“Gold… I’ve never met a gold person before.” That was the first thing Rachael Spatz ever said to me. We were sitting next to each other in the back row of our summer drama seminar, and when I didn’t reply, she took a box of red crayons from her messenger bag and began drawing a picture of me on the back of her notebook. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was saving my face for a rainy day.
Rachael has a condition called synaesthesia, which means that she identifies every person, place, or object she encounters with a specific color. French windows are sea foam green to her while AP Chemistry is grey, and the homeless man who sleeps outside our favorite deli on West 3rd St. is neon yellow. I don’t know why certain things are certain colors to her, like blueberries, which are mysteriously crimson, but it is always obvious when Rachael finds a color that she likes. She instantly drops everything to draw the object of interest on a sketchpad, expecting the world around her to freeze while she captures a lost moment in time. (I once spent forty-five minutes waiting for her at a diner because she was busy sketching her “violet” bus driver and got off seven stops too late.) Sometimes, when she gets to know people on a more intimate level, she can sense nuances of other colors, which represent the different components of their personality. Her little sister Laeia, for example, is pink and brown: the ratio changes depending on how angelic or devious she happens to be that day. When she kisses someone, however, the physical connection clues her into a more in depth portrait and she is able to describe the person as a whole painting. The moment I met Rachael, I knew that she wanted to discover what my golden painting looked like. And I knew that I wanted to let her paint it.
Rachael likes to paint her deeper insights into various characters on the easel in her bedroom and has a collection of ‘kiss portraits’ that spans across two walls. The paintings are different from the literal sketches in that they are total abstractions of color, ranging from ominous black and blue oceans to swirls of fiery red and magenta. There is even one that is entirely white. I asked her about it once and she once told me that the white painting is her most accurate work, a self-portrait. Before I could ask how she had managed to kiss her own lips, she explained that she saw herself as merely a colorless observer in a color-rich world, absorbing and extracting from the elements that inspire her. Not that that made any sense to me at the time, but with Rachael, I quickly learned to accept the answers without further questions and to ask questions only when I was prepared for an answer. The first time she brought me upstairs to her room and unveiled the kiss collection, I tried counting the number of portraits and eventually gave up because they weren’t arranged in rows and there were probably more than thirty. I couldn’t decide if I was serious or not when I asked, “So, do YOU think you’re a slut?” Rachael raised one eyebrow, taking the question at face value, and said, “If liking to love and loving a lot means being a slut, then yes, I am, or maybe I’m just searching for the right color and haven’t quite found it yet.” It was then that we had our first kiss.
We started dating officially a week later and nobody in our writing program or any of our friends had any idea. Before I knew Rachael, I felt like a lesbian. Not that I wasn’t a lesbian after I met her, I just didn’t wear the label around and flaunt it. When I first came out to my close friends, I bought combat boots in almost every shade of patent leather and got a cartilage piercing that my mother forced me to heal. I even openly talked about hook-ups I’d had with drunk straight girls as if I had something to prove. I wanted to make a statement. I felt safe inside the neatly labeled box I had placed myself into and wanted everyone to know it. But Rachael saw everything differently. There is no box, and there will never be a box, that Rachael Spatz will fit into. From her purple nose ring and her edible bracelets made daily out of Cheerios and yarn, to her cigarettes she coats individually with nail polish before smoking, Rachael has never been bothered by normality. When I first brought her home to meet my family, my mother, trying to be nice, said, “So, Rachael, what was your coming out process like?” Rachael looked at her as if this was the dumbest question she had ever been asked. “What do you mean?” she said. “I’ve never had to come out from anywhere. I’ve always been openly me.”
When I was with Rachael, I went with her mantra and just liked to love and loved a lot. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that she was a girl, or that we were both girls. I also didn’t pay attention to other people’s perceptions of me, or of us, or of anything really. Every Friday night we would ride our bicycles down the Westside Highway and into the West Village, stopping to sit outside Comedy Cellar and begging for tickets to that night’s show. On the nights that we couldn’t find a way in, we would ride over to Washington Square Park and sit near the fountain, jamming our headphones into our ears and absorbing the “colors” of the park until midnight. They weren’t plugged into an iPod or anything; we just let the cords hang loose and tucked them inside our back pockets so that it looked as if we were listening to music. This was a trick that Rachael had long employed, and it soon grew to become emblematic of our relationship. When you have headphones in, you see, people don’t expect you to act a certain way or to pay attention at all because they can tell that you’re preoccupied with your own thoughts and won’t listen to what they have to say. You can spend hours staring at an old man on a bench or a crack in the pavement and nobody can say anything about it. Rachael always said that it was a shame that we needed a visible excuse to just sit down and do whatever the hell we wanted to with our minds. For her seventeenth birthday at the end of August, we did our Friday night routine only without headphones. I have never felt so rebellious.
