Primary Colors by Joseph Schupbach
by Joseph Schupbach
My eyes were pressed firmly into two slimy black rubber tubes as I began to examine a grayscale depiction of a happy Caucasian family sharing lunch on the lawn. My school nurse began her inquisition promptly uttering, “What do you see?” I answered with an obvious reply and she responded by slipping an additional plastic slide into her vision-evaluating machine. Just fourteen minutes ago I had been in my classroom, happily coloring, singing George Michael’s Faith to myself.
But without explanation I had been untimely ripped from my soothing artistic activity and sent down to the infirmary with a red, illegible cursive note in one hand and a hall buddy’s clammy fingers in the other. These sorts of interruptions had been regular occurrences in the past few weeks of kindergarten. Our days had been littered with lice checks, hearing tests, school lunch money arrangements with the office; but this was different. I was singled out.
Her contraption was cream colored, with silver detailing and was no doubt named something like visionex 200. It was an enormous electronic beast that was the best public school funded 1989 ophthalmology had to offer. The next piece to the test featured an addition to the happy picnic scene, a red dot. The nurse asked me to follow this red dot and comment on where it rested on the image. I watched the crimson sphere move from the little girls face, to the gingham blanket, to the father’s sandwich and finally the family dog’s tail. “Well done, you have great vision”. An electric charge of pride rushed through my little body. But the potent self-satisfaction was stifled by her next move.
My shifty nurse pulled out a packet of decorated cardstock disguised as a game. I squinted distrustfully to read the packaging. “Alright Joey, can you tell me what you see on this card?” On the first card I saw bright lime green splotches showcasing a fuchsia number “6”. The second revealed an obscure pink number “7” hidden deep within an army of mustard yellow dots. With each image I explained to the nurse what I could make out. The third card that popped up from behind the deck surprised me. It was a sort of treacherous turtle shell painted with reds, greens, and browns.
Was this a trick? “Um, I don’t see anything except little dots.” The nurse’s face betrayed her. I had said something wrong. I fell into an instant fit of self-consciousness. I began to rethink my answer. Perhaps I could have made something up. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. She asked me “You can’t see the number twenty-three?” I was utterly and completely shocked. I didn’t see anything that vaguely resembled a number. The puzzled look on my face stuck like grade school paste as she carefully explained my freshly discovered “red and green color blindness”. The shock left me stunned through the remainder of my school day and the long bus ride home.
A year earlier I sat in my living room watching Lassie reruns terrified for the poor collie who would perhaps never escape from the burlap sack tossed to the bottom of the local well. Suddenly I heard steps and a metallic thump. My eyes immediately focused on the mail slot and then the floor. I got up from my cross legged position inches from the television and walked to our enormous front door to receive contact from the outside world. The mail consisted mostly of what my parents called bills. Bills were, as I understood them, boring white envelopes that neither of my parents was too fond of.
Fishing through meaningless white paper I was thrilled to find something far more interesting. I found a piece of glossy cardstock. The text was illegible to my preschool reading level, but the visuals were vibrant. The card showcased scantily clad pro wrestlers. On the left stood buxom blondes, brunettes, and redheads pressing their breasts, piercing the air. I was immediately disinterested. My eyes followed the design to the right side of the image fell upon large muscular men, flexing their well maintained bodies, displaying fierce grins and growls. Even as young as I was, I knew that boys like girls and girls liked boys. But I was not having the large breasted ladies to my left. I stared at the men, the swollen pectorals, the vein striped arms. I told my three-year-old self “I will look at the women later”.
By this age I was already wildly sensitive, in love with my mother, infatuated with my female peers, a little too loud, bursting with questions, cautiously developing a simultaneous distrust of and fascination with the quite foreign terrain of masculinity. In retrospect, these may have all been symptoms of my homosexuality, lying dormant until puberty exploded and wreaked havoc on my pre-teen body. But starting at age three these attributes were complicated enough serving as bait for my peers and educational institutions to single me out. After three or four long minutes of confusion, I went back to the television set, back to the far less complicated predicament of a dog and his boy.
