This is not a normal effect of acid.
That is my first thought, followed by:
I have not taken any acid.
In fact, I know it’s been weeks since I ingested anything psychedelic. The last time was after the parade in the park. I remember my body grew midsummer roses, my own thorns cut into me. I’d spent hours in a state of ecstatic self-flagellation, convinced that I had cut a key-shaped hole into my chest, watching the movements of my heart as though it were an exotic fish in a fleshy aquarium. That was the last of the tabs I’d bought from Mel. There is nothing left in the house.
Have I been inhaling the paintings? Frantically, I look for clues in the tubes of gouache strewn about my desk. Gum Arabic. Polyethylene Glycol. Titanium White. Benzisothiazolinone. Non Toxic.
Titanium white is only used in trace amounts to produce certain colors, including Cadmium Lemon Yellow, Naples Yellow, and Cobalt Blue Hue. I recognize these tubes by reading the words written on the tubes in small print.
I’ve been sketching an alla prima rendering of a memory: my child-self bending down on a piano stool, being whipped with a leather belt. An explosion of purple.
The colours have been drained. Not just the bruises, everything, on and off canvas. My hands have turned into ash.
I rub my eyes sore and blink until they water, but the grayscale world will not revividify.
All my life, I have prided myself on being someone who processes shit by throwing myself deeper into it. I’ll absorb the meanest suckerpunch with glee. My knees meet the floor with a hollow little sound. Is this psychosis?
There are few things as terrifying as going crazy. I’ve always feared I might be doomed for late-onset schizophrenia, ever since my blood mother started hearing voices and threatening us with rifles. She took a penitentiary detour to the medicated lifestyle, but she’s fine now. We are all fine now.
I’ve worked on this sequence all summer, no, all my life – it is my life – and there is no way an uninvited bout of insanity will stop me. Yet my flesh is weaker, or at least more incompetent, than my spirit, and it takes less than half an hour to discover I’m no Sargy Mann. Theoretically, I know which colour to use where, as all the information I need is written on the little tubes. I can observe the gradation of hues, the mother’s face (not my mother) in the shadows, the texture of paint in various stages of drying. Still, painting in a grey world is like fucking the girl of all your dreams, but your flesh is suddenly replaced with a cheap plastic strap-on in a poorly fitting harness. Not that I know how that feels. All I understand is that painting grey bruises, grey piano keys, grey foxgloves, is misery.
‘There is nothing concerning in your OCT scan’, the ophthalmologist says. ‘Your maculae and your optic nerves are perfectly healthy.’
‘Oh’, I say.
‘Do you feel there has been a change in your vision?’
I shake my head. ‘Nothing major. It’s just a little blurry.’
‘Your eyesight is above average. There’s just one thing – your meibomian glands, on the rim of the eye, are slightly blocked. Your eyes are not producing enough moisture.’
‘I should probably cry more.’
‘That would actually make it worse. What you should do is cover your eyes with a hot towel. Do it for ten minutes before bed, every night.’
My walk home takes me past the canal (liquid mercury), and the flower market (overflowing with petrified moon blooms). I buy tinted sunglasses to switch into a different palette of monochrome, but it barely augments my sense of reality.
At home, I microwave the expensive compress towel the ophthalmologist sold me, lie on top of the bed and hide in total darkness. I listen through Le Poème de l’Extase once, then reheat the compress and do it all over again. Time passes strangely, multiclimatically. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. Recalling that Scriabin was a synesthete, I think very hard of sound waves traversing the visible spectrum, trying to colour in the viscous topology of chords. From a dark cavern I shall ascend to witness an ultramarine bliss. After the orgy winds down, I peel off the compress. My stomach barely sinks at all: I always knew it wouldn’t work.
I’m on a deadline. I’m always on a fucking deadline, but this time it’s really important. It’s my first post-graduation group show, and only one piece of my little trifecta is finished. I’ve let my rage seep into the canvas undiluted, and it’s been going surprisingly well. Maybe this is a sign from the Universe, big black neon letters saying DROP THE BRUSH AND GO DIE IN A DITCH SOMEWHERE, NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD TRAUMA. Obeying direct commands has never been my strong suit, though. If Gxd really wanted to mess with me, () should at least attempt some reverse psychology. I’m all for mind fucks, but this is quite literally dull.
In a weak attempt to break through my self-pity, I make a cup of coffee. I balance a silver filter on a white mug and take my time gazing at the blooming grounds, the sheen of oil on the surface, comfortingly unchanged. The medicine is not sweet enough to placate my despair, though. I can’t paint, the clock is ticking too loudly, and the walls are closing in on me. This white noise buzz of anxiety can only be killed with something louder.
I’ve become well-adjusted in that wired way formerly hopeless people tend to be. Short-circuiting seems inevitable.
As a kid, I read a story about a shepherd who falls through a puddle into a world where everything is upside down. I tried my hardest to visualise it, and never could, not when there already exists black to white, north to south, a million barefoot children for every CEO. Would those children take over the bulletproof skyscrapers? Even at a young age, I was too pragmatic to dream that up. Instead, my mind drew a blank. Now, the story comes back to me, filtered through too many years of academia, and I wonder if I’ve stepped into the wrong stream: a Spencerian nightmare of all tension melting away, cessation of motion entropying unto death. I exaggerate: there is light and shadow, the evening sun chasing its tail across the kitchen wall.
