Shades of Orange by Celeste Hankins

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close up of window screen with bright sun shining through

My husband Bradley wants a new orange couch for the . . . think, think . . . wood-box-that-you-live-in we’re moving to on the wet, west side of the Cascade mountains. Macy’s website calls the couch’s color terracotta. That means “baked earth” in Italian. I cringe. Hotness triggers my anxiety. So do cats and grass, maple syrup, sagebrush, and shoes with shoelaces. Since contracting COVID-19 five months ago, my world translates disordered; my brain refuses to comply. To slow my heartbeat-beat, beats, I google new names for orange. I compare my color swatch to shades online. Sandstone, ochre, rust. No. Chirp. I startle when I hear the bird, flinch, and I clasp my hands. I forget orange. Remember birds. Bird, bird, bird, my brain loops, bird, until I remember. Doctor! I need to make an appointment, but I’m scared. . . . I can’t remember how.


Two medical illustrators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created an image of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It looks like the moon—the moon the astronauts landed on, not the man-on-the-moon in the sky—with flame-colored nodules. The nodules depict the virus’ proteins. Red clusters represent spike proteins that attack human cells, yellow crumbs represent envelope proteins that help it attach, and orange globules represent membrane proteins that create structure for the virus, which has sickened millions of people worldwide. One-third of us may develop post-COVID syndrome (PCS); we’re called long-haulers. We battle symptoms like heart damage, fatigue, breathlessness, and mental and neurological disorders, including cognitive deficiencies, forgetfulness, insomnia, and anxiety.


I stand at the sink and scrub clementine oranges. Frantic. One orange, two, three, four, until twenty gold, gold, golden globes nest in a bowl like cerebellum and cerebrum in a skull. The human brain weighs about three pounds and interprets—or misinterprets—what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.


Bradley prints dozens of articles with unanswered questions about PCS. What causes the syndrome? Inflammation? An autoimmune response? Why are previously healthy, middle-aged women like me more likely long-haulers? Is it a lack of estrogen?

Once, as a reporter, I would have dug through the research, but now, letters and punctuation points jum-jumble, jumble, and puzzle, and I forfeit. I try to remember things that are orange instead. I blank after pumpkins and autumn leaves on maple trees, so I Google “things that are orange.” I make a list: sweet potatoes, monarch butterflies, goldfish, cheese balls, tigers, orangutangs, buffalo wings, Cheetos, traffic cones, hazmat suits, Ernie from Sesame Street, and life vests.


According to the internet, orange increases oxygen supply to the brain to produce an invigorating effect and stimulate mental activity.


I find my swatch and remember I need a fresh name for orange that feels safe and quiet instead of scorched and blistered, a happy word to match our new house, the place I’m going to recover, because it will be a place where I smell cedar and green and sit outside and breathe, where rain will bathe my body, and I will dress in wool sweaters and rubber boots. Maybe I will dance in pud-puddles, puddles, because I remember I used to dance in rain, but I don’t know if I can anymore. I look at my legs crossed in front of me and wonder if I can make them move, wonder if they still belong to me. I wonder if next month, when I meet with specialists from the University of Washington’s new COVID rehab clinic, they can help me dance again.


Three years ago, Bradley and I clung to one another and swayed on the beach. Tom Petty sang “Wildflowers” on an old boombox. Our guests clambered over logs and built a driftwood bridge to reach our wedding spot. They stacked and balanced smooth stones to erect blessing cairns, and we exchanged vows dressed in rain boots and down jackets. In the presence of God, family, and friends, I take thee, my beloved, to have and to hold, from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in sick-sickness, sickness, and in health.

Later, we roasted hotdogs over a bonfire and drank hot chocolate and scotch whiskey. In one wedding photo, shot as the party began to ebb, ebb, ebb and flow, Bradley and I stood alone, holding hands, a silhouette against the sunset, a twilight sweetshop of toffee, butterscotch, caramel, and honey.

I move my swatch closer to the photo . . . and discover an identical shade of orange.


Kumquat. Kumquats are orange. What does a kumquat look like?

Meet the Contributor

celeste-hankinsCeleste Hankins is a freelance writer living on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Following a career as a newspaper feature writer and radio reporter/broadcaster, Celeste is currently a graduate science writing student at Johns Hopkins University. She loves to commune with wild huckleberries and write about all things green – and orange and blue and purple and…

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Andrei Zverev

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