By Joe Nazare
Bridging up on one forearm, Mark craned his neck toward his bedmate. The gain in proximity brought him no closer to comprehension.
He couldn’t say he hadn’t counted on an arresting display. When the heartburn stoked by the two after-work slices grabbed at Ray’s Pizza stole sleep from him tonight, Mark had turned to one of his favorite pastimes. He loved to watch Kelli when slumber had stripped her of self-consciousness, exposing a portrait of placid beauty. Eight months into their marriage, Mark continued to find the sight of his wife sleeping something to marvel at and cherish.
Something worlds apart from what he presently witnessed.
As Kelli lay on her left side facing him, hands wedged between cheek and pillow in cherubic pose, her restfulness was belied by the awful agitation of her right eye. A violent storm seemed to seethe behind the closed lid, which fluttered and twitched and…bulged. Periodically the lid grew taut around the swelling convexity, as if her eye were an over-inflated balloon ready to burst.
“Kell?” he called out again, more croak than whisper this time. She slept on, oblivious.
Never in his life—and certainly never in his nights of doting—had he encountered anything like this. Yes, there was that time years ago when he’d strained his own eye muscles, after taking to a tanning bed in anticipation of the beach season. He must’ve been squeezing down too hard on those teensy plastic blinders the salon gave you to wear, he realized the following afternoon when his eye started wigging out during his Intro to Accounting final. Damned if he hadn’t almost bombed the exam because of the distracting quiver of his left eyelid. It twittered like the wing of a hyperactive hummingbird and had pinched tears of frustration and embarrassment by the time he turned in his Scantron sheet and sprinted back to his dorm. Where he hid for the next sixteen hours until the optical theatrics played out and his fears of freakish disability settled.
He never forgot that long, troubled day, and the way his eye repulsed him as he studied its turbulence in the bathroom mirror. All those spasms, though, were like the graceful strophes of a classical dance compared to the current unruliness of Kelli’s organ.
Lying there, Mark tried to convince himself that what he saw was mere shadowplay. They lived on the fourth floor of a Hoboken brownstone that turned its back to the ambient glow of the Manhattan skyline, and very little light strayed in from the quiet backstreet below their window. Maybe the moonless night was just sporting with him, mocking his insomnia. He attempted to prove the theory via a series of pronounced blinks, but only ended up sharpening his vision of an eye still stirring wildly.
Should he wake her? he wondered. For the most part, she appeared to be enjoying a sound sleep, free of any tossing, moaning, or muttering. No pleasant dream, though, could be causing such capering behind her eyelid, and he hated the thought of his bride troubled, even by something surreal.
Mark leaned in to shake Kelli, then snatched his hand back mid-reach as if scalded.
He had to be seeing things. As he’d moved toward her, the eye’s shudder appeared to intensify. When he recoiled, the vibration abated. Mark couldn’t help but think of the ominous shimmy of a rattler’s tail.
He ventured no second approach. When his foully-brewing dinner spurted hot sourness up into his throat, he lost the stomach for any further vigilance. He rolled over and kept his eyes pressed shut until sleep eventually tracked him down.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Kelli greeted him as he bustled into the kitchen yanking his tie-knot into place at his collar. Still in her purple flannel pajamas, she sat at the small wooden table familiarly hunched over the pile of manuscript pages stacked next to her breakfast plate. As always, she’d started the coffeemaker for him. He pecked a kiss atop her head as he squeezed past her to pour himself a cup.
“Morning.” Mark studied his editorially-focused spouse while emptying a sugar packet into his coffee, and ended up spilling half the granules outside the mug. A frown tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched Kelli take a slow bite of her breakfast. On many a morning he’d joked with her about the perils of her healthy diet—about innocent bystanders needing to wear safety goggles while she ate her pink grapefruit. Because more often than not, the plunge of her snaggletoothed spoon unleashed an acidic spray, an all-natural version of the squirting-flower gag.
This morning, though, the thought of a burning, twitching eyeball only sparked Mark’s memory of the unrest glimpsed overnight.
