There’s this smokey red I really love, like half-dried blood or dead maple leaves. It was the color of the team that kicked our asses during the playoffs my junior year of High School. We were undefeated, repeat champions, and we lost by 7 points.
I remember the sound of the game buzzer, how I laughed out on the field, how my dad screamed at me back home, how my mom watched, and that red. That deep, dark red. I’ve tried recreating it, and I’ve gotten close, but nothing really matches it. Maybe nothing ever will.
And, of course, remembering the deep red brings up the sickly purple I absolutely hate.
You see it a lot on tacky dresses and really cheap jewelry. I use it all the time. It just bleeds melancholy. Just sucks the energy out of a scene.
It was the color of my gym shorts when I first realized how different I was. It was the Presidential Fitness test, in, I think, fourth or fifth grade. I ran a seven minute mile and barely broke a sweat.
One of the kids called me a freak and I just laughed in his face. In a weird way it made me proud. Something I could do that they couldn’t. I was special.
When I told my dad that night, he smiled.
“You get what you pay for,” he said.
He began taking me to lift weights with the high schoolers in a sweaty room painted red and black. I liked it at first. Muscle came easy. So much so that even the older kids had names for me. Most were kinda lame, like Turbo or Arnold or Beastmode. Others weren’t so… positive.
By the end of middle school, I was a full head taller than pretty much everyone, the only kid with abs, who could bench 225, who caught a bird -- a bird -- out of the air during recess, who had a mile-time under six minutes, and an eleven second 100-yard dash.
Which leads to the smooth yellow of our kitchen table, the yellow that still makes me uneasy. It’s where my dad finally came clean after months of prodding. Though, if I’m being honest, I knew already. How could you not, right?
Eighty thousand. That’s how much the ‘Havenback Package’ cost when I was conceived. I don’t know if Dan Havenback contributed code or just endorsed it, but he would only go on to win a single championship before he hit his CTE limit and had to retire from the NFL altogether. There’s a joke about all this in there somewhere.
It was a premium package. The standard embryonic scan and repair plus deep-code modifications. Supercharged metabolism, dominant development of fast-twitch muscle fibers, inhibited myostatin production, boosted IGF-1 production, boosted lung capacity, blah blah blah.
As dad explained, smiling, I could only stare at the framed picture on the wall behind him, a still from a televised college game he had played back in the day. He would tear his ACL a couple games later, ending his career.
The washed out blues and golds of his uniform made him look ghostly, haunting the field mid-jump for all eternity.
I still use that smooth kitchen-table yellow sometimes, in backgrounds or in little details.
I’m not sure why.
Most of the time it feels like colors find me.
Like the pink from coach Dillon’s hat. I think it used to be a Breast Cancer Awareness thing, but he had a habit of throwing it to the ground when he was excited. Over time the browns and greens turned the bright pink a darker, earthier tone.
He threw it to the ground a ton when I first made it to varsity. The coaches knew I was engineered, or gengineered, or whatever they called it back then. It automatically made me a starter, moving me past kids who had played the game longer than I did, who had fallen in love with the sport, who saw the game as their only way out.
I ran faster and hit harder than them, sure. Could catch any ball thrown my way, could knock down linemen twice my size.
But I hated it. Hated the repetition, the boredom that would follow, hated how my dad would drive out to the field and watch me practice.
And yet, there was coach Dillon, throwing his hat into the dirt, watching me blow past the other kids and into the end zone. A once bright pink turned dull.
As usual, the thought of his hat leads to flashes of pink and white stripes. The pattern of Ashley Ford’s underwear the night I lost my virginity in her dad’s basement sophomore year. I was nervous and eager and dumb and fumbly, unable to get past my own inexperience. I think she was nervous too, she just stared at my body the whole time.
It was the one and only time I got laid in high school.
Which, of course, shocks everyone. I was haunted by this assumption — mostly by other guys — that girls were dying to be with me. An assumption I discovered, repeatedly, to be untrue. For the most part women seemed… put off. Most people were. They watched you, smiling but uncomfortable, like seeing a statue stand up and walk around.
I suppose it’s hard to not seem like a thing when you’re manufactured.
That’s the idea that gets to you. That breaks you. Once you start down that road, it can be hard to pull off.
