People have a biological mechanism to discourage them from walking with their eyes closed. Although I read this somewhere a few years ago to have it confirmed, I’ve known it since I was a child; I’ve always known it, since I often try to walk with my eyes closed.
The highest number of steps I have counted is twenty-five; that’s the longest I can stand it, the mechanism. It begins around eight steps (maybe sooner, if you’re new to walking with your eyes closed). You could be walking in an empty field, you could trust firmly in the emptiness of the field and the sanctity of your aloneness, and it’ll still march upon you, the mechanism that starts as a crawling unease and builds to a maddening itch, screaming that if you don’t open up your eyes you will hit something promptly.
You can defy this sensation with logic, you can be quite convinced through the private calculations of your spatial relations that you are not about to walk into anything. And even still the mechanism will still engage, screaming between your ears, peeling you out of your skin, rattling around under your breastbone and digging in and pulling the lids of your eyes open like pop-tops. At times like that the simultaneously terrifying and beautiful nature of the human machine becomes evident – your neurology has the ability to defy your own mind, your own will, in the preservation of your best interest.
You can witness this principle in operation if you try to see how long you can hold your breath, or endure not blinking your eyes, but walking with your eyes closed is, to me, the most visceral.
I’ve tested it. Once when I was young I tied a bag around my head with a little string I knew I could break because I wanted to see how long I could stand it, the panicked clanging of oxygen-starved alarms throbbing inside my skull, knocking furiously at my chest as if some force was begging me, poor child, open the door to your lungs again. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to see how close I dared walk to the threshold of actual death. Like it was just a country that I had never visited.
That was why I walked around with my eyes closed sometimes, too. Because from the time I was small, I dared nurture the fervent hope that when I opened them, I’d be somewhere else. I imagined that the disorientation, the protest of my body when I walked with my eyes closed, was the compression or expansion of crossing dimensions. I imagined some ancient tomes prescribing me instructions, declarations that if I could endure the discomfort I’d be rewarded with my dearest wish: the transit to some other plane.
I wanted to visit the characters in my books who seemed so much more loving than the kids in school. Or I’d have these dreams – once when I was nine or ten I dreamed that my neighborhood was deep underwater, and it was many years in the future, and where my house had stood there was a tall white lighthouse inscribed with runes and operated by crystals. All my neighbors and my family were gone and there was no one in the lighthouse except for other kindly time-travelers, shamanic parent-figures who smiled when they saw me and wanted to hug me and teach me arcane gifts. Another time I dreamed I woke up in a primal rainforest the vivid green of which I can still remember, that’s how realistic it was, and a man on a white horse rode up and told me he would always love me. I was probably eleven when I had that dream.
So at recess I would decide that maybe I could go back to those places, if only I could keep my eyes closed for long enough. I would endure it until my biology tore my intention from my animal panic, until reflex forced my eyes open, white-spotted, blinking breathless on a soccer field wrapped in a chain-link fence.
I would take a moment to turn around in place, to examine the other children around me, because what if I had made it somewhere else and the differences were subtle? But it was always the same place, the same children, and it was time to go back to class.
Of course, by now I have basically surrendered the idea that I can thrust myself through the curtain of this world and into another one. I’m sure I could never have conjured the spectacular crystal-writ lighthouse with all of its runes, with its special rooms full of artifacts and planetariums and musical flames if it were given to me to do today. I’m just too old. Sometimes I still think about running away, though. Car trips across pink deserts to undiscovered tourist-traps, diners wallpapered in license plates, plastic flamingos, ninety-nine cent dreamcatchers that purport to be authentic. When I press myself down toward the needful blackout of sleep I sometimes think about the remote beach house I hope I can visit one day.
Sometimes I walk home from bars with my eyes screwed tight. I force myself to endure twenty-five steps, because if I did it once, I can do it again. Like the principle keeps me young. I envisage that beach house. It sits on stilts in the middle of the water, off the shore of an island too small to be mapped, that few have ever found. Without trying, I envisage it as a fragile thing, bamboo and rattan, about to be swallowed by the savage sea.
I open my eyes when I can’t stand it anymore. I am always on a city sidewalk, just as I was before. No matter what discomfort you endure, even should it rend at your very being, challenge the nature of the assemblies in your blood, there is no place to go. You can close your eyes for as long as you want, and yet when you open them you cannot be anywhere else but twenty-five steps from where you were before.