Chroma by Heather Heckman-McKenna

Ink skips and runs. Letters expand in bulbous shapes, merging and growing and bleeding like a tumor that can’t be stopped. I see that my multi-chromatic gel ink, it turns out, does not have the resilience of, say, a regular old Bic ballpoint when faced with water submersion. The toilet seat in our Newark hotel room frames wet smudgy pages and an image of an oak tree pressed into leather in ribbed and raised edges.

Red and crinkled, Anders’ face. Jagged, almost. I swear it could cut me with its sharp edges. I lower my eyes from his Picasso face to my billowing papers, floating and sinking in the toilet. My eyes rise once again to witness eyebrows like two blonde pinpoints, exclamation points attached to his very face. I almost laugh, but with every second my letters grow less recognizable on the spoiling paper, and laughing will only antagonize him further. Get yourself together, I think. You must do something. You must do it now.

Prickling eyes sting at the sharp tang of bleach as I plunge

my hand into the toilet. I receive today’s second punch to my stomach. It glances off ribs more than the last, and this time

I don’t collapse. I successfully pull the journal and torn pages out of the toilet before Anders drags me away by my two-foot- long hair.

“Fuck, Little Bitch,” he says. You really are filthy, LB.”

Green, shimmery copper frames the Florence storefront windows. Golden lettering atop says:



TEL. 29.49.68

A copper door, oxidized into green, stands sentinel just below. The warm, window displays a fraction of the multi-chromatic beauty housed within. Wrought iron in delicate curlicues frames the gold-lettered sign.

I walk through the copper door into the many-hued space, pulse thrumming in my throat. I turn 360 degrees around in the gorgeous room, walls cream with dark turquoise trim, covered in tall, tall bookshelves. Colors merge with colors merge with colors (merge with colors). Never bleeding, only blending in lines and shapes and a seemingly infinite array of pretty fractals.

I hear from behind me resonant words in a language not my own. I turn, curious, and find a man wearing a linen collared shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, covered with a dark blue apron. He smiles at me, obviously pleased and curious about me too. I stutter, “Le caprese…capishe…le capishe l’englaise?” He answers in a lengthy sentence in l’Italiana, and though I don’t understand his words, it’s clear from the upturned lines on his face that he said some long semblance of yes.

My husband drags me by my hair across cold tile, then old carpet. I watch his frothy mouth as it spews his disgust.

“But those are my words!” I say.

“Words?” he yells.

“My grandmother! Those words are about my grandmother!” “What words?” he asks, face pinching tighter and tighter in. “The ones you threw in the fucking toilet.”

The backhand hits me on the raised bone underneath my left eye, and he releases his grip on my hair and drops me to the floor. I look up at him, stars dancing between our faces.

Another concussion? I wonder. Yes, probably another concussion. I laugh out loud on the floor. He jumps as if startled. His open mouth frozen. He shuffles to the closest bed in our hotel room and collapses. I rise, stumble back to the bathroom. I pick the ruined journal up off the floor. I run fingers along ruptured stitches in the pressed leather.

I turn to the shopkeeper, smile. “I’ve always wanted to be here. I came from the States, and I’m here now to see your shop.” He looks at me. He doesn’t speak. “Your paper and marbling is known around the world, you know? I’ve spent years wanting to come here.”

“You knew of my shop?” he asks. “And your workshop.”

He turns away, says, “I am glad you are here.” He swallows hard enough for me to hear.

I turn away to give him privacy. I try to take it all in. Colors merge in subtle patterns and annular orbs. Some look a bit like elegant tie-dye, others like many-colored raindrops, others yet rendered in velvety peacock shapes, feathered in and out in seemingly endless arrangements. Marbled paper surrounds me: a perfect fusion of art and utility. I smell warm tanned leather and sharp paint and old paper, or, rather, new paper made as old paper was once made, by hand and with fabric. There’s another smell too, one I can’t yet identify, an earthy one that seems to underlie all the rest.

