Rough and calloused is the palm that grips the little boy’s hand. Sharp air bites his cheeks and the cold, winter sun beats harshly against his eyelids; but quickly, his mother pulls him forward and together they step over the ankle-high threshold, to be met with warmth and rolling murmurs.
Twelve steps across the hard cement floor and they come to a stop behind the next patron in line for coffee. The boy’s mother places her free hand on the patron’s shoulder, to let them know the two are right behind. The boy follows suit, absent-mindedly tugging the coarse hem of the stranger’s wool jacket. He feels the heat of his mother’s voice as she leans over to ask him what he would like to eat. He looks up and raises his free hand to point at the display case. In the space before him, a kaleidoscope of pudgy index fingers and blueberry muffins explodes into view. His hand wavers, bouncing from one shimmering copy to the next, but his line of sight is a shattered mirror and only one reflection corresponds to reality. His mother gently takes his hand and, with practiced patience, presses it against the backlit glass, passing his palm over each item until the caramel outline of his fingers eclipses the desired muffin twenty times over. The boy taps his finger in place, and his mother squeezes his hand in understanding.
She stares at the same spot, but only one muffin sits behind the glass, and only one hand rests in front of it. The mother grins at her son and brushes a lock of jet-black hair behind his ear. She remembers the world before she got her lens; light bent through air like water, and reaching for anything—whether it be a glass of milk or her sister’s arm—required a habitual angle correction that her movements betray to this day. Still, as she traces her thumb down the side of her son’s cheek, the air before his face subtly ripples. The tan color of his complexion bleeds beyond the firm boundary she can otherwise feel with her hand.
Her family hadn’t had the money for a proper surgery, so her lens only stilled the shifting world to a degree. Unfortunately for her son, she hasn’t the savings to even speculate a surgery for him, though he is well past the age of first lens—there’s no doubt he’ll remember the trauma of the surgery whenever it comes. She is wracked with guilt. Every year that passes is another year he spends awash in a spinning world utterly unique to himself. And every year that she waits, is another indictment from the physicians of her capability to parent her child alone.
The mother pats her son’s head, and he reaches up for her, smiling. He is happy. She knows that to him, this stained-glass world is terrifically beautiful, and is especially made so by her strong hand always encircling his.
The two make their way to the front of the line, and as the mother pays, she reaches out for the barista’s hand and politely holds it while placing the paper bills in their open palm. The barista thanks her and beckons the next customer forward.
The barista watches the mother and son retreat. The old-school mannerisms are endearing to her—the holding of hands, the touching of strangers. Before humans created the lens, light distorted the world and the only shared perception was touch. The barista and her patrons cannot tell if the flaw is in their eyes or in space itself; all they know is that vision is wildly variable and deeply personal. Many people now have corrective implants to some degree, but still, confirmation-by-touch continues out of custom and principle. Even now the barista sees two old men sitting across the room, engaging in a vivacious debate of politics. One is gripping the other’s hands and gesturing together so wildly their coffee cups all but leap from the tabletop.
The barista is more fortunate than most. Her parents could afford a well-crafted lens, permitting her to see as the laws of physics dictate. Her high-class peers, likewise privileged with synchronized vision, would have found the mother and boy’s manners suggestive of their humble means more than anything. Yet, the barista is wistful. She had her operation late, and will never forget the awful, deafening stillness that gripped her heart the first time she opened her eyes. Where afterimages of people, buildings, and leaves used to trail behind in the space each had just occupied, there was now strictly empty or filled space: definite, clear, absolute. Sure, now her friends could all appreciate the same scenes, but the barista’s world is no longer her own.
There are many like her who long for the old world, when everyone agreed that sight was too fickle and reality could only be trusted within an arm’s reach. Before, people discovered the world through brushing against passersby and trailing fingers across store fronts. They were lanterns, bobbing in the night. These wistful individuals ask how, how could placing a glass between the world and our soul make us see more rightly? How is light, twisting through miles of wind and air, more certain than what we can physically touch?
But business owners, and managers, and leaders of industry only see results. Standardized vision is standardized understanding, and standardized understanding can be mechanized. Companies began purchasing low-grade, colorless lenses to improve efficiency, and soon the lens pervaded the working class. But how much longer do the hours stretch, oiling gears and boxing shipments, when the faces and walls around you are stilled with shades of black and grey?
Meanwhile, artists revel in visual and physical isolation. They reject the lens, reject touch, and reject certainty. They sit at street corners and cafes gazing at the shapes eddying before them, hands translating these images onto paper or into words before they shift with the next breeze. This is what it means to be human, they say. Confuse your senses, lose yourself, and then show the world what you learned. One’s soul mate is said to be the only other person whose natural vision is identical—one who also sees the world in jagged fractals, or colorful mist.
Proponents of lenses argue that now everyone can harmonize as well as soul mates can. People can share in visual experiences. Factory work is finally safe; fingers are rarely lost and miscommunications needn’t be fatal. Hospitals’ mortality rates dropped, and all manner of food and commodities are more abundant than ever before. Change is hard, but this change is good.
Certainly, the barista would not have had a job before the lens existed. She couldn’t be sure which drink to place at the bar as each patron approached. She is privileged beyond belief.
The barista sees the boy and his mother once more after that day. A lazy summer evening gathers families and couples atop a grassy hill overlooking the city, and as the barista leans against her partner, she spots the two further down the hill. The boy sits in his mother’s lap and describes the fractured reds and golds painted across his sky, tracing twenty different suns with his mother’s pointed finger. The barista and her partner sit in silence, and they can hear the boy’s words carried by the wind. She listens intently, and after some time, she swears that she can see the sun begin to crack.