Adrienne was the first girl Owen ever loved. He knew because all the little things, like making a cup of tea or riding his bike to campus, felt like the best things. She had round blue eyes and a nose that curved like a raindrop. Her hair was brown and her cheeks turned pale in the cold. Sometimes her eyes would turn sharp as if she were narrating her life to a voice inside her head that kept laughing and saying, “The world is so wonderful!”
Before they met each other, Owen had been caught looking at Adrienne so many times in the library that he began sitting in the back corner where he could face the wall. The first time he saw her at a party, when he was drunk, he pretended he was Gatsby in order to say “Hi.” At first he decided not to do anything, but then his Older Self appeared in his head and told him that not doing anything was the worst possible thing to do. “Pretend you’re in a book,” his Older Owen said; so Owen walked over in Gatsby’s suit, feeling very clean and sturdy, and forgetting he was real. Adrienne said she’d seen him in the library many times, and she was glad to finally meet him. She said she hoped someone would turn on some music. What she said seemed true to what she thought. Owen told her he was pretending to be Gatsby.
Two weeks after the party Adrienne met him on a bike path and invited him to her apartment for dinner. After the meal she made tea and Owen looked at her paintings in her room. Some of them were very good and to convince her that this was true he only said it once before he left.
He spent the whole walk home thinking I should have kissed her, damn. The next time they met he did. She came to his apartment to watch a movie but they ended up talking and making dinner instead. Adrienne hummed like a cello as they cooked. She hummed every song like a cello. When it was late she put her coat on and Owen tried to kiss her. He bent down to her lips but she tilted her head down and he kissed her dark brown, almost black hair. He felt sick thinking that she did not want him to kiss her. Then in his defeat he tried again, and she kissed him back.
After that, they began spending a lot of time together. At first Owen knew he was falling in love but acted otherwise to feel normal. One night while they were walking home from dinner in Chinatown, when he was tired and not paying much attention to himself, he said it. Then everything was all right. Around them the snow was bronze in the street lamps and the lighted windows looked on the verge of sleep.
“Let’s go home,” Adrienne said. “You can stay with me.”
“Okay,” Owen said. “Let’s be Russians.”
The weather was cold and feeling Russian made it warmer. In their dream Adrienne wore a fur coat with an evening dress and a large feathered hat. Owen wore a high-collared shirt and creased fly-front trousers, smoking a pipe. Their house sat in the middle of the country where a small square had been cleared in the forest and a shed outside had been built to store chickens and firewood. They would drink vodka until they fell asleep.
“I must wake by sunrise,” Adrienne said, “so I can feed the chickens.”
“Yes,” Owen said, “the chickens.”
“And you must make the fire,” she said. “Else we shall freeze.”
When they arrived at Adrienne’s apartment Owen removed his gloves and his fingers burned. Adrienne lived with two other girls on the top floor of an armoire-shaped complex. The window in her room overlooked an alleyway filled with snow and cats in the winter and bikes and cats in the spring. The sun would set behind the houses on the other side of the alleyway and fill her room with red. Then all the dust would appear. Her room was small and shaped like a body in a coffin. The bed sat where an arm would be, the desk at the knee, and the window by the feet. The radiator beneath her desk hummed and the lilies on her dresser shook along with it. The only light came from the streetlights outside.
“Music,” Adrienne said.
“But we’ll wake them.”
Adrienne bent over her laptop on the desk. She kept the lights off. Owen heard movement in the kitchen but said nothing. Adrienne smiled and played “Get Ideas” by Louis Armstrong. She pulled the curtains back until the window was empty and started swaying her hips and moving her hands like fins, bending her right knee from side to side. Owen did the same. Her room smelled like winter. It was the Jazz Age.
“Have my flower, darling,” Adrienne said, giving him a lily. Her eyes looked bigger in the dark.
“Swell,” Owen said. He held it in his hand.
