Love Is a Poisonous Colour
By Marshall Moore
Stuart Coleman died on the filthiest day of the year. His last conscious thought as he fell from his 40th-floor window was, It's like seeing the skyline through a dirty shower-curtain liner. This thought came to him just before he pitched over the windowsill and into the air. Then the terror of falling took over: all thought stopped and his head was a screaming cauldron of white noise. Then, a sharp crash into a muddled expanse of black.
Back in the flat afterward, it was as if nothing had happened—at first, anyway. Stuart was sitting on the sofa, his half-finished cup of peppermint tea in front of him. The TV was still on because his partner Andrew had been watching it while grading papers; he left it on when he left for work. It was still tuned to the same Japanese variety show he'd been watching. He was convinced he'd pick up some of the language if he kept Japanese TV on as background noise at all times. Stuart hadn't changed the channel, nor turned it off. If he had, that brief act of closure might have kept him on this side of the window. Now, a panel of Japanese people were nodding their heads and grunting agreement with a host and hostess who seemed to be talking about food. Behind them, the hot pink and bright orange walls of the stage blazed with flashing lights. Every now and then, a buzzer would sound, followed by flower-bursts of blue confetti from the ceiling. Laughter, screams, shrillness. Cut to a restaurant in a leafy town somewhere with mountains in the background... which could have been anywhere in Japan, Stuart supposed. An elderly man chopped mushrooms and carrots. As he prepared ingredients, he spoke in the sage, exhausted tones of someone whose every morning is a battle with sore joints and stiff muscles but who hasn't run out of reasons to get out of bed yet. Sips of the chef's miso soup, grunts of gourmet enthusiasm, cut back to the studio, more applause and confetti, more flashing lights. Stuart asked himself, I was watching this? No wonder I jumped.
During another peal of laughter from the audience, Stuart stood up, stretched. Solid arms, legs, torso. He had on the same jeans he had died in: fading indigo, new but already a bit too tight across the butt. His favourite burgundy polo shirt with the broken stitches in the left armpit. He looked to the left, to the right, and felt the tendons in his neck grow taut. Dull ache in his shoulders from using the computer too much. But I'm dead, he thought. When he looked outside again, the proof of his demise was playing out on the street far below. He squinted to make out the details: an ambulance, two police cars, a gathering crowd, the body—his body—under a blanket. But that wasn't the weird part. Needing to squint... what the hell? Wasn't death supposed to be the final release from bodily aches and pains and limitations?
Stuart focused on the silver-amber curtain of haze hanging over the harbour. Even with an MFA from a respectable New England art school and the resulting respectable freelance practice, he couldn't pin a name to this colour. It retreated as he stared into it: the amber faded, leaving the grey and reminding him of some Lovecraftian blasted heath. Walking home from the post office earlier, he'd been able to smell the pollution—acrid whiffs of armpits and burning rubber. He leaned out the window to sniff again. His nose still worked and the same stink lingered. One last look down. He remembered thinking, Enough of this, looking around the apartment one last time, and wondering whether Andrew would be more upset than relieved, or vice versa. Perhaps he'd be indifferent only until the student he was fucking came along to suck out the poison: sadface as inspiration.
There weren't many other people left to care, or to care about. Parents gone, brother estranged, only a few friends back in the States who'd be truly hurt by the news. The rest would post thoughts and prayers on his Facebook wall. This is all I've amounted to, Stuart thought in the final shifting decision—whether to dive out the window head first, or whether to fall out backwards like a scuba diver going off the side of a boat. These many floors up, did it matter? Somehow he felt he should be ashamed for thinking this, or should regret having done it. He remembered the rush of air, the knife-clench of fear in his guts. Then everything stopped. Had he pissed himself, crapped his pants? Kind of a fitting way to go out on a day as disgusting as this. If he was dead and couldn't find anything worse to worry about than shitting himself upon impact, then no, there was nothing left to regret.
Nap, the black-patched tabby they had adopted about a month after moving to Hong Kong, wandered into the living room, tail high. When he saw Stuart, he stopped, arched his back, turned sideways to make himself look bigger, and gave a perfunctory hiss. But his defensive pretences lasted only a couple of seconds: he changed his mind, padded over, hopped up on the coffee table, and waited for Stuart to scratch him behind the ears.
"Oh, Nap…," Stuart said, reaching down to pet the cat. The sound of his own voice stopped his hand. Sonorous and whispery at the same time, his voice no longer sounded like the Low-country drawl he was used to: it was a greyed-out version of itself, a scratchy playback from an old reel-to-reel tape.
