“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” by Maureen McHugh is a science fiction story about a woman who delves into the mystery of why and how her twin sister, a physicist, has been brain damaged in a lab accident in which two of her colleagues died.
I wear yellow when I go to see my sister. There’s not a lot of yellow at the rehab facility; it’s all calm blues and neutrals. I like yellow—it looks good on me—but I wear it because Wanda is smart and she’s figured it out. She knows it’s me now when she sees the yellow.
The doctors say that Wanda has global perceptual agnosia. Her eyes, her ears, her fingers all work. She sees, in the sense that light enters her eyes. She sees colors, edges, shapes. She can see the color of my eyes and my yellow blouse. She can see edges—which is important. The doctor says to me that knowing where the edge of something is, that’s like a big deal. If you’re looking down the road you know there’s a road and a car and there is an edge between them. That’s how you know the car is not part of the road.
Wanda gets all that stuff, but her brain is injured. She can see but she can’t put all that together to have it make sense; it’s all parts and pieces. She can see the yellow and the edge but she can’t put the edge and the yellow together. I try to imagine it, like a kaleidoscope or something, but a better way to think of it is probably that it’s all noise.
Today she’s sitting on her single bed in her room, cross-legged, her narrow knees like knobs in her soft gray cotton sweats. She croons when she sees me, “Junie June June.”
She is tiny, my sister. Before the accident she was always a little round. Chipmunk cheeks and Bambi eyes and soft breasts. Now, food is all mixed up for her. Like, she has all the pieces, the crispness or smoothness, the heat or cold. But she can’t put it all together. For her, a sandwich is a nightmare of crisp lettuce and melted cheese and soft bread, green and spongy and the smell of something toasted.
She’s touching things a lot lately. I let her touch me. She’s relearning all those colors and edges and sounds and textures the way an infant does. She’s putting that together. She keeps getting better. She’s started dropping things. I know it’s on purpose. She drops and then she looks. They don’t know how much better she’s going to get but I do. Wanda will get well.
“Hey, skinny,” I say. She can’t understand me yet but I think she can tell tone so I talk to her the way we used to talk. She giggles like she understands me. Her hands roam across my yellow top. She reaches for my hands, my bright yellow fingernails. She misses but I put my hand in hers and she strokes the smooth painted surfaces.
“It’s a good day,” she says. “Good, good. It’s warm and yellow, maybe it’s finally spring or summer? I think it’s spring but I can’t tell time really. It’s day, I know that, I know I know. Are you happy, June?”
“I’m happy,” I say. “I’m happy you’re happy.” It’s January.
Wanda is all there inside. She remembers, she knows, she can speak.
Yellow is me, and she talks to me. But she doesn’t know what I’m saying back. She can’t see my expression. I mean she can see it, but without being able to put the color brown with my eye shape with the edge between eye and skin, without being able to judge how near and how far everything is. She can’t tell if I’m smiling, if my eyes are crinkled.
After the injury, the first real sign she was fighting her way back was when she started saying, “I, I, I.” She would rock on her bed, her eyes rolling, her head tilted back, and say, “I, I, I, I, I.”
Dr. Phillips thinks she was assembling her sense of self as separate from the world. “She has no boundaries,” he said. “She doesn’t know where she ends and the world begins. She doesn’t know if she’s cold or the can of soda is cold.”
She was involved in an accident at the lab. Two other people are dead. Some people think it’s my sister’s fault.
My mother calls. “June?” she says on the phone, as if someone else might answer.
“Hi Mom,” I say.
“How’s Wanda? Did you go yesterday?”
This is what we talk about these days. I am home after a long day of wrangling with the county about social services for one of my clients. He’s seventy-eight and has lost part of his foot to diabetes. He’s old and sick, he drinks and has multiple health problems. He needs to be placed in a facility that takes Medicare, where someone can give him his meds and make sure that he eats. He just wants to stay in his house off Crenshaw with its sagging roof and piles of junk mail on the kitchen table because he wants to keep drinking. When he’s in a good mood, I’m like a daughter to him. When he’s not, like today, he calls me a stone-cold fucking bitch who will throw him out of his house. He says he’ll end up in some horror show of a place, three beds to a room and the television always on. It’s not like he’s wrong.
“What will happen to my things?” he asks me. He means, What will happen to me?
I have a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a fourplex in West Hollywood. It’s run down and my only air conditioning is a window air conditioner in the bedroom and a fan in the living room. The kitchen is microscopic. I have a calico cat named Mrs. Bean who jumps on my kitchen counters no matter what I do. She watches me from the chair in the living room, her eyes half-lidded. The place needs to be picked up, there’s a stack of magazines next to the chair, and I haven’t folded my laundry so it’s on the couch, but it’s home and I feel safe here. I like my music and my street-scenes art.
“A reporter called today,” my mother says.
“From where?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I just hang up.”
I got phone calls right after the accident. People knocked on my door. Good Morning America rang me.
People called me up and told me my sister was a murderer. People called me up and told me God had told them that my sister was an angel. People I went to high school with who had never messaged me messaged me on Facebook.
