Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Philosophy · #1538151
The uniqueness of an impaired individual's sensory experiences
|The Unbearable Brightness of Being|
Every day I wake up in a state of disillusionment. I wonder if what I am experiencing at the moment I wake is real. I hear an alarm, but it seems that the same sound was also in my dream. My mind and my body feel like my own, just as when I was asleep.
I have often wondered what the barrier between the real and the surreal is like. Is it a wall with a number of gates that only open when the night guards change with those of the day? Like a swamp that gradually turns from liquid to solid with no definable boundary? Is it like a cell's lipid membrane, the real only letting in the surreal elements that are ostensibly advantageous for its sustenance?
Perhaps to compare the real and the surreal is to confuse types. No one can understand the surreal. It is like making conjectures about what is beyond the cosmic horizon, the point in space beyond which is physically impossible to see because the universe hasn't been around long enough for its light to reach us. That place is real, and it is made of something. It could be made of bubble gum and submarines, or it could be made of eight-dimensional double-thinking creatures, but likely there is just more of what there is on the side we are on: galaxies, stars, planets, molecules, atoms, neutrinos. Maybe bubble gum and submarines.
People assume that what’s beyond the cosmic horizon is also real, even though it’s totally unknown. We assume that the surreal is just a different form of what we're already familiar with in the real. Imagination only extends as far as what we have sensed in the past; it's merely compounded to a greater degree. We believe that existence beyond comprehension is comprehensibly incomprehensible. What I mean to say is: for everything we don't know about, we make conjectures, and those conjectures always and only contain elements of what we already know, what is real to us. We expect that when the true answer is found, it will resemble the material in those conjectures. We expect that the future, however surreal it could possibly be, will actually not be very surreal at all.
When the great scientists discovered the smallest parts of reality, they had already ventured on a conquest of surrealism. To discover what by the etymological meaning of 'atom' was totally and necessarily inconceivable was actually a task to translate their results into terms we could understand. Molecules are not made up of Styrofoam balls on sticks pointed at dihedral angles; nor are they colored and shaded circles projected on a two-dimensional surface; nor are they the gobbledygook of alphanumerics intertwined with mathematical symbols. Yet this is what we spread to the masses – that molecules are all of these ridiculous straw men. Objectively – and by this I mean how things are in reality, not in our reality – atoms and molecules are nothing like this. Go even deeper, and you get to the convincing yet totally preposterous concept of string theory. There aren’t really any fibers, any tiny little threads, resonating at different frequencies to create alternate worlds. But we can’t think of a better way to explain our “observations” of the surreal than to put it in a frame of understanding that’s real. Molecules, atoms, and everything inside of them are comprehensibly incomprehensible.
In my waking moments – whether or not I am in my state of disillusionment – I comprehend certain elements of the incomprehensible. Many people ask how I am able to do so, especially given my condition. That is like asking what it feels like for a bat to echolocate, how a dog knows its master, how an Englishman comes to understand a word whose precise meaning only exists in French; they don't merit explanations. Biologists will ascribe it to a competitive advantage to do so in the evolution of species. The Pope will say it’s the glory of God. Perhaps Descartes would say no one really knows. To me, it doesn’t matter, because we are all trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. I know that what I experience may not be “real”, but that’s not so bad. Reality for one man is very different than reality for any other man. Each man's experience is sharply demarcated from another's by the individuality of his mind. Although I am troubled that this may vitiate all of reality, I am also comforted that no one can pronounce judgment on my stream of consciousness.
My bed teems with this muddy soliloquy until the sound of traffic reminds me that I am in an urban nightmare. The honks and whistles travel through my closed window as if it were playing on a perpetually running phonograph in the corner. Gasoline, garbage, and a mild sense of fruity fermentation course through a stagnant atmosphere. The heat is constant during every part of the year: sweltering when the sidewalk burns bare feet; dry and suffocating when there's a foot of dirty snow in the gutter.
