It was that time of day, when the light hits everything sideways. The sun was casting its final gleam of golden warmth and the sky was going from blue to purple. We went down to the beach, my young mother smiling and laughing, her dark chestnut hair falling down her back in wavy curls, and my father carrying me in his arms. We braced against a sheet of wind that hit with the force of a clanging church bell when we cleared the top of the boardwalk and saw the ocean spill out before us.
My mother ran ahead, flinging her sandals onto the sand and stripping off her emerald green dress. My father set me down, grabbed my hand, and we ran after her. I was all of two or three years old, but I remember. The waves seemed like mountains, but as my mother charged into them, they shrank. My first lesson in scale and perspective. My father pulled his T-shirt off over his head and stooped down to my level: “Stay here, lamb. Okay?” I nodded and watched him go.
The two of them sank under the warm summer sea, then reappeared,
kissing, as I stood on the wet beach, the frothy water rushing up and over my feet. I smiled and took a step toward them. And another. They looked back at me and began to swim to shore. I took another step. Suddenly a wave rushed in and knocked me down. I felt the water all around me, filling my ears and pulling me as the wave ebbed. And then, my father’s hands, lifting me to him and my mother swooping in. She grabbed me and held me as I cried. I don’t know if I cried from upset or relief. But I cried and my mother kissed my face, wrapped me in her green dress, and carried me all the way home. That is my first memory.
• • •
The sound of the city dissolves into a hum. I stare up at the gleaming glass tower and a torrent of blue pours down. The building’s edges blur against the cloudless sky—nature and the man-made becoming one. Blue always tastes like chocolate when I’m nervous, and I’m nervous. I swallow, then will the sensation away with the sound of my own voice.
“This is it,” I say to my father as the white-gloved doorman beckons us inside. We enter the marble lobby and the temperature drops about twenty-five degrees. A rush of magenta sweeps across my eyes. My skin erupts in goose bumps and the trickle of sweat that has been nagging its way down my spine dries up in the cold air.
I step toward a bright-eyed man behind a reception desk. “How can I help?” he asks.
“I’m Luisa Ochoa-Jones,” I reply quietly. My father mops his sweaty brow with a handkerchief.
“Yes, of course,” the man says, nodding. “Seventy-fifth floor.”
“Thank you.” I turn toward the long, mirrored corridor that
leads to the elevator bank. I’ve been blonde for exactly nine hours and even though I’d never felt more like myself as when I stepped out of the shower with my new hair, my reflection is kind of a shock. I guess I’m still getting used to it.
My father and I arrive at the elevator. I glance down at my black lace dress and chunky, high-heeled ankle boots. I press Up and focus on the shape of the arrow on the button. It’s short and squat. A fat little arrow.
“Before a concert,” my dad says as we wait, “I like to think about how the music isn’t for me; it’s for someone out there listening, someone who needs it. That always makes me less nervous.”
Okay, that’s nice and all, but Thomas Bell doesn’t need anything from me. It’s the other way around.
The elevator car shakes gently against its surrounding walls as we rocket up the seventy-five stories to the penthouse. My ears pop and my stomach rolls over on itself. I clutch the handrail, wanting both to get there and never arrive. A ding as we level off. I shift my posture, tilt my chin slightly upward, roll my shoulders back. Breathe, I tell myself. The doors open with a wave of cold air. Another flash of pink reminds me that I am not at ease.
These sensory misfires have been with me all my life. When my emotions run high, my senses get muddled. It’s like the wires get crossed and my brain sends the wrong messages to my body, or vice versa. Smells come with flashes of color, sounds have tastes, sights bring the sensation of temperature or touch. Certain people and places can spark complex reactions. My grandmother is the same way and all her life everyone has treated her like she’s crazy. She doesn’t
seem to mind the condition, but I do. I keep it hidden. Most of the time, I can think my way back to normal. Most of the time, I can keep my feelings in check.
We come out into the hall. The walls are papered in ecru velvet and lit by small chandeliers that look like they were salvaged from the Titanic. A light-haired, boyish-looking man stands waiting in crisp khakis and a white dress shirt. “Hello, Luisa,” he says. “And good afternoon, Mr. Jones. I’m Joe Anderson, Special Assistant to Mr. Bell.” He shakes our hands and leads us to a door at the end of the luxe hallway.