Rattle of keys, scrape of metal, and Andrew was shoving the door open and racing into the room, eyes bloodshot. Nap crouched and jumped off the coffee table to put furniture between himself and the intruder. Stuart dispersed. One second he was sitting on the sofa wracked with doubt about whether it was safe to pet the cat; the next, and without warning, he was floating around the ceiling like a thin haze of incense smoke. Drifting, he watched Andrew curl up on the sofa, hugging a pillow and crying. For a moment, Stuart wanted to take material form again, to waft feather-like down to the sofa in order to put an arm around the partner he'd widowed. Memories of walking in on Andrew in bed with Kit, a third-year student at the university where he taught, muffled Stuart's charity. It had only taken a few months in Hong Kong for Andrew to come down with a case of yellow fever. There had been a few others: Kelvin, Tommy, Ho Nam, and the Japanese one—Takeshi, or was it Takashi? And those were just the ones he knew about. No, better to stay in this state of misty self-awareness, remembering himself and forgetting again.
Stuart hovered overhead, watching and listening. There had been love there once. Andrew had eyes the colour of steel wool and a personality to match. His grief was real: the sobs, the lethargy, the weight loss, all of it. He stopped watching Japanese TV and played Nina Simone over and over: "Everything Must Change." In this zombie state, Andrew slogged through the rest of the arrangements: packing Stuart's belongings, arranging the cremation, drinking his way through the paperwork and phone calls. He bought plane tickets to go back to Atlanta for a memorial service. There were Skype calls and Facebook posts and instant messages at all hours to their friends in Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Graham from Chattanooga and Ted from Knoxville. Folks he hadn't spoken to in years said they'd be there. Stuart tried to imagine what they'd say about him in the exequies but couldn't.
And here was Kit again, 21 and handsome and lithe and so very, very polite. Expressive eyebrows over eyes that were just a little too big for his face. Andrew would be leaving in the morning; he'd be away for a week, and Kit missed him already. Kit had never dated a man before, much less a man twice his age and in a relationship.
"At first I stayed away because I thought you needed space. If you wanted me, I would have come," Kit said in a North American English that told of affluence, international school, and a place at Hong Kong's top university. "This is all new to me. But I want to be here for you. Just tell me how."
"Yesterday morning over breakfast, I told him I was... leaving him for you," Andrew said. He had to choke the last few words out through his sobs. Kit held him, let him cry, and looked around the room as if he were in a doctor's office trying to ignore posters of blisters and sores.
He can see me, Stuart realised. His guts clenched, another smoky approximation of life. As he listened to Andrew explaining how he couldn't go on sleeping next to Stuart, how in their 10 years together he had never once felt actually loved, Stuart focused. He had arms and legs again; clothing, sensation, substance.
He was standing just inside the kitchen. The sofa where Andrew and Kit were sitting faced the opposite way, but Kit turned around to keep watching. Stuart willed himself to weigh no more than a speck of pollen; as he walked toward them, the parquet floor did not creak when he stepped on the loose panels. The young man's lack of reaction didn't just scare Stuart, it worried him. Kit was brave enough to look away. Stuart reached out, thinking he'd touch the back of Andrew's head. At the last second, he jerked his hand away, afraid his hand would pass through the skull and into Andrew's brain. On reflection, Stuart rather hoped it would. Andrew deserved a lobotomy, but that would leave no one to feed the cat. It could wait for another day. And with that moment of appalled acceptance, the force holding Stuart together released him.
"Did you feel that?" Kit asked Andrew.
"I think it was the air conditioner," Andrew said, his voice still hitching.
Little currents of Stuart circled the light fixture, and parts of him floated down the corridor into the bedroom. The novelty of looking down at things rather than up at them from eye level hadn't worn off. In life, he'd been short; now he could see everything: Nap, looking up at him in that middle distance visible only to cats and ghosts; Kit, with a faint smile as he comforted his older lover; Andrew, nose running, eyes and cheeks red, groping around on the coffee table for the box of tissues. In the second bedroom, Stuart's studio, the PC slept on its desk and a dozen slabs of framed canvas leaned against the far wall. Like a drop of ink in a glass of water, a brief regret passed through him before death diluted it into nonexistence. He flowed around the stacks of his work, the design manuals on their shelves, the clutter of pens and notepads, the empty coffee cup on his desk. Tubes of oil paint, smudges of grey and indigo on the shelves. All of that, over now.
