by Annie Vitalsey
It was Yves who threw the party when we learned the earth was blue. When Gagarin came down from his orbit and swore it was so, we took him at his word. It was Paris, it was 1961, and before this most of us had thought our planet to be green.
When he was a boy, he would lie on the sand and divide the earth amongst his friends. Claude would have the land, Armand the animals, but Yves only ever wanted sky. A blue so perfect, he had to possess it. Blue, pure energy. Blue, absolute serenity. Blue, the only color that could hold emptiness. He railed at the birds for pocking his view.
When I knocked on the door of Yves’ blue apartment, it was Rotraut who answered in blue pants and a blue blouse, brown pigtails hanging heavy on her shoulders.
“You thought it was green too?” she asked me.
“Everyone did,” I said. “Don’t tell Yves.”
Inside the walls and carpets were blue, the couches and chairs. Yves had blued the spines of all their books, and painted over plates and glasses, knives and forks all the same shade, dark like evening—over-saturated—like if squeezed, the hue would flood out smelling salty and fresh and almost frightening. In the corner, he had painted a heavy globe this same blue, seas and continents merged together in one shade. He had thrown Rotraut’s bluest scarves over every light and lamp so they cast the color over the faces of the partygoers. They would have looked dead, had they not been smiling so.
“Drink?” asked Rotraut, and she offered me a cocktail in the familiar shade, and I took it. She smiled at me then, and too her teeth were the same blue, too dark for just a trick of the light. “Family recipe,” she said.
I had known Rotraut first, before she met Yves and moved in with him. Before, when we shared a tiny apartment in Montmartre and modeled for art classes. I liked the work. I liked sitting still. I liked watching the groups survey me, seeing how they fixed my lines by eye. But all this bored Rotraut. Her back grew stiff and her eyes wandered and more than once her head rocked back from dozing. She would go home and sketch angry shapes across paper—fast colors at bold angles.
“This is misery,” she said. She wanted to paint in her own right. But like me, she was only twenty-two, and apart from her tits and the slope of her spine, no one was paying attention.
Then, of course, she met Yves and he let her mix the blue.
It was a new kind of blue, she told me, formulated with the help of chemists, with the help of the same man who did Picasso’s blues. The trick was in the binder—it dried perfectly clear and would not taint the luster. She swore me to secrecy. A blue, like the heart of a flame, she described it. A blue that looked like love felt.
Rotraut slathered herself in the blue and slid over canvases for Yves. She pressed her blue body to walls and floors of white. A new, dynamic model of painting, she explained. The body, liberated from the paintbrush. A satisfying collaboration, she called it.
“Sure, sure,” I said. Her own paintings were being shown for the first time in London. I had to take on extra work to pay for groceries.
Yves spent the whole party at his writing desk, composing another letter to Eisenhower. Yves wanted to use his blue to color the atom bombs. He said it would bring true peace, a blue revolution. Rotraut stood at his elbow, offering now and then a word. Yves wanted to marry her, she had told me. She also told me Eisenhower had yet to answer his letters, and he was still waiting on replies from Castro, too.
Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. He wanted to pave the roads with it. He wanted to color houses and churches, tint bread and salad, he had plans for the animals, for the rain. He wanted to feed it to sea plankton. He had just done his Blue Venus, and L’Esclave de Michel-Ange in blue.
“Did you know,” a young man sitting next to me at the party said, “that Michelangelo couldn’t afford the color blue?”
“Oh?” I said.
The young man had a mustache bleached out and colored blue with what looked like chalk dust. It was making him sneeze.
“Oh yes!” he said, scooting in.
I took a sip of the drink Rotraut had poured me. It tasted briny. It stung my molars going down.
“Did you know there’s no blue in cave paintings?” he went on. “Did you know the ancient westerns had no word for blue?”
“Oh?” I said.
“Did you know the Egyptian god Amun could make his skin turn blue and fly invisibly across the sky?”
I sat and listened to him, thinking of my mother back in Nice, and how she liked to let good looking men explain things to her. She told me it was good for their hearts.
“Did you know,” he went on, “that blue eyes aren’t really blue? It’s a trick of the light. Same thing that makes the sky blue.”
I drank more, feeling the liquid pull and burn in my chest.
“My name is Shrike,” he said.
“Caro,” I said.
When he tried to kiss me, I did not pull away. I tasted the blue chalk in his mustache—milky and hygienic.
Yves wanted to turn the whole world blue. But according to Gagarin, according to the news and the experts, it already was.
Rotraut had been working with Yves for months before she invited me to his studio—a white room a short walk from the Panthéon, with a brass chandelier hanging low on one side. She wanted me to try the new modeling, too. She wanted me to see how fun it was.
Yves was in the studio when I arrived, but he did not look up from his work until Rotraut asked him to.
“This is Caro,” she said.
He worked while Rotraut painted me up with a sponge, pressing the blue over me, tenderly, neck to knees, as if she was giving me a bath. The paint was oily and cold, and clung like needles.