He took a tenuous sip from his smoke-billowing mug. “Hey, Kell: you sleep okay last night?”
She looked up at him and then nodded at the printout in front of her. “Please, after slaving at the computer all day to get this done, I slept like the dead. Why?”
“You musta been having a doozy of a dream. Your eye was dancing all over the place. It was pretty…wild.” He’d almost said “crazy,” but caught himself in time, remembering Kelli’s Aunt Maura, who’d spent the final, inglorious years of her life institutionalized at Greystone.
“Hmmm.” Kelli nibbled her bottom lip as her gaze strayed off in reflection. “I can’t remember dreaming about anything.” She turned back to Mark. “But you should’ve just nudged me if I was bothering you.”
“No, no, you weren’t even making any noise,” he assured her. “And I thought, um, you know, it might not be a good thing to wake a person’s who dreaming.”
“That’s only for sleepwalkers, silly.”
“Oh. Right,” he said, trying his hardest to keep his focus on Kelli’s entire face, not just the eye in question.
“Hey, wait a minute. If I didn’t disturb you, how were you able to take this all in?” Smirking, Kelli affected a sidelong glance. “Were you watching me sleep again, Monsieur Voyeur?”
Mark sensed the hint of disapproval lurking beneath Kelli’s teasing inquiry. Her reactions in the past had suggested that she wasn’t thrilled by such confessed watchfulness. Mark quickly searched his repertoire of responses, selecting flattery. “Well, who could blame me for relishing my sweet little kellybean?”
Kelli mimed gagging on her grapefruit spoon. “Listen to you. You should forget the sugar and just whisper to your coffee.”
“Ha ha.” He was happy, though, to have navigated the moment. Better now to just drop the subject. Besides, Kelli’s eye looked fine this morning. “So what’s on today’s agenda?” he prompted.
“I have to head over to campus this afternoon to meet with Professor Weiss.”
“Ah, the dreaded powwow with the dissertation advisor.” But the prospect was a pleasant one for Mark, since it meant his wife would be dressing up today. Kelli, with her modishly trimmed red hair, wearing one of her power suits–the image easily stoked Agent Scully fantasies. Already Mark couldn’t wait to set eyes on her tonight.
“I’m a little nervous about what he’ll have to say about this last chapter,” she admitted. “The analysis of Ringu drives home my whole argument.” Kelli’s dissertation—the final requirement before earning her Ph.D. from NYU’s Cinema Studies program—was titled “Experiencing Technical Difficulties: The Machinery of Japanese Horror Films.” As she’d explained to Mark when they first met, “machinery” was a bit of wordplay that referenced the staging of supernatural effects in old-time English drama. Kelli’s analysis focused on how the demonic agents in present-day J-horror flicks frequently worked in scary conjunction with gadgets like VCR tapes, cell phones, and surveillance cameras, forming a “commentary on burgeoning postmodern technophobia.” Even if he didn’t quite grasp all the academic rhetoric, Mark loved to watch that special twinkle in Kelli’s sapphire irises whenever she explained her theories. No doubt it was brilliant work, certainly more interesting than juggling numbers at H&R Block.
Speaking of which. Mark took a last sip of decaf, dumped the rest in the sink. “I better get going. And don’t worry, honey: your stuff is gonna knock Weiss’s argyles off.”
“Thanks.” She rose to intercept his exit. Her goodbye kiss smacked of citrus. “Have a good day at work.”
Mark patted his pants pockets, verifying the presence of keys and wallet, then pulled open the door that led from their kitchen into the building’s hallway. “See you tonight. Love you.”
And he was off.
The impending end of tax season kept Mark swamped with work all day, so he forgot all about Kelli’s ocular quirks—at least until they recurred that night.
He happened to wake while rolling over, and found the eye restless once more. Kelli lay sleeping on her back, so the right eye was farthest from him, but he could still detect the stirring within the socket’s tar pit of shadow. Even as he stared squinting, Mark felt himself inching back towards his edge of the bed.
