The Fieldstone Review

Synesthete: Reality as a Scientific Quandary

by Genevieve Allaire

As a synesthete, the idea of escapism is fascinating to me because I already spend so little time in what is widely considered to be the real world. Escapism is to abscond from what you know, but it is my neurological standard to exist in a dimension neither true nor disproven. I live within a reality that ―while not up for debate―is also not rooted in documented physics.

There is a word for it: Synesthesia. One who is synesthetic has crisscrossed associations between at least some of the five senses. According to Wikipedia, chromesthesia―in which the individual in question “sees” colors upon listening to music―is among the most common variant of synesthesia, with grapheme-color synesthesia (in which numbers or letters take on color) not far behind. Some synesthetes understand time as a circle or revolving loop in and outside of their body.

The thing is, there’s so much more to synesthesia, and it’s not found on Wikipedia. To the best of my knowledge, it has only ever been found in the laser etchings of my own brain. An adult of authority once assigned synesthesia to me at age 12, but the one responsible for my birth disgraced me for speaking of it―and that is how you can live 26 years in complete and utter denial about your own existence.

I experience smatterings of each aforementioned type of synesthesia. For example, I do associate music with colors, although the relationship is much weaker than it was ten years ago, and the musical genres are limited to orchestral string or piano. Their colors and shapes are amorphous, shifting, like how I imagine a legally blind person would experience a kaleidoscope. Years, to me, are just vertical columns, with January at the top and December at the bottom. Each year lived is one more column added to the right of the previous column. I can remember important dates very well because they glow, they glow from the grid of their month and they glow along their own vertical column. But I can only remember dates if they happened to me (as such, my studies of world history have not benefitted from this association.)

I have struggled with math my whole life, but I’ve never spoken aloud the colorful reasons why: Certain integers stubbornly take on hues and are totally unwilling to compromise. I must pause and think hard to convey what I experience. 0 is one of those very stubborn integers: It is clear, always. It can be clear like glass or clear like used Tupperware because translucence or opacity depends entirely on context. 1, on the other hand, is white. White/1 is the number that has confused me the most throughout middle and high school, college, and graduate school. 1 is parallel to your paper margins, perpendicular to the sky, and so boldly white it would dominate any other paint card around. 1 is white. And white is 1.

3 is blue, always and immovably. 3 is blue like the shell of a robin’s egg or the sky on a sunny cloudless day, matte, opaque, and so velvety you can almost feel it on your tongue. Along with a color, 3 is also the first integer to present with a personality (robust, younger than its positive value, foolish, blunder-heavy, but with good intentions).

4 is the luckiest of all numbers and so presents itself in terms of magical surrealism. 4 is a sparkly orange; the glitches of light floating around its figure are ethereal; the sparkles can look like an artist’s depiction of the North Star on the eve of Jesus’ birth (surely not), or sometimes they are silvery, glare-reflecting; the kind of cheap glitter you would buy in a plastic tube from the craft store.

8 is a matte orange, and 8 is―I dare say―the most malevolent of the first ten integers. 8 exists to deceive you. 8 is obese for having eaten the children of its brethren, for having gorged upon the stolen goods of its neighbors. 8 is as close to evil as any number can become. However, its neighbor 9 is not so nefarious. 9 is duplicitous, but it can be endearing. If 9 were a person, you might address it as you little sneak! but with a smile on your face and a hug soon to follow.

10 is usually nothing, but sometimes it exists within the black and white of a newspaper. But, from 11 onwards, integers cease taking on color, with rare exceptions. Sometimes, a number will have a hue of its primary color leaked onto it (e.g. 3,000 will be a very light variant of 3’s original robin’s egg blue). But the integers stop taking on original colors beginning with 10 or 11.

Grapheme-color synesthesia implicates not only numbers, but letters as well. While letters are totally colorless to me, the names of select loved ones do have a color assigned to them. This is a nascent process and it is a function of time and affection―the amount of time it takes for a color to surface usually indicates my strength of sentiment about that person. It usually takes more than five years of knowing and interacting with that person, but one exception exists. (There is one man, red like a fire hydrant, who has emerged unapologetically from the ether after just two months. The implications are overwhelming.)

