IF YOU CAN READ THIS, the bumper sticker said, YOU'RE TOO CLOSE. Or perhaps it was: IF YOE CAN FEEB THIS YOU'RE LOO CLOZ3. I couldn't quite make it out; better inch my car forward to make sure.
Either that, or I could get my eyes checked, I thought, and so I did. It had been a while. But the process of figuring out the prescription hadn't changed. It never does. You sit down in the chair and look at the chart.
There's the top line, which exists to give you confidence. "Of course I can read that. E. X. I. T. Right?"
"Sir, the chart is over here; you're looking at the sign above the door."
"Oh. Sorry. Top line? No sweat. T P L I N E. Heck, give me something hard!"
They never ask you about the bottom line. It looks like ant thoraxes. No one knows what it really says. For all we know, it spells out the secret to the meaning of life.
The doc asks you to read the penultimate line. "Can you read the letters?" she says in the tones you'd use to tell someone in a coma to squeeze your hand if they can hear you — hopeful, but not expecting much.
"Uh . . . T, Z, K, O, 3."
There's an uncomfortable silence, and you almost turn to see if the doctor is getting a white cane out of a closet.
"I can do better!" you think. "Really, I'll go study and come back and take the test again. No, wait, that's not how this goes. They have lenses! Special glass that makes things better."
"OK," the doctor says, "This is number one." Click. "This is number two." Click. "Better? Worse?"
You can't tell. "The part that was sharp now has some fuzz, but I can see that the 3 is really an E. I feel so stupid! Why did you let me go on when you knew it was an E?"
The doctor presses on: "This is number three." Click. "And this is number four."
"Oh, four is definitely better," you say with sudden confidence. You've got the hang of this now.
"This is number five . . ."
Wait. There's more? Five is worse! Or are you saying that because you got so invested in four?
"And this is number six."
Stop! You want to push away the machine and say, "Look, doc. Just click in the lenses that let me see through the wall, then back it off a little."
When the doctor runs out of lens options, you get some Pain Glue drops in your eyes, and then a machine blows a puff of air at your retinas, and you walk out unable to focus, which is like going to have your broken leg set and they rap your kneecap with a monkeywrench.
There has to be a better way to do this, because when it comes to eye tests, everyone feels like they're back in high school: You think you did OK, but you won't know for a while.
And how about updating the procedure? Perhaps the letters could be displayed on an electronic screen that would get less and less blurry until it was perfect. Then they'd give you a model number for a TV set, and you could go buy that one because watching TV is all you do, anyway.
"Well," you say, "at least you got your glasses online. Right?" Because there's this place online that sells frames WITH LENSES for $3.99, and if you use the coupon code GLASSES, which is good only through 2034 A.D., you get free shipping.
As it happens, I can't order online. I need to have the glasses fitted by a professional because the blending lines have to be set just so or the world looks as if it has a two-foot-high wall of Vaseline. But it's still galling.
"Gosh," I say to the clerk, "these small pieces of wire are expensive. Do the metals come from mines on distant asteroids?"
"Ha ha; no. Yes, they are a bit pricier than online, but we make up for it with a remarkably small selection of styles."
"C'mon," I plead. "These are plastic. But they're still $79.99. Have you seen the year-to-year declines in the cost of petrochemicals lately? They've been stunning. The price of these glasses suggests that fracking hasn't revitalized the North Dakota oil sector one bit."
Clerk: "These have 'Armani' written in small letters on the inside." Well then, fine.
There are apps for this, of course; you can now have an eye exam at home. I won't, because I would take the results and ask for something stronger. If I don't need it now, I will need it eventually. I won't get the air-puff test at home, but now and then the dog sneezes in my face, and perhaps that counts.
By the way, I found the glasses store's eye chart online, and it has the bottom line. I enlarged it so I could finally read the secret message:
S U C K R