Cheaters: A Life in Eyewear

By

When I was nine I faked a vision test to get a pair of pale pink cat eyed beauties. Because I wanted them. Braces, too, though they were scarcely necessary. I got them on the bottoms only, that’s how unenthusiastic the orthodontist was. My parents indulged me but also teased. My father asked, “a hearing aid? Is that next?” Yes, that too, if I could have gotten away with it. How can I explain? To fill a feeling of incompleteness? To accessorize my lonely little self? I wore the glasses to school a few times but they did not scratch the itch. In fact, they itched. The earpieces dug into my skin and I kept tugging them off and chewing on them. I still have them in a drawer. They are tiny and one earpiece is gnawed clean off as if by a small, trapped animal.

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I got the second pair when I was twenty-three. I’d finished college and was soon to be married. I was taking premed courses—the science and math I’d avoided as an undergraduate—to apply to medical school. I was studying very hard and had mentioned to my mother that I was having headaches. Looking back I think I had headaches not so much because of the hours I spent trying to decipher organic chemistry but because I saw my life as an adult, a doctor, and a married woman before me and, happy as I was about all of this, I must have been anxious. I wanted my parents to baby me. So, when my mother suggested that I should have my eyes examined and offered to make an appointment with an old friend—one of many doctors who, along with their wives, made up my parents’ social circle—I eagerly agreed.

How I remember that outing! It was as if it were the official last day of my childhood. We drove to Brooklyn, where I was born and raised, from Manhattan, where we had moved when I was sixteen. The eye doctor’s office was in Brooklyn Heights where I had attended high school. My father was behind the wheel, my mother sat in the front passenger seat, and I had the back seat to myself—the same arrangement in which we had traveled to countless family events, museum and theater outings, and then college visits. We ate pastrami sandwiches at one of my old teenage Marlboro Light hangouts on Montague Street.

I don’t recall faking the eye test this time, but I was not leaving without a prescription for glasses. How delicious it was to ride back to Manhattan in the back seat, sated with cured meat and parental concern. I ended up with pink again; this time dark magenta frames, rather large and square. They made my headaches worse. Years later my kids found them and had me try them on. They howled with laughter and said I looked like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.

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Few human experiences are universal and inevitable—birth and death come to mind—but everyone will lose vision, as they get older. The lens, the translucent squishy disc in the front and center of the eye, which changes shape as we look at objects closer or farther away, gradually becomes stiff and fails to accommodate. We start holding newspapers farther and farther from our faces until we run out of arm. Of all the thousands of facts I learned in medical school I found this one the most interesting, because it was presented as absolute and non-negotiable, as so few things we learned about the functions and malfunctions of the human body were. Some of the tiniest preemies will beat the odds, every doctor has a story of the terminal patient who’s hung on for decades, and cheaters_3the occasional fifty-year-old shows up pregnant, but there are no exceptions when it comes to losing sight with age. “Really? Everyone?” one of my medical school classmates raised his hand and asked. “Everyone,” came the answer.

Forward twenty years, two decades in which I read novels and medical journals and school permission slips and prescription bottles, and the directions for installing smoke detectors and assembling Barbie’s mobile home without any visual aids. I didn’t need glasses, something I felt smug about since my husband has worn Coke bottles since third grade. Even the most loving couples are a little competitive and my perfect vision, as contrasted with his inability to find the ocean at the beach without assistance, had always been a point of pride with me. On another front—sense of direction—I am the clear loser. I have, literally, gotten lost in my own backyard. (The apple tree had rotted and been cleared away, disorienting me). So, when we are driving somewhere and my husband instructs me, say, to look out for the sign that says “Exit 18A” or “To Miami”—his acknowledgement of my superior vision—I have the kind of tender little puffed up sense of importance that a child might have given a minor and virtually unscrew-uppable task like, say, being a flower girl at a wedding.

Given my hyper-awareness of my perfect vision plus my medical training you would have thought that when I began having difficulty making out newsprint in my late forties I would have concluded that presbyopia, the farsightedness that I had learned inevitably afflicts the aged—yes, the word has the same root as Presbyterian, a church run by elders—had finally caught up with me. Instead, for several months I pondered why the New York Times had decided to reduce the size of its font. “Have you noticed that they changed the way the Times looks?” I asked my husband one Sunday. He peered over the sports section blankly. “The letters, I mean,” I said. He shrugged.

Several more months went by during which I continued to ignore further evidence of my failing vision, and to squint. One day I pulled a novel off our bookshelf, an old Penguin edition of Bleak House, a little brick of a book with an orange binding. I couldn’t make out the first sentence. I complained to my husband that the book, which I had read years earlier without difficulty, was useless, like someone who complains about the pair of pants that has shrunk while hanging in the closet. “Oh yes,” he agreed, kindly. “That print is really unreadable. I keep the Penguins from college just for sentimental reasons. Here, try the Norton Critical.” And there, in nice large, dark font on a nice big white page I read, without trouble: London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall…

But my husband couldn’t protect me forever. One day I sat with a patient in my office reviewing her lab results. She watched me bob and weave in front of the computer screen, trying to avoid the glare that I was certain was obscuring my view. Finally, the patient asked, “Doctor, do you need glasses?” I turned to her, a little offended. She leaned towards me and said in a stage whisper as if to assure me that my shameful secret was safe with her, “I gotta tell ya, you’re not inspiring a whole lot of confidence there, Doc.”