I spent a significant amount of my elementary years in the bathroom, either lying on the cold linoleum floor feeling ill, or hiding from eight-year-old responsibilities. The bathroom of my childhood is small on the first floor of my house. The wooden door, stained brown on one side and painted white on the other, one sees a sink against the right wall.
Next to it farther along the wall is the toilet. In front of the sink and toilet is a small green terry cloth rug bordered with a strip of floral print. I sat on this small rug often. The combination of a weak stomach and very low self-control left me hunched over the toilet for hundreds of hours. My volatile digestive trauma worked itself into a chronic cycle of the bitter bowels and less than steady emotions.
Directly across from the doorway, on the opposite side of the room is a small window, each pane separated into six rectangles by thin pieces of wood. Short color coordinated valences cover the very top of the window while eyeglasses and contact lens cases find refuge on the bottom sill. I have monitored the traffic of this eye wear collection while I waiting for our well water shower to heat up.
Next to this window, across from the toilet, is the shower. The shower is made of cream-colored fiberglass and concealed from the rest of the room by a cream and forest green ivy print shower curtain. Behind the vinyl veil, twenty or so half used bottles of shampoo and conditioner make their home. These partially empty bottles make friends with abandoned razors and a bar of dove soap sitting on a shelf with a propensity for filling with water that bounces off naked bodies, mid-shower. Do to this poor drainage; this white bar of soap will live half the life of any other glycerin brick, as it slowly dissolves all day in the pool of opaque shower remnants.
My mother met me at the door with yogurt-covered raisins and a whiff of vanilla musk. My sly nurse had phoned home before I’d even a chance to sneak back to my peers and join in on slicing construction paper and adhering it to paper plates. As soon as my mother hung up the phone, she began brewing me a bath one part Epsom salt and two parts careful affirmation. I sat sleepy and defeated in our cream fiberglass tub as she squirted slick shampoo into her palm. My mother began to explain genealogy, rods and cones, and recessive traits. Her bachelors in biology began to slip out and bombarded my little frame with more theory than I could understand. But I absorbed the important parts. My mind slipped back and forth between something called chromosomes and the harsh sounds of her fingers scrubbing my scalp.
The way she explained it was this: inside of everybody are little things that make up the blueprints for the body. Those blueprints are constructed out of ripped up pieces of paper from each mom and dad. All kids have some of their parents’ paper. She grabbed a plastic cup balancing on the side of the tub and scooped up cloudy bath water to rinse my hair. She explained that different parts of her and my dad planned out what I would look like. I had dark, thick hair from my mom, and funny shaped toes like my dad. She went on to explain that her grandpa had been colorblind, and sent the recipe through my grandma who sent it through my mom who gave it to me. This sounded a bit like a disease, and I imagined little angry black and white spaceships zooming through my mother’s veins and into my cheery unborn self.
“Alright out of the tub!” She toweled off my head and pushed me out of the room. “Go get dressed.” In my bedroom I peered into my sock drawer and began fingering through unmatched socks and wondering if I was capable of matching them to their mate. This was the least of my worries. I was most nervous about returning to school.
red bear blue bear
School bus culture is one of the darkest inventions of the twentieth century. The bus was full, smelly, and poorly supervised. Anything could happen on that wretched bus and no adult would catch wind of it for weeks, if ever. The ultimate goal when traveling to and from small-town school was to find a seat and remain unnoticed. Sitting without seatbelt, oldies bopping in my head, I pondered the return to my kindergarten classroom. I sat on the leathery two-person cushion fingering the windowpane, feet dangling above the treacherously greasy floor beneath. My eyes drifted out the window at allegedly blue sky and green grassy front yards. I clutched my tin Muppet Babies lunch box to my flat chest and attempted to calculate the precise color of my new clunky sneakers.
