber’s notes, my mistakes circled in red.
Speaking of mistakes, I felt like a heel as I continued to offer Edgardo my elbow, guiding him through the world without him knowing what had passed between Cinzia and me. I wondered if he suspected anything. “Do you like Cinzia’s cooking?” he asked me once as we were walking together to the Stop & Shop on Brookline Avenue to do some grocery shopping.
“Sure,” I said, slowing down to navigate him around some toppled garbage cans, “she’s a great cook.”
“She does all the cooking,” he explained, “and I do all the dishes. That’s the compromise. It’s important, in a marriage, to compromise, don’t you think?” And he squeezed my elbow meaningfully, two or three short squeezes. I said yes, I did think compromise was important in a marriage, and then we walked a half a block or so in stony silence. Finally, he cleared his throat and began telling me slowly, earnestly, about the sensuality of the dishes. Doing the dishes, he said, was a deeply satisfying and tactile act that he had never really fully appreciated until he got married. “I love the warm water on my hands and wrists. It’s kind of--I don’t know--sexy. Sometimes it makes me want to pee. Is that weird?” I felt a little uncomfortable with the direction this conversation was going, and I was relieved when about two blocks away from the Stop & Shop he fished another joint out of his jacket pocket and, mid-sentence, expertly lit it with a lighter in his right hand while holding onto my right elbow with his left, continuing all the while to talk. “I can feel the tiny bits of food stuck to the plates as I rinse them. I pick at them with my nails, and it satisfies me in a way that’s hard to describe. Like scratching an itch. I can tell by feeling it when each plate is completely clean. I search every square inch of the plate’s smooth skin, then rinse it and put it in the rack. And then I feel kind of cleansed myself. It’s good for the soul, I think, to do the dishes,” he said, and passed me the joint, just as we were nearing the rows of nested shopping carts outside the Stop & Shop.
In the catalog of bad decisions I have made in my lifetime, this next one is surely among the top entries. With Edgardo at my elbow, I walked into the Stop & Shop holding the lit joint cupped in my hand. I think, in my stoned thinking, I was thinking that in my role as sighted guide I was somehow either above the law or below the radar, somehow either immune or waived or completely invisible, like Edgardo was the perfect blind, like no one would suspect it’s the guy guiding the blind guy whence the sweet familiar reek of cannabis filling the entire supermarket was emanating. They busted us on the cusp of aisle three, two managers in suits and a butcher in a white coat splattered with blood, swooping down on us in the produce section. I had the foresight, however late, to ditch the roach in a pyramid of fruit when I saw them coming--lemons--then puckered my lips in a sort of embouchure of innocence. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I protested as they roughly escorted me escorting Edgardo right out the door and into the parking lot. Banned for life from the Stop & Shop, we stood there in shock, our buzz completely ruined.
“I thought you put it out before we went in! What were you thinking?”
I didn’t tell him what I was thinking, about him being the perfect blind and me being the untouchable teflon sighted guide, because now, walking home with him squeezing my elbow, so close to me that I could feel his exasperated, hurt breathing on the back of my neck, I began to feel just a little ashamed.
ENOUGH is dots 2 and 6. Cinzia pausing on the second floor landing, having second thoughts, me lying awake downstairs in the east room, waiting for her.
My study of braille had progressed. I had started on the lower-cell contractions. HIS. WAS. ENOUGH. And INTO, which, interestingly, in braille, always attaches to the subsequent character. Many things in nature attach to the subsequent character. Barnacles. Burrs. Baby sloths. And certain lower-case braille contractions. In a way, Cinzia was a subsequent character, and I was an INTO. I was INTO her and I couldn’t stop attaching to her, even though I knew it was wrong. Because her breasts were small she never wore a bra and you could always see her nipples straining against her shirt or her shift or her dress like two perfectly aligned braille dots on either end of the page of her, and even when we were out in public I felt an irresistible urge to touch them. They were like braille in public places that I sometimes see and want to touch, in elevators, on ATMs, on signage, meant only for the fingers of a blind person, and in this case a very specific blind person named Edgardo. But her nipples called to me, the way braille in public places still calls to me, saying ‘Touch me, I know you want to.’ Saying, ‘What would you say if I told you I’ve never been touched in my life by anyone who understood me?’
And that’s the thing about braille in public places: blind people don’t know it’s there half the time because it’s usually at eye level where they’d never think to look, and so their fingers never find the dots and the dots spend their lives straining against the sheer blouse of the world, just dying to be touched by someone who can understand them, begging to be apprehended.
I continued to apprehend Cinzia’s nipples, but more and more at a distance now, because she had begun to distance herself from me, especially as Edgardo’s diabetes grew worse. Soon his kidneys began to fail and she was accompanying him to dialysis three days a week. I saw less and less of them then, but sometimes, lying on my bed, I could hear them leaving early in the morning, the click-sweep of Edgardo’s cane and the rolled r’s and Portuguese diphthongs of their shared conversations coming to me from out in the vestibule. After the front door would close, I’d lie there shamelessly touching myself in my east room, fantasizing about her, imagining her nipples brushing up against her shirt, then up against the whorl of my index finger, me reading her nipples with my fingers, then my lips, then my tongue, coaxing them erect as I grew erect myself.
That fantasy was prompted not only by her nipples, but also by an article I’d recently read about a quadriplegic blind boy who had learned to read braille with his lips. There was a photograph of him reading, pursing his lips up against the white page of the braille book. Heartbreaking, I thought. And yet, so resilient, so triumphant: he could actually read that way. I was inspired to try it myself with a page of one of my braille lessons. First I read the line with my eyes, so I knew what I was looking for, then I closed my eyes and held the page to my lips like a big white napkin against my face, pouting slightly against the dots, rubbing them, kissing them, trying to make them out, to drink them in like that. But I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t recognize any of the letters. It felt like one vast expanse of undifferentiated goose bumps. I opened my eyes then, and tried to read the same line with my finger. But I couldn’t do that either; couldn’t really distinguish the shapes of the letters tactilely--though I could do it visually, because the dots cast a tiny shadow and you can see them, kind of like the view from an airplane flying over a country of igloos.
Edgardo never did master braille. He and Cinzia moved back to Brazil after the third amputation. This little piggy, then his neighbor, then the whole damn block up to the knee. Diabetic neuropathy. And we lost touch. And I still haven’t forgiven myself. But I have kept in touch with the braille. There is that. And I can finally read it now with my finger, after several years of practice, mostly in my car while driving to work. I stayed on at Kurzweil for a year or so, but when it became clear that me and that blond blind marketing executive weren’t on the same page--she was all about optical character recognition and speech output, while I was and still am all about braille--I left that job for a position as braille transcriber at the National Braille Press. I love reading braille while driving to work at the braille press everyday, eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, right hand skimming the dots. I have a subscription to Syndicated Columnists Weekly that I keep within reach on the passenger seat beside me for just that purpose. Could I be the only person on the face of the planet who reads braille while driving his car? Yes, I believe I could be. But is it dangerous? No more dangerous than driving while listening to books on tape or eating a pastrami sandwich on rye. But is it illegal? No, it’s not illegal either, because our esteemed lawmakers and constabularies can’t conceive of it. Who can conceive of a man reading braille while driving his car to work? Who can imagine me driving down I-95 at 70 mph, eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, right hand deep in Dear Abby?
Paul Hostovsky's latest book is The Bad Guys (2015, FutureCycle Press). He is the author of seven books of poetry and six poetry chapbooks. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and braille instructor. Visit him at www.paulhostovsky.com