Nicole C. Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You, releasing by St. Martin’s Press today, and chosen as a Must-Read by Amazon, Glamour, Martha Stewart Living, Redbook, and Marie Claire among others. Her work appears in the New York Times, Good Housekeeping, New York, Psychology Today, Parents, American Baby, as well as Salon, the Huffington Post and xoJane. Her column,“Dispatches from Babyville,” has been running continuously for nine years in the Park Slope Reader, and she chronicles her continuing mis-adventures in Mommydom on her blog, A Mom Amok. A native of New York, she received a BA from Yale, an MA from Columbia, and a red nose from the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three children and two feisty goldfish. Watch her book trailer and learn more about Nicole on her website and Facebook.
Excerpt from Now I See You: A Memoir
St. Martin’s Press
© Nicole C. Kear 2014
From Chapter 4, “Nothing Ventured.” At this point in the book, the author is 19 and has just been diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease.
Tip for the (Secretly) Blind: On smoking
Never light your own cigarette. You risk revealing your hidden handicap when you keep on missing. If you’re showing a little décolletage there’s always a guy with a match nearby. Do it right and asking for a light can be alluring, very Bogart and Bacall. Do it wrong and it’s still better than lighting your hair on fire.
On those long train rides around Europe, I had plenty of time to ponder, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I’d taken my vision for granted over the past nineteen years. I’d wasted a ton of precious time looking at the same faces, the same street signs, the same insides of the same rooms. Everything would change now that I had to cram a lifetime of sights into the next decade or so. I needed to accumulate images.
In order to see more, I’d have to do more. And in order to do more, I’d have to become someone different. Now that my eyes had been given an expiration date, there wasn’t time to waste being a dishwater blonde with a good head on her shoulders.
I’d always been so cautious, sensible. “Better safe than sorry” was my family’s motto and the phrase I’d heard more than any other growing up was, “Be careful!” My mother and grandmother repeated it with a cult-like persistence, pairing it so frequently with “I love you,” that to this day I find it hard to divide the two. Being careful all the time ruled out not just recklessness and spontaneity but to a large extent, frivolity. Thus, my mother’s idea of a good time was eliminating redundancies in the cereal shelf (“Why, WHY do we have two half-eaten boxes of Corn Flakes? Let’s just consolidate them!”).
All of my father’s hobbies fell under the category of “things I’d pay other people to do,” stuff like re-tiling the bathroom and washing the mop. Letting loose in our house meant pouring yourself a cup of OJ straight, not cut with water. When we went on vacation, my parents planned and attacked our leisure with such intensity that it was almost indistinguishable from work; we always beat the crowds to the beach, always pre-plotted our route through Great Adventure, never went to a restaurant that wasn’t researched beforehand. And I’d always done the same. But not anymore.
Now I’d live boldly, like there was no tomorrow. On the plane ride from New York to Rome, I’d spent hours composing a big, sprawling bucket list, enumerating the many things I wanted to see before Lights-Out. Top on the list was The Eyes of My Children, but that was one which would to have to wait. Below that were a slew of travel destinations, many of which I reached that August — the canals of Venice, the Champs-Elysee, the royal palace of Vienna — and many farther-flung. Then too, there were plenty of items, each one more impossible than the last, which weren’t so much things to see as ways to be, such as: Always Stop To Look at Sparkles in the Sidewalk and Sleep Only When Strictly Necessary and Read Absolutely Everything.
Sticking your nose in a book might seem like the very opposite of grabbing life by the balls but reading had always been one of my great loves, and it was one of the things I was most terrified to lose. Sure, there were always audio books but the holy communion of bringing your eyes to paper and sweeping them across the page, left to right, left to right, left to right, the rhythm of that dance, the quiet of it, the sound of the page turning, the look of crinkled covers stained with the coffee you were drinking when you read that chapter that changed your life — you didn’t get any of that when listening to an audiobook, and I wanted as much of that as I could get, while I still could.
I didn’t quite manage to read absolutely everything that August, but I did read absolutely all of Anna Karenina. And like magic, the reading of that book gave rise to real-life adventures. In particular, romances.
I was sitting on a bench next to a streetlamp in Rome’s Piazza Navona one evening, reading the chapter where Vronsky follows Anna to St. Petersburg, when I heard a man’s voice next to me.
“Oh, that’s a good one.” The voice spoke in flawless English, with just enough of an Italian accent to be alluring.
I looked up and saw a thin, olive-complected man who seemed to be in his late twenties standing over me. It was nighttime so I couldn’t quite make out the color of his eyes but they were dark, like his lashes and his hair, cropped short. In his clean, unwrinkled guayabera, with the Fontana del Quattro Fiumi behind him, he looked like he was on a photo shoot for a spread in Italian Vogue.
