Theodor was hardly a man prone to cursing but had he been so inclined, right there and then, the other guests would have forgiven him for it. The handful of people watching would have excused, even expected, some kind of emotional outburst but what perplexed them now was the lack of any noteworthy reaction at all. Theodor just sat there, with coffee spilt all over him and more of it dripping from the edge of the table, seemingly indifferent. But what to their naked eyes appeared as a lack of reaction was in fact, in the mind of Theodor, anything but. There, a fierce battle raged between different emotions as the pain caused by hot coffee slowly was overcome by guilt as his conscious launched a counter-offensive. Suddenly this statue, sitting bent over itself so serene and distant, burst into life in one explosive movement. The gangly figure of Theodor got up and hurried to the door of the coffeeshop, pulling it open and continuing half running down the street. The whole time he kept looking over his shoulder, expecting someone to call out to him, or even to be pursued by the waitress or an angry mob of guests who would demand that he come back to clean up his mess.
Thankfully, with each step, this humiliating scenario seemed more distant. Regaining some of his composure, Theodor Honnigan looked up at the sullen sky and bared his teeth, inaudibly denouncing the powers that be.
A little further down the road, the skies roared at him in return. A coincidence, perhaps, or a divine acknowledgement. When the rain started pouring down over Theodor this Tuesday morning, he could not help but feel that the skies opened themselves to punish him for his repeated sins. Next, he experiences an irrational yet palpable guilt for the circumstances which his existence brought upon society as a whole. As if he personally was the target for this, and many previous, divine manifestations of power to his detriment. He understood why society would shun him the way it did, when others were forced to suffer so from the collateral damage of the punishments which, with varying accuracy, seemed aimed at him personally. As if in recognition of his thoughts, the rain intensified. Beginning to soak through, he sped up again towards the destination of this morning’s excursion.
In front of the optician, the same he had gone to for years, he stopped for a moment to regain his calm, even as the rain poured down. On opening the door, a bell announced his arrival and he was greeted by the stares of a thousand faceless eyes mounted on the walls. Between the rows of glasses, there were mirrors all around that gave the room a quality of infinitude. From different angles he saw his own reflections; those of a man humbled. He had the posture of a wilted flower and his chestnut coloured hair was a wet mess, although the rain had not managed to wash away the coffee stains on his trousers. Hearing footsteps approaching, Theo summoned strength to close the door behind him.
The optician entered the room through a pair of curtains and greeted him coldly, fumbling with a crumpled tissue in one hand. This was not the same lady who so pedagogically had helped him on previous occasions. This one was young, a few years younger than himself, and intimidatingly pretty. Her thick red glasses and matching crimson lipstick stood out perfectly against the blonde hair and white blouse. His eyes bounced from her face onto the floor as he mumbled a “Hello” to return her greeting. Then his cautious gaze advanced on the floor towards her feet which were clad in the black, shiny and pointed shoes of a confident woman. He took his glasses off to rub the moisture from them, feeling ridiculous in front of her all soaked in coffee and rain for which only he was to blame.
“And how may I help you today?” she asked in a voice implying she preferred not to.
In answer to her question, the glasses he’d been polishing came apart again, the rims now barely strung together by the transparent tape he’d wrapped around the nose bridge to keep the front from splitting in two.
“They broke” he mumbled, adding “I dropped them” without even bothering to infuse his voice with any kind of conviction. As she approached he gently placed the glasses in her outstretched hands. The nametag on her blouse declared her name was Vera.
“Yes, I know this model. We stopped selling it about a year ago. I don’t think they manufacture them anymore” she said, and with that, his heart sank to new depths. “We do have some models which are fairly similar though. Feel free to have a look around. Or is there any particular style or colour you’d prefer?” she continued in a habitual, almost mechanical, way.
She handed the glasses back and Theo wanted to shout out his frustration so loud the mirrors broke but contained himself as usual. He had not expected this at all. He would have to pick a new pair then, and that dilemma had not even crossed his mind before.
He had gotten used to this pair. They were familiar. One of few constants in an ever-changing and chaotic world. An integral part of how he saw himself, and how others saw him. Imagining his face adorned with another pair of spectacles was so close to impossible it was nauseating.
With a sigh, he turned to one of the shelves and picked up a pair at random, inspecting them.
