When I learned from reading her third essay of the term that one of the freshmen in my morning class believed she could see auras, I thought I’d introduce Carolyn to Tracey, a sophomore in my afternoon section who wrote weekly, albeit well, about makeup—buying it, applying it, mixing it, matching it. I was teaching them the rhetorical modes, but I hoped each might learn something from the other, as well; maybe they’d meet somewhere between shallow and off-the-deep-end, between superficial and supernatural. “Maybe they’ll go into business,” imagined Dr. Miller, my department’s Chair. “A big business: making your inner colors your outer colors. They could revolutionize how we perceive and present ourselves. But talk about a clientele based on trust!” We were at a school funded mainly by a breakfast cereal concern.
I invited both girls to meet me for lunch on Wednesday, told them both to meet me in the Muesli Student Union, feigned surprise that I’d double-booked myself.
Cory was into freestyle walking. (He was a part-time professional snowboarder—he’d been taped for short films and commercials; he once landed a jump so awkwardly that he bit off part of his own tongue, otherwise he was still in one piece.) At school, at sea level, with no mountain to surf, only narrow halls inside and small hills outside on campus, rather than throw himself into his work he threw himself literally into whatever was about: his limitless momentum kept him bouncing off walls, leaping from radiators, pushing off tables, slide-tackling chairs, waltzing with garbage pails. Cory was almost a menace to the school and its population, but he was well known and popular and as careful as he could be without sacrificing too much of his art. Cory was another of my sophomores.
We noticed him enter the Union while we were eating. It was almost impossible not to notice Cory. Even when he was not freestyling, he had a presence.
“He’s cute,” Tracey said.
“He’s striped,” Carolyn said.
“What are his colors?” I asked Carolyn. I remembered from grading her work on the subject that our auras are polychromatic, though Carolyn hadn’t used that word.
“Blue and white,” Carolyn said. “The blue is flat. The white glows.” I had a hard time imagining a glowing white. Tracey didn’t: his aura might benefit from foundation, she told us. Cory got food and disappeared, but we saw him again when we were leaving the Union. He was discarding his trash. Something about him struck me: Cory moved almost in phases, as if some of him went before the rest.
“You see it too,” Carolyn said. “His aura lags behind.”
“That’s what you see?” I asked Carolyn.
“His aura can’t keep up with him sometimes. It’s amazing... I’ve never observed that before.” I was sure.
“What if he moved much too fast?” Tracey asked. “Could someone’s aura get completely left behind?” I couldn’t tell if Tracey took Carolyn seriously, but I was pleased that at least the girls were willing to talk. “Maybe Cory’s aura could be... trapped? Wouldn’t that be creepy?” Tracey asked.
“Deadly,” Carolyn said. “We don’t just wear our auras like ponchos. We project them from within. Deep within.”
“Well, we’d give it back,” Tracey said.
On Friday, before my afternoon class, Dr. Miller came by my office, the office I shared with two full professors, one of whom I’d never met because we worked different days.
“I think you’ve done a good thing,” he said to me. “Those two girls came by yesterday to ask for my approval of an interdisciplinary term project. I saw that you’d already given them permission to pair up despite their being in different sections.” They’d asked me just that morning, in fact. “They want to work with materials from the art department,” Dr. Miller added. “And they’d like to use a third student as a ‘model.’ I think they mentioned Cory, the one with all the energy.”
“We had been talking about Cory over lunch the other day. I think they think he’s cute.”
“He is,” Dr. Miller said. “I gave them the go-ahead. And, hey: maybe when they incorporate, we can be on the Board of Directors. Hmm? That’s how these things happen, you know.”
I wished him a good weekend and assembled my materials for my last lecture of the week. Even though it was late on a Friday, I knew my kids would be there. As superficial as some of them were, as flighty as others, and as injury-prone as still others, they were dedicated, to me at least. They enjoyed having me and I enjoyed teaching them and up to and including that Friday, every one of my students had perfect attendance in my classes.
I told Tracey that Dr. Miller had mentioned hers and Carolyn’s plan to work together on something out of the ordinary, and although he hadn’t said what, exactly, I was willing to be surprised. I winked at Cory and asked if he knew what he was getting himself into. Tracey smiled and Cory nodded his head, and kept nodding and kept nodding.
On Monday morning Carolyn was not in class.
In the afternoon, I asked Tracey, “Did you work through the weekend? Is your partner exhausted?” Then I noticed that Cory was absent. “And what did you do to Cory?” I was just teasing. “They didn’t run off together, did they?”
Tracey just smiled.
They never returned.
“Seriously,” I asked Tracey on Friday, a week after I’d last seen either Carolyn or Cory. “Where are they? I’ve called their rooms. Their roommates haven’t seen them. Do you know anything about it? When was the last time you saw either of them?”
“A while ago,” Tracey said.
Dr. Miller informed me that Carolyn had dropped out of school. “Just like that,” he observed.
I was informed by interdepartmental memorandum that Cory’s parents had reported him missing and were asking anyone with information to please come forward.
Weeks passed. I heard nothing about either student again.
I asked Tracey if she and Carolyn had come up with the same idea that Dr. Miller had: to offer to make people over so that their auras would be visible.
“I had a different idea,” Tracey said. “It didn’t work out. I guess I’ll be doing a regular term paper now, on my own,” she said. And I supposed she’d write about makeup, but she didn’t quite. She actually wrote an impressive piece about occult tribal body markings, which earned her an A-minus and proved to me that whatever time she had spent with Carolyn had wakened something immaterial, if not strictly spiritual, in Tracey.
Otherwise, though, I had to let the whole matter of my missing students go. I’m not a detective.
When Fall turned to late Fall, there came a rainy Friday. During my prep after lunch, Carolyn came to my office. She looked like hell.
“You can’t tell anyone you saw me,” she said. “I had to leave because of what we did. We killed Cory. We stole his aura. We tricked his aura away from him and we kept it. We never saw Cory again and I’m sure we killed him.”
“Carolyn,” I said. “You didn’t kill Cory. Something happened to him but I’m sure it wasn’t your doing.”
“Carolyn, go home. Get some rest, get some help. This semester’s a wash, but if you pull yourself together you can start over in the Spring. I won’t be here, though. I’m leaving for a private high school in the city. I’ll leave my number with the office. Call me to let me know that everything’s better.”
“Everything will never be better,” Carolyn said.
“Carolyn,” I asked, “if you tricked Cory’s aura away from him, where is it now?”
“Tracey has it,” Carolyn said, as if it were a matter of fact.
“And where would Tracey keep an aura, Carolyn? Or do you think she just threw it away? Maybe she keeps it in her car and flies it like a kite on windy days...? Come on.”
Class that afternoon was difficult. The rest of the semester was difficult. But we got through it, my students and I, and on the last day, my freshmen gave me a sterling silver picture frame with a group photo they’d had someone take of them before or after class one day. Carolyn was not in the picture.
My sophomores gave me a windbreaker. A very nice windbreaker. They told me that Tracey was responsible for it. I put it on as soon as I unwrapped it. My sophomores looked pleased but Tracey seemed particularly satisfied. “You did good,” I told her. “You have excellent taste.” So what if she wrote about the cosmetics of witches? Magazines might buy that.
We said our good-byes and I wished them all well. They thanked me for everything. Then they left me to gather my things and pack up my office and depart campus wearing my new windbreaker with the flat blue and reflective—almost glowing—white stripes, the kind a real athletic guy would wear.
“Off Color” appeared in The Binnacle, Spring 2008.