My apartment is cramped. I feel trapped inside, more so than in my own body. I have to get out as soon as I can after the night is over, but out there is never better. Everywhere I go I see the people staring. They get out of my way, and if they can't step to the side to do so, they jump over obstacles. It’s not fear that makes them step aside, but it’s usually close. Sometimes it's inattention; sometimes it's genuine courtesy. Sometimes it's pity, or perhaps a desire to move on past the guy who looks different and keep talking on a cell phone two paces afterward. Shadows surround me, and although the stick tells me what’s in front of me, it doesn’t tell me what’s creeping behind. And suddenly, without a choice, I become suspicious of everything as if a snake is behind me and ready to strike. Paranoia is a way of life.
If the sense of danger that encircles me, the ugliness of the urban sprawl that chokes me, and the misfortune of my impairment are disadvantages, I have one unique advantage that makes incomprehensible things comprehensible. It is something that nearly everyone sees, something that I should not see but do, the sine qua non of all my positive emotions: color. Color provides warmth where I would otherwise feel the scorching sun; it sends me a breeze where a freezing gust would otherwise knock me down. Color makes sugar taste sweeter and at the same time makes gall taste bitterer. Color is the unifying element, the qi, of my life. It is everywhere and in everything.
Everything has color. All of these words I am saying have color. They have color as paragraphs, as sentences, as words, as letters. The people I interact with have color. The color of people is sometimes arbitrary, sometimes exactly what I would expect. People with the same race, same heritage, same job, same socioeconomic class, even the same appearance could be as different as frost from fire. To this day I have not pinpointed what defines a person's color. Perhaps I never will. Every time I try to find patterns, an experience a moment later makes the set inconsistent.
Everything, I repeat, has color. Countries, states, towns. Quarters, nickels, dimes, pennies, yen, pesos, Euros. The Bible, periodic table elements, guitars, SpongeBob SquarePants, giraffes, lamb chops, Wall Street numbers, children, the Spanish Inquisition. Days of the week, months of the year, hours of the day. Spain is a solid, milk chocolate brown. Florida is a beautiful bright green. Chicago is a murky blue with a touch of gray. Some books are vermillion, others are ochre. Monday is orange-red, Wednesday is red-orange, Sunday is jet black. Ask me why any concept is a particular color, and I will give you absolutely no explanation; they just are.
Sometimes a color is so distinct in my mind that I can't even identify it in language. The letter M is like that; I know what it is not, but not what it is. It's somewhere between red, purple, and brown, but it actually sounds very wrong to me to express M as any of those. M just is. I know what M is, but no one else can understand. Comprehensibly incomprehensible to both me and them.
Colors can be useful as well as frivolous. Remembering birthdates is easier because I associate the color of the date with the person. I confuse April, June and August because their colors are so similar: April is a light, lemon meringue yellow; June is a happy, smiley-face yellow; August is a slightly darker, mustard yellow. But I know, for example, that someone was born in a "yellow month." I can even corroborate a date with its two different epistemological access points. September 8th, 1956 is brown with a hint of purple, forest green, and a rainbow of white, crimson, periwinkle and maroon; 9/8/56 is a mélange of greens, blue-purples, and the same maroon. If I ever needed to remember that date, I'd have two ways to remember. My experiencing of color easily turns into love and appreciation certainly for its aesthetic value but sometimes just for its utility.
“Color” is being used in the exact surrealist sense I cherish and detest at the same time. I have no idea if my experience of color is the same as another's, in the same way I don't know why some men like Beethoven and some men don't. They are the same thing, falling on identically structured organs. Perception is fickle. I don't really understand what color is, although it surely is not the reflection of light at different wavelengths. This latter definition means nothing to me. It’s funny how describing the objective nature of a phenomenon doesn't at all adequately express how one experiences that phenomenon.
Those who know the works of Wassily Kandinsky or Andy Warhol know the value of color in art. I have the unique advantage that my entire world comes out as a blank canvas. Not black, like most people think it is. Not white, either. Just empty. When words and symbols come into my head, I paint. Adding prefixes and suffixes and swapping verb tense change the look of the canvas. Alliteration and consonance round up the painting into something more crafted than splotches; they draw pairs of lines or create concentric circles to contain all the other random bursts. Poetry is beautiful not only for the sounds or meaning of its words, nor for the way the words are arranged on the page, nor for the rhythm they create when put together, but for the path I take through a magical wonderland every time a poem is read. For that reason poetry must be read slowly and deliberately, so that you can stop to smell the roses, so to speak, at every strophe, verse, and comma.
