Color Theory: An Excerpt From a Novel in Progress
By Caroline Wolff
“College will be the best years of your life,” my high school guidance counselor said through a strained smile as she sifted through the mountain of brochures on her desk one September afternoon. The mahogany was littered with old Starbucks cups, stacks of file folders, and souvenir coffee mugs being used to store a surplus of pens. “And with your GPA and test scores, you have so many options.”
“Chin up, buttercup,” my mother said that summer as she folded a hot pink pair of sweatpants and dropped them into one of the many suitcases lying open on my bed. My childhood bedroom was unsettlingly bare—green walls stripped of posters and polaroids, shelves stripped of well-loved paperbacks and DVDs, not a trace of personality left. “These next four years will be the best years of your life. You’ll be so consumed with getting settled on campus that you’ll forget about your sister and me and this tiny…and dare-I-say ugly bedroom by next week.”
“God, I cannot wait to get started here,” said my freshman roommate, a sandy blonde named Bethany with the most pronounced Brooklyn accent I had ever heard, on a humid late-August Saturday. “I can already tell these next four years are gonna be the best, you know? Like, life starts here.”
Life starts here. That’s one way to put it. I admired her spirit, but stained carpeting, naked navy blue twin size mattresses which smelled faintly of weed, and socks separated from their pairs strewn across the floor didn’t exactly make me think “life starts here,” but more so, “God, get me out of here.”
She eyed the corner of a pride flag peeking out from my duffel bag. “Uh, so can you make sure that, um, goes on your side of the room? Like way on your side. I just don’t want people getting any ideas.”
And if I had any shred of hope left for these “best four years of my life,” they died right there on that awful, disgusting carpet floor. I always imagined my first day away from home would be filled with cute coffee shop mixers and teambuilding games, not scouring the campus directory for the number I’d call should I ever need to report a hate crime.
That was just over a year ago, and before you ask: No, I never had to report a hate crime. But my first year of college was exactly what I thought it would be—far less than the glamorous, glossy photos I was shown on all the brochures, far less than the empty promises my mother made to me standing at the foot of my once-bed.
Some good things did come with time. My new room smells much better and I have a nice roommate…I think. Heather and I don’t say much to each other, and she mostly lives in her boyfriend’s room. Regardless, here I am, sophomore year, still longing for someone to hold hands with on the way to class, still watching my neighbors head off to parties I’m not invited to, and still passing by those colorful flyers on the library bulletin board, saving the dates in my calendar but never actually attending any of the events. My best friend is still a goldfish named after a cell biologist. I’m still the same terrified child, just without the naive hope for change.
Strings of code swim across my vision, even though the digits on the screen are perfectly still, stupidly stoic. The blood vessels in my eyes are screaming in pain. My temples are throbbing, but my limbs are so heavy that I can’t bring myself to go find some Aspirin.
The clock reads 1:07 AM, and I can almost hear it in that nagging tone that my mother used to use when she’d tell my sister, Angie, and I… well, just about anything, really. The screen full of numbers mocks me and reminds me that in nine hours, I’ll be sitting in a dingy computer lab, fingers trembling above a filthy communal keyboard as I attempt to recall the proper syntax and sequences in a number-based language I can barely speak.
And perhaps, under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t be so distressing, because under normal circumstances, I would’ve finished studying three days ago and would already be conquering next week’s barrage of assignments, exams, and Heather’s boy drama.
Across the building, devices are dinging. Action movie scenes are blaring. Gravel-y bass from the rager next-door rattles the surface of my desk, pencil stubs and sticky notes violently vibrating as they gradually inch closer to the edge. Waka Flocka Flame’s shout-rap is drowning out the lofi beats flowing through my apparently-not-so-noise-canceling headphones. An enormous thud reverberates from the wall closest to my desk, and I flinch, another sting of pain ravaging my temples. I can only assume the sound means one of two things: an intense brawl or an equally-intense makeout session.
If the external noise isn’t enough to drive any struggling STEM major up a wall, the internal noise surely is. It’s nights like these, nights when it’s just me and Leeuwenhoek the goldfish, without Heather here to distract me with pop culture references that make no sense to me, when my thoughts are at their loudest and most invasive.
Oh my God, did you leave the curling iron on?
