Once there was a man who was only black-and-white. His skin was the white of skim milk, with grey shadows where his veins beat. His hair and eyes were as black as the space between stars. He had no freckles and he never blushed. He was not a very happy man, and though his job sometimes forced him to give long explanations of complicated poems to roomfuls of drowsy, beautiful nineteen-year-olds, otherwise he was often as quiet as a silent film. Black-and-white suited him most of the time, and when he felt like seeing Technicolor, well, there was the rest of the world. Sometimes he didn’t care to see the rest of the world, but other times colour could be good.
Flowers were good, alive and bright and temporary — less hectic than the clothing of undergraduates, less boring than television. Flowers filled his pupil-less black eyes with something like love. He even liked municipal beds of pastel pansies on traffic islands. Even heartsick roses in the windows of hospital florists. Even the vegetable-dyed blue and purple carnations in buckets outside the grocery store, even the orange rubber daisies his roommate had pasted to the bottom of the bathtub. He looked at flowers, any flowers, and his bloodless lips would turn up at the right corner, as much as they ever did.
The black-and-white man had a sepia-toned girlfriend. She had eyes the colour of dusty chocolate and milky-tea skin. Where her cheekbones jutted out, the shadows underneath were coffee-stain dark. Her hair was the palest wood, and she wore it in tangled curls down her back.
His girlfriend shared his somber tones, if not his exact shading, but her unhappiness was more acute. He worried for her. Sometimes, his silent shadowy presence could warm her, make her at least look out the window, but sometimes she disappeared into her apartment, into a gloom as thick and dark as his hair, and he didn’t see her for weeks. He had never bought his girlfriend flowers from the heartsick florists nor the corner grocery — he was that broke, and he worried she might not want these flashy bits of sun and air. Unlike him, she almost never looked at colourful things — they rarely made her smile, even with half her mouth. She said she found colours exhausting. She said his limited palette, his blank-paper face, comforted her sometimes. Other times, it was too hard for her to look at anything at all and she kept her eyes closed.
The black-and-white man knew how she felt. He used to feel that way, and every now and again he still did. When the clear-blue world seemed as dark as the sky before an electrical storm, it was hard for him, too, to look at much. Flowers were okay, flowers and her face, though she couldn’t always be around and it was often hard to find blooms.
In certain seasons a few things blossomed right in his yard, which helped. Winter, of course, was a desert, and in March there were only snowdrops, pale as ice in the mud by the front stairs, but then suddenly every April the forsythia bush burst out with endless goldfinch-yellow blossomy brambles and shot the year full of light. In May, strange small tulips sprouted, closemouthed and purple as bruises, mixed in with Easter-green grass all over the yard.
The snowdrops turned brown and crisp in a week and the landlord usually mowed all the tulips, but the forsythia lasted a month or more, shining and spiky, canary-yellow, margarine-yellow, sulphur-streetlamp-yellow. Forsythia was his favourite. When he couldn’t look at anything else, he would sometimes crawl under the bush for a while. After teaching an endless droning tutorial and slouching home alone to try to eat reconstituted pasta, he would lie in the dirt and look at the gloss green of the leaves from underneath for a while. He knew this must seem weird, but his full-colour roommate couldn’t say anything since once he’d gotten drunk and eaten a tulip.
Lately the black-and-white man had been feeling okay, but he knew his girlfriend wasn’t too great. She had stopped calling him, or answering her phone. When he looked around outside her classes, she was never there, and at the restaurant with the ugly tablecloths someone said she’d been fired for not showing up, though that was a lot like quitting. He worried about her, what she was looking at. And he missed her.
Her name was Sarah, but since she was almost the only person he ever talked to, he felt that she didn’t really need a name. She was just herself. His name was Alan, but when he went too long without talking to Sarah, his own name started to feel irrelevant too. Who would call him that if she didn’t? One day he was writing 14/60 on a midterm exam and he realized hadn’t seen her since March and it was nearly May. He pictured her muddy-lovely profile leaning into the light of the refrigerator, her coffee dark lips forming the words, I’ll be fine. He pictured her twilight gaze shooting right through him in her dark kitchen.
