A Mango-Shaped Space Read online



  “So to another synesthete my name could be purple with orange stripes when to me it’s candy-apple red with a touch of avocado green?”

  “Exactly.”

  I sit back in my chair and let it sink in. My mother just shakes her head, absorbing everything.

  Jerry brings us to one of the school’s dining halls for lunch, and I suddenly feel very young. And short. I mean, I know I’m short, but I didn’t realize I was this short.

  “Mom,” I whisper as we pick up our cardboard trays and get in line, “are all the girls in college this tall?”

  Jerry must have heard me, because he starts laughing. “The girls’ basketball team practices in the next building, so they come here for lunch. I promise you the other dining halls have shorter students.”

  I decide that Jerry’s kind of cute — for a grown-up, that is. I help myself to a plate of fruit salad and a turkey sandwich. There’s no way I can have a crush on Jerry. If he isn’t old enough to be my father, he’s at least old enough to be my father’s younger brother.

  We find a table away from the crowd. My mother gives Jerry about a thirty-second head start on his burrito before she begins the onslaught.

  “Dr. Weiss, I —,” she begins.

  He holds up his nonburrito hand. “Jerry.”

  “Jerry,” she corrects herself with a sigh. “I know you said you can’t make Mia’s condition go away completely. But you can help her work around it, right?”

  Jerry turns to me. “Would you want that, Mia?”

  He’s waiting patiently for an answer, but I can’t figure out what to say. I do want to be able to pass my classes, and it would be nice to be like everyone else. But if I couldn’t use my colors, the world would seem so bland — like vanilla ice cream without the gummy bears on top. “I don’t know,” I admit. “I really like gummy bears.”

  They both look at me questioningly, and I cover my mouth when I realize what I said.

  I quickly correct myself. “I mean, I can’t imagine life without my colors.”

  My mother doesn’t look too pleased with my response. She picks at her own fruit plate.

  “But,” I add, “I also don’t want to fail my classes.”

  Mom perks up a bit.

  “We have only found a few substances that have any effect whatsoever on the synesthetic response,” Jerry tells us. “Stimulants such as coffee and nicotine dampen synesthesia, and depressants such as alcohol can increase it. In order to tell you why that is I’d have to give you a lesson about how the limbic system in your brain functions in response to nerve stimulation.”

  “I’ll take your word for it,” I tell him.

  “It’s also possible for a person’s synesthesia to change if something traumatic happens to them. Usually it’s dampened until they recover. It may get stronger after early childhood, but it seems to weaken when people approach old age. I can help you work around it, to push it more to the back of your consciousness, if that’s really what you want.”

  My mother looks at me, not bothering to keep her optimistic expression hidden. The only really traumatic thing that I’ve been through is Grandpa’s death. But I don’t remember anything changing with my colors. Maybe it wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been because I knew I still had a part of Grandpa in Mango. And we all knew it was coming; he had been sick for months.

  “The thing is,” I tell them, aware of the quiver in my voice, “my colors help me a lot too. I’m the best speller in my class, and I can remember history really well too. Phone numbers, names, everything. Well, everything except math and foreign languages. But what if I promise to always carry a calculator and to never travel to foreign countries?” I look hopefully at my mother.

  Before she can respond, Jerry says, “You don’t have to worry, Mia. I truly doubt anything could make your synesthesia disappear forever.”

  “So what should I do about my problems in school?”

  Jerry takes a bite of his chocolate cake and says, “I can set you up with a math tutor in your area. You’ll have to arrange your own help with Spanish.”

  Jerry gives us the tutor’s phone number, and we set up the next visit to the university. He walks us out to the car again, but this time I restrain myself from giving him a hug. I don’t want to seem like a little kid.

  “You seem very happy to know your condition has a name,” my mother says as the car winds through the streets of the campus.

  “You have no idea.”

  “No, I suppose not,” she replies, double-checking her map. Then she asks, “He’s a nice man, don’t you think?”

  “Jerry? Yes, I think he’s very nice.”

  “Good-looking, too,” she adds, her eyes straight ahead.

  “Mom!”

  She shrugs and flashes a small smile. “I’m not blind, you know. He looks a little like Paul Newman.”

  “The salad-dressing guy? No way.”

  “Maybe it’s the eyes,” my mother says wistfully as she makes a sharp turn onto the highway entrance ramp. “Those blue, blue eyes.”

  “I’m telling Dad you have a crush on Jerry.”

  “I don’t have a crush on Jerry,” she says. “I have a crush on Paul Newman. The Sting was a classic. You kids don’t know what you’re missing.”

  I roll my eyes. We argue about Jerry versus Paul Newman for the next ten miles. I have to admit that it’s fun being alone with my mother when we’re not worried about something.

  When we get home I settle down on my bed and force myself to start the homework I’ve been neglecting. I love the cozy feeling of my bedroom when it starts getting colder outside. I’m feeling very pleased with myself and the world, when Beth walks right in and plops down next to me. She doesn’t seem to care that she’s crinkling my notebook pages.

  “Can I help you?” I ask, pulling my papers out from under her. The coziness is disappearing fast.

  “I’m waiting for you to tell me what’s been going on,” she says, her arms crossed. “I mean, I know the bare bones of it from Zack, but I want to hear it from you.”

  I glance up at my wall of clocks to see how much time I have before dinner. Mom won’t let me check out the synesthesia Web site until after I’ve finished my homework and we’ve eaten.

  “Can’t this wait till later?”

  “No problem,” Beth says. “I’ll just wait right here till you’re ready.” She leans back on the bed and props herself up with a pillow.

  “You’re going to wait here? On my bed?”

  “Yup. Just pretend I’m not here.”

  “That’d be a lot easier if you weren’t here.”

  “By the way,” Beth says, looking down toward the end of the bed, “where’s Mango? I was looking for him before.”

  “Why?”

  “I have plans tonight, and I think I’m starting to get a cold. Zack said that if a cat sits on your lap for half an hour, you won’t get sick.”

  I stare at her. “Are you serious?”

  She nods.

  “Well, he’s probably outside.”

  Beth shakes her head. “Dad said he let him in a few hours ago.”

  I close my notebook. “All right, you win. Come with me to find Mango, and I’ll tell you on the way.”

  She jumps up and we look around my room. I check under the bed and in the closet, and then we move downstairs. As we open doors and peer under couches I explain about the synesthesia and the doctors. Beth hangs on my every word. It’s a little frightening.

  We’re in the hallway behind the kitchen by the time I finish the story. This section of the house was the last to be “finished,” and it’s almost totally unusable. The floor slopes slightly downhill, and the hallway is so narrow that Beth and I have to walk single file. At the end of the hall is the tiny room where Mom keeps her telescope and our winter coats. I open the door, even though there’s no way Mango could have gotten in there.

  “That’s some story,” Beth says as she pulls the cord to turn on the overhead lightbulb. €