Seeing Even the Blind Can Do
by Emily Carpenter
BADADADA BADADADA badadada badadada… BADADADA BADADADA badadada badadada…
7:00 a.m. Eyes shut, I roll over and fumble around to find my phone, limbs tossing around in my sheets. Once I hit the orange STOP button on the dark screen, the deafening noise stops bleating in my ear. I throw my feet onto the floor and get out of bed, vision fuzzy as I stumble a couple of steps to the airplane-sized bathroom in the tiny studio apartment I share with my roommate. I stare at myself as I pull my long, thin, brown hair back into a ponytail and leave the bathroom, turning the light off on my way out. I walk to the closet and slide out a drawer from the dresser we tucked below the clothing rod, careful not to wake my roommate with the creeeeeeak of the wood rubbing against itself. I take out a pair of old, black running shorts, so worn the logo has rubbed away, and a bleach-stained pullover sweater, slip them on quietly, grab my tote bag, and walk out the door, gently locking it behind me.
The spring air welcomes me as I step outside. The sun is accompanied by its partner-in-crime for the month of March, the wind. The combination is confusing, too cold for shorts when I walk under the scaffolding above the laundromat, but too warm for my long sleeves during the stretch between Avenue A and First Avenue where there is no shade. I turn the corner, and suddenly the sun strikes my face with warmth while the breeze blows my hair back. Spring has sprung in New York, and just like the flowers popping up from the bright green grass, small goose bumps emerge on my legs.
I speed walk to the farmers’ market at Union Square, on a mission to make my grocery trip quick so I can be back at my apartment before my video conference at 8:30 a.m. I like to run my errands early in the morning and during weekdays—everyone’s either asleep or soon to be working—when everything is fully stocked. The streets are bare at 7:30 a.m. save for a few dog walkers. No matter how many times I walk the avenues alone, it never becomes less eerie. I double my pace.
The market is rather empty, its sometimes bustling tempo now set at a molasses-like speed. I am out of place among the other shoppers, all elderly folk with their large shopping carts that also serve as walkers. The elderly like to shop in the morning, I’ve noticed, keeping their distance from the large midday crowds, and only the rich ones shop at the farmers’ market, seeking out organic bananas at ten cents more than the ones sprayed with pesticides at the grocery stores, artisanal honey in tiny glass jars, and gluten-free pastry breads made from anything, ANYTHING but the white flour you get from C-Town. The fresh air and expensive produce do them well, keeping them alive for maybe a little longer than those who can’t afford the luxury and are crammed shoulder to shoulder inside the tiny bodegas that get cleaned once, maybe twice a day. I’ve only started shopping at the farmers’ market about two months ago, budgeting out a few dollars more for bread and eggs in an effort to support local businesses. Although they never say it, I can tell the vendors appreciate my weekly trips by the way they lock their eyes with mine when I pay.
I beeline to the cheese vendor, my short shopping list guiding me through the pathway between the rows of merchants and their tents. The man behind the counter greets me with only a glance. The lady next to me moves at a sloth-like speed, sauntering through the market as she inspects every block of cheese with only her eyes, looking for mold, creases, dents in the rind, careful not to make the wrong decision. She’s practically an expert at identifying the perfect block of Muenster without even touching it. I, on the other hand, pick up the cheapest hunk of cheddar I see and place it in my bag without a second thought, making eye contact with the vendor as he says, “$3.25.” I pull out the exact amount and gently place it into his latex gloved hand. “Thank you,” I say, and we meet eyes again, his way of thanking me as well.
As I turn to move to the bread vendor, I accidentally brush past the lady searching for her cheese, who shoots daggers into my eyes for touching her arm. DON’T come near me, they seem to say, and I blurt out a “sorry” before I make a dash in the other direction. I head toward the blue tent at the north end of the park, passing the bread vendor’s neighbors wiping down their stands with lemon-scented wipes and putting their produce on display, but once I get there, there is no bread out and no one behind the counter. Instead, a sign takes his place, taped to the clear glass case the bread usually sits in, reading, OUT SICK in large, black scrawl. I check the time, realize I’ve got to be home in twenty minutes, and start a light jog back toward Eighth Street.