It was April, and the midterm marking was overdue and Sarah hadn’t been fine in a long time. He wrote something vaguely kind in black ink on the white exam page and then he went outside and cut some of the first forsythia branches to blossom. He put the scissors in his pocket and the branches in his arms. He walked to her apartment.
He walked past orange newspaper boxes and racing-green cars and blue jays and red flags, but all he thought of was her uncoloured face. He didn’t know why she was sad, but then neither did she, so he didn’t wonder, just walked. When he got to her building the sun slipped out from behind a thunder-black cloud and shone hot-white on his face. He tried to look up at her window, in the middle of the third floor, but the light was blinding and he couldn’t see in.
He pressed her buzzer. He was pretty sure she was home because if she was too sad to call him, she’d be too sad to go out. After a while, the black-and-white man with the tangle of brambles in front of his chest got the attention of a little girl playing in the foyer. She wore an orange midriff top and a grape visor over her eyes. She let him in with a pink-and-white smile that he felt embarrassed to return in grey-scale. He took the blossoms up three flights and knocked on Sarah’s door and knocked and knocked and waited and waited.
After more time than he should’ve knocked and waited, he stopped. He had to leave, but first he braced the cut ends of the branches between doorknob and doorframe. The yellow blossoms reached up as far as the peephole. He thought maybe if she looked out, now or later, she would see the yellow and like it or hate it or at least see something. He pressed his face into the flowers. Forsythia have no smell, but he liked to breathe them in just the same. Then he went home and didn’t talk to his roommate or eat dinner or look at anything in the blue flicker of the TV.
He slept out under the yellow bush that night, after his roommate proposed they order a pizza and talk about his problems together. He thought about his problems alone instead, shivering and soaked with dew-frost. He thought about Sarah, how sometimes when she was sad he could help her. He knew this; she had told him so. She said she liked the way he was easy to look at when he was there and easy to imagine when he wasn’t; just presence and absence, nothing that demanded. She liked the way he liked her, she didn’t mind his gaze on her. He did like to look at her, her cutting cheekbones, the shells of her ears so thin he could see the shadow of his fingers through them.
She said she sometimes felt so small and light that she might blow away. When she felt like that, what she liked best was to have him lying on top of her, his weight pressing her down into her mattress. Then she knew for sure that she wouldn’t blow away. He would lie with her, cheek to cheek, belly to belly, breathing together, for hours. She was small and fragile, but so was he, so he knew he wouldn’t crush her.
He waited for her to phone but she didn’t. While he waited he marked 74 essays and wrote three paragraphs. He talked to his roommate for nine minutes, three each night, until the microwave binged and dinner was ready, although he left the hot frozen dinners to congeal untouched. He went to and from campus, he smoked four and a half packs of cigarettes, he listened to a gooey song at the grocery store and bought only bleach and licorice. This all took three days.
On the third evening, he was walking home late from the library where they had none of the books he needed. He walked past the grocery, where an old woman was hosing down the sidewalk and an old man was hauling buckets of flowers inside. In the dark everyone is black-and-white. Even the flowers looked dusty at this hour. As he walked past, the old man pulled his bucket into the pool of light under a streetlamp.
“Hey, kid.” He was surprised that the man could see him, a shadow in shadows. He was surprised at being called kid, too. “Hey, kid, you want some of these?” In the bucket were tall big-headed carnations, red ones, striped pink-and-purple ones, and yellow. “They’re almost gone by. You might as well take ’em, if you got a girl to give ’em to. They’ll be blown by tomorrow.”
“Thank you.” Alan’s voice sounded as creaky as an old projector. The petals felt silky against his fingers as he grabbed the stems, clutched them with against his chest. “Thank you.” He lifted the edges of his mouth until it felt a bit like a smile. The man stared like he had just seen a ghost.
Alan took the carnations to Sarah’s building. It was nearly midnight, the windows all dark so he couldn’t find hers. It took a long time for someone to come let him in, and then it was a woman alone who looked at him suspiciously. If it hadn’t been for the friendly flowers against his dark chest, he knew she would never have opened the door.
