Short Fiction by C. Derick Varn
in psychology, a process in which one type of stimulus produces a secondary, subjective sensation, as when a specific color evokes a specific smell or sensation.
Sometimes she dreams in blue, other nights in pink. The colors are arbitrary as she tosses and turns, posing for those vulgar dreams underneath the plush of her comforter. The edges of her sheets would be wet with saliva as she gnawed on the cotton and sucked on the sound coming from her mouth. Her lovers would remark upon minor whimpers she had during her rest, but she’d remember only blue or maybe pink.
Body fluids would dance around her bed when she slept. Before he died, Eric, a lover, would smile as he wiped off her stickiness as she clung to him in dreaming. This was one of the few times she really touched him. Most of the time she would merely run her hands across his body in soft, carefully articulated movements. It was utilitarian. When the colors overcame her, she explored him like a kaleidoscope–passing between her fingers his flesh would become fractal and fragment. Her future belonged in colors.
During the day, she would romanticize colors on the tip of her tongue. Her other lover, Kathy, would poured a mixture of Irish cream and decaf. Eric had hated coffee, so did she. Still when Kathy handed her the cup, she would sip so the brown would overcome her.
“You’re a strange one,” Kathy muttered.
“Huh,” She would say as she imagined the crystalline reflections of water as she remembered Eric showering.
“Always looking into the cup like that. It’s weird.”
“Ever looked at porcelain under a microscope?” she replied.
“Pores hide colors that you can’t see.”
“What the fuck does have to do with you staring at coffee.” Kathy paced around the bar and turned on the morning news. The blue bar scrolling stock quotes underneath recent reports caught her eye. Kathy let her robe slip a little. She did not turn her face to the exposure of skin.
“Nothing.” Brownness crept slowly over her eyes as she focused on the blue, trying to think of Eric. Flashes of omnicolor broke down into pixels. Kathy tilted her head towards her, brushing lips against her face. She noticed the vermillion dye that washed through each thread of Kathy’s hair. The cotton robe rubbed her face. The details overwhelmed her and the brown crept through her like a fungus, growing from the tips of her extremities inward toward the crucial space of her body. Using the base of her palm, she nudged Kathy away and took a sip of coffee.
“Wow,” Kathy turned towards the kitchen television. The tile was cool against her feet, the white tiles lined with the occasional lily oozed a sterile erotic aura. “You’re being a frigid dyke, Lauren.”
Kathy gulped down the rest of her coffee, placing the “shit happens” mug in the sink. She paused when she noticed a form in the screen. “What were you doing in Seattle?” Kathy turned as Lauren simply stared at the scroll bar. Lauren looked up and saw herself running into a chain-link fence while the blue scroll bar mentioned the recent riots in Geneva and an announcer spoke of how the G-8 summit was similar to the World Trade Organization protests inSeattle. It was a full assault on the senses. Brown, blue, pink and the lot all swirled into white. She passed out in Kathy’s arms.
The rain swept across the pavement in front of the monolith facade of the Gap megastore.
The year was fading and kids in a variety of clothing hung low, huddled in front of various skyscrapers for warmth. Focusing in on the crowds, it became obvious that the people were in octopus shapes on the ground. Human formations sustained by bicycle u-locks placed around necks or ankles and sections of chain-link fence spread across the whole of Seneca and 7th street. There were picketers and chanters, pulsating while Police in full riot gear and gas masks loomed. They made jokes. A few walked to the blockages of people to suggest ways of staying warm. Others heckled the crowds, trying to incite them to break formation. Or, at least, this was how Lauren remembered it. The colors were too bright to be real: the uniforms of the officers seemed like an onyx exoskeleton, the various shirts worn by the multitude seemed to radiate the spectrum of basic colors.
