from Cockeyed by Ryan Knighton

People ask me what I hate most about blindness. A good answer would be blindness. I hate blindness about blindness, but that’s usually not what folks are after. Pick something, they say, something specific. Pushed to choose one big-time irritant, I’ll go on the permanent record with public washrooms. They’re a consistent disaster. On a good day, the public john for John Q. Public only proves, once and for all, hell is made of porcelain.

Let’s say I’ve got a kindly waitress on my arm, one who’s willing to take the long march with me. I know I should be relieved for the guiding hand, and I am, yet my gratitude is smothered by how excruciating it is, at the age of 33, to have someone take me to the can. Maybe at seventy or eighty I could accept this fact of late life. We all hope the golden years will soften our pride, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, it’s downright impossible to look and feel okay when, beyond the age of four, you must ask for help with a potty trip.

But asking for help isn’t what I worry about most these days. Getting through the door alone, that’s the real pressure point. The drama of approaching the men’s room with a waitress on my arm is somewhat like a first date. At the door, we’re faced with the awkward problem of how to say goodbye, or whether we will. While I’m thanking her for help, we’ll both wonder if we’ll shake hands and call it a night, no invitations inside this evening. Or, she will worry aloud, “Do you need me to follow you?” Or I will worry she’s worried about this, and so on and so forth goes the neurotic ping-pong.

My anxiety is justified. I’ve learned there’s no underestimating the verve with which some people will play Good Samaritan to the disabled. Even though I insist I don’t need a hand beyond the door, sometimes this is mistaken for shyness or a silly desire not to be an imposition, particularly an imposition on a stranger who makes eight bucks an hour delivering burgers to tables, not blind men to urinals.

It’s no problem, really, I assure her. Just point me in the right direction, I say, and send me in the room, white cane swaying. If nobody’s in the men’s room, I’ll crash around and find the urinal myself. What I won’t mention is that the only danger in going it alone is determining if I’m in front of a urinal or between two of them. I could feel for the layout with my cane, but my cane doesn’t tell me if I’m connecting with the outside or inside edges. The best proof is in running a hand around whatever is in front of me. Just think about it.

I’m sorry to say, but that’s where I draw the line. Admit it, you wouldn’t run a hand around a urinal either. Standing in front of my best guess, I take my chances, and I’m sorry for the occasional misjudgement. You have to draw the line somewhere, preferably with a stick and not a finger.

Misjudgements remain a less humiliating prospect than the alternatives. Once a waiter dragged me by my arm through the door and into the washroom and swung me into an empty stall. “No need! No, there’s no need,” I pleaded, but he hauled me through the busy washroom with cheery assurances. I don’t know what I did to deserve such kindness. It’s hard to be snarky when someone is aiming for helpful. Yet, when he chirped, “Here you are. If you need anything else, I’ll just be waiting right outside the door,” who could possibly go?

When it comes to the men’s room, I realize I’m doomed to a lifetime in the Freudian twilight zone of toilet training and independence. Most of the time, all I wanted was directions.

Ryan Knighton teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at Cap. Shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock medal for humour, Cockeyed is a memoir about Knighton’s slow descent into blindness. A screen adaptation of the book is currently in development as a motion picture with Jodi Foster attached as director. Recently, two more of his screenplays, Rodeo in Joliet and 47 Rules for Highly Effective Bank Robbers, were optioned by Hollywood studios.

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