by Andrea Leeb Balelo
My Father's Eyes
“That dress really brings out the color of your eyes,” the sales girl told me as I stepped out of the dressing room.
It was 1996, I was thirty-seven-years-old, and as I studied my reflection in the store’s three-way mirror, I agreed that the dress, a deep green, enhanced my eyes. It was a perfect match‒‒ except it wasn’t. My eye color was fake. My eyes‒‒ my real eyes‒‒ were brown. And they weren’t just mine. They were my father’s eyes too. I was only four-and-a-half-years-old the first time my father gave me a bath. My parents had planned to go out that night and my mother needed time to get ready. “Be a good girl for Daddy,” my mother said as she handed me to my father.
My father was a tall man with an olive complexion, puffy lips, and narrow brown eyes. And although I did not get his height, I inherited his features. My olive skin, the shape of my nose, the fleshiness of my cheeks, the puff of my lower lip, and my closely set brown eyes all came from him. That night as he lowered me into the tub, he had a dot of shaving cream on his face. His freshly shaved face was smooth, and he smelled like limes. It was the last time I ever felt safe in my father’s arms.
My mother had left a pink washcloth on the edge of the tub. I soaked it and rubbed it with soap, just like she’d taught me. As I scrubbed my face and my neck and body, my father knelt next to the bathtub. While I washed, I watched him. I couldn’t see his hands or his legs, but he seemed to be squirming.
“Daddy?” I said his name like a question.
His dark eyes met mine.
“Let Daddy wash you with his hand.” He reached into the bathtub and took my
washcloth away from me. “Doesn’t that feel nice,” he said, running a hand over my body.
I didn’t answer him. He rubbed my neck, my chest, my legs, and then the place in between. He didn’t use soap, and he only used one hand. His breathing grew fast and heavy.
“Daddy, the water’s getting cold,” I said. It was a lie, but my father’s breathing scared me. The way he touched me felt strange: good but not good.
After it was over he made me promise to keep it a secret. Initially out of fear and once I realized what he was doing to me, out of guilt, I kept my promise. The abuse lasted for the next eight years. Each time he touched me my self-hatred grew. As the abuse continued, I could not look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face. And with each passing year, I began to hate my face almost as much as I hated myself. I was ten, when I learned to turn my self-hatred into self-harm. I had just begun to grow hair on my legs. One day, I stole my mother’s tweezers and used them to pull my leg hairs out one by one. It hurt, but as I pulled, I discovered the pain made me feel a little bit better about my life. After that, I worked on small patches every day. Sometimes, I pulled so hard I made myself cry. By the age of eleven, I moved to straight pins. Sitting alone on my pink bedspread, surrounded by my dolls and my books, I ritualistically pricked each of my upper thighs. I always pricked an even number on each thigh, and I never pricked more than a hundred total on any day. More painful than the tweezers, each prick released a tiny red bubble of internal pain. By the time I turned fourteen the pins were no longer enough. By then the abuse had stopped, but the damage was done. Using scissors, razor blades, and knives, I sliced at my stomach, my chest, my hips, and my upper thighs. Within a year, my body looked like a roadmap of small self-inflicted cuts. For me, cutting was about more than the pain, it gave me a sense of control over my life that I could not find otherwise. I never cut my arms or my wrists. I knew that would lead to questions. And, thankfully, I never cut my face. I may have detested my features, but other people were kinder. They often called me pretty. Despite my self-disdain, I wanted to believe them.
I cut continuously until my junior year of college. That year, I had my first real boyfriend. Although by then I had slept with others, he was the first boy I dated for more than two months and the only boy who ever asked about my cuts. When I told him they were cat scratches, he lifted an eyebrow. “Must be one big cat.” I liked that boy. When I was with him I felt like everyone else—a normal college girl from a normal family. Afraid of more questions, I vowed to stop. The first few weeks, I shook each time I put down the razor blade, the scissor, or the knife, but the value of appearing to be normal was worth more to me than the pain.
With time I traded self-harm for numbness. Deep inside, I knew the smallest amount of introspection would have forced me to feel. But I refused to look inward. Instead, I shrouded myself in the external trappings of success. I went to law school, graduated with honors, and got a job at a prestigious New York City law firm. I even found a handsome boyfriend with a fancy loft apartment and an even fancier car. I told myself I was fine.
I was thirty-two and on my way home from a full-day mediation, when somewhere between Christopher Street and Fourteenth Street, the subway car I was riding lurched and jolted to a stop.
“What the fuck?” a man with a heavy New York accent yelled.
“Not again,” a woman standing a few feet away from me muttered.
Shit, I thought as the lights blinked on and off and the car went dark.
Bodies smelling of perfume, sweat, and a hint of urine pressed against me on all sides. All around me people grumbled. After a few minutes, the grumbling stopped. The train grew silent except for the scuffing of shifting shoes and the occasional cough or sneeze.
That day, I was wearing a silk top that fell loosely around my body. I don’t remember how long we were standing when a large hand with thick fingers grabbed my breast. I remember that I screamed—although my scream must have sounded like a yelp or a gasp because no one reacted.
The incident—a New York City subway groping—was not unique to me. Most of my friends had similar stories. After, they would talk about it over dinner or glasses of wine. Some cried and others acted tough. A few even stopped riding the subway. But most eventually shook it off; another toll paid.
I couldn’t shake it. In retrospect that grope changed my life. Weeks of flashbacks and panic forced me into therapy, something I had resisted for years. The illusion of fine I had so carefully cultivated collapsed. I could no longer remember how to forget. Six weeks after the grope, I took a paring knife to my chest. It was the first time since college. I knew without professional help I would cut again or worse. A week later I checked myself into an inpatient program for trauma survivors.
I had just finished my annual eye exam when I saw the sign for colored lenses: green, blue and violet. Thirty-four and out of the inpatient program for almost two years, the flashbacks and panic attacks were gone. The urge to cut had lifted too. Yet despite my progress, the mirror was still my enemy. There was no escaping my father’s face, especially his eyes.
“Do they have them in prescription?” I asked the ophthalmologist’s assistant, a twenty-something blonde with saucer-sized blue eyes.
“They do!” She gave me an encouraging smile. “They are so fun. You should try them.”
When I popped the lenses in my eyes, the effect was transformative. The deep green color made my eyes look bright and wide. I knew they looked fake, but I didn’t care. My father’s eyes were gone. And for the first time, in as long as I could remember, the face in the mirror did not make me shudder. It was like looking through rose-colored glasses except that the lenses were green. That day, I ordered a twelve-month supply.
Over thirty years have passed, and I still wear green lenses. The available colors have improved with time. No longer a fake-looking green, the contacts I wear are a soft, subtle color. A color, according to the box they come in, called moss green. Today, I wear them for fun and for vanity, nothing more.
The remnants of the psychic wounds my father inflicted on me will always be with me, but I have mostly healed. Only two of the physical wounds—the ones I inflicted on myself, remain: a long thin line on my left hip bone and an eye-shaped scar on the side of my right knee. Both are from cuts made too deeply—keloid where there was once smooth skin. Sometimes, after I shower, when I am alone in the bathroom, I touch them. They are a reminder to cherish the lost girl I once was and to be grateful for the woman I have become. A woman with soft brown eyes and a reasonably pretty, albeit slightly wrinkled face. A face that belongs to me and no one else. A woman with a face and eyes I have finally grown to love.