Waves, Painting by the Author

A Fiction of Light

Jordan Lei


“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like that before,” River says, stretching his arms skyward as if he is about to cast a spell on the horizon. His hands land with a soft thud on the picnic blanket, draped over the roof of our rental car. “It feels like I’m seeing the whole world for the first time.”

“A moment frozen in time” I echo. In front of us, the world slowly unravels in broad strokes of pastel pink and tendrils of orange. Bright streaks of violet cut across the sky, as if the heavens were being unzipped, the stars and galaxies above spilling open onto the quiet world below.

I sweep my hands on the soft surface of the earth toned fabric, my fingers trailing over muted browns and mossy greens until I find River’s hands. I brush my thumbs over his knuckles, tracing new patterns — new constellations. How familiar these hands are now, I think to myself, and how strange it was at one point to be holding hands at all. I remember it well, even though it’s been over a year since. Dylan, River whispered, looking into my eyes, is this okay? I liked the way he said my name, the way he rested on the first syllable as if he was considering what to say next. The way he did it again before we kissed in public for the first time. We walked around the local dog park that day, hands intertwined. It’s a funny thing, how little control we have over what moments eventually become memories. All of a sudden, the world really does look different. I point at a flock of small birds headed northward for the return of the summer. We watch the trees rustling in the wind, like reluctant dance partners trying to find their sense of rhythm. In front of us, the earth undulates in sweeping waves, out toward the edge of the lake.

“Pretty different from the big city, huh?” I say. I think about the sunsets back in New York, where the jungle of steel and glass shatters the light like the mirrors of a kaleidoscope, scattering shards of sky onto the sidewalks below. In the city, the air feels electric — people of all sorts going about their lives, hurriedly shuffling about. Try to stop to snap a photo of the sunset and you’ll almost certainly be elbowed by some Wall Street big-shot on his way to the subway station. And that’s on a good day. “Tell me about it,” he chuckles and rolls his eyes theatrically, taking a long breath of air and letting it out in an exaggerated sigh. In a few days we would both return to the rhythm of that colossal beast. I lean my head on his shoulder, staring up at his soft brown hair glinting red and gold under the light of the setting sun. In this light, River’s hazel-brown eyes take the color of amber. He hums a tune. My head moves with the breaths he takes, riding the waves of the pauses between his melody.

“Every time I hear that song, I think of you,” he whispers to me, ruffling my unruly hair. When I was a kid, my hair would get tangled into knots, and my mom would spend ages trying to straighten it out with a bristly comb I dubbed “the porcupine.” These same knots currently form a labyrinth for River to meander through and fidget with absentmindedly, a refuge from the oppressive order imposed on daily life. So I heard this song and I thought of you, River said a few months after we started dating. Send it to me — I’ll listen to it tomorrow morning, I replied, but ever the enthusiast, he insisted I listen to it right then on the phone. I remember the sound of the crackle of the phone as River played an unintentionally lo-fi rendition of the melody. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not on my first listen. Last year it ended up on my Spotify Wrapped most-played song of the year.

I hum along, trying to harmonize my hmmm’s with his hmmm’s but miserably failing every time. I never had a gift for music, and I doubt I ever would. He holds back a smirk. “Come onnn,” I say, breaking into a laugh. I shoot him a look. I’m trying my best. Then he starts giggling — and I don’t mean in a demure Victorian I-can’t-believe-she’s-showing-her-elbows kind of way. This hooligan starts giggling as if he caught a couple writing notes to each other in class in third grade. So we both start laughing until we fold like lawn chairs into each other’s arms, and I begin to think to myself that there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be.

“This sweater looks good on you,” I say, holding onto him and playing with the hood. He tells me with a look of pride that he thrifted it junior year of undergrad and was surprised it wasn’t completely ruined with its years of use. That makes me feel old, which really isn’t the vibe I’m going for, so I make a snide remark about how we were both reaching the ripe-old-age of twenty three. “Isn’t it a shame”, he says, tilting his head in response, “how time is wasted on the young.” He squeezes me tighter, and I spread my palms on the fabric of his sweater. Under the warm hues of the sky, it appears almost a dark maroon or violet, the kind of color that a photograph can’t capture but a well-trained painter could. It wasn’t the first time he had worn it. It was just the first time I saw it like that.

We both go quiet as we watch the last hints of color vanish over the horizon, the rosy red lips of the sky pursing closed giving way to night. “Color is a fiction of light”, River breathes. I look at him, expectantly. “A quote… I think it’s from Tacita Dean,” he says. I think about how it’s a shame that he wants to be a lawyer. He could do so much more for the world as an author, or poet, or philosopher. An artist. He pauses for a moment, and then goes on: “I love that line because it challenges so much of how we see the world. Colors seem like such a fundamental part of life — it’s one of the first things we learn as kids. But it’s all made up, a bedtime story we tell ourselves. Even the same object can take on many colors depending on the light that’s available — like how the sky isn’t always blue, but sometimes red, orange, or all colors combined. The colors we see are a fiction told by the light. And even within the visible spectrum, we can only see a fraction of the light that exists. Our mind takes that and attributes meaning to it: blue for calm, red for anger, and so on. So really color is a fiction of the mind as much as it is a fiction of light.”