Ten minutes later I turn the corner onto my street and slow down to a walk when I see my super with his upper body practically drowned inside the large blue and green recycling bins outside our complex. That can’t be sanitary. I tuck my head down and stare at my phone, as I near the door of my building, hoping he’ll stay buried in the plastic bottles long enough to not notice me coming in. I quietly trot up the four steps to the building and reach for the door handle when I hear, “Hey, Mia! Whatcha up to this morning?” from behind me. I stop, exhale, and turn around to face him. He’s got a round face, small eyes, and no facial hair including the eyebrows. I’m certain he’s bald under the baseball cap he wears every day, and he looks ready to be rolled into the hospital at any minute.
“Hi, Judd. My name isn’t Mia, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah, but you’re always running! Running around like a soccer player, like Mia Hamm. What’s your name again?”
“Alice! That’s right. I’ll remember next time, I will. Alice.”
He won’t. “All right, well I’ve got a meeting soon so you have a good morning.” I turn around again to face the door.
“Right, right, wait, which one do you live in again?”
I stop. “Apartment twelve, remember?”
“Ohhh yeahhh, that’s right. The one with the leak in the roof. Right, right.”
“Right. Anyway, have a good one.” I open the door and dart inside before he can interrogate me more.
I walk up the three flights of stairs and turn to the room at the right end of the hall, a light blue door labeled with a gold 15. I unlock the door and walk in to find the lights on, their glow making the light hardwood floor appear yellow. Michelle is crouched on the ground, head in the cabinet below the sink where we keep our cleaning supplies.
“Hey, why are all the lights on? It’s super bright out.” I throw my tote bag on the small white table and walk into the bathroom to wash my hands. Under the nails, in-between the fingers, scrubbing again where my knuckles have become raw from too much soap and water.
“I needed to see down here, and I couldn’t find the flashlight. Something’s wrong with the sink. I’ll turn them off once I’m done.” Her voice is muffled as she digs around, moving bottles and boxes.
“No worries, just wanted to make sure. The electricity bill should be coming in a couple of days.” I dry my hands and walk back into the room, take the cheese from my bag and put it in the fridge. Both of our mattresses sit on the left side of the studio while our oven, fridge, sink, and cabinets take up the right. Near the door, we managed to squeeze in a dark wood table we found on the street and two matching plastic chairs we bought at Goodwill. It’s home.
Michelle and I met in our second year at City College of New York, back when I still had bangs and she was still convinced that she actually wanted to be a pre-health major. We were in the same elective art class together, myself for the purposes of taking something, anything other than marketing lectures, and Michelle because she was actually good at it. She told me how I could improve my drawings, and I told her how she could improve her life.
“I think you should try sticking to a simpler color palette,” she said. “What you’ve drawn is good, but there are waaaay too many colors. It’s too distracting. Pick two and alternate. And don’t leave negative space!”
“And I think you should tell your dad that you don’t want to be a doctor and your heart is in making art that is far less shitty than mine is!”
Michelle laughed. “Your art isn’t shitty, you’re just inexperienced.”
“Sure. Whatever. But you’ve been taking science classes for a year now, and your organic chem class still sucks.”
Two weeks later she changed her major to digital art, and her dad told her he wouldn’t pay for her apartment the following year. We worked doubles for weeks at the AMC on Frederick Douglass until we could afford a cheap but spacious studio in Harlem for junior year. I always felt like I owed it to her to make it work; I had to help support her in any way I could since her father wouldn’t. Over time the feeling became mutual. It was she who suggested we leave our Harlem residence of three years when we went into Lockdown. We regularly had dinner with our neighbors and chatted with our super: they knew us too well there. Staying wasn’t an option, but we couldn’t afford a room on our own. So, we downsized, threw away everything that wasn’t essential, squished the bare minimum into three suitcases, and moved to the cheapest place we could find, in Alphabet City, a month after Lockdown Law began. Neither of us complained, neither of us protested. We cried when we said good-bye to the people down the hall, but our unspoken agreement had become law: we make sacrifices for ourselves, for our wallets, but mostly for each other.
