By Michael Clune, from the Spring 2017 issue of Tin House. Clune is the author, most recently, of Gamelife, a memoir.
Yesterday I resolved to stop looking people in the eyes. I intended to begin a period of ocular abstinence, to refrain from eye contact for as long as I could — a week, perhaps, or twelve days. “Eyes are made to be looked from, not at.” How many times have I heard this proverb, acknowledging its good sense, only to violate it at the first opportunity?
I resolved to try again.
Things got off to a good start, as they usually do. When you have a conversation with someone without looking at their eyes, real empathy becomes possible. You participate in their words. It’s the closest thing to reading a book. Everyone knows how much easier it is to empathize while reading a novel than it is in real life, staring at someone who’s staring back at you with an alien and inexplicable hunger. What are eyes but signals constantly broadcasting the slow emergency of human social life?
Just don’t do it. Look at their cheek, or just to the left of their left arm. I’m not saying you have to close your eyes. Be safe. People can attack for no reason. Avoiding eye contact is in many ways a safety measure. Most assaults happen as a direct result of eye contact. Eye contact itself is a kind of assault.
The first conversation I had after my resolution was with my neighbor Howard. It was a Saturday. I’d walked out in the morning to get the paper.
“How’s it going, Michael?”
Howard asked me this question two to three times per week. Normally, when we made eye contact, I was transfixed by the mesmerizing force with which his eyes hissed, I’m the thing in Howard’s face, I’m looking at you, I’m different from you, I don’t speak, I look, look at me. I’d mumble something inane about the weather, and then Howard’s friendly voice would reply, a voice whose warm human tone bore no relation whatsoever to the mute thing gazing out from his eyes.
On Saturday, I abstained from eye contact. I looked just to the side of his head.
“Lauren and I are planning to go to Hocking Hills next week,” I said.
“I love Hocking Hills,” he replied. “Have you been before? It’s wonderful. You must go to Old Man’s Cave, it’s really something.”
We stood and talked for five minutes, the conversation circling the topic of caves — I’ve never been to a cave but I’m fascinated, Have you ever seen that Herzog documentary about the cave paintings, Oh my God, I love that, don’t tell me Hocking Hills is like that, laughter, No, no, now if you want to see real caves . . . I was participating in Howard’s words, it was real communication! Our experiences mixed, we discovered parts of the other inside ourselves. It was fantastic.
I love Howard, I thought.
And then I thought: One glance at his eyes would cut the line. I won’t do it. Never again. Just don’t do it. There’s no pressure. The only people who are bothered by your failure to look them in the eyes are people who want to assert their brute dominance over you, pummel you with the secret source of their vision.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
The glass barriers smashed, our thoughts running on speech-lines in and out of each other’s head. I’ll never forget you, Howard! The real you, the true, eyeless Howard.
“Well, I should get going,” Howard said.
He was turning to leave. It was almost over, I’d almost won. What made me look? I’ve been asking myself that ever since. It wasn’t anything he said. And it wasn’t what you might think, that I wanted to see what his eyes looked like. No. Every eye is basically the same. People who tell other people that their eyes are beautiful mean . . . I don’t know what they mean. As an aesthetic object, as something to look at, eyes are nothing special.
I looked at Howard’s eyes to find out whether he was looking at mine.
The fear had grown in me the entire time we were talking. It started with a small, nearly subconscious spark — I wonder whether he’s wondering what I’m looking at — that gradually became a conflagration of panic. By the end I couldn’t resist. The idea that he was looking at my eyes, that he could have been looking at my eyes when I couldn’t see his eyes —
Intolerable. Totally fucking intolerable, I thought. I envisioned his eyes standing on my vision, stomping on it.
Stop it, I told myself. He’s not looking at me. Let it go.
But the fact that I didn’t feel his gaze was the worst part. The devil’s greatest trick is to convince people he doesn’t exist. I looked.
Our eyes met. Howard’s face flushed. I could feel mine flushing. Right away I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.