I’ve often thought that the stages of grief identified in dying patients by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—can be experienced by people facing lesser losses. With regard to my vision, for example, I had been through Denial (as detailed above) and also Anger (at the New York Times, Penguin English Library, and their accomplice, the prolific Charles Dickens, and, finally, my tactless patient) and now came Bargaining: “This isn’t a sign of aging,” I said to myself, “it’s an excuse to buy something.”

I went to the local optician’s shop, a little sun-filled place next to the railroad station in our quaint New England village. I knew from having, over the years, picked up glasses for my husband and for my daughter, the one of our three kids who inherited his myopia, that this optician, who’d taken over the shop from his father,cheaters_1 did good work and also carried Prada, Fendi, and Chanel. So uninitiated was I in matters of poor vision and so dispossessed of my own medical knowledge, that it never occurred to me to have my eyes examined first.

I entered the shop just as the optician was finishing ringing up another customer and, after introducing myself and reminding him of my family’s loyal patronage—we live in that kind of town and, besides, at some level I must have realized I was embarking on a new phase of my life and that this was to be a relationship—I explained my situation and, wandering around to browse the glass shelves, asked the optician which designer’s frames would best suit my needs. “Oh,” he said, “You don’t need any of these expensive ones. You just need magnifiers. You know. They call them ‘cheaters.’ You buy them at the drug store.”

Well, this sent me from Bargaining right back to Anger. Here I’d finally reconciled myself to the aging of my eyes, had placed my vulnerable self in the hands of the optician who, while not a doctor was a clinician of sorts, and he was telling me that my problem was not that bad! Not even serious enough to spend money on! “Okay, okay” I said, somewhat pathetically, “So can you at least tell me exactly what to buy in the drugstore, then?” The optician balked. His father’s picture stared at him from the shelf above the register, no doubt a stern reminder of the high ethical standards with which his family had always conducted their business. “I’m not really supposed to…” he said. “I really don’t prescribe…” he said. Then he took out a little laminated card from a drawer behind the counter, asked me which was the smallest line I could read comfortably and, when I indicated the third he, in turn, pointed silently to the number next to it: +1.25.

Looking back on all this I am not sure what the big deal was. I’ve never been sensitive about my age, never lied about it, never understood the appeal of Botox or plastic surgery, which, it has always seemed to me, make a woman’s face look tight and old instead of loose and old. Perhaps the problem was that other than some gray hair, which I’d begun camouflaging in my thirties—so early that I’d pretty much forgotten about it—my loss of vision was the first physical manifestation of my aging. Not caring about a number, an abstraction, was one thing. The change in my eyes, though, signaled that the invader had breached the walls and was now within.

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At my local drugstore, around the corner from the optician’s shop, the cheaters are displayed discreetly near the pharmacist’s station along with laxatives, incontinence products, and personal lubricants. Later, a fashionable friend of mine told me I could have done better, that lots of boutiques and department stores sell cheaters in funky frames with matching cases—so cute!—and even a sunglass version you can use to read on the beach. Initially, though, I was happy with what I got: a plain black wire pair with +1.25 magnification, which means print and other objects seen up close look 125% larger. My geriatric vocabulary was growing. I didn’t care how I looked in them. In fact, I didn’t know how I looked in them because when I tried to see myself in a mirror from a great enough distance to appraise my whole bespectacled face everything became swimmy and distorted. No matter. When I pulled them out of my pocket, which I did many times a day, I could read pretty much anything—the computer screen, novels, the newspaper—and this was a relief the intensity of which surprised me; a relief of toothache-ending proportions, a relief that swept away any disappointment I had about not qualifying for designer frames. In other words, a new stage of Bargaining.

Within a few weeks I was back at the drugstore to pick up some +1.50’s and, not long after that, +1.75’s. The funny thing was, I kept the previous pairs as if I would be using them again, as if my visual loss would be reversed, in the same spirit that many women I know keep several sizes of clothing in their closets. By the time I got to +1.75’s my day had acquired a nauseating, jerky rhythm: glasses on, glasses off. Even if you need reading glasses most of the time, you can’t wear them all the time because if you try to walk while wearing them you feel like your feet won’t reliably meet the floor, as if you are perpetually walking off a curb that isn’t there. That’s why Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals, not coincidentally, in his fifties. Bifocals allow you to read and also to walk, which is convenient.

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When I began needing glasses to see a menu I often forgot to bring them to a restaurant and so my husband or the children had to read me my dinner options the way attendants read the hospital menu to elderly or pediatric patients. Sometimes when we went to a restaurant I would even pretend that I had forgotten my glasses, which were tucked in my pocketbook. I made a special point of having my husband clean my glasses when they became smudged, since he was so much more experienced than I was, glasses-wise. Was I so different than that lonely little girl who had faked the vision test so many years earlier? That little girl who longed to be accessorized?cheaters_2 The truth is, though I was a mature woman with a solid career and nearly grown children, I still craved attention. And, to my surprise, aging, or at least this ocular manifestation of aging, provided it. Aging was, so far, like having some minor illness or injury—a bad head cold or a sprained ankle—not life-threatening but good for a little airtime.

After a while, my family tired of this phase. They rolled their eyes. They told me to just order a burger. I tired of it, too. The theatrics I had made out of needing glasses, buying glasses, cleaning glasses, forgetting glasses soon began to bore even me. The novelty of the idea of myself as a person needing glasses faded.

I wear glasses.

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Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.


Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and writer in residence in the division of general internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Email her at [email protected] and visit her website at suzannekoven.com. More from this author →