Back at the office again the next day, he spent most of the morning Googling. His searches confirmed what he already suspected: Kelli’s eye movement went well beyond the symptoms of REM sleep.
That night, Wednesday, he waited for Kelli to fall asleep and then kept lookout alongside her. In the midst of his vigil, he felt a sadness pang through him, trailed by shame. This was the face he always stared adoringly at, loving the dusting of freckles across the cheeks and nose, the slight Elvis-curl of her upper lip as she slept. The face that had held him enthralled when he first spotted it in the bar on River Street nearly two years ago. He must have stood staring a good twenty minutes that night before finally approaching her, not due to shyness but to the sheer captivation by her beauty. And now look at him—waiting drymouthed for the onset of some nasty tic.
But like the proverbial watched pot, the eye never reached its boiling point. Into the wee hours he waited, yet spotted nothing. In the shaving mirror the next morning, though, he did notice how his own eyes had grown bloodshot and baggy.
He buoyed his weariness with the hope that the nightly turmoil had run its course. But it returned with a vengeance on Thursday, as if the inside of Kelli’s eyelid formed the backdrop for a wildly churning kaleidoscope.
Mark grew more frustrated than disturbed. There seemed no rhyme or reason to when the eye became volatile. Why one night and not another? And never in the daytime, during which Kelli appeared perfectly normal. He was afraid to even bring the subject up again to her. From time to time she would catch him staring, and he’d quickly avert his gaze, cognizant of the perturbed look growing ever clearer on her face. Her brows would slope inward like pinball flippers, as her eyes slit with mounting suspicion. Mark figured that he had better learn to be more circumspect in his vigilance.
So that’s just what he did. When he woke overnight on Friday, he was not surprised to join the show already in progress. The agitation seemed worse than ever. Watching it, Mark wondered if a large part of the eeriness stemmed from the fact that it was only the one eye that acted up. As if that singular orb had declared secession from the body politic. He imagined the eyeball making complete revolutions within the socket, like some classroom globe spinning on its axis.
Fighting back queasiness, Mark reached over and seized the object he’d stationed on the nightstand. Flipped it open, pushed the appropriate arrow buttons. His phone had a recording function, was capable of procuring up to sixty seconds of video. More than enough.
It wasn’t just that he wanted to gather incontrovertible proof to confront Kelli with. He felt that he himself might benefit from viewing during the light of day, when things seemed safer. Saner. He activated the recording mode and turned and leaned in toward Kelli, positioning the cameraphone.
Which now framed the widened whiteness of an eye staring openly at him.
Their mutual yelps collided, sent them both scurrying to either side of the bed.
“Jesuschrist. What’re you doing?” Kelli demanded. Then the sight of the phone in Mark’s hand seemed to slip past her stunned incomprehension. “Were you trying to film me?”
“No!” he automatically denied. Kelli had made it crystal clear early on in their relationship that she wasn’t into boudoir auteurism. “Well, yeah, but it’s not what it looks like. I was trying to…um, it’s your eye.”
She snorted her impatience. “Again with this?”
“Honey, I think it’s getting worse. Maybe you should have it checked out.” He quickly added, “I can schedule you an appointment with the company doctor if you don’t want to bother with those hacks over at University Health Services. Fiedler is very–”
“Stop! Can’t you understand that I don’t have time for this nonsense?”
There was no denying that she had plenty on her plate: a dissertation that needed to be completed and defended in time for a May graduation. The looming post-grad search for degree-related employment, to replace the terminated fellowship. But none of that would matter if any health issues got in the way. “Listen,” he said, “I’m just worried about you, is all.”
“I’m fine.” She lay brooding for a few beats, then pinioned him with her glare. “So this is why I’ve been catching you staring at me all week? Well, it has to stop right now, because you’re really starting to freak me out.”
Hey, I’m not the one with the creepy peeper, he was tempted to tell her but had the sense to censor himself.