We step through. Below us, Central Park’s lush meadows and plump trees spill out, surrounded on three sides by the gray and beige concrete of an older New York, the one that existed before the skyline was swallowed by glass and steel. I stand and look down from this 200-million-dollar apartment nearly 1,000 feet in the sky. I feel like I can hold the entire world in my palm.
My father takes in the space. “Jesus,” he mutters. It’s easily twenty times the size of the biggest room in our house. Leather sofas. Thick, plush rugs. Two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, a third with a series of closed doors, and a fourth covered by a massive painting of a shirtless figure superimposed over a satellite image of a city.
“Is he falling or flying?” I wonder aloud.
“What do you think?” replies Joe. His expression is unnervingly flat. “Please sit,” he offers after a moment. “Something to drink?”
My father clears his throat. “I’d like some water, please.” Now he’s nervous. Which somehow makes me calmer. I watch Joe move briskly to one of the doors, then vanish behind it with barely a sound.
My watch buzzes with an incoming text. My mother: In a cab. Be there ASAP. She’s late, like always. I sit down and look over at the wall of closed doors. How many rooms are back there? Who’s in them? What does Bell keep in his fridge?
I cross my legs and direct my anxious mind to the scar on my knee from when I fell horseback riding in Mexico. My grandmother says it looks like Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mexican Virgin Mary. She says it signifies my closeness to God. Like I said, people think she’s nuts. Maybe she is.
I rub the scar with my thumb. My shrink, Dr. Steph, says that the more I can engage my senses deliberately, the less they will take on a life of their own.
“She’s late,” I report.
My dad shakes his head. “I told her, not today. Not to this.”
“I don’t care,” I respond quickly. “It’s better she’s not here. She’d only make me more stressed.”
He sits down and hooks his steady green eyes to mine. “You have nothing to lose here, whatever happens. You just be yourself and let go of the results.”
But I have everything to lose.
Thomas Bell is the most brilliant and successful tech entrepreneur in the world and the Avarshina Fellowship means funding, mentorship, and most important, freedom. Yes, the fact that I’ve made it to the final round will most definitely help get me into college, if I wanted to go to college. But I don’t. College is just a bubble, a delay.
I want my life to start now. Five minutes ago. I want to know what it’s like to turn the lock on my own apartment door, to work all
night and sleep all day if I feel like it, to not have to explain myself to anyone. Plus, my mom would be paying for college and I don’t want to owe her anything.
“Mr. Bell is ready to see you.” I look up. Joe is back. He sets a crystal-clear glass of water on a heavy coaster. I watch the liquid settle in the glass. I look down again at my scar. All the days between splitting my knee and dyeing my hair are imbedded in my cells like bits of rock in a mountainside: my body as time capsule.
My father and I stand.
“Sorry, the meeting is between Luisa and Mr. Bell,” Joe says.
I hesitate. My father looks at me. His eyes are searching, uncertain, then they shift.
“You’re very tall in those shoes,” he says after a moment. I soften into a smile. I grab my bag and follow Joe to the wall of closed doors.
My watch buzzes again. My mother: In the lobby.
I quicken my pace. My pulse quickens with it and my mouth becomes so dry I imagine any words I form will come out as imperceptible gasps. I take one look back at my dad and cross into the next room.
The door clicks behind me and a wave of bright yellow gives way to pitch-black. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a large desk at the center of the room. Two slick black chairs stand next to it facing a monitor that seems to float on the surface. Joe leads me to sit and a moment later I am alone.
My chest constricts. A hissing sound envelops me, like I’m surrounded by snakes. This isn’t real, I tell myself. But my body doesn’t believe me.
I leap to my feet. My eyes search for the door. I have to go. I have to get out. I take two clumsy steps and the screen lights up behind me. I turn back. The Avarshina Industries logo fills the void: an abstracted image of a flaming match.
I struggle to draw breath. I zero in on the match’s orange tip. Orange: bright, harmless. I track the edges of the match from one end to the other and back again. I start to relax. I remind myself that 2,300 people applied and only five of us made it this far.
