You’re in an art store, halfway down the paint aisle. You’re thumbing tubes of acrylic, the aluminum casing cold against your skin. You’ve got iridescent gold in one fist, and you’re debating the merits of five shades of blue with your free hand. What’s the difference, you wonder, between cerulean blue chromium and cerulean blue hue? If you were Yves Klein, and your legacy depended on it, which would you choose?
“You planning to paint a sky, an ocean, or the Blue Man Group?”
At the sound of the unfamiliar voice behind you, you startle. The tubes fall right out of your hands. You crouch down. Curse under your breath.
But the stranger’s right there beside you, muttering, “Shit, sorry,” and a handful of other expletives and platitudes as his hands reach past your loafer for the gold. He presses it back into your hands as you stagger back to your feet. He holds your touch just a moment too long, and you notice the tips of his fingers—the only part of his skin visible past his fingerless knit gloves—are smudged with charcoal. His skin: iridescent bronze, if you had to colour-match the hue to the palette before you.
(Yours—unbleached titanium. White by any other name.)
You study him like you’d study a sculpture at a museum, a little reverent and way too long. He’s taller than you, but who isn’t? Chromium oxide–green utility jacket over distressed jeans. A viridian beanie slouched back, revealing tousled black curls accompanied by a short, scruffy beard. Russet freckles flecking his roman nose. And his eyes—impossible to match. No pantone colour swatch could come close to the depth in his irises. You’d have to mix it—a base of burnt umber, a layer of iridescent copper, maybe a few daubs of yellow ochre—but even then it wouldn’t be perfect.
You’re staring. Gawking, actually. Rudely. “I’m sorry,” you say, because you have to say something. “I’m such a klutz.”
“I did sneak up on you,” he retorts. His voice is low and warm, a rumble that reminds you, suddenly and inexplicably, of crimson.
The silence between you is as terrifying as a blank white page. Too much possibility, too many ways to screw it all up. So you stand there, dumb in more ways than one, and don’t say anything.
“You never told me what you were painting,” he says finally, absently rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “Landscape, still life, avant garde monochrome?”
You blush, blood seeping into your cheeks like red watercolour saturating a canvas. How do you tell this statuesque stranger, with the evidence of his artistic labour smeared upon his hands, that you don’t paint, you just mix them?
It’s something your therapist recommended for anxiety a few months ago. She told you to trawl the Internet for videos of mundane, repetitious things, like sand falling through an hourglass or dye bleeding through a bolt of fabric. What you found was an entire YouTube channel of someone mixing paint. Over a hundred videos, no more than a minute each. Three to five daubs of disparate colours, slowly blended together with something that looked like a cake server. You watched every video, and then you watched them all again. You scoured the Internet for more, and though you did find some, it still wasn’t enough.
So you started making your own. You bought a set of palette knives—the things that look like kitchenware—and every week, you treat yourself to two or three new colours. A ritual of self-care to replace your biweekly caramel macchiato habit. You started filming your mixtures on a whim, and now you run a surprisingly popular Instagram account solely dedicated to your otherwise ephemeral creations.
But you don’t do anything with the paint. You don’t use it. You mix it, and then you wipe it away.
You still haven’t said anything. You shake your head. “I’m not an artist.”
“A collector, then? A connoisseur of off-brand paints?” he teases.
“Something like that,” you demure. You force your gaze back to the tubes in your hands, away from him. Upon closer examination, you think the cerulean blue chromium is just a shade brighter than the cerulean blue hue, and with the gold—
“Mysterious. I like that in a man.” Shocking you out of your thoughts yet again.
You don’t know what he’s getting at. Aside from the paint that never touches a brush, the only mystery is what a square like you is doing in an art store at all. Thrift store sweater over a checked button-down. Tortoiseshell glasses to top it all off. You don’t belong here.
(He looks the part, and you—you’re acting, always.)
“Are you going to make me keep guessing? Because I can.” He numbers off his guesses on his fingers, trying, “Obligatory school assignment, misguided home improvement project, or vexing white elephant gift?”
