|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
Camera flash. Once. Twice. All colours bleach to white.
He's told where to put himself, when to twist his torso a little, or rest his chin on his hand, or turn his head to the left. Just a little. A little more. No, back a touch. That's perfect.
Orlando sees his own bare arm out of the corner of his eye. It's dark against the white screen, the way your skin might look darker when you step out of the bath or shower, and you catch a glimpse of yourself in the bathroom mirror; an indistinct shape against the steam-smudged tiles. You're like some sea god rising from the waves; water collecting, falling off you in rivulets, weighing down hairs in delicate whorled patterns on your skin. Dripping from your slicked scalp as you stare, transfixed. Perhaps the water was too hot, after all. Because you stare, and you think, "That's me. That's my body. My real self." And it seems something new, something that's caught you unawares.
It's not always like this: the screen, the too-bright white lights in his eyes. There was a photo-shoot outside, high up on the rooftop of some building. A week ago, a month. They said, yeah, it would make a nice backdrop. The sun shone weakly; the sky was pale and flat and wide, while Orlando leant awkwardly against little low walls and bits of industrial piping, being urban chic or something. Relax, man. Be cool. White concrete stretched out dustily to meet the very edge of the bright sky.
Afterwards, when they'd packed up for the afternoon, shaken hands, thanked and been thanked, Orlando had wandered over to that enticing edge. Another little concrete wall; just a courtesy really, a polite reminder that here was the line between solid ground and thin air; that if you crossed it you would be launching yourself out into the great white void, the shimmering unknown.
Peering over the wall, Orlando had seen a figure a little way away, propped up on a ladder. A workman painting the side of a building. White-splashed overalls hanging loosely on his wiry, tight-muscled frame. As Orlando watched, the man yawned, stretching his arms skywards, his dark skin dusted gold by the sun. Orlando had stood there, and he shivered a little. He was thinking brief disconnected thoughts of how easy it would actually be to take a step, and then another, and then just step off, right off the building into nothing. Perhaps easy was the wrong word. Frightening, more like. Insane. Final. Not exciting, no. Not fun.
"Nice view, eh?" The photographer's assistant, winking and grinning. Orlando had smiled back and said nothing. He'd wondered what he was actually being asked to agree with. Orlando thought it paid to be cautious. It wasn't paranoia, or anything. He was just careful.
Orlando thinks of Dominic at the weirdest moments. Dominic's vivid aliveness, his there-ness, like Oxford Street at Christmas, like Disney World, like suburban front gardens in July. Dom is a full colour advertisement for life, and he fizzes in Orlando's private thoughts like secret electricity. A renewable energy source that no one else knows about. No one at all except Orlando.
The thoughts come in dazzling flashes, intense and blinding as the camera's flash. Here's Dominic being Dominic, doing everyday Dominic things. Stupid things that ought not to be fascinating now, ought not to thrill. Ought not to send little private, guilty shocks of delight into the middle of Orlando, travelling fast down his spine like a fingertip.
He doesn't think about kissing Dominic, or touching him. Not during the ordinary, daylight hours, anyway. He saves those thoughts up for later, for the small hidden times, when the sun's finally gone down. When the work is finished, the party is over, and it's just him and the four walls. His mind is a like a home video, or a photo album; he's saved up all the best bits, and labelled them with neat little captions. This is us the night of the beach party, when Billy had that stomach bug. This is us in LA, when it was too hot to breathe, and we left damp handprints on each other's skin that faded slowly afterwards, the ceiling fan whirling round and round and round above us. This is us in New York, in that hotel room where we drank everything in the mini-bar and tried to order Arctic Roll from room service, and couldn't stop laughing for like, hours. And you fell asleep with your head on my chest, and I thought your hair smelt weird, like bubblegum or something. Yeah, this is us. This was us.
All colours bleeding to white. Fragments of physics lessons: prisms and rainbows. Refraction, and dispersion, and stuff. Colours, mixed together, make white light. A prism refracts the light, and allows you to see the different colours it's made up from. Sir Isaac Newton discovered this in the seventeenth century. Orlando was never much good at physics, and it was mainly because of this sort of thing. It's stupid; it shouldn't make any sense. How can you make white out of colour? Colour is too big, too alive. White, to Orlando, seems such a weak, pathetic thing.
It was like something they'd been dancing around for weeks, something big and nameless that maybe wasn't even there at all. That maybe didn't exist outside of Orlando's head, although that was a worst-case scenario. Somehow, his days and nights had become crazed, heady things full of stray looks and brushings up, and things that may have been intentional, and may not. Words that might have had double meanings, and might have had none at all. Perhaps the words weren't even the point. Perhaps they were mere shells, vehicles for a certain tone of voice.
"It feels like," Orlando said, into the warm night air, "It feels like living inside a kaleidoscope, you know?" Because it sounded like a nice thing to say, and also because this was really incredibly good weed. He did smoke-rings; it was a skill of which he was proud. They bounced, although not really, because they didn't bounce, did they? No, they floated. They floated off across the deck and the garden and away ... somewhere. To the moon. And hey -- smoke rings! Gandalf, yeah?
"You know, you talk such a load of shit." Dominic was looking surprised, like this had only just occurred to him, and Orlando giggled and choked slightly. Dominic was laughing, too, and holding onto the wooden rail; then they were just smiling, the laughter held in check, waiting for the right moment to break free again. And suddenly this thing was back, this impossible, intangible thing hanging in the air between them.
