Night Vision

I was born with red hair, porcelain skin, and light blue eyes: the perfect genetic combination for a future of freckles, sunburns, and excessive squinting. My mother used to put on my baby bonnet, wheel me to the park on sunny afternoons, and feed me Gerber’s pureed peaches on the bench near the duck pond. I always screwed my face into a tight little ball as the sun glared down at me. Sometimes squinting would subside into fits of sneezing. By the time I was four, a small pink wrinkle had begun to inch its way up from the bridge of my nose to my forehead, right between my eyes. When I started playing softball a few years later, a game meant lathering on sunscreen and then straining to keep my eyes open for an hour as I squatted behind home plate with the catcher’s mitt, trying to avoid being whacked in the head by an excited opponent up at bat.

The first pair of sunglasses my parents bought me were hot pink, star-shaped, and completely ineffective because the cheap kiddie brands were the only ones small enough to hold tight to my miniature face. I couldn’t get prescription sunglasses because there was nothing wrong with my vision. I think my parents held out hope that I would toughen up and learn to deal with sun in my eyes, but when I started to get migraines after being outside for an extended period, an effective solution to my solar woes couldn’t be put off any longer.

The real solution came when I was eleven. It was a pair of navy-blue framed, Oakley brand sport sunglasses with reflective lenses and black rubber side grips. They cost more than an entire outfit at Gap Kids, and when I tried them on at the outdoor goods store, I stared back at myself looking like a be-goggled scuba diver. The narrow, triangular frames designed for even the smallest visage covered up past my eyebrows and all the way down to my cheekbones. Yet, the salesperson claimed they were fitted and durable for outdoor activities, and they came with a lifetime warranty just in case they broke, which they absolutely should not. Furthermore, the polarized lenses were hard to scratch and, most importantly, would block any and all UV rays from my sensitive pupils. After several minutes of watching me jump, skip, hop, and cart-wheel around the store that day, my mom concluded that they were worth the buy. I watched her cringe as she handed over her Visa, like a sugar daddy who was giving his sixteen year old the keys to a brand new BMW. The difference was my new item was small enough to lose, and I did at sleep away camp later that summer.

However, for the first few months after I took them out of the box and slipped them on during the brilliantly sunny car-ride home from the outdoor goods store, my Oakleys stayed nearly as put as non-disposable contact lenses. I took them off only to shower, sleep, and watch movies. I remember when they almost sank to the bottom of the pool after a cannon-ball jump off the diving board. Whoever I was with when dusk fell every evening had to remind me that it was dark, and I didn’t need them anymore. When they weren’t covering my eyes, they sat permanently fixed upon my head like the worn baseball cap of a die-hard Yankees fan. And I did feel a little bit like a lucky teenager swinging around the keys to a foreign luxury vehicle. I hadn’t even hit puberty, and I was sporting the same high-end shades as Nike-sponsored professional athletes. My sisters and friends constantly asked me if they could try them on, so I started making sign-up sheets for thirty-second rental sessions, free of charge. I used to sit in a beach chair with my eyes closed as the lucky client walked around for her half a minute of glory, and after counting to thirty without saying Mississippi between each number, I held out my hand until the warm feel of plastic and rubber hit my touch. Then the sunglasses were back onto my face before the squinting could even begin.

The Oakleys that now rest on my desk are third in a series of the same colored, styled, and priced sunglasses that began with that first crucial purchase in 1997. The originals are probably buried somewhere in the woods at Camp Lochearn for girls in Fairlee, Vermont. The second pair was rush-purchased before the start of field hockey season and lasted me until I was fourteen. I remember taking them off at the beach in Cape Cod, securing them to the front of my bikini, and walking to where the waves broke so I could splash cold, salt water on my face to wash away sand and sunscreen residue. When I walked back to my beach chair, they were gone-swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean. I threw a temper tantrum alongside the two year old in his water diaper seated a few family clusters away, and spent the rest of the day with my towel hung over my face.

I bought the third pair with my birthday money that following autumn. I remember wearing them to the first day of cross country practice my freshman year of high school. I was five feet tall, 80 pounds, and without an ounce of muscle or endurance, standing alongside my tall and lanky friend who had convinced me to try it with her. I don’t think I said one word to any of the seniors during the first month, but I kept my Oakleys on through every hill repeat, 1,000 meter loop, and long run. On the day of the first race, one particularly attractive senior boy squeezed my shoulder.

Go get ’em, Shades. He winked at me.

The nickname stuck. I wore my sunglasses for every single race that season and the three following, whether or not it was sunny and whether or not it was in the competition rulebook. Even when the lenses became clouded with sweat and the heat from my heavy breathing, they stayed securely in place, a barrier between me and the two and half mile race course, the tension-choked air, the glares of competitors. A guarantee that even though my legs were aching and my stomach churning with the nausea of over-exertion, at least I didn’t have to squint. And nobody could see my eyes; nobody could catch any glint of the practically debilitating nerves that stayed with me throughout each race. The watery, light blue mirrors to my brain were protected by two reflective lenses that only reflected the glance of the onlooker, sent his curiosity right back where it came from. And since they couldn’t really see me, I had no reason to look at them. My coach always told us to look straight ahead, focus on our race, and never glance back, but I think it was my Oakleys, not his words, that kept my head rooted in place.