I’ve learned to swallow it in black. Deep, all-consuming black. The color of the art room door when I first started taking classes. I needed an elective and they stuck me in Intro to Mediums with Ms. Todd, this older woman with long hair and big glasses, who looked more like a librarian than an art teacher.
I sucked at it. Didn’t know how to pull anything lifelike from clay, had the clumsiest hands when it came to drawing, and the painting. Oof. Painting was the worst. I didn’t understand how make the colors stay, how to make them mix, how to nudge them into textures.
My first “piece” was a bird-shape standing atop a sort of brown void, all set against a larger, bluer void.
Ms. Todd cocked her head, watching me smear the blue around the bird’s jagged feathers, and shrugged. “Not bad,” she said.
I was hooked.
I would eat breakfast in the art room, it’s where I’d be during study hall, I even skipped practice once. I’d figured out how to use pressure on the brush to change the look of the stroke. It’s all I thought about while dad yelled at me over dinner.
It was all greens back then, whenever I think of high school. The unnatural green of the astroturf during every championship game I played, the fresh-washed green of our uniforms at the beginning of summer, the dull money green recruiters would flash at every getting-to-know-you dinner.
The green of my mother’s dress that night after we lost the playoffs junior year.
Dad didn’t believe we could’ve lost honestly. I tried telling him we were just out-played, but still, he accused me of throwing it. He stormed into my bedroom, to the paintings I had thought hidden at the back of my closet.
“These!” He screamed, pulling them out, “you’d rather play with your paints than put in the work!” His words, the disgust, like rot at the bottom of my stomach. His sneer at paints, the shame, the embarrassment, too plain on his face.
I didn’t feel it when he put his foot through the first painting. It didn’t even seem real. I had spent so many hours on it, a droopy, blurry portrait of my dog, too much time to be lost so quickly. My insides tore along with the second. I shouted something to my mom as he kicked in the third, I can’t remember what. She just stared back at me, hand over her mouth.
I shoved my dad, hard, before he got to the fourth. I still remember how my desk rattled when he slammed into it.
I told him, well, I screamed at him how this was my last year playing football. How I wasn’t going to do this bullshit anymore.
His face turned a bruised red, or, at least, that’s how I remember it. There were no words, no shouting. Just a grunt as he stepped forward and threw a punch.
My dad was always huge. Tall. Broad. Strong, despite his age. He terrified most people. Even me, thinking back, I was always afraid of him. But in that moment, his thick fist coming down, I could only notice how slow he was.
I leaned out from his punch and pushed him again. Caught off balance, he toppled off his feet, crashing to the ground. My mom said something. Stop, I think, or don’t.
I grabbed dad by the sweater, lifting him off the floor, fist cocked, the skin bone-white across my knuckles.
It would’ve been so easy to break him there. All that expensive short-twitch muscle fiber exploding into his orbital bone.
But I saw it. In his wide eyes, that look. Fear. Trembling, childlike fear.
So I let him go.
I was wrong, though, I did play again. Senior year. We made it to the state playoffs and, yeah, we won. Dad wasn’t there, which was fine, I didn’t do it for him. I did it for the kids who had played the game longer than I did, who had fallen in love with the sport, who saw the game as their only way out.
Still, none of those kids got to pick the school of their choice. I did. A good school too, with good people, and a good program. I made it a year before dropping out.
It was the last time I spoke to my dad.
Neiko introduces me to another artist scheduled to use the space next month. He says very flattering things about my show, CMYK and DNA.
Each painting in the gallery is a different portrait of someone I know or have met, but looking closer you’ll see the image is made up of tiny, colored letters. DNA’s nucleobases: A, C, T, and G. Together the combinations form (most of) the subject’s genetic code. A portrait on multiple levels.
He tells me he never would have guessed that I was the artist. Of course, they never do.
The gallery is small, not exactly downtown, and no one seems to take in my work for very long. But it’s mine. A long road from the fresh-faced dropout installing solar roofs to afford paint supplies.
Neiko smiles. We kiss. She asks me how I feel.
And I see him walk in, across the gallery, holding the show program against his chest. Older, rounder, and with less hair, but I’d recognize his old bomber jacket anywhere. The shirt is new. A smokey red, like half-dried blood or dead maple leaves.
Our eyes meet across the floor.
And I answer.