In class a seemingly harmless assignment reared its ugly head right around snack time. Amidst vitamin D milk cartons and orange slices, a one-page worksheet made its way to my desk. It was a clean white sheet of paper with a murky blue ink print on one side. It was most likely produced by a now out of date “ditto machine”, the sort the classroom teacher has to crank into order to spit out carbon replicas of an original assignment ripped from a book purchased at the educators’ supply store. The worksheet showcased four images of bears engaging in bear-like activities.
The instructions were clear; color the realistic bears blue and the bears participating in more imaginative activities red. This was almost an insulting request. There were two images of the bears living in the forest and munching on berries by the river and then two more of bears wearing high fashion clothes and playing baseball at Fenway Park. I may not have been able to read yet, or fully appreciate conversations regarding chromosomes, but surely this was beneath me.
Regardless I played along with my teacher’s arbitrary requests. I dug my hand deep into the bucket of provided crayons, searching with my crab like fingers for the finest tools. These crayons had not been well maintained and were missing most of their lovely paper casing. And to make matters worse, the crayons’ tips had been rubbed down to flat nubs, making precise coloring impossible. I finished my assignment within seconds and moved onto more important activities, like distracting my peers.
I nudged my group mate, asking if she knew she had rods and cones in her eyes. She squealed at the thought of foreign objects threatening her appreciation of Saturday morning cartoons. My teacher, disgruntled with my insurrection of her silent regime, shot over to my desk with the force of a heat-seeking missile.
She growled, “Joseph, can you tell me why you are not doing your assignment?” I replied with the smart-ass tone instilled in me by my mother, “I finished my assignment a long time ago.” She retorted, “Well it would seem you need learn to follow directions. You have colored your picture incorrectly.” I stared down in shame at my carefully colored paper, fingering the reportedly orange and purple crayons that betrayed me.
I would spend hours getting ready for school, taking lengthy showers, and looking in the mirror. I would wait for the shower water to warm up, and as vapor would slowly creep out from behind the creased curtain, I would make faces in the mirror. Sitting barely clothed on the sink, I wrapped towels around my head transforming myself into King Tut, Jamaican women traveling to market, or most frequently the Virgin Mary. I would stare at my lips and wonder what kissing someone would be like, going as far as to kiss my lips reflected in the mirror.
Once the mirror had fogged up, I traced the contours of my shower ready body in the condensed steam, emphasizing the redeemable traits and ignoring the undesirable parts of my childhood physique. This room was the only haven from parents, siblings, and my schoolmates. Here I was free to discover much about my self and my body. When my peers made me feel small and stupid, I made friends with the toiletries and washcloths. With these restroom comrades I processed calamity, family terror, and loss. As I endured the flux of my emotional sine curve childhood, I found myself back in the bathroom safe.
shades of pink
It was not until long after my eighth grade graduation that I began to understand that my twelve-year-old-hell did not mirror the outside world and being called “fag!” from halfway down the sixth grade corridor was not the ideal. I had had no perception that this was not a usual or appropriate form of human existence. Dehumanization is, I suppose, a theme of traditional American middle-school education.
Most of my personal dehumanization was concentrated primarily in the chanting of the word fag. At times it manifested itself in other words like fruit, faggot, gay, he-she, and my personal favorite, the ultimate insult, girl. Being called a woman was, as determined by my peers, the funniest and most detrimental linguistic firepower which one could utilize to attack a fellow student on the seemingly safe space of a playground or gymnasium.
Being a woman – I presume – revealed weakness, emotional vulnerability, and propensity for crying in class; all qualities which I demonstrated at the time and exude to this day. My peers’ case was strengthened by my participation in the arts, my choice to socialize almost exclusively with girls, and my desire to abstain from all competitive forms of organized athletics. The worst part though was that my peers could see right inside of me, detecting my feeble emotional state just as a wolf smells fear or a tiger shark tastes blood. I, already a sensitive child, did not do well under pressure, let alone psychological attack. But beginning in first grade, and not ending until tenth, I was asked, figuratively of course, to combat dart like words shot directly at my acutely sensitive, chronically offended heart.
shades of grey
I spent hours conversing with myself. And although I was social, I found it impossible to work things out with my classmates or designated mentors. While other secret introverts might mill things about in their minds, I worked things out in a sort of aloud debate with my self. Much like jumping out of the tub and screaming Eureka, some of my greatest youthful realizations were had talking to myself on the toilet mid bowel movement. This is where I found answers. Answers to questions of both Murder She Wrote mysteries and theological quandaries. I pondered child appropriate topics like celibacy, nuclear war, the water cycle, and the ever-present looming topic of alternate sexual orientation.
