Sometimes in life, we have no idea why we’re possessed to do the things that we do. And I’m not just talking about the kind of “rash” actions spurred by alcohol or otherwise general recklessness. I’m talking about the most mundane of enterprises. Like, for instance, the week I decided it was very important to get an eye exam. I suppose I was on what one could call a “health care jag”—even though most basic insurance plans didn’t seem to have the vision to cover vision. Being a twenty-first century kind of girl, I had to admit to myself that my screen time could be potentially detrimental to my sight… so that, in part, was what also drove me to schedule the appointment.
As soon as I arrived, they were quick to saddle me with a small “basket” to use while I was expected to wade through their selection of frames. It was already as though they wanted me to have problems, to require a new prescription. Of course they did—this was a “business” after all. People’s suffering—no matter in what capacity—is always a business. As I filled out the required forms, it occurred to me that I didn’t even bring my current prescription. It was like I wanted to “fail” before I even began. Instead of helping myself, I only wanted to hurt. Or at least get an inaccurate assessment of my vision for the ransom of seventy dollars. In the midst of internally self-flagellating for my carelessness while simultaneously trying to engage in something that fell under the umbrella of self-care, the optometrist, Dr. Park-Choi, called my name. “Dana? Dana Friedman?”
When I heard my full name said like that, it made me realize the extent of both my dullness and my Jewishness. Two characteristics that should have negated one another but somehow coalesced to form a certain “in-between” persona. In between being totally banal and overly “interesting” (a polite way to say “ethnic” in this and just about any other town). I rose from my seat, hastily thrusted the clipboard back at the receptionist (who seemed to be doing this job just so she could tell her husband she was “contributing,” “being useful”) and approached Dr. Park-Choi.
She greeted me warmly and proceeded to give her spiel about how it was okay if I wanted to take my mask off, but perfectly welcome to keep it on throughout the test as well. I opted for the latter, preferring to do so more for the anonymity than the health precaution. As she queued up the test—you know, that illustrated-looking stock one of the house in the distance on a field—I closed my eyes. They were tired already. Something about taking an eye test feels like you’re trying to “pull a fast one,” to “cheat” as best as you can to prove that your vision—therefore your youth—is still intact. I knew that mine was, yet I had an inherently nervous and paranoid nature. Some part of me felt as though I only wanted to come here so that she could discover something wrong. For all I knew, maybe she had, but we seemed to find ourselves so deep in conversation that I ended up being the one to remind her as she was bidding me adieu that she still hadn’t even dilated my eyes.
I would have liked to believe that I really was just that engaging of a conversationalist, but I knew it was probably more a result of my accursed listening skills paired with a nonjudgmental air (if only people knew how judgmental I was on the inside). One that opened the conversation up to where I had lived before, and what I was doing back in this place now. Here in small-town California, where the only thing that ever happened was the obnoxious revving of a truck parading a giant, flowing American flag on the back of it. If you weren’t a Republican and/or part of a family unit with infant to teen-era children, you automatically stuck out like a sore thumb, which I did. I explained that I was back because my parents were still living here. I didn’t bother to add that even if I myself no longer constituted being a teenager, I felt that having a teenage mentality should count. I had taken a wrong turn somewhere on the path to self-discovery and needed a place to land. Caught in between youth and middle age, my place in the world was never less secure. Though I would’ve thought by now, after all my life experience, it might feel quite the opposite. Not so.
The subject of how I had originally left as soon as I turned eighteen stirred something within Dr. Park-Choi, who told me I reminded her of her daughter, which I doubted. But we see similarities where we want to and if it suits our purpose. She bemoaned that the ever-rebellious teen in question was seeking to go to college in New York, either Columbia or NYU. It was all I could do to keep from making a gagging sound. It had long been my belief that going to college in New York as your first experience moving there was a totally different animal from “just moving there.” And this was usually why the college kids didn’t stick around as long after finishing their often paid-for tenure “at university.” The glamor of NY was gone once you actually had to work a job in it. I made no bones to Dr. Park-Choi about how much I fucking despise New York. The committed-to-the-pain hordes it draws, the patent shittiness that the city’s proverbial “marketing team” continues to try painting in gold. And it continues to work, too. There are very few people who will “receive” the information that New York City is the goddamn worst. Doing everything in their powers of denial to cite all the reasons why that is not true. Dr. Park-Choi’s daughter would probably be another one of those people. Perhaps until she had some kind of rude enough awakening that New York is incessantly sure to so “generously” give.