For four weeks or so it was utter hell. I thought I was going to get fired but my boss decided he was pissed at them instead of me, and for a while we had a policeman at the clinic who told people who wanted to talk to me that they had to leave. Then the next thing happened on the news, some poor fourteen-year-old girl reappeared after having been missing for three months and they arrested the guy who kidnapped her, and reporters stopped calling, no doubt calling his parents and siblings.
“She knew me,” I tell my mother, turning back to the conversation. “She called me Junie.”
“She’s getting better,” my mom says. She says this every time.
“She’s tough,” I say.
She is getting better, fighting her way to more and more coherence, but the doctor said it’s hard to know how to treat her. They don’t understand what happened to her. Don’t understand how she could have damage across so much of her brain. She doesn’t have lesions, or signs of a stroke. The injury is at the cellular level. Invisible. Like she had been poisoned or irradiated. But she wasn’t.
My sister is a physicist. We are fraternal twins.
We’re close. We barely spoke for a couple of years after our family moved to Towson—we were born in East Baltimore but our dad worked for his uncle who had a dry-cleaning shop. Uncle Whit took Dad on as a partner. Dad expanded the business to eleven dry-cleaning shops and then sold them when Whit died, which is why we grew up in Towson, which is super middle-class, instead of in Baltimore.
We moved in sixth grade and by the time we were in eighth grade I had a boyfriend. I gave him authenticity, I think. He was big into Drake and I was singing “Hard White” by Nicki Minaj. We were always working on our rhymes and freestyling. Since I was from the East Side people thought I was some sort of representative of ghetto life, never mind that our mom never let us even breathe much less hang with anyone she didn’t approve of. I knew I wasn’t really any kind of badass but I told myself I knew things these suburban kids didn’t. That was a lie.
Wanda was always on about Harry Potter and Naruto. And her taste in music—can you say Foo Fighters? I was embarrassed for her. I was just a kid.
Middle school is embarrassing for everybody, am I right?
We didn’t fight, we just didn’t have a lot in common for a while. In junior year, I was on the homecoming court, wearing a short, sparkly green dress. Wanda was nerdy and great at math. She marched through high school determined to get into a good college and ended up across the country at UCLA studying physics.
When we were in college we’d talk all the time. Wanda got obsessed with consciousness. “What is it?” she asked me. I could like picture her sitting on her bed in Los Angeles with her laptop and her books and her stuffed purple dragon, Rintarou Okabe. I lived at home, in our old bedroom.
“Is the cat conscious?” she asked. We had a big old gray tiger-striped cat named Tiger.
“Of course,” I said. “Except when he’s asleep. Then he’s unconscious, right?”
“Cause I’m reading this book and it says you need some things for consciousness. You need a simulation of reality.”
“What’s wrong with reality?”
She made this noise, like I was missing the point. I just laughed because a lot of conversations with Wanda were about figuring out what the point was.
“Nothing’s wrong with it. We just know from all sorts of experiments that our brain makes up a lot of stuff. Like it fills in your blind spot and edits out your nose. If you think about it, you can see your nose but you don’t see it most of the time even though it’s right there. All the time, June!”
I cross my eyes a little trying to look at my nose and there’s the tip of it, blurry and kind of doubled when I look for it. If you’d have asked me, I’d have said I couldn’t see my nose without a mirror. Not like I can see it very well, anyway.
“Cause our reality is assembled in our brains,” Wanda explained. “Not our eyes. And like sound moves slower than light and if someone is singing on stage we should be able to see her mouth moving before we hear her but we don’t cause our brain just keeps taking all the stuff that comes in and adding it to our picture of the world and if stuff is a little out of sync, it like buffers it and makes us experience it as happening all at once.”
“Okay,” I said. It was kind of interesting but really out there. Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about not paying any attention to my nose and then I thought about how my tongue doesn’t really fit in my mouth and always rubs up against my bottom teeth. One of those things that once you start thinking about it, you can’t stop until you realize you’ve forgotten about it but then you’re thinking about it. I wished my tongue were smaller in my reality. Sometimes conversations with Wanda are like this. It can be exhausting.
“And we need a sense of self, like an ‘I,’” Wanda added.
“To put it together?”
“No, sorry, that’s one of the three things that we need for consciousness. We need to know where we end and the rest of the world begins. Like, does an amoeba know where it ends and the world begins?”
“I don’t think an amoeba is conscious,” I said.
“Nah, probably not. But an elephant is. You know, if you put a spot of blue paint on an elephant’s forehead, and then you show the elephant itself in a mirror, the elephant will touch its forehead with its trunk? Cause it figures out that the image isn’t another elephant, it’s a reflection. Elephants know ‘I’ and ‘you.’ Isn’t that cool?”
It means a lot, thinking about it now. Right after the accident, I don’t think Wanda knew where she ended and the rest of the world began. She had her eyes squeezed shut all the time and she screamed and cried, which was terrifying. They kept telling me she wasn’t in pain but I knew better.
(Back then, it was just a conversation.)
“So I’ve got a . . . a hologram of reality in my head and an I.”
“Not a hologram.”
“Metaphor,” I said.
“Not a good one,” she said, but she didn’t bother to explain why, she just plowed on. “You need a simulation and a sense of self.”
I’d had enough so I asked, “How’s Travis?” She’d gone out a couple of times with this guy.
