I first saw The Eyes when I was eight years old, sleeping above my little sister on the top bunk of our bedroom in the small house I spent my first decade of childhood. Of the early memories contained in the rooms of that house, I remember most clearly nights I fought off sleep, staring wide-eyed at my collection of glow-in-the-dark stars and the black blotchy pools between them. I’d conjure the same horrifying picture I’d simultaneously try not to see from the same nightmare I had almost every night for about five years.
The dream began mid-run, and I was in a state of panic. I ran down dim, red-carpeted halls of a stone castle—the kind you might see in an episode of Scooby Doo or the Magic School Bus. I ran past gilt-framed portraits, cob-webbed candles and sets of giant black oak doors. Each time I turned a corner, I ran faster, sensing time was running out—because it wasn’t that I was running away from something, I was trying to find a particular set of black oak doors. I knew in the dream I had forgotten where they were for what seemed like (or eventually was) the hundredth time, and I was upset with myself. As I ran I scrutinized and scolded: You stupid idiot, how could you do this again, why can’t you ever remember anything, why didn’t you pay attention? You are useless. I yanked doorknobs I knew were wrong, and shook the doors in retaliation. I always found the doors eventually, coming to a bounding halt when I recognized them by intuition, not observation. I braced myself, placing a hand on each knob, and turned them slowly until an icy burst of wind blew the doors open so suddenly I almost fell off the sharp ledge just beyond the doorframe.
In front of me a blue-black expanse filled the frame of my box-like vision. I could barely make out the landscape, but I knew it was impassable. Below me was a chasm, and across the chasm was the shore of a black lake. The air felt cold and wet and I could make out faint sounds of water dripping, echoing paradoxically as if in an enclosed dungeon instead an expansive landscape. Far beyond, in the upper-left-hand corner of my frame of vision, hung two muted neon-red eyes—pupil-less, two-dimensional, shaped like the ovals found on a coloring book face. They sat flat in the sky, seemingly oozing, facing me. Below them, an imperceptible mouth I imagined was tightly shut, lips pursed in a dormant rage. I stood staring forward, pretending not to see the eyes in my left periphery, pretending to be engrossed in the blue-black darkness, blinking, choking trying to hide the panic erupting from my chest, preparing—the way you might prepare to jump off a dock—to turn left and face the eyes. But I don’t face them; I wake up.
That house, where I slept and dreamt of The Eyes until I turned thirteen, is filled with mysteries I’m only now, at twenty-six, beginning to sort through.
Back then, my sister and I had different agendas for our days— I mostly played in the yard or explored the park. I don’t know what she did. My brother, whose room was at the end of the hall, had his own complete world. He drew, painted, and created imaginary kingdoms with his stuffed animals he’d invite us to play with. My parents’ bedroom was across from his, dark and painted pink. A mirror above a bureau ran parallel to the bed. When I was scared at night I went in to tell them; I was told to go back to bed.
I learned to say the word “stress” at a very young age, and I learned when saying it to draw out the s’s the way my mom did when she told me often: Your mother is s-tre-ssed. One morning we were, for some reason alone, sitting in the kitchen. She had her head in her hands. She couldn’t fully answer my question what’s wrong? The closest I’d get to an answer was Your father… and she’d trail off shaking her head. I learned to stop asking; I learned to stop being curious. When I was eight or nine years old I vaguely remember she lived in the basement. She pulled out the futon and stapled sheets to the ceiling to partition herself from otherwise the kid’s play area, where we could run, bounce on bouncy balls, make noise, and build things. I didn’t like playing down there with this odd, imposing “room,” I didn’t understand why it was there, but then again—I did.
The way my Mom talked about my Dad opened the door to make fun of him all the time. We all joined in, making fun of how Dad ate, how Dad walked, the shirts Dad wore, how what Dad found funny was stupid, and how Dad could never do anything right. My mom was always making fun of him, and we thought it was fun, too.
There are gray, cold memories I have of sitting frustrated in the passenger seat of my Dad’s Ford sedan that smelled like cigarettes. He’d park in a park just near our house without explaining why we couldn’t go home, and we’d wait for him to finish pacing back and forth, talking to someone on his cell phone, or waiting for one of his strange friends to drop off his “package.” Once he peed in a water bottle while I was in the passenger seat and I looked away. “People do this all the time,” he assured me. “I guess it’s too bad you can’t”
Twenty years later, as I was driving my Dad and me from my mom’s new house to the train station where I’d return to New York—our family’s first Christmas with divorced parents—I saw out of the corner of my eye Dad pack something into the tip of his cigarette. When he exhaled the smoke smelled like burnt plastic. I stared firm ahead through the dirty windshield, and we continued whatever conversation it was we were having. The house in Maine was furnished with furniture from our house. And so in a way it was a miniature, a replica of what everything “used to be.”
