Tuesday, October 4, 2011
the missing color
PART I of Missing Pieces: Modern-day fables
Once upon a time, there was a color named luma. It had the radiance of the fiery orange in a sunset. It had the richness of slick green leaves wet with misty rain. When too much sunlight blazed down upon the earth, luma-colored objects would blush like the pale pink of an antique rose. When night rolled around and people could not distinguish between their shadows and the darkening pavement, luma items gleamed incandescently as if you were looking at cell division under a flourescent microscope.
Everyone loved the color luma. It gave to cities a gentle glow and to mountain peaks and valleys a rippled majesty. Luma-colored rattles were given to babies because they inevitably made them stop crying. Luma-colored paper was used for students during testing in school because it calmed their nerves and focused their brains. There was no way to see something luma without smiling, even just a little bit at the corner of your mouth.
Henry, of all people, perhaps loved luma the most. Henry's father had been a painter so he had grown up amidst pigments and palettes. He knew about complementary colors by the age of four and was helping his father to mix paints by age six. He understood hue, tertiary colors, and opaqueness vs. transparency. Luma, he was taught by his father, was the only color that never made any of the other colors turn muddy by overmixing.
In time, Henry began to paint himself but, though he had an inherent grasp of color theory, he found he was not the virtuoso his father was at composition and perspective, form and subject matter. Henry's paintings looked like blobs searching for an exit. They were uncomfortable to look at, despite the beauty of their appearing almost illuminated.
Henry could not leave color behind, even though he realized he was not a painter. He double majored in graphic design and interior design, all the while having a unique focus on color schemes and combinations. After college, he worked designing sets for fashion photo shoots before realizing that what he loved was the clothes themselves. He was mesmerized by color as it moved, by the shimmer of a diaphanous seafoam silk chiffon dress or the delicacy that lace brought to white when a woman sat down and carefully crossed her legs. Having made enough connections in the fashion industry, he opened his own design house under the name, Luma, it being forever and always his favorite color.
Luma quickly became a celebrity cult favorite. Movie stars announced, "I'm wearing Luma" and posed un-self-consciously at the Oscars and movie premieres. TV contestants on a clothing design game show wept tears and screamed for joy at the same time when Henry showed up as the special guest judge. When Henry was invited to create a one-time spring line for a big box retailer, a flood of shoppers overwhelmed the stores, grabbing any item they could get their hands on and causing such a furor that the website crashed and the brick-and-mortar stores had to close early in order to clean up the utter chaos of racks on the floor, spilled displays, and hangers strewn and thrown all over the place... one employee even found one stuck in the motor of a lawn mower.
Henry was a huge success. He had more money than he could ever dream of, a beautiful wife, and three lovely and not over-spoiled children. With the help of an architect friend, he had designed and built a stunning four-bedroom home on the western tip of Carmel Point in California. With a wrap-around balcony and views of the ocean from almost every room, Henry often took to staring at the sea for hours in order to unwind.
This particular night, he was sitting, legs outstretched, on a lounge chair on the back brick patio. He had a sketch book on his lap, but it was turned face down. Instead, he peered out across the short expanse of oatgrass and braken ferns to the white sandy beach upon which waves crept cautiously closer and then slipped indifferently away.
Henry was distressed, unhappy in the manner of all things blue. While he could produce elegant clothing of which he was entirely proud, he had not been able to find a way to dye any wearable fiber with the color luma. In fact, nobody had. It had been deemed an utterly impossible feat. Plastics, wood, inks, even canvas... yes, there were items of all these materials that shone luma. But silk, cotton, nylon, spandex, rayon, fur, jute, hemp, soy... no, it just could not be done. Henry knew this better than anyone else. He had spent many too many hours in his detached office experimenting with every trick in the book. He had even tried magic. Nothing worked.