When he came out of the stairwell, the flash of yellow still in her doorway made his throat harden like ice and his shoulders slouch forward and his arms clutch the carnation stems until they bled green on his shirt. He went over to the door and looked at the forsythia, which was still strong and vibrant and buttery-gold. He brushed at the blossoms that should’ve gone to gold powder after three days in the dry hallway, but they were stiff and firm, tense with life. Then he tried to pull the branches from where he’d jammed them by the doorknob but it wouldn’t budge. He knelt in the flickering hallway light, eyes at doorknob level, and realized that the cut sticks had sprung new roots and these had pushed themselves through the door crack, around the bolt, even into the keyhole. He wondered if she could see the curls of root on her side.
Still kneeling, he spread the carnations at the foot on the doorsill, pressing their broken stems against the ugly green of the carpet and under the door as far as they would go. Then he rested his forehead on the door, just beneath the forsythia branch. “Sarah,” he said. “Sarah, I’m here.” He stayed for a long time, until the old lady from 211 walked past, once, twice, three times. When he heard her door close for the third time, he whispered, “I’ll be back tomorrow,” and left.
The next day the sky was air-show blue and traffic was snarled with glinting red sports cars and exhaust was black in his lungs. His students were angry about their grades and he didn’t get done with office hours until evening and he didn’t go to her house. He rested his spinning head on his briefcase under the forsythia bush and dreamed of a picture that included them both, in a photo treatment that made their colourless colours the same.
Clear watery sunlight woke him early without curtains or roof. He slithered out onto the grass, dragging his briefcase, and stood in the yard brushing grass and pollen from his clothes. His roommate was sitting on the steps, eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells into the dead bed where the snowdrops had bloomed the month before. “Hey, Alan,” he called. Alan nodded. His roommate pointed to a corner of the yard, by the garbage cans. “Look, first tulip’s early this year.”
Alan’s blank mouth twitched a little. He went over and looked at the strange little tulip, short and thick-stemmed, its purple bud only half-open. Then he left it unplucked and went back over to the stairs. His roommate held out the bag of seeds. “Hey man, eat something. You really should.”
He took the bag, the red printing too shiny to read in the early morning light, the orange picture of the sunflower too ridiculous to believe. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
His roommate nodded and went into the house. Alan thought for a moment and then went down the path, onto the sidewalk, and back towards Sarah’s place. When he looked up at her window from the street, the sunrise behind him made all the windows orange and pink. He went inside with the papergirl, and up the stairs.
Her door was a riot. Her door was an explosion. The whole hall had the sweet clove aroma of carnations and the wet breath of petals. The stems he’d pressed into the grass-coloured carpet had rooted there, hooking under the door and growing up in front of it. The forsythia had grown into a dense cloak of yellow, shooting up to the fluorescent ceiling lights. He reached to knock, but there was no longer a bare place on the door where he could rap his knuckles. The whole door was covered with green and bramble and blossom.
His face hovered above the stems as he called into the door, “Sarah? Sarah. I brought you flowers.” He pulled back. There was no response. He didn’t think the door could open now, anyway, even if she wanted it to. He pictured her sitting in her living room, cross-legged on her beige carpet, surrounded by a rainbow swirl of flowers and leaves and choking vines. He remembered looking down at her shadow eyes, her angled nose, the tip of her pointed chin. He remembered the cool of her shut-tight eyelids as he pressed his lips to them. He pictured her eyes opening, becoming gleam and not shadow.
He took the package of sunflower seeds from his pocket and dumped them onto the carpet, spreading them around with the toe of his loafer. The seeds sprouted as they struck the dull green, bursting with dark glossy coils, stems knocking hard into his legs. The stalks shot up towards the ceiling and the leaves furled out and the buds strained and burst into dozens of yellow suns until Alan was backed against the wall opposite her door, until his constricted chest heaved for air.
Then he left, and he didn’t go there anymore. But as he was leaving her building, he looked up at her window and the sun went behind a cloud and he saw that the blossoms had gotten into her apartment, just as he’d imagined. They were growing, red carnations and gold forsythia pressing on the pane, vines tendrilling around the edges. In the rush and riot of all that colour, there was a shadow, and it moved. Moved once, and then was still. He put the last sunflower seed in his mouth, and he tasted salt before he swallowed it whole. Then he turned his body to the sun and let it warm him as he walked towards home, towards his place beneath the bright forsythia, and the soft dark dirt.