by Gabriel Neustadt
The one secret he never told her before they moved in together was that he could pop his eyes out of his head. One day she was reading the Steve Jobs biography on the couch when he walked in carrying a bowl of tortilla chips with his eyes popped out, and she looked up at him and screamed. He had forgotten to suck them back into his face. This was the only thing he had kept secret from her over the course of their relationship, that his eyes could partially leave their sockets and stick out like little nonpareils sandwiched between his cheeks and his eyebrows. He had told her everything about himself except for that.
This revelation shattered her faith in him. “Why would you not tell me you could do that?” she demanded, still shaking.
“I guess I’m kind of sensitive about it,” he replied. “I didn’t want people to think there’s something wrong with me.”
“I thought you had been attacked by some animal, or electrocuted, or—”
“No, no. It’s just something I do sometimes. Look: I just squeeze my—”
“No! Stop it! Stop it!” she cried, so disturbed was she by the image of his face.
Everything about their relationship had been perfect until that fateful Sunday morning. The banter, the tiffs, the chores, the sex, the honeydoos and the moneydoos and the wouldyadoos and the sureI’lldoos. Everything had been perfect and would have remained perfect—Cliff and Sarah were truly perfect for one another—and yet that holy perfection, that bond of love which surely would have come to matrimony one day, had been corrupted and soured by Cliff’s One Big Eyeball Lie. This secret was somehow worse than other kinds of secrets, worse than the history of cocaine abuse, worse than that incident in the Florida motel, worse than pungent flatulence—that true spiritual wrecking ball of committed relationships. It was worse because it meant that Cliff—darling Cliff, responsible Cliff, sensitive and empathetic Cliff—was really a freak who liked to squeeze his eyeballs out of his head. And God, she lived with him! What had she done to herself?
“I can’t look at you anymore,” she told him in the kitchen one night. “All I can think about is... is... is—”
“I promise I won’t do it again—”
“Don’t touch me.” She swatted him away with her hands and refused to look at him. Instead, she fixed her gaze on the bowl of oranges on the counter behind him and spoke to them, which made it difficult for Cliff to know what was going on. “Don’t you understand?” she said to the oranges. “I trusted you. I trusted that the man you said you were really was the man you were.”
“I am the man I am,” Cliff replied, trying to hide his confusion.
“You’re not the person I met six months ago,” she continued. “You lied to me about something... vital. Something fundamental.”
“Fundamental? It’s just something I like to do!”
“Your eyes, Cliff! The windows to the soul—”
“How are those not fundamental? It’s like I married a contortionist, or a guy who fucks horses, or...”
“Or a bearded lady.”
They did have a knack for finishing each other’s sentences, she thought.
“But so what?” Cliff continued philosophically. Was he not the same Cliff he had always been? Was his voice not the same resonant tenor, his handshake no longer soft yet structured, his jokes not adorably cheesy and ill-timed? He listed all the things his male friends had hidden from their wives and girlfriends, nasty, weird things. They got over it, he said. We’re mature people. We can deal with this. We can learn to tolerate, accept, even love those who are different from us.
But we couldn’t shack up with them, Sarah concluded. Cliff had lied about who he was. He was an Eye Popper, and Sarah did not shack up with those.
They broke up acrimoniously.
* * *
Now Cliff found himself on date after date, trying to come clean as soon as possible so that he might avoid dropping another bombshell. A policy of candor: “So tell me about yourself.”
“Well, I have this really cool talent. I mean, my buddies think it’s cool. Like I’ve won a ton of bar bets with it.”
But honesty off the bat never seemed to work, either. Several instances in which a credulous and impressionable girl would ask for clarification, a practical demonstration perhaps, ended with lamb chops or mixed greens salad or zinfandel vomited up and sprayed all over his tie. There were fainting spells, retching spells, spasmodic twitching, and silence. Leaning back, arms outstretched and pointing, shouting, “Beast... Beast!” Every possible flavor of negative reaction. One belle, a real doll of a girl, with blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair and sparkling soft cheeks, simply looked at him and stood up and said in a trembling, throaty whisper, “No. No, that will not do,” and with a pirouette departed from one of Tulsa’s truly great dining establishments.
Cliff decided he would have to keep it a secret. There simply were no desirable women who would tolerate him this way. But his own prohibition on the act exacerbated the urge to do it, and soon he was doing it whenever possible, furtively, at the worst moments. He would practice it in the bathroom. He would run off to do it in the mirror in the middle of meetings, in the middle of restaurants, in the middle of sex.
“Hold on, baby.”
“But this was really good—we were doing really good.”
“I know but it’ll just be a minute.”
“... Nothing.” Then he would run off naked into the bathroom and pop his eyes out of his face a few times, get a grip on himself, then run back into the bedroom and leap into bed with her and make love.
“Oh god... oh god... OH GOD! ...”
The one person who appreciated his condition was his ophthalmologist, Yuri, who clapped his hands and stomped his feet—“Exquisite! Exquisite!”—and leapt up enraptured at Cliff’s bravura performance inside his musty ophthalmological office. It was the levator palpebrae superioris muscles which allowed Cliff to do it, he explained. They were exceptionally strong, Olympic Gold Medal-winning strong. There were perhaps five other specimens on the face of the earth who could do this, said Yuri, and by God this doctor was lucky enough to know one. Cliff liked visiting his ophthalmologist. He and Yuri became friends.
