Semi-Permeable Membrane

by Gabby Brandner

I sat at the oak table, lost in the pattern of the wood and only vaguely aware of my wife’s distant silhouette as she brewed a pot of Seattle’s Best; it was her favorite, but to me, it was just another variation of an ordinary beverage. I heard the scrape of the metal spoon as she shoveled generous teaspoons of coffee into the filter and my mouth was filled with the taste of citrus. All of it brought me zooming back to that awkward post-adolescent idealistic phase, where I drank coffee to play the part of whoever I thought I was and assumed the role of a tortured soul because I “suffered” from Synesthesia and scribbled nonsense in a notebook.

In a way, my senses are connected. Sounds trigger taste, people emit colorful auras, and it is all very strange. I clearly remember that time in my younger days when I considered it a curse; memories of college came flooding back as I listened to the familiar hum of my coffeemaker and became immersed in a flashback.


The deep rumbling of my secondhand coffee maker left the 19 year old version of myself with a soothing sense of peace as I watched the dark rich brew fill the contents of the empty glass pot beneath. I closed my eyes and listened to the groans, which left the taste of a fresh orange slice on my tongue—just like every other morning—and I was almost able to tangibly feel the delicate membrane as though I were actually consuming the fruit. I slowly opened my eyes and anticipated the mysterious mirage waiting on the other side of my eyelids. A steady plum colored mist gently rose above the machine in a seductive flow, which left me mesmerized.

The final stream of liquid trickled into the dark pool of coffee. It surrendered itself with a complacent attitude, basking in the awaited moment where it would finally join the numerous other streams of liquid after this painful 10-minute increment of its life and play its role in composing the basic pot of coffee. I snatched my notebook and two Styrofoam white cups from the stash beneath my bed, where I kept my collection of various stolen goods from the cafeteria, and filled them both to the brim. Kale had wandered into my room, like clockwork, to receive his caffeinated beverage with the subtlest possible nod of gratitude; after a semester of living in our shared space, I came to accept his silent nature.

It was Monday, and Monday was dark green. As we walked along the uneven path to our first Biology class of the semester, capacious white trees, whose scrawny bare branches had bowed downward with the packed snow they unwillingly supported, surrounded us. Sunlight reflected off the sparkling crystals in the banks of untouched snow. My taste buds were alive with the violent splash of lemon that jolted every part of my body awake with such a powerful force that a gasp escaped my lips.

“I know, I feel it too,” said Kale.

But he didn’t.

The multitude of voices and personalities in the classroom overwhelmed my senses and made it difficult to distinguish who was red and who was maroon. I concentrated on Kale’s familiar mellow blue aura as I watched him mechanically open and close his eyes, as he prepared himself for the day.

A metallic taste filled my mouth as someone beside me dragged the metal chair along the cold linoleum floor; I hated the sound and the taste.

He sat down and looked into my eyes as I studied the air around him. For the first time, I saw a grey cloud encompassing this new individual and I sought out his eyes in hope that I would understand the lack of color.


Imagine the brightest day of your life and recall the frustrating way the sun caused teardrops to form in your eyes as you attempted to make eye contact with its luminous beams. No matter how hard you tried, you could not see past the glaring tears and it felt as if you were crying because you were not worthy to see the full extent of the beautiful light. So you had to settle for the ground. Lowering your head, the color green was so vivid that it couldn’t be real. But as your eyes adjusted, you could distinguish each and every blade of grass, sparkling with the reflection of the sun. It was impossible to feel disappointed about being unable to capture the sun because you had the next best thing: its reflection. That is the only way I can describe his eyes as I saw them for the first time.


As the professor took attendance, I noted every student’s corresponding color and taste as they spoke, but I was unable to comprehend any of their names or faces. They were all some bright color that probably matched their “bubbly” personality or maybe their freckles or eyes–details their mother probably cared about and noticed, but not me.

“Here,” he said.

Again, I saw the grey and this time it was accompanied by the smooth texture and rich nutty flavor of peanut butter. I closed my eyes in a desperate attempt to savor this familiar, yet new flavor. It vanished all too quickly and was replaced by the professor’s already monotonous, oily voice and florescent glare.

I never understood science and certainly not Biology. It was okay, I guess, if you were one of those people who wore contact lenses and wrote things like “semi-permeable membrane” and its definition on the back of a colorful flashcard to add to your growing pile of colorful flashcards filled with tiny, cramped, perfect handwriting. All those science people who are so perfect with their big brains, white teeth, colorful flashcards, and intimidating calculators. I secretly longed to be one of them, but I shed that dream faster than you can write “semi-permeable membrane” as soon as I learned the truth. I had the answer right in front of me, as my Biology teacher hobbled past, his expired youth so far gone I doubted if he even remembered when he too had white teeth. The trouble with science people is that they all have the same dream. “One day, I will make an impacting difference on the beautiful world of science or perhaps become a brilliant surgeon. Maybe I’ll do both,” says every left-brained student who ever lived.

