Josh Sundquist's First Novel Explores Blindness, Identity, 'Love and First Sight'
The following is an excerpt from Josh Sundquist’s debut novel, “Love and First Sight.”
Vice Principal Larry Johnston extends his hand.
To clarify: I don’t see this. I hear the swish of his shirtsleeve.
“Nice to meet you, William.” The fabric sound plays again—the hand retracting. “I’m sorry, I guess you can’t do that now, can you? You probably want to feel my face?” He grabs my arm and smacks my palm against his cheek, knocking me off balance so I have to step into the musk of his aftershave. “Where do you normally start? Eyes? Nose? Mouth?” He shifts my fingers across the front of his face with each suggestion. His skin is rough and pockmarked, like the outside of an orange.
“No, actually, I don’t do that,” I say, pulling my hand away. “I identify people based on their voices.”
“And…also…” I add. I can’t resist.
“Yes?” he asks, all eager to please.
“Well, I don’t usually touch faces, but I am gifted with a heightened sense of smell that allows me to recognize a person’s pheromones, which are concentrated just below the ear, so if you wouldn’t mind…?” I touch my pointer finger to my nose.
His excitement drops. “Oh… you want to… smell… my ear?”
“Pheromones are like faces to me. Only if it’s not too much trouble, sir.”
“Oh, no, no trouble at all. I just…No trouble, certainly I would like to accommodate you.” He steps close enough that I can feel the heat of his body, which is a signal that (a) he is falling for it — sighted people always do, the suckers — and (b) I’ve taken the joke far enough. I don’t actually want my nose anywhere near his old-guy earwax, after all.
“Mr. Johnston, I’m kidding.” I hold a hand up to stop him. It sinks deep into fat rolls, presumably around his midsection. I hope. “A joke, sir. I don’t want to smell your ear.” When I pull my hand away, I wonder if it leaves a visible handprint or even fingerprints in his squishy flesh. I’ve heard that happens when you press an open palm against a soft surface like sand, dough, or wet paint.
“Oh, right, yes.” He lets out a forced chuckle that sounds like a wheezy smoker’s cough. “A joke. Yes. Very funny.” Mr. Johnston’s voice is deep and grizzly. If you listen carefully, you learn that a particular set of vocal cords produces audio vibrations unlike any other in the world. Voices are the fingerprints of sound.
“Shall we head to your first class?” he asks. He grabs my arm from behind and starts to push me out of the front office. I’m sure he thinks it’s helpful to lead me like that, but I instinctively swap our positions so I am holding his arm instead.
“I’d prefer we walk like this,” I say. Now I’m in control. I can let go at any time.
“Yes, all right, that’s fine,” he says.
I’ve spent most of my sixteen years around other blind and visually impaired people, so this is the first time I’ve actually had to execute a Hines Break in real life. Fortunately, Mrs. Chin made me practice so many times I could do it automatically with Mr. Johnston. The main purpose of this little arm reversal is that it puts me in charge. To put it in dating terms, I can now be the dumper rather than the dumpee. I’ve heard the horror stories: Blind people standing on street corners waiting for a crosswalk light to change, only to have a well-meaning but annoying stranger come up from behind, grab their arm, and say (overly loud, of course, because they always assume we are all deaf, too) “LET ME HELP YOU!” and shove them across a street they were not intending to cross. And then the stranger lets go and disappears into the void (“YOU’RE WELCOME!”), leaving the blind person stranded on an unknown street corner.
I feel the floor change from the carpet of Mr. Johnston’s office to the hard tile of the hallway as I follow him through the doorway. “Can we start at the front door?” I ask. “That’s where I’ll be coming in each morning, I assume.”
“Isn’t that where you came in today?” he asks.
“Yes, but my mom took me from there to your office.”
“Well, then, simply imagine that instead of turning into the office, you walked in this direction toward the stairwell, and you’ll be on your way to first period.” He starts to walk, presumably toward said stairwell. But I stand still, gripping his arm tightly so he is forced to stop. (Behold the mighty power of the Hines Break!)