It was okay, really. People did not expect to be able to wear luma. But Henry felt like a failure. Every time he walked down the runway at one of his shows and took a slight bow, he would turn around to face the name of his very company, LUMA, mocking him as he hurried to escape back behind the curtain, glowing and glaring at him through the perversity of its white LED radiance.
So he sat out here alone tonight, having told his wife his stomach was bothering him in order to skip dinner. He couldn't face her now, nor the kids. He couldn't face anyone. A few miles away, his father lay in a hospital bed, days -- perhaps hours -- away from the end. His cancer was everywhere now. It had even infiltrated his throat so that all he could do when Henry came to visit each morning was smile bravely. Henry would not go to the hospital tomorrow. He could not bear to see the wetness in the old man's eyes or let his father see the sadness in his own visage. His own father, whose Luma Series of abstract paintings was now on view in a special exhibit at the MoMA... no, he would not go back until he had a solution. And with the brevity of his father's remaining days something he could see in his opened palm, he knew he had to work fast.
Henry jumped up. He rocketed so quickly out of his chair and down the stairs of the back patio that he created a wind tunnel that knocked over his chaise lounge and a nearby table. But he did not stop, or even turn, when his wife, Nina, opened the sliding doors and called his name, echoing out over the quieting twilight ocean.
He spent the entire night in his office/workshop. He retried old experiments, tested new combinations of tinctures and chemicals, and googled everything he could on luma and its color properties. The hours ticked by and soon the ocean was beginning to glow again under the first beams of morning light. Never had he felt so much pressure from the gentle opening of daybreak.
At this point, Henry was exhausted. He sat for the first time all night in his luma rocker and tried to ease his own pain with the simplicity of repetitive back and forth motion. He closed his eyes for a few seconds. It may have been a minute. Somehow, it felt like hours, though, and when Henry reopened his eyes, he saw the peak of the sun's burning globe beyond the horizon. He saw the pathways of individual rays streaming forth directly towards him in his workshop. He felt the slight warmth of early reborn light as it began to hit the glass front of his little two-room abode.
And then Henry straightened. It was as if one of the rays had shot straight through him, entering his left big toe and sparking everything in his body until it exited the top of his head, leaving only a slight electric tingling in his thinning hair. Dyeing fabric with light! He had heard of it in whispers at a Dolce & Gabbana show. He had read of attempts on the internet. He even had a centuries old book of wool dyeing secrets from the Kamia Indians, originally written by a Spanish conquistador and translated by an American anthropologist. He climbed the ladder to the top of his bookshelf and pulled the book out from its location high above the chair in which he had just rested. He descended the ladder and dusted off the book. He had not consulted it since he was a child and he had gone through a period of obsession with native American blanket making.
Inside, he found reference to just what he was looking for on page 216. With the use of the correct light range, aimed through the right lenses, and filtered through crushed oyster shells, a person could dye any fabric luma, or atahbacha as the natives used to call the color.
Henry locked the door of his workshop behind him, walked to his car, and drove away from his house without saying anything to his wife or children. Nina worried some about not having seen Henry since the previous evening, but it was not an uncommon event. She pushed the worry towards the back of her heart and began making breakfast for the kids.
Henry returned later that morning and went directly to his workshop. It was a calm, temperate coastal California day, wonderful for walking the dogs on the beach or taking the kids for a drive up to their favorite seafood place a few miles up the coast. But not today. Henry had everything he needed now and he went to work single-mindedly with a force of will that bordered on the dangerously obsessive.
All day Nina busied herself with other chores. She took the kids to their Saturday soccer games in the morning. She reorganized the family photo albums in the early afternoon. She got through some email correspondence that was long overdue. Every now and then she would peek out across the hundred feet or so that separated the main house from Henry's workshop. There was nothing to see really, though she could have sworn that a couple times she saw sparks that danced in circles like fireflies escape from beneath the thick redwood door and then fizzle in the salty air.