I picture the apartment I will have. It’s one big room. Bright light and a couch for reading. A place to work, a bed. All grays and white. I’m making coffee in the morning quiet. Maybe there’s a bird on the window ledge. Maybe it chirps like it understands the value of solitude.
I go back to my seat. I wrap my hands around the armrests and wait, steeping in the amber glow of the monitor. Moments later, I am overwhelmed by the smell of roses. I sense a figure standing in the corner. The room brightens. The figure is Bell.
He’s tall and wiry in a navy suit and pale-blue tie that mirrors the electric color of his eyes. All the blue pools in my mouth like one big chocolaty lump.
He smoothes his jet-black hair across his forehead with a gentle sweep of his hand and takes the chair next to mine.
“Hi,” I murmur like I’m at the doctor’s office, naked under a paper gown.
“Hello, Luisa.” I have to lean forward to hear him. “You look different from your picture.”
“I changed my hair,” I say.
He nods. “I’m a problem solver,” he says after a moment. “That’s my—quote—thing. Could the same be said of you?”
I press my hands into the smooth sides of the chair’s armrests. “I think so,” I reply.
“Oof. Ambivalence,” he scoffs. “I’m not a fan.”
I rush to clarify. “Yes. I am a problem solver.”
He crosses his long legs and clasps his hands over one knee. “I knew I was a problem solver at eight years old. My mother was cooking breakfast. I remember bacon. My father was in the next room reading the paper, as he did every morning.” He half smiles at the memory, but his voice is distant, like he’s telling someone else’s story.
“Suddenly, we heard a noise. It was like a thud and a gasp and the clatter of broken pottery all at once. I looked at my mother, who called out my father’s name. ‘Jim?’ No response. I followed her into the dining room. His enormous body lay in a twist, and his hands were at his chest. He was gasping for air.”
I bring my own hand up to my throat, dizzy with Bell’s scent. I tap my heel on the floor three times. Another of Dr. Steph’s tricks.
“My mother ran to the phone. I looked down and saw a broken vase. Purple flowers scattered around. A trail of water running toward the door. I locked eyes with my father. And then, his focus went soft. His face seemed to melt. He was gone. The moment was—” He stops, smoothing back his hair. “Intolerable.”
We sit in silence.
“I decided that was the last unsolvable problem I would ever face.”
I nod. “It’s a powerful story,” I finally blurt out.
“Yes,” he says.
The armrests again, cool under my sweating palms. “I’m sorry about your father.”
“My mother was so upset by his death that she left me on the doorstep of an orphanage with a note and a paper bag full of my things.” He looks down at the carpet. “She was not a problem solver.”
“She couldn’t handle her feelings,” I offer.
He stares right through me. “No. She couldn’t.”
Does he know about my condition? I bring my hand to rest under my chin. The familiar scent of my lotion masks the flowery stink coming off him.
“Did you tell this story to the other finalists?” I regret the question the second it flies out of my mouth.
“Would you feel special if I said no?”
He’s mocking me. I don’t respond. Instead, I use every cell in my body to keep from flinching.
“What were you doing at eight years old?” he asks. “Was it all princess dresses and magic wands?”
“There might have been a wand,” I reply. “But mostly I was swimming laps in the pool and wondering why my dad was such a jerk.” I pause. “He’s an alcoholic,” I add. “In recovery now.” If I can’t win his respect, maybe pity will do.
His eyes seem to point at me like lasers. “He’s alive,” he replies.
“Yes,” I acknowledge. Three more taps on the floor.
He glances at his watch. “We have a few minutes left. Show me LightYears.”
Finally. I push Bell’s keyboard aside with my shaking hand and
pull my laptop out of my bag. I bring up the home page of Front Line News.
“Okay so,” I begin. “This image.” I click on a photo of the president wearing a hijab on a trip to Indonesia. Then I open my LightYears demo site and paste the URL for the photo into the search bar.
“LightYears takes any piece of online content and tells you in real time how we feel about it, collectively.” I click Mine. “As the algorithm scans the Internet for responses to this particular image, different descriptors will occupy the field of ‘pervasive sentiment.’?”
