Closet Case

Tomorrow is a workday. Because I want an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning, I must select my professional attire tonight. I move to the closet and begin running my hand along the higher of the two clothing rods inside.

My narrow closet is arranged in a very particular way. From left to right, clothes are sorted by category. Formal dresses are on the left, followed by semi-formal dresses, career dresses, and sundresses. Next come blouses; button-down collared shirts are first, arranged by sleeve length. To the right of the work shirts come cardigans, which are sorted by sleeve length and color family. The cardigans are followed by dressier blouses – paisley, silky, lacy, ruffly – which are also arranged by sleeve length, but these move from sleeveless to long-sleeved. Last on the upper rod are heavy winter coats. On the bottom rod, lower to the ground, hang my dress pants, blazers, skirts, and spare hangers. These categories are all sorted by color, with the darkest on the left and the lightest on the right.

On the days when I teach, I gravitate toward the dress pants and button-down shirts. I am regularly mistaken for a student, so I strive for a certain formality in my teaching attire. I sweep my hair into a tight bun, choose blouses with stiff collars and cuffs, and try not to smile. However, I’m only tutoring tomorrow, so I can dress down a bit.

I select a plain black dress with short sleeves. Because the front of the dress has a dramatic V neckline, I choose a red camisole to wear underneath. (Camis are kept in a separate drawer, also arranged by color.) I will choose shoes and jewelry in the morning. I have to leave some decisions to the fancy of the moment. Picking out accessories will be a breeze, though, because my shoes and jewelry – even the flowers for my hair – are sorted by color and style.

I talk a lot about color, but I can’t actually identify it. I can distinguish many shades, so I’m sure I can see color. But I cannot spontaneously name it. If you hand me a red balloon, I will guess that it’s red – red has always been the easiest for me to see – but I don’t know for sure. Though I can’t identify colors by name, I continue to enjoy the same colors. I know I like reds, purples, and greens, and I especially like bold, bright colors. I detest pastels and what I call “sherbet colors” – those bright shades that emerge with summer fashions.

When I go shopping, my companion will draw my attention to an article of clothing. “Look at this,” Mom or a friend will say. “Isn’t it pretty?” I will take a look, decide whether I like the item, and ask, “What color is it?” Most of the time, my friends and family can agree on the color name for a particular object. When they disagree, I find myself in a fashion pickle. From friends and experience, I’ve learned which colors “go” together, so, when my informants disagree on the name of a particular shade of pink, I will have a hard time planning an outfit around it.

I’ve memorized the colors of most items in my closet. I know that the sleeveless silk blouse with the ruffles down the front is a pale yellow. I know that my favorite winter coat is deep purple. This memorization technique works especially well when I only have one of a particular item. When I have several shirts, dresses, or pants in the same style, remembering the color of each is challenging. It’s also challenging for me to remember the colors in multicolored items, which is why I tend to avoid multicolored jewelry. A few bright paisley blouses hang in my closet, so I learn whether these pair best with black or brown pants and wear silver jewelry with all of them.

For me, the most daunting feature of fashion is not choosing the attire – it’s asserting my preference. Often, people assume that my limited vision eliminates my ability to prefer and the validity of such preferences. Therefore, I should be treated like a life-size Barbie and dressed in the clothing that the sighted folks around me like best. Here, I have to gently and not-so-gently remind others that I don’t resemble Barbie in any way. Unless Barbie develops a love of cupcakes, loses a few inches in height, and changes her hair color, we aren’t going to be twins.

The fashion interference from others comes in the form of unsolicited advice and opinions. I’ll emerge, dressed and ready to go, and a friend or relative will say, “Hmm, I wouldn’t pair that cardigan with that skirt.” Strangers, and especially sales assistants, offer advice as well. On a summer’s day last year, I was trying on a new pair of boots – black leather boots with a 3-inch heel – and, as I walked around the small store to see how they fit, the saleswoman said, “They look great. But I wouldn’t pair them with that sundress.”

“Who would?” I immediately thought, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The dress was sleeveless, with three different shades of blue-green. To the woman, I said, “I wasn’t planning on it.” But of course, this didn’t sound like my insight. To her, I was simply parroting back the fashion wisdom she had chosen to impart.

Other times, people express their surprise that I can dress myself. A fellow student once exclaimed, “You’re blind? You dress so well!” inserting a foot in her mouth with the ease of an Olympic gymnast. The assumption here is that my blindness prohibits me from doing essential things: choosing clothing suitable for the occasion and actually putting it on. Because of my vision, I should not, in theory, be able to select clothing that matches. Clearly, someone had to dress me.

I make no false promises about my own abilities. I know that I cannot identify color and that stains are particularly hard for me to see. However, the line between the courteous assistance I need and the overbearing or patronizing advice I don’t need often blurs. People ignore this line when they start adjusting my crooked collar or brushing lint off my shirt without asking. Yes, it’s permissible for a mother to lick her finger and wipe something off your face, but it’s not acceptable for others to start adjusting me as though I’m a rumpled toddler ruining the holiday pictures.

Because I don’t like to introduce pet peeves without offering pleasing alternatives, I will say that some people help me through my wardrobe malfunctions with aplomb. Someone who says, “Um, you’ve got something on your right shoulder,” and then directs me to the spot is definitely doing the right thing in my book. Also acceptable are those who say, “Hey, your collar is crooked. Would you mind if I fixed it?” In most cases, I will happily let people assist me because they asked first. I am not an adult in denial, shouting, “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” I know when I need the assistance. Neither am I a child who cannot say what I like and what I need. A person who verbalizes a request or offer of help – who asks before doing – is someone worth having around.

