My eyes change color from blue to green to gray and back again. I say they change, but really, I’m not sure whether they actually change, or merely appear to change. And what causes the so-called change in my eyes’ color? Is it the light moving across an autumn day? Those storm clouds that rush up and over the hills into the city? The sweater you gave me on a whim?
Or is it nothing at all? A trick of the atmosphere, a heterogenic prank?
I do not know.
I’ve been told that my eyes are startling: I am appreciative of their colors and their shape, but most of all I am appreciative that I am able to see out of both of them. My eyesight in my right eye is incredibly weak. I am astigmatic in the extreme in both my right and left eyes: daylight stings my sight; overhead lighting burns. I had two early eye surgeries to correct an eye that loved to wander away to look at other things than what I had asked it to see. When I am tired, that same eye still slides just out of focus. I hide from cameras when I flag; I look away because I do not want anyone to know how my eye preoccupies itself when it—and I—are tired.
Before the surgeries, my eyes used to turn from green to blue to grey to amber. After the second surgery, my eyes never turned amber again. I missed those golden-eyed days the most: I was born in the Year of the Wood Tiger. I wanted to be able to pad through the fog-drowned forest like the endangered Xiamen tiger stalking her prey. Instead my eyes are the colors of the changeable South China Seai, not animal nor mineral but water, an element as chromatically supple as a winter sky.
To be honest, I don’t think about the color of my eyes that much, which is strange, because I am quite color obsessed— I think in color, dream in color, speak in color. When we moved to the house where we live now and were planning to paint the rooms, I kept trying to get The Husband to consider this color for the ceiling or that glossy tone for the wall just by looking at a swatch. Rooms in a sequence tell a story, I told him, one after the next— you need to know what story they’re telling. After all of my pestering, The Husband turned peevish and told me that not everyone can picture a wall in a different hue than the one it’s already got, and not everyone cares about color the same way you do. Sort out the color yourself, he said. Why can’t you remember people’s names the way you remember color?
I can hear your voice speaking to me as you reach out to shake my hand— your palm is soft, dry to the touch. I wipe my palm along my thigh to remove the sweat before raising my hand. Your hello is warm and low; the consonants of your name click against your teeth like cool counting beads. I can see your eye and your hand, but that is all.
Nevertheless, if you were to ask me about my office, I could tell you that the walls are painted what I call a 1950s Japanese-influenced French schoolroom gray. The ceiling of that same room is a hothouse fuchsia glazed with blood orange to give it that feel of Japanese lacquer made iridescent by time and age. The doors are walnut; the hardware actual aged brass. I look at your face again, your beautiful animated face. Alas, your name is gone. I cannot remember it. Why?
I am sorry—I do not know.
When I was a child, adults would sometimes ask me, with a hint of distrust in their voice, why my eyes were a different color than what they had remembered: Your eyes were green last week and they look blue now. What happened? My eyes change color, I would say, indifferently. My mother says they pick up the colors of my clothes. And then my mind would wander off, discarding the distrustful adult’s name in the ever-growing pile of lost names seated somewhere in the celestial reaches of my brain.
The distrust from these adults was the distrust that arises from questioning one’s own memory. The impoverished language comes from the shorthand we write about ourselves, a description erected on a frame of miserly surface qualities. When we’re not downgrading ourselves, we are wont to transfer this language on each other. You can say a woman is short and brunette and blue- or green- or gray-eyed— but who is she really? This is the bad fiction of the self.
Instead, say this: A man sits at the counter of a diner with slanting floors. A rain-drenched girl with changeable eyes and hardset shoulders comes through the door. The man turns to look at the soggy girl in the doorway; his smile opens up like an umbrella on a rainy night. He grins and he is all the umbrellas on all the rainy nights. The girl purposefully and nervously looks away from him; rain drips steadily from her hair onto the old black and white tiled floors. But the man has already done a terrible thing— he’s fallen in love at first sight with an ordinary, everyday girl he does not know. Yet.
Geneticists theorize that blue eyes came down from a single anomalous Neolithic human living near what is now Romania. Today, Eastern Europe is still a territory of mostly blue-eyed peoples, as is Ireland, as well as all of the countries that abut the Baltic Sea. My own forebearers walked down from the low mountains of one region and climbed out of the lowlands of another: Either way, I come from light-eyed people hungry for the sea. Yet I grew up inland with no taste for the smash of salt waves against the black rocks of the Baltic, nor any idée fixe of the sliding green swells of An Mhuir Cheilteachii. All the same, my face betrays me— I blink and illumined inside my eyes is a hydrography of places I have never been.
My heterochromatic grandfather changed his eye color one summer day at the age of four when he stabbed himself in the eyeball while cutting a watermelon. As a result, he had one blue eye and one green. This eye could see, the other could not. At the end of his life when he remembered us and nothing more, a hospital doctor told my mother and my grandmother that my grandfather could have saved the sight in the eye that had not seen anything since it saw a bright red watermelon and the point of a knife on a summer afternoon almost a century ago.
Why would you bring that up now? That’s the rhetorical question my family was too polite to point out. I would have said it. They know I would have said it, and that’s why they told me the story years later, when time had washed the name of the hospital doctor away from anyone’s memory. What was his name? I demanded. Who was this? My grandmother turned her head. She kept her grief in a secret locket inside her heart.
I do not know, she said, deliberating the words. I forget.
But I don’t forget. My eyes read blue. They read green. They read gray. I’ve been told that my eyes are unreadable. I’ve been told that my eyes are soulful. I’ve been told that my eyes terrify. I’ve been told that my eyes seduce. Men quote song titles to me: Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (Willie Nelson), Pale Blue Eyes (Velvet Underground), Behind Blue Eyes (The Who). Women ask if my eye color comes from colored contacts, and if so, where can they be bought? I don’t understand it. I’ve never understood it. When I look at my face in a mirror, I am not thinking of the way the light changes the color of my eyes— I am preoccupied with my ability to see anything at all out of them— these green eyes, these blue eyes, these gray eyes washed clear by the late morning light of a sea that I have not seen. Yet.
iAlso known as Nánhǎi in Mandarin. See Wikipedia’s entry for the South China Sea for more details.
iiThe Celtic Sea. See Wikipedia’s entry for The Celtic Sea for more details. To read more about the Irish language, which is part of the Gaelic grouping of languages, try Irish langauage on my favorite language site, Omniglot.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The facts of this story originated from this Wikipedia entry on eye color, but were fact-checked using a variety of original sources.