“The men’s section is to your right” Vera said, crossing her arms. And of course they were! He had just by natural habit gravitated towards the worst possible choice again. He was bound to pick a ridiculous looking pair, male or not, and then spend years wearing them for all to see, until eventually he sat on them again. Theodor’s legs twitched. He wanted to run out of the store, like the way he had run out of the coffeeshop earlier, but he needed new glasses too badly. Continuing to wear his broken pair, patched up with tape, was simply not an option anymore. Dragging his feet over to the men’s section, he resigned himself to what felt like his inevitable fate of poor choices and subsequent judgement because of them. He rued the dark times ahead when he would again become the laughingstock of all.
His eyes climbed the walls, taking in the almost innumerable poor choices available to him, as Vera looked through the shop window with disinterest at people hurrying through the drizzle outside. Then, through one of the mirrors, he saw her take her glasses off to polish them. Preoccupied as she was, he ventured to inspect her further from his hidden vantage point. Without the heavy frames obscuring parts of her face he could see her more clearly now. Her cheeks seemed a bit flushed and her eyes a bit red. Remembering the tissue she had held before, the thought struck him that she might have been crying.
He turned to face her proper and thought she looked completely different now than from when he had first laid eyes on her. She was less intimidating without her glasses on. Just a normal girl, who might have been crying. As a matter of fact, she had definitely been crying. The trail of makeup down one of her cheeks left nothing to his doubt. Her look, acknowledging his scrutiny, was defensive, too. Timid, even. Then she put her glasses back on and reality snapped again. Something indescribable took place in those two instants and he did not see the transformation, only the contrast between the before and after state. Those thick frames were ones of confidence, and somehow, she’d regained it in his view as his eyes instinctively recoiled again.
But the other Vera must have missed a spot when she was polishing her glasses for she took them off once more and, now for the second time, a different girl stood before him. The seed planted in his mind began to grow, and suddenly the memories of this morning’s fiasco and, heck, the memories of his countless other fiascos, slowly faded. If the heavens really opened themselves up to Theo again that day, they bore a different message now. Once more, without her glasses on, she struck him as harmless, submissive even. As someone at his mercy, for once.
Vera held the lenses up to the light and inspected them, and he waited for the second transformation, heart beating at the thought of it. He studied her face and, when she put them on again, she once more absorbed a different persona. He saw it all this time and was struck back a couple of steps, wondering if this could be true.
His eyes walked all over her attire, stopping to inspect the details and accessories. From her shoes, to her trousers, to that white blouse she had chosen so carefully, for a reason which was beyond him. Then, looking her straight in the eyes, through those thick red frames, he began to understand.
Straightening his back and squaring his shoulders, he grew half a head taller. He was not as afraid of meeting her gaze, now that he knew who it belonged to, having witnessed her metamorphosis. Vera’s mind seemed to be galloping too and it was her turn to avert her eyes to break the tension.
Theodor went over to a mirror and observed himself, wet from the rain, with a pair of broken frames barely clinging on to his face. Curiously, he chose a pair of men’s glasses almost at random from the shelf and picked them up.
They were a rather heavy pair, with black frames and temples, square, with silver nose pads and hinges. He felt their weight in his hands as he turned them around, then looked into the mirror again. He saw his old disappointing self, then took off the broken glasses with the sensation that he was shedding skin. Like a clean slate now, he looked himself in the eyes and wondered who he might be mistaken for with these new glasses.
He took a step back and put them on. They fit well over his nose and ears, despite the security tag on the right temple. Approaching the mirror, he struggled for a second to recognise who he was beholding. The lenses were made of plastic, and scratched at that, but he was less concerned with how he could see through them, as long as he could picture how people would see him when they looked at him from the other side. And indeed, this man in front of the mirror was not himself anymore. Not the Theo he knew. The pair framed his eyes in a way he had not perceived possible before. The stark black colour contrasted with his brown hair and sun-starved skin. With these glasses he would be looked on differently. With these, he would be taken seriously. Then it was as if all clocks stopped and time became as relative as it could be. These were the glasses of a creative genius; it was plain for all to see. Wearing these, he could have gotten that art director job he applied for many years back, no doubt. They wouldn’t have trapped him with those questions he received during the interview. No, he would have gotten the warmest of welcomes and ridden that wave all the way until he walked out of the meeting with the interviewer’s arm around his shoulder and a smile on his lips. Who knows what could have happened then? Upon closer inspection, these were not even the glasses of an art director, but of a director of photography. These were the glasses one would wear if one were to write cinema history. Wild images appeared in his head, where he was walking among celebrities on set, laying his hands on the hips of movie starlets, instructing them where to stand for the next scene. He saw car chases, romances and comedies play out in his mind all at once, materialising under his direction as if reality flowed and bent itself to his creative talent. He then saw himself in a tuxedo, accompanied by a beautiful girl on the red carpet, and pictured himself delivering a thank you speech in front of a large audience with an award in his hand.