With no one to console him, he contracted. The miracle of fitting into the empty space in a bottle of linseed oil was offset by the stench. Escaping, he formed a dizzy rectangular film against the last painting he'd finished. Never titling it seemed stupid now. Skyline Two Days before Jumping, he thought, the tastes of anthracite and ochre thick in the mouth that he no longer had. Or, The World's Freest Economy. But wouldn't that have been too obvious, too bolshy? There was nothing unique in echoing a political sentiment being screamed every day in city plazas worldwide. Perhaps just, Forever Umber (or, My Boyfriend Is Screwing a College Student Less Than Half His Age; Therefore, I Had to Die). Not subtle but neither was walking in on what he'd seen Kit and Andrew doing. The kitchen was safer. Stuart went to sleep in the cinnamon. It was less prickly than the star anise or the rosemary and he liked the way it smelled.
His seasoned dreams sped the passage of time. Days, nights: he had a dim sense of the cycle of darkness and light, but every time he thought he could shake himself out of his funk, the urge to stay put overtook him. Once, he did manage to leave the bottle of cinnamon. Tingling all over, he walked around the empty apartment and wondered what day it was, what month. Cardboard boxes stacked chest-high: was Andrew moving? It made sense, didn't it? Who'd want to stay in the same flat whose living-room window the spouse you jilted had jumped out of? But then, the flat had a view and the rent was affordable. In Hong Kong, apparently that mattered more than the fact that his partner had died there. Apart from an ugly green slipcover on the sofa, nothing much in the living room had changed. Stuart checked the tiny second bedroom, the one he thought of as his studio. A laminate storage reef from IKEA now stood where his shelves and canvases had been. All his design books, gone. All his supplies, too. He could guess what the boxes in the living room contained. And along the wall where he'd set up his computer desk, there was now a daybed with a Scandinavian name and too many cushions. The only detail he recognized was the ultramarine thumbprint by the doorknob.
In the bedroom, he found Nap sleeping on the bed with his front legs straight out and his hind legs straight back: a small, furry Superman. Stuart didn't recognise the dark green duvet. In the pile of laundry at the foot of the bed, he spotted T-shirts and underwear he hadn't seen before, too.
"Bastard," he said in his version of out loud.
Nap opened his eyes, looked at him for a moment, yawned, and closed them again. Stuart wanted to sit next to him on the bed, stroke him, and talk to him. What would happen if he did, though? Would his hand pass right through? Would Nap even stick around and let him do it? That was the bigger question. Stuart looked again at the bedspread, at the smaller T-shirts and underwear. Generic briefs from Uniqlo, and in primary colours; Andrew tended to wear pastel boxers that showed archipelagos of dried pee at the end of the day.
"What do you think, Nap? If I sit down next to you and look at Kit's T-shirts, do you think any of them will be yellow at the necks and armpits?"
Nap's ears twitched.
Stuart raised his right hand, held it still, and watched Nap's eyes track with every movement. He waved; Nap's eyes followed.
He sat on the bed. Whisper-creak of mattress coils under his butt.
If he didn't sink through the floor when he walked on it and didn't fall through the sofa or the mattress when he sat down, then there was a pattern.
With the care of a surgeon making a first cut, he reached down and stroked the edges of Nap's tail. Better not to start on his head or halfway down his back, just in case. Or on a paw. Nap needed those. When his hand didn't razor away the fur of Nap's tail, and when the cat didn't screech, bite him, and bolt, he applied a little more pressure. Crackling, scalding life: he hadn't touched another living being in how long?
Nap tensed under his hand, threatening a warning nip. He didn't like anyone stroking his haunches for very long, just his head and upper body. Down the back was okay too, just not his hind legs. These nips of his didn't break the skin, but they left a couple of red dots to serve as reminders. Only I don't have skin now, Stuart thought, applying a little more pressure. Low waw of complaint from Nap. One more stroke, and then another...
Nap bit him and it hurt. Stuart jerked his hand back and stared at the twin indentations. No blood welled in the centres, but they were as red as they would have been in life. Fill in, he instructed the wounds. And they did, the red fading to pink and then back to the olive-tan of the surrounding skin.
Emboldened by substance, Stuart crossed the living room and tried the doorknob next. He'd been avoiding it. Weren't ghosts supposed to be housebound? He expected an electric arc to stream out of the knob and zap his hand before he could turn it. When that didn't happen, he expected to door to be stuck in its frame, capable of opening only for the living. That didn't happen either. No barrier blocked him as he stepped across the threshold; no celestial death ray blasted him into non-existence the second he set foot on the welcome mat and turned around to close the door behind him.