What if your water bottle has bugs in it? Like, live bugs. Check. Right now. Come on.
Go tap the doorknob three times right this very second or you’ll fail your exam tomorrow. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. This is way more important than studying.
It’s 1:15 AM. I give my dilapidated swivel chair, with its lopsided seat and fraying blue thread, a frustrated shove, a bit harder than I mean to, almost sending it straight into the opposite wall, and myself to the nearest hospital. Standing for the first time in hours, my knees and ankles crackle like one of the many summer bonfires I could’ve gone to but didn’t. Marching back to my desk, I drag the overturned swivel chair behind me like a stubborn child, slam my laptop closed, then flip it off for good measure.
It’s a triumph followed by a surrender; I open the bathroom door and check the curling iron–unplugged. I unscrew the lid of my water bottle and peek inside—no visible bugs. I hang my head, tousled black bangs cascading over my eyelashes, as I shuffle to the front door, running my palm over its flaky maroon paint job before tapping the cold knob three times in quick succession, my blue acrylic nail sending a shrill clink bouncing off the crowded beige walls.
I’m on my way to the closet, about to strip myself of fishnet tights and an itchy lace top in favor of drawstring shorts and a sports bra, when my phone, stowed away in my desk drawer, buzzes with an urgency unmatched by even the most impending of deadlines. I tread with caution, as if I’m about to face off against a bear, or worse, my Bethany. For me, every phone call is formidable.
With a pull of the drawer, I find a too-bright screen with the words “Call From Mother,” and, oh Lord, it’s even worse than I imagined.
I stand staring at the phone, not lifting it from the drawer, letting it ring. Sweat coats my shaking hands, and wiping them on my leather shorts does absolutely no good. Before long, there’s a voicemail. I close the drawer again. I will be strong. I will not look.
Spoiler alert: I look, no more than a minute later, and tap on the voicemail notification with no hesitation. I refuse to speak to her, but I at least want to know what excuse she’s come up with to call me this hour, what lecture is waiting for me at the other end of the line.
“Hi, honey,” my mom’s voice, even in the staticky cell phone reception, still has that age-old saccharine tone that only comes out when she wants something. “I heard from your sister that it’s Family Weekend here in a month or so.” My heart plummets from my chest to my intestines, cold sweat now gathering on my forehead and underarms, my breath shallow and forced. I glance at the date: October 14. Less than three weeks away. “I know you’ll be home for Thanksgiving, but…it’s just been such a long time. We can’t pass up this opportunity. We’ll see you soon, okay? Call back when you get this. And remember, I expect to hear all about how things are going for you and how you’re doing in your classes, truthfully. I have to make sure you’re getting the most out of your education. You know I’m practically breaking the bank, even with your scholarship. And in the meanwhile, try to get out of that room and make some friends. You just can’t expect things to happen for you when you’re not willing to—” Delete voicemail.
It’s easy for her to say things like this. It’s easy for her to write off my solitude as a choice, as some sort of laziness, when she’s never known what it feels like to be hyper-aware of every lingering eye, honed in on the insecurities that she’s responsible for.
The bedside clock blinks erratically, 1:35 AM, and at last, I let my breath escape me, let my knees buckle as I tumble onto the bottom bunk of the bed. My corroding foundation is fighting for its life, in its seventeenth hour, oily and heavy against my skin, but I have no incentive to go to the bathroom and remove it. The loose stitches of a patchwork quilt–pieced together from relics of my aunt’s sewing room; hues of forest green, rust red, indigo, and amber–gently scratch my knees and calves. It’s the type of discomfort that’s comforting, a reminder of my humanness.
The quilt clashes with, yet somehow also compliments, Heather’s plush carnation-pink blanket, dangling off the edges of the top bunk and into my sacred space. One of my cracked-spine, dog-earred paperbacks conveniently sits at the end of my bed, one of the many for-pleasure books I brought from home, sentenced to a life of sitting in my room but never fulfilling their potential. Sounds oddly familiar, doesn’t it?
It takes only seconds for reading to be relinquished to the sounds of the party, still going strong, so I hurl the paperback to the foot of the bed once more with a frustrated sigh. “Am I the only one in this whole building who ever shuts the fuck up?” I mutter under my breath as I grab my phone from the corner of my desk that I use as a nightstand.
