Optical Illusion

by Mary Murphy

Hudson Valley Mature Life, August 2000
Capital District Mature Life, September 2000

How did I get old enough to wear bifocals? I’m possessed by this dark thought as I watch Frank, my optician, emerge from behind a layered shelf full of eyeglass frames. He sits across from me at a small table holding my new bifocals. “I’ll just go in the back and give these a good cleaning,” he says. Frank always leaves the room to clean my glasses. I’m quite sure he spits on them as soon as he’s out of sight. Someday I’ll follow him and find out. But not today. I’ve got other things to think about today.

It all started when my eye doctor got the impression that I needed bifocals from something I let slip at my last eye exam. Somethng about not being able to read the newspaper without taking off my glasses and holding my face inches from the page. “If you’re starting to have trouble reading small print,” he informs me, “you probably have presbyopia.” He goes on to tell me that presbyopia is a hardening of the lens in the eye that occurs in everyone as they grow older. This hardening process lessens the lens’ ability to change shape and focus light passing through the eye. The doctor triumphantly escorts me to Frank’s section of the office so that we can begin discussing “my eyeglass options.”

Under my husband’s health insurance plan, I’m entitled to a free pair of bifocals. However, Frank, a master salesman, has convinced me that I should forget about ordinary bifocals and choose lineless Varilux Comfort lenses because, as he put it, they’re a little more “with it.” “Although they are a little more expensive,” he says, “most wearers consider their eyes and vision to be well worth the extra investment.”

These progressive Varilux Comfort lenses are not covered by our insurance plan and will cost $213.00. Somehow, Frank gets me to say “yes” to that. I’ve gone from free to $213.00 in under ten minutes. How will I explain this to Leo? “Well, dear, Frank felt that I should be ‘with it’.”

So here I am, two weeks later, allowing him to put the spit-cleaned, smooth-lensed “progressive Comfort lens bifocals” on my nose.

The first thing I notice is that I can’t see out of them. Everything is in a state of perpetual undulation. One moment Frank’s bristly gray moustache is sharply in focus and the next it’s become a fuzzy caterpillar inching across the shell of a hard boiled egg.

“Frank,” I cry, “there’s been a mistake! These can’t be my glasses.”

Frank laughs immoderately at this outburst and settles down to begin his lecture on how to see out of the new, lineless Varilux Comfort lenses.

“The triple-patented Varilux Comfort design,” he quotes from the brochure, “is based on a complex set of curves that vary from ellipses to parabolas to hyperbolas.” I nod my head as though he’d just made something clearer and watch as he draws a circle on a piece of paper. Within the circle he creates an hourglass shape. I have to take off my new bifocals and hold my face close to the drawing to see it. At the same time I imagine a bunch of dollar bills with wings on them flying south to Frank’s wallet from the frozen depths of my purse. The bills have faces and are chuckling to themselves in flight.

“When you want to read something,” Frank explains, “you look through this small bulb at the bottom of the hourglass. When you want to see something in the distance you look through the top bulb.” He draws dark lines through the considerable space on both sides of the hourglass. “These areas are distorted by the shape and grind of the lenses. You won’t be able to see out of them at all.”

I’m dismayed! He’s crossed out 50% of the lens! I begin to pine for my old pink plastic glasses. I could see out of those.

Frank begins the demonstration part of his lecture. He holds up an imaginary newspaper, tilts his head up, thrusts his jaw forward, knits his brows and peers intently at the top of his nose. He remains in the pose, turning pages, until he suddenly spots a friend in the distance. Abruptly, he lowers his chin to his neck, raises his eyes to just below his eyebrows and waves gaily at an old and obviously much loved acquaintance.

Dreamlike the scene shifts to Frank driving his car in traffic. He wishes to change lanes. Because he can’t see out of the sides of his bifocals, he swivels his whole head around in the manner of someone in immediate need of an exorcism.

The pantomime is extremely comical but I don’t laugh for two reasons: 1) He’s taking himself so seriously, and 2) very soon, I’m going to look just as ridiculous as he.

Frank finishes his demonstration by saying “​and the beauty of it is, no one’s ever going to know you’re wearing bifocals.” I’m sure he’s right. With all that head movement they’re probably just going to think I have fleas.

Frank adjusts the frames so that the temples are comfortable and begins looking past me at his next customer. Before I leave I ask the question uppermost in my mind, “Is it possible that I won’t be able to get used to these?”

He stands up, which forces me to raise and lower my head many times before I pick up his face again. “I guarantee,” he declares, “in two weeks you’ll feel like you’ve been wearing bifocals all your life.”

I leave the office and walk to the street where I have left my car. The sidewalk seems paved with waterbeds. My car is far enough away that I begin to feel seasick long before I get to it. I look up when I should look down and down when I should look up and very gradually I begin to accept the mantle of middle age.

After all, things could be worse. The other day my 81-year-old aunt said, “At least they’re not trifocals — that’s what I wear!”


So there are depths lower than the one to which I’ve sunk.