This all played itself out before him in a matter of seconds before he grew dizzy. Behind him somewhere, Vera blew her nose, waking him up from his reveries. He took the glasses off slowly. Observing his naked face in the mirror again and, mouth gaping, he blinked heavily.
“Did you like those?” Vera asked as she approached him with some care. But Theodor was stunned to silence, having just lived an entirely different life in the fraction of a minute. He was still computing the significance of his finding when he turned to face Vera, and then again considered her, trying to make sense of it all. Without her glasses on, she had appeared to him a girl in a woman’s shoes. But now, she was decidedly a woman again. And those red glasses she had on, they were an optician’s glasses. He saw how it could not be otherwise. Thinking of all the different models on display, he was eager to pursue his novel ideas further.
“Yes, I think so” he replied, at once attracted to the brilliance of that alluring future but at the same time overwhelmed by all the glamour and commotion. “But I’d like to try something a bit more..“ he reflected “Something a bit quieter, please”.
Without waiting for Vera to assist him, his eyes, then his hands, caught another pair on the shelf. They were thinner, brown, almost oval. The tips of the temples were heavily rounded, and he threaded them behind his ears where they sat firmly.
Theodor saw himself in the mirror and strained his eyes. They were terrible, even worse than his broken pair. He was instantaneously disgusted by himself. Nobody would ever want to be around him if he looked like this. He looked mischievous, if not straight up malignant. In this sorry state, how could anything good ever happen to him? Then, as transported through the mirror, he saw different scenes of solitude appear; lonely breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Then he saw these glasses on posters pasted all over the city. Were those wanted posters? He saw his image being broadcasted on TV with stern but indistinguishable comments from the news anchor. Then he saw himself with blood on his hands, smiling a twisted, evil smile. He was shouting something with a vengeance but could not hear exactly what. Then the deafening, panicked scream of another human being filled his head. Finally, he saw himself raising a giant knife above his head with both hands, and tore the glasses from his face, sickened and repulsed, before the knife could fall. He was close to hyperventilating as he realised that these were the glasses of a murderer.
“Not these”, he declared to Vera. “Definitely not these”. Brows frowned, she watched him suspiciously as pearls of sweat broke from his temple. He tried to calm his breathing down when she approached to take the malicious pair which he held out at arm’s length. She stepped back as he tried to gather himself, looking around the room as if to make sure he was really there and nowhere else. Then she offered him another pair.
“Why don’t you try these on instead? I think they would fit well with the shape of your face”.
His hands were trembling as he received them. They were dark green. Square with rounded corners, of some thin, light weight composite material. Still reeling from his recent experience, he considered them carefully before putting them on with trepidation. He looked at himself in the mirror for about a second before he was again lifted off the ground and transported into an office cubicle. It was rather dark, but several computer screens were lit in front of him, featuring some strange and foreign programmes. The clattering sound of keyboards rose from the cubicles around him, and someone sighed heavily in one of them. Vanishing, he reappeared on a bus somewhere, passing a waterway he didn’t recognise. It was dusk, and the bus was nearly empty. Then suddenly he found himself in front of a computer again, somewhere else, playing a violent game of some sort. A dog was whining in the room behind him and it smelled rancid where he was. Whatever parallel universe he was glimpsing, it seemed worse even than his current state. It was as if this could have been his life, had he just taken a wrong turn somewhere and briefly gotten lost. Or bought these glasses. Anxiety crept over him and he took the them off, shaking his head from side to side. Then he turned to look at Vera with wild eyes.
“Do you have anything just slightly more.. distinguished?” he asked, unsteadily placing the glasses back in her hands.