“Why do you care?” you ask, careless against all self-preservation. Here’s a charming man (straight out of a Smiths song, except maybe not straight) who has inexplicably shown an interest in you, and you’re doing everything in your power to change his mind.
You’re a special kind of fucked up.
No, never mind, that’s not fair. Pretty much every trans person you’ve ever met has had an anxiety disorder and rock-bottom self-esteem. You’re hardly unique.
He shrugs, but there’s nothing self-conscious about it. “Colour me intrigued.”
“Intrigue,” you explain, in spite of yourself. “Feels like ultramarine blue.”
Now it’s your turn to shrug. You don’t know why feelings feel like colours to you. They didn’t always, but now you hear a word and see a colour in your mind, like some kind of faulty emotional synesthesia.
Attraction’s a volatile mix of cadmium red, magenta, and hansa yellow. It’d come out looking blood orange, yes, blood orange, and no, you don’t care how pretentious you sound; it’s not fucking red.
“You’re only making me more curious.”
This has gone on long enough. “The paint,” you admit. “It’s an anxiety thing.” Anxiety is a colour you can’t name. It changes in the light, like the anti-counterfeit pigment in currency. You feel it now, liquid colour welling up inside your lungs. Ink, staining you through.
“So you paint to relax?” he echoes. “That’s totally normal, man.”
“No, I don’t paint. I just …” Trail off, breathe through your teeth. “I mix colours. It’s therapeutic—and weird, I know, but it helps.”
He smiles at you, soft and kind, and you feel something you’ve never felt before in the pit of your stomach. Something you never thought you’d feel, ever. You can’t place it, but—permanent violet plus light magenta equals deep mauve.
“What’s your name?”
“Morris Wilder.” You’re well aware of the irony of your surname. You would have changed it along with the rest, but that perceived slight, more than the whole coming out as trans part, might have provoked your parents to disown you.
“I’d shake your hand, but.” You gesture with the paint in your hands. Self-deprecating to the last.
He smiles anyway. “Hey, I know this is kind of out of the blue”—cobalt, bright and pure—“but would you like to get some coffee?”
You don’t understand what he could possibly see in you. You’re chartreuse-awkward and not much to look at, either. Short and plain. Nerdy without being ironically geeky chic. Still afflicted with the acne of your second puberty. Boys like you don’t get the guy.
But he’s looking at you with such matter-of-fact earnestness (something pastel, diluted with a bucket of white), and maybe, just maybe you wonder what it’d be like to believe.
You say yes and regret it instantly.
Ten minutes later, you meet him at the door. He’s got an archival tube under his arm, and you have three new tubes of paint in your messenger bag. That cobalt blue hue, instead of either cerulean, plus the gold and spur-of-the-moment pyrrole orange. He smiles like he’s glad you haven’t changed your mind, and half of you wishes you had while the other half feels like a five-year-old finger painting. The joy of colour and creation without expectation, no seawall of anxiety to get in the way.
You brave the wind and the chill and make your way to an independent coffee shop two blocks over. You pass three others on your way there, but Faruq promises this one is worth the walk. “Best scones in the city,” he says.
It could be any other wannabe eclectic coffee shop, full of mismatched mugs and the kind of vintage furniture people leave on the side of the road. Hipster mishmash; interchangeable parts. But Faruq’s happy to be here, trading pleasantries with the barista like he knows her. Like he truly cares about the day she’s had and the paper she’s writing for her comp lit class. He’s so genuine it hurts to watch, like staring too long at the sun.
Even when you sit down in a threadbare armchair, the afterimage is seared on your retinas.
Faruq brings over your drinks a few minutes later. You hold your chipped mug between your palms, waiting to feel the warmth soaking into your winter-cold skin. You stare down at the swirling heart etched in the foam of your triple-shot caramel macchiato, and you wonder if the barista put it there on purpose.
You know you’re obvious. You know your blush is stained carmine pink across your cheeks. You just hope it’s not completely obvious to him.
God, you’re obvious and awkward and have no idea what to say.
But he does. Still staring at you so intently, as if you’re someone worth looking at. He asks you, “Why paint mixing? Why not something else?”
