Fiction Sad Coming of Age

       Just as I am dozing off, my previously toned body now emaciated from the calories the cancer consumed as it had evaded five types of chemotherapy and a course of radiation, I hear the faint notes of an Adele song from the nurses’ station outside my room.  My vision fills with a deep velvety purple, which morphs to the color of a glass of merlot, which then becomes the red of a classic rose.  If it was been any other artist, I would ignore the colors I see with the musical notes as I have done for vast periods of my life, but Adele’s familiar voice sends me deep into remembering the life I had before the terminal diagnosis.

          I have seen colors when I hear music for my entire life. A song plays, and it is as if I have put on tinted glasses, with colors that change as the music changes. As a child growing up in a boring upper middleclass family in the boring suburbs, I was loved and encouraged and told I was special, but for years did not realize I was special in this way. One day after school in sixth grade I was at a friends house, listening to a silly pop song and testing her mother’s lipstick. I asked her to turn the song off because the pink song made it hard to put the pink lipstick on, and then had to spend twenty minutes figuring out that most people only hear music, with no color associations. Most people also don’t see flashes of white light when they hear doors slam or car horns honk either, which was also news to me.

          I had been playing the clarinet in the middle school band for a few months, but I hated practicing because I found the colors I created distracting (they are more vivid the louder the music is, so squawking away in a tiny sound-proofed practice room was intense) but mainly because I wanted to play soccer instead. In seventh grade my musical career ended entirely, and in high school I focused on my honors classes, playing soccer, and grudgingly running track to stay in shape for soccer. I avoided loud music situations, which is perhaps a revisionist way of reconciling the fact that I wasn’t invited to the parties the popular rich kids threw in empty mansions on the weekends, and avoided talking about my chromesthesia or anything else that made me different from my peers.

          In college my horizons broadened, and I started smoking marijuana regularly, which made me love my chromesthesia. My roommates and I would get stoned out of our minds and listen to music while they tried to guess the colors I saw and I yelled out “right” or “wrong” before we all collapsed into puddles of giggles and eventually went back to eating gummy worms. I went through a phase of loving concerts too, although then had to take a while off from live music and drugs after adding a half tab of LSD to my routine hallucinations at a Radiohead concert and becoming convinced I had already died and everyone around me was a sepia-toned zombie. Despite all of the time I wasted, and all of the brain synapses I slowed with marijuana, I got decent grades in my economics, finance, and calculus classes and could clean up and act like a responsible adult when it was necessary. 

          Like many of my classmates, when I graduated I starting working for a large investment bank in New York City, making a ton of money and working too much to spend it on anything memorable. It took me two years to figure out I not only hated everyone I worked with, but the demands of the job and personalities of my colleagues were honing my most unpleasant personal traits. I came to my senses, resigned, and started working for a small boutique firm for one third of the money and one half of the time commitment. This opened up some time in my evenings. 

          I had always been a fan of contemporary art but outside of required school classes, had never created my own art. My dear college friend Katherine, who I had never had time to see but who somehow still wanted to try to be my friend, had bought me a gorgeous adult coloring book and classic Crayola colored pencils as a half-joke de-stressing tool at during my time with the horrible first job. Of course I never had time to sleep, let alone color, but the Wednesday of my second week of the new job I came home at 5pm (the sun was still out! I had forgotten about the sun, and the seasons, and weather in general), opened a window, poured a glass of wine, and picked up a colored pencil. Paralyzed with indecision when faced with the complex but abstract designs in the coloring book, I turned on a song to trigger my brain with color associations, and filled in the mandala randomly with the colors I saw as the notes played.

          The next day after work, my spread-sheet trained mind kicked in, and I was more methodical in the coloring, pausing the music to focus on one color at a time after it was triggered. I enjoyed it so much that Saturday I ditched the coloring book completely, bought official drawing paper from an actual art supply store on my walk home from getting coffee, and spent the afternoon drawing the colors I saw in association with the sounds of a few classic rock songs. I can’t speak for others with chromesthesia but for me the colors have never been specific to individual musical notes – possibly because I didn’t practice the clarinet long enough to imprint the individual notes in my head – but brief discrete sections of sound. There was still frequent pausing, and even for a three-minute song I had to tape multiple pieces of paper together.  Almost as an afterthought, I scribbled the title of each song in the top corner of the paper.  

          It almost certainly would have never gone beyond that if Lola, a relatively new friend I met at yoga, hadn’t come over Sunday afternoon and noticed the drawings, and then become fascinated in how I had made them. She asked me to do one for a bizarre electronica song with oil paint instead of colored pencils because as an assistant art director for a major beauty brand, she had very specific views on things like texture and color saturation and was used to giving specific orders related to these variables. Wanting to progress our friendship and having a surplus of money and few hobbies, I bought oil paint and did it for her. She posted it on Facebook page and tagged me, resulting in a tsunami of messages from other people with song painting requests.  I kept my day job for another year and a half but tried to paint all of the songs my friends requested, and requests from strangers if I liked the song, and apparently these spread across social media far beyond what I imagined. It culminated (or so I thought at the time) in a request from a singer-songwriter to paint her entire new album and allow unrestricted licensing for promotional materials. I listened to the album and conferred with a group of my finance friends on how much commission to ask for to do it, and while I was doing that her record label emailed me a contract to sign with an offer for twelve times what I had planned to request.

          Within four months, she had opened a concert for Adele, and then suddenly Adele’s people were sending requests and contracts that allowed me to quit my job with the investment firm and start painting full time.  New York City happened to be the perfect place to be a successful painter, and there was no limit to the number of exorbitantly wealthy people who would pay for a visual representation of their favorite song to hang on the wall (or in some cases, be a painted wall, in their media room). I traveled the world, and met my husband in the Seychelles, a story I love to tell because it makes me sound like Beyonce despite my obvious lack of glamor and rhythm. 

          We returned to the Seychelles for our honeymoon, and on that trip I first noticed the deep, relentless, ache in my midback, beyond what could be attributed to my new Pilates class despite my best efforts of denial. The memory of the exams and tests and diagnosis that followed brings me back to the present moment.  I hope I manage to stay awake until my husband returns from the cafeteria, eyes red-rimmed from tears cried out of my sight, voice steadied and reassuring for my benefit although at this final stage he is the one in need of strength and comfort, I came to peace with dying young months ago.  Keeping my voice low enough so the nurse listening to Adele can’t hear me and mistakenly think that I need something, I whisper in self-benediction, “I have enjoyed a life far beyond my wildest dreams and my children will be provided for due to this quirk. Whether it is actual divine design or an error in evolution I’m not sure but just in case, thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot.”

February 12, 2022 04:48

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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