Rivka Galchen is the author of Little Labors (New Directions, 2016). Her 2008 first novel Atmospheric Disturbances and her 2014 story collection American Innovations were both New York Times Best Books of the Year. She has received many awards as well as an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Galchen lives in New York City.
Published on October 24th, 2016 | by Rivka Galchen1
ORANGE by Rivka Galchen, from LITTLE LABORS
When the puma was about four months old, exiting the feline state and just beginning to move toward the sloth state, it was regularly cold enough outside that she traveled nearly everywhere in a bright-orange full-body puffy snowsuit. She looked especially helpless and magnificent in it. The snowsuit had been a gift, purchased for her from an online company devoted to baby things; the company’s website also had, as its main marketing color, the same orange, a variety one might describe as safety orange, or avalanche-gear orange. Most objects on the website were available in pink, blue, and then also orange, or, sometimes, only orange.
Meanwhile, the snowsuit. On an elevator, a woman joked that she wanted to trade outfits with the baby. At a meeting with an editor, the editor said of the snowsuit: What brand is that, do they also make coats for adults? The coat elicited positive comments at a rate commensurate with that of positive comments about the baby herself, who had just begun to smile. Actually, in truth, there were more comments about the coat than about the baby. I myself found the coat / snowsuit magically beautiful too, I confess, even as I don’t particularly love the color orange, but somehow in the case of the coat / snowsuit, it was the orangeness specifically that was compelling. It felt talismanic. How it comes to be that one year we are drawn to safety orange, another year to emerald green, another to heather gray, is inevitably difficult to untangle. But occasionally the influence can be persuasively traced: for example the brief emerald trend of a few years back I attribute specifically to a run of emerald Cornell t-shirts that said, in contrasting white, Ithaca is Gorges; they glittered briefly across the city; other emerald-colored items followed; then the green disappeared. The brief return, one spring, of skirts shorter in the front than in the back followed the release of a Diane Keaton memoir which included a photo of her in such a skirt; that old-fashioned cut of skirt returned for a few months and then, like a desert bloom, was again gone and likely won’t be seen again for decades.
The color of the baby’s crib, as it happened, was also a bright accent orange, like her snowsuit. It was the “debut color”—the first thing not brown or white or gray—for the “Alma Urban Mini Crib” that was bought for her, and set up against the dark-blue wall of her parents’ bedroom. As with the snowsuit, one visitor after another commented on the crib. It was, it was said, so beautiful. Also orange through no particular orange affinity (or disaffinity) of the baby’s mother (or father) were the lids of the baby’s bottles, as well as the trim on her washcloths, and on her towel. Same orange for her small stuffed fox. The baby had an orange plastic baby spoon, and on the mixer for her food there was an orange splash cover, and an orange implement for lifting the basket of steamed food safely out. All these items were purchased fairly thoughtlessly, just in searching for “plain.” Then I noticed the same orange as the trim accent color on the blue-and-white striped onesie she had received at birth and was finally growing into, and the same orange for the safety guard case around the iPhone 4 without Siri which her mother had bought post-Siri for $69.95 and had then on the first day of ownership cracked the screen of and so had unthinkingly chosen the accent color orange for the “protector.” It eventually began to be difficult to not be bothered by how nice and how orange the baby’s objects were. And yet also it was difficult to not want to surround the baby with objects that had been deemed, by my wedge of the zeitgeist, nice. As if taste culture could keep the baby safe. Which in some ways it could: people would subconsciously recognize that the baby belonged to the class of people to whom good things come easily, and so they would subconsciously continue to easily hand over to her the good things, like interesting jobs and educational opportunities and appealing mates, that would seem the baby’s natural birthright, though of course this was an illusion. Something like that. It was an evil norm, but, again, one that it was difficult to not want to work in favor of rather than against one’s own child. I would say you can see where this is going, but I feel it insufficiently gets at how much orange was arriving into the home, and how much warmth and approval these orange objects were received with by the well-educated fortunate people who encountered them. (Notably, my mother was charmed by none of it.) I at first attributed the orange overwhelm primarily to the gender-neutral color phenomenon spreading among the bohemian-brooklyn-bourgeoisie to whose taste culture I apparently belonged, though I would have wanted to maintain otherwise (a sentiment also common among that set). Orange was “modern” and “clean” and “alternative.” At one point I was about to order a basic bib set for the baby and then I decided not to, because the orange was starting to feel dictatorial—the basic bibs are trimmed in orange!—and more insidious in its dictatorialness than all the pink and Disney-decorated objects selling at BuyBuy Baby and Babies R Us, all those “poor taste” objects that I was trained to treat with suspicion.
A few days after the nonbuying of the clean and modern in appearance bibs, I brought the snowsuited baby up to my institution of occasional employment, and as often happens, her snowsuit—and also her, though she was still so quiet, and I think her gray eyes seemed to strangers mostly like a screen saver on a device whose password has not yet been guessed, or a device they’re not too interested in anyhow, an old model—invited comment, and someone said, as others had said, Wow I would love to have a coat like that. I had by this point become reflexively uncomfortable with how much people liked the snowsuit, though I didn’t know why, and I responded with my canned comment of the coat being avalanche orange, or hunting-cap orange, to which a third person then said, No, no, it’s Guantanamo orange. Everyone laughed. It was a joke. But within a second, the joke-comment seemed immediately and absolutely true, truer than the speaker had probably intended. Spring 2014 fashion in general had also been reported to have “orange as the new black,” a trend most often attributed to the television show of the same name. And the timing of the orange baby object marketing, and orange as the ideal accent color, and orange as the only new color added to a line of designer home paints, followed plot-perfectly close on the wide distribution of photos of detainees at Guantanamo. And those images, instead of being straightforwardly repressed, or avoided, or addressed, had been emotionally laundered in plain sight, so that any bright vision of a radical excess of American power was hidden by being visible everywhere, among what we collectively deemed most innocent and sweet (babies) or most superfluous, a brief season of fashion, a folly. Another afternoon I see the same orange used as the detailing at a beautiful new bakery. And the new and prestigious specialized public high school being built five blocks from me has the orange color on the window frames: the accent color gives the building a clean, modern look.
“To read Rivka Galchen is to enter a wonderland where the bizarre and the mundane march in unlikely lockstep.” —Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post
Photos (except book cover) are Creative Commons License / Flickr