I could hear her shrug. “Eh,” she said. I knew Travis was on his way out.
I think about that conversation all the time now. I wear yellow so I affect Wanda’s brain that way every time I see her. Yellow is a way for her to start to make a simulation of the world. To say, “June is here.”
Two and a half months after the accident. the police call and say they want to do a follow-up with me and they’ll bring me my sister’s things. Which is great; I don’t want to have to go pick them up at a police station.
The cop is Detective Leo Garcia Mendoza and I like that he has the double name thing going and maybe respects his mom. He’s more than six feet tall, in his late thirties, and wears a suit when he comes to talk to me.
We go through the pleasantries. We’re crammed into my little office, which has just enough space for a desk and a guest chair and a bunch of beige metal filing cabinets with models of glucose monitors stacked on them. When Detective Garcia Mendoza sits in my guest chair, his knees are probably touching my desk.
A copy paper box is sitting on my desk. In it is my sister’s jacket and her phone, and a Happy Meal toy from her desk.
“We just want you to know that at this time we have no intention of filing any kind of charges against your sister,” he says. “Has your sister ever said anything about what happened?”
“I don’t think she remembers,” I say. It’s true. Like people don’t remember a car accident.
“Was she close to Kyle Choi? Friendly with Dr. Bennett?”
“She never complained about them or anything,” I say. Which strictly speaking is not true. She liked Kyle but he drove her nuts. “She said Kyle said one time that they should microdose LSD and see if it helped productivity because some Silicon Valley start-up is doing it. But Dr. Bennett wouldn’t have allowed that.”
“Is there any chance that LSD caused your sister’s psychosis?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Wanda is not psychotic. She is perfectly lucid. She has a brain injury that makes it impossible for her to integrate her sensory experiences. A drug screen showed no evidence of anything but legally prescribed Adderall in her system.”
I work with kids a lot and occasionally I have to do the mom voice. It works now on Detective Garcia Mendoza. He scrunches his shoulders a little. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he says.
I don’t let him off the hook by smiling. I trust him about as far as I can throw all six foot plus of him.
“The evidence suggests that Dr. Bennett tried to restrain Mr. Choi and Mr. Choi became violent, maybe panicked. We have had a couple of eyewitnesses who saw someone we believe was Mr. Choi in the hours after the accident. He was wandering the streets and was clearly agitated.”
“So he cracked Bennett’s skull open?” I ask.
“His prints are on the bottom of the chair that was used to murder Dr. Bennett,” the cop says, like it doesn’t matter. “We keep finding references to someone named Claude,” he says.
“Animal Control took him. I think he ended up at the Long Beach Aquarium.”
This throws Detective Garcia Mendoza.
“Claude,” I explain, “is an octopus. A three-year-old North Pacific giant octopus. He lived in one of the tanks in the lab. Kyle Choi took care of him. He was one of six octopuses who were part of an experiment. Woods Hole was directing the grant and they didn’t want to ship a bunch of octopuses across the country. Monterey Bay Aquarium took some, I think. The Birch at Scripps down in San Diego might have taken one.”
“What kind of experiment?” the officer asks.
They were doing experiments on octopus perception. They’d put four boxes in an octopus tank, three of them black and one of them white. The white one had food in it. They’d put them in the same place three times, and time how long it took the octopus to get the treat. The fourth time they’d move the white box to a place where there was usually a black box and put the black box where the treat usually was. Then they’d see how long it took for the octopuses to figure it out. The idea was to test if octopuses prioritized location or color, what was more important to them.
Dr. Bennett was doing some other experiments on just Claude, trying to see if he could alter Claude’s brain to perceive things we don’t perceive. Claude had some sort of reality goggles he wore over his eyes but he hated them. Sounds like getting an octopus to wear something it doesn’t like makes dressing a toddler look fun.
Claude didn’t like his keeper, Kyle. It was Kyle’s job to put on Claude’s goggles.
Octopuses are not social; they’re kind of psychopaths, according to Wanda. Like psychopaths, they can be sentimental, and Wanda used to feed Claude on the sly so he would like her. Her work didn’t require her to interact with the octopus but she felt bad for him, and he watched her because there wasn’t much for him to do.
Wanda was pretty sure that all the shit with the goggles had made him crazy, even by octopus standards. He had a burrow but he stuffed it with everything in his tank to fill it up. He destroyed most of the things they put in the tank. Wanda didn’t like the experimentation; it wasn’t ethical. After the accident, I got hounded by PETA.
I didn’t understand what the goggles were supposed to do. Wanda tried to enlighten me, but I couldn’t follow what she was talking about.
“I could explain if you could follow the math,” she’d say, exasperated. Numbers talk to Wanda. They’re like her first language. They’re not my first language. Maybe my third. Or fourth. My twin is my first language.
“Could the deaths have involved the octopus?” the cop asks.
I couldn’t help it—the look I gave him. It was a moronic question. Claude is big for an octopus, almost four feet long, I think, but he weighs about as much as a cocker spaniel and I’m not sure how an octopus was supposed to cause the kind of brain injury Wanda has. I met Claude and he eyed me and then squirted water at me. Wanda dropped a piece of sashimi in the tank. Salmon, I think. He wasn’t wearing the goggles.