I touch my melting words with delicate fingertips, pull apart stuck-together pages, carefully tearing them out of the book. I lay them flat on dry spots of the floor. I flatten even the ones with letters so distorted that I see they can’t be saved. Memories of a good past, though lost to me now, are still memories. These pages still evidence of beauty and connection. Even if now they cannot be deciphered.

The shopkeeper turns back to me. “I will show you,” he says. “My name’s Heather.”

“I am Riccardo, and this is my shop.” He leads me to his workshop in a room to my right.

“Come in, please,” Riccardo says.

It’s smaller than I imagined, his workshop. A table, really. A table with paints and brushes and a square pool of grimy water, and a single tool that looks like needles affixed to a thin wooden plank.

I hold limp pages in my hands.

“You care more about your fucking book,” Anders says, sobbing behind me, curled on the bed.

“Yes,” I say. “I do,” I say. “Now more than ever,” I say.

I don’t care when he rises again from the bed. I don’t care as he stalks over to me. I don’t care that he pulls me away from my book and out of the bathroom. I don’t care when he punches me in the stomach once again. I don’t care as I gasp and struggle for air on the floor. I don’t care that oxygen seems irretrievably knocked out of my body. I don’t care. I don’t care I dont care Idont care Idontcare Idontcare idontcare.

“LB. If I’da known that would shut you up, Ida done that ten minutes ago.”

I dont careIdont care Idont care Idontcare idontcare idontcare Idontcare. I convulse on the floor for lack of air, while he cries, collapsed again on the bed. He doesn’t speak. He looks down at me as

I shudder, and I could swear his crinkled eyes spit rainbows

of color at me. Or is it merely blinking stars in my vision’s periphery, yet more brain damage from another concussion, or perhaps from my lack of oxygen for want of breathing in?

Riccardo points in turn to his bench and his table and his pool of dirty water and his tool, telling me the precise purpose

of each. He holds up his most recent work, a sheet of paper wrought in pinks and oranges and blues and whites and the softest purple I’ve ever seen, all melding into feathers. He holds it out to me, posture straight as he looks down and away. He tells me of the algae pulled from the river a half a block away, how the paint sits atop the algae in the water, and I suddenly understand the earthy smell and why the water looks dingy. He shows me with his tool how he made the design in the algae water paint mix.

“It’s art,” I say. He lowers his head and nods.

Anders looks down at me again. I don’t care I dont care i dont care idont care idontcare Idontcare I don’t care.

“Babe, your face,” he says.

I look up at him. I still lie on the floor, though I’ve now taken enough breaths to feel fully inside my body again.

“Your face is blowing up. Your eye is black.” “Okay,” I answer.

“We have to go to the convention. How are we supposed to go now?” he accuses me.

“I have to do nothing,” I answer. His body stiffens, eyes crinkling again in that dangerous way, looking again like they will spit color. I don’t care i dont care idont care

“May I look around?” I ask Riccardo. He nods. I turn away and walk to a shelf with dozens of his works. Each design made only once in his water-algae-paint. Each slip of marbled paper unique.

Anders’ face releases its tension, jagged lines shrouded now behind a plastic surface, and I know I am safe again. For a time. For a short while. For a few minutes, at least. Or a few seconds. I never can tell. I don’t care. I don’t care. He picks me up off the floor. I let him help me, sort of, though I hold my body stiff and taut.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asks. “Go,” I answer.

“What about you?”

I look up at him. “Go.”

I hold Riccardo’s paper in my hands. Every journal. Every notecard. Every sheet of marbled paper. I open covers. I feel thick, textured paper and graze fingertips over swirling paint.

“They’re beautiful,” I turn back to him and say. “Every single piece. How am I to choose?”

After the door closes behind Anders, I notice that I’m rocking. I count out loud in my self-soothing pattern of five for ten rounds, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, breathing in each round of counting, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, not rushing, counting, 3, 2, 3, 4, 5, deliberately, counting and breathing, 50, there you are. I rise with a wince, walk to the door, lock the deadbolt, counting my steps in my fives. I walk to the bathroom and look down. Ink hemorrhages on every page. My turquoise blue gel pen clearly a worse choice even than the multi-hued pen for a run in with a toilet. Most of

my words in blue rendered now so diffuse that they are mere mackle on paper. Lost.

