Something Is Wrong with the Way I Look

From The Offing:

I have always felt a certain affinity with Polyphemus, the cyclops that Odysseus meets on his journey home to Ithaca. This creature, this one-eyed shepherd, this son of Poseidon, is made to be a monster in Odysseus’ account of his travels. In The Odyssey, we hear the story of Polyphemus and his single eye only through Odysseus’ own words, as he recounts his journey to Alcinous. Odysseus tells us about this thing, who not only flouts social custom, but whose body, whose single eye, marks him as different, but whose body, whose single eye, marks him as different.

. . . .

A group of us gathered at the lake, the sun barely starting to dip down below the horizon. I showed up late; everyone else was already drunk. I had moved to this town, to this graduate writing program in the South, a handful of weeks earlier and still did not know how to speak in these groups. The town was so small, the program so small, that when one person said or did something, it got out, got to everyone.

One of the other people new to the town was sitting on a small wooden pier, their legs dangling in the water, facing the swimmers, their back to those of us still on land. “Ryan Gosling isn’t even that attractive,” they were saying. “Have you looked at his face? His eyes are crossed. It’s so ugly.” Someone laughed. I did not say anything, and no one else did either.

It’s easy sometimes, to forget. That my eyes have a name. That people might look at me and assume something. That people look at me and get uncomfortable, look away. Ugly, they might think to themselves, ugly.

The technical term for it is strabismus. What it is, really, is that my eyes are out of balance, out of sync. A message from my brain to the muscles around my eyeballs is disrupted, ill received. My eyes don’t work together. I can only look out of one eye at a time, and whichever eye I am not using can drift, can float, can point in another direction.

. . . .

When I was four or five years old, my mother dropped me off at a hair salon at the mall while she went to return something at another store. They cut and cut, while I sat and watched, too shy to say anything, trusting that these adults knew what they were doing. When my mother returned, my hair was sheared down to a soft, light fuzz.

“She looks like a cancer patient,” my father said when we got home. I did not know what that meant, but I knew it was bad.

At the open house the kindergarten hosted for children and families to explore the rooms and meet the staff, I wore my favorite hat, bright pink and covered in drawings of butterflies.

“Remember,” the teacher said, “no hats allowed in school.” I looked up at my mother, to ask confirmation. I did not want to be the girl who looked like a cancer patient, whose eyes made everyone uncomfortable. I did not want to be seen as abnormal. I wanted to blend in, to be unnoticed.

Most of the time, people don’t mention it unless I bring it up first. “Have you noticed my eyes?” I’ll ask, and it comes pouring out, what they thought it might have been, what they think about it. More than one partner has said it’s endearing, it’s cute. We are always in bed when it happens, and they tell me it was hard, at first, talking to me, knowing which eye to look in. I never know what to say to that.

“You know how, if you line up your finger with something, and close one eye, the perspective shifts?” I ask. I demonstrate, holding up a finger, lining it up with the edge of a window. “And depending on which eye you have open, it looks like your finger lines up to a different place? I can do that without closing my eyes.” They hold up a finger to try, and then turn to watch my eyes. I do it, to check, to make sure. I am so used to the way my eyes are, I start to doubt that how I see the world is really that different, that there is something strange in the way I look.

One summer in high school, I got a job at the only coffee shop in our small Iowa town. I was behind the counter when a child looked up at me and said, “Mom, what’s wrong with her face?” I blinked down at them and wanted to believe they were talking about my eyes.

In college, I was working the late shift at the bookstore-slash-late-night-snack-shop. A boy came in who I had met, once, years before. “Hey,” he said, paying for his snacks, “I can do that too.” His facial muscles strained, and his eyes pointed inwards towards each other.

“Oh,” I said. “Okay.” When he left, I was alone in the store. I put my head down on the counter. Was that how people saw me?

. . . .

Theocritus is called the father of pastoral poetry. Born sometime around 300 B.C., he wrote bucolic poems, tranquil verses set in the Greek countryside. One of these poems is from the perspective of Polyphemus, set before Odysseus lands on the cyclops’ island. Polyphemus serenades a water nymph with whom he has fallen in love, saying:

I know, my beautiful girl, why you run from me: / A shaggy brow spreads right across my face / From ear to ear in one unbroken line. Below is a / single eye, and above my lips is set a broad flat nose. / Such may be my looks, but I pasture a thousand beasts, / And I drink the best of the milk I get from them. / Cheese too I have in abundance, in summer and autumn / And even at winter’s end; my racks are always laden.…

Polyphemus knows he is ugly, that his single eye is his defining physical characteristic. But here, in Theocritus’ poem, he is a sweet, almost silly creature, telling his love that she could eat his very own homemade cheese in every season, if only she would come be with him.

Though Polyphemus acknowledges his physical difference, it is only when Odysseus arrives, when we hear the story through Odysseus’ perspective that we understand the cyclops to be a monster.

The things that make some people grimace, look away, and use words like “ugly,” like “monster,” are often things that are just different from a perceived norm. As Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock writes, “…monstrosity is a socially constructed category reflecting culturally specific anxieties and desires…” We name things monster, ugly, to let the world know that these things are not us.

It is only in Odysseus’ perception that Polyphemus is made monster. Shift the perspective, and he is just a creature with eyes that look different, a self-conscious shepherd, a besotted cheesemaker.

On my face, sometimes, it is small. A facial tick. It is there, needling. The question, the suspicion. Is that pity in a person’s eyes when they look at me? Do they wonder to themselves what is wrong with my face? Do they talk about it when I’m not in the room? Do they bite their tongues on the knowledge that I am ugly in a way that is permanent, unfixable?

Link to the rest at The Offing