“It doesn’t work like that. I can’t…” I drift off. I hate sentences that start with “I can’t.” But as it happens, I was born completely blind, so one thing I truly can’t do is imagine an overhead map and then make up different routes or shortcuts. I can walk from A to B, yes, but only if I memorize a list of actions: How many steps to take and when to turn and then how many more steps to take before I’m there. I can sniff odors like a bloodhound and echolocate sounds like a bat, but it is simply impossible for me to infer a new route using my imagination. “Look, Mr. Johnston, can we just start at the front door, please? That would be much easier for me.”
“Are you sure you don’t want us to assign you a full-time aide? The state would gladly pay…”
“I know, I know, but that’s not why I transferred here. Having a babysitter walk me around school every day is not going to help my street cred.” Honestly, it’s not just about my street cred. I transferred because I want to prove that I can live independently in the sighted world. No dependence on charity. No neediness. My parents sent me off to the school for the blind back when I was little. Right after the Incident. It was “for my own good,” to “protect me,” and blah, blah, blah. But if I want to eventually land my dream job, to make a name for myself as the Stevie Wonder of journalism, it’s not going to happen within the confines of the blind bubble — excuse me, the visually impaired community. I have to go mainstream.
I hear Mr. Johnston sigh. But when he speaks, there’s a hint of sympathy in his voice, as if maybe he was once young enough to care about his own street cred. Or maybe he still does. “Very well, William, to the front door we shall go.”
He guides me there. “First I need to get my bearings,” I say.
“Well, the door is in front of you, the wall is beside…”
“No,” I say, pulling my iPhone out of my pocket. “I literally need compass bearings.” My compass app tells me I will enter the building facing west. Got it: west. (Seriously, how did anyone get by before talking smartphones?) “Mr. Johnston, let’s head to English. If possible,” I say, “please walk in a straight line and tell me when we are going to change directions.”
We walk twelve steps west, twenty-three steps south, and then turn west again. Mr. Johnston tells me we are at the base of a stairwell. I hear footsteps rushing by on both sides of us, students in a hurry to get to first period. Up to this point, I’ve kept my white cane folded in my back pocket. No use drawing attention to myself if I don’t have to. But I’ll feel safer using the cane on stairs than relying on a vice principal with a lifetime total of three minutes’ experience guiding a blind person.
I pull it out and, with a quick flick of my wrist, snap the whole thing open. People have told me this looks like a Star Wars lightsaber turning on. That’s not a particularly helpful description for me, though. Which also makes me wonder why it’s called a “white cane” in the first place, since the people who use them can’t see its color. Anyway, I reach out for the handrail, but my fingers grab something soft instead. A body part. Chest level. Boob alert.
“Oh, my God, I am SO sorry, I tooootally didn’t see you there,” says a female voice. That’s what a white cane will do for you: Not only can you get away with copping a feel, the girl assumes it was her fault and apologizes for it. Let me assure you, random girl, you have nothing to be sorry about. Completely my fault. And my pleasure.
“No problem,” I tell her. “I didn’t see you, either.”
She doesn’t laugh. She is already gone before I say it, the sound of her footsteps lost in the shuffle. I hate that. When I discover I’m talking to someone who has already walked away. Feels like when you tell some long story into your cell phone and you wonder why the person has been silent for a while and then you realize the call was dropped at some point.
At the top of this flight of stairs, Mr. Johnston tells me we are going to turn 180 degrees and go up another. I continue to climb with one hand on the rail and the other pencil-gripping my cane as it surveys the next step. Once we’ve reached the second floor, I fold the cane and return it to my right back pocket. I can feel how the fabric of my jeans has stretched around that shape, the form of my folded cane. For the first time, I wonder if this distortion is visible.
