Show Me the Colors

Sam Martone

After her final performance of the night, the Illusionist and I drive out to the fence surrounding the airport. We sit on the hood of her car and drink beer and watch planes take off and land. The planes fly right overhead, each rush of sound drowning out our voices. Whole conversations vanish. We lose track of what we’re saying. The Illusionist still wears her stage outfit, the black tuxedo with the long inky coattails, the blood red bow tie. Her collapsible top hat rests between us. She keeps touching her fingers to the newly buzzed patch on the side of her head. She gets this urge sometimes, a need to transfigure herself. A few months ago she had her septum pierced. Last year, she got a tattoo on a whim — a spade with rabbit ears hides beneath her left tuxedo sleeve. I tell her I like the haircut, and she thanks me. I want to run my fingers over it too, I want to say, No, I mean: I really like it, but a plane roars over and I lose my nerve. We live in a city where there are always planes freckling the sky. It’s gotten to where I don’t even look up when the noise of their engines settles on my shoulders. But here, so close, you wonder how the sky doesn’t buckle under the weight of them all.

The Illusionist received a standing ovation at her show tonight. She credits the haircut. Not the haircut itself, she says, but you know. How it makes me feel. Like I’m becoming a truer version of myself. I nearly have the Illusionist’s show memorized, but I still haven’t figured out how she does what she does: the bowling ball that falls from the sports section when she opens a newspaper, the paper flower that turns rose-petaled and real when she kisses it. She escapes from water-filled tanks, iron-chained chests, wardrobes padlocked and set ablaze. I used to ask her to tell me how, Just one trick, but she’d pull a lit cigarette from my ear, take a long drag and say, There’s nothing to tell, sugar. I’m magic. Earlier, we’d talked about getting drinks after her show at a karaoke bar downtown. I waited outside the theater for her, watching families filter into the parking lot, kids pantomiming illusions, making themselves disappear behind station wagons. I was thinking of what power ballad I’d make her sing with me once we both were drunk enough. I saw her stage assistant leave and nodded a polite hello. He is broad-shouldered. Strong enough to lift her into the air by the hips at the climax of the show. He grins like a mouthwash ad in a subway car.

I kept waiting. I waited until the marquee lights shut off, and when there was still no sign of her, I went in through the propped stage door and down the hallway to her dressing room. She keeps changing the adjective that precedes her name: she’s been the Great, the Marvelous, the Astonishing. Tonight, she was the Incredible, but on her dressing room door, the CREDIBLE had been crossed out and replaced with EXPLICABLE in black marker. When I knocked, I heard shuffling inside. When I knocked again, she said, Yes? I opened the door just enough to duck my head in. She was sitting in front of her vanity mirror, the bulb beside her right ear blinking. Her reflection smiled at me, but it was the kind of smile you put on when expecting something other than what you get.

I’d seen that look before, on a night of twisted sheets in a spinning room. The weight of wet clothes discarded. The white noise of a fan pointed away from us. She was still with her stage assistant then. He was away, at a stage assistant’s convention in Miami. The next morning, she told me we would forget about it. This never happened, she said, with the persuasion of a hypnotist. Now sometimes I wonder if maybe it didn’t. The best magic tricks feel so real you forget that you know they’re not. You find yourself believing what you already know is false.

Leaning into her dressing room, I told her, Great show. She said, I don’t feel like karaoke. I asked her if she wanted a rain check, but she said, It never rains here and looked at me like she was looking through my skin. She said, Let’s do something else, and she brought me here, to the airport and its chain-link fence with barbed wire barrel-rolled across the top. I haven’t done this in a long time, the Illusionist said to me. I used to come out here alone, when I first moved here and I hated the place. All I thought about was leaving.

We forgot to bring a bottle opener. We tried everything we could to open the beer, laughing. Car keys, loose change, a lighter. Neither of us knew the tricks. I had to stop the Illusionist from using her teeth, and then we figured out the metal latch in the well of her car door was the perfect size for the bottlenecks. We toss the empty bottles in the backseat. I’m happy here now, she says. The Illusionist is the kind of person who gets stuck in loops, says the same thing over and over again as though trying to convince herself. Sometimes it’s like she wants me to respond a specific way, to refute or confirm her suspicions about a given situation, but no matter what I say, even if I say nothing at all, she loops back. Soon she’ll say it again, I never thought I could be happy here, but I am, even though no one suggested otherwise.

The Illusionist is still in love with her stage assistant. She doesn’t tell me this, but it’s easy to see. He broke up with her for an heiress to a minor burger chain. She agreed to keep him in the act — it would take too long to train someone new — but her act changed. Now she tries to make him disappear for real. She saws him in half, again and again, halving each half until his body looks too divided to reassemble. But he reappears. He emerges intact from the sawed-up box. She takes his hand and holds it up to raucous applause. She can’t trick herself into forgetting him. She’ll never give up on her assistant, not as long as he shares the stage with her. But I know, too, if he were to disappear, his absence would make him inescapable. I want to say something about the night I’ve pretended to forget, but she points to a commercial jet levitating off the tarmac, the lights blinking at either wingtip. The light on the left is red. The right is green, she tells me. In the dark, other planes know which way it’s going, which it’s coming from. I tell her I can’t tell the difference between the lights. Colorblind, I say. I’ve told her this before.