Simply put, I want credit for dressing myself. Perhaps it’s childish to demand this recognition, but, as I advance into my career, I want my competence to be acknowledged. I want others to know that I am well aware of the clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and accessories I wear. Yes, I do my own hair and makeup. No, I don’t have a lady’s maid to fasten all my hooks and buttons. My limited vision is not an open invitation for others to criticize my fashion sense.

For those who don’t understand the irritation caused by unwanted and constant criticism, I will just have to find something of theirs to pick on.

Chatting with Charlie

My friend Charlie (whose name has been changed for the purpose of this blog) is a master of uncommon courtesies. When we spend time together, I find myself startled by his thoughtful attentions. Often he asks questions—or offers theories—that show how deeply he is considering my experience of the world, my perspective.

Today, as we walk around his car and across the parking lot of a local Jacksonville restaurant, he remarks, “I bet this surface is difficult with your cane; it’s so uneven!’

With surprise, I reply, “Yes, my cane gets caught in these little cracks and behind these bumps, especially on cold days.”

“That would make an interesting blog,” he says, opening the restaurant’s door with his left hand. I step behind him and catch the door with my left arm. “All the surfaces that cause you trouble.”

We order our food, and the cashier places our drink cups on the counter. Taking them, Charlie says, “I’ve got your cup.” Offering me his arm, he guides me to the soda fountain. “Ice?” he asks, and I nod. “How much?”

“Just a little.”

I hear him position my cup underneath the ice dispenser. After a few seconds of noise, Charlie asks, “Do you want to hold the cup and make sure it’s the right amount?”

I take the cup from him and weigh it in my hand. The amount of ice is ideal, so Charlie fills my cup with water—(Just try to get the drink you want when you can’t read the little signs above each button)—and we find a booth. As usual, I sit with my back to the window to avoid staring into the glare.

Charlie places my cup in front of me, explaining, “Your cup is in front of your seat. Your straw is on the table to the right of the cup; it still has the paper on. Your napkins are to the left of the cup.”

I thank him enthusiastically. “When someone leaves the paper over the tip of the straw without telling me, I end up with a mouthful of soggy straw wrapper.” He laughs, and I remember, but do not mention, my habit of running a finger around the rim of a cup to find the straw. When the cup has a lid, I run a finger along the straw to check whether it still has its wrapper.

Our pagers vibrate, and Charlie gets the food, placing my plate in front of me. He offers me ketchup, which I refuse. Over his hamburger and my portabello sandwich, we begin to discuss the downside of self-deprecating humor—when you laugh at yourself just to get others to laugh with you.

“I often make fun of myself,” I tell him. “To make people more comfortable. When I can sense that someone feels awkward around me, I think laughter helps.”

He agrees, sipping his drink. “But it can go too far—it can become all you’re known for.”

“Yes, when you believe that the only way others will accept you is through making fun of yourself. It feels juvenile after a while.”

“Hey,” he says decisively.  “That’s another blog topic.”

“You’re a goldmine!”

I finish the last bite of my portabello and drink some water.

“You have something in your teeth,” Charlie announces calmly. “Swish around.”

I obey, sipping more water. “Is it gone?”

“Yes.” He hesitates, then continues, “Sorry if that’s weird…but I’d like to know if I had something in my teeth.”

“Unfortunately I can’t return the courtesy.”

On the topic of unsolicited advice, I tell Charlie about all the unwelcome “assistance” I receive, especially from random strangers. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be a blind woman, because women are taught to market their physical, visual appeal. I get a lot of ‘help’ from people who think that I have no understanding of color or style because I’m visually-impaired.”

He asks for examples.

Well there’s the time I asked a sales assistant to tell me the color of some earrings, and she said they were “grapefruit.” (They later turned out to be a dark purple.) Then, without any prompting from me, she declared reprovingly, “I wouldn’t wear them with that top you’ve got on.” Oddly enough, the earrings weren’t for me; they were a gift.

Or the time I asked a cashier for a reusable fabric shopping bag and she started to ask which color I preferred. At the word “color,” she cut herself off, presumably realizing that blind people don’t have color preferences. Holding up a bag without describing it, she changed “color,” mid-word, to, “Is this one OK?” Irked by her awkwardness, I wanted to shrug off my eggplant-colored wool swing coat—slowly, button by button; to show her my caramel-colored turtleneck and dark jeans; to hoist a leg up on the counter and display my shoe, a latte-colored closed-toe wedge with a delicate silver buckle; to reach up and tweak one of my earrings, a creation of brown and amber beads that Katie made. I did none of this. Mindful of the long line behind me, I said, “Yes that’s fine.”

Charlie laughs at these vignettes. “Do you understand color?”

“Not in a practical sense,” I confess. “I understand colors in theory. I can’t identify them visually. But I’m drawn to the same colors over and over—reds, dark purple, forest green. Anything but pastels.”

I tell Charlie about the various times people have asked me how I do my hair, because I often wear it in a low bun. Sometimes I say that my lady’s maid does it. Other times, I innocently ask, “Can you see the back of your own head?”

“But you gotta understand,” Charlie intones reverently. “They do that stuff with mirrors. No, they can’t see the back of their own heads; they use mirrors to see that stuff.”

“Why go to all that trouble? Just do it by feel! It’s so much easier.”

“For you.” He piles used napkins on our dirty plates.

I pull on my black cardigan and slide out of the booth. “Want to get coffee?”

“Sure.” He offers me his arm, and we walk to the car.

“I hope my cheerleader isn’t working today.”

“The one who thinks you’re Superwoman? If she is, I’ll just be really horrible to you,” he promises. “I’ll call you incompetent and shout, ‘Can’t you do ANYTHING?’ Then she’ll come running around the counter—”

“—On fire with righteous anger. She’ll chase you out of the store.”

“I’ll never be allowed back again.”

“And I’ll have to find a new coffee companion.”