by Laura Wang
It is September, three feet away
Stalking each of my footsteps
With each stomp, I hear tickles
With each sip, I taste glass
This cold coffee hums middle C
And C is green and green is three and three is an isosceles
Your eyes flit between 5 and M
Depending on the light
Your blue fingers often curl to form a pure G#
When you leave, I feel 4
3 lips taste of rectangles, velvet on my fingertips
Sorbet plus sorbet equals U
Your name is turquoise neon yellow lavender coral mauve
But I call you my September
* * *
She points at our microwave. Her eyes are a bit glazed; her head cocks to the right; her fingers point at the number “1.”
“It’s kind of a whitish yellow,” says Melia. “Two is pink. Three is red. Four is yellow. Five, blue. Six… light green. Seven, dark blue. Eight is a magenta-pink color, probably closer to magenta. Nine is purple. Zero is white… or clear.”
She puts a pen in her hand and writes out her name on a piece of notebook paper. Her handwriting is precise. She spells her name green orange black blue yellow.
In Greek, “synesthesia” means “to perceive together.” It is a psychological phenomenon when a person perceives two senses to be linked when they are not. Melia sees numbers and letters in colors, the most common form of synesthesia, but there have been reports of tasting in color and hearing in color. Some think of abstract concepts, such as time, in terms of spatial distance. Others, when they hear sounds, feel sensations on their skin.
When Melia was younger, her mother, with handwriting even clearer than Melia’s, would write in bubble letters: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. She and her sister, Tia, got to color them in to celebrate.
“Tia, why can’t you just color them the right colors?”
Tia, purple crayon in her hand, stared at Melia. “What?”
“It’s an ‘H.’ Why can’t you color it pink?”
“Why can’t you be less bossy?”
Tia scribbled purple all over the “H,” not minding that it got outside of the lines. Melia sighed and quickly colored the “P’s” red, as they should be.
Melia and I were randomly placed to live in the same dorm room during our freshmen year of college. I’ve lived with her ever since. One night when we were white-years, we stayed up particularly late talking. She mentioned that she had synesthesia. My eyes widened and mouth gaped when she told me. She shrugged it off.
Today, Melia sits before me, sipping hot M tea in a 7 plaid skirt.
“I wouldn’t say that I found out that I was a synesthete. It was more like I found out everyone else wasn’t. When I was in eighth grade, a girl asked me what my favorite color was, and I said ‘yellow.’ She asked me what things I liked that were yellow and I gave her a list: lemonade, daffodils, and the letter ‘A.’”
Melia’s realization that she had synesthesia is actually similar to most other synesthetes. According to Boston University’s The Synesthesia Project, synesthetes almost never consider that their perceptions might be unique until they realize that there’s a discrepancy between their experiences and their peers.
Around the time that Melia discovered she was a synesthete, she was in a chemistry class and trying to keep up in her extremely competitive Silicon Valley high school. After discovering that she had synesthesia, she looked for ways to use it. Soon, elements and chemical compounds became blocks of color. NaCl, sodium chloride, was green yellow red lightish-yellow, but mainly just green red because those were the capital letters.
She retells with more difficulty the only time she ever remembers cheating on a test. After a particularly stressful week, she had a math test that she didn’t have enough time to prepare for and was panicking. She avoids my eyes as she tells me this story.
“I couldn’t remember the formulas, so I drew little colored dots on my hand. It didn’t work as well as I thought it would. When I see letters, the colors are vivid, but it’s not as effective the other way around. It was more like I remembered that the colors and letters were linked when I looked at the dots, instead of actually seeing the letter when I saw the color. I felt so bad afterwards. I thought I was sick.”
The only other synesthete Melia has ever met was the star flute player in their high school band. The girl heard in her color. She had perfect pitch, and with each distinct note she heard, she saw a differently colored orb-like blob. Melia, always the over-analyzer, tries to piece this out for me.
“I don’t know if her natural perfect pitch helped her develop synesthesia, or if synesthesia helped her develop perfect pitch. I don’t know which one caused the other, or even if there’s a causative relationship. I just think it’d be really cool to listen to music in color.”
“I think it’d be cool to read in color,” I tell her.
She laughs and nods. “That’s fair.”
Other than pneumonic devices and her one-time cheating attempt, Melia doesn’t use her synesthesia as a tool all that often.
“It’s like a party trick. It’s something I could bring up during an icebreaker or get-to-know-you game. I’ve actually written personal statements where I tap into that quality, but that’s about it. I don’t notice it most of the time.”