“It sure is a fine night,” Adrienne said.
Owen snapped the fingers on his other hand. “Sure is.”
They kept dancing.
“Oh say,” Adrienne said. “Smoke with me.” She took two cigarettes from the dresser’s top drawer and lit a match. “It’s a fine night.”
Now they were dancing to “La vie en rose.” Owen took a fake fur coat from Adrienne’s closet and wrapped it around her shoulders. They kept dancing until their cigarettes were done. Then Adrienne brought Owen close to her and kissed his neck. He brought her to the bed while she was still in the fur coat, and she took off his shirt. The dark bronze colour of the hard streetlamps came through the window, and the light bronze and red colour of the soft music joined together with it, and Owen felt as though he belonged to a painting of two lovers beneath the moon.
On one of the last days of school Owen’s friend told him that Adrienne had slept with someone else, twice. His friend became small until Owen could not see him anymore and Owen wanted to be a little boy setting the table with his mother while his little brother finished cardboard puzzles on the floor and played with his toes like piano keys. He vomited when got home. Over the next few weeks he had a poor sense of time. He avoided Adrienne completely until exams ended and she left for home. Then he enjoyed drawing pictures of dinosaurs and spending time in his room alone. It had a white bed with white sheets beneath a window with white curtains, and all the walls were white with nothing but a few photos and a poster of Chagall, and for two hours a day the sun would come through the alleyway outside the window and everything would turn bright white and the dust would look like tiny pearls underwater. When everything was white and clear, it was easy for Owen to feel happy. But most of the time he was not happy.
One day, in May, as Owen was doing the dishes, he saw a new colour. He could see it in his head. It was like black, but mixed with spiders, and the sound of cellos. He was bewildered. There are only so many colours in the world, he thought. Really, only the primary colours: red, yellow, and blue. There are black and white but there can’t be much else. Still he could see this new colour in his mind.
“I see a new colour!” he yelled. His hands sliced the air like a maestro. “I see a new colour!” He called to his roommate, running into his room. “I see a new colour! I see a new colour!” But words were not enough. “It’s like spiders!” he said, pumping his forearms. “Like spiders! It’s a new colour, and it’s like spiders!” He thrust his fists and head downward, and his roommate stared at him blankly. It was the first time his expression was sincere in a long time. “Dammit!” Owen said, and went outside.
The sun was setting behind the hills near campus. The clouds moved as if underwater and they were pink like a furnace burned inside. All the worldly colours looked like hand-me-downs now. The spider-colour was the opposite. It was vivid with life. “Phenomenologically speaking,” Owen said to himself, “the spider-colour is real.” Its edges were sharp. It did not curve at the edges like blue, or stay in its own middle like yellow, or move back and forth like pink, or look out shyly like purple; it dove forward violently, leaving everything else. It was moving and gripping itself. Owen’s head hunched forward and he walked fast with no place to go. Even after he stared at the sun the spider-colour stayed. He walked frantically until he came to a friend’s house and decided to walk back. Maybe any minute it would pour forward on the pavement. The colour was wrapped up and tangled inside his stomach like spider legs lunging at the walls of his insides. Maybe it would escape.
It didn’t, though. It only appeared in Owen’s head as a wall with no edges, or in the background of his thoughts. It attached onto words and images and feelings, too. It attached most strongly to music, specifically the kind that bursts forward like sobbing but cannot reach an end. Owen became desperate for it to escape. He talked obsessively about the colour to his friends and played piano in the afternoons and wrote a great deal about it in his journal before bed. He could not tell his family, and he did not talk to Adrienne.
They met only once in the summer and it was by accident. She came to visit her friend in the city and they met at the same party. Everything was different because people were drinking and when Adrienne got a chance she pulled Owen to a bedroom. Her grip was rigid and so was the way she stood. She closed the door and he stood by it.
“Owen,” she said.