He was very cool in theory but not so much in practice.
They’d tried to interest him in a female octopus and he’d killed her. He would probably have happily killed Kyle and Dr. Bennett but there was the little fact that he lived in a saltwater tank and had no bones.
“He might have had motive but not method or opportunity,” I say dryly.
Detective Garcia Mendoza chuckles. It’s awkward. I’m secretly pleased.
Claude is actually four, not three. It’s been almost a year since Wanda was found unconscious in the lab, Dr. Bennett had his head beaten in by a chair, and Kyle disappeared and his remains were found two weeks later in the nice-looking stretch of the Los Angeles River.
You don’t know people, not really. But Kyle didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would violently murder someone and then kill himself, at least not from the way Wanda talked about him. Kyle was a C++ programmer who wore thick black hipster glasses. He made sourdough bread on the weekends and posted pictures of it to his Instagram account. He had ended up taking care of Claude because his previous project had been making a database for a study of octopuses. Octopi. Whatever. He confessed to Wanda about how hard it was to be a gay Asian guy. He said white dudes wanted him to call them “Daddy” a lot.
I call the Long Beach Aquarium and I ask if I can see Claude. They tell me I have to make a formal request and how to do that. I have to email someone in visitor liaison or community outreach or something so I do. I don’t know why I want to see Claude except that I think Wanda would want me to. Wanda had a bit of wounded bird rescuer in her. I fire off the email.
I work until six and then drive home where I eat a microwave low-calorie dinner and a bunch of chocolate chip cookies. I don’t claim to be consistent, and at least my dinner was a lot less fattening than the cookies. It’s a balance, right?
I am behind on stuff. Because, you know, I’m a social worker. It’s part of the job. I try to work on some files but end up bingeing on Netflix.
There’s an email in my inbox. Somebody from UCLA, which is where Wanda did her undergrad.
My name is Dale Hoffsted. I study perception and I’ve worked with Oz Bennett. I wondered if I could talk to you about your sister and what the lab was doing?
I’m working sixty hours a week. One of the social workers, Fran Horowitz, quit three weeks ago and we’re already crazy busy. Social work is the kind of job you can never actually succeed at, only fail less. I fire off an email saying that I would like to talk to him but between my job and visiting my sister, I don’t have any time on the weekdays.
Maybe he knows Wanda?
I don’t really think about it, but when I come back to my desk later, there’s another email.
Saturday or Sunday would be fine. I’ve got an experiment running that gets me in the lab on weekends.
I mean to answer him but I get a call from the rehab facility that Wanda is having a bad day.
A bad day. Like that begins to cover it.
I tell my boss I’ve got to go and that I’ll work Saturday to catch up.
At the rehab, I can hear her long before I see her. The moment the elevator door opens, I hear her. Wanda is screaming. I don’t know why but I run because the sound—pure, high terror—just shuts down every thought. I run past the old people. Rehab is a nice word for a nursing home and they sit in the hallway watching me go past or, worse, oblivious, vacant as a tomb.
In Wanda’s room are two orderlies, Latino guys, trying to restrain her. Wanda is only a little more than one hundred pounds, but she is wild. Her arms are streaked with blood from where she’s been scratching at them. They try to keep her nails short but when this happens, it doesn’t matter, I guess.
“Wanda!” I say, “Wanda! Wanda!”
She can’t hear me.
Another person in scrubs appears at the door—a nurse, a doctor, I don’t know. “We have to restrain her!” the woman says.
“No!” I say. “You can’t!”
“She was trying to scratch her eyes!” one of the orderlies says to me. It’s Hector, who likes Wanda, sings to her in Spanish. Sometimes she knows him and calls him Music Man.
“What triggered her?” I ask.
The other Latino guy shakes his head, either that he doesn’t know or that it’s too late now. Leon. Who once was lifting a woman out of her wheelchair and I heard him say, “Why do I always get the heavy ones?” and I hate him, I hate that I leave my sister with people like him.
We are shouting over Wanda screaming. A long shrill sound like a child, a little girl.
I try to touch her, to get her to see the yellow, that I’m here. “June’s here!” I say. “Junie’s here! Wanda!”
She catches me in the cheek with her elbow.
They push her down on the bed and grab her arms and restrain her and she fights. Oh God does my sister fight. Her eyes are squeezed shut and she twists and turns and her pink mouth is open. They use wrist and ankle restraints and a belt across her middle. The rehab doesn’t like to use restraints. The administrator is committed—the staff gets training based on a program in Wisconsin. It’s one of the reasons I got her in this place.
Sedatives increase Wanda’s sensory integration problems.
There’s nothing to do but keep her from clawing her eyes out.
I want to scream, “She’s a PhD! In physics! This is not Wanda!” But it is. Oh God, it is. It is.
She doesn’t quiet until she falls asleep a little after nine p.m. Some of the patients sundown and I can hear a woman wailing.
I’m so tired. My mom and dad are bankrupting themselves to keep Wanda in this place. Sixty-two thousand dollars a year. I try to help but a social worker doesn’t make a lot of money. What good is it to help other people if I can’t help Wanda? Honestly, sometimes I wonder how much I am helping anyone.