“Fuck it’s cold.” Eric said as the rain pierced through the raincoat, his wool sweater, and three undershirts. The water seeped in his shoes and socks, going up the legs of his Levi’s. Lauren was trying to focus on the greys and blues of the clouds overhead. The trash-bag, that shielded her from the pang of near freezing rain, obscured her vision, deflecting her focus to translucent white edges She couldn’t remember why she came to Seattle. She didn’t remember hypothermia as a key element in Eric’s speech to get her to take a week from writing in order join him here. Rain splashed off the concrete and into her eye. The cold was turning from blue to white.
“Ya know man,” Steve said as he shivered, “ya know, somethin’ about to happen, man.”
Lauren rolled her eyes as Eric and the two men she did not know turned to looked at Steve. “Those cops are anxious, man. Clinton, in town and all.”
“There are secret service near the president’s hotel,” Eric patted Lauren’s hand making the u-lock’s scrape together. “I don’t think they’re particularly worried about us there.” Eric paused. “Anyway, they wouldn’t hesitate to snipe one or two of us off to prove a point.” The whole octopus formation made whiteness inch in. The idea of using themselves to hold a picket line, risking breaking their ankles and necks slowly simply so the police could not easily bat them away with a baton.
“What did you say,” one of the girls who joined in the protest said as she danced. The music and the rain were deafening. Lauren looked over at the girl and felt a flash of pink go over her. She tried to focus on the soaked curves of the body. Despite the layers of clothing, her damp clothing clung to her hips and breasts, making the green-haired girl appear a muscular water sign being conjured by the thud of the music.
“You okay?” Eric
“This is no way to spend an afternoon,” Lauren pulled her hand away. She was seeing red now. The color danced across her face and seemed to spin off the words coming from both Steve and Eric. She had to remind herself that the color wasn’t physically there. Police formed a procession a few yards back. Tension ran thick and seemed to charge through the street and the makeshift fences.
The were sounds that resembled machine guns in the background. There was a panic from 8th street that was spreading throughout the protestors. A loud speaker was spreading words like “You have five minutes to clear the street or we will use chemical and pain compliance to clear them” or “We are not your enemies, but you are in violation of civic protest laws.”
“Shit, man.” Steve started loosening the u-locks. One of the unknown men fended Steve away from his u-lock.
“Hey, stop that shit.” He said.
“We didn’t drive from Atlanta to undo this octopus and run.” Eric snapped. “We can’t let the World Trade . . .”
“Don’t preach to the choir, man.” Steve cut Eric off.
Lauren pulled the plastic bag tighter around her. Her body was stiffening from huddling and the chill that seemed to reach in and inject whiteness directly into her spine. Her eyes blurred out of focus. She didn’t fight as Steven undid the u-lock around her ankle.
Kathy’s face appeared a pink blur in white as Lauren opened her eyes. Kathy was dressed–flat shoes, pleated skirt, nondescript blouse. It was awkward fashion for a woman who dyed her hair and kept it short and spiked.
“Dr. Kathy Cohen,” Lauren said to herself and chuckled just enough that Kathy postured in defense.
“Well, you’re obviously alive.” Kathy suppressed a smile.
“Aren’t you late for class?” Lauren whispered softly, pulling her comforter over her body.
“Called the Department chair. Nothing interesting going on today. New faculty search committee needs me there by three, but a Grad assistant can teach my morning English Comp. class. Anyway, you passed out watching the news earlier. Couldn’t let my favorite lip-stick lessie stay on the kitchen floor.”
“I’m not a lesbian.”
“That’s not the impression I got last night.”
“Bi-sexual,” Lauren felt a little bit of red flow off her tongue, “if you have to pin me down to some god forsaken sexual politic.”
“Don’t get your panties in a wad.” Kathy reached from her briefcase which hung from the a hook on the closet with a vinyl cat-of-nine-tails. Kathy mocked a cat scratch. Lauren set-up, wrapping sheets around her body. “God, you’re sensitive”
“Go deal with your men,” Lauren smiled wryly. Yellow covered the room, tinting the framed reproductions of Dali pieces, creeping over the life-size photograph of a torso of a nude woman, coloring the bookshelf filled with works by Wolfe, Camus, Faulkner, Sartre, and whole blasé crew of modernist who Kathy idolized. Lauren let her sheet slip to expose a little of her chest. Kathy noted the gloating and walked out of the room.