I experience life through motifs. I’ve always understood symbolism well in my high school literature classes because I live in pictures. Let me explain:

I have what is known as a photographic memory. For my own part, this skill is weak in the sense that I cannot produce photo-realistic illustrations form memory, nor can I recite entries from a phone book. My own process of documentation is scientifically and mathematically useless, as it is driven solely by emotion. In the great words of The J. Geils Band, Freeze frame:

I now implore you to call to memory a trauma of your own. I am asking you to remember a terrible thing you’ve experienced, that changed your life forever, and not for the better:

What were you wearing?

I think most of us are able to recite the picture-perfect details of what life looked like the day it derailed and caught on fire in front of us. It’s an unhappy fact, but one that has evolutionary backing, because during times of crises and/or traumas, our brains have the fantastic way of saying I am going to permanently document all of this so you can take notes later and learn how to avoid it. This process is pre-installed within us; we do not choose.

But what if you experienced that kind of photographic recording for every emotional moment in your life? What if every time you felt lightly melancholy to paralytically depressed, or mildly hopeful to emerging from the throes of bliss―what if, in those moments, your brain dutifully court-recorded every sight your very retinas rested upon?

Welcome to my life, mon amie.

I have been called (by more than one) a sensitive and emotionally-driven person, and I accept this designation without dispute. As a result, there is seldom a week of my life that passes without experiencing a feeling noteworthy for my brain to photograph; to oil-paint in real time; to print and laminate and store forever.

Internally, however, these photos are not mine to peruse at my leisure. These photos do not belong to me at all. Despite the fact that I have hundreds to thousands of photo albums stored within my head, I am unconsciously obligated to surrender copyright at the moment of photo capture. What happens next is out of my hands, and instead up to that little man who lives at the top of my brain.

He doesn’t have a name, but I am referencing here a short man, with eyes red and emblazoned, hair mottled with adrenal sweat stuck straight up in so many directions. This is a chain-smoking, unhinged man, crazy with thoughts that he is determined to prove at every cost. This man has photos and documents, all relating to the Case, tacked wall-to-wall in his office, with various pictures connected with jagged colored yarn. This man is a conspiracy theorist who thrives on the insane.

And this man lives inside of my head. This is a man who I have never seen eat nor sleep nor abandon post. Despite never leaving, he always has yet another cigarette to pull from his shirt-pocket and flickflickflickWOOSH light and gasp inwards and exhale with all of the pressure of the world, so help him if he shrugs. He is here to solve the mystery, A Beautiful Mind style.

This little conspiracy theorist has been gathering data my whole life. He gathers data―not only from the photographs he receives, but perhaps more importantly―from his own research. My little conspiracy theorist dresses as a shrub, shuffling unconvincingly along the sidewalk, armed with a point-and-shoot camera and a determination that nothing can dislodge, not even death. My conspiracy theorist has so much more documentation than I ever thought was possible. He is a man who would die for his cause.

I have lived my life assuming that most memories and moments are just water off a duck’s back: They occur and they roll off and behind me, no longer my own, only to rejoin the senseless mass from which they originated. This is logical, given that there are limits to even the most advanced of computers. After all, how many records of 26 years could possibly be stored within flesh and blood?

To my chagrin, it would appear that there is no mortal limit.

And so my conspiracy theorist works and works and works and works and works because there is nothing else. There is only him and The Evidence and The Case.

What is The Case, you might ask?

I imagine that if you’d ask him, he’d laugh behind crude clouds of smoke. There is only one case that matters, he would say. The case is about (and here he would gesture towards the board with the pictures and the jagged yarn connecting them) how do all of these photographs relate to one another, and why?

His answer is worse than an explanation. It’s really just another question. And so if you think you’d stand there and simply catch flies when presented with such a lunatic statement, then perhaps you and I have more in common than we may have surmised.