Mostly I just try not to think about it. One day at a time. Hopefully Wanda will get to the point where I can take her home. I’ll get twin beds and it will be like being girls in Baltimore again.
It’s never going to be like it was.
The aquarium sends me back an email telling me that I can visit Claude the octopus. I ask if I have to make an appointment and their response says that no, I don’t, my name will be on a visitor list.
Dale Hoffsted emails me and says he’s heading for a conference in Copenhagen next weekend, can I meet him this weekend?
I have one goddamn day to myself, Sunday. I grocery shop. I drop off my laundry at the laundromat where the Korean women wash and fold my clothes. They don’t like me. But they always do a great job on my clothes. Maybe they spit on my filthy black underwear and say racist things in Korean. I just don’t care.
I spend Saturday working from home. That evening, Wanda is lethargic. I check to make sure they didn’t sedate her but I think she’s just exhausted. I go to bed early but end up watching Netflix until after midnight.
On Sunday morning I go to the aquarium. It’s lovely, full of kids. There’s a pool where you can reach in and stroke the sandpaper skin of a ray. I watch the baby bamboo sharks. Wanda wouldn’t be able to handle this, not yet.
I ask at information if there is someone I can talk to about seeing Claude. A woman in a bright blue polo shirt and a name tag that says Ashley comes out to meet me. She has a slight Spanish accent. She is young and her black hair shines in the sun.
“Can I help you?”
“My name is June Katherine Harris,” I say. “My sister worked for a scientific lab and they donated a North Pacific giant octopus. His name is Claude. Is there any way I could see him? I’m on the visitor list.”
She is wary now. “Why do you want to see Claude?”
“Something went wrong at the lab; my sister was hurt really badly and she told me a lot about Claude. I want to tell her how he’s doing.” I hold up a little takeout container. “I brought him some salmon sashimi.” Something occurs to me, “Wait, he’s not dead, is he? I know he’s old . . .”
“He’s not dead,” she says.
“I know he’s a crazy asshole of an octopus,” I say.
She smiles at that. “Let me go check,” she says.
The sharks glide silently through the shark lagoon, zebras and epaulette sharks passing each other like ghosts, their flat eyes expressionless. Kids love sharks. Well, I guess everyone loves sharks or Shark Week wouldn’t be such a big deal.
Do sharks have thoughts? Do they have consciousness?
A mockingbird will go to battle with his own reflection in a car mirror. He doesn’t know that the reflection is him. He doesn’t have an “I.” He doesn’t know “I am reflected in the mirror.” He just thinks, “Rival male! Rival male! Rival male!” A dog or a cat can figure out that the image in the mirror is fake.
Claude knows who he is. The sharks don’t. What are the thoughts of sharks?
Sharks have a sensor in their nose that detects the electrical impulses of muscle movements in fish. Not the movements, the electrical impulses. I know what sound is like, and sight, and touch—but what is a shark’s world? What is it like to sense electrical impulses as information? As something other than a shock? To know that a fish is swimming because you can feel the impulses traveling through the long muscles of its body and the strong movement of its tail?
I close my eyes and try to imagine the perceptive world of a shark.
Swimming, the blue, the scent of blood and fish and kelp in the water. I try to imagine a world in which I can see—no, not see—feel and create a model of the world where I can tell things are moving thirty feet away by the senses on my sides. Feel a fish swimming, terrified by me.
I feel my sides, try to think of the air as an ocean, and try to feel it. I feel a breeze on my arms but I can’t feel the little Latina girl in the pink unicorn T-shirt and Crocs, staring at the sharks. Sometimes I’ve felt like I could ‘feel’ the physical presence of someone standing next to me but what does the shark sense when it senses the electrical movements of the muscles of the terrified fish? What would I feel if I could sense the electrical impulses of that little girl reaching into the water?
I get a little dizzy and sit on the edge of the lagoon. Is this what things are like for Wanda?
The young woman in the blue polo shirt comes back. “I can take you to see the octopus,” she says.
The areas where there are no exhibits aren’t painted blue and green. They’re not pretty, they’re utilitarian. There’s a smell, like fish water. I don’t know how else to describe it. Like a goldfish tank that might need to be cleaned, only saltier. But it’s not dirty and it’s nicer than the agency where I work, if you want to know the truth.
Claude lives in a tank, a pretty big one. He’s brown on top and white underneath and his skin is wrinkled like crepe, like an old man’s. He has his eyes hidden in the coils of his arms.
“What did they do to him?” Ashley asks.
“They made these goggles that would help him perceive more, I think,” I say. Like the shark, maybe? Seeing the electrical impulses of the muscles of prey? What senses did they try to give Claude?
“What did they want him to do? Spy like those Russian dolphins? Was it like a government thing?”
“They wanted to see if he could perceive reality,” I say. “Can I give him the salmon?”
“Is there rice?” she asks. “I don’t think he’s supposed to have rice.”
“No, it’s sashimi,” I say.
“Hey, Claude,” I say, “Wanda says hi.” Not that she does, of course. Wanda doesn’t know I’m here. She can’t understand when I talk to her. Claude doesn’t respond; maybe he doesn’t know I’m here, either.
