Friday, May 20, 2005

vision examination

Accosting people on the street is pretty much a standard business practice in Japan. The convenience of my living close to a rail station is offset by the fact that a walk around my neighborhood entails brushing off half a dozen folks flyering shoppers with little packets of tissues, ads tucked inside. If business is slow, just about every bar, real estate agency, hostess club and slot machine parlor will send out the lowest grunt in the pecking order to confront pedestrians directly, proffering tissues or coupons to every passerby with a monotone “Please favor our business!”, head tilting up and down like a bobble doll. On the upside I have yet to pay for toilet paper or tissues: a stack of brightly colored tissue packets shining in M&M colors perches on my toilet tank.

Loping around as a white guy changes the reaction a bit: the hostess club girls in butt hugging skirts offer their tissues and smiles to everyone else, but for some reason the contact people zero in on you with a jittery smile and a “very cheap contacto.” The one time I actually bothered to take a coupon, I realized they weren’t kidding about the prices. So today I walked down to Apple Contacts, coupon sheepishly in hand, to buy a few months worth of very cheap contacto.

The store was on the third floor of a “mixed use” building, the first two used by a financing company, the fourth by an English school and the rest apartments nestled onto a few floors. After a filling out a short form I sat down on the available sofas, passing over the sports and women’s health magazines for a viciously drawn samurai comic. It was the twentieth issue in a series about the life of legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, opening at the end of a duel, opponent already skewered on his sword. Miyamoto pulls it out, blood bursts in a beautiful arc, there are a few moments where they lock eyes and a strange kind of sympathy passes between them. I put the comic down and glanced around the room, from the other waiting customers absorbed in a daytime drama (“I will never tell father that you’re still alive, NEVER!”), to the staff behind the counter. It slowly dawned on me that every last person working in this place was a stunningly good looking woman between the age of twenty-three and twenty-nine, all of them decked in identically pressed cream-white and clam-pink uniforms.

Just as I swallowed that thought I heard my name called in a clear, cool voice. I was led into the next room, mirrors and stools lining the walls. This hologram of a girl led me to a device in the middle of the room where I rested my chin. In front of my eyes was an almost Platonic landscape, a gray road shooting straight through a lime green field to a tree draped in foliage. It blurred in and out, eventually resting onto a sharp definition. Before I had time to think about it any longer we were onto the next station. “Are they all automatic like that?” I asked her, half elated by the experience and half missing all my squinting at letter charts picking E’s from F’s. “No, just that one,” she said, her smile blinding me for a few seconds. After I had blinked it all away I found myself confronting rows of black Japanese characters floating in white space, watching them grow smaller and smaller until I could barely guess at their shape. If it’s possible to fail an eye exam I could probably do it on sheer nerves.

The vision then sat me down before a mirror with a pair of trial contacts. After tucking them in I threw my clear new vision around the room, along rows of mirrors and eye tests to the beaming face of the hologram girl, looking all the more unreal in this new high definition. Just as I was recovering from the gleam of her teeth she plonked me down on yet another sofa, slipping the results of my test through a narrow slot in the wall. An anonymous hand took the sheet soundlessly, and after a minute or two of flexing my new contacts around the room my name rang out and the hologram was motioning for me to walk through the curtain.

The room was lit dim as a whisper, a little control center set dead between the reception room and the examination room. I felt like I’d walked in on OZ himself, muttering an automatic “Excuse me…” before I could even see. Oz sat behind a low desk, lab coat turned silvery in the darkness. Before my pupils had a chance to fully relax they were probed with flashlights, look up, look down, OK, looking good. My eyes fluttered with stars and I was waved out in just two minutes, back to the lights of the waiting room and my samurai comic. I hadn’t even glimpsed his face.

I sat in the waiting room, watching the hologrammed uniforms float behind the desk and waiting for my order to be processed. I was unnerved by all of them, feeling odd at the women scurrying, smiling, not handling anything more complicated than an automated eye check machine, and that darkened little room at the center of it all. What niggled me was how calm and simple this had all been, how I enjoyed the smooth warm faces with their pixellated tinge, how I had even enjoyed the shadow in his office, and I enjoyed the hyper-reality of this cream colored waiting room. It was all as clean as a Hollywood film, polished to a digital sheen. In this office selling sight the waiting room was bustling with female visions, clean and anonymous. And the doctor was literally invisible.

Maybe some of these women had once held vague dreams of medicine, those wisps of ambition cutting off here: a smile behind a desk job and a paycheck they can keep as long as their skin stays smooth. Maybe they only dream of working until they marry a nice man with a fine job: a doctor. But who can say what they really wanted all along? Our desires and sense of the possible only stretch as far as we can see.

I heard my name called, the syllables blocky in Japanese syllables, and picked up my contacts, bagged and taped in blue plastic by the woman behind the desk. It was probably my new contacts, but I could have sworn she flickered in a digital blip as she smiled and thanked me. As I turned to leave I nearly ran into a guy about my age slouching out from the bathroom, skin tanned nut brown, hair permed and spiky, a red coat emblazoned with the store logo barely holding his rangy and jumpy body. He gave the desk girl a sly smile, swooped up a new basket of promotional tissues and turned down the hall in one fluid motion. He held the door for me and we walked out together into the clattering street coughing with heat and people.

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