“That’s gorgeous,” I say, thinking to myself about what it would look like if we could break free of the chains of fiction — if we could see things as they were, instead of how they seemed. The world as we know it is built through the lens with which we see. So much of our understanding is painted by our visual experience. What would it look like if we could see beyond our narrow slice of light? What kind of art, literature, history would we have? “What would a poem about ultraviolet be like?” I asked abruptly.

River scratches his head. “I don’t know. Maybe someday we’ll find out.” Then he furrows his brow. “Doesn’t it strike you as a little bit sad, maybe? The fact that we’re constrained by our circumstance — the limitations of our mind’s narratives, to see the universe in a certain way. That so much of what we know is just a fiction of our minds?”

“I think it’s kind of beautiful in a way,” I counter. “The fact that we can take what little we have and move mountains with it. Sometimes I think about how we’re just some silly little apes running around playing god. And yet, I think about how much meaning we bring to the things we do, the way that we care for each other and build complex networks of things, with the little skills and tools that we have for understanding. I think we’re special because of the way that we choose to understand the vastness outside of our own narratives, that even if we try and fail over and over again we are not content with being indifferent to the world. It’s true that we’re confined by our own fictions, but the fact that we take those limitations and choose, despite the odds, to try and make something worth living for…”

He nods. I can tell he’s got something on his mind, but doesn’t know quite how to phrase it. River has this contemplative face, one where he tilts his head slightly and appears to look through you but not past you, as if he’s physically weighing your words in his mind. It’s a look I’ve gotten to know well over the past year. “What if most of what we know is just a trick of the light? What happens when the lights go out?”

I stiffen a little, feeling a gentle gust of cold wind pass by. Suddenly, I feel confronted with a universe that is so much bigger than I know. The stars hang above, twinkling as if they expect an answer. “I don’t know” I say softly. The night feels close, and I shudder a little. “Just because something is a trick of the light, doesn’t mean it’s any less real. You called it what — a fiction of the mind? The colors we see aren’t any less real than the things we know, the extent to which anything is real is, more or less, the extent to which our brain has fictions for them. And even when the lights go out, it doesn’t mean they’re gone forever. Those fictions shape the way we see the world, the way we build it in their absence.” I’m not totally convinced of my answer, but River seems satisfied and doesn’t pry for more. Sometimes I feel like we have entire conversations in the spaces between our words.

He pulls on a loose thread on the picnic blanket, twirling it around his finger. I imagine him pulling on that thread forever, until the entire blanket becomes one long string stretched up and down the shore. He holds my hand, but the warmth of the sunset has been replaced by the chill of the night. I think about how just moments before, we were in the car singing Disney songs at the top of our lungs, chasing the sun as it dipped low in the sky, painting the whole world a warm yellow glow like Midas in his final days of glory. I take a breath, trying to revive our conversation about color, light, and fiction. But for some reason, partly because I’m tired of skirting around the inevitable, partly because I’m prone to self-destructive behavior: “I take it you’re not staying in New York.” It feels like a rope has been released around my chest, and my ribcage relaxes as my heart thuds.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he says, looking away. “Let’s not talk about it now.” He raises his intonation towards the end as if he’s asking a question, the way he always does when he wants to change the subject. It’s his way of using his voice to stand up and walk out of the room, and he knows that I know it. When will we talk about it, though? I bite my tongue and convince myself it’s from the cold. I swat away a few mosquitos before curling up next to him. We fold the edges of the blanket over ourselves like a wonton wrapper, bringing ourselves close. We’ve relegated ourselves to another one of those silences where what is unspoken is so much louder than what is. After a while, River stretches his arm. For a second I’m afraid he’ll try to soothe me with some old cliche about how “everything will be alright” or “we’ll be just fine” or worst of all “everything happens for a reason”. Instead he uses the loose thread he was pulling on earlier to tickle my nose. The absolute nerve of this guy. I swat it away. He gives me a mock look of sadness, puppy eyes and all. And then this fool begins to sing — slowly, and softly. The opening lines of I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys. The song that he knows is my go-to karaoke song, to the extent that I could sing. The song that River — bless his goddamn heart — actually learned the harmony to so he could support me in my uncoordinated siren song. So anyway he’s singing now. And making the most ridiculous faces.

I’m not made of stone, and I Want It That Way is a certified bop, so I join in — reluctantly, and then all at once. Before long, it’s just the two of us, belting to the sky like dogs barking at the moon. I see the edges of his eyes crinkle into a smile, and I can’t help but do the same. He brings his face close to mine and I can feel his stubble run against my cheek. It’s a strange and beautiful thing to know how someone feels with you — to notice how their body and self fit next to yours. I can tell he’s smiling without even looking into his eyes. “Tell me why-yyy” we shout into the heavens, and I swear I can see the stars sparkle in their reply, amused at our mortal shenanigans. The moment the song is done we both exhale in unison and lie down to face the constellations. Our hands find each other and we hold tight, as if one of us might float away into the emptiness of space.