Nothing good ever comes from a prolonged Instagram scroll, especially not this late at night, but my fingers mindlessly migrate to the app anyway. I’ve only ever posted once—a picture of my golden retriever, Ollie, with a whopping 4 likes on it—but I Insta-lurk daily; it’s my favorite form of self-sabotage.
My chest instantly feels hollow with regret as I gaze at a glamor shot of a slender platinum-blonde girl from across the hall posing on a tennis court in booty shorts.
Scroll. The neighbor boys and their fraternity brothers raise their solo cups to the sky, backed by strobe lights and a distant DJ table.
Scroll. A best friend duo’s golden-hour road trip selfie, taken as the two sipped boba while sitting on top of their Jeep Cherokee.
Scroll. A strip of photo booth snapshots. Heather clutches a bouquet of red roses and locks lips with her boyfriend, Kevin.
Forty minutes and the tears come like clockwork. My phone falls to the ground when I roll onto my side. I close my eyes, pushing out a single sticky stream. In the darkness, I drift off to the sounds of goodbyes from the party next door. The fumbling footsteps. The laughter. The silhouettes of lovers stopping outside my window to kiss goodnight. The youthful, blissful, beautiful carelessness of seizing the moment instead of worrying about tests and phone calls. When will it be my turn?
I jolt awake to the sound of the door swinging open and clicking back closed. A swift glance around the room tells me that it’s 4:15 AM, Heather is finally back, she’s tugging Kevin along by the hand, and they’re both most definitely drunk. Ribbons of pale moonlight come streaming in through the broken blinds, illuminating the doorway like a spotlight. Heather pauses to pick strands of her jet black hair out of her smudged magenta lipstick.
When she whips her head toward me, my eyes instinctively snap shut, sealed tight by dried tears. The room is filled with sounds of a heavy-footed saunter to Heather’s bed, one running into Heather’s desk chair as the other trips over something left on the floor. My eyes twitch with the desire to peek, but still, I lie motionless, stifling a laugh as Heather chides at Kevin, “Seriously, babe, are you five? Don’t wake up my roomie or I’m breaking up with you in the morning.”
Heather has been a bit overprotective of me ever since we met, even though we’re the same age and don’t speak much. She’s the type to tend to everyone else in the room before herself. She tells me it’s her Chinese heritage, and the abundance of younger siblings and elders she grew up constantly surrounded by.
I hear four clunky objects hit the floor in quick succession from the top bunk and conclude that it must be Heather and Kevin’s discarded shoes. The bed springs squeak as the two shift positions, then silence blankets the room for a few seconds before Kevin says, “You wouldn’t do that. Not a chance.”
“Shhh! Whisper!” Heather scolds him again. “And do what?”
“Break up with me. You’re too nice.”
“Am not! I..I even told that guy to buzz off earlier when he kept talking to me, you know, when you were getting drinks.”
“Babe, I am begging you to just say fuck. Just once,” Kevin says flatly. “C’mon, you won’t even talk to Jade about your invite to the Halloween party.”
“If I didn’t get an invite, then I’m not invited. Simple as that. Yeah, it sucks, but it’s, like, not my place to question it. Plus, Jade’s a busy woman. I shouldn’t be bothering her with stupid things like that.”
“You two are sorority sisters. It has to be a mistake. She practically hands those things out like candy. Just, like, text her and ask.”
Like candy? Jade and I are decent acquaintances, or so I thought. We have a biology lab together and always ask the other about how the weekend was and what we think of our professors. I’m only now realizing that I read too much into the interactions, that they mean much more to me than to her.
“No, that’s awkward,” Heather whines. “I’m gonna seem desperate.”
“She won’t care if it’s you. She just doesn’t like randos hitting her up over shit like this, which, who could blame her, y’know? If you’re not on the list, there’s a reason. Like your little friend down there.”
My eyes launch open without me even thinking about it. Despite all my desire to jump out of this bed, climb up to the top bunk, and push Kevin right off, I keep my breathing steady and quiet, my muscles frozen in place to keep from rustling the sheets.
“Will you stop? What is it with you and her?”
“I just don’t get why you defend her so much!” Kevin raises his voice slightly, but it stays in a harsh whisper. “She hasn’t said a single word to me, she barely talks to you, and she only leaves this room to go to class and sometimes get food and bring it back.”
