Last Sunday I spent three hours in the grocery store with Rudy. I had stupidly written both of our lists on small, square Post-its–his on a blue one, mine on an orange one. I could hardly read my tiny scrawled handwriting as I held up first one list and then the other, looking for what we needed as we slowly made our way through the various sections: produce, bread, snacks and nuts, health food.
Rudy pushed the cart and I pulled it the way we usually do in the grocery store. I handed him plastic produce bags to pry apart and he asked me questions: What kind of dal do they have in cans in the Indian section, are there any raisins in the round cardboard boxes? He asked me to pick out six good mandarin oranges for him, then decided he only needed four and told me to put two back. We sniffed five bulk black olives I’d tweezed out with a pair of tongs and collected in a little plastic container, looked at a couple of onions before he picked the one he liked. I looked at the onions the way one normally looks at things, and he looked at them the way he looks at things: I handed him first one and then the other, and he weighed and squeezed each before picking one. “Good choice,” I said, after he had made his decision, although I didn’t have to.
If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness is only a physical nuisance, it says on the National Federation of the Blind website. Rudy has been blind since he was five years old; he’s studied and taught blindness skills; he can do almost anything a sighted person can. He just does many things differently–he looks with his hands and his cane, he uses trial and error to locate building exits, the edges of sidewalks, his own mailbox. He can slice carrots and fold clothes more neatly than most people; he’s well read in braille and audiobooks, and he’s writing a novel on his computer with the help of a program that reads aloud to him. He’s definitely someone for whom blindness is mostly a physical nuisance.
But try telling that to most people out in the sighted world. “The real trouble with blindness,” Rudy told me once many years ago, “isn’t being blind. It’s the public perception of blindness.”
The grocery store we go to has drive-up service, where you drive your car to a spot in front of the store and a clerk meets you there with your groceries, and once on a cold, windy day a few months ago, a cute, young man loaded my and Rudy’s grocery bags into my trunk and then said to me sweetly, innocently–I was standing beside him behind the just-banged-shut trunk–“It’s nice of you to take that guy shopping.”
“He’s my boyfriend!” I said. I paused for only a second to see the look of surprise and guilty dismay on the store clerk’s face, then I got in the car where Rudy was waiting in the passenger seat. I didn’t say a word to him about the young man’s comment, but I felt sad, uneasy, and a little offended on Rudy’s behalf as I drove away.
When my friend said last year, when I was getting involved with Rudy, that she didn’t think she’d date a blind guy because she’d have to take care of him, I said that for me the real challenge wasn’t taking care of Rudy. It was not taking care of him. But the truth is, there have been times since that conversation when I’ve wondered why I didn’t pay more attention to the taking-care-of-a-blind-guy issue instead of jumping right into the relationship. Times like that marathon grocery shopping trip on Sunday, or the day last week when I gave up my precious writing time to drive Rudy to a physical therapy appointment because the office was in a location both he and I knew would be hard for him to find.
On the other hand, I like helping him. There’s something in me that takes great pleasure in opening his mail and reading it to him, in walking swiftly along the sidewalk with his hand on my elbow, describing where things are and what they look like. I wonder about that too: What does it say about me that I’ve chosen someone who gives me so many chances to be needed?
Still, for the most part, I stick by my original statement to my friend. The real challenge of dating Rudy isn’t taking care of him. It’s not taking care of him. It’s allowing him the dignity of his own trial and error. It’s standing there doing nothing while he heads for a wall he’ll bump into or feels around for a door handle; it’s letting him get up and feel his way around my crowded house, passing from the bedroom through the hallway past that big mirror–I think of all the bad luck we’ll have if he bumps into it too hard–and into the kitchen for a glass of water instead of getting up and getting the water for him; it’s shutting up and letting him answer when the person behind the counter asks what he wants and then stares at me, waiting for an answer.
When I was talking about this on the phone with another friend the other day, she said, “Oh, I totally know what you mean. I had to learn how to do that with my daughter too. When she was a toddler and when she was a teenager and sometimes even now when I feel the urge to tell her what not to do.” She paused for a moment, then said, “Isn’t that the challenge all the time, in all our relationships?” My friend said she wasn’t very good at it with her daughter, though she’d gotten better over the years, and I said I thought I’d gotten pretty good at it with Rudy.
Especially compared to other people: The Korean barber who insisted on walking Rudy home when it was sprinkling, holding an umbrella over his head; the person in front of his building who shouted out to him in a loud, deaf-person-appropriate voice, “There’s nothing in front of you.” (“What does he think you do when he’s not around?” I said to Rudy.) The woman on New Year’s Eve who told me her date, a social worker, had followed Rudy into the bathroom to help him.
“He doesn’t need help in there,” I said defensively. “He’s been blind since he was five.”
The woman looked at me, her wide blue eyes slightly shocked, and said, “We’re only being courteous.”
Rudy is remarkably tactful about others’ attempts to do for him what he can do himself. When I told him indignantly what the woman said about her date following him into the restroom, he smiled graciously, courteously, and said, “He just showed me where the urinal was.”
He’s had lots of experience with letting himself be helped and he’s used to it and comfortable with it. Me, not so much. I’ve never been comfortable with asking for and accepting help and because of that I’ve focused most of my energy over the years on helping others. So it’s a big deal for me–one of those instructive experiences life seems to offer in the guise of relationships–to learn how to let Rudy find his own way through the world and help him only, with his permission, when he actually needs help.
The truth is, his blindness is just one little piece of the zeitgeist of our relationship; it matters a lot and at the same time hardly at all. What really matters are all the other things that matter in any relationship: how we communicate, how much acceptance and forgiveness each of us brings to the other.
I’ve never felt more able to be myself, more equal, neither more or less powerful in the currency of everyday interactions and of who loves who how much, with any man. Maybe blindness can be a kind of equalizing force between men and women, as I read once in a book about Jane Eyre when I was an English major in college; the author said that Jane and Mr. Rochester were able to settle down happily together after, and only after, the fire destroyed Rochester’s house and blinded him, because his blindness balanced out the power dynamic between them. And maybe that’s what’s going on with me and Rudy. Or maybe the ease I feel with him has to do with the fact that we’ve been friends for so long–in many ways, our relationship still feels like a friendship.
Twenty years ago Rudy and I were friends, neighbors, and, for a few months, lovers. Our romance didn’t work out that time, mostly because I was too young to be able to handle intimacy with someone who was as much a friend as a lover–he had some problems too at the time, nothing to do with blindness–and we broke up, he moved away, and we lost track of each other. When someone told me he was back in town a couple of years ago, I was excited and intrigued. We ended up renewing our friendship and eventually our romance.
Ironically, I feel seen by Rudy in a way I’ve never felt with any other man. It’s as if he sees me as I am now and also as I was twenty years ago, as if he remembers an earlier, bolder, younger version of me I don’t remember myself. He recalls that I used to say, when I was tired and wanted to go back to sleep for a little longer, that I had some sleep left in my bucket, that I told him how when I was a little girl I called the pimentos in green olives irvings. That once when I was mad at him for something, during our brief previous romantic period, I said, “I feel like giving you a little push.”
He reminds me of the latter over and over, laughing his head off every time, as if it pleases him to no end that someone would be a tiny bit mean to him, as if he appreciates being thought of as someone who could be pushed, just a little, instead of someone who has to be helped.