“No bread at the market, but I got some cheese,” I tell Michelle now as I examine the fridge. I look at the time on our oven and slam our fridge shut. “Shit, I’m late.”
I grab the dusty, old, black Dell laptop next to my bed and my pair of gray headphones. I sit on my bed and turn the laptop on as quickly as possible, but it takes minutes for the home screen to even turn blue. I wait patiently as Michelle emerges from under the sink and shakes out her curly, black hair, still in her pajamas. “What time was the meeting?”
“It’s already started. Naomi’s gonna kill me for being late again, but Judd stopped me on the way in.” Michelle is a freelance graphic designer. She’s always worked remotely, and on her own time. I, on the other hand, have a boss who knows no mercy, a super who mixes up right and left but always wants to ask about it, and a laptop older than my grandma. The combination of the three is a recipe for impending unemployment.
“What did he say?”
“Asked what apartment I was in again. I said twelve this time, I couldn’t remember what I said on Monday.”
Michelle laughs. “Jeez. I’d say I’m worried he’ll figure us out one day, but we’ve made it what? Six months now?”
“Yeah, he’s clueless. Still calls me Mia—”
“Still doesn’t pay attention to me. Asshole.”
I laugh. “Hey, that’s a good thing. Means we’re in the clear.”
“I guess. So you didn’t get any bread? I was gonna make toast this morning. Should I go out and get some at the bodega?”
“You can’t, it’s not your day and I’ve already been out.”
“I know but who even saw you? Judd? You just said he still doesn’t know your name, it’s not like he’ll notice—”
“I can go back out at lunch if you really need bread that badly.”
“No one is going to see me. No one is going to care. I know tomorrow is my day, but it’s so nice out and tomorrow it’s supposed to rain—”
BRRRRRP! BRRRRRP! BRRRRRP!
My computer rings and dings with bright, white flashes, and Michelle slams her mouth shut, falling into a seat at the dining table with a despondent sigh as I smooth back the baby hairs that have escaped my ponytail. I press the red Answer Call button and smile for the webcam.
Seven boxes appear in front of me, each a tiny window into someone else’s bedroom or office or patio. Joel sits in front of his wooden fence, green ivy falling down its sides. Amber works astutely from her home office as always, decorated with bookshelves of thick volumes and glass paperweights. Her cat, who we’ve learned is named Corey due to his clawing at the shelves and her demands that he stop, sits in her lap as she pets him tenderly. Ken is stationed in his bedroom, lamps glowing a soft yellow and the blue comforter haphazardly thrown across the bed instead of made neatly, something you’d never expect from a man who always appears to have pressed his collared, cotton shirt right before putting it on. Seven out of seven boxes are well dressed. Four out of seven boxes are wearing makeup and the other three have wet hair they’ve combed back. Seven out of seven boxes are groomed to workday perfection, appearance as clean as it was when we worked in the office, just to stare at the seven boxes in front of them for an hour or two before we all select End Call and take off our bras and burp and fart and open a bottle of wine and eat chips from the bag while we finish our work in solitude. They forget I’ve already seen their unmade beds and that mine is unmade, too.
In the center of the screen is my boss, Naomi, in her typical Weekly Wednesday Meeting attire. Black blazer atop a crisp, white button-up; silky, black hair tied up meticulously into a perfect topknot, and red lipstick that never gets on her teeth.
“There you are, Alice. Nice of you to join us. Might I remind you that you’re late again?” The good thing about working behind a screen is she can’t strangle me.
“I know, I’m really sorry. My computer was having problems again. I hope you all weren’t waiting long.”
She looks into her webcam, and I can feel her gaze ablaze as she seems to see straight through my eyes and into my brain. Maybe I can’t strangle you, but I can sure as hell fire you, her stare seems to say.