After freshman year I finally bulked up, grew six inches, and brought my times down low enough to qualify for the state-open championships. My Oakleys stayed on, and my nickname changed from Shades to Top Gun, which I wrote in big, spiky letters on the back of the tee-shirt I made at our team bonding dinner. One day my coach told me I had won myself a reputation as “the intense sunglasses girl,” amongst members of our biggest rival team. One freshman boy completed a dare from one of his friends and came up and told me I was hot. Announcers started commenting on my Oakleys as I neared the finish line during races. And here comes New Canaan, making a fashion statement. Or, And she’s passing him-Sunglasses and all!

When I became team captain my senior year, my coach put a picture of me and all the seniors on the team in the town newspaper. While the other girls complained about how disgusting they looked post-race, all I could do was smile at the glare reflecting off my sunglasses. I wouldn’t have even been there without them.

A year later, my parents were dropping me off for my first day of college. I was a freshman again, and although I wasn’t as small as I had been on the day of my first cross country race, my heart was beating just as fast. I had said goodbye to my coach earlier the day before, telling him I would keep running and come back to visit often. He smiled and told me not to forget my sunglasses. It gets sunny up there in Hamilton. Actually it is cloudy most of the time, but it’s the thought that counts. The tears welled up in my eyes when I hugged him that morning, as they did again that afternoon when I curled up on my dog’s cushion and stroked him and my cat, and again that night when I took one last look at the bedroom I had slept in since I was eight years old. Now, as my parents have me one last kiss outside my dorm building and headed towards the car, I could feel the condensation spreading over my pupils once again, threatening to spill onto my cheeks. I took a deep breath and slipped my Oakleys down over my eyes. Nobody had to know. I thought about all the races these sunglasses had gotten me through, how I could wear them on long jogs through the running paths here, how my high school and my pets and my bedroom would all be there when I got home. I walked into the Chapel for commencement ceremonies a few minutes later and the tears were gone.


I have experimented with other styles of sunglasses in the past few years. The Audrey-Hepburn style cat-eye frames, also known as Wayfarers, made me look like a little girl playing dress up in her grandmother’s closet. They also broke approximately three days after I bought them, which I have the owner of a hokey convenience store in New Hampshire to thank for. The big, square framed Jackie Onassis Kennedy tortoise shells have spread like the Ebola virus among young American women, and they certainly compliment sundresses and polka-dotted bikinis better than my sporty Oakleys. But who wants a pair of sunglasses everybody else has. The one pair of glamorous shades I have managed to hold onto are black Polo Ralph Lauren aviators with gold frames. I bought them especially for a road trip across the country with my dad last summer because I wanted to look the part of a rock and roll musician cruising through Montana and Iowa on a concert tour. As it turned out, I donned the aviators for pictures, and when we got back in car the Oakleys went right back on.

I’m not the only one who treats sunglasses like an ankle brace or a winter jacket on a frigid day. Sunglasses were first invented for safety and practicality reasons. The idea of sun wear to protect against the sun and glare came about in the mid-1800s, thanks to polar explorers and high-altitude mountaineers. They made theirs with side shields of glass, leather, and even bone. What really kicked sunglasses into circulation, however, was the increasing popularity of beach vacations and sunbathing circa 1930. Couples traveled to tropical locations for their honeymoons, and women, having finally decided that pale white skin wasn’t nearly as attractive a skin tone as sun-kissed olive, took to baking out on the sand for hours on end. They shaded their eyes with the round, flat lenses, and celluloid frames that constituted the optical technology of the day. My Oakleys mark the end of that solar-protective lineage, except they are now complete with a sleek, angled shape and a lifetime warranty.


The lenses of my Oakleys are permanently scratched, the rubber grips stretched and frayed. The tiny white O in the front marking their brag-worthy brand has completely rubbed off. They are difficult to bend, the corners crusted with dirt and sweat and tears. They have been dropped and sat on and trampled over, buried in duffle bags and soaked in chlorinated pools. My friends and family know my Oakleys well. They don’t make fun of me when I whip them out of my handbag on rainy days or when I put them on with an outfit that they don’t match. They know they are just as much a part of me as the nose they rest on and the eyes they cover.

I had my first real internship as a newspaper reporter this summer, a position that involved a lot of walking around the city, stopping into stores, questioning people on the street. As I donned my ruffled white blouse and pointy-heeled shoes, I knew I couldn’t wear my grimy Oakleys on the job. It would be like wearing tennis sneakers with a prom dress. I had to match, look professional and put-together. I slipped on my sleek gold-rimmed aviators in front of the mirror and stared back at myself looking like I had stepped out of In-Style magazine. They were my best bet. I happily strolled around Boston with my little notebook and camera that summer, interviewing state officials and shop-owners, tucking my aviators into the front of my blouse when I walked inside. My boss told me I pulled off the young-hip-professional look flawlessly. I was flattered, but the sun still burned my eyes through the thin, light-colored lenses and my nose wrinkled with the strain of squinting. When I felt particularly uncomfortable, I would reach into the bottom of my bag and made sure my Oakleys hadn’t fallen out, that the soft rubber, smooth plastic, and cool, dark lenses were still within my grasp. I always managed to make it until the sunny train ride home.