But she carried on as if he’d actually voiced the words. “You know, I’m really sorry my eye is so bothersome to you. I’m sorry that you find me so repulsive.”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic,” he shot back, his own frustration flaring into anger. Why couldn’t she just trust that his concerns were genuine?
“I’m sorry,” raising her voice over his, “that my sleep is so…grimly fascinating…that it’s keeping you up.”
“That’s not true.”
“But I promise you, you won’t have to be disturbed again tonight by the sight of my crazy eye.”
She proved quite prophetic about that. In fact, from his new vantage point on the living room sofa, Mark couldn’t glimpse any part of Kelli at all.
For the next day and a half, they avoided and ignored each other, mute as cloistered monks. On Sunday afternoon, though, it took only one gesture—Kelli coming to him asking if he would please work out the bad kink in her shoulder—to thaw the freeze-out. Hardly had the massage started when they found themselves in each other’s arms, readily yielding to hormone and habit.
Apologies went unmuttered, unsought. All tangled limbs, they stumbled into the bedroom, kissing the whole way. With teenage zeal they stripped each other and fell onto the bed. They rolled right into missionary position, and Mark felt something like a sense of homecoming wash through him as he glided inside his wife. They were whole again.
Their bodies rocked the dormant bedsprings into a rhythmic squeal. Mark focused on the glorious feedback loop of his thrusts and Kelli’s moans. He redoubled his efforts when he felt himself on the brink, since Kelli was already giving all the telltale signs. Her back arched, her hands left his shoulders and gripped the bedspread, her eyes that all the while had been locked onto his now closed to welcome the surging, engulfing climax…
That never came. Mark stopped, instantly and utterly stalled by the horrid image. And image it only was, since Kelli’s shut right eye showed nothing irregular whatsoever. But all Mark could envision was the damned thing suddenly acting up, rippling in sync with Kelli’s orgasm.
The thought sluiced the blood from his erection, evaporated the passion that had built up in the room in the preceding minutes. Mark withdrew and flopped over on his side of the bed.
Kelli’s eyes meantime widened in confusion. “Honey, what happened?”
“I dunno,” he lied, too distraught to care if he even sounded convincing.
“Oh,” was all she offered in return. With that they settled into awkward silence and lay staring at the ceiling until finally Kelli announced that she was going to take a bath. She kept her back to him as she rose and slipped into her silk robe.
The instant he heard the bathroom door close behind her, Mark growled and thudded his fist against the mattress. Christ, he needed to get a grip. His fixation had grown to the point where now he was anticipating craziness, even in daytime. Their relationship was going to spiral out of control worse than that wretched eye itself if he didn’t find some solution. And asking Kelli to humor him by donning a pirate’s patch didn’t seem a likely option.
He really had no idea what to do. It might help if he had the slightest clue what he was dealing with. This went way beyond the effects of tanning-salon eyecaps, that much he knew.
What, How, Why Now—the questions buzzed around his skull like angry insects. He cradled his head and began kneading his temples with the heels of his palms, as if he would massage himself into breakthrough. When none occurred, he decided he might as well get up and get dressed.
But mid-roll, he caught glimpse of it and was struck static as a Medusa admirer. Mark wasn’t the type to believe in signs from higher powers, and didn’t care if this just represented simple physics. The important thing was the key that the sight began turning in his poor, padlocked brain.
The late afternoon sunlight slanted through the bedroom window at just the right angle to grab his attention. A corona shone on the blank pewter screen of the TV perched on the dresser bureau at the far end of the room. The ring of fire reflected on the convex surface formed an innocuous image in and of itself, but Mark recalled one just like it. Hell, the DVD case had sat like some misshapen coaster on the living room coffee table for the past month.
From time to time, Mark would watch the J-horror movies with his wife. They were a bit much for his own tastes (which, as far as the fantastic was concerned, ran towards X-Files reruns), so inevitably he found himself turning towards Kelli. Watching her watching. Though she had screened these films umpteen times as part of her research, she always sat rapt as a newcomer. Hunched over on the sofa with her elbow balanced on her knee and her chin cradled in her palm. Searching for all the nuances that cinema studies professors must teach their students to look for.