This is why the man in my head is a Conspiracy Theorist (CT). Not only is his quest so very fallible; it is also useless. Let us humor his logic: Let’s say that CT is correct, and there really is evidence of visual configurations in my life that all relate together to explain emotional patterns: Even if this was true, how and why would this evidence alter the existence of anyone, least of all myself?

If you asked CT that, he would probably answer unperturbed in some cryptic way, like If you even have to ask that question, you’ve lost the plot. This blind sass explains why CT and I have experienced such animosity over the years. Yet his quest for logic may appear to be harmless, perhaps cute, metaphor and meta-anthropomorphization of what it signifies to try and find one’s own meaning―but if that was the case, why would I try so hard to evict him?

As it turns out, CT is not here to make friends. CT is here for the truth and nothing but. Harm may befall any number of people in this quest for answers, but it matters not, for no price can be put on Truth (well, his version of it, at least).

Let me explain. Whenever I feel depressed to the point of even ephemeral bed rest, CT uses this brief interlude as the opportune time to force me to see his truth. When my guards are lowered via sadness and my eyes are closed, CT capitalizes upon this moment to gleefully retrieve a roll of his own curated film strip and project it onto my mind’s eye until he is convinced that I am convinced. After all, this is CT’s moment; this is his opportunity to showcase his work. One childhood friend’s basement around noon in July // the light blue button-down you wore that still disappointed your father anyway // stoic sessile cacti warped by heat that you saw in your rearview as you pulled out of the sand driveway // one baby elk curled up sleepy and alone on the shoulder of I-180 in Arizona // the number 88―

Every new image shocks you with the way that it is completely and totally unexpected. How could you know this was coming? Most of these visages you hadn’t even realized you had recorded at all (CT must have been in his shrubbery outfit) but here they are. These pictures do not coincide with a fiery life trauma (at least most of them) (and the ones that do have nothing in common with what you feel now) // the polyester shallow-v-neck t shirt slightly stained gray from university washing machines // lesser celandine // crying as you tripped over the mossy log // purple Gatorade zero // sitting on Shelly’s floor in tears //

The lack of nuance of this last series of visages evokes from me the criticism that perhaps CT’s work is really a bit on the nose―after all, of course we know that these were the worst of the terrible times―// LP’s pointed black block heels with the dress and fleece tights in December 2013 // a bottle of Captain Morgan gifted to you in the chemistry building // your first sober cigarette // questionably calm rabbits for sale at Rosedale //

You can concentrate and realize that probably these images evoke sorrow because you felt isolated in each moment. You feel doubly isolated now, that you are here to watch them again alone Her name was Savannah wasn’t it and you disappointed her because you didn’t do enough of the biology project // that light blue zip up sweatshirt // the mustached so-called cop who stopped you when you were riding your bicycle // the man who saved you from an oncoming bus which you truly had not seen or heard but you wish he hadn’t been there at all, don’t you // the black Tevas you bought at the store that probably no longer exists at 400 something main street // the silence of your mother when her hair had that first blonde brilliant hue of a woman not yet gray who goes to the salon dutifully // the questions you were asked instead of the ones that mattered // the way your boney thumb reflected the white light in the sky by way of its crescent half-moon against skin faintly blue and struggling // a diet coke that you drank instead of alcohol // Allie from California who confided in you on your journey from Delaware to Maryland that she was ashamed of herself for eating at Thanksgiving and so that was why she was running // Niko //

At that last bit, you are drawn out of this terrible forced viewing because your armpits are soaked and the fan makes your armpits feel cool, and you are struck with the wonderfully mortal realization that Oh I was sweating because I was scared. At this moment, reality once again presents itself as an oasis away from the horror of your life, and it is to this refuge that you abscond.

CT does not appreciate your absence at all. CT is up there, stomping his heels, throwing a fit like a petulant child, and you can feel his anger in your throat, your chest so very tight and he is trying in vain to shut down all systems, he is calling out Shut it all down, boys because he thinks he’s got you now.