It is still unclear to me whether I was inspired by the polished porcelain and fiberglass, or if I was simply more productive alone. But, if there are muses, they have come to me in plumbing, and if there is Devine word or intervention, it resonates through rushing well water and dripping showerheads.
I was not merely talking to myself. I was positing questions, and toiling with answers. But regardless of my intentions, I was developing an inquisitive, academic persona. My spiritual development was not occurring on Sunday mornings when I was clothed in my best attire and behavior, but rather while naked, sniffling, suffering from stomach flu, alternating between puking, pooping, and napping on the cold, reliable floor.
As my daily childhood façade dissolved I felt support from the dirty latex mat beneath me and love from the warm beaded strands of water above. My characteristically long showers were often the product of finding comfort in the warm womb of drumming water on my small back. Somehow, once in the shower, the voices of peers shouting petrifying words melted away and left behind the kinder residue of sanctuary.
little boy pink
I was, according to my peers, a girl. When analyzed, it is actually quite amazing what a handful of grumpy sixth graders can accomplish through the redefining of a few words, unknowingly reinforcing systemic and systematic heterosexism. They first looked to the patriarchal roles which women and men are intended to follow in a culture which values masculine work and disvalues the feminine. They saw that I did not fit these apparently innate structures and posited that I actually belonged in the opposite role from the one I had been assigned. Then my peers took the next step; they assigned negative connotation to not only my inability to adhere to said structures but also negative connotation to the opposite gender itself. My peers, including, and sometimes especially, my female peers, made the female gender a shameful club to belong to and disgraceful name to bear.
I never felt comfortable with those who share this sex. That is to say that I have never, until very recently, found solace, haven, or support of any kind from other men. I have been always drawn to women immediately as mentors, confidants, and childhood playmates. And until these last few years, men have primarily produced the conflict in my emotional development. It has taken twenty-two years to come to this point in the process. Twenty something years to understand my place, or displacement, in the gender web. Years to come to terms with sexual preference and certainly to feel fulfilled in spite of my inability to fill gender roles. At age twelve however, I was not as far along and still cringing at the title of girl, let alone fag.
My now twenty year old pupils dilated as I descended into the underground layer of New York’s transit system. With thirty rushed strangers I took the slick steps cautiously, avoiding sticky candy wrappers and pools of aromatic urine. My feet led me across the cold marble floor to a transit map. The map was preserved like Lenin in a scratched glass case mounted on the wall. Strips of opaque pigment snaked through Manhattan’s grid.
My eyes darted back and forth between strands of mass transit that behaved like troublesome twins. Fraternal twins who resemble each other enough to cause occasional confusion. I began to ponder chromosomes once again and tiny semen carrying genetic data rushing through their own transit system, hoping to get to work in time. I then imagined a terrible uterine slum lord cackling to himself at my utter confusion produced by one measly scrap of genetic code.
The sound of rumbling trains awoke me from my day dream. I stared at the untrustworthy map again, this time with confidence. I had to accept my situation and strategize a new plan. I imagined the classic scene in an adventure flick where the protagonist must sever the correct colored wire without disturbing the other color coded cables with his wire clipper to avoid total annihilation for himself and the entire city. Perhaps I could have relied on subtle values and distinctions between subway lines. Or possibly I would have to decode the elaborate collection of letters and numbers denoting each line from the other. But staring harder at the map was not going to get me anywhere. Deciphering this collection of nonsense was simply not in my skill set. I needed help. Humbly and coherently as possible I crept up to the booth housing the MTA employee and asked for help.