“Let’s get started,” she continues. “Since you’re the one who made us late, let’s start with you. Surely you’ve had enough time to prepare.” The six others stare at me blankly, years older and indifferent to what I have to say about our social media engagement. They couldn’t care less about the number of Instagram followers we have, despite the fact that it’s gone up by thousands, parallel to the increase in users of our personal savings planning app since I’ve joined the StackIt! team.
“Sure. Engagement has gone up eighty percent since last week, after I launched the new Instagram campaign. I’m hoping to increase that number once I’m done remodeling the website since it’s not very user-friendly right now. Hopefully once that’s up—”
THUMP THUMP THUMP. Three quick pounds on the door startle me. My head snaps away from my computer screen, and my eyes dart over to Michelle sitting at the table whose own eyes lock with mine, widening from their dejected droop. She violently shakes her head.
THUMP THUMP THUMP. “Hello, Alice? Are you there?” Naomi’s voice is sharp, even through the hum of my computer. I furrow my eyebrows and shake my head back at Michelle, throwing my hands toward my computer.
I give Michelle a look that says, I’m in the middle of a meeting.
Michelle’s look says, I don’t care.
“Alice, your camera is on. Who are you looking at? You’re in your apartment, aren’t you?” Naomi says. Shit. Everyone can see me staring at someone who isn’t supposed to be there. Michelle’s and my eyes grow even wider at the same time, becoming the size of quarters. She stands up and slides into the bathroom, closing the door without turning the light on.
THUMP THUMP. “One second,” I shout to the door. “I’m so sorry, Naomi, someone is knocking, it must be important. Could I get it real quick? We can come back to me, it’ll be fast.”
“It isn’t Visiting Hours, Alice. There’s no reason for you to answer the door. They should know better.” Every so often Naomi takes on both the role of my boss and a cop, ready to prosecute me and the rest of the team for breaking Lockdown Laws. The Visiting Hours rule is her favorite because it gives us no excuses to not get our work done; between the hours of 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., visitors aren’t allowed in any residence not their own. There isn’t any reason we shouldn’t be dedicating every waking hour to StackIt! and Naomi’s incessant to-do lists. What else would we be doing? It’s not like anyone was there to see us. “And I’m tired of waiting on you, Alice. Either finish your section, or hang up and I’ll deal with you later.”
THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP. I look to the bathroom for help but get no response. Even Michelle’s breaths are silent. I hold my breath, hit End Call and shut my computer.
THUMP. THUMP. “I said one second!” I pull my green, vinyl mask off the wall and reach under my sink for another pair of blue, latex gloves, dressing myself as I open the door, preparing to yell at the intruder who may have just cost me my job and who soon may cost me more than that if they see Michelle.
“It isn’t Visiting Hours, please come back after—” I stop once I see who it is. “Oh, hi, Ms. Mendez. It’s nine in the morning. Is everything okay?”
Ms. Mendez is the little old lady who lives on the other side of our floor. Her hair is gray but thick and plentiful, and she’s about five feet tall, if you’re being generous. She tells everyone she’s forty-five and no one has ever argued. The crow’s feet under her eyes give her away, but she’s never needed help climbing up the narrow steps to the fourth floor and regularly positions herself outside of our apartment in the evenings to greet every tenant by name as they leave for and return from their Daily Walk, our government-allotted thirty minutes of exercise a day after Visiting Hours. She’s as spritely as a pixie and wears life like a uniform; she isn’t going anywhere.
She looks up at me with her brown eyes that smile when she speaks, hinting at a grin below her vibrant fuchsia mask. “I had a dream about you last night. May I come in?” I nod once and step aside to let her in, careful not to let any other neighbors overhear. I close and lock the door as Michelle, hearing that it’s only Ms. Mendez, comes out of the bathroom, wearing her own purple face mask and gloves. Michelle wipes down one of our plastic chairs before Ms. Mendez sits. This is our ritual.
Ms. Mendez is the only one who knows that Michelle and I share our studio. We met her the day we moved in; it was after Visiting Hours, so Michelle and I could both bring our boxes upstairs, pretending they were only mine. She was sitting on her folding chair outside the apartment and insisted that she meet the new tenant.