Rachael claims membership to the Guerilla Girls, an exclusive and anonymous feminist group started in the 1980’s that works to achieve gender equality within the visual art world. Although I have never confirmed that she is actually a part of the secret society, her artwork was showcased at a benefit gala in SoHo supporting teen artists and she signed each of her featured paintings with a signature Guerilla Girls catchphrase. She used to drag me to feminist protests and force me to wear grotesque gorilla masks (a Guerilla Girls trademark) on weeknights when we had class the next morning. She told me to scream even if I didn’t know what I was screaming for because sometimes it just feels good to get angry at something, and even better to know that there’s a man who thinks with his dick behind it. If there’s one thing she hates more than homophobia, it’s sexism. The sign hanging outside her bedroom door has a black and white photograph of a naked girl posing above the caption, “It’s even worse in Europe.”
For our independent project at our writing program, we started writing a play together called “St. Owen.” It was about a curious boy who sneaks into the confessional booth at his church and overhears the confessions of the people in his town, sometimes replying back as the voice of God. We both loved our work for different reasons. Rachael thought it was a play exploring abuse of power and the atheism within our generation, but I got the last word when I ended it with a scene in which Owen resorts to praying to God and asks how to repair his damaged town. The only reason it ended this way was because our seminar teacher and the acting program’s director read the original draft and decided to publish it for the summer program, and by that point, Rachael could no longer change it. This was the only time she was ever genuinely angry with me. “How can you possibly believe in God?” she screamed. “How can you love someone that obviously doesn’t love you back?” The Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin, she said. To further prove her point, she brought me back to her bedroom and stood me in front of her painting collection. “Which one is God? He’s up there, tell me if you can find him.”
I looked across the jumbled collection of paintings and past the ones with vibrant colors. I looked at my own portrait, the best by far, which was in the very center of the group: a splash of golden rays emanating from a lavender backdrop. But which one was God? It was then that I noticed a small canvas at the very bottom of the wall. It was entirely black with a scarlet outline of two doors, containing a fiery glow. I pointed to it. “Yes,” she said. “Hell. That’s all God means to me since he won’t let me into heaven. But you know what Oscar Wilde once said?” I shook my head, impressed that she had so effortlessly mastered the art of quoting my greatest literary hero.
“I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there.”
Rachael’s stance on religion didn’t stop me from believing in God, but it did make me more excited to start breaking the rules. If God could be so wrong about something this important, what else could he be mistaken about? I started testing the boundaries and felt freer each time Rachael got me to do something I never would have dared to do alone. Every time that we would explore something new together, like dancing across the Brooklyn Bridge at three in the morning, I would always return to her bedroom and check to see if my portrait had changed. I did this because I noticed that whenever she discovered some new component to my personality after an intimate moment we had shared, she would add to the painting so that eventually she had to expand it onto two canvases. Sometimes they would be noticeable adjustments, like after the time we visited the Frick Collection and she glued shards of glass on top of the gold to represent my obsession with the shattered grandeur of royalty. Other times they were more subtle. After we slept together for the first time, I woke up to find six, miniscule, midnight blue stars in an upper corner of the canvas. I didn’t know what they meant and I have never dared to ask, but it was exciting just to know they were there.
Eventually the summer ended and even the separate world we had created beneath our headphones couldn’t spare us from the customary return to banality. School. Soon our friends all knew about us and our liking to love and loving a lot was eclipsed by the fact that we were both girls. When I came to school one day to see the word “dyke” scrawled across my locker, I woke up to the reality of our situation. Some people didn’t like it. I think Rachael realized this too, and she began to spend more and more time with a boy named David, a senior who had been in our writing program and who had always been supportive of us. She didn’t drift away because she was afraid of being labeled, because I don’t think she’s ever been afraid of anything in her life, but it was just easier this way. It was easy for us not to worry about being us when we had so many other things to worry about. Soon we stopped going downtown on Fridays. Then I cheated on her with the girl I had first fallen in love with, and after a long night of confessions and apologies, we had make-up sex that made up absolutely nothing at all (I know this for a fact because when I woke up the next morning my portrait remained the same.) Finally, she decided to break things off and started dating David. The last time I went to her house, I quickly scanned her bedroom walls to see what his portrait looked like. Maybe I’m biased, but it was a murky shade of dark green and there were no stars to be found.
When I left her apartment that day, I’ll never forget what she said to me. Before I could close the door, she whispered, “Promise me you’ll stay gold.” When I told her she sounded like that kid from The Outsiders, she laughed her reckless, glorious laugh and I was reminded of the days when we didn’t have to worry about being us, because being us wasn’t black or white. There were no names then, no labels, no identities. Just colors.
“Stay gold, Ponygirl,” she said. “Stay gold!”
Grace McLeod, Age 17, Grade 12, Nightingale-Bamford School, Gold Key