Mark had even kidded her one time about sitting too close to the TV, wagging his finger and mimicking his grandmother’s voice of warning. In hindsight, though, maybe the problem wasn’t sitting too close but watching too hard.
Was it possible that such studious scrutiny had had a more pronounced effect than mere eyestrain? Mark dredged up a repugnant term, seizing on an unsettling notion: that Kelli had unwittingly rendered herself susceptible to the visual equivalent of an earworm.
He’d heard of people ultimately being driven insane by the endless reiteration of a song or ad slogan inside their head. Was that just urban legend? Would the same mechanism be even more debilitating if triggered by the stronger sense of sight?
The perplexing questions kept coming: was the actual content of the observed films inconsequential? Would Kelli’s symptoms have been the same if she had focused her dissertation on a kinder, gentler genre?
Helplessly, Mark imagined the nightmare images Kelli traded in clouding over her mind’s eye, steadily coalescing into some foul inner cataract. The thought of such things transpiring unseen even as he lay watching each night sent shivers of impotent fury raging within him.
No. No more could he just sit back and do nothing. The time for circumspection was over. He needed to take matters into his own hands.
Mark leapt to his feet, began gathering up his discarded clothes. Already his mind was racing. Calculating.
Tonight couldn’t come soon enough.
And so for Kelli it came a little sooner than expected.
Emerging at last from her long and presumably pleasing bath, she’d grunted appreciatively when she discovered Mark hard at work preparing a dinner of grilled salmon topped with mango salsa. She might have responded differently had she realized the true surprise he’d cooked up: two packets of Tylenol PM pestled into a fine powder and then mixed into her glass of Crystal Light.
Less than forty-five minutes following the meal, Kelli lay passed out on the sofa with the latest issue of Weird NJ blanketing her chest. Mark scooped her up and carried her into the bedroom, eager as a frat boy who’d slipped a coed a roofie. But after placing her atop the bed, he turned back around and exited. Let her sleep deepen…
His pacing conducted a creaking concerto from the floorboards. Finally he deemed the wait sufficient and reentered the dusky bedroom. Approaching Kelli, he noticed the numerical conjunction lit on the bedside alarm clock—7:13. Luck-unluck, counterbalanced, with a pair of eyes lying dotted in between. Well, time would tell soon enough which way his fortunes tilted.
Kelli had curled into her familiar sleep position on her left side, so Mark moved around to the empty side of the bed. He climbed aboard, kneeling next to Kelli and staring into her prominently displayed eye. At first he thought his planning, his waiting, had been in vain, but then he spotted the activity. Perhaps because of the drugs in her system, the movement was slow, peristaltic, as if some snail beneath the carpet of her lid dragged itself determinedly toward the center of her face.
Showtime. Mark swallowed, extended a trembling arm toward Kelli.
Steady! he ordered himself. Remember, this is the woman you love. Not some Poe story where her disfigured body ends up buried under the floor. So do this carefully.
Oh, such a gentleman, his chastising conscience chose just then to chime in. Why don’t you quit feigning nobility and fess up. Admit that this has always been more about you than her.
The grains of truth there pelted him with sandstorm force, leaving defiance as his only defense. So what if self-interest motivated him? Did that make him so awful? It wasn’t his fault the physical limits of perception kept even those closest to you mostly secreted from you. And Kelli had taken up so much space inside him when he gave his love to her, it was only natural for him to be curious about what resided in her heart’s deepest chamber. To wonder about her life before their meeting, and her life beneath the surface of their daily interactions. Was that high school ex-boyfriend who went on to quasi-fame as a porn star really the worst of her five acknowledged lovers? (“Figures he took the alias ‘Lance Longley,’” she’d groused when Mark pressed her for details. “He used to screw like he was jousting.”) Or, what was the deed in her life that Kelli was most ashamed of, the thing she could barely admit to herself, let alone anyone else? Most importantly, what did she really see in him when she looked upon him, the raw emotion before expression got filtered through civility and sensitivity? All answers he’d likely never glean, no matter how long they were wed.
