First Steps

I hear voices, laughter, and a radio playing salsa music. My heart cringes. Memories of the attack, the mugging, the fight, the acid in the face which blinded me. They are coming towards me.
03/26/2010 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Hugues de Montalembert was assaulted by thugs in New York in 1978 and lost his sight as a result of the attack. He never let this ordeal get the better of him and his book is a hymn to life, as well as a lesson in courage and resilience.

It had been seven months since I entered the Lighthouse, a rehabilitation center for the blind located in the middle of Manhattan. Seven months trying to learn to read braille, to cook, to type, to walk straight, to give birth to this new self. Above all to learn how to walk alone in the streets. Seven months and yet Sarah, the mobility councillor, follows me outside, step by step, corrects me, or suddenly grabs me to avoid being run over by a car. To walk without seeing is a scary job. The enemy is not blindness, it's fear.

One night, for personal reasons, I wanted to see somebody and I said to myself: I'm sure I can walk alone in the street.

I waited until three o'clock in the morning when the city is extremely quiet and you can use all the sounds.

The night is warm, it touches my face, my hands. I stand still for a while, my long fiberglass cane held in front of me like a fencing foil ready for a duel with darkness. Immobile, I create a vacuum inside myself, I become a nocturnal animal blending into the night.

Sounds of emptiness echo from the neighboring garage, sucking me in. I resist and follow a straight line. There's the bank whose glass walls form the corner of my street, 63rd and Madison Avenue.

I cross the avenue, to the west side, which I know better, and calmly begin to walk uptown. When my cane taps against the metal trapdoors that cover cellars under the sidewalk, I instinctively go around to avoid stepping on them. I hate anything that covers a void. At one point, I stop without really knowing why, my brain is flashing the danger signal. I put my hand out slowly and, a foot from my face touch a metal pole that my inexperienced cane had not detected. I am like a bat, obstacles reflect on my face. Yes indeed, good facial vision, as they say at the Lighthouse. A few blocks later, I hear voices, laughter, and a radio playing salsa music. My heart cringes. Memories of the attack, the mugging, the fight, the acid in the face which blinded me. They are coming towards me and sound slightly drunk or stoned. In any case, it's too late to cross the street, and the worst thing would be to show my fear. I force myself to walk at a steady pace and to swing my cane from side to side in even arcs. My nerves are stretched to breaking point. A few yards from the group I hear the voices stop although the radio goes on. They have seen me. They are silent as I pass by them, then a voice says:

- Hey, man!

I answer:

- Hi! Lovely night.

Another voice says:

- Yes, sir!

But the tension has been so great that I have lost count of the streets. I don't know whether I'm at 72nd, 73rd, or 74th. The only thing to do is to cross Madison again, and when I feel the rubber mat of the Hotel Carlyle under my feet, I know that I'm between 76th and 77th. I walk faster and faster, with enthusiasm for this newfound freedom. In fact, I am covered with sweat and my hand grips the cane as if trying to graft it onto my palm. I force my fingers to relax and I become aware of how much they hurt.

When I reach 92nd Street, I search for a phone booth and find one a block further. A sleepy voice tells me that she's much better, that she is sleeping, and that she will bring me some croissants in the morning.

This is perfectly all right with me, and anyhow, the night is too exciting for me to be the least bit disappointed. You thought the important thing was to go and comfort that woman! You are forgetting what old sailor Abdul Jemal told you on the Flores Sea: "Of little importance is the port, it's the voyage that counts."

On January 28, 2010, Hugues de Montalembert will be at the French Institute Alliance Française to speak about his just published book, Invisible, published by Atria, which he chose to write in English.