You’re not sure. It takes a moment of deep gray doubt before you tell him. “I used to want to paint, when I was younger. I took art classes in school, but I was never very good at it. Not the way I wanted to be.” There’s a whole constellation of reasons (the tremor in your hand, the depression in your brain, the sheer absence of talent in your blood), but nothing you can bear to admit. Nothing you can say without reconstructing the tableau in your mind, of all those carbon-copied nights you sat down in front of a blank canvas and thought, it’s now or never, before you finally landed on never. “I think it feels familiar.”
(Familiar is warm, diarylide yellow left to bake in the sun.)
“Do you miss it?” he asks, so earnest you feel it like a knife to the heart. “Painting,” he clarifies.
You sit and you think and you say no moments before you realize it’s true. You don’t miss it. You miss the idea of painting, not the act. The potential of a brush before its strokes. You were forever afraid of the entropy, that what was done could never be undone. Mixing paint shouldn’t be so different—you’re still creating something larger than the sum of its parts—but you can make something beautiful without the damage to your soul.
“I think I understand,” he says, though you’re sure he doesn’t. He has artist tattooed on his skin, plain for all the world to see. He creates from nothing, and you—well, mostly you catalogue other people’s somethings.
But you take pity on him. You keep talking, unsteady as you are in the sound of your still-dropping voice. You’re twenty-five going on teenage boy, but, all things considered, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
You tell him about how you’re putting your art history degree to use answering phones at a no-name gallery downtown, and he tells you he’s a senior at the local art institute. You feign surprise in all the right places.
(Surprise—mars black with a mouth full of glitter.)
He says he works mainly in charcoal, except when he has to use other mediums for school, which is all the time. He says he draws everything he can, all the time, and you can tell. He’s itching to draw, even now. You can see it in the twitch of his hand on the table, the armrest, the back of his neck.
Sometimes he fiddles with the gold star and crescent pendant around his neck, and you remember the days when you used to wear a Magen David around yours. (Faith was a cornflower blue you could never abide.)
Everything about him is kinetic. Not a colour but the blur of the palette knife.
His tea is so startlingly pink in his blue willow teacup—an ancient relic, from the time when all the world was blue—and it catches you off guard. After all, he asked you to coffee. You’re drinking something with enough caffeine to cause a heart attack, and his tea is herbal. He ordered two chocolate chip scones, too. You passed, but when he surreptitiously offered you a piece—and then another and another—you couldn’t turn him down. Now you look at his plate and see nothing but crumbs, and you pretend you haven’t eaten a whole scone from his hand.
He’s still talking about his art with such passion you think it might be contagious. His unpaintable eyes glimmer with fervour. There are scone crumbs caught in his beard, too, and you wonder what it would feel like to kiss them away.
“Come home with me,” says Faruq suddenly. It’s a total non sequitur, unless he’s caught the lust in your gaze, but it doesn’t matter either way. After all, you’ve both known, since he asked for your name, what this all was building toward. You have the kind of chemistry-at-first-sight that only ever ends in spontaneous combustion.
You want to say yes. You’ve come halfway, after all, and you have half a dozen reasons in your threadbare pockets to say yes, the spare change you never remember to clean out. You’ve got nothing waiting for you besides an empty apartment and a cat with enough food to outlast a nuclear winter. You’ve lost count of the months since you’ve felt the warmth of someone’s touch against your skin. And you want him. You want him, you do.
You only have one reason to say no, but it’s the loudest. The orange they use to make hazard vests, and the warning just as dire.
You should tell him. You should tell him before he strips off your clothes and finds a cheap silicone dick in your trunks and a binder under your shirt. You should tell him before all your quirks derez before his eyes and he sees you for the ugly, pixelated mess you really are.
(You’re no work of art, just a third-rate Photoshop hack job.)
He seizes your hand. The knit of his gloves scratches like steel wool against your winter-cracked skin. He turns your palm face-up and runs his bare fingers over your lifeline until his thumb brushes your pulse point. Then presses down, over the manganese blue thread of your ulnar vein.