As you might guess, it is a treat to think. To think for long periods of time, to invent new words and to experience the most pleasurable words again and again, is philosophy. Philosophy is and must be the sole source of unique pleasure I can extract from the world. Swimming, clay modeling, listening to music, and sex are all fine, but they don't employ the only faculty I have to distinguish myself from monotony. Anybody can shape clay, but thinking about what it means to shape clay gets me somewhere real.
I am aware that any reader of my thoughts would likely be confused. The mind is complex, of course, but it is not beyond decoding into simple human emotions. So, let me contain my random splotches into an ordered work with a change to the past tense.
I once knew a girl by the very beautiful name of Kristiana. When I say beautiful, I mean exactly what happens when you see a valley full of California wildflowers at just the right moment and you take that little gasp and say, “Wow, it's so beautiful.” Kristiana is exactly that. I don’t mean her face; I've never met her in that way. But her name is spectacular. It's a big flash of pink, mostly, then a shade of canary yellow, grass green, a blue so dark it verges on black, and a calmer, lighter yellow spread around it. Then alternating bright and dark tones of velvety crimson on the backdrop, spotted with the whitest white there is. Experiencing just her name is like tasting chocolate with fruit for the first time – an amazing combination entirely unknown to you prior.
Kristiana. Oh, Kristiana. Kristiana's delicate beauty was matched by the sound of her voice and the touch of her skin. When we kissed for the first time I remember thinking of cantaloupe. She exuded Isabelline gentleness and azure compassion. In a word, Kristiana was loving. She loved like the fully ripened strawberry, like the Arizona sky at sunset, like fire fed dry brush. She had what the Ancient Greeks called agape, a love not based on the state of the world or the people in it, but a love based on her own character. She loved her neighbor as herself. She loved the old woman on the bus next to her, the young man who sold her the newspaper, the children dancing around one another in spontaneous rhythm. She even loved the man who lived nearby who didn’t deserve it. She loved them for the sole reason of her existence rather than theirs.
I remember the day I met her, on the street, in the middle of downtown. It was extremely hot and bright out. No clouds were in the sky – sometimes you can tell because of the city's mood. Shadows skirted me everywhere, people on cell phones continued their business and most people just coughed, put their heads down, or pretended to look at something way off in the distance. I was waiting to cross at an intersection, and slowly people gathered behind and next to me, also waiting to cross. Soon, I felt calmed by a damask hue that slid gently into my consciousness, and the size of my heart doubled.
Then, oddly, I sneezed. She said “God bless you.” I was so stunned by the way she said it – completely without the expectation of gratitude or acknowledgement – that I forgot to thank her. Instead, I responded, “Who are you?” She laughed, and told me her name. Between her utterances of “God bless you” and “Kristiana”, I already knew her. Everything I have already described of her was instantly apparent, lain out on that velvet background with spring flowers sprouting from beneath. Whatever I said next was garbled, like being underwater. She laughed again, the light changed, and we didn't cross the street. Then, as if we had planned it ahead of time, we abandoned all other commitments for the rest of our lives.
We went immediately to the coffee shop on the corner and stayed until it closed, skipping lunch and dinner accidentally. Coffee shops are wonderful places to observe people. There are many conversations going on, but all of them are audible. People aren't talking as softly as they would in, say, an office or a library, and they aren't yelling to drown out the conversation next to them, like at a rock concert or a football game. People talk normally, and you can understand exactly what they mean because the inflection of their voice is not inhibited by external circumstance. Laughing is acceptable, even welcome. The place I like has a piano in it, in case anyone decides it's time for a tune. The smell of the shop is robust and adventurous, an amalgam of all different flavors and strengths of coffee. Every once in a while you get a flash of raspberry-flavored tea. Perhaps you’ll experience a bagel fresh out of the toaster getting buttered to fulfill its delicious telos. All of the smells of a coffee shop together are like the work of a Kandinsky painting: ordered, consistent, with a pattern; yet vibrant, diverse, and perfectly in harmony with an adjacent feature of the same work.
On the first day of the rest of our lives, I knew Kristiana would feel the same way about coffee shops. I was struck immediately by familiar sensations when we walked in and she asked me if I liked the place, but she already knew. She knew because of the periwinkle pace I set, because I didn’t fumble for the cerise door handle, and because I guess I breathed in just slightly more apricot than usual as I walked in behind her.
