……I liked Loveland, Colorado, because it was a study in juxtaposition. Facing west—the direction my college van-mates and I had driven—offered up the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, that chain of rock jutting skyward like jagged pillars holding up the sky. But if I turned 180° and stared east back toward the belly of the Midwest, the topography was so flat that the horizon line between sky and earth blended together, making me feel at times like I was floating.
……I did this little dance—turn, stop, stare; turn, stop, stare—a couple times in a row the first morning we were in Loveland. It gave me the sensation of being two places at once, and it made me laugh, how easily I could use my eyes to trick my brain about what I was seeing.
……Soon, though, my friend Kathy, after a bemused eye-roll, handed me a pair of safety glasses and a hammer. “Let’s do this,” she said, jiggling a box of nails.
……We were on a Habitat for Humanity spring break trip. Back in Minnesota two days before, I and eleven other relative strangers had woken before dawn, met at the campus flagpole, piled into one of our college’s fifteen-passenger vans, and for the next fifteen hours, alternated between sleeping on pillows smashed against windows and back-seat-dancing to 50 Cent and Avril Lavigne until we’d arrived in Loveland. We knew each other decently well at the end of that: Who the hardcore rap fans were. Who got sick when Jason, one of our trip leaders, took a turn too fast. Everybody’s ages and majors and hometowns. Which was good. Because we were going to have to work as a team. We were going to build a house.
……Okay—we weren’t going to build an entire house. And we weren’t going to do it alone. Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit founded in 1976 and run by professionals with the mission of building quality housing with the aid of volunteers for people in need, had built over one-hundred-thousand houses across almost one-hundred countries by the time our spring break group showed up. The folks in charge weren’t just going to leave a stack of supplies at the edge of a newly poured concrete foundation and then invite a bunch of college kids to experiment. There were Habitat workers on site each day. They taught us what to do and helped us do it. But then at some point, if they’d done their job right, they could step back and let an English major frame a window.
……Admittedly, I’d mostly signed up for the trip because it was a cheap adventure to a new location that was probably warmer than Minnesota, and we’d been promised a day of skiing at Arapahoe Basin. But learning skills like window framing sounded interesting, too—even cool.
……This is what we were beginning when Kathy handed me those safety glasses. I tightened my work belt through the loops of my faded jeans, then slipped on the glasses. “Give me that hammer,” I said, all sass and sauce. “Those nails don’t know what’s about to hit ‘em.”
……We were sophomores. It was spring break. The sun was out.
……We felt like we could do anything.
……Earlier that morning—as the worksite manager, Phil, talked us through the project, assigned us tasks, and repeated safety protocols—I’d paid attention. I swear, I did. He was a kind man, passionate about his work, and as he told us about the family who we were building the house for—a single mother, two young kids—I’d felt inspired. I mean, yes, I’d gone on the trip for me, because it would be fun—but I still understood that service to others was an important part of being a good person. I’d volunteered before: in preschools and in nursing homes. And as I listened to Phil reminisce about previous builds and the families that now inhabited them, I too wanted to create something strong and lasting there in Loveland, a structure that would shelter those children as they decided which direction they would face their lives.
……I could see them so clearly, the family that would soon walk upon the boards I was fixing into place: a girl and a boy, late elementary-school age, raggedy stuffed animal tucked into one of their arms, faded plastic toy clasped in the other’s hand, lanky hair, dry lips, a certain type of life visible in their skin and teeth that I imagined was a much harder life than mine.
……I have to admit, though, that between finding the best songs on the radio and generally making mayhem with a staple gun, it wasn’t hard to put those children out of my mind. There were many other things to focus on. All morning I pounded nails, measured two-by-fours, and sawed off extra inches of wood so boards were flush with their corresponding joints. I wasn’t a craftsman by any means—sometimes I’d miss hitting a nail head on, and my wayward hammer would leave an unsightly gouge in the wood—but I worked up to a certain level of proficiency by noon, and swiping the sweat away from my forehead was satisfying. After a paper-bag lunch of sandwiches and potato chips, I propped my elbows on my knees, took deep gulps of half-prairie, half-mountain air, and asked—to Phil’s amusement—about the house’s blueprints.
……“You’d like to make some changes, huh?” he said and chuckled.
……“Bigger windows,” I said, grinning, stretching my arms out to the east and the west. “There’s so much to see!”
……At that point in my life, this comment encapsulated my prevailing attitude: one of optimism, one of opportunity, one of basic trust in the world. It had only dimly occurred to me that some people, upon seeing a mountain range, might see something insurmountable, or upon seeing a vast prairie, see nothing at all. As it was—daughter of loving, white, middle-class parents, child of a comfortably boring rural hometown—my vision seemed unencumbered. I could look wherever I chose.
……This optimism, yes, but also privilege is what allowed me to strip off my sweatshirt, roll up my t-shirt sleeves, saunter across those floorboards to the part of the house where I’d be pounding nails and getting a suntan, and simply not think about precautions. I forgot Phil’s protocols. Forgot about Kathy passing me the safety glasses at the start of the day, the fact that they were not on my face, but looped through my belt, an effortless accessory.
……It took only one strike of my hammer.
……The moment before, I’d been calling out to Jason, who was suspended high on a rafter beam, teasing him about tumbling down.
……But the moment after I brought my hammer to a nail, hitting it just to the right so that it glanced off and smacked against the wood behind it, I felt something shoot up and strike my eye. Not my eyebrow. Or my eyelid. But straight into the soft tissue of my left eyeball.
……Immediately I dropped my hammer. It clattering against the wood. I stood and felt that something was very wrong. One hundred other times I’d had dust in my eyes or had struggled to remove a wayward eyelash, but this felt nothing like that. This felt sharp and hard, small, but piercing. I blinked rapidly, and my eye started to pump out a stream of involuntary tears.