At 11:30 that night, Nina awoke to Henry's soft shaking of her shoulders. "Nina," he whispered. "Nina, my Nina." She turned on the bedside lamp to see Henry smiling with a brightness that almost blinded her. He stepped back away from the bed as she sat up. He was holding something behind his back. Nina began to open her mouth, but Henry put his index finger from his free hand to his lips to quiet her. And then, slowly, he brought his other arm around to where she could see.
In his hand he held a metal hanger. On the hanger was a gown whose design she recognized as being one that had been lauded by a prominent fashion critic as 'expressing the essence of a modern humankind that dreams nostalgically of the tender intimacy of the once-and-possible shared community of men.' She recognized the dress, yes, but not the color. She thought perhaps it was a trick of the strange shifting light in the room that was deceiving her eyes. It looked at if it was luma, but of course that was not possible. Was it?
"Henry..." she began. He shushed her again and sat beside her on the bed before kissing the top of her forehead just where a couple strands of blond hair had fallen out of her loose bun. He brushed these aside. "I did it," he said and kissed her again, this time on the cheek, and then took her in his arms and held her as if they were parting before a long long trip.
Henry slept like a baby that night. Nina too. And the next morning Henry zipped the dress up in a garment bag and rushed off to the hospital to see his father. Everything happened so quickly after that. It seemed like years sped up into weeks and time compressed rather than expanded. Henry made a new fall line in only three days and was able to debut it at Paris Fashion Week. If his line for the big box store had been a massive success, the sensation over this haute couture line burst with a sonic boom a thousand times louder. They could not keep luma clothing in stock. Everyone who was anyone HAD to have it. Soon, he was making less expensive lines for the masses and the trickle-down began. It didn't take long before luma was everywhere... in every department store, in every window display, on all of the top models and celebrities, on baby bibs and men's silk ties and gleaming bright as the numbers on school soccer team jerseys. And Henry had never been happier.
On his father's birthday, Henry arrived at the hospital with a special cashmere sweater, luma of course, on which he had embroidered his father's initials ever so subtly on the left breast. It was clear that his father's days were limited. The doctor was not even sure he would make it until evening. Henry opened the gift for his father as he had grown too weak and helped him work the sweater over his head and over the IVs and air machines and tubes that entered and exited from every orifice on his weak, bony body. Dressed in the warmth of the luma cashmere, Henry's father looked like a child wearing his father's clothing. The sweater hung over his shrunken limbs and his small head barely found its way out of the huge, ill-fitted costume. But he smiled a smile that warmed Henry's heart. And Henry felt at peace... for a moment.
It was only a moment before Henry furrowed his brow. Was he seeing things? At first he just felt a strange sense of unease and he couldn't figure out why. Then, as seconds passed, he realized that it was not his own unease, but the unease of his father. But how did he know that? His father appeared quite calm and pleased. But the more Henry looked at him, the more the unease became a presence worn on his father's chest. It was as if he could see his father's concern... the concern with the luma sweater... the concern with luma clothing more broadly... a concern he must have had for ages but never needed to express as no one had thought Henry able to turn clothes the color luma. And somewhere deeper, a concern that Henry might lose sight of what was most important to him.
As Henry drove home that night, he shook his head and told himself he must just be overtired. What he thought he saw was not possible. He had been overworking himself and what he needed was some proper rest. He slept for most of the weekend and, late on Sunday, learned of the news of his father's passing. It had happened so quickly that no one had been present to hold his hand... but he had still been wearing the luma sweater.