“You know you don’t have to point out that I’m only one of a few hundred women at Georgia Tech.” Kathy did not go back into the bedroom to continue the conversation.
“Well, at least, it keeps you faithful.”
“I am as chaste as the day is long,” Kathy replied, her red and black words floating through the hall into the bedroom.
“See you this evening,” Lauren could hear Kathy slam the door. She then turned to look at the clock on the night stand. Noon. She could nap before finishing the paper on chimps she was panning over.
She noticed the u-lock that she kept by the side. Running fingers over the steel loop, memories of Eric flashed in her head. She wanted to touch him, run her index finger around the downy hair on his arm, pinch his nose when pretended to sneeze on her, nudge him over to his side when he snored. A deep blue seemed to coat her body. She masturbated. Then cried softly until she fell asleep.
The police marched down Seneca as the rain picked out. A Geo Metro crashed into one of the makeshift fences, breaking one of the human formations down and spreading people across the street. Police increased their advance. Lauren fought down both the white that was engulfing her and the urge to run. Protestors near by started hurling empty coke cans, u-locks, pieces of various barricades, trash swirled through the air. Others started screaming “peaceful protests” as loud as they could, without being drowned out by the whirling pieces of chain-fence, the dance music that was blaring from some unknown source, and the rhythmic pounding of the rain.
Steve started running. Lauren pulled the trash bag tighter around her as if it would protect her from an all out assault. He made it around the corner to 9th street, ducking around the building and then hiding behind a pillar where there were reporters and paramedics waiting along the sidelines. The whole thing seemed insane. Pandemonium. Fire on water. Blue and red at the same time. Lauren reflected on the paramedics. The color was sucked out of the surroundings–music, Eric, dancing girl, Steve, the encroaching wall of men in riot-gear, everything became white. Paramedics meant violence.
“Everyone pull together.” An older man said. Others moved around the body formations. The dancing girl continued and others began to gyrate with her as they screamed, “peaceful protest.” The police threw something into the pulsating dancers.
“Peaceful Protest, my ass.” Lauren muttered, shaking from the cold. A brick was hurled through the window of the Gap megastore. Lauren closed her eyes tightly, watching the plenoptic colors flash behind her eyes. It comforted her. Gas crept from the center mass of the palpitating bodies.
“Be brave,” the hippie holding a banner behind on of the improvised blockades screamed. His hair and beard hung sloppily. He did not go near the dancing or the human octopuses. Tear gas was lurking through the crowd. Lauren pulled the bag over her head.
“Unlock.” Eric yelled. The tear gas was a definite motivator. Hordes headed towards the corner of Seneca and 9th, the riot police drudged forward. Lauren hooked the u-lock to a belt loop, made sure her shoes were tied, and stayed huddled. The police were barely a yard away. The gas begin to permeate a rag she tied over her mouth.
Kathy arrived home around seven o’clock. The time wasn’t important, she was drained. As soon as she opened the apartment door, she heard Lauren’s whimpering. She kicked off her shoes, poured herself a bourbon, and decided to check on her lover. The plush green comforter was contorted around Laurens body. The fitted sheet was slipping off the bed.
“You okay?” Kathy placed her hand on Lauren’s shoulder.
“What time is it?”
“Seven.” Kathy started to undress, pulling off her blouse and skirt then slipping into a loose, floral print dress.
“Want dinner?” Lauren stood up and noticed the u-lock. Slipping it in the drawer in her night-stand, she hugged Kathy.