Having said all that, I told her that trying to talk the poor girl out of it would only be certain to send her even deeper into New York’s craggy open arms. Oh, how it loved to welcome the naïve and “unbroken in” with its “lore” and its “magic.” Two pieces of key ammunition in attracting lambs like this one to the slaughter. Naturally, I didn’t get so graphic in my turn of phrase with Dr. Park-Choi, who increasingly seemed to want to transform our exam into a therapy session, with her confessing that her own mother had prevented her from attending school in Los Angeles, which wasn’t even far away. So no, she didn’t want to be that sort of stifling presence in her own daughter’s life. She wanted her to do what she wished, but within reason. For fuck’s sake, couldn’t she settle for a geographical middle ground like Chicago?
She then told me she had forever wondered—after being forced to stay close to this goddamn town—what her life might have been like if she was allowed to explore herself more fully in a metropolis. I took this to mean the implied sentiment: what if I had been a slut and done drugs when I was actually young and could have enjoyed it? That damned plaguing, eternal question: what if? There was no worse burden to bear than constantly wondering what might have been if you had done something you were prevented from. Whether by parents, early parentification or simple fear. In Dr. Park-Choi’s case, it had seemed to be fear, more than anything else (even if her parents helped nurture that fear with their “we’ll be so disappointed” rhetoric). She had squandered what she felt was her only chance to ever really explore some other part of the world (even if only the small world of the United States). And now she was one of those people like pretty much everyone else who lived here: somebody who had never left. I suppose that was the sole consolation I could revel in: I had tried. To escape, that is. Granted, I never much believed in that hooey about how it’s better to have tried and failed than to never have tried it all (or am I confusing that with the “love lost” platitude?—which I don’t agree with either).
The conversation distracted me slightly from choosing which frames I felt most clearly magnified the Snellen chart in front of me. Trying to think of how to respond to her dilemma while also ascertaining the best frame for my near point of accommodation (that’s optometry speak for “the closest distance from the eyes that reading material can be read”) proved to require more motor skills than I had to spare. So yes, you might say I “failed” the test, but Dr. Park-Choi appeared to appreciate my sympathetic ear (ironically) enough to make me believe there was no need to increase the magnification on my prescription. Her examination felt so cursory in comparison to the emotional one she had just given herself that I couldn’t blame her for not having much room left to provide for the specific needs I had come in for. Even the dilation felt incomplete as I could still see perfectly well, without any blurriness, after she put the drops in. I wanted to ask, “Are you sure those were the correct drops?” but also didn’t want to undermine her work when she was already blatantly feeling the stress of needing to pay for one of these overpriced colleges that her daughter wanted to attend. And that was even before she factored in the high costs of other facets of “NYC living.” The pressure was taking its toll and her daughter hadn’t even left yet.
Sent on my way and wished well, I realized that, despite my rather depressing circumstances, Dr. Park-Choi looked to me as a beacon of hope that her own daughter might someday return to this “one-horse town.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that anyone pursuing a track other than “the arts” was a shoo-in for success. You know, the financial kind that ensures never having to go back to your “point of origin” if you don’t want to.
As I paid the exorbitant fee for what had just transpired, I could overhear a customer whining, “I wish my husband could have come along with me to look at the choices.” She was some insecure hausfrau freely confessing this to the equally retro receptionist. I myself, with the offering of an opinion, could have tried to ease the “difficulty” of picking out the designer frames that her husband’s salary would no doubt cover, but, at that moment, my sight went entirely out of focus. The drops must have worked after all. Either that, or all of my foresight for Dr. Park-Choi’s daughter’s future had been so utterly drained during the test that it managed to detract from my actual vision as well.