Ashley opens a hatch in the grate across the top of the tank and I drop a piece of salmon in. It drifts slowly down and Claude doesn’t move. I’d think maybe he’s dead, that I arrived just in time to see the last witness other than Wanda gone, but he’s blowing water through his gills. It stirs the sand on the bottom of the tank.
“Do you want a piece?” I ask.
“I don’t like fish,” Ashley says. She holds her hands up. “I know! I know! I work with them all day but I just don’t like to eat them!”
I laugh with her and it feels good.
I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know why I felt compelled to see Claude.
In Wanda’s phone the last photo is of her, holding Claude’s goggles. She’s weirdly off-center, tilted and too high, like whoever was holding the camera was not really framing it right. Behind her and even more off-center is the tank where Claude lives, and he’s starfished against the glass, all tentacles and suckers. Wanda is smiling this funny smirk she does, like she’s causing trouble. I don’t know what Claude is doing.
She wouldn’t put on the goggles. I swear. Wanda isn’t stupid.
I don’t think I should drop any more salmon in if he’s not going to eat it. I like salmon sashimi, even if I’m not hungry right now. I perceive it as buttery and tasty. Maybe Claude perceives it as, I don’t know, changing states of atoms and molecules and energy.
Claude moves. It’s so fast I almost miss it, but the salmon is gone.
I drop another piece and he turns his head—I know it’s his whole body and he doesn’t have a head really, but his eyes are there so it feels like a head. He looks around and he sees me.
“Hi Claude,” I whisper.
He uncoils and moves, picking up the salmon and flowing closer to the wall of the tank.
“What did you see when you wore the goggles?” I ask him. I imagine veils of energy in a darkness although that’s really not true. It’s the best I can do.
He flattens up against the glass and I can see his suckers flexing; I catch a glimpse of his beak. It’s scary and a little vicious looking.
I drop another piece of salmon and he flows to catch it.
He reaches up with one long tentacle and I can see how he could be four feet long. He did this with Wanda. “He’s tasting me,” she said.
I hold my hand over the opening of the tank and he curls a tentacle around my wrist. He’s so muscular, so strong, but cold. I feel the tentacles but they don’t suck on my arm.
Then he snatches his tentacles back.
Did he think I was Wanda? The salmon, my dark skin? Do I taste wrong?
I watch Claude eat the last piece of salmon.
After the aquarium I head to UCLA. Finding anything at UCLA is like navigating a foreign country with a very poor map. Franz Hall is ’60s looking, like the UN building only shorter and much less interesting. The office isn’t busy but it isn’t empty, either.
I find Dale Hoffsted’s office. His door is open.
I straightened my hair. I look casual but professional.
He’s a white guy, pale brown hair, tall. He stands up when I come to his door. “Ms. Harris?” he says. His office is bigger than mine. It has carpet and a brown corduroy couch, bookcases, and some kind of abstract art on the wall.
“I was sorry to hear about your sister,” he says. “How is she doing?”
“Thank you,” I say. I do not say that some days she seems to be getting better and some days she tries to claw her own eyes out. “I meant to read some of your papers before we met, but work has been busy.” I looked up his papers and they’re all about perception. I had planned to see what I could download but Wanda had that terrible Thursday.
“She worked with Oz Bennett,” he says, and there is something in his voice. Wanda was worried that what they were doing was fringe science. She was afraid that a black woman who worked on fringe science was not going to get work when this grant ended. Wanda always went for the hard stuff, the hard math. The hard problem. But it’s not easy to find work in the sciences.
“Was he a scam?” I ask.
Dr. Hoffsted startles. “No,” he says, “no, not really. He did some crazy stuff but he wasn’t a crank.”
“Wanda worried that he was not reputable.”
Hoffsted shook his head. “His work on consciousness was groundbreaking and innovative. I knew him, professionally. He was generous, introduced me to someone at the NSF who could help me navigate the grant process.”
“The octopus was fitted with some kind of reality glasses, for experiments,” I say.
That gets me an eyebrow raise.
“Dale?” A pudgy Indian-looking guy in a Hawaiian shirt leans in the doorway. He glances at me.
“I’ve got the results on those fMRIs,” the Indian guy says.
“I’ve got an appointment. Can we go over the data tomorrow?”
“Sure, just wanted to tell you I’ve got them.”
Hoffsted smiles and nods. When the Indian guy walks away, Hoffsted says, “You want to get some coffee?”
We walk across campus. “People think scientists are these rational, logical people,” he says. “But we’re all actually dorky, weird people.”
“Like my sister,” I say.
“I, no, I mean, not everybody, some of us are—”
“It’s okay. My sister is exactly that. Brilliant and weird.” I don’t know why I let him off the hook but he is visibly relieved. There’s a nice breeze off the Pacific and the sun is bright. The campus is full of intense young people on their way to do intense young people things.
“Have you heard of Linus Pauling?” he asks. When I shake my head he goes on. “Linus Pauling was a chemist, a Nobel Prize winner. In fact, he’s the only man to have been the single winner of two Nobel Prizes. He was also a humanitarian. Brilliant guy. He became convinced that large doses of vitamin C would cure the common cold and maybe even cancer. That’s why we all drink orange juice when we’ve got a cold.”
