My Mother, My Sight
Published in The Oldest We’ve Ever Been, ed. Maud Lavin, U. Arizona Press. 2008; And in Allan deSouza Photoworks: 1998–2008, Talwar Gallery, New Delhi, 2008.
It happened twelve years ago on a deserted Brooklyn street, the wrong place at the wrong time, except that I lived around the corner. Two men jumped out of a car and one ordered me at gunpoint to get down on my knees. I can still feel my face pressed against rain-dampened concrete as a semi-automatic is pressed to the back of my head and my pockets emptied; waiting for the shot, wondering what the bullet will feel like, how long the pain will last. With the gun at my head, knowing I’m going to die because that’s what they’re yelling at me, you’re gonna die muthafucker, I’m gonna blow your fuckin brains out muthafucker, a part of me still holds onto the comforting belief––at this point, what else do I have?––that if I play nice, do what they say, good muthafucker, nice muthafucker, they won’t pull the trigger because there’s no reason to. Reason. It’s a faith I’ve never invested in before, and though it might be really short-lived now, as might I, reason and obedience seem not such a bad trade-off for staying alive.
Even as it was happening I remember thinking: if this were the movies and I were the hero, I would twist round, slap his gun-hand away, drop-kick him in the groin, punch him in the face, and pick up the gun where he had dropped it. If it were the movies and he the anti-hero and I the bad guy, he would shoot me whether I complied or resisted. This wasn’t the movies and there was no script to follow, and that was perhaps the worst––not knowing what would happen next. When they made me kneel on the ground with my ankles crossed and my hands on my head, I knew that they had been watching too many movies and wondered which script they would follow. An image of the TV show, Cops, came into my head and its jingle––bad boy, bad boy, what you gonna do?––rang in my ears.
It was so irritating that, instead of a scan through my own life, my last thought might have been of a TV show. I had watched it a couple of times as part of my introduction to America: it always seemed to be white cops chasing down black or brown suspects, or called to intervene in domestic assault cases. A black woman, weeping and her face bruised, sheltering a couple of screaming kids, reluctantly hands over a knife to the police as a black man is handcuffed and led away. A posse of Latino kids is––in the show’s parlance––assuming the position, flat out on the ground, legs spread, hands behind their heads, and there’s one kneeling, ankles crossed, fingers clasped behind his head, answering questions as three cops stand around him, batons drawn. And suddenly the whole thing, the picture of myself kneeling on a deserted sidewalk with a gun pressed to my head, seemed so ludicrous that I wasn’t scared any more, because it was like being on TV.
The fear descended later, as did the mental run-through of the different possible outcomes. And both––fear and re-run––have stayed with me.
Soon after, I moved, taking literal heed of that directive, “Go west, young man.” Born in Kenya, at age seven I had migrated with my family to London, then as an adult moved by myself to New York, and now again to Los Angeles, chasing the sunset until if I were to go any further west, it would become east. From England, my parents had taken one step back east, one step closer to their prior colonial histories, and had settled in Portugal.
After two years in L.A., when I was aged thirty-eight, my eyes began misbehaving. A few times while reading, a paragraph of words on the edge of my peripheral vision would suddenly lift up and scuttle off the page. By the time I blinked and looked directly at the vacated space, the words had raced back and plopped down again, watching me with defiant innocence.
Other times I had seen spiders in the corners of rooms where walls and ceiling hugged. Fat, black, hairy creatures. They dangled on invisible threads, waving their infernal legs in taunting motion. When I looked up, they disappeared into cracks in the walls that sealed up immediately behind them. I hoped that they were not real, that it was just my imagination playing tricks. But if so, what would that mean? I had read once that seeing imaginary spiders was an early indication of psychosis. And by then it was probably too late to reverse it. So, what was I losing? My eyes or my mind?
I tried to ignore the spiders for as long as possible, but then the world began to disappear. It wasn’t noticeable at first and I don’t know when it began; the change was so gradual, and my adjustment and acceptance of it so complete, that I noticed it only when I woke up one morning and looked out the window and saw that it was foggy. I should have known then, of course, this being L.A.––smog, yes, but fog? When I looked around my room and the fog seemed to be also inside, I realized that the change was in me.