CT can do this anytime, anywhere. And he does.

So when you go pale and someone asks if you’re alright, what on earth could you possibly say? Something about black Tevas and questionably calm rabbits: This is exactly what CT planned. As the only viewer, anything you try and report back to the public is completely senseless. It is harmful to you and only you. This is CT’s genius, and it is why he proud to show you his work. He has so moved his audience (you) to the point that you cannot reasonably communicate with anyone who has not seen CT’s work.

If you had not yet absconded to that oasis, CT would also show you how he was transitioning into a velvety maroon for the subsequent year and how it also took place all of it at night and coincidentally not even that far from the lesser celandine scene, isn’t that clever, and if you wondered why maroon then don’t even worry because―

If it is nighttime, you may chant out loud to yourself, “It’s over, I survived it!” Over and over and over again until you are shouting, and hopefully you don’t have neighbors. You think that saying this will make it go away, but you continue: “I am here now I am here now I AM IN HERE”―and but CT is just smiling wryly because the mark of a truly good writer is how he influences his audience, and look at you now, curled and fetally entombed, or else locomoting lurching forward in the blackness of night towards god you don’t even know what but a legal substance of the type that is sold at gas stations to those with photographic identification of having survived so many years and there you could buy CT’s poison, and if the physiological conditions are right, they will be potent enough to knock CT on his ass for a few minutes, and you can use those few minutes to pummel him and keep him down there while you work out a plan to keep on feeling this way, this way where CT is all the way down and beaten so you can breathe again―

// the royal blue shiny polo you had to wear at Trabant Center and one time your hair was purple while you wore it and Rachel had scabs all over her face and neck while she bummed a Marlboro from you and told you in all seriousness to wear a helmet //

This is when you walk away.
Even now.

* * *

It occurs to you, while you run, that there is more to this. The Wikipedia page had said that some people assign shapes to taste. How odd, you thought to yourself. Because everyone knows that apples and pointy and all fruits are very bright inside of your mouth just like the sun on a clear summer day. Right?

Is that the only instance? The taste of bitter―a tablet of Tylenol beginning to break down on your tongue before swallowing―is featureless. You feel it only on your tongue and in the characters of your face smashed together in disgust. There is nothing in your mind’s eye. But vegetables are similar to fruit, if they are fresh. If they are fresh, I can taste the sunshine inside of my mouth. How did Pablo Nerudo say it? Something like–with the electricity of lemons and that’s exactly how it feels, you are so alive. Salt is the same. Freshy ground black pepper is the light of a full moon. Coconut milk tastes infinitely round when cooked with ginger and cumin and turmeric and garlic and serrano.

The Wikipedia page also mentions that physical pain may be assigned colors and shapes. Here you are, having lived 26 years and thinking that you’ve been going crazy what with your triangles of back pain and swirling coils tunneling their way from your clavicles when you closed your eyes and saw yourself in the third person. The pain was like a lightning strike, two long thin isosceles triangles (one per shoulder) and the pain like worms flooded with isopropyl alcohol; squirming wildly, impossible to placate, always moving. There is a term for this, it occurs to you for the very first time.

It is a visceral shock to learn that not everyone around you is forced to watch painful movies in the way of A Clockwork Orange, eyelids taped open and guttural screams you attempt but fail to suppress. You have marveled, your entire life, at the strength of these involuntary viewers: Where do they get it from? How do they stay seated during this torture and then move on with their day?

While there may be other people in the theatre, it turns out that their presence is undocumented―and, from your early research, it is also unlikely. You have yet to meet another person who sees it all the way you do. And now that you know it’s uncommon, you are glad it’s just you in that theatre. This is a private pain. Others have been spared: They don’t know it and they shouldn’t have to.

So far, the discourse of my experience with synesthesia has sounded confusing at best and harrowing to perilous at worst. On the rare instances that I divulge these details to those on my periphery of closeness, I am often cooed at and told that they could not imagine the pain. This response of theirs is consistent regardless of my mood as I illustrate the details to them. These non-familial loved ones of mine mean to sympathize and treat me with kindness, and I appreciate the effort.