"Dom," said Orlando. "Dom."
"Yes," agreed Dominic. "That is my name."
"Ha. Dom. No, it's such a stupid name, it's so boring. I'm going to get you a new one. No, no, I think you need a new one. Yeah, from now on I'm going to call you... I'm going to call you Kitten Lips."
That pretty much killed them both, it was so funny. Dominic was hanging limp and boneless over the rail, sobbing laughter.
"Okay." Breath returning, Dominic sat down on the wooden boards, and Orlando followed. He passed over the joint, and their fingers touched, or did they, and did it matter? Did it even mean anything?
"Okay," said Dominic. "In that case, then. Yeah, in that case I'm going to call you ... Fluffy Pinkie Angel Cake ... Sugar Puffs ... Boba Fett ... Thingy ... er, Thingy Ears ... the Third."
Oh fuck. Oh please God, one day let him be able to breathe again. He leant forward, shaking slightly, drained and weak from laughing; one hand pushed -- half for emphasis, half for support -- against Dominic's shoulder. "All right." The words came out in a kind of high, strangled croak. "All right. But not in front of the others, yeah?"
"No, no. Never. In front of them I'll just call you ... I'll just call you Babes."
There were tears in Orlando's eyes. He smudged them away with his fingers, and he saw Dominic there, behind the mist. And he looked down and saw his own hands, pale like fish in the moonlight.
"Yeah," he said. "And I'll call you Wanker, or ... or..."
So that was the first time they kissed. And Dominic was still laughing a bit, kind of almost silently, through his nose. And Orlando let go of Dominic's shoulder and put his palm flat against the side of Dominic's face and held it there. Dominic felt soft and cool and just ... nice. They forgot the joint. It rolled away across the deck, and that was pretty stupid. They found it later, and it had gone out, but still. That's the sort of thing that starts forest fires. If you're in a forest.
That was the first time they kissed, and as it turned out, in the end, it wasn't really that funny after all.
The last time they kissed it was cold; in fact it was sub-zero, which was bloody ironic, according to Dominic. Dominic had had quite a lot to say, that day. It was a freezing afternoon in winter, in a park, in London. There was one of those noncommittal, might-snow-might-not, colourless skies, and a carpet of ice on all the paths. Oh yeah, it was just perfect. It should have been funny, but it so wasn't. There was a frozen pond with reeds or whatever sticking up and splintering the surface, and some bare-branched trees poking awkward and naked at the sky. Ducks flat-footed it across the ice, pecking at things, and fluffing up their feathers irritably like little old ladies going out to collect their pensions.
They sat on a bench and Dominic talked, and Orlando breathed dampness into this scarf he'd just bought, and said, "Yeah, I know. Yeah. I know. I know." He felt stupid just listening to himself, it was like a stuck record. He wished he could say something better, something deep and profound that would stick in Dominic's memory forever.
There was nobody about, it was too cold, and anyway Orlando was feeling slightly sick and not, for once, thinking about how it pays to be careful. So before they stood up and left the bench, they kissed, just quickly, just once. Dominic's mouth was cold, but there was heat there, too, buried just beneath the surface. Orlando was trying to concentrate, so he'd be able to remember it later, but his mind wandered, and he started thinking about stupid things like ducks and old ladies, and even what Dom thought of his new scarf, for fucking fuck's sake.
And then it was over. It was gone.
That was the last time they kissed. And probably Orlando should have left it off the compilation tape, but somehow it got on there anyway, and sometimes he finds himself playing it, over and over again. The mornings after these nights are always bad; he looks like a ghost to himself in the bathroom mirror. He'll get up at dawn and sit in front of early morning cartoons with a cup of coffee. He likes watching the bright, coloured shapes bounce and flicker across the screen. They make him smile. They make things seem better.
Orlando is not wearing his own clothes in the pictures. He had on some gear they gave him; they had a theme, they said. After the shoot, it felt good to get out of those clothes, and put on his own things; his jeans and his comforting colourful shirt that smelt reassuringly of himself, and the deodorant he used, and the inside of his wardrobe. It felt like getting back inside his own skin.
He reads the article, and it's not bad. He comes out of it okay. He looks at the pictures again, and he thinks it's almost like he isn't there. He fills the whole page, and yet he's hardly there at all. They've bleached him out almost entirely, his skin and clothes fading into the white background. He is a nothing. An empty space. Only his eyes stand out; artificially vivid colour leaping at him out of the magazine. Just his eyes and his hair. It's like... He thinks. It's like some science fiction film, and he's playing the last man on earth. The end of the world - a nuclear holocaust. Everything gone in one big white flash. The End, roll credits.
It's an easy, trendy look. He's seen it a hundred times before. And he likes it, he has to admit. He thinks it looks pretty good.
All the colours mixed together make white.
Orlando knows this, he even looked it up once, God knows why. It's just that it doesn't make any sense. None of it makes any sense. It may be true, but he can't make it seem real, somehow. How can colour make white? White hardly seems to have any identity at all. White is a blank page. White is pathetic. He frowns, his thoughts running in circles, chasing their own tails. Colour is colour. It's warm and living and real. So why would it ever want to lose itself in white?