A dozen protests fizzle and die like pop rocks on your tongue.
“Say yes,” he begs.
And you do. You do.
His smile’s so bright, so pure—the white blaze of sunlight—it blinds you to reason. It’s enough to convince you there’s a way this ends somewhere other than a burn ward.
So you bundle up and brave the cold all over again, but winter’s bite doesn’t seem so sharp with your hand in his.
And you follow where he leads.
Faruq lives a few blocks away, in a narrow Victorian with steps steeper than a cliff face. Its chipped periwinkle façade, filigreed wrought-iron grating, and gaping bay windows mark it as a beautiful anachronism, flung out of space and time.
As he jiggles the lock with his red-rusted key, he tells you he has roommates but assures you they’re not home. Leads you by the wrist up a rickety spiral staircase to his attic room.
All the breath in your body whooshes out of you, helium let from a Mylar balloon. It’s not the vaulted ceilings or the stained glass windows that take your breath away; it’s the art.
Sketches wallpaper every vertical surface. A museum of off-white canvases etched in black charcoal and shaded in far more than fifty shades of gray. A gallery of shadows on a cave wall. Each piece is technically perfect, but at first glance, his body of work seems a little one-dimensional. A master class in studium, but lacking in punctum. It’s a whole world of grayscale, desaturated and a little sad. Totally at odds with the prism of light and colour you see when you look at Faruq.
“I’m colour-blind,” he says, tugging at a strand of loose yarn in his beanie. It’s the most self-conscious you’ve heard him. “Achromatopsia, or total colour blindness, to be exact.”
“So you can’t see any colour?” Try as you might, you can’t keep the bereft out of your voice. You can’t imagine it. You can’t stand black and white movies. Even your worst nightmares are in full, panoramic Technicolor.
“Just monochromes of black and white. Or so I’m told.” He smiles, sheepish. It’s nothing like the easy confidence you’ve come to expect from him.
It’s not an explanation, but you think you understand what you catalyzed in him when he saw you in that paint aisle.
“So you …” Your lips pantomime words you shouldn’t say. “You never paint in colour?”
“Only when I have to, for assignments and the like.” He shrugs. Doesn’t quite meet your gaze. “It’s not a handicap, not really. Just a facet of my body, like my height or the shape of my nose. It’s something I live with, something that’s molded me into the person I am today.”
You think of inertia at work on a pottery wheel, sluicing clay into something beautiful and unique each time.
“So what if I’m hypersensitive to bright lights and need glasses more often than not? It’s not the disadvantage my parents thought it would be because it’s given me a unique perspective.”
You see that now. The longer you stare, the more you realize how wrong you were. Studying his drawings at close range, you see detail and definition you’d never be able to produce—that no one should be able to produce. Uncanny depth perception and touchable texture. A surrealist play of light and shadow.
You can feel him watching you study his art, his gaze a caress at the nape of your neck. The hairs there arc like ferrous fibres, tilting after a magnet.
“But it’s not easy going through art school when most of your classmates think you’re as good as blind. Everyone says they’re understanding, but then you get to critiques, and they’re always asking for something I can’t give. Saying, it’d be great, if only it were chromatic.” He snorts, his derision muddy like the water used to clean brushes. “Hypocrites. Like the closet racists who say they don’t see colour.”
He comes up behind you, where you’re staring at a rendering of a mosque interior. Kaleidoscopic tessellation patterns on every surface. A dizzying display of optical illusion. An Escheresque power clash that seems to sink deep into the canvas. You were so completely wrong to think his work was one-dimensional; it’s as alive as you are.
(Maybe more than you are.)
His shoulder knocks against yours, and you sway like Newton’s cradle. “Given the choice, I wouldn’t change anything. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like, you know?”
You do know. It’s how you feel about being trans. Now that you’re on T, now that you pass, now that you’ve got your dysphoria under lock and key, you don’t rue your transgender identity, most days. It isn’t a curse or a handicap. Sometimes, in a certain slant of light, you can even convince yourself it’s a gift, having seen the world refracted through another lens. But that doesn’t stop you from wondering, in the darkest hours of the night, what it would be like to be a “real” cisgender boy. Pinocchio, clipped of your strings.