If he could leave the apartment, could he also leave the building? Walk down the street among the living, passing as one of them? If death is this easy, he thought, people would do it much sooner. Behind him, the ding of the arriving elevator interrupted him. As he drifted off into thought, he felt himself going dim and transparent. The elevator doors slid open with a clunk, and he turned to see who it was. His neighbour, a fiftyish Chinese woman whose name he'd never known, saw him, screamed, and jumped back into the lift. He held up his hands and started to apologise, then stopped himself: over the screams, he could hear her banging the door-close button. Okay, perhaps I'm not quite ready for Causeway Bay crowds on a Saturday afternoon, he admitted to himself.
But he was disappearing again: when he looked at his hands, he could see the lobby's dusty blue floor tiles through them. As he faded into transparency, the thought I need a nap circled around first in his head and then in the formless zone of self-awareness that it became. There was just enough time for him to register the irony of being dead and hoping he'd survive this, and then a dark fog rolled in, hiding himself from himself.
In the days that followed, Stuart practised solidity. Inside the apartment, it came naturally: the floor creaked when he walked on it; the furniture bore his weight when he sat in chairs or stretched out on the bed. He could pick up the remote and turn on the TV or the air conditioning, no problem, and he liked doing these things when Andrew was at home. When Andrew and Kit chilled out on the sofa with Netflix or basic cable, Stuart would turn the air conditioning in one of the bedrooms down to freezing. When they went to bed, he'd switch on the TV, and once when they were having sex, he set the channel to an American religious network and turned the sound all the way up. Andrew padded into the living room to switch Jesus off.
"People there really believe this stuff?" Kit asked from the doorway. He seemed intrigued by the star-spangled hellfire and brimstone. Unlike Andrew, he hadn't lost his erection. Gawking, Stuart felt his jealousy red-shift to envy.
"I think they like the big hair," Andrew said.
"Maybe it makes the preachers and their wives seem closer to God?" Kit couldn't take his eyes off the TV and Stuart couldn't take his eyes off Kit.
"Something like that," Andrew said. "Do you believe there's an afterlife?"
"Absolutely," Kit said, now at half-mast. The onscreen hymns and hallelujahs had finally worked their black magic. "But I don't want to talk about it now. Come back to bed."
Wasn't death supposed to bring a sense of blissful equanimity, of total acceptance? But then, wasn't death also supposed to result in a one-way trip to a supernatural city built either among the clouds or within a caldera? Cherubs or charcoal, forever and ever, amen? If Stuart could take on solid form, then who was to say he couldn't also do… what Kit and Andrew had resumed doing, from the sound of things? Imagine being able to hold that kind of solidity, he murmured to himself as he disintegrated for the night.
To tempt himself away from pointless voyeurism, he practiced compressing himself into unlikely spaces. He napped in one of the bottles of Chardonnay Andrew emptied every night. In the cold dark of the fridge, encased in green glass and comforting vanilla notes of oak, Stuart could do some of his best thinking. When Andrew took out Stuart's bottle and unscrewed the cap, Stuart screamed as loud as his soggy, barely-there lungs would allow. Then he let go of his loose physicality and hovered in a thin haze near the ceiling. Andrew dropped the bottle and raced out of the room, losing his footing on the wet kitchen tiles and crashing into the doorframe on his way out.
About a week after that, Stuart decided to take another walk in the lobby. He'd been dead for something like… three months, maybe four, and only ventured out that one time? Each time he disintegrated and drew himself back together, less time seemed to have passed: a few days instead of a couple of weeks. Andrew was at home watching one of his Japanese variety shows again. This time, three men—one in a red outfit, one in blue, and one in yellow—were walking through a new apartment somewhere in Tokyo. The object of this game seemed to be for the men to ask stupid but revealing questions of the property agent showing them around. The guests on the programme would then try to guess how much the rent was. The winner would receive… Stuart couldn't tell, but he thought it might be a large supply of instant miso soup mix. The three derps in their uniforms looked out a window at a vista of tidy rectangular buildings. I could go to Japan, Stuart told himself. Couldn't I?
There was a logic in this. He'd gotten out of the apartment, hadn't he? Made it as far as the elevator without being blasted into plasma by a thunderbolt? He could walk on hardwood floors and pet the cat. What was stopping him, other than concerns about inciting mass panic? On TV, the guests were comparing guesses. Too high, too low: Stuart couldn't understand a word of it and doubted Andrew was doing much better. Canned laughter. Somebody seemed to have won, and the merry chaos onstage gave way to another flat in a different part of the city. No, Stuart thought, I'd rather die a second time than stay in the flat while he watches this.