“Are you a lover of Tolstoy?” I said in what I hoped was flawless Italian, with just enough of an American accent to be alluring.
An hour later, we were sitting at a two-top at Bar della Pace, drinking vino rosso and discussing Russian novelists. The tall, dark stranger, Benedetto, doctor of philosophy in the field of medical bioengineering, hailed from a little town outside of Venice and was in Rome just for the night, taking care of some business related to his degree.
It occurred to me that I might have found the man not only of my dreams, but of my parents’ too. After he’d paid for our drinks, I waited for an invitation back to his hotel room (which I was pretty sure I’d decline since even handsome doctors of philosophy can be serial killers), but no invitation was issued. Instead he insisted on walking me to the door of the apartment where I was staying with Aunt Rita, Marisa and my cousins. In the cobblestoned alley in front of the building, he handed me a slip of paper with his cell phone number, urged me to call him in a few days and then pressed his lips to mine in a gentle, lingering kiss.
I succeeded in waiting two days before calling him, which I thought demonstrated pretty spectacular self-control. He was not just a gentleman, but an Italian gentleman, and those are the rarest breed. So when he invited me up North, to his hometown near Venice, it didn’t take much deliberation before I agreed.
“But you don’t even know who this guy is,” Marisa pointed out the night before I left, licking the panna off the top of her gelato. She was seventeen, two years younger than me, and even less accustomed to reckless abandon: “What if he’s a psycho who traps you over there and, you know, makes a coat out of your skin?”
I licked the last bit of nocciola out of my ice cream cone and took a bite: “I highly doubt it. I mean, he didn’t even try to lure me into his hotel room or anything.”
“Yeah but he probably doesn’t bring his torture equipment along when he travels,“ she reasoned, “So that doesn’t prove anything.”
This was a fair point. But had I or had I not just been diagnosed with an incurable disease that would soon leave me blind? Had I or had I not resolved to carpe fucking diem? Wasn’t “Find Great Romance” one of the items of my newly-composed bucket list? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“Well, I’ll give you his number and address,” I told my sister, popping the last bite of cone into my mouth: “And if you don’t hear from me by midnight tomorrow, call the police and explain everything.”
Benedetto did not have a dungeon in the basement of his house. He did not, in fact, have a house at all, or even an apartment, just an attic bedroom in his parents’ place. His mamma washed and ironed his laundry and cooked dinner for him every night, including the night I came to visit. I sat at the kitchen table eating spaghetti alle vongole while his parents talked to him about me in Italian. Which I spoke, fluently.
“You, with the American girls,” his mother lamented, “You can’t find a decent Italian?”
“Look, I know what these foreign girls are offering you, and yes, a man should enjoy himself while he’s young,” his father chimed in, “While he still can.”
“Oh-eh!” his mother chastised, “Watch your mouth!
“But your mother’s right, enough is enough!” his dad hastened to add, “Stop fucking around! Get your life together! Find a wife, not an American piece of ass!”
That night, in his bedroom (where I noted a glaring absence of Russian novels on the bookshelf), he put on a crappy pop album which had been wildly popular in the States the summer before and acted about as gentlemanly as a sailor on shore leave. It’s not that I hadn’t been looking forward to seduction, I’d just been looking forward to it being done well. His English, which had been impeccable when he was fabricating enthusiasm for Tolstoy, was not quite as fluent in the bedroom. Dirty talk, like cursing, is hard to do well when it’s not in your lingua franca.
“Shit and balls!” he whispered, “You’re a porn star!”
I was supposed to stay through Monday but when I woke Saturday, I told Benedetto my sister needed me back in Rome and I’d have to leave immediately. He dropped me off at the train station in Venice and after I saw him pull away on his Vespa, I headed in the direction of Piazza San Marco.
I spent a long, lovely day in the city I’d so longed to see, genuflecting before flickering candles in the Basilica, wandering down the labyrinthine alleyways, pausing to sigh on the Ponte di Sospiri.
That evening, on the five-hour train ride back to Rome, I read Anna Karenina until my eyes ached. When I heard the conductor announce the end of the line approaching, I looked up from the book, disoriented, like I’d woken from a dream. It took me a minute to remember where I was and where I’d been, and then, I was happy, satisfied that my life was as full of adventure as the great novel I’d been reading. Yes, the last chapter, with my Italian beau, had been a bit disappointing, but it’d been memorable nonetheless and it had brought me to Venice, the city I’d always dreamed of seeing. My story was changing; no longer a maudlin tear-jerker about a girl gone blind, but a broader narrative of youth and adventure which was only just beginning.