“Sorry about earlier.” Flashes of pink and purple ran across her face. Each hue swelled over Kathy slender frame and non-breasts. Lauren kissed her cheek, then bit her ear. “What’s that I smell? You have a rough day?”
“Bourbon,” Kathy paused. “And no, just interviews. This professor from MIT, studying the relationship between language and technology. I mean, I know we’re the Department of Language, Communication, and Technology. Still, I’d like to meet a good ol’ fashioned English major just once. It do the future architects and engineers some good. . .”
Lauren kissed her. This method usually stopped potentially long rants. The yellow and green mixed with pink and purple. The mood was obviously complicating.
“If you could only see what I see.” Lauren mouthed over Kathy’s lips.
“What do you see?”
“Colors mostly, swirling around you.”
“Sounds like LSD.” Kathy pulled back. “Back in my undergrad days, there was this art student who swore that she had a pet rainbow chasing her around . . .”
Lauren kissed her, again. Kathy responded with a deep, tongued kiss.
“Well, it’s sort of like the pet rainbow thing,” Lauren managed say during with a quick gasp. The pink dressed everything around her.
Pepper spray was sending people running. The various human barriers had shattered. Lauren curled up in the trash bag, preparing to leap to her fight, just over the chain-link fence and dash out of the downtown area. She could still the pounding of the techno from the tear-gassed dancers. Her dancing girl has refused to stop. Protestors running around her as she turned her hips in light of the looming cops. Slight visions of pink saturated the white that was consuming Lauren’s vision.
“Don’t run unless they spray you. We can’t break the line.” Eric muttered. One of the running protestors fell from what looked like a machine gun shot.
“Fuck, they took her down, bastards.” The older man said.
“Calm down, just rubber bullets.” Another man pointed towards the girls as she fell into a cloud of rain and tear-gas. “See no blood,” he pointed turns the girl who back crawling as other fleeing protestors jumped around and over her.
“Those World Trade fascists are killing us.”
“Be quiet. You’ll panic the line. No one’s dying.” Eric snapped. “Take solace in the fact it’s Mother Jones’ birthday.” Eric snapped.
“Rhetorical bullshit,” Lauren focused on the dancing girl. Her green hair dye was washing down her face. The tear gas has getting to her, she was coughing and crying something fierce. Then an officer sprayed her. The girl screamed, but refused to stop dancing. Another officer picked her up as running protestors knocked her down. Her face would bleeding, she obviously couldn’t see as she floundered around, trying to continue her dance. It was like the rites of spring, a girl dancing to death. The spirit crowd had possessed her. Lauren was startled. She forget the dampness all over her body, the blindness, the next day was going to spend in jail, the threat of broken rips from rubber bullets. Both sides of the crowd unwittingly calling for the girls blood. That girl was going to gyrate into whiteness.
She turned and saw a baton strike Eric’s leg. An officer pushed the older man back with a riot shield, knocking him down into the pavement. Their was a stinging on any exposed skin, then a burning her eyes. In animal panic, she darted away from the police.
Hearing Eric yell, only heightened her fear. “Man down.” She could remember hearing an officer say in an electric voice. Although, she could not conceive how she made it out through their masks. She imagined Eric bleeding across the street while men as gas masks gloated over him. Lauren felt only white, it crept over her. Adrenalin pushed her away from the totality of color. She felt a something tear through her trash bag, her sweater and, then, her skin. Running her down the wound, she felt the barb of the chain-link barricade in her shoulder. Bleeding down the front of the wool sweater, she let the white consume her.
“How was you’re day, dear?” Kathy pulled back from Lauren, grabbing the phone book from beside the bookshelf. “Thai okay? We can get it delivered from this place near Tech wood. It’s good, promise.”
“Yes,” Lauren paced threw on her robe. Her skin felt blue as the cotton wrapped around her. “I slept a lot. Wrote some more on that paper I have been working on. Called an anthropologist friend of mine. That sort of thing.”
“What do you want?”
