The waitress set down my coffee and laid a pair of large menus on the table. "I'll come back when your other party gets here," she said.

"Wait," I entreated. "Would you mind telling me the salads?" I didn't want to start off this first date by asking to be read the bill of fare.

She flipped open one of the menus and held it up. "Here," she said, tracing down the middle of a page. "These are the salads."

Her gesture was a blur of flesh against blankness, bringing to mind other, more intentionally mystifying sleights of hand. A Lake Tahoe blackjack dealer, years ago making conjurer's passes over the green felt. A young hustler I once watched running a card scam from the tattered rear seat of a 22 Fillmore trolley bus on a rainy winter afternoon in San Francisco.

"I can't read that," I told her. "I'm partially blind." For a while, I had tried saying, "Partially sighted," a glass-half-full euphemism being promoted in the blindness community. But the fragile solace of the phrase depressed me, and, requiring as it did a kind of logical double-take to comprehend, it confused almost everyone.

I felt the waitress sizing me up. She probably noticed the uncommon tint of my glasses, a shade of yellow used by pilots, skiers and people like me with eye problems such as retinitis pigmentosa to enhance contrast. Maybe she noticed, too, that I wasn't looking at her straight on but a little sideways, trying to work around the gaps in my vision. Her face was a soft-focus portrait shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens. For me, this was pretty good. If not for the noon-hour sunlight from the window, I would have seen only a cameo shadow of her head.

Apparently resolved that I was in earnest, she recited the list, a predictable chain-restaurant selection: Chinese chicken salad, Cobb, Caesar, small or large dinner salad of mixed greens. For this date, I could have suggested a pleasant trattoria a few blocks from my apartment with better food and a menu I knew by heart. But I had chosen this place because it was closer to where Susana said she lived. And, once I explained about my vision, she'd be impressed at how intrepid and wide ranging I was, despite my only means of transportation being the buses of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

As my sight had deteriorated in the last few years, so had my social life. I became preoccupied with the falling away of capabilities, the continual challenge of adaptation. I wasn't feeling like a very good catch. And when I did get myself together and go out to mix, low vision confounded my best efforts.

Love comes in mainly through the eyes. Noticing each other to begin with. Reckoning by glances and body language, whether accompanied or not by words, what we think of each other and what, if anything, we are prepared to do about it. Now, unable to make reliable eye contact, I miss the essence of seeing, knowing all the while that I am being seen. Horrified by presentiments of even keener isolation yet to come, I placed a personals ad in a local news weekly.

The ad mentioned nothing about my failing sight. I wasn't bent on fraud, I was just trying to give myself a fighting chance. Once contact was made, I would disclose all.

There were a few interesting phone conversations, a couple of uncomfortable meetings at cafes. Then I heard Susana's message on the personals system voice mail.

She was a teacher. She read good literature. She even wrote, a little. Her social and political values were not uncongenial to my own. The odds looked promising.

What I saw of Susana when she arrived--form-fitting jeans and sweater, dark hair crowned by some kind of rakish little cap or beret--made me think of better times. I was nervous. But the compatibility factor seemed as strong as I'd hoped. And, thanks to the window light, I managed to get through my salad without having to use my fingers, even once. When the moment seemed right, I came clean.

"Maybe it's not obvious," I began, "but I can't see very well. I have a problem with my eyes . . ." "Go on," she said. "I wondered when you would say something." As I elaborated, I tried to gauge Susana's reaction. But she just sipped her water and said nothing, and her face was too blurred to supply me with any nonverbal clues. To my relief, though, the little that she said when I finished sounded more sympathetic and respectful, even admiring, than pitying or repulsed. Good, I thought. Maybe something was happening here. I proposed we get together again soon, and held my breath.

"No," she said, flatly. "I can't do that. I can't go out with you." I observed that we'd been getting on nicely. Enjoyably. A lot in common. Yes, she agreed, that was true. And I was a great guy, a man of qualities. So what was it, I asked, fairly sure that the problem wasn't likely to be my balding pate or my few badly sung bars of an old Tito Rodriguez song. But I needed to hear just how she'd put it.

"I have this fantasy," Susana said, "about what would feel right, the next time I'm with a man. And what I imagine is long rides in the car. Road trips. Down the coast to Baja. Or up to the Sierras."

Stupidly, I couldn't see where she was going with this. "Sure," I said. "I like to do those things, too. Just because of this . . . " I gestured toward my defective eyes.

"In the fantasy," she interjected, "it's not my car. And it's not me that's driving. It's the man. And you can't do that."

"No," I said, "I can't."

Hanging from the grab rail of a packed, home-bound bus, I wondered: Was the woman simply a monstrous narcissist? Or had she brought to our meeting needs and expectations even more acute than my own, found me more appealing than I could tell and felt criminally betrayed upon my disclosure of the RP, even though all she had risked was coming out for lunch?

But then again, I thought, this was Los Angeles, and maybe it was just as she had said. Her litmus test of manly capability, failed. Where the man belonged was behind the wheel. In the driver's seat.

A week or so later, checking my personals messages, I was startled to hear Susana introducing herself and inviting me to call, as if we had never met. I found it inconceivable that she had done this in ignorance, that my ad and voice greeting had set off not even a trace of a memory. I wondered if her psychology might be so convoluted that she wanted to reconsider but needed to set it up as an accident so as to save face. I knew full well that this was a fanciful, desperate conjecture, and, anyway, who in his right mind would want someone that neurotic? I called.

"Oh, it's you," she said. "I thought something sounded familiar." Like a boiler room telephone solicitor, she had been making her calls from a list she had compiled of intriguing personals box numbers, with only the odd descriptive word or phrase as annotation to remind her of details. Beside my box number may have been scribbled "loves music" or "writer" or "works out," but apparently not "the half-blind guy I had that lunch with." She had simply forgotten to cross me off the list.

If it was closure I needed, it was closure I got. I thanked Susana for the explanation, wished her a good life, hung up and moved on.


Joel M. Deutsch Is a Los Angeles Writer
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times