We watch as a text cloud emerges. Words like Admiration and Love appear, along with Outrage and Disgust.
“The size of the word in the cloud indicates the pervasiveness of that particular reaction. See, as the data is being mined, right now Anger is dominating at twenty-two percent, but it looks like Respect is also vying.”
I watch the analysis build and I get lost in the cloud—a tangible expression of other people’s emotions. Word after word: concrete, quantified. In those moments, I forget to feel nervous. I forget to feel anything at all.
Bell stares at the screen. “And the data can be sorted according to location?” he asks.
“Exactly.” I click on Geo and a drop-down appears. “You can search by continent, country, state, province, city, all they way down to postal code.”
He turns to me. “And what problem does it solve, amassing this data of our feelings?”
“Well, I’m not sure I think about it in terms of solving a problem necessarily,” I reply.
“You said you were a problem solver.”
“I know how to solve problems, yes, but—”
“Ambivalence again.” He chuckles like I’m an idiot. “It’s a waste of energy, Luisa.”
“What is?” I snap. “My ambivalence or my work?”
His eyes are like daggers. “Both.”
I can’t help it this time. I flinch.
“The world has more data than it can ever possibly know what to do with,” he challenges.
“I don’t disagree that data has no inherent value. I guess the question is what can it be translated into? What kind of tool can it be?”
The lights in the room suddenly grow brighter, like the show’s over.
“And? What’s the answer to that question?” His gaze falls to the scar on my knee.
“That’s what I want to find out,” I reply.
He doesn’t seem to hear me. He’s just staring at my scar. I reach down to cover my leg. He looks up at me like he’s seen a ghost. “What?” he mumbles.
“That’s what I want to find out. That’s why I want the Fellowship.”
A clicking sound. The door. Joe’s back. “We done here?” he asks.
Bell nods and stands up. Then, without another word, gesture, or even a glance, he slips out.
“Shit,” I murmur. I pull out my phone. Dr. Steph suggests I keep
a log of my significant sensory reactions. She says it helps diminish their power. I enter Thomas Bell. Smell. Roses.
“This way,” Joe says. He’s holding open the door that leads back to the living room.
The hiss of failure falls over me like a veil. “That’s it?”
He avoids my gaze. I walk slowly, willing time to elongate.
My mother is waiting by the window. Her black stiletto–clad toes graze the glass as she peers straight down. Her bright white scent hovers in the air. I swallow the lump of defeat in my throat, and with it, the urge to cry.
“Hey,” I say as coolly as I can manage. My mom looks up and we lock eyes.
“Ay Dios, qué hiciste?” she barks. She looks horrified.
“Is that a rhetorical question or do you actually need an answer?” My insides sink down even further.
“It’s blonde,” she says.
“Yes, I’m aware.”
“I think it looks great,” my dad says.
My mom turns to him. “Did you give her permission to do this?”
“It’s just hair,” he replies. “When I was sixteen I was riding a motorcycle across Italy with an ounce of weed in my pocket and a guitar strapped to my back.”
“Yes, which worked out so well for you,” she snaps. My dad may be a recovering addict with five years of sobriety under his belt, but my mother is a recovering martyr with two decades of resentment under hers.
“It’s just hair,” my dad says again.
“Thank you for coming,” interrupts Joe, who’s been waiting for us to finish bickering.
“No, thank you,” gushes my mother. She reaches out to shake Joe’s hand as he leads us to the door. “Please tell Mr. Bell I hope to have another opportunity to meet him myself. My lab is doing some amazing things in neurochem right now.”
“I’ll let him know that, ma’am,” Joe says. He smiles like a golden retriever. I am mortified on multiple levels.
“Thank you,” I offer quietly.
“A pleasure, Luisa.” Joe takes my hand and looks me straight in the eye. For a moment, I think I can smell roses in his smile, but it passes. I follow my mother down the hall. Her manicured finger rings for the elevator.
“We’ll deal with the hair later,” she says.
“Or not,” I mumble as the doors open. I step in and leave Bell’s otherworldly world behind, along with my dreams of escape.