“Okay?” I say.
“Total crap,” Hoffsted says. “Megadosing on vitamins can be dangerous but mostly it just means your pee is really expensive since it’s voiding all those pricey vitamins you take. Isaac Newton inserted a needle behind his eyeball and reported on the results and thought that light would help him understand God.”
“Was Bennett a brilliant nut job?” Did the asshole create something crazy that ended up killing him and Kyle Choi, and breaking my sister?
“Maybe,” he says. “I don’t know.”
We get coffee at a kiosk and find a bench.
“Bennett,” he says, “got obsessed with the nature of reality.”
I sip my coffee. It’s decent coffee. I don’t care about the nature of reality.
“Why did you call me?” I ask. “Did you know Wanda?”
“No,” he says.
“She did her undergrad here,” I say.
“I didn’t know that,” he says. “She was a postdoc, right?”
Was a postdoc. I want to say she is a PhD in Physics with a degree from Wash U. But I just nod. Postdoc is a position. She doesn’t work anymore.
“I study perception,” he says. “One of the things I’ve studied is how we perceive reality. I thought,” Dale Hoffsted says, holding up his paper coffee cup, “that what I perceived was a pretty good representation of reality. That in reality, I am accurately perceiving the shape and texture of this cup.”
It’s just a blue and white striped cup with the emblem of the coffee shop on it. It has a white plastic cover.
A kid skateboards by, weaving among the other students.
“We don’t perceive everything. We can’t see X-rays or radio waves, but what we can perceive—I thought that was reality.”
“You’re going to tell me it’s not.”
“Yeah, I am. Our brains have a kind of interface. Like your phone.” He pulls out his iPhone. He does that thing that a lot of teachers do: He speaks in paragraphs. “These apps,” he says. “What we perceive is not the actual app. The actual app is a computer code running electrons in a pattern in a very sophisticated machine. We don’t see the chips and wires, we don’t see that code or even the action of it. What we see is a red, mostly square thing with an arrow in it. The interface is not the app.”
“Okay,” I say. “That’s great. But we’re not digital. You’re holding that cup of coffee. You drink it and it goes down your throat and is absorbed into your body. It’s real.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” he says. “You ask good questions.”
He’s not like Wanda. Talking to Wanda tended to rearrange my reality, but Wanda was always there with me. I don’t know this guy and apparently he wanted to meet me to lecture me.
“Hi Dr. Hoffsted!” a girl in a flowered sundress sings out. She waves. I hate PhDs who like to be called Doctor. I got that from Wanda. I used to call her Dr. Harris to wind her up.
Hoffsted waves back, still talking. “We can create digital organisms now, in a computer simulation. They’re like single-celled animals but very sophisticated. They can predict things that are true about real organisms.”
“Which is a sign that they’re are a good model for real organisms?” I ask.
“Exactly!” he says, like I’m a bright student. “It’s pretty compelling evidence. We created organisms and simulated a thousand generations. Half of them evolved to perceive the ‘reality’ of the simulation and half of them, like us, evolved just for fitness to reproduce. I thought that there would be some difference—I thought perceiving reality would improve fitness to reproduce.”
He’s excitedly gesturing as he talks and I’m a little worried for his coffee and his phone.
“It didn’t,” I say. I can keep up.
“No,” he says. “One hundred percent of the organisms that were evolved to perceive reality died. Every time.”
I feel for a moment like he just said Wanda is going to die and I shake my head.
“We didn’t do this just once,” he explains, working to convince me. “We did it more than twenty times, a thousand generations, tweaked things. The perception of reality is not beneficial to survival.”
He shakes his head. “Let me give you an example of reality that we can’t perceive. How much information can a sphere”—he holds out his hands to show the size of a volleyball and I want to take his cup away from him—“can a sphere hold?”
“Doesn’t it depend on things like what kind of chip it has or something?”
“We’re talking about something different,” he says. “It’s a question about quantum reality and at the quantum level, everything is information.”
“I’m not . . . what are you even saying?”
“Stephen Hawking did the math,” he says like that clinches it. Yeah, yeah, impress the dumb black woman by throwing out the name Stephen Hawking. I really don’t like this guy.
“If I’m thinking about how much is in something, I’m thinking about volume, right? I’m thinking about how much I can pour into this cup. If I make the cup shallow, like a saucer or a plate, even though it might have the same surface area as this cup, it can’t hold as much coffee.”
I just nod and picture coffee flowing off a saucer except for the little bit that pools in the indent. My coffee is pale, with cream and sugar in it.
“It turns out that the maximum amount of information, at the quantum level, is determined by surface area, not volume.”
I try to wrap my head around that. “Like a big flat plate would hold more coffee than a cup?” I ask. This is a little like talking to Wanda. Only Wanda makes sense. This . . . doesn’t make sense.
“Yes. Only we’re talking the quantum level not the Newtonian level. But it’s reality. We can’t perceive a quantum reality. In fact, the best way to pack information into the sphere is to put twelve spheres in it, adding their surface area, and then twelve spheres inside each sphere, and twelve spheres inside those spheres, until we can’t get any smaller.”