Hovering, he looked down upon Andrew. Tonight's Chardonnay was from—Stuart lowered himself to look—New Zealand. Hawke's Bay. Yet another on the long list of places he'd wanted to visit in life and now never would. A pinprick of pity kept him from taking solid form, opening the front door, and walking out. Andrew would deserve the heart attack it would give him, but the bottle was almost empty and Stuart could see the sad roses in his cheeks. They'd bloomed in the last few months.
Stuart set himself on course to slip through the cracks between the door and its frame but changed his mind at the last second: he funnelled himself down to a thin stream of intention and passed through the keyhole into the narrow nautilus of the doorknob. He dove in knowing it wasn't the old-fashioned kind a pervert could peep through, but he didn't expect it to be a tight black labyrinth of coils and springs and jagged chambers. Although he had navigated any number of narrow passages in his lifetime, dealing with such a different one left him tied, in the most literal sense, in knots. His head and his feet seemed to be occupying the same space and he couldn't see anything. He thought his ass might be poking out of the keyhole on the lobby side of the knob.
I'm already dead, he reminded himself as he fought to untie his tangled spirals. What's the worst that can happen? Voices gibbered in his inner darkness. Getting stuck like this for the rest of eternity, about 10 per-cent substance and the rest of him this vaporous mystery. That would be worse.
He ordered every panicked molecule of his being to still itself, every last troubled quark. So what if he was terrible at ghosting? He was learning. He would get there. This would work. He streamed back out of the lock, not aiming at any part of the room in particular, only thinking of escape. Metaphors distracted him: thread unspooling, a pulse of radio waves arcing into space, a stream of piss splashing in a bowl. When he collided with the TV screen, the crash reminded him of dying: abrupt blackness, a moment of dislocation, and then a Japanese TV show in the background.
Stuart turned around. Behind him, a flat, pixelated replica of Mt. Fuji loomed. The host and hostess of the show were discussing… hot-springs resorts? Stuart caught the word onsen several times. It was one of the only Japanese words he knew. The image of Fuji-san gave way to a hillside hot tub in which three Japanese men were talking animatedly. Steam rose around them, hiding their faces. One poured cold water from a bottle onto a cloth and put it over his forehead to cool off.
One of the men said something about the mineral content of the water. Stuart didn't catch the names of the minerals, nor the next bit. Something about joints, maybe? Good for arthritis? Stuart turned around again: from this angle, he could see out through the TV screen. Andrew was there, staring, jaw slack. Stuart's tiny, tentative thread of comprehension snapped: the Japanese reverted to a stream of cheerful foreign babble.
"Stuart?" Light from the TV made the tracks of Andrew's tears shine a fluorescent purplish blue.
Stuart looked around again. The Japanese men couldn't see him. Although he thought he might be able to step through this reality into theirs, he worried about what could go wrong. All the places he could get lost.
When Stuart looked back, at Andrew, Kit materialised next to him. Literally: one second the space on the sofa was empty; in the next couple of seconds, Kit seemed to knit himself out of the vacant black.
"What the… Kit, what the fuck? Where did you come from?"
"I was always here. I died a long time before you did."
Andrew looked back and forth between Stuart and Kit. He'd had too much to drink for rationality to keep him from the obvious.
"No," he said quietly. He shut his eyes, shook his head. "No."
Then he bolted across the room, unlatched the same window from which Stuart had jumped, and pitched himself out.
Less than a minute later, Andrew appeared on the sofa next to Kit, looking as if nothing had just happened and everything had just changed.
Well. Now you've both got what you wanted, Stuart thought.
Perhaps there had been love once, some dark shade or sick gradation of love that he couldn't quite name. It didn't matter now. Stuart concentrated on the rectangular screen through which he could see into his living room. Andrew was looking at his hands as if he didn't recognise them. Kit was looking directly back at Stuart. Framed against the backdrop of this onsen, they were discordant. Everything about them was wrong. Even if no one else could see this black window in the wall of reality, it needed to close. Stuart pictured himself pressing the red power button on a remote. The rectangle vanished, and when it did, the environment brightened. Japan.
Several of the tubs sat empty. Stuart could smell the place now: fresh air, hot stones, cedar walls, steam rich with minerals. The heat pressed against him. He made a couple of quick adjustments: clothes (off), skin (a bit darker). If anyone noticed him, at most they'd think he was a gaijin tourist trying out his first hot spring. For the first time since dying, he was glad he still could feel things. The water looked awfully inviting.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018