You turn to Faruq, your wind-chafed lips half-parted to tell him just that, but you don’t get the chance.
He kisses you. He pulls you close, his flannel shirt soft against your skin, and frames your face with his palms. And he kisses you and kisses you until you forget all the reasons you ever thought this was something you could live without.
Pleasure’s a heady mix of quinacridone violet and indigo, tinged with iridescent silver.
For a moment, you catch yourself wishing he could see it, too, before you realize he doesn’t need to. Because he can feel it, just as sure as you can.
Maybe, just maybe you’ve distanced yourself from your feelings by transmuting them into colours. Alchemy, where the end product is the gold standard of dissociation. Mixed your paints into an abstracted phantasmagoria where everything is beautiful and nothing is real.
After all, it’s easier to pin your feelings on a colour wheel than to really let yourself feel them.
You’ve distilled your whole world down to pigments and palette knives. Never for a minute considering what you left behind at the bottom of every bottle.
Faruq is here, real in three dimensions and observable with five senses. All you have to do is let yourself feel him.
So you shut your eyes, and you let him into your mouth. Inhale the chicory-sweet scent of his skin. Listen to the syncopated rat-a-tat-tat of his heart against yours. Feel the nettle of his beard chafe against your cheek.
Minutes or hours later, he catches your hand again and tugs you over to his frameless Ikea mattress. Together you fall into a nest of mismatched blankets, a cacophony of textures, fleece and wool and downy goose feathers alongside sweat-slicked skin.
So you fuck, and he doesn’t mind the mislabelled packaging he finds beneath your clothes. Doesn’t blink or falter. Just kisses every inch of you, nylon and silicone and all. It’s so natural and easy, and you laugh as much as you moan. You learn each other’s bodies as braille beneath your fingertips. And when he goes down on you, your multiple orgasms burn through you like trick candles.
Later, prismatic light filters through the variegated panes of stained glass. A light show projected on the canvas of your interwoven skin.
Faruq shatters the film still moment when he turns over, abruptly, dislodging your head from his chest.
In another mood, without the endorphins wicking through your bloodstream, you’d be terrified of him kicking you out. But, for once, your anxiety’s blissfully silent, and you give him the benefit of the doubt.
When he turns back to you, he’s got coke-bottle glasses perched on his aristocratic nose and a sketchbook instead of a post-coital smoke. He leans back against the wood slats of the wall that double as his headboard. With his pencil poised like a cigarette between his teeth, he considers you.
(His scrutiny would be easier to endure with a screen of second-hand smoke between you.)
You lie on your side, your cheek pillowed on your arm, and you watch the sudden, fleeting smile that crosses his lips just before he puts graphite to paper. Commit it to memory; catalogue it; file under the match-strike of inspiration at the exact moment of ignition.
You watch, and you watch as he peppers the paper with short, purposeful strokes of his pencil. Time slows, each stroke a metronome by which you measure the beat of your new reality. The whole world whittles down to you and him and the art, vibrating the room at its resonant frequency.
A lock of hair falls before his glasses. You ache to push it away, but you don’t want to disturb him. Can’t risk breaking this moment, lest the Mandela effect carry you back to the cold and empty universe whence you came. Because you’re sure you would have known, would have remembered even a single flicker of loss, if you’d ever been capable of this before today.
“Want to see?” Faruq, pulling the wool from your eyes.
You shuffle up beside him, huddle close, make every point of contact count.
What you see is a jay on a skeleton tree, bone-bare but for a few daubs of snow. Even in a quick sketch like this, his technique shines through, pinpricks of light through a bolt of dark cloth. The vanishing point burrowed deep in the thatch of branches. You see the same pattern reflected back in the jay’s eye, warped through a fisheye lens.
Breathless, you trace the plumage with your index finger, your touch feather-light to avoid smudging the graphite. “It’s beautiful.” Maybe if you touch, you’ll understand, a blind man learning faces under the curve of his palm.
“It reminds me of you,” Faruq murmurs.