“Why twelve?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he admits. “I’m a cognitive guy, not a mathematician. I can’t do the math.”
I bet Wanda could, I think. My sister could probably think rings around you.
“So my perception,” he says, holding up his cup, “at the Newtonian level, that a bigger volume means a bigger cup of coffee, is true. Obviously. Ask anyone who has ever ordered a venti when they wanted a grande. But at the level of reality, it’s false.”
“Why did you ask me to meet you?” I ask.
He looks a little surprised. “I wondered what Bennett was doing,” he says.
“I’m a social worker,” I say flatly. “I can make sure that when you get diabetes you have the tools you need to stay as healthy as you can for as long as you can. I can’t do the math; Wanda could do the math. I only know that whatever Bennett was doing, it broke my sister’s brain. Maybe got a lab tech killed.”
“What’s wrong with your sister?” he asks. The guy really can’t read social cues. Or he doesn’t care.
“Global perceptive agnosia,” I say. “Those goggles. Kyle and Wanda built them—there were a bunch of pairs. I think they tried to see reality and it screwed them up.” I haven’t wanted to admit it to myself but I know it’s true.
He looks a little excited. “Do you know what the goggles did?”
Screw you, asshole.
“I have to go see my thirty-year-old sister in a nursing home full of people with Alzheimer’s,” I say. I leave him sitting on the bench with his coffee. I hope he feels like shit.
At this time of year it gets dark pretty early. My head is packed full and I skipped lunch.
The parking lot feels as if it is halfway to the ocean. I can’t remember exactly how we came so I stop at a map kiosk and look at it. I’m so tired that I’m having trouble figuring out the map versus the campus. The buildings don’t line up with the map, somehow. I don’t want Hoffsted to walk up and talk to me so I don’t want to hang around. I start off in what I think is the direction of the parking lot.
After about fifteen minutes of walking, I realize I have got to be turned around. Maybe I should grab something to eat. Low blood sugar. (And isn’t that ironic for someone who talks about glucose levels all day long?) I take out my phone and map the way to the car, following blindly. Turn left, turn right, keep walking. The interface is not the app.
I walk up and down the rows of the parking lot, crying, looking for my Honda.
I would have said that Wanda wasn’t stupid. She talked about the goggles but she usually talked about how Claude hated them. She probably talked about what they did but honestly, sometimes after a long day, even Wanda was too much.
Wanda used to eat food so spicy it burned my mouth, just because she could. Wanda went hang gliding once. Wanda wanted to go to Mars, even though she said it would probably be more like a family vacation stuck in a minivan than a grand adventure.
I think Kyle took the photo right before she put on the goggles. Of course Wanda put on the glasses. See reality. Wanda would want to.
God damn it, Wanda. How could you do this to us.
I almost cry when I find my car. I’m so relieved.
Sunset Boulevard curves around in weird ways. Heading east it straightens out, flush up against the Hollywood hills. I know Sunset, I drive it pretty often, but nothing looks right. The sun is setting behind me and the light glints off the side mirror of the car stopped at the light in front of me and I can’t see.
Talking to Wanda was sometimes a lot, if you know what I mean, but she was a good guide to the strange places of reality. Hoffsted has left me in no-man’s-land and I’m lost. Lost like Claude. Lost like Wanda.
I pull in to a Wendy’s and I get a cheeseburger and a Coke—I never drink Coke. I sit in the parking lot and I eat like an animal. My stupid body, needing things. Wanda’s stupid injured brain.
I pull back out and listen to the voice of the app telling me where to go.
There is the place where Wanda lives. The glass doors spill white light out onto the sidewalk. The woman at reception nods to me and I take the elevator up to the second floor.
I pass the old people sitting in the hall. I pass Leon the orderly I hate, who nods to me. I look into Wanda’s room and she is sitting cross-legged on the bed, stroking the blue waffle-weave blanket like it’s a pet. She looks up, drawn by the movement?
“June! Junie!” Wanda says and throws her hands up and everything is real again. Wanda is real.
She lets me hug her and pats me and strokes my fingernails. I need a new manicure. I start crying again but I feel okay. Wanda’s not dead. Whatever Hoffsted said about one hundred percent mortality, Wanda is smart. She is getting better. The bad days are getting fewer.
“I saw Claude,” I say. “He’s doing good. I told him you said hello.”
Wanda runs her pale palms over my shirt. “It’s a good day,” she said. “I think we had applesauce today. I think I liked it. Yellow. I love your yellow. I love you, Junie.”
“I love you too,” I say.
I will never know reality. Wanda is proof. If she can’t handle it, no one can, But I have traveled through the gathering dark and come to her. It doesn’t matter that I will never know the vibration of quantum energies, never see them or touch them.
I got here. I am having a bad day but unlike Wanda, when I have a bad day, she can reach me. Even if she never gets better than this and it’s always hard, I can still see and touch my sister.
I hug Wanda and she lets me fold her in my arms. She smells of shampoo and clean skin. She croons happily. “I love yellow,” she says. “I love your yellow.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s okay, Wanda baby.”
“Yellow and the Perception of Reality” copyright © 2020 by Maureen McHugh
Art copyright © 2020 by Mary Haasdyk