So, yes, he couldn’t deny that he felt the recent turbulence of Kelli’s eye as a taunt, a manifestation of all that was withheld from him. Now, though, he would loosen that grip.
Mark didn’t know what to believe these days about all that window-to-the-soul business, but he was intent on peeking behind the shades.
He reached his left hand towards Kelli’s eye, and fought back a whimper as he pictured the lid collapsing like a rotten peach beneath his barest touch. Thankfully, it held firm as the three fingers bracketed by his thumb and pinky landed gently. Mark took a deep breath and then pushed up slowly on Kelli’s occulting eyelid.
Her entire body jolted in singular spasm, and Mark flinched, nauseous at the thought that he’d somehow speared her eyeball. But his fearful scan showed Kelli unscathed. What’d happened then? He held his hand up to his face, squinting at what now clung to the tip of his ring finger.
The thick round droplet lacked the glycerin slickness of tears. It was unbelievably hot, yet failed to scald. Most inexplicable of all, though, the feeling that he was looking at something, well, almost beautiful. This wasn’t some sallow glob of pus—more like a liquid jewel, something…opalescent (a word he hadn’t even realized he knew until just now).
Allure and underlying mystery: this meniscus could have been the quintessence of Kelli. And there it was at his literal fingertip, like a specimen mounted upon a microscope slide, poised to reward the scrupulous with eventual revelation.
As Mark stared awestruck, the strange substance began to shimmer, the way a raindrop would on the hood of an idling car. The oscillation intensified, and then, rather than simply drip, the droplet diverted in simultaneous sideways arcs. It seemed to channel off in the infinitesimally shallow aqueduct of his fingerprint before becoming lost to the naked eye.
Fortunately, the bed was right there to catch Mark’s dead faint.
He woke to Kelli looming over him, her hand cupping his shoulder.
Darkness swaddled the room, compounding Mark’s disorientation. Impatient for the onset of night vision, he strained to make out Kelli’s expression. He succeeded only in kickstarting a dully throbbing headache.
“Whassamatter?” he rasped. “Was I dreaming?” Had he cried out to her in his sleep?
“I’m so sorry,” Kelli blurted, making the muted apology sound as if it extended well beyond the waking of him.
Mark shifted atop the bed, suddenly more concerned than confused. He could feel the tremors working in Kelli’s fingers on his arm. “What is it, sweetheart?”
“I should’ve listened to you.” When I had the chance, seemed the tacit amendment. “About, you know.” She lifted her hand from him and pointed a rigid index towards her eye.
“Kell, it’s okay–”
“No, you were right. It’s so…horrible.”
As Kelli stood fingering blame at herself, Mark began to recall his desperate experiment from earlier that evening. Drugging his wife at dinner like some amateur mad scientist. Prying her eye open like the most egregious Peeping Tom. While the exact outcome of such outrage eluded him for the moment, he intuited that it had been anything but a satisfactory development. Apparently not for Kelli either; the dosage must’ve somehow had a reverse effect, jostling her prematurely conscious. Mark envisioned her stumbling woozily to go splash water on her face, then making an unnerving discovery in the bathroom mirror.
“Look, if anyone should be sorry, it’s me. I—”
“Don’t,” she cut him off. “Please. It doesn’t matter now.” Grim resignation, rather than disregard, laced her last words.
Instinctively, he wanted to hug her, assure her that she didn’t have to carry on like this. They would schedule an appointment with Dr. Fiedler, get whatever help she needed. Anything for the woman he loved.
Following his heart, his hand reached out to her. It froze midair. Kelli’s blurred features sharpened as he lifted toward her, and Mark groaned his dismay upon realizing it wasn’t simply self-loathing she battled.
Her face disfigured by a terrible grimace, Kelli raised her far arm. The serrated lip of the upheld spoon winked in the ruby glint of the alarm clock’s digital readout. In that awful instant, Mark finally understood; here at last he saw everything clearly.
And then nothing ever again.