But the solace Cliff took in his twice-yearly checkups was too infrequent. Within the wider culture, he felt trapped and persecuted, victimized by society’s conservative norms. How unfair this was, Cliff thought, when America had become so tolerant, tolerant of all varieties of race, creed, sexuality, and religion. Ambitious youngsters across the land were scrambling for diversity points wherever they might be found. Surely there was room in this great big churning cauldron for Cliff and his five fellow pumpers of the levator palpebrae superioris. Surely America, liberal enlightened America, would accept him, or at the very least would the kind people of OSU-Tulsa.
Except America really wasn’t that tolerant, Cliff decided, as the Dean of Continuing Education tossed his revoked extension school card in the trash and filled out the paperwork that would forever ban him from that lush and peaceful campus. There was no place for the Ocular Aficionados Club at the student activities fair, nor even for Cliff’s assiduously rehearsed performance to the accompaniment of Verdi’s Dies Irae at the Fall Talent Showcase. Like the true visionaries and freethinkers of the past, Cliff would have to blaze his own trail.
He knew what he must do: stand up for himself, like all those who had come before him who had once been rejected and reviled. He would raise awareness, demand acceptance. Only then would the world respect Cliff and his unique ability. He decided to pop out his eyes whenever he pleased. Push the boundaries, risk it all, intolerance could go to hell!
At the supermarket, the cashier scanning his Bush’s Baked Beans nearly lost her marbles when she discovered her customer staring at her with his eyes bulging out of his face like his intracranial pressure was going out of control. The drive-through at Checkers. The ticket taker at the opera house. The dental hygienist who was too enthusiastic with the ultrasonic wand. The mayor as he shook hands at the Earth Day Parade—that was a good one because the cameras were always on and he had to keep a straight face—“Joe Buckhorn, nice to-aaaaaaaah... meet you!” In short time Cliff became a notorious ocular terrorist, scarring memories from Sapulpa to Owasso, cruising up and down Interstate 44 from Joplin to Wichita Falls in search of new outlets for his misery. His heady radicalism had mutated into a vile extremism. Few trusts and estates attorneys of his mettle had wandered so far down the rabbit hole.
And then he met Clara.
Like Sarah she was beautiful and like Sarah she was tall. She was as smart as Sarah and as kind as Sarah but unlike Sarah, Clara knew how to litigate trusts and estates, and Cliff thought this was interesting. He fell in love. She loved him back.
Cliff knew he couldn’t fuck up this one. As soon as his gaze fell upon Clara’s countenance he knew that his talent would have to remain secret. And so it did. Cliff never cracked in front of Clara. Not once. His levator palpebrae superioris ached desperately, but he repressed himself. He no longer contracted them in public, and when he felt the twinge, the itch that must be scratched, the inexorable, instinctual pull of his basic animal self, he held out just long enough to find a bathroom. Cliff civilized himself. And Clara never found out.
* * *
Eventually Cliff conceived a child and eventually the child was born, and one day, years later, he discovered that this child, his child, had inherited the gift. One night at the dinner table, young Chadwick, age nine, finished munching his corn on the cob and said to his parents, “Look what I can do.” Then he popped out his eyeballs so far that it looked like they might fall into his mashed potatoes. Clara screamed and Cliff’s heart swelled with pride before his social graces compelled him to run to his shrieking spouse’s aid.
“It’s just his levator palpebrae superioris,” he explained. “They’re exceptionally strong.”
“How do you know that?” she sobbed.
“I, uh... I think Wikipedia or something.”
“Mommy, want me to do it again?”
But Mommy did not want young Chadwick to do it again, so she sent him to Yuri the ophthalmologist, and that meant that Cliff had to scramble. Urgently he called Yuri and explained his predicament. “Clara must never know it came from me,” he implored. “I never told her I could do it.” Yuri, who prided himself on his candor, fretted about keeping the secret. It wouldn’t be right to withhold that kind of information, he said, especially when it had a genetic etiology. But Cliff browbeat his ophthalmologist savagely, and Yuri relented.
Clara now knew that her son was a freak. She begged him not to do it in public, but young Chadwick was an ass of a boy and lacked all scruples. Soon, birthday parties and snack breaks and free drawing time were filled with the piercing cries of young girls and the atavistic grunts of young boys, writhing and jeering and pointing and gnashing their teeth at this freak of nature who could pop his eyes out of his head like his father before him.
And so one day, Cliff sat with his son and explained why he must no longer do it. But the child did not understand.
“Mrs. Minky always tells us that being different is cool, like Harry Potter.”
“Well, yes, that’s true for most differences. But some differences just take things a little too far.” Society had drawn lines. Some could be crossed. Some could not. Some could only be redrawn after years of organized struggle and pain. But there were also some lines that would never be redrawn, and as much as this hurts, as much as it constrains and torments and humiliates us, we cannot cross them if we wish to live our lives. Do you understand, Chadwick? Do you understand why you must never do this in front of people again? If you do, you will be tormented. You will be lonely. You will be so different from other people that few of the people you want or even love in life will wish to be with you.
With a shudder, the boy began to cry. His father gripped his small, round shoulders, wiped the warm tears from his cheeks.
“But how do you know when it’s OK-different or when it’s not-OK-different?”
Cliff looked off sadly, feeling his levator palpebrae superioris quiver within him. “I don’t know, son,” he murmured. “I just don’t know.”
Gabriel Neustadt is a playwright and screenwriter from Los Angeles. His plays have received staged or workshop productions at the Blank Theatre, Skylight Theatre, Harvard University, Actors’ Theatre of Santa Cruz, and the Florida Studio Theatre, among others. He has published one story before, in Spank the Carp.