“Ginger chicken and jasmine rice.” Lauren paused as Kathy walked into the living room. Lauren followed her out the hall, she could her Lauren dailing. “Do you want to know what I am writing about?”
Kathy put down the receiver. “It will be hear in about twenty minutes.”
“Aren’t you writing on the monkey thing.”
“Oh, fuck, Kathy. If I said you were writing on the Faulkner thing, you’d throw a hissy fit.”
“Bonobos and Chimps, I am writing about bonobos and chimps.”
“See monkey stuff.” Kathy walked into the kitchen, pouring herself another bourbon and Lauren a glass of wine.
“No, it’s people stuff.”
“Human beings two closest relatives are chimps and bonobos. The difference in only a few chromosomes. The two primates societies both function on different principles. Basically, chimps function with hierarchal violence. Bonobos on ‘pleasure bonds.’” Lauren took the wine glass out of Kathy’s her, swirled the burgundy around for a second, then took a sip.
“Pleasure bonds?” Kathy smiled.
“Anyway, my thesis is that there are two predominant ways that humans relate in a power dynamic. The chimp way and the bonobo way.”
“So it’s kind of like we are either fucking or fighting.” Kathy wrapped her arm around Laurens torso, taking a gulp of bourbon, then nibbling on Lauren’s ear.
“That’s way too simplistic, but essentially yes.”
“Any system you prefer?”
“Obviously.” Slipping her hand under Kathy’s dress, she kissed her.
“Yum. I like a little of both.” Kathy ran her fingers through Lauren’s hair. The feel of her finger tips running the course through the auburn and down her back. Kathy felt Lauren shudder between her arms.
A paramedic ran cold water through Lauren’s eyes. She screamed. The burning pulsed through her body, red coursing through her veins. Steve held her hand. Another paramedic bandaged her wounds and slipped a sling over her arm.
“The sling will keep weight off that arm,” one of the paramedics as he continued to flush her eyes. “Try to keep your eyes open. I know it burns, but the worst is over.”
Steve hoisted Lauren on his shoulder. “Where’s Eric? Where’s Eric Pankman?” She repressed a scream as she was lifted. “I’ll take you to him.” Steve sighed. His soaked flannel jacket drip onto Lauren. Her trash bag was gone, the weight of the u-lock made her jeans sag, and rain made her shake throughout. The white was fading out of her eyes, the colors were returning. Purple-black veined obscured her vision.
Police escorted people down the streets. They were not pushing them forcefully, nor was there much baton play now that 8th, 9th, and Seneca had been cleared. The action was on the streets closer to central downtown. Lauren could barely make it out through the tears in her eyes. There was not cruelty to either side, simply herd love and herd violence. Pain compliance is much easier to perform on an abstract. Lauren’s eyes blurred more as thought about it.
Naked in bed, breath smelling of ginger curry and lovemaking, Lauren rubbed Kathy’s back. Kathy’s cat-of-nine-tails had frolicked along with pink, blue, and red rendering both Lauren’s back and sex.
“That’s nice,” Kathy half-moaned in a resigned submission to relaxation. “You have strong hands for a girl who wears lipstick.”
“Drop it.” Lauren turned over on her back, poking Kathy in the ribs.
“Were are those hand cuffs?” Kathy then pulled reached into the drawer in the night stand. “The naughty girl needs one.”
Lauren laughed and nudged Kathy ribs harder. Kathy pulled out the u-lock, chocking her eyebrow. “This could be interesting.”
The steel reflected deep black, blue, and the creeping white. The nothing white that had always threatened to suck out the color, the emotion, the substance, the pleasure bonds, the violence, and all that Lauren valued. The white eat the color hiding between the pores. She thought of the bluing Eric, of pink spermless love, and the piercing rain.
“Put that away.” Lauren elbowed Kathy in the kidney. “Put it away, Katherine.”
“Shit,” Kathy popped to her side, dropping the u-lock on the carpet. “What the fuck is your problem.”