I hold the gold and purple journal in my hands, running my fingers along the marbled feathers.

“Do you have any in blue?” I ask, putting the journal down, and Riccardo shakes his head apologetically.

“Each one is unique, and each day I make how I feel.”

“Of course. How else would you make it?” I turn back to the gold and purple journal, considering.

“Wait,” he says, and slips into yet another small sanctum. He returns moments later with a set of eight journals bound with a red ribbon. He undoes the bow, neatly slips it off. Pulls out a beautiful marbled blue. “This,” he says.

I remember back to those moments before the physical altercation: “Please let me,” I said to Anders, the journal open to the page with the words I wanted to show him. “I want you to know me. I want you to understand where I come from.” My journal an offering outstretched in my hands.

“What the fuck did you write about me?” he yelled. Saliva hit my face.

“It’s not you!” I tried to say. “It’s what I want to help you understand!” I tried to say.

I look at the blue journal in Ricardo’s outstretched hand.

“I didn’t think I’d ever make it here,” I say. “I didn’t think I would make it.”

He nods, and I feel that he understands that I refer to more than just his shop. He holds the journal out to me. I pause.

“I don’t want to lose again,” I say.

“You might?” he responds, voice rising in a question, as if not quite sure what to say.

I might.

Riccardo steps closer to me.

“I don’t want to spoil your set.”

He shakes his head no. He insists. I take the marbled blue in my hands.

I remember: “You’re writing about me?” he shouted. “I always wondered what you were doing in that fucking book in that hideous ink you use.”

“It’s not you,” I said. “It’s her! It’s not you.” “Her?” he yelled.

Anders moved so fast I hardly knew the journal left my hands until I held empty air only. I heard ripping before my eyes registered the attack. Leather split on rugged seams, a fast moving popping as each stitch gave way to the tearing motion my eyes could only start to process. Leather cleaved open like a creature ripped apart on a road. My eyes finally caught up and seemed to rev faster than my hearing. I watched before I heard paper torn. I rose then, moving toward him. He looked me straight in the eye as he opened his hand and dropped my journal and torn pages into the open toilet.

Riccardo’s book lays flat in my hand. “Open it,” he encourages, but I’m not ready. Diverse blues merge with quiet purples,

an utterly un-gaudy turquoise I’ve not seen before, a clear, shimmery white, intermittent golden shapes in the midst of all the rest. The colors flow in and around one another in delicate feathers, some oblong, others slightly bowed and arched, others yet subtle lines of color that only gradually grow into the feathering, and down and out again.

I inspect the inside of the cover. Smoothly textured cream- colored paper is pasted firmly along the inside, half an inch over the marbled paper, securing it all in place. I flip pages, running my hand over each in turn.

“We make it here, the paper,” he says.

“It’s thick,” I answer. “It feels substantial in my hands.”

I study the sewn binding, red and white threads poking out ever so slightly from each end of the spine. It’s bound carefully and tightly such that you can hardly see the thread through the pages, though still loose enough that each page turns easily. I close it again, hold it to my chest.

“It was here waiting for you,” he says.

My ruined pages sit on scuffed tile. He’s gone, acro⬅ the street at the convention center. I lie on the floor with my wet pages, curled away from them, hotel carpet scratchy on my cheek. I curl around bruised ribs. My head pounds pain into the floor.

“I think I know what I’ll use it for,” I say to Riccardo. “I don’t want it to sit on my shelf. I don’t want to be scared to use it.”

“Don’t be,” he answers. “I will be here when you need another.”

I pay for my book and for those I bought as gifts for others. He reaches underneath the register, slips his card into my hand. “Email?” he asks.

“May I?” I respond, surprised that he would want to hear from me.


I turn onto my other side and look at my wet pages. I sit up.