Henry and his family attended the funeral a week later. They all wore luma, as it was the color of heartfelt empathy and compassion, much more appropriate for funerals than the coldness of black. Henry stood near the grave with Nina by his side after a lovely service commemorating his father where huge crowds of admirers and devotees cascaded down the streets from the church for blocks. As the minister spoke the final words of a prayer, Henry turned his head away from the gaping opening in the ground. Looking had become too much and he needed to see the wind blowing gently through the cypress trees nearby. As he faced his head to the right, he caught the eye of his old girlfriend, Isabelle. He had never really stopped loving her and they had never been on bad terms. Theirs had been a case of constant bad timing. The glance between them caught fire and turned into a long stare. Isabelle smiled with her eyes, those warm pools of ultramarine in which he always became lost. He felt an ache at their unfinished relationship, even though he was happily married and quite in love with Nina. It was just a moment, though, one of those moments that people have and then place back in the past as we all can. One of those moments of the impossible that we know is better off gleaming in non-existence.
He turned back towards the grave... and felt Nina's eyes upon him. Or rather, felt her eyes upon his chest. It was peculiar really, to have her looking down at his cleanly pressed luma shirt and not sympathetically into his eyes. He felt the most distant he had ever felt from his dear love, Nina... until she raised her eyes to look into his. And the distance lengthened. What he saw in her face was knowledge, an impossible comprehension of what he had just felt for Isabelle, an exact vision of all the past moments that he had seen in those mere seconds in which he had caught Isabelle's momentary glimpse. And he could see Nina's heart breaking.
He tried to speak wordlessly with his eyes, but his eyes could not compete with his heart. He looked back down at the grave and recalled the moment with his father in the hospital that last time he had seen him alive... and what he had thought he had seen inside his own father's heart. And then it struck him. Luma. He began to panic inside his composed exterior as he looked around at his fellow mourners. Each person wore luma. And each time he tried to peer inside of one of their hearts to know their true feelings, he found he was successful. He could see exactly what each person was feeling. One was worried about an upcoming job interview. Another was pondering his own mortality. Yet another mourned the pure art of Henry's father but felt Henry himself had sold out.
What was this? It was luma. It was a color that held too much power. There were reasons that no one had been able to dye clothing in its color... reasons beyond the difficulty of the process. The ancients must have known of its potency. When they used it in their blankets, it was only as a border caressing the edge of the material. And when they tucked their babies in at night, they wrapped these edges safely beneath the sweet-smelling newborn skin, keeping the revealing well hidden.
Henry fainted. It was more than he could take. And it was more than anyone could take. It was not long before all luma clothing was pulled off the shelves. Dumps were full of luma skirts and blouses and jackets and belts. Even luma bracelets and necklaces, some costing into the thousands of dollars, were tossed like yesterday's newspaper for fear that they too might illuminate the inside of one's soul. And then the fear spread to all things luma. No one wanted to be so exposed, so naked, so transparent. No one wanted the burden of knowing so much about all the others. Luma chairs and bureaus pressed down on top of the clothing in landfills. Luma cars were quickly repainted. Luma wallpaper was torn down and replaced with honey-colored paint or paper with the impenetrability of damask. Luma lampshades were crumpled and stomped upon and luma streamers no longer brightened birthday parties or welcome home celebrations. The world was colder, more sterile, not nearly as bright. There was less smiling when people passed each other on city sidewalks and handshakes became detached and brief.
So is the tale of the death of luma, the most beautiful color ever to grace the earth. A color of love, a color of empathy, the color of the soul really. No trace of it exists in the man-made world and people have begun to forget its name altogether. Perhaps your grandparents may remember. But perhaps not.
But man cannot undo everything. He cannot erase what he wants from the world even with all the might of his mighty will. He cannot take luma out of nature altogether. And so it remains... in glimpses, slants, and impressions. In certain lights, at certain times of day, the world shines under luma skies. And perhaps you are one of the people that can still see luma in the afterglow, or in the misty air, or under the shifting shadows of a maple tree. Perhaps you are one of the people who looks into another's eyes and can feel their soul. Perhaps you have the gift of empathy and so also possess the magic of seeing those momentary flashes of luma across a blackened night sky or in the single tear that wells up and falls from the face of your lover. If so, then you are one of the lucky ones. If so, then there is still a little bit of magic in the world.