Still, a changed world must result in a changed self, which is how I justify the razorblade on my inner arm, hesitating like a lapsing vegan. A beast will always remember its nature. I close my eyes for the first graze, and open them for a miracle. I’ve never flinched at the sight of my own blood before. Within the virginal stain licking its way down the slate of my elbow, the shock of crimson reveals other colours, breathtaking. I can hardly believe all this has come from my veins. Bewitched, I rush into my workroom and grab a fine rigger brush. I must have always underestimated my inner beauty, so brilliant against the coarse linen of the canvas. I get no further than outlining a human figure kneeling on an ornate clock face before my head starts feeling dangerously light. Resigned, I take out a first-aid kit and make a tight cradle of gauze for my arm.
After devouring a chocolate bar, I go cruising for materials. It’s getting dark out, and I’m in a pre-code noir film. Anything could happen.
As I walk through the warehouse district, a sharp odour draws my attention. I circle around the imposing buildings until its source reveals itself to me: a grey building with a corrugated iron front. Ascending the steps, I notice that the chain lock on the door has already been cut by someone on a misadventure of their own. I stick my head in and let my eyes get used to the heady metallic darkness. A former abattoir. If it wasn’t for the smell, I might think the floor is stained with sticky ink. I take out my phone and switch on the torch. The stains swallow the light I shine on them, refracting no beauty at all.
Evidently, not just any old blood will do. I keep walking, gazing up at a celluloid sky, until I find myself standing across the street from Vic’s bar, watching unwashed undergrads spill into the street. Unfortunately, it’s the best bet for finding someone romantic or unhinged enough to take this kind of thing in stride.
On cue, a bell-bright voice chimes from behind me: ‘Hey, Rebecca! I haven’t seen you in ages!’
‘Hi’, I say, turning around to flash a smile at a round-faced blonde. I vaguely remember tutoring a class she attended last winter, but her name evades me. ‘Good to see you – Millie?’
‘Lucy’, she says with an unwavering smile. ‘How have you been?’
‘Oh, extremely busy.’
‘What happened to your arm?’
‘Nothing serious. Got clawed by an alley cat.’
Lucy’s face twists into a little grimace of sympathy. ‘I hope you’ve got your tetanus shots. Anyway, I heard you’re doing a show at Faith next month. That’s so cool.’
‘You should come to the opening night.’ I take stock of the way she holds her breath while looking at me. Her infatuation is embarrassingly obvious. ‘To be honest, I’d love to spend some time with you before then.’
‘I’d love that too’, Lucy exhales.
‘Want to come to my studio?’
‘My friends are inside, but-’ She glances towards the bar and sighs. ‘Fuck it.’
It’s a strange mix of fortunes today. I start walking, looking behind my shoulder to check she’s following. Her eyes flicker coyly between me and her white mary janes. I pick up the pace and she trudges along, awkward in her platform shoes.
‘I feel like a kidnapper.’
‘You’re too young for me.’
‘I’m just two years younger than you.’
‘But you seem so innocent. Is it an act?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve done some stuff.’
‘I’m not a virgin.’
‘I’m not interested in having sex with you.’
‘Oh.’ There is a note of relief in Lucy’s voice, or maybe I’m just imagining it, having already typecast her in the role of a long-suffering waif. We pass a park with the street lamps all unlit, thickets rustling with wind and sweaty limbs. I extend my hand, and Lucy takes it.
‘Actually, I want to know if you will do me a favour.’ I stare down at her, purposefully intense. I wonder if her eyes are blue or green – the colour is almost pale enough to blend in with her sclera.
‘What kind of a favour?’
‘I’m not going to think any less of you if you say no. I know this is strange.’
‘You’ve warned me. What is it?’
‘Could I please paint with your blood?’
‘Oh’, Lucy says, and a dopey smile spreads across her face. ‘Yes’.
‘I’m not going to hurt you’, I say. ‘I just need a little bit. I’m trying something new.’
‘You can hurt me if you like. You could even kill me and I wouldn’t mind.’
A protective urge washes over me, taking the shape of anger. ‘That’s really fucked up. Don’t say that.’
‘There are lots of people who would run wild with it, and it’s ugly as hell. Have some self-respect.’
‘I’m not trying to preach from a moral high ground here. I’m the one that’s going to slice you up with a kitchen knife, after all.’
‘Slice me up?’
‘Aw, shush, not literally. Come on, we’re here.’
Lucy turns out to be a perfect fountainette, happy to sit still and stare into the distance while I anoint my canvas with her colours. I’d say they are even prettier than mine, although that might be my modesty talking.
‘You’ve got blue blood’, I say in awe, painting the azure gaze of a drowning girl.
‘Don’t be silly’, Lucy giggles. ‘Why are her eyes so black? It looks like there is nothing inside her.’
— K.S. grew up in the Finnish countryside and escaped as quickly as possible. She studied environmental politics and now works as a research analyst in London. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Hungry Ghost, Bitter Fruit Review, Sledgehammer, and elsewhere.