……Kathy noted my alarm right away and rushed over, calling for Phil and Jason.
……What happened over the next several hours remains a blur. I remember Kathy and Jason laying me against a makeshift bench, Phil screwing open a bottle of water, and me trying to keep my eyelid open while Phil rinsed it. I remember following their directions, looking up, down, left, right, while they all peered for a speck of something, whatever it was that was there and shouldn’t be. I remember pulling my top eyelid over my bottom one, pouring water over my entire face, shaking my head, blinking and blinking—anything to keep myself from rubbing, putting my own fingers on the surface of my cornea, digging after the sharp, stinging pain.
……I peeked at myself in the van’s rearview mirror: my cornea had gone from white to a fiery red.
……My disbelief gave way to a full-bodied panic, and when Phil suggested a doctor, I nodded.
……As he took out a street map of Loveland from his truck, Jason wrote down a phone number on a napkin, Kathy gathered our sweatshirts, and I sat in the van, shaking. My elbow bumped my safety glasses, which were still hanging from my work belt.
……I felt so stupid. So angry at myself. And scared.
……As we drove off, I blinked out the window with the one good eye I had left. We passed strip malls, railroad tracks, rows of prefabricated houses, mud-caked trucks in driveways, the general dirtiness and dustiness of early spring evident on every front lawn.
……Even images like those, I feared, I might lose.
……I soon stopped paying attention. My left eye was almost swollen shut, and the pain was sharp and unrelenting. Kathy reached back and squeezed my trembling hand.
……Finally we braked at the curb of a little brick building. A man in a crisp but untucked shirt waited for us next to his car in the parking lot. I had forgotten it was Saturday. I later learned that Phil had called in a favor, and this man had agreed to open up his clinic for us on his day off.
……After glancing at my eye and mumbling something to himself, this optometrist led us up the walkway, unlocked the front door, and motioned for us to follow him to an examination room.
……How could this have happened? I wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time. It had been such a simple mistake. And it was entirely possible that my carelessness could result in the loss of my ability to choose which direction I could look.
……As I sat in the waiting chair, I felt my breathing, already quick, turn ragged.
……“Just relax now,” the man said, pressing my arm.
……He took my chin in his hand, tipped my head to the right, to the left. There was more rinsing, more spreading wide the eyelids, a poke, a prod, a white hot pain.
……My fingertips dug into the armrests.
……He selected a long tweezers from a tray, and as he leaned in, the bright light from the lamp glinted off of it, and in my mind I saw a flash of the Colorado sky, of birds careening in the wind high up, so high that the mountains and prairies appeared like pools of paints on the same palette.
……Then, in my eye’s very lowest corner, I felt a slight, pricking pop.
……“Got it,” he said.
……The clink of the tweezers tapped against the rim of a small dish, and after covering my injured eye with a piece of gauze, the man held the dish in front of me: “A sliver of wood, lodged pretty good into your conjunctiva. Your body was trying to figure out what to do with it.”
……It was shocking, how quickly I turned from one state of being to the next. I felt drugged, endorphins flooding my brain and body. I looked around at the white and silver and cream and grey of the man’s office, colors that seemed as pure and bright as a spring cloud. I began to weep, then laugh and laugh.
……By the time Jason, Kathy, and I returned to the church where our Habitat group was sleeping that week, it was late afternoon, the workday over. Upon entering the building, we could hear our friends in the back, blasting 50 Cent, making dinner. When we came into the kitchen, and the others saw us, they all cheered and gave hugs and asked questions, and told me how glad they were that I was okay.
……And I was.
……The optometrist had given me a black eye-patch, and I’d wear it for another day or two, and then for a few more I’d squint in bright light, but I did not need any other medical procedures, and even now my trips to the eye doctor are merely check-ups, occurring once every other year.
……“You’re so lucky,” people kept saying. “You’re so lucky.”
……I thought about that pronouncement a lot. Lucky. Unlucky. If this had happened. If that had happened. If we, say, hadn’t had access to a vehicle. If that optometrist hadn’t answered Phil’s call.
……For people who come from a place of privilege, it’s easy to forget that the line between have and have not is thin, that one’s view of the world is not the only view or the right view or even the view one is entitled to, that the frame of one’s life balances on a few key planks of wood.
……In my own life, I forget this regularly, and it is only after an interaction where I think about what I said or how I responded to what someone else said, that I feel so stupid. And angry at myself. And scared.
……Because I don’t want to make a mistake. I still want to be a good person—just like I did those years ago in college—to do things with my life that help build something solid. But sometimes I strike the hammer just a little to the right, and debris flies up into my eyes. And when this happens, I remind myself that being lucky is being given another chance to do better next time, so that, eventually, I might understand the world as it is: a place built with more than just my view in mind.
……I’d known that before Loveland, but on that trip I’d signed up for to get a Colorado suntan, it became something I could see.
……Back at the construction site the next morning, I put my safety glasses on first thing. They fit awkwardly over the eye-patch, cutting slightly into my temples. Before Phil started doling out jobs, I walked to one of the small windows that we would finish building that day, and ran my gloved hand over its edges. I looked closely at the wood’s whorling grains, the little swirls and circles and imperfections. What version of the world, I wondered, would that window frame? I thought again about those two children who would soon stand where I was. And then I thought about them a little longer.
Emily Brisse (@emilybrisse) has published essays and fiction in publications including Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Lumina, Tahoma Literary Review, december magazine, and The Washington Post. Her work has been shortlisted for the Curt Johnson Prose Award, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and awarded a Minnesota Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She teaches high school English in Minneapolis.