I certainly believe that they can’t imagine it. But, how difficult can something be when you have been adapted to it your entire life? Breaking news, ma sœur: This is not my first rodeo. It’s easier than it used to be. And ―well, there are secrets that I have. I have delightful secrets and beautiful visuals that happen that CT projects for me in those rare moments of physical bliss. (It’s no wonder this part of this pathology is never spoken of. I am describing, here, the incredible synesthetic wonder of seeing things when you close your eyes and arrive with another.)

Often, it’s gorgeous visages: Northern bare deciduous trees with dendrites like arms reaching towards a cold and unforgiving sky, the understory glazed with snow and a layer of ice that reflects the burgeoning sunlight. More than once, I have seen brick houses lining the wet asphalt streets of my juvenile neighborhood, and next to these saturated black roads stand blooming trees, proud and tall and bearing white and pink flowers. The path I ran in a cross-country race in New Jersey when I almost lost the trail but didn’t: Fully green hardwood trees on my right and mangled understory to my left and turf up ahead, the stomping of young women’s sneakered calloused feet sending tiger mosquitoes up into the warm thick static electricity air so laden with humidity, the tingles of two or more of these unidentified insects brushing lazily against my bare calf. The white shirt my para-coach was wearing when he asked How many bugs did you swallow and I held up one index finger to signify one tiger mosquito but he acknowledges me with a sweet southern drawl and turns away because he thinks I am signifying, with that finger, a need for a break and time to breathe, but really I was saying, one entire bug has traversed all the way down into my digestive tract, and that’s not even all. One time, CT gleefully presented an image from his shrubbery-disguise days, when he had recorded a four year-old you in the parking lot of St. James Catholic Church and the willow feather’s soft of your hair falls across your face as your mother asks you what you think that noise was, and your scrunch your toddler face so tightly together and proudly respond a squirrel.

And so these visages can be moving. They can be basically heart-stopping in their beauty and grace and statehood. These are the reels that CT is the most proud of: I imagine that, in these moments, he is jumping up and down and screaming I knew it because the way the arriving pulsates and electrifies and surrenders my body feels adjacent to how I felt among all those trees, before I had ever even arrived, but these moments were really just mental isotopes of one another. This is CT’s magnum opus, and this work of his can bring me to the sweetest tears I’ve ever shed.

But it can also make me laugh for days on end, because sometimes, I arrive with no warning, eyes shut tight with nothing expected, and I return with unexpected motifs that I cannot decipher. This column year, I have seen a box of Good ‘n Plenty on the sickly beige speckled linoleum of my laundry room from my childhood (but keep in mind, I have never tasted nor purchased said candy), one thickly drawn snowflake on a backdrop of in-your-face cerulean-blue, the abstract colors of one very special chartreuse plaid shirt at once separate and also greater than the sum of its parts, the black grid lines bending all around so that they are spidery thin like paper barely covering the fact like Elliott Smith’s voice, so thin until they bend out convexly and disappear and you leave my body. Just as with CT’s magnum opus, these visages appear unapologetically and without explanation.

CT is dedicated to his craft, but he is not all bad.

If I let CT stay, if I maybe turn a blind eye to the rising electricity bill and the upstairs pounding of pacing footsteps while I am trying to sleep, CT will want to work with me. CT will be my partner, not only in crime but also in happiness, and he wants me to see the sheer magnificence of when it all comes together visually. He lives to see me tear up with joy.

It is in these moments that I realize we were a team all along.

And that brings us to my confession: I knowingly house a red-eyed, wild-haired, sleepless chain-smoking man in the upstairs of my head. I did not choose him, but he chose me. And now, finally, I have decided to keep him here. He reeks of BO, but Christ, I admire his tenacity. Because in a world so devoid of meaning, I’ve got my own mad scientist, determined until the day I die to make sense of it all.

And I am here to watch.