Palette

7:00 AM

Palette, Rosa Bonheur, 1863

By ROSIE PASQUALINI

“Spectral”
I

Avella. Sometimes in toothpaste when drops crust up in the corners of my mouth. Sometimes on the olive-tip nose of a dog. Sometimes on the middle bits of fluorescent lights, where grey feigns silver before turning. Things never just are my color, like grass is green, like shit is brown. Things turn. Avella sparkles harder when I squint; then it burns. I dare you to strike a match and find the yellow. Only the yellow. Do you feel that oppressive blur, that sharpness like a migraine? It splinters your mind; here the yellow emerges, escapes, flickers in, flits out. This is how I meet my color-- like a memory of joy rendered traumatic by a harsher now. I cannot quite face avella for the pain.

Still I search for that hard shimmer in all things. I search in line behind the Kwik checkout counter, but first I examine the candies nestled together in boxes labeled 0.99!!. That's two exclamation points. Two breaths of ink wasted. I think about how stupid everyone is. Then I think my girl might like a Twix-- she’s at home with her friend Sadie-- but I hate the way she eats them. The wrappers drive me mad with their crinkling, which sounds shiny and pretty. There's nothing worse than trash trying to sound pretty.

I have to kneel to consider the Twix and when I stand again the back of someone's ropy ponytail hits me in the nose. I blink hard. There it is-- a flickering in her hair, northern lights cast along those gossamer strands. A sheen distant and vivid as the sun. Avella. Never before have I seen its diaphanous hues taint a human being. Plus this stranger (such a sexy word! stranger) is young and probably beautiful. I touch her shoulder.

She turns around. She is young. She is kind of beautiful.

“What,” says the woman.

“Nice hair.”

“Lots of men like my hair.”

She's at the machine now, pressing her fingertips against the glass. Her nails are crescent moons.

“I like your hair more,” I say. “It’s a color only I can see.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

She slides a box of Plan B beneath the scanning light. 

A guilty shiver scampers, uninvited, from the base of my neck up into my eyes, those half-burning sockets, and it is horrible, I mean it is horrible that nobody ever really knows anybody. I was feeling good, too. I'd taken a shower that morning.

She pays. There's that avella dancing up and down in electric bursts beneath her fat orange hair tie, which in comparison is ordinary to the point of repulsion.

Perhaps I should get the Twix.

By the time I've bought Advil for my headaches she's halfway out the door, ogling an assortment of flowers in the window. There's no wind but the petals shake. She does not look at me. She moves to let me by. She moves in silence.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Okay.”

She waits for me to leave.

“How are you,” I say.

...Now she is looking at me.

II [later]

More than a hug. My girl’s hands are all over my cheeks, the back of my neck. Little circles. She keeps dipping slightly beneath my shirt-- you know how they do it, try to lasso your entire ego with a few dextrous lashes of friction. But I am bigger than the world; like the sky I have no surface. Avella fireworks burst in the periphery of my vision, skirting the line between sleep and wakefulness, sanity and sheer madness. The ponytail is still there. It swings like a pendulum in the back of my mind. I damn near choked at the mercy of that brightness. Spiderweb threads, as they say, are stronger than steel.

“You didn’t get me any,” she says.

I emit some sort of sound. Raise the end to make a question.

“Any Twix.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Okay.”

A certain silence. Then my girl puts her hands in her lap and I become an itch forever unscratched, a wave felled too swiftly by the wind.

“Nick,” she says.

“Hm.”

“You aren’t here.”

“Hm?”

“You went somewhere new and you haven’t come back.”

I want to tell her. When we were dating in high school I’d tried to explain avella a million ways. It’s blue, but it’s not. It’s standing at the top of a mountain and looking out in every direction at once. It’s the prickly chill before a sneeze. It’s falling, I mean it’s flying, I mean it’s--!, I would say. My exes would tell her, It’s something he made up to feel special. Little rich boy in his cold marble castle. Nothing left to earn but love. Except I really saw it. Avella. Undeniable as dawn, skirting the edge of every cloud. And it was worse, maybe, that I saw it.

Here’s all I know about people: What we want is understanding. The only true permutation of love. But if that’s impossible--always, with kids-- we need to be needed. That’s not love; that’s survival. A lone self grows inadequate when rushed to stillness in the infinite onslaught of years. Women train themselves to like mystery for mystery’s sake.

But not my girl.

She asked me to find the avella in everything, stared at each quasi-empty spot with the desperately rapt yet evasive gaze of a sinner watching for God.

So it went, so it goes.

We are ordinary with each other. We know each other, almost. Still mystery lives; still deception lives; in myself; in you. I strike it and it lives. I await the fresh cracking of vertebrae, a snap like a gunshot, and all I get is a feeble blink. It lives. Deception is ambiguity, a hundred shadows leeched upon a light-boned face in a phantasmagoria of decay. And I cannot tell how much of this darkness is a remnant of deception’s own rot, that asphyxiated flesh turning to graphite-- or rather a product of the candle on its nightstand, which grows weak in the embrace of its own slime. Deception blinks and I throw her down again. The candle jumps in its metallic socket; the whole room rattles; her body makes no sound. Deception is dead. Mostly. She is dead and looking at me.

I am trying to hold my girl’s hands.

“Don’t be stupid,” I say. “I’m right here, I’m inches away.”

“There’s more than one kind of distance.”

She refuses to be touched.

This makes me angry.

“I met a girl,” I say. “I mean a woman.”

No response.

“We were in line at the checkout. Her hair was avella.”

More quiet. Then: “What did you do.”

I blink. “Don’t be stupid.”

“What did you do.”

“Two years and you still don’t trust me.”

“That’s not--”

I’m in her face now, grabbing her jaw with one hand. “You want to see the painkillers? Huh? Want me to save all my damn receipts? Is that what you want?”

She shakes her head and I can sense her teeth clenching up beneath her cheeks. “Sorrysorrysorry.” She clings to me once I let her go. In the sweet rush of skin I can breathe again. Now she pulls at my clothes; somehow this is the natural progression of things. I wonder, irrationally, whether I smell like flowers. “Find something avella,” she says as my thoughts start to unwind. I point out a tiny fissure in the ceiling.

When I look back she has taken her shirt off.

I squint.

It’s the light, I think. It has to be.

But I feel them, I feel them as I run my fingers across her collarbone, the moons, little crescent moons of red like stationery made for children, and they are slightly wet, and they are elegantly placed, and more, I see more now, along the softness of her stomach, her breasts--

“What’s this,” I say. My voice barely holds. “What’s this, sweetheart? Huh? What did you do?”

“What did I do?” She blinks. “Don’t be stupid.”

I cannot breathe.

She is smiling. There’s a noise outside, a honk, somebody’s car, and a dull ache pulls behind my eyes, and the whole room goes avella for a second, and then it is bland and hard, and she is still smiling.

Breathe, Nick.

In. Out.

“That’s Sadie,” she says. She slips her shirt back on.

In.

“Sadie’s car,” she says. She sits up straight.

Out.

“Sadie’s here.”

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