“My name is Alice. I’ll be in apartment eight. This is my friend, Michelle. She’s helping me move in.” Michelle and I shared a sneaky glance. Part of our plan was to pick a new number anytime someone asked. Not that anyone cared enough.
Ms. Mendez furrowed her brows quickly and shook her head. “David lives in apartment eight. He just went out for his Daily. You must be apartment fifteen. Lindsay just left last month.”
“Oh, my mistake. My old apartment was eight. Got confused. Anyway, nice to meet you…uh…”
“Ms. Mendez. Nice to meet you too, Alice.” Michelle and I turned around and started heading up the stairs. “And you too, Michelle!” she called out. Michelle raised an eyebrow.
Ten minutes later we came back downstairs to get more boxes, and she was gone. I didn’t see her again until our third day at the apartment.
It was noon, and I was on my way out to pick up turkey and mayo sandwiches from the bodega for me and Michelle. I opened the door, and Ms. Mendez was standing in the middle of our floor. I slammed the door shut behind me. “Hi, Ms. Mendez! Nice to see you again, it’s Alice.”
“Oh, I know who you are, sweetie. Nice to see you, too.”
“I’m just picking up lunch! Do you need any help down the stairs?”
She laughed. “Honey, I’ve lived here for twelve years. How else do you think I get my legs to look this good?”
I laughed too. “You’re right. I’ll see you when I get back.”
“You aren’t gonna let me say hi to Michelle?”
I froze. “What?”
“Michelle. You closed that door so fast I didn’t even get to see her.”
“Oh, Michelle’s not in there! It isn’t Visiting Hours. She can only come over after six p.m.—”
“I know when Visiting Hours are. And I know that yesterday I looked out my window around three p.m. and saw Michelle leave and come back in ten minutes later. I didn’t see you all day.”
I paused. “Please don’t tell,” I said, resigned. “We can’t afford our own bedrooms. We’re gonna work really hard and save a bunch of money, and I’m due for a promotion so hopefully if this is still happening in a year, we can move somewhere else—”
“Don’t. You need each other.” Ms. Mendez smiled. A weight I didn’t even realize I had been carrying with me fell off my shoulders. It was then that I knew everything would be okay.
“Do you think anyone else knows? Or will find out?”
“I’d be surprised. No one here thinks about a damn thing that isn’t Clorox wipes or money.”
“But you found out so fast—”
“The virus is transmitted through contact, so we can’t touch one another. Things that are still allowed? Talking. Seeing. I’m not talking about what we do when we stare at our computer screens and pretend it’s the same as sharing a meal or even the air. I’m talking about seeing each other in a way that even the blind can do. It’s a feeling.”
Ever since then, Ms. Mendez has come over every other day or so. She won’t let us into her apartment but loves to sit in the corner of ours, entertaining us with the plots of her favorite movies like Gone With the Wind, the story behind her recipe for arroz con pollo (“My grandma made the best I’ve ever had, so spicy I couldn’t take a bite without tearing up, but only on Christmas and Easter.”), the men she encounters at the bodega who smell like whiskey but buy her hand soap. She describes everything in vivid detail so we can be there with her: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch are all accounted for. She usually visits during Visiting Hours, but every so often she’ll have a dream and drop by during the day. “Dreams cannot wait. They are the stuff of new life,” she says, and we always let her in.
“I’ll be brief, girls, but this one was important.” Ms. Mendez squirms around in her chair, like it’s suddenly too small for her.
“You always say that, Ms. Mendez! Take your time, we don’t mind,” Michelle responds, trying to soothe her nerves.
“No, no, I mean it this time. I don’t want to dwell on it, I just wanted to tell you both now.” She looks us each in the eye and takes a deep breath. She reaches out and grabs ahold of each of our gloved hands. Michelle and I hold hers back, tenderly, sharing glances. She’s nervous. She’s never nervous.
“I had a dream that Michelle got a wonderful job designing graphics for a big company. I never got what the company does, exactly, but they were big. Big, big. Big name and big money. It was bad, bad news.”
“I have a hard time seeing that as bad news, Ms. Mendez.” Michelle laughs.