We sat down in the center of the shop and talked about everything. I had never had a best friend, or a girlfriend, or even a mother. I could psychoanalyze and tell you that I connected with Kristiana so deeply because that lack of family and friendship forced me to apotheosize the first shred of hope that might bring it to me. There may have been an element of that – there is always a subpersonal explanation that a phenomenologist such as me hates to admit to – but I would like to think it was solely her cherry blossom character. Kristiana was the first person who asked me questions, who really wanted to know about me and my life. She leaned on the table with her saffron head in her hands, nodding along and commenting to herself while I explained things I had never explained to myself before. For as much as I reflect on my own life, saying everything out loud was simultaneously embarrassing, surprising, and therapeutic.
What most people don't understand about my condition is that I know when people are talking to me, looking at me, or walking near me. People get out of my way on the street because they think I will bump into them, but that's pretty silly. Movement is sensible. Movement of the eyes, face, and head are equally perceptible. I may not see certain subtleties, like the stretching of the scalp at the first sign of a smile, but I do know when people are watching me from a distance.
While Kristiana and I were talking, people stared at us. It wasn't that they looked up from their newspaper because we were too loud, or that they happened to glance in our direction. They stared at us. Couples ceased conversation, businessmen forgot they had Bluetooth, and twilight-eyed baristas turned their heads away from their work. Either the conversation we were having was profoundly interesting or the chemistry we were creating was physically growing outside of us. I imagine an incandescent aura, burning wisps of brightness emanating from us, like the rings around the moon on a cloudy night. Perhaps people were trying to figure out what it was that made them stare. Perhaps they sensed a supernatural presence but were trying to process it into comprehensible mental terms. More people came in and watched us. If none of it was supernatural, the only explanation would be that Kristiana was herself so physically stunning that people wondered why she was there, in the coffee shop on 47th and 3rd, instead of in the cafe that lies on the corner of Beauty and Bliss.
I also learned a lot about her. She told me much about herself, but only the things I asked her. Many people lie about their talents; she avoided telling me hers until I intuited them. At one point she returned from the bathroom humming a tune I recognized from an obscure jazz album I had owned many years prior, and I asked her, already knowing the answer, if she played the saxophone. By the end of the night we were finishing each other's sentences with such gilded grace as to make it sound endlessly rehearsed. Perhaps that was why people stared at us – Kristiana and I were speaking a language intelligible only to us, like the untranslatable communication between twins.
I used to cry foul at talk of love at first sight. I would say that people only felt it about Adonises and Aphrodites. You can’t fall in love with someone at first sound or first smell. You don't love the person next to you because of the sound of their voice, no matter how musical it is, nor do you smell their shampoo and wonder about your future together. And since sight is just another sense, love at first sight is as silly as love at first smell. But now I know that you can first perceive a person with your mind, then appreciate every sense experience aroused by that person as the most golden, the most perfect it could be. I would have called you crazy before Kristiana, but now I know.
All of my acquaintances to whom I introduced her gasped ever so slightly like you do in front of those California wildflowers. They’d tell her right then in hushed solemnity that she was incredibly beautiful. Closer acquaintances would take me aside and say in stuttering fragments that something remarkable was going on between me and her. There was an essence to both of our persons that were united and indivisible; the same thing that made me, me, was the same thing that made her, her. All were amazed that my obviously perfect counterpart not only existed, but that I had found her so serendipitously. What they said merely rooted more firmly my knowledge that the connection between Kristiana and me was and is eternal, as impossible as that may seem in this finite world.
The ashen sneeze, the auroric cafe, the soft pink ecstasy were like photographs in my mind’s eye, taken by an alien camera that captures everything about a scene except the image itself. I kept taking these photographs, trying to capture every moment of happiness in a flash of colored arrangement. When she held my hand as I ice skated for the first time, it was smooth lilac; we played cards on a perfect spring morning and it was textured reds and blues; our first time in true love was pulsating white and yellow. Every event succeeding was brighter and more stimulating than the last.