In truth, synesthesia is everywhere. The Synesthesia Project says that some scientists consider phantom limb as a type of synesthesia. Phantom limb or sensations sometimes occur when one gets a limb amputated. Even after their arm or leg is gone, they can still feel it, experience pain where their limb used to be, and even “move” it. Unlike Melia, whose had her synesthesia since she was born, people with phantom limb develop it later in their life and, with therapy, can overcome it.
The link between taste and smell also seem synesthetic. Our taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. All of the flavors we perceive in a vintage wine, apple pie, or yellow curry are mainly due to the sense of smell. The nerves in our eyes and mouth, not taste buds, are even linked to our sensation of taste when we eat spicy food. Each time I take a bite of a spicy hot chicken wing, I simultaneously experience seemingly unrelated senses, the smell of barbecue, the watery of my eyes, and sensations that create one, unified flavor.
Melia and I have a Star Wars poster on our living room wall. The poster is printed in Technicolor-bright ink, and its graphics appear vintage but I bought it at Target for ten dollars a year ago. It’s the largest poster in Melia’s and my apartment. As I sit talking with Melia, my head tilts to the side, studying the poster.
“So when you see that,” I point and she turns her head with me, “and you see ‘Star Wars’ written on there in red, what does your synesthesia do?”
“I don’t have colorblindness, so if something is written down, I don’t have trouble distinguishing the ink,” she tells me. “But on top of it, almost as a shadow, I see the colors that are associated with my synesthesia.”
I remember once when I was eight or nine (I’m not sure what the context was), my brother mentioned that spoken language is really just sounds. When people speak, all they’re doing is making noises and sound waves with their mouths and vocal chords. There’s no inherent meaning in any of it; we, as people, just attach significance to particular noises. It seems obvious, but this was a revelation for me at the time. Any word is only a word to me because I’ve learned to recognize it as such. When I hear someone say “Laura,” I can only understand that the combination of an “l” sound, with an “o” vowel, followed closely by a hard “r,” and closing with the neutral vowel, “uh,” is referring to me because someone taught that to me. If I heard someone say “hey woman” or another term of address in a foreign language, there would be no meaning, no “Laura.” I’d just hear sounds.
As we look at the Star Wars poster, Melia comments on the atypical font. “You know, out of context, I don’t know if I’d recognize the ‘S’ and ‘T’ as ‘S’ and ‘T,’ but as soon as I realize that that’s what they are, I simultaneously see my colors for ‘S’ and ‘T.’”
I ask Melia if synesthesia has ever brought her anything negative. She thinks about it, collecting her thoughts, before answering.
“You realize how subjective words are when you have synesthesia. Any sensory perception is a very subjective experience. I could say ‘color’ or ‘shape,’ but I don’t even know if you think of the same thing as I think of when I say those words. There are so many different ways of perceiving different qualities in our world that it’s difficult to describe something that, to me, is specific but to someone else is not.”
I immediately think of the way everyone seems to question, at least once in their life, whether people see the same colors. What if my yellow is your blue? And your blue is my white? The thought used to bother me quite a bit. I remember asking my mom about it when I was in eighth grade.
“They know.” “They” meaning scientists. She told me, “They’ve done tests for it before. There are differences between each person, but it’s not a big difference. People might see different shades or tints of the same color, but it would never be a different color entirely.”
My mom’s a scientist, but I’m not sure that she actually read any study on this because to me, Melia’s right. A researcher could run as many tests as he wishes on Melia’s brain and see which sections of her brain are triggered when she sees a letter or number and understand what causes synesthesia and why, but how could he ever know what her synesthesia looks like for her? Questions like this used to drive me crazy. A world in which the understanding of color was up for debate seemed a world that was far too unstable.
And yet, when Melia sees the letter “A,” she sees white-yellow, but she also understands that it’s an “A,” the first letter of the Roman alphabet, just as I understand that an “A” is an “A.” And when Melia sees “Star Wars” written in red, she also sees a handful of other colors, projected on top. I see the same “Star Wars” Melia sees, but I also see the ten dollars I spent on the poster. I see the Ewok my brother bought at Universal Studios when we were kids. I see my father, whose all-time favorite movies are the Star Wars movies. I see him thirty years ago, going to a movie theater to watch A New Hope, and I see a smile on his face because for the first time since he’s moved to America, he finally feels that he, at least a little bit, gets American culture. I see his excitement pulling out our VHS tapes, playing the movies for my brother and me. But I also see, “Star Wars” written in a sans-serif, wide font, printed in a vibrant red.
Laura Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, studying English, Creative Writing, and Chinese. Laura was an Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates Summer Fellow, in which she worked with the International Writing Program to translate Chinese literature into English. She has participated in readings throughout Iowa City and presented at the Upper Midwest Region Honors Conference, Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities, and the UI Fall Undergraduate Research Festival.