True Story, Issue #6
"Wider than the Sky" by Phyllis Beckman
True Story, Issue #6
One small observation over dinner—a husband’s dilated pupil—upends a young couple’s expectations for their life together and reveals how incredibly fragile our identities are. In this story of love and loss, Phyllis Beckman explores the ways the complex, adaptable structures of the brain can react to trauma and ultimately the question, What makes you you?
From "Wider than the Sky" by Phyllis Beckman
My husband looks up at the window, and a ray of sunlight catches his face, forcing me to notice something. I hear myself say to him, “Your left pupil is dilated.” He makes a scoffing noise and continues eating. “Look at me,” I say, with a sharpness that surprises me. He turns his head and looks directly at me, opening his eyes wide, as if for an examination, clowning a bit. His eyes are mocking, amused, but tinged with something else. Time makes itself known, now—condensing, becoming heavy and sluggish, changing its tempo to grave. Serious.
The brain works hard to track time, so important is it to our survival. There are groups of neurons that measure milliseconds and areas of the brain that organize memories over decades.
Moments of strong emotion can skew our perception of time. Neuroscientists would say that what happened that summer evening, when I felt time become sluggish and slow, was that the image of my husband’s dilated pupil elicited an immediate response in my subconscious brain. The recognition of possible danger caused my amygdala—two almond-shaped clusters of neurons deep in my brain, which some call the watchdog—to exert its influence, telling the rest of the brain, Pay attention! This is important!
In response, the other areas of my brain began collecting detailed sensory information, laying down richly detailed memory. The more detailed the memory, the longer time seems to have lasted, scientists say. An illusion, they tell us. Yet that instant of time—one second, two—is like a musical note marked by a fermata, sustained, suspended. And, like Alice falling slowly, slowly down that well to Wonderland, I have plenty of time to think about what will happen next.
“Come on,” I say. I grab a small flashlight from the kitchen drawer, and we go to the powder room off the front hall. It has no windows and will provide the darkness I need. He lowers the toilet lid and sits. I close the door and turn off the light, the narrow beam from my flashlight the only illumination.
Stalling, I check his right pupil first. I shine the light in the eye and flick it away, repeating this gesture several times. The circular muscle of the iris contracts, closing the aperture, protecting the retina from the light. A precise, elegant movement, a tiny thing, delicate—like a sea anemone retreating from danger. I move to inspect his other eye, but he says, “Wait, wait!” He closes his left eye firmly, just for two seconds, willing it, I think, to perform, then opens it for my inspection. And in that brief moment, that blink of an eye, everything changes.