Color is a fiction of light. I think about the quote in my mind, letting it run like a tap in an overflowing sink. We are circumstantially confined by what we can know — the sunset has no notion of the day that has just passed, nor the night it leaves behind. It just is. And in that moment, we just are.

I don’t know it at the time, but barely six weeks after we sing at the top of our lungs to the universe asking for answers, we begin to fall apart, our relationship spilling over into abstracted swirls and loops. The next few weeks will be filled with their fair share of clementine hues, the soft kisses, lazy Sunday afternoons, and I think every day about how lucky I am to be with you. They’ll be filled with lilac tunes, soft jazz playing in the background as we cook evening meals together, chatting about how the world has gone to shit: they don’t make them like they used to, do they, Dyl? Pear-green shades of hikes in Hudson Valley, quiet walks near Battery Park, and what do you want to do this evening? Hints of mysterious mauve, the side-stepping around what’s really going on and when are you going to decide if you’re staying in the city and have you decided where you want to go to law school? The occasional yet increasingly prevalent crimson, the why can’t you just lay it off for now, the now’s not a good time, and you always do this, followed by an ultramarine I feel like I’m not being heard and I know I’m hurting you and I don’t know how to fix it. A soft, but hesitant splash of blue-gray: are you even willing to try? Finally, obsidian. I think we should break up.

Yeah, me too.

I’m sorry.

Me too.

In the days and weeks after, I’ll forget the quote about color and fiction just like I forget myself, digging myself deeper into colors I feel with no vocabulary to express them. There’s the ever-present color of if only. If only I had said something different — if only he had tried a little harder, we could have made it work. If only I didn’t have to stay here for another few years, if only we had waited a few weeks to find out that he wasn’t going so far away after all, if only I could retrace my steps and find the right combination, the right code to unlock the right future, if only. I always imagine if only to be something like aquamarine, the shimmering kind that you see on children’s stickers that at one moment feels like it’s more blue than green and the next the other way around- a color that isn’t quite sure of her own beauty, a blend of possibility and melancholy. Then, of course there’s the what if. What if there’s a chance he still misses me? What if I never find anyone else who cares for me the same way again, who sees my insecurities and loves me not in spite of, but because of them? What if I can’t find a way to care for someone else again? What if alternates between a deep wine-like purple and a splendid golden ochre, a facade of regality and legitimacy. And of course moments of memory. The way the dill pickles in the canned foods aisle remind me of the way he used to say “Dyl?” when he couldn’t locate a missing sock. The way my hands grasp at the blankets in the middle of the night for comfort that isn’t there. The way he said hey — is this okay? I want you to feel safe with me, always. I reach for the space where his hands used to be. Memory takes all colors, but often it takes the color of old film and sepia tone. I’ll try to place these memories back into the moments from which they arose, but I will realize quickly they no longer fit. How could such an abundance of care be so quickly replaced by its absence? I will wonder if he’s as torn about the breakup as I am, and when I come to the conclusion that he doesn’t, I’ll be left wondering why.

Sometimes, when it’s bright outside, it takes my eyes time to acclimate to the light. When I close my eyes, I’m not left with pitch black as I would expect, but the negative image of what I saw before — everything I saw the moment before I closed my eyes preserved in a flash, with all the colors reversed. The negative image shifts and swirls, colors blending in illusory and impossible ways, before eventually settling back to the ether from which they came. The absence of color forms color, too. Color is a fiction of light. Color is a fiction of the mind.

That doesn’t mean it’s any less real. What it does mean, however, is that the finality with which we see the world is just as illusory, a fleeting band of sunset that is neither cognizant nor capable of understanding what comes before and after. Before we met, I couldn’t fathom the thought of walking hand in hand with someone I loved down the street. While we were together, I thought there was no other way it could be done. Once we fell apart, I wondered if it might never happen again. It’s funny how little control we have over what moments become memories, and what strangers become familiar. These may be fictions, but they are ours, to seek, to care for, to nurture. If we are lucky, we may find others who are willing to share their humble slice of light — so that in their presence we might share a story or a life, and in doing so face the mortifying possibility of being loved.

That night, as we pack up the blanket and stuff it into the trunk of the car, I have no idea what the future has in store. Before we buckle our seatbelts, I look into his hazel eyes, a purple brown hue reflecting the deep night sky. The way the dashboard light draws silver lines around the silhouette of his hands. Around us, the crickets sing their caramel tunes as the blanket of evening descends upon us. The street lamps bow their heads as we drive on, projecting cones of marigold onto the highway. We sit quietly as the lights streak by, stunned to silence by the fictions we cast.



Jordan Lei

Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com