“This is personal.” Kathy stroked her side. “We’re fucking. That’s personal. So what’s with lock.”
“I’m sorry,” Lauren cooed and pulled Kathy’s thin-frame to her chest. Pink honeycombed her words. Lauren nuzzled her left arm under Kathy’s breast and
“C’mon Lauren, you’re being weird today. First, that Seattle clip nearly put you in a fucking coma. Then, you sleep all day. Now, you’re freaking out over a bike lock.”
“I don’t want to get into it. Just a keepsake that reminds me of a old lover.”
“What kind of girl reminds you of a bike lock?”
“Boy.” Lauren blew on the back of Kathy’s neck. Pink trickled from the invisible orifices in Kathy’s skin. Her pale flesh turned technicolor.
“A butch.” Kathy’s muscles softened in Lauren’s embrace.
“No, a man.” Lauren paused. “A dead man.”
“Oh god, Lauren. I’m sorry. It’s just. . .”
“A little weird. I know.” Lauren slipped her right hand into Kathy’s pubis. Kathy’s moaned. She turned Lauren on her back, kissing her naval and working down.
“You want to talk about it?” Kathy said when she came up for a breath.
“Talk about it? You’re going down on me.”
“So we can talk when we make love.” Kathy dragged herself up on Lauren’s shoulders. “I mean, I tell you what to do sometimes. So most of the moaning is obvious theatric anyway.”
“I don’t want to talk about this now.” Lauren rolled her eyes, seeing blue slinking off Kathy’s tongue. “You can’t talk when I kiss you.” Lauren tasted Kathy’s tongue for a second.
“Seriously, Lauren. Talking is part of bonding.” Kathy returned the favor, then soft bit Lauren’s breast. “It’s okay, I won’t be rude. Promise.”
The exact details of Eric’s death was something that the white had taken out of Lauren’s memory. Steve had helped Lauren limp to the ambulance station. They had inquired about the Eric. The paramedic simply shrugged and mentioned a state hospital two blocks over. Three hours later, when Lauren’s sight has fully returned and her own arm had been stitched, Steve came back. His face was taunt. His mustache tried to hide the deep frown that Lauren knew necessitated the absolute worse.
Lauren said nothing. She stared into nothing. Staring into the white, she knew that the mob had demanded blood. The future had demanded blood. The past had demanded blood. Lauren suppressed tears in the sterile waiting room. Steve rambled about accidental rubber blood shot too close, shattering Eric’s ribs, puncturing his lugs, rioters trampling him as they ran from tear gas, pepper spray, and the pulse of violence. One of the officers had gotten paramedics to him once the crowd cleared. This meant nothing to Lauren. There was just white and the u-lock.
A nurse shook Lauren. “You okay?”
Lauren still said nothing. Her whites did not move from the white. The absence and the totality of color. Everything and nothing at once. She could not turn away from the white, even as tears began to hit the tiled floor beneath her. Steve held her head when she collapsed into his flannel shirt.
Kathy traced the line of the scar the ran from Lauren’s shoulder to her left breast. The sinew raised on the skin like an abstract etching. Lauren allowed her this fetish. Neither the fossilized wound nor the u-lock could speak to Kathy; however, Kathy also did not take the dreams of pink and blue away.
Lauren kissed Kathy and taught of a documentary she had seen of a raped chimpanzee. The males had beat her, violated her, and left her for death or pregnancy. Lauren remember the chimp’s eyes. They were watery, wide, and stared out into space. The chimp simply gaped at the camera. Beyond the 8 mm, there was sky, and beyond that, there was only white. The chimp knew this and Lauren knew this. As Kathy touched her scar, feeling the colors that hid deep within the pores. Vulgar dreams of vibrant color would soon come to both of them as they sank into their blanket.
Originally published in the defunct Green Triangle Magazine, August 2006.
C. Derick Varn is a poet, editor, teacher, and theorist.