Footsteps drop all around us like a heavy rainstorm. As Mr. Johnston guides me eighteen steps east through the crowded hallway, he shouts, “Clear a path, people! Blind student coming through! Blind student coming through!” Wow, thanks, Mr. Johnston. I’m sure this is gaining me so many popularity points at my new school. My election as Prom King is now all but assured.
We pause at the door to my classroom so I can dictate the directions into my phone. (“Enter building, walk twelve steps west, turn south, walk twenty-three steps…”) I’ll have Siri read them back to me after school until I’ve got the route memorized.
“Attention, everyone!” Mr. Johnston says as soon as we cross the threshold. His voice sounds pleased, maybe even surprised, by its ability to silence the chattering room. “This is Will, a student who has transferred to our school this year. He’s blind.” Perhaps because this is English class, he adds a helpful definition of the word: “He can’t see anything… nothing at all.” He pauses to allow the gravity of my tragic situation to sink in. “Life is very difficult for him. Please offer him your assistance whenever you can, because…”
“You know I’m still standing right beside you, right?” I interrupt. There’s a snort of laughter from the students, and Mr. Johnston’s arm stiffens against my fingers. It’s probably unwise to make fun of your guide, the guy who has the capacity to lead you, say, directly into a brick wall. But come on, I don’t need eyesight to know his speech was making the entire room squirm.
“Yes, William, I—I…” he stammers.
“Listen, sorry, I appreciate your help,” I say. “Can you guide me to the teacher?”
“I’m right here, William. Or do you prefer Will?” asks a female voice standing maybe two arm lengths away.
“Most people call me Will,” I say.
“I’m Mrs. Everbrook. I’ll take it from here, Larry.”
“Very well,” says Mr. Johnston. “William…er, Will, I will meet you at the end of this period to escort you to your next class.” He shuffles out.
“The bell hasn’t rung yet, boys and girls,” says Mrs. Everbrook. “Until it does, you can go back to texting underneath your desks and I’ll go back to pretending I don’t notice you have your cell phones out of your lockers.” Unlike Mr. Johnston’s, hers sounds like a voice people listen to. “Will, there’s a desk open immediately to your right,” she says. I sit. She continues, “I was told you’d be in my class, so I’ve already talked to the library, and they can get you all the books we’ll be reading this term. Do you prefer braille or audiobooks?”
“Braille, please. And thank you. For talking to the library, I mean.”
“No problem. Whatever else you need, just ask. I’m happy to help. Otherwise, you get the same treatment as everyone else. This is Honors English, and I expect honors-level work from you.”
“Thank you,” I say. “That’s very nice.”
“You may change that opinion after I grade your first paper. No one has ever accused me of being nice. But I try to be fair.”
“Then I hope this request appeals to your sense of fairness: I type notes into my phone during class so that it can read them back to me later. Is that all right?”
“Fine by me. Just don’t let me catch you texting your girlfriend during class.”
If I had a girlfriend, I think. I dated several girls back at the school for the blind. But it would be different here. Dating a girl without a visual impairment, I couldn’t help but be beholden to her. Dependent. Needy.
“Oh, no girlfriend, huh?” she asks.
“How can you tell?”
“Your inability to see doesn’t stop your face from speaking what’s on your mind.”
“Hmmm. Well, I did meet a girl downstairs this morning. She seemed nice.”
“She was also very apologetic.”
“I don’t care about the personality of your crush, Will. I mean any other accommodations you need?”
“I wear one earbud in my ear.”
“My phone reads everything on-screen to me — the names of apps, the selections on menus, all that. The earbud will let me hear the phone without disturbing the class.”
“How about that? Anyway, it’s fine. You can use your headphones. Just don’t—”
“Let you catch me listening to music in class? Got it.”
“I was actually going to say anything other than country.”
“Don’t let me catch you listening to anything other than country music during my class.”
“I’m not into country, so I guess I’ll just be listening to you teach.”
“I like you, Will. I think we’re going to get along just fine.”
Which is good, because it turns out I have her again for third period. And that class begins with a major social disaster.