But he was listening to the voices in the hall outside and convincing himself that he was interested. The room was dark and cluttered. Adrienne sat on the bed and put her hands on her lap. Her eyes were not sharp. He knew she wanted to look at him but he did not let her. Then for a moment he remembered what she had been before. She had reminded him of Bach’s “Prelude in C.”
They had talked about many things that he had never talked about with anyone before and they had shared many secrets. They were the same two people, Owen thought, the one on the bed now and the one who hummed like a cello, and the spider-colour started bursting inside him until he felt that he himself was the hardest sobbing music he had ever heard.
“I don’t really know what to say,” he said.
Adrienne put a hand to her cheek. She was still for a long time. “Well,” she said, at length. “I like the way you stand. You stand so straight, but not because you’re scared.”
“I’m pretty scared,” Owen said. He didn’t really know what he meant.
“I like that you’re scared but still stand straight as if you weren’t.”
Owen kept standing straight.
“You look very strong standing like that,” Adrienne said. “Even though I know you’re scared.”
“Why are you sitting?” Owen asked.
Adrienne pressed her hands flat against her knees. She looked at the bit of wall beneath the window, scowling slightly. “I’m sitting because I’m scared. I can’t imagine how you’re not sitting.”
Owen looked at the door. “She’s right there!” his Older Self said. “There is more you could do, you know.” His Older Self was exceptionally tall. “I know I know,” Owen said in reply. But his Older Self was very far away and Adrienne was too, and by standing still he kept it that way.
“No,” he said, and Adrienne put her hands back in her lap. He breathed loudly. Then he opened the door to see if she would say anything, but she didn’t, and he left the house. IV
Owen’s Older Self was furious. “Right there!” he kept saying, with his arms thrusting in the direction of the party. “And you know what you’re doing? Nothing! The worst thing!” Owen knew he was right. “But I can’t,” he said. He turned onto the main road that led to his apartment. The street was busy. Older Owen sat down somewhere in the back part of Owen’s head where it was dark and quiet. “You’ve given up,” he said.
But there was a violent thrill in walking home. He began walking faster and his fists were clenched. He was breaking the spider-colour into pieces that burst among the edges of his head into grey and dusty ashes of colour. They looked like the sound of distorted drums and chords. They were sucking inward and then exploding forward, and when they moved forward they turned red and burned and blurred at the tips. In the background they sucked inward and settled like dusty shards of metal on top of the purple and black pool which was the sound of his footsteps. The pool pounded up and down beneath the sucking and exploding of the dusty above-colours, which started turning into strings that dove forward, toward the back of Owen’s eyes. Then everything turned into a long beam of distorted silver, and it kept moving forward and growing wider until Owen could see nothing but grey. But the spider-colour wouldn’t leave him. When he got home he slammed the front door.
The next morning, Older Owen began to take a prominent role in Owen’s life. Older Owen was a wonderful painter and he painted all kinds of things with the spider-colour. He even took spiders and dipped them in spider-paint and pressed them against the canvas. And after completing each new painting the spider-colour would weaken. Then Owen would thank his Older Self but he would just say, “Stop being so vain.” Owen didn’t care, though, if he was vain. He would bike along the path where the canal met the railroad track, and the buildings were old and rusted, because there he would think of all kinds of great things to say, and all the things he could do, and everything he was good at.
He grew very accustomed to Older Owen. He kept painting the colour away until it stopped appearing in Owen’s head at all, save for when he wanted it to. And from then on he stopped talking about it completely and kept all his entries in a folder in his closet; and his life became normal again. He started following old routines. When he went home he acted as if everything was fine, and the more he acted like everything was fine the more everything really became fine. When school started again in the fall everyone thought he was fine, too. Eventually he managed to convince his friends that he had been confused about the colour the whole time. He had really just meant a number of other things, which he couldn’t find the right words for. The spider-colour would always be his secret with Older Owen.
*Garrett Smith is a pseudonym