My mom made more food than I could imagine. And she had so many plans we never got to. When we were late on the way up, on Christmas Eve, I could hear that she’d been crying when I called to tell her Dad still hadn’t arrived in Worcester to caravan with us. He was supposedly at a Christmas gift-wrapping ceremony at his office we’d never heard about until that morning, with people we’d never heard of. His text messages were almost indecipherable, and after imagining the worst-case, likely scenario, I decided not to drive with him, even though by the time I made that firm decision, he was only 20 minutes away.
Denial is a powerful thing—often the one who is in denial will realize how powerful it is only after she has escaped it. When you’re in denial you at once know and do not know something. You see and do not see something. You want to look but don’t want to look—you can’t help but peak, and then look away, and peak again, and pretend you didn’t see anything.
I began my escape from the truth about my Dad—and by extension the rest of the family—at age twenty-three, a couple months out of college. I was sitting at my childhood home in front of my family’s desktop computer, in a porch facing our backyard. I remember being startled when my parents—who I didn’t expect to see until two days later; they were supposed to be spending the weekend in Maine—came speeding into the driveway and to an almost screeching halt, parked. Something was clearly wrong. I could tell they were upset with each other, and I knew in my gut that it wasn’t a small thing. My mom got out of the car immediately as I began to hide myself (a practice I had come to enact automatically in response to the sight of my mother’s anger), ducking under the window, and keeping still. The kitchen door swung open violently and the whole house shook when she slammed it behind her. Pummeling the wooden floors she ascended the stairs and when I heard her bedroom door slam and the house shook a second time, I slowly and quietly stood to see my Dad walk with his head hung, past me, through the kitchen, and descend the stairs into the basement.
No one told me what had happened and yet I knew. So I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to know that what I knew was true. I didn’t want it to be true, and I didn’t want to face what would happen next, because the only future I could imagine after this truth became shared public knowledge was a kind of doom-filled, dark pit of human misery. A rotting heap of hurt; a broken family.
I already knew what happened because two days before that, in the same porch, I was switching clothes from the washer to the dryer when I found, in the pocket of my Dad’s shorts, a soggy pack of cigarettes and a cut plastic straw, about two inches long.
“I lie toooo much,” I wrote in my diary on September 20, 2000 –roughly a year after I stopped seeing The Eyes. The pages of that diary soon came to be filled with lists of which girls in my class liked which boys, and a collection of repeated phrases that were hip at the time. I knew, at the time of writing it, that someone would read it. “Whitney read this last night,” one entry –December 20 read. And “Jordyn read this whole thing, but it’s okay,” I wrote a month later. The curated persona I told myself I wasn’t creating was an estimation of what could be “cool” then. Not much has changed.
2015, Christmas Eve. I had an escape plan, in case things got “out of hand”—I would take a train directly from Brunswick, Maine to New York, refusing the ride my Dad would inevitably offer. It never came to that, but after dinner I did need desperately to leave the claustrophobic pageant and get out of the house. My sister and I walked to a nearby graveyard. This Christmas was freakishly warm in Maine, 70 degrees. The fog was so thick and wet it looked manufactured. Just beyond the cemetery traffic irregularly passed down Route 9. A glowing Gulf gas station sign could be seen behind the darkened sign for a pub.
We walked between the gravestones, and I smoked two spliffs, marijuana cigarettes. As the drug came to me and took me into a heightened state of all-feeling-ness, and as the fog threatened to be a heightened sort of terrifying, my sister’s words began to sound somehow more real seeming than I’d ever heard them. We both stopped, momentarily terrified, at the sight of a statue we’d already passed. “Every time it scares me!” Meghan yelled. Me too, I thought. And I inhaled the cold wet earth seeping up from below. In my periphery, I was aware of the path back to my mom’s new house, of the cavity it created in the contained-seeming space. I took refuge in the drugs, and Meghan and I walked home, eventually, after we’d made the rounds of the tombstones three times.
When we came home the house was quiet, as we intended it to be. We turned on the TV and continued to watch whatever it was we were watching. The next morning would be Christmas, and Mom and Dad were here, despite their new divorce—and unregarding the months of revelation leading up to it. Dad in the basement. Mom in her room. The way things happened to be.
Now. Every morning, in my own room, in my apartment, I try to sit for five minutes with my eyes closed and look directly at the insides of my eyelids. The black blotchy traces of light that spastically reintroduce themselves play me a show as I try to identify what I am feeling. It’s an exercise that is deliberate, because so often I don’t know what I’m feeling, having acquired a profound skill at hiding them. Today I am angry, and I am sad. I’m grateful. I look forward.
What I see when I sit for five minutes with my eyes closed changes every day. It is the absence of whatever reality I try to impose on time. In that still, other space—at once expansively beyond my being and held tightly inside it—I sit beneath the gaze a truth larger than myself, and stare straight at it. There are no eyes.
Kaitlin Campbell is the Assistant Digital Editor at Commonweal magazine. She lives in Washington Heights. You can follow her on twitter @kkacampbell.