“Now move,” she said, and gestured to the canvas, held taut to the wall with nails, ready.
First, I pressed my whole front to the white, then my back, then my front. Rotraut added more paint and I went again, slapping my fingers to the wall, sloping my knees. The whole thing took ten minutes.
“Good,” said Yves, but he still did not look at me.
Rotraut sat on his lap when I went to wash, down in the little bathroom in the hall. The whole thing reeked of Yves. Vanilla and beeswax, turpentine and unwashed hair. His beard shavings clung to the sink. The husks of his fingernails and loose, knotty pubic hairs peppered the floor. In the mirror, I saw the blue had crept up my neck and gotten into the ends of my hair.
I stood in the ancient bathtub and opened the window to temper the air. The cold from outside prickled my skin. I found an old, dry sponge to work into a lather, and the soap suds blued as I scrubbed, running down my hands and my legs, dyeing the rest of me blue, but lighter. I washed and rinsed and lathered again, and the soles of my feet went blue in the cool standing water.
Blue is a color that swallows, I thought. A consuming color. It runs and it devours everything else. It is everywhere. It is inescapable.
I lathered and I rinsed, lathered and rinsed, again and again and again.
Afterwards, Rotraut bought me a glass of wine. We sat at a table on the street, and she told me she was in love with him.
“It’s a spiritual love,” she told me. “It’s immaterial.”
“Oh?” I said.
“It’s all there, in the blue. Didn’t you love it too?”
My skin still tingled from the paint, it burned. I thought it was cold and uncomfortable, artless and cheap. The pigment still rimmed my fingernails and clung behind my ears. It was going to give me a rash.
“I don’t get it,” I told her. “I don’t like it.”
Rotraut took a sip of her wine. She twirled a pigtail.
“He says he thinks he’s going to die soon,” she said. “He feels the void. He feels it everywhere. In the blue, too. But he isn’t afraid.”
“He’s going to ruin your life,” I said.
Rotraut looked hurt, surprised at this. “I don’t believe in death,” she said.
“He doesn’t really love you,” I said.
“Before modern science,” Rotraut said, “they made blue by soaking plant leaves in human urine. Usually urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol. Look how far we’ve come!”
She had stopped listening to me. Within the next week, she moved out of our apartment and into the blue with Yves.
At the party, Yves had my blue portrait propped against a wall, the imprints of my thighs, my breasts, my belly and hands ready to be shown off. I thought of how much of myself was left behind on that canvas—how many germs and skin cells, how much of my DNA would go on to be displayed in galleries, museums, gazed upon by thousands, auctioned at great price.
“That’s me,” I gestured to Shrike.
“Oh?” he said.
“I did that one.”
I wanted him to revere me.
“I like it,” he said. “That one and that one.” He pointed to the one next to it—one of Rotraut’s first. Yves had painted her up and dragged her across the canvas, leaving two long, arced smears with breasts.
“Another drink,” I said.
At his writing desk, Yves balled up the letter he was writing. Rotraut rubbed him on the back.
Within a year, Rotraut would go on to marry Yves. She would wear a white dress and a blue tiara, and Yves would wear the insignia of the Knights of the Order of Saint Sebastian. By then, Yves would be jumping off buildings and onto trampolines for the photographs, to look as if he were flying, defying gravity just the slightest bit.
Eisenhower still had not written him back.
Yves would be painting in fire by then too, sneaking into the Centre d’Essai de Gaz de France, dousing models in water and rolling them over canvases, then torching their outlines with a heavy flare. Men at the center lost their jobs for those paintings.
Within six more months, Yves, 34, would die of a heart attack, leaving Rotraut six months pregnant. Even at the end, he told her he wasn’t scared. Neither was she.
That night of the party, I took Shrike home with me. We left early, because the blue was strangling, suffocating and I was drunk. In the lantern light on the sidewalks, the chalk on Shrike’s mustache looked lighter, more pastel.
We sat at my table and dipped our fingers in sugar while he told me more about the color blue—reflex blue, Prussian blue, ultramarine, azure, cornflower, steel. The sugar helped get the taste of those drinks out of our mouths. We ate it by the spoonful.
“What was it like?” he asked. “What was is like for him to paint you?”
“Boring,” I said.
In my bed, he found the spot between my legs and dallied there until the blue had long rubbed off his mustache. With every loll of his tongue I pictured tangerine and safflower, fuchsia and merlot.
But later, when I got up for the toilet, I filled the bowl with that familiar color, and in the mirror I saw the whites of my eyes had also gone blue.
I phoned Rotraut. “What the hell?” I said.
She laughed. “Methylene,” she said. “A great joke! The revolution is starting.”
Annie Vitalsey has an MFA from Arizona State University and her stories have appeared in Reed Magazine, Juked, Bennington Review, Pacifica Literary Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches fiction writing at Colgate University, where she received the 2019-20 Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship.