When her husband left her, the first thing she did was drink Gatorade®.
Red liquid—candy apple, fire engine, lollipop, stop light, clown nose red—she poured it down her throat, then other colors after: orange, purple, chlorine blue. A rainbow gurgled into her veins, carried on phosphoric acid and sucrose acetate isobutyrate. On Red 40 and Yellow 6. All that artificiality made her less of the world, because she was no longer of the world—the world had left. She was a new species, radioactive, who bled coolant pink, neon green. Who peed blue. Who sneezed blue. Who sweated purple, just like the athletes in magazine advertisements she’d studied closely as a girl.
That she had stomach trouble was, according to her father, the fault of the liquid.
No wonder you can’t eat, he said over the phone, his voice crackling from a thousand miles elsewhere. You need real food.
Saltines, maybe, he said.
Or pear slices.
Are you listening?
Mary, are you there?
To look at oneself in the mirror, though, blue-tongued as a lizard, eyeballs gone orange, was to see a woman who knew things she didn’t. A woman who was not her. A woman whose husband had not left—or better yet, a woman who had never had a husband at all.
She had moved, that fall, to a sea-scraped island. Only seven trees marked the whole landscape—the island’s old growth forest axed centuries earlier for firewood—and those remaining trees were more like large shrubs, salt-black, bent by wind. There were many more houses. Shacks or Victorian-style mansions clustered over low hills and bogs and perilously eroding cliffs. Though on clear days the mainland was visible—a port city jostling with freighters—mostly, it was ocean everywhere. Chilled seabirds. Chimney smoke. Rockweed rot. A ferry had run between the mainland and the island, but the ferry had recently experienced propeller shaft issues, and anyways it was the off-season for tourism, so if you didn’t have your own boat you had to convince a fisherperson to take you across the water, and the woman didn’t have her own boat, she only had a house—unfortunately a large and beautiful house with a 360-degree view of the water—which meant a 360-day mortgage, for which she alone was now responsible. She had not yet unpacked most of her belongings, only a few appliances—specifically the refrigerator. When opened at night, the refrigerator glowed like a portal to another realm, its shelves stocked with liters of jewel-toned liquids, rainbow potions, her drinks.
I cried all the time too, said her boss, when I first got here.
But you still need to do your job, said her boss.
Actually, said her boss, we need you to show up at school, like, right now, because it’s after eleven and all the students are waiting in the auditorium for their performing arts instructor.
The school was a private middle school for mediocre preteens—fifth and sixth graders who were not sufficiently rich or intellectually gifted or even delinquent enough to attend the more prestigious mainland institutions. There were lots of middle siblings. Second round casualties of child beauty pageants and spelling bees. The school itself was housed in a miniature castle that a minor Rockefeller had built on the island and then forgotten about. The building had a stone façade and several impressive turrets, though most of the turrets were inaccessible due to safety concerns. The auditorium was accessible, if under-used: musty and dungeon-like, down in the school’s basement. The woman appreciated its lush red stage curtains and red velvet seats, even if she couldn’t be entirely sure of the color. The Gatorade® had by then migrated into her eyes—spilling across the white parts and into her corneas—so that her vision was filtered by a roseate haze. Nevertheless, the woman appreciated this development as well, given that, culturally, the color signified a better outlook.
When she first walked into the auditorium, the students all went quiet, their faces rosy with unease.
We actually need you to do the job we hired you to do, said her boss, which is not napping among the wigs in the theater supply closet.
We’re kind of on a tight schedule, said her boss.
We’re kind of in a tight situation, said her boss, with the donor visit coming up.
There’s no time for us to find someone else of your caliber, said her boss, who would work for so little.
You were a steal—
When her husband left her, he’d announced he was doing so on the day they arrived on the island. It was mid-September, but they’d traveled on what felt like a leftover bit of summer: the sun high and bright, everyone on the ferry smelling like sunscreen and processed meats.
The woman and her husband had sat next to one another on the ferry’s main deck, watched the other passengers feed French fries to seagulls. The birds would swoop down, pluck fries from outstretched fingers. Again and again, the gulls did this, and each time it was wonderfully funny: a miracle of human-animal interaction. A great sense of possibility had welled up in the woman, and she wondered how a scientist might characterize such an exchange—if it represented a co-evolutionary development in which gull and person received symbiotic benefits. The woman had a great appreciation for science. At the parties for young professionals she’d attended in her former life—the life she was leaving behind, along with her family and friends and career, in a mid-sized, arts-centric, still affordable city—she’d always made a point of seeking out scientists. She’d passed on conversations with up-and-coming pastry chefs and newscasters and exotic animal trainers, because she’d appreciated the scientists’ restless, unsatisfied demeanors, their near spiritual commitment to failure in the pursuit of a granule of knowledge.
The woman had believed she shared an affinity for such pursuits. As a performance artist, a freelance director, she considered her work experimental in the scientific sense. On stage, she hypothesized, tested audience reactions; she, too, sought stable earthly truths.
She was not yet famous, and might never be famous—especially having taken this teaching position—yet sitting beside her husband on the ferry deck she’d felt a shimmering surge of optimism, a confidence in the inevitability of ground-breaking discovery, even as the ferry churned up to the island and she smelled the seaweed rot and diesel fumes, saw the low murky hills and stout cottages and few trees.
I cannot overstate, said her boss, the relationship between staging this performance and your paycheck.
To the school’s auditorium, the woman brought liters of Gatorade®, stowing them in her backpack the way a cosmonaut might carry extra air tanks. She sipped the liquid through a tube, paced the stage. To the preteens, huddled in the wings, she explained the situation: she needed to pay for her mortgage, which meant she needed to keep her job, which meant she needed to organize a student performance, which, under normal circumstances would be easy—she’d organized many productions, both avant-garde and traditional—but there was an added layer of difficulty. Their show needed to impress a visiting group of potential donors. It was hard to attract funding for a school such as theirs: distinctively undistinctive.
She asked the preteens if there was a play they wanted to perform, but the preteens couldn’t think of any plays except Romeo and Juliet and that play was not an option.
The woman took a sip from the tube extending from a hole in her backpack, gulped a mouthful of orange. The preteens began to back away. The color from the drink had slithered down her throat, visible under her skin like an eel coursing through cloudy water. The color pooled by her collarbone, drifted down her arms to her wrists. The woman slid into a sitting position, her legs dangling over the edge of the stage. She rocked back and forth, side to side. It was true her stomach did not feel great; or else, no longer felt like a stomach. If anything, her insides were starting to feel indistinguishable from the outside air. At night, she talked to her father on the phone and he told her again that she really ought to start eating real food—it wasn’t natural what she was drinking—but he was a man who fed his bees sugar in the winter, who had married a woman who put out syrup for hummingbirds in the summer; he could not deny that those bees and those birds were robust, active, productive creatures.
A few of the braver preteens became curious—they tiptoed closer to the woman and peered at her.
She raised her head, grinned at them with orange teeth.
It’s just not going to work, her husband had said, standing in the kitchen of their new home, the rooms bare, walls blank—except for the uncurtained windows: lit up with the red flush of a sunset.
You need too much, her husband said, though only after the woman signed the last of the paperwork, after the real estate agent had left.
You need more than I can give, he said.
Your needs are exhausting.
Your anxiety, in particular, is exhausting.
And you won’t take medication.
Also, you always make me drive when we take road trips.
You are weirdly territorial about porches.
You tell long boring stories about your dreams.
You always expect me to make the plans.
You have no real pleasures.
You expect me to fill you up with joy.
You take your art too seriously.
You’re still hung up on a high school debate tournament.
You can’t take a compliment.
You expect my friends to be your friends.
You made fun of my favorite shirt.
You watch too much TV.
You get mad when I lie to you.
You expect me to tell you everything.
You chew loudly.
Do you think the ferry has left yet, or no? her husband said, though he wasn’t looking at her when he asked. He was looking at one of the big bare windows, at what lay beyond. Before arriving on the island, the woman had been excited to have all those windows: vantages from which they could both watch sea mists and ocean swells and—oh god—the sunsets. She’d believed that was what he’d wanted; she’d believed that was enough.
The preteens told the woman their sad little stories about wildly talented older sisters and fabulously delinquent younger brothers. They told her about mediocre grades, mediocre looks, about pet hermit crabs that wouldn’t do anything interesting but also wouldn’t die. The preteens described JV soccer teams. Bullies who wouldn’t give them the dignity of a black eye. Families who visited infrequently, but not seldom enough for it to become tragic—to have any cachet.
Some of the preteens started to cry and the woman teared up too, purple liquid dripping down her cheeks. The crying made her dizzy; she had gotten so thin by then, that losing any liquid felt hemorrhagic.