The Illusionist stands. She is backlit by blue runway lights. She shows me the corner of a kerchief hanging out of her sleeve. Can you tell what color this is? she asks. It doesn’t work like that — the world isn’t black and white to me, the shades just different, duller I guess, although I have no way of gauging it. Most of the time, I identify colors correctly, but I’ve never been able to see the digits hidden in the dots of colorblind tests. I often mistake purple clothing for blue. Occasionally, from a distance, I have to ask if the traffic light is still green or if it has just now yellowed. Red-green deficiency, my ophthalmologist says, Not blindness, but when you can’t see something for what it is, I don’t know that deficiency accurately describes the problem. I pull the kerchief from her sleeve, bring it close enough to see its crimson. Tied to it is another kerchief, orange, I think, and another tied to that one, lime this time. Or this color? she says, Or this? She laughs. She doesn’t expect me to answer, but people point to tree stumps and sports cars and birdhouses all the time wondering what I see. I uncollapse her hat and put it on my head. The chain of colors spills from her wrist, and I remember being a child, tying bed sheets into a rope, an escape, dropping from my window into a night where deep blues blurred into something new. None of us can see colors in the dark. If I could shut off all the lights, maybe she’d see what I see. Mauve, I say, Violet, pointing to kerchiefs that might be mauve, violet, wanting to prove I can name them.

I have a trick of my own, I’m tipsy enough to say. She raises an eyebrow, says, Oh, really? I stand up beside her and begin to wrap the knotted kerchiefs around us, What are you doing? she says and laughs, and I tell her, This one is cerulean, and I cinch them until my ankle touches hers, then our knees, even as I worry that this This one, yellow is all that’s holding us together, maybe each Lavender knot is a knot closer to an unraveling, to a falling apart, no matter how tightly I tie myself Magenta to her. We lose our balance and fall sitting onto the hood of the car again, our legs mummified together, our hips kissing. On stage she looks flawless, but here, up close, I can see her skin pale and cratered, the tiny scar that curls the left side of her mouth like a scythe. She is not laughing now, she is looking at me, and I wonder if she sees stubble between my eyebrows, the bent hatchet of my nosebone. I wonder if she imagines in the shadows my shoulders are broadening, if she is tricking herself into feeling whatever she felt that night. She leans her head against mine as I loop the kerchiefs around our backs. She puts her hand on my chest as if to slow the gallops of my heartbeat. She must know that soon our necks will be scarfed in colors, and after that our eyes will be hidden from the world, blindfolded, and we won’t see any colors at all. I will tell her, Burgundy. I will tell her, Chartreuse. I will stay even when I have no name for the colors emerging from her sleeve, even when I have to make them up. I will tell her I want to disappear with her and all her tricks, the decks of cards and silver rings, into the two collapsed halves of her man-sized box, and maybe still she will pull away, the chain of kerchiefs falling like a curtain unveiling us to ourselves, right where we are, revealing nothing we don’t already know. The car disappears from under me. My body, wrapped up with the Illusionist’s, lifts into the air. Something she’s doing, or something I am. We turn, suspended, and I look at her, her transformations, the haircut, the nose ring, the tattoo I know pulses just below her elbow, and in her eyes I see myself, wearing the same clothes I’ve worn for years, still sitting in the audience, trying to guess at her tricks, and I think, maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe I can take on a truer form, too, become someone else. Someone magnificent. Enchanting. Inconceivable. Yes. I see it now.

The Illusionist is silent, but still I speak: Saffron. Rose. We are ten feet up now, fifteen. The glitter of empty beer bottles shrinks beneath us, melts into darkness. Olive. Periwinkle. Beyond the toothy reach of light pollution, the stars hang above us like party decorations. Amber. Rust. A plane takes off and barely misses us. We drop from the air, thump back down onto the hood, her on top of me. The kerchiefs fall slack around us. The next one I pull from her sleeve has nothing knotted to it. I name the last: Teal. She corrects me: Turquoise, more like. The Illusionist and I, we both look up, watching the already distant lights of the plane. We watch and watch until we cannot see its lights flicker anymore. Now, grounded, my transformation feels out of reach, impossible. That’s the trick of real life: things can disappear with no promise of return. The Illusionist, she shrugs free of the kerchiefs and rolls off of me. I scan the hood for a telltale dent, guide my hand over the smooth metal surface. She climbs into the driver’s seat and starts the engine. The night is cut by the white erasure of her high beams.

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