For four and a half years we watered a seed into a sequoia. Kristiana sterilized my apartment of that vomit-green sadness and neutralized the rusty-pink pollution from the streets below. She purified the hideous sounds of stained gray urban life into the star-white voices of angels. For all those years all I could smell and touch was Kristiana's silver skin, all I could taste was her cantaloupe lips, all I could hear was her strawberry voice, and all I could see was her flash of pink with yellow, green, and blue highlights, crimson undertones, and bright white spots. The imagination was priceless and perfect.
Then, the event that changed everything happened. We were cooking dinner in her apartment on a chilly winter evening when there was a knock at the door. I opened the door but nobody spoke. I sensed that someone had just sneaked around the corner. When I called for someone, nobody answered, but I knew that I was not calling to an empty hallway. I closed the door and waited with my ear to the door. Soon, I heard small, slow footsteps back down the hallway and into the apartment a few doors down.
When I returned to the kitchen, Kristiana looked upset. She mentioned that every day for two weeks, a young, generally reclusive man had knocked on her door with some strange request or another. First it was to ask if her A/C was working, to which she replied she didn’t know, since it was December. The next time it was to hand her a newspaper that had already been delivered to her doorstep. Yesterday was the strangest, however, when she watched him through the peephole as he approached and backed away from the door a dozen times, with his hands behind his back and always facing forward. She was finally going to say something to the building manager tomorrow, she said, and left it at that. But I ate with the sense that someone was watching us.
I went home a few hours later with a rock in my stomach. A strange calm had passed between Kristiana and me since the knock, and for the first time since the day we met, I could not take a picture. The canvas was blank but I had no paintbrush. The cars did not rumble, the machines did not hum, the birds did not sing. I could hear only my own heartbeat down the stairs, on the train, and back into my own apartment. When I finally fell asleep, many hours later, the canvas was still blank.
Then, in the early hours of the morning, I awoke, and the canvas was splattered with the wrong colors. In the blink of an eye, the stench of my apartment returned in full force. I felt cramped again and I felt the heater making the room stuffy. I could again hear the horror of taupe honking horns and profanity of arsenic semi smog. I panicked, pacing frantically from room to room, not caring when I tripped or fell. I cried for hours on the floor before anyone came to tell me what happened. I moaned and yelled like a spoiled child in time out. I ignored the people who came knocking on my door to ask what the matter was. I suddenly cared about nothing. For hours, maybe days, I was tormented by reality, choking on its oozing olive poison. I choked on it until my body didn't know where else to supply tears or voice from. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were my forearms to eat and salt water to drink. That day, and every day since, has been miserably real.
They told me what happened to her the following afternoon. I humored their presence by opening the door, but they didn't need to say a word. The details of it don't matter. They told me a man was in custody, that I would be eligible for psychotherapy services, and so on. I don’t remember what I answered, but our conversation was not long and I went back to comfortless wailing.
I have done nothing useful since that day. All I can do is think. I think of my photographs and of Kristiana’s presence in every one of them. I cannot forget her, because I cannot forget her unique color. It is ultimately her color, the color that on paper is the same color it always is, but also the color that intensifies in my mind and brings me more happiness each time I think of it. It is written, but it never fades from the abrasiveness of the sun or the acidity of its ink. Until I forget her name, I cannot forget the pleasure of her company. Thinking about her does not make the pain go away, but it does remind me of the infinite joy I felt in our moments together. I have never known anything, not even the fact of my own existence, more deeply than I have known Kristiana. I suppose it isn't possible to know with absolute certainty if her existence, or anyone else's, is transient or everlasting. But if the persistence of her color in my mind is any indication, it is the latter.
This is why my day always begins in disillusionment. Every morning I wake up and feel the silvery softness of my pillow, like Kristiana's face against mine. I smell what I was smelling in my dream, just vaguely the rosy scent of the sheets, as normal as when Kristiana was there. The faint taste of sweet fruit in my mouth is the same it has been since I can remember. And what I see upon waking is Kristiana. I see her at the first light of day, every day. Because I always wake up thinking of her, I see her most beautiful colors, I see them spread out on a canvas as if she were right there lying in the bed next to me. For the first few moments I am awake, all five of my senses are fully intact, and I feel that I am experiencing life as it should be. One day, one shimmery royal purple day, if the surreal really is like the real, I will walk through my palette and feel that life again.