To make herself stop crying, the woman pressed her fingers to her temples. The skin beneath her fingertips turned silvery-white—indicating the pooling presence of Gatorade® Thirst Quencher in Glacial Cherry®—but the preteens had gotten used to such occurrences. None flinched.
The woman told the preteens that leading roles were overrated; it was the supporting cast who made a production come alive. A performer didn’t need to be center stage, spotlighted, to mean something. In fact, you could be largely unnoticed and contribute a great deal, be indispensable to a production. The industry term, the woman explained—feeling teacherly, revitalized—was “background actor.” Or if you wanted to be fancy: “atmospherian.”
Do you get paid? said one of the preteens. In that kind of role?
The woman sighed, long and deep, her breath so steeped in Glacial Cherry® it filled the auditorium with a white haze, smog-thick, densely sugar-sweet and cloying.
Are you okay? said a preteen. Hello?
Once, at a party, a particle scientist had told the woman about the benefits of air pollution. Specifically, he’d explained how when the atmosphere fills with the right kind of particulate matter—aerosolized rocket fumes, volcano dust—sunsets can become more intense. The sky deepens into sorbet-sweet pinks, violently violet reds, heart-squeezing streaks of yellow gold. All that pollution—all that terror—could make the sky beautiful. There was something to be said, according to the particle scientist, for badness—in the right amounts, and in the right places—because what was better than a sunset, really? What wasn’t there to like?
What the woman knew about sky color: red sky in the morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.
And yet, the sky had been red the evening her husband left—that was what continued to confuse her.
Are you ready? said her boss.
You do know the donor show is next week, said her boss.
You understand how important it is for us to prove to the donors how robust our arts program is, so we can build a new admissions office, a stadium, a bigger auditorium—so we can impress the donors more?
The particle scientist and the woman had been at a party in a cocktail bar on the top floor of a skyscraper when he told her about the benefits of pollution. The sunset had been extraordinary that evening—lush orange melting into crimson-violets, clouds hovering near the horizon like flaming embers—which got the particle scientist talking.
That beauty, the particle scientist said, the paradox of that beauty—that’s what I’m obsessed with. How something can be bad and good at the same time.
That’s what I’ve devoted my life to, he said. That’s what I’ll never get enough of.
I could stare and stare and stare.
A sunset is always changing, you see.
Every second: something new.
At a certain stage of thinness, the body becomes all caverns and hollows, divots and disappearances. That body is an island: its surface a shoreline, eroded. For the woman, with her rose-vision—which became orange-vision, blue-vision, purple-vision—the hollows on her body were places in which a color might hover and converge, drift away. Color moved through her: a vibrant shroud, a delicious mist, a billowing convergence of clouds, her own weather system.
The donor show, when it happened, was different than anything the woman had ever staged. Everyone was cast as an extra. The preteens drifted around the auditorium, dressed as restaurant patrons and townspeople and farm animals and anonymous soldiers and nonaggressive zombies, and no one entered any of the spotlights and no one spoke. When it was over, there was a long, long quiet, because it was hard for the audience to know when the performance had ended, given that none of the participants had held a speaking role.
A gurgle from the woman’s stomach broke the silence. Though she was ensconced backstage, the gurgle echoed throughout the auditorium. Even so, the woman took another sip from the tube extending into her backpack—one of several tubes, now, channeling yellow, purple, red. The gurgling grew into a roar: her stomach so full of color, so loud with it—the noise rushing up into her head—she couldn’t tell if everyone in the auditorium was cheering, uproarious with the ecstasy of the performance, or if the ocean was making the noise: a gale brewing out beyond the school, wind battering the island. She tried to get a peek at the audience from backstage, but her vision was so dense with color by then, so swirling full of all she had consumed, it was hard to see anything at all.
(A sunset, like a curtain falling.)
The particle scientist, if we’re being honest, was her husband.
Once, they had stood on the terrace of a cocktail bar on the top of a skyscraper in a mid-sized, arts-centric, still-affordable city. They had watched the sky—particle-filled—burn orange, then crimson-red, before bruising wine-dark purple. Together, they’d imagined owning a house with 360-degree views, like the skyscraper, where sunsets would be visible in full, every night. Those colors, so beautiful and bad all at once, had reflected in her husband’s eyes as he’d stared at the sky, a hunger on his face. And the woman had said, half-joking: I wish I could drink those colors in. I wish I could consume them. Would you love me more then, if I had a sunset inside me? Would you love me, despite the bad parts? Would you look at me until the colors faded, all the way until the end, when the lights at last went out?