I hold the torn leather cover, close my eyes, run my fingers along the raised imprint of my tree. I thought I would have my tree journal for the rest of my life. I open my eyes, cautiously peering at the paper scattered around me. There’s a page to my left that I can just make out. I remember this entry vividly, the first after he raped me on the night of my college graduation.

I read: “These pages so blank and white. I don’t know how to fill them.” I pick up other damp pages, collate them as best I can. I flip earlier, seeking entries on my grandmother.

I read: “Still dreaming and dreaming of safe, exciting, happy — contented — places. But only exists in my dreams. I dread and yearn for my dreams. They give me hope where I should know only black. I fear this is not good, nor safe.” Flip. I read: “Sometimes I find myself still quiet and content in a place I can only reach by myself for myself.” I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care

I hold yet more soggy pages. I read: “Maybe someday I too will have a home. Maybe someday I too will have the chance

to fulfill a dream. Maybe someday I too will be safe. Maybe someday I too will find contentment, however brief and limited.” From some days or weeks earlier, I read: “There is much to want and dream and hope, and it’s all elusive. I don’t know how I will, or even how to, find myself again. Will I ever feel strong again? Mom and dad and Hannah left for Nova Scotia. All alone. I am scared to be alone.” I gingerly flip back more pages, searching for my grandmother. She is gone. She is gone from these pages. How is she so irretrievably gone? I don’t care. I don’t care. Please. I don’t care.

Riccardo wraps each purchase in turn. I hold my marbled blue. I’m reluctant to hand it over.

“I will be careful,” Riccardo says, and he is. “You love it as much as I do?” I ask.

“I think so,” he answers.

I look back one more time before I leave Riccardo’s shop.

I wouldn’t leave yet if we didn’t have the Michael Border concerto to make, and my legs hurt from long days on worn knees, old ice hockey injuries that make each cobblestoned step an adventure in its own right. I don’t know when I’ll get back to Firenze, let alone this little corner along the canal. But I have my book now. I have my book now. I walk in the Tuscan heat, smiling and sad, smiling in joy, smiling in moments past and in the past and in some many pasts, smiling in loss, smiling in recovery. Smiling in now.

I flip through pages in chronological reverse, finding the earliest entry in which I can read several words put together before swollen letters turn indecipherable: “There is hope still (and stillness, calm, peace).” That feels like Gramma, I think. That feels like her strength. I breathe out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I breathe in.

The moment I get back to our flat, I tell my partner Will of my marbled paper adventures, but it’s many days later, once we’re some 4,500 miles from the little shop, when we are trying to reacclimate to our home, when we are trying to accept

being back in Missouri instead of Firenze, when we are trying to process the recent expunction in Missouri of my basic human rights as a woman, when we are trying again to accept living in a country that actively and proudly oppresses half of its population, when I pull the book out of my luggage. A talisman against hopelessness that threatens to consume. I look at Will. “I’ll open it over breakfast,” I say.

I read the blotted line again: “There is hope still (and stillness, calm, peace).” I have words now. Not memories

of her written here. Those are irretrievable. My brain too battered by hockey and fists. This is the reason I write, after all. I don’t remember mundane moments anymore, and those are the ones I most need to hold, in these days in which mundanity is no longer mundane. But at least I have the feeling she left me with. Hope. Stillness. Peace. Okay, I think. Okay.

Will and I sit in our favorite breakfast haunt, always a place of reprieve for us, enjoy the messiest egg sandwiches in town, and both set to writing. After some minutes working in my old journal, I feel ready. I pull Ricardo’s carefully wrapped package out of my bag. “Will you show me?” Will asks.

I sit on the floor amidst shredded pages and wet leather. I think: I can take the van now. I can take the Astrovan and go. I think: I can leave the van. I can call Lee. She only lives an hour away. She would come get me. I think: Maybe there’s a bus that could bring me to Lee. She could help me. She’d help me out of this. She’d do anything I need. I think: I can call Dad. He’d come get me. I’ve always been that lucky. He’d always come get me. I’d just to get far enough away that Anders couldn’t find me. I could tell Dad where to pick me up. I could tell him where to meet me. It wouldn’t be so bad sitting somewhere quiet for a few hours. It’s not too cold today. I touch my face as I think, and it’s only then that I remember. My eye feels hot and big. Bruised ribs make breathing difficult, and I’m not even moving. I

think: I can call. I have people to call. I can call. I can call. I can call.