And so for the next ten minutes he tested the patience of Vera and the very limits of his own imagination, trying on pairs of different kinds and colours, previewing what could very well be different futures. Now an airline pilot, who may or may not have one day crashed a plane, now a prison guard, now diving in crystal clear water somewhere on the other side of the earth next to a beautiful girl in a bikini. On each occasion he was thrown back and forth between different emotions. Each time he could see how that future could have been, had he only been able to turn back time, to certain decisive and formative events in his life, and make different choices. But it was all fleeting, and whenever he reached out with his mind, wanting to go deeper, trying to hold up and explore in detail, obscurity would relieve him of the scene and lead him down another path entirely. When he reached out to grasp a vision of happiness, in which he laughed or revelled, he would in the next moment suddenly experience himself drowning. Or just as he thought he’d attained true love, he’d see an engagement ring being thrown in the gutter somewhere. All the while, Vera went from being suspicious to becoming fully convinced of the fact that she was assisting a mad man, the way his facial expressions and poise alternated between emotional extremes. He had never been able to read body language very well but she spelled her scepticism out to him in unambiguously clear and capital letters. She eventually retreated behind the counter and he felt that he would lose this, whatever this was, if he were not careful. It would all slip if he pushed it much further, without knowing if it would ever come again. She had laid four more pairs out on a shelf in front of him to try. It was time to make a choice.
Holding one pair in each hand, trying to decide which ones to try on, a roar of thunder sounded from far away outside and underlined the sense of urgency. He put one pair down and tried on the other. They looked and felt just right. Slightly rounded, brown with a turtle pattern, they were not too heavy nor too light. The frames were thin enough to stay in place without obstructing his vision. Put some convex lenses in there, he thought, then adjust for his astigmatism and near-sightedness, and he’d be able to see the neurons firing in people’s brains before they even became conscious of their own thoughts. These seemed to him the glasses of a master strategist. He wondered what battle plans he would come up with, and what cause he were to fight for, when he heard himself dictating “Bishop to D4”. Then it all unravelled itself in the mirror by its own accord. His hands fluttered as he made a thousand chess moves at once, hitting the clock after each one before turning to study his opponents. People of all kinds sat across from him, replacing each other at a hundred per second in a hazy blur, the mesh of faces coming and going. He saw them all get up, their backs bent and burdened by humility, while he remained seated, as if on a throne where he was the undefeated king.
Next, he saw himself lecturing a crowd of learned men. These were better men, men who had their lives together, all listening to him discussing his latest insights. They were taking notes, following his every gesture, listening slavishly. He realised that they adored him and then saw that so too did the women. He was the foremost among equals and they felt that too. Whether or not they understood his genius was not important. He barely had time for them anyway, too busy on his mission, but he gave in to some from time to time. Most strikingly of all, he did not once feel the overhanging presence of sorrow, like he had on his other journeys into the beyond. He reached out with his mind to grasp a detail and sure, like before, the scenes would flutter and fade, but there were no murders here, no crashing planes, no drownings, no tears nor screams. Of course, his work hung over him heavily, like a duty of sorts. Educating his fellow men, advancing science in a sense. It was not without effort, but with these glasses he saw everything so clearly it felt just like any other job. Hypnotised, he witnessed his unrelenting dedication to his work, and the victory streak that never ended. There was the occasional TV interview, and faint rapid glimpses of erotic adventures. Time passed at the rate of a year per second in his state of trance and time was slowly laid upon him. His skin grew wrinkled and his back stiff, and he must have been at a respectable age when his speech and movements slowed down to a crawl as mortality announced itself. The aching became greater, but so too did his fame and societal standing. Climbing and climbing, these were achievements he’d never dared dream of. He worried for an instant what would happen if he were to watch this journey conclude but another stroke of lightning made Theo snap back into the room and slowly take his glasses off. He did so almost regretfully, unable to contain the smile which spread across his entire face.
Then and there Theo made his choice. He decided on the glasses he had just tried on, bitterly hoping he was not deceiving himself. He prayed for the change they had promised, which would make him more of that which he could be.
Theodor went over to the counter to cement the deal. Some confidence seemed to have rubbed off on him from the new glasses already, and he steadily spelled his name out to Vera, the way a normal person would. She announced that they had his prescription on file and that it would take two weeks until he could collect the pair with lenses and all. She rang it up and he paid, restlessly anticipating a two-week hibernation after which he’d enter the world a new man. Impatient to escape, to lock himself up and go to sleep for a fortnight, he turned to leave when Vera’s voice reached him.
“Mr Honnigan, before you leave, I wanted to let you know that we are also offering very attractive reductions on sunglasses at the moment”