“You were going to leave the apartment,” Ms. Mendez says.
Michelle laughs again. “I’m not going to leave the apartment! It’s very nice of your subconscious to think that I could get a job designing for ‘big, big,’ but I don’t see myself having the money any time soon.”
“That isn’t the point, Michelle,” Ms. Mendez snaps. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation.” Michelle blinks, taken aback by Ms. Mendez’s intensity. Her face turns red, and she responds with just as much bite.
“There is no situation. I’m not moving. And if I was, then great. We wouldn’t have to do this sneaking and hiding, and I could leave the apartment more than three times a week.” Michelle’s words strike me like a gloved slap to my masked face. I didn’t know she wanted to leave.
“Michelle,” Ms. Mendez says, “you don’t realize what you have here—”
“I know exactly what I have here! I have a twin bed on the floor of an apartment built for one but stuffed with things for two. And I know what I don’t have here. I haven’t seen a tree or smelled the air in days, and not only that, but it’s been just as long since I’ve seen the other side of our door. I’ve memorized every crack on the bathroom door and every dent in our floor, and I know it isn’t easy for Alice to lie every single day, but I’m tired of living this way. I love you, Alice, and I love you, Ms. Mendez, and if I could own a room down the hall, then everything would be perfect, but it isn’t. It’s hard. And I don’t have the money to change it, so I won’t, but if I did, I would.” Part of me wants to retaliate. I want to kick and scream that this isn’t my fault. It isn’t my fault she can’t go to the store or on walks as much as I do: my name is on the lease. It isn’t my fault my name is on the lease: I make more money. It isn’t my fault that I make more money, or that we can’t afford our own places, or that every time we leave this apartment, we’re at risk of dying. Why didn’t Michelle ever tell me how unhappy she was? Why did she even suggest this arrangement if she knew what she was in for?
But the other part of me holds back the kicking and screaming because it already knows the answers; we both do things for the same reasons. I stay at my shitty job so I can pay my part of the rent, and Michelle stays inside so we both have a place to live. We work, eat, and sleep in a proximity closer to one another than anyone is allowed to even stand between the hours of nine and six. If I get sick, she gets sick. If she gets caught, we get caught. Now, more than ever, do we make sacrifices: for ourselves, for our wallets, for each other.
Michelle looks at Ms. Mendez with cold eyes. “I don’t mean to snap at you, Ms. Mendez. But you don’t need to ask someone to go to the grocery store for you. You can take your Daily Walk or sit outside for thirty minutes every afternoon. Even under Lockdown, you have freedom. All of the things we were promised, I don’t have. You’re lucky.”
“No, Michelle. You’re lucky. The best part of my day is when I come over and sit here in my sterilized chair and I tell you about anything I can think of and you hear me. And I sit back and I watch as you two laugh and hug and have a friend. And then I go back to my little room, and I spend the rest of the night and the next day alone. I know everyone’s name in the building and they know mine because I’ve made sure of it, but they all go back to their own rooms and do the same. Sit alone for hours and hours and look at people through a screen. They forget what it’s like to see another human in front of them, feel the energy bounce between them without even touching. And I think about that every day while I wait for the next time I can come over here to see the two of you. And finally, six p.m. comes, and I take my mask off my wall and walk over here just to do it all again, to get me through to the next day. And as much as I love it, sitting here with the two of you, I think every time how I’ve never seen either of you without the mask. How distant we’ve already become, even together. How easy it is to drift even further.”
Ms. Mendez’s eyes are kind but firm. Michelle has softened, and she and I are both on the verge of tears. Michelle raises a tentative hand to her mask and pulls it down.
“Thank you, Ms. Mendez,” she says.
I pull mine down, too. “Thank you.”
Ms. Mendez exhales, and suddenly we’re watching the strongest woman in the world—someone who inhales the world’s tears and exhales optimism and kindness—cry, latex glove after latex glove gripping onto one another for dear life.
Emily Carpenter has just finished her third year as a student at New York University studying theatre, education and writing. She hopes to someday get paid to do something she enjoys and much prefers fiction to cover letters.