You wonder what he could possibly see in you, to create something so beautiful in your image.
You’re no artist, but you still recognize inspiration when it ignites a flare in you, too. So you rummage through the carrion of your discarded clothes. Find your messenger bag buried underneath. Offer Faruq the tube of cobalt you find inside.
The tube rests in his open palm. “What’s this for?”
He makes you feel real. Maybe you can return the favour.
You wrap your hand around his, until his fingers curl around the tube, cradling it tight. “You wanted to see what it would be like.”
The way he smiles at you—as if you’ve offered to give him the moon rather than lend him your eyes. “Mix me something.”
The cobalt doesn’t really need it, but you don’t have it in you to refuse him this.
He directs you to a weathered chest where he stores his art supplies. There you find a pristine box set of acrylics, the cardboard crisp and the tubes free of dents. They’re brand-name, paid for with his student loans, he tells you. Only used for school projects, and even then, his process is nothing like yours. Nothing like anyone else’s. A unique adaptation, how he’s evolved to meet the hand evolution dealt him. He relies on the names of the colours and matches those to the hues the Internet tells him the world is supposed to be, his own linguistic paint-by-numbers.
As you listen, you sort through the tubes as you would a pile of precious stones, especially reverent with the jewel tones. Find the colours you need. Rifle through the rest of his supplies until you find everything else. Despite the quality of the paints, it’s painfully clear from the disposable palettes and plastic knives that he’s not a painter.
After you set everything you need on the bed, your gaze stutters back to the clothes on the floor. The chill of the room has your skin prickled with gooseflesh. Faruq has put his undershirt back on. Yours is there, beside your messenger bag, but it’s his flannel you layer over your binder.
You sit down beside Faruq again, the paints fanned out before you. Your cobalt, his cyan and white and silver. His chatter has slowed to a drizzle, so you try to reassure him with a smile of your own, stretching muscles you’ve forgotten how to use. “Keep talking.”
“About what?” he asks, unbridled laughter lacing his tone.
So he does, telling you stories about everything and nothing. He talks about the collection he’s working on for his thesis, about patterns and places and belonging. He says it was inspired by the mosque his family frequents, and then he describes the last family dinner at his parents’ place, a rickety house filled with laughter and cardamom and so much love. Each of his stories bleeds into the next, blending and blurring just like the paint beneath the knife in your hand.
You smooth the dollops against the surface of the plastic palette. You fold and you smear and you watch the colours blend together into something new. The resulting colour is not so different from the cobalt but for a new dimensionality. Your mixture has shimmer and depth and all the facets of cut sapphire.
Faruq’s stories trickle to a stop before you realize he’s staring again. “Beautiful.”
You’re not sure whether he means you or the colour he can’t see, and you’re not sure you could bear either answer. So you hand him a soft-bristled paintbrush, your fingers brushing in the exchange.
He paints like he draws, so quick and so sure. Short, cross-hatched brushstrokes, layering paint to create palpable texture. When the whole body of the bird is blue, you take the palette from his hands and squeeze out a few discrete drops of cobalt, cyan, black, and white. He blows on the bottom coat to dry it, hot puffs of breath like the ones he blew on your skin not so long ago. You lean over to kiss his cheek, because you can, chaste so as not to distract him. Then he listens as you tell him where to put each accent colour, and together, you detail the jay’s wings, face, and chest.
When you’re done, the jay is poised to fly off the page.
“Tell me what you see,” Faruq entreats you.
You card through the answers coiled in your head. Look past the acrylic gumming the ripples and whorls of paper and the paint splattered on his nails like a Pollack. Try to see beyond the riot of colour defying a snowstorm and the bird folding the whole sky up in his origami wings. Uncover the message underneath this palimpsest of images.
You smile—a real one, this time. “A beginning.”
Jasper Sanchez is a queer transmasculine author, artist, and erstwhile academic. He earned his MA in cinema and media studies from UCLA and his BA in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. His short fiction has appeared in The F-Word, First Call, and the Bold Strokes anthology OMG Queer. He’s passionate about stories, the worlds they build, and their potential to effect change in the real world.