“Accommodation,” in ophthalmology, is the word for the movement your eye makes to keep focus on an object as its distance changes, approaching or receding in time and space. For ten days my eyes could not accommodate, as the doctor said, and so the world passed before me in a half blur: my classmates, the bins of dwindling eggplant at the market, and the homecoming parade, with its college marching bands and representatives from each campus club and the floats advertising the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, the local high school, and Scheel’s, where, having never seen a gun in person before, I once went on a date to see one. If that sentence was unwieldy, that’s exactly what it felt like, a long succession of images on which I could not focus; I could not choose to follow just one.
In the meantime, I graded papers. In the meantime, I went to my medical acting gig and let doctors-in-training palpate the lower right quadrant of my abdomen until I started to wonder if I really did have the appendicitis I was supposed to pretend I had. In the meantime, I cleaned my house and painted my nails, because the limited confines of my apartment made it easier for my eyes to focus while I was there. In the meantime, I didn’t go to the bar, I didn’t see very many friends, and I went to bed early.
In this time I decided I would write not about anything having to do with myself but instead about people who died before I was born or who never existed. I’ve had these obsessions––Russian obsessions––for a decade now. I always secretly preferred biography to memoir; I wanted to understand the fixation of their authors almost as much as, sometimes more than, I wanted to understand the subject. The author’s absence was the presence I most cared about. That and the prosaic, in the secondary sense: Pushkin’s packing list, the contents of Anna’s little purse, Sophia Tolstaya’s small, domestic resentments of her famous husband.
When you live in a place long enough, and for me three years nearly always qualifies as “long enough,” you are grateful in new ways: that the market goes til late October (though you once lived in a place where it was year round), that it’s mid-month and the leaves are still turning, not just falling, that you still don’t quite need a real coat (though there are places where you never need coats), that at a party where there seems to be no one you haven’t met you might accidentally encounter a Russianist and have a long talk, pressed in the corner, of things you have generally sequestered to the small parcels of your life you get to spend elsewhere.
I’ve noticed lately that certain corners of this city smell to me like Russia, for instance when it’s cold and you catch the tail end of someone’s wafting cigarette smoke, or when the cement in the stairwell of certain buildings has a dampness to it. As with everything I write here, there’s no moment where it all comes together; these are symptoms of the obsessions, or or of the feeling, or of the failure to focus, but never the object itself, and I think of Hilton Als saying of love, but it could be of meaning too, that it’s “complicated, if it even exists.”