I sat in the studio, cautiously mixing colors for my undergraduate painting class. I explained to a studio mate, “color blindness is not a significant detriment to understanding the visual world around oneself”. Mid speech I was interrupted with the inevitable “so what color is this?” “Er, green? For ninety eight percent of the time my inability to distinguish color is unnecessary, uninteresting and forgettable. It only reappears when I am attempting to decipher transit maps or mixing cadmium red with burnt umber.”
During a study break at the library I decided to sufficiently distract myself with a biology textbook. I found an over stuffed chair and fingered through the pages. Through several varied vision tests I found that my breed of color ignorance is called Deuteranopia, and is incidentally found in a mere one percent of males. This means I lack the medium-wavelength cones and in turn I am unable to distinguish between colors in the green-yellow-red section of the spectrum. The text read something like “The names scarlet and orange or yellow and lime are useless when distance or atmospheric interference is involved. Similarly, violet, lavender, purple, and blue, seem to be too many names to use for colors that all look troublingly similar. I have found the spectrum can be quite murkier than the textbooks let on.
And then a few paragraphs down in a section highlighted in a cream box it gave an anecdote regarding a preserved eye and speculations boasting “the deuteranopic eye sees wavelengths below the neutral point as blue and those above it as yellow”. I began to ponder lenses, rods, and cones. I wondered what the implications for other types of sight, physical and metaphorical, are when your eye is actually constructed differently than others? How far is the dominion of rods and cones? How does a muddled eye see the world? At some point I realized that the textbook discourse was futile as it was written by a non-colorblind academy for a non-colorblind audience. I closed the book and went back to art history.
pinks and greys
Insuring that I would be sufficiently different from my peers, the Punnett Square calculating my genetic outcome smeared grey, pigmentless icing on my already sad looking first birthday cake. Because I was colorblind, I had an early understanding of arbitrary genetic distinctions. And as time went on, my adult self realized that my colorblindness laid the groundwork for my understandings of sexuality and identity. However, it would be years before I would find peace in anything that made me different from my peers.
While angry shouts down crowded childhood hallways have disintegrated, I still feel the remnants today. My angry peers are resurrected when I step back into the closet for a ten day trip to the dangerously heterosexist island of Jamaica, or when I rethink how loud or excitedly I will respond when in a room of unfamiliar faces. I hear schoolmates through my negative introject whispering in my ear; Whispers which confirm that I am inadequate, sinful, and will be alone for the remainder of my life. However, I have found solace from some who assist me in embracing my gifts, listening to what I have always known, and silencing the disgruntled, self-conscious words of my peers.
I have, by no means, embraced the hateful word fag. It is too loaded and sour for my pallet. But I have certainly come to terms with “girl”, reassigning, or, even better, recovering its meaning. I see girl as a title which refers to one of great emotion and empathy; a person who exerts a forceful protection of the weak and who can stick up for herself.
Every child beams when asked “What is your favorite color?” It is perhaps a right of passage or simply a moment to talk about oneself and define oneself in the spectrum of peers. For me it was all about comradery. Till approximately age twelve my favorite was green. This was for the sole reason that my mother’s favorite pigment was exactly that, kelly green. She also loved hunter, avocado, and sage. Then as the middle years crept in, I fell in alliance with junior high girls. The color of choice for said girls and I in the late nineties was turquoise, and thus turquoise for my favorite color. We loved turquoise, black raspberry frozen yogurt, baked potatoes and pop music.
As I moved on in all facets of my development, I discovered yellow. For the first time I thought I had found something of my own. Yellow was so bright, so deliciously cheerful. Then in a moment of late night research I discovered my love for yellow was scientific. For individuals who are red green colorblind, yellow appears to the tainted eye as the most distinct color in the otherwise murky rainbow. Once again my behavior was dictated by my faceless geneticist in the sky, or rather in my veins. This alchemist had been brewing my blueprints long before I was born, had selected my kitchen walls color for me when I was deep in utero, and perhaps laid the plans for my alternative orientation.