I remember: No one knows. And no one can. Because my parents

sunk over $100,000 into us. Into me. I remember: We’re here so that Anders can gain traction on the business. I remember: My parents would be ruined if I walked away. There’s no paperwork. The money lent in trust. I laugh. And then I cry.

I sit on the floor. I rock. I curl into a ball amidst my filthy pages. I lie on the floor. I feel stones heavy on top of me. I feel weight on my body from above. I feel cold, though I can tell the room is plenty warm. I feel crushed from above. I don’t know how I’ll rise. I don’t know that I can.

I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can. I can’t.

I look at my wet pages. One a few feet away, further than I’d gathered and collated so far, one less marred than many others, catches my eye. I pull it towards me with an outstretched foot. I read: “Grandma told me her story. Bits of it anyway. I am not alone even in this. Even this. I didn’t know. How could I? That her first husband also did certain things to her. I thought I knew her strength. I didn’t. I didn’t know a fraction of it.”

I sit. I wonder. I think.

“Get up,” I say aloud. I rise. I look down at my phone. “Leave it,” I say. I leave the phone on the floor, and I don’t move to pick it up. “Stay up,” I say. “I can do this,” I say. “You can do anything you need to,” I say. “I don’t care,” I say. “That is why you can do this,” I say. I notice the pronouns. I notice that I speak to myself in fractures. I just don’t care.

I sit across from Will. I hesitate before pulling tape off the paper that Riccardo so carefully folded around my book. I hold the package and I cry.

“It doesn’t have to be now,” Will says quietly.

“I’ll only do this once,” I say. “I want to remember.”

While I normally tear into wrapped packages, there’s something that feels sacrilegious to me about ripping paper that says Alberto Cozzi with a hand drawn image of their storefront. I carefully pluck tape. I pull back the parcel paper, draw it away from the blues of the book held inside. I hold the blue peacock book in my hand, then extend it out to Will. I intake a quick breath when he takes it.

“I’ll be careful,” he says, somehow understanding, somehow knowing, though I’ve never told him the story of Anders and my book. I realize with a start that in over 700 pages of typed material on Anders I’ve never once written about him and my journal. Will holds my marbled blue, opens the front cover with care, inspects the binding and rubs his fingers along the strong paper.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. “It’s yours.”

I gather the remaining pages together, drying them as best I can with towels and toilet paper and tissues, the only materials available in the hotel room. I slip them carefully into my backpack.

I text Anders. “On your way back, please pick up some concealer at the CVS on the corner.” It’s time to play my

part in this infinite game. It’s time to continue to conceal and pretend. It’s time for me to choke down every last ounce of my own fury and fear. It’s time to do what we came here to do: it’s time to get some clients for our boat. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care.

“Thank you,” I say to Will. He looks questioningly, and I say, “I’ll tell you sometime. Not now, but sometime.”

“Anders,” he answers. It’s not a question. He nods.

“But this book will be different,” I say. “This will be the book of my grandmother. This will be my book of memories. This is the book of my thoughts and my dreams.”

“It’s safe,” he says. I remember back to another time I was triggered and Will held me in a bear hug and didn’t let go, saying over and over and over again, “You are warm and safe, warm and safe, warm and safe, warm and safe, warm and safe,” and I know — really know — that I am.

Heather Heckman-McKenna is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri, studying and teaching literature and creative writing with a focus on women's and gender studies. She's published her creative work in CutBank and Eckleburg, amongst others, and two essays from her in-progress memoir, Finding Orange, were nominated for the Pushcart in 2018 and 2019. "Chroma" is also an essay from her memoir. Heather volunteers her time as a domestic violence advocate and gives talks and readings about domestic and sexual violence. You can reach Heather at