Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The illusion of rainbows

Bryant Phan
Palo Alto, California, United States


The street lamps in my neighborhood flicker in Technicolor before shutting off. A glimmer of orange surrounding the houses outside the window catches my eye. The outline of each house turns grey before imprinting a series of geometrical shapes in the back of my mind.

My father obsessively keeps the windows open in the summer. I fluff my pillow then tilt my head at an angle to get a glimpse of the constellations. Moonlight reflects off of the roof across the street. I remember a pregnant woman cupping her belly with headphones and waltzing with her unborn baby under a meteor shower seven years ago. My attention is drawn to the sporadic splashes of water erupting from the ground. I can tell the grass is going to look greener on the other side of the day because the neighbors remembered to turn their sprinklers on.

Lady sings the blues,
She’s got them bad,
She feels so sad

A woman rests at a bus stop bench, belting a gospel. Her melody breaks the air and sneaks through the cracks of my window. The pain in her voice is a fishing hook, reeling me closer to the edge of my window.

I can see her clearly. My jaw clenches in confusion when I realize she is wearing a vibrant red dress. The color doesn’t match the jaded wrinkles on her face. Her face is like sheet music, each wrinkle holding the story of a different note. She is singing with a dark indigo in her voice. I know sorrow has found refuge inside of her, and tonight, I cannot help but feel blue when I listen to her sing. Her voice is an unraveling lotus—beautiful but fragile. The midnight wind blows through her hair and releases pieces of yellow tinsel from her hairband. The pieces of tinsel, buffeted by her presence, dance to her song. Her voice held the same warmth I felt when my mother hugged me while she was in hospice.

And wants the world to know,
Just what her blues are all about

Exactly a year ago, someone accidentally painted the bus stop. Like abstract artists, the “painters” extracted the crimson red from a child and splattered the remains on the sidewalk. The streets were lit up in blue and orange, as the air around us howled a rhythmic cry. The yellow had already sunk beneath the sky and was not going to rise anytime soon. The boy’s body grew indigo . . . and this woman’s face grew green . . . then grey . . . then white before she blacked out.

I close my eyes and lose myself in her voice.

Wants the world to know
Just what the blues is all about

I open and eyes and realize that she does not cry. I remember this woman. She was the same woman I saw on the rooftop many years ago. She was dancing with her baby, singing this exact same song. She sang in a language so hopeful, with a palette so colorful, I could touch the lyrics that left her mouth.

The blues ain’t nothin’ like a pain in your heart,
When you get a bad start,
When you and your man have to part

Tonight, she is singing only in darkness. Her heart is an unstrung harp, and every note she sings tugs on my heartstrings. She spots me from across the street and begins to cry, as if her tears were going to purify the ground that her son died on. I look at the sprinklers a few houses down and noticed that they are crying too. The water hovers in the presence of a porch light. The water flashes like a prism, arching into a rainbow. I center my focus on the woman again. She is still crying. I bet if I held a light to her face, I could see the rainbow leaving her body.

Life could be explained with physics. For example, rainbows are just refracted light. They are just tricks that the sun plays on us to forget that the storm was just here.



BRYANT PHAN was born in Oakland, California in 1993. He began writing poetry and prose in middle school when his seventh grade English teacher introduced him to spoken word poetry. He has competed in multiple national and international poetry slams. He is currently a senior majoring in Human Biology with a concentration in Ethics and Medical Humanities at Stanford University. He is planning to attend medical school in the near future, while also pursuing his interest in writing.


Fall 2014  |  Sections  |  Literary Vignettes

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