“Because!” Heather whisper-shouts, then hesitates for a length of time that makes my skin crawl. “I just…I feel like she needs it. If no one else in this place is gonna give her the time of day, shouldn’t I at least try? Isn’t that what any decent person would do?”
In terms of friendships that mean more to me than the other person, Jade was one thing. But Heather? She’s the only person on campus I’d even venture to call a friend in the first place. I know her intentions are good, that I should appreciate how much she steps up on my behalf, but it stings to hear that my only friend thinks of me as a charity project. I wonder if she would be my friend if I wasn’t her roommate, or if I wasn’t starved of social outlets to the point where people felt sorry for me. I seem to have exhausted my tear reserves for the night, because as hurt and hollow as I feel, nothing comes.
I don’t sleep much between then and when my alarm sounds at 8:00. As I stumble out of bed and turn on my desk lamp, my foot catches on Kevin’s brown jacket and black boots. I look up at Heather’s bunk to find her sleeping alone. It’s as if Kevin left in a hurry, and I can’t help but wonder if Heather kicked him out. My heart skips a beat at the thought of her having broken up with him, but I know Kevin’s right—no such luck.
As usual, after one of Kevin and Heather’s tumultuous nights out, the room is a wreck, so I take a few moments to tidy up. Despite my grudges, I fold Kevin’s jacket and hang it by the door along with his boots, clear the empty solo cups off Heather’s desk, and straighten the lopsided rug. After feeding Leeuwenhoek his gourmet fish flakes, I feed myself a slice of peanut-buttered toast along with a cup of Folgers, put on some light makeup, then grab a lilac mask to match my miniskirt and head out for a walk to clear my mind. I have to be careful not to close the door too hard; I still can’t help but be a little bit pissed at Heather.
The Spotify pick of the morning is a The Neighbourhood album from the early 2010s. Birdsong and cicada trills are drowned out by suggestive lyrics as I stampede through the courtyard, which is surprisingly crowded for so early in the morning. Two boys are playing frisbee by the fountain.
Two roommates from my floor are studying together, one typing on her laptop while the other buries herself in a gigantic textbook. A pink-haired girl sits in the grass, serenely strumming an acoustic guitar, next to a couple who is leaned up against a light pole, making out, hands in hair and on asses, the whole steamy ordeal.
In attempts to avert my eyes, I look in the other direction and find myself practically hypnotized by an unexpected burst of color on the back wall of the arts building. Bare brick has been replaced by a white paint base and strips of blue masking tape, sectioning off small areas of what seems to be the beginnings of a mural. It doesn’t look like anything yet, but the small blocks of blues and greens are enough to catch my eye. Surrounded by gray tarps and huge paint cans, three artists—a lanky blonde boy, a purple-haired girl in a wheelchair, and a short girl with long fiery red hair—have their backs turned to me, giving each other playful shoves and poking each other with wet paint brushes.
I’m mesmerized in a trance broken only by the skateboarder who approaches from behind and plows straight into me at full speed, sending me flying and landing face down on the concrete. I can’t hear my music anymore, which means my AirPods either flew out of my ears or broke. Instead, I hear a panicked female voice and a few pairs of footsteps rushing toward me. “Holy shit! Are you okay?”
I should be grateful that the people around me care enough to come check on me, but all I can think is “That was so embarrassing. I bet everyone here is staring at me right now. What if my skirt is riding up? Oh God.”
The stinging spreads quickly across my knees, my left elbow, and above my right eyebrow. The warmth and wetness warn me that blood is quickly pooling in my scrapes. When I lift my head, I see the skateboarder coasting away without a single glance back at me. The trees and buildings in the distance are slightly blurred. My AirPods are sitting on the sidewalk a few feet away, so I scoop them up and put them in my pocket.
I feel a hand on my shoulder accompanied by the same female voice from earlier. “Jesus, your face is bleeding!” She says. “Here, let us help you.”
“No, really, I—I’m okay, thank y—”
I glance to my side to find the painting people. The boy and the purple-haired girl hang back, but look ready to help if needed. The girl with the wild red hair is knelt down beside me, but before I can utter another word, her hazel eyes widen with recognition.