As their promising futures drift into the distant past like water seeping through a semi-permeable membrane, they’ll find themselves employed in a freezing cold classroom due to the lack of municipal funding for heat, staring at a sea of faces with expressions that showed their blatant disregard for science. It gets worse. Over time, they’ll become so discouraged or depressed at the unfairness of it all that they too will come to quickly disregard science because if they had only become journalism majors, they wouldn’t be stuck in this cold classroom droning on about something they lost interest in the minute their teaching degree was placed in their reluctant supple, young hands.

There is always a legitimate reason for why their ambitious plans fell through: anxiety, depression, suicide, lack of money, fear of blood, low-self esteem, and the list goes on.

So there I sat, in Biology, the study of life. The irony struck me as darkly humorous that we were supposedly studying “life” in this emotionally drained atmosphere. I eagerly awaited my journalism class, where I could write about death, freedom, and the ideas of happiness. It was clear that the majority of us had already attained wisdom and maturity. Those of us with droopy eyes, no textbook, and an overall air of misery and nonchalance were the real winners in this race of life. I pitied the handful of future science teachers as they sat erect in their chairs, hanging onto the professor’s every syllable, a pen in hand and their trusty piles of flashcards in close proximity, so they could quickly snatch them at a moment’s notice in order to reference one of the terms they just can’t seem to remember. Perhaps it’s “semi-permeable membrane” that’s giving them a run for their money.


The day continued in a blurred rainbow of colors that were too bright and a sickening array of flavors that were too sweet.

Alone in my room, I brewed a pot of coffee and stood transfixed by the deep plum swirls it produced. It was the closest I could come to a neutral color, but it was several shades away from what I needed.

I had already found what I needed the minute I looked into those eyes and saw that wonderfully dull grey aura that screamed detachment and compromise. It was neither black nor white and its subtle shadow was so understated that it was almost transparent. Conformity was inevitable and looking at the color grey I never understood that as well as I did today. As much as grey wanted to be black or white, it never would be. It was stuck somewhere in the transition and seemed to blend in, completely unnoticed.

Looking out the filthy window of my cell, I saw them through their windows, living their lives in peace, obsessed with becoming better people. But to me, they were rats in their cages, desperately turning over the numerous grains of sawdust that cushioned their cages without any reason or purpose. Sawdust was sawdust, and once they gave up on searching, they could always go for a run on their running wheel. I could just imagine the looks on their faces as they furiously began to run in place, wondering why they were still trapped. Then their clueless expression as they stopped the futile exercise in order to identify the continuous squeaking and realizing, with astonishment, that it had mysteriously stopped. How oblivious.

It was too much for me. I drained the pot of coffee into my mug made from previously recycled materials and added honey from an Organic Bee Farm that was $2.00 more than plain inorganic bee farm honey, but at the time it seemed like an investment. With the mug in one hand and my pen in the other, I sat down to my tattered notebook, ready to purge my intellect of its genius and become famous for an original idea or unique story, or at least try to become a better person.

I was interrupted by Kale’s footsteps as he entered my room and I felt a sense of familiarity as I glanced at his blue aura from the corner of my eye. He looked deeply into my eyes, like a scientist peering through a microscope hoping to catch a glimpse of DNA, as he sat down in my blue tweed chair. It leaned to the left at an unusual angle on its uneven rusted feet. His left hand began to idly stroke the tear on the arm.

“You have that look again,” he said, “like you’ve just been writing in that little notebook about how dark you perceive the world to be.”

“I could have been writing about anything,” I said.

“Yes, but you choose to write about that.”

I had chosen to write about that. I had not chosen to live, but I was choosing my life. Kale handed me a book the size of a square block of ice, and I turned it over in my hands to see the cover. There was a whale, swimming freely in vast ocean, but trapped in the confines of the 8” x 11” square piece of cardboard covered in flimsy paper. Biology I it said above the whale. I looked at Kale and he opened his mouth to speak the last words I ever wanted to hear:

“We need to do the bio homework.”

I could have chosen to do many things as his words penetrated my ears and infiltrated my brain. I could have thrown Kale and his book out of my room, locked the door, and wallowed in the negative pages of my notebook. Instead, I nodded. I placed the notebook safely beneath the bed, next to the dust and on top of the deteriorating floorboards and followed Kale to the library, clutching the textbook as if my life depended on it. We walked along the curved path to nowhere, with nothing to say, and even less to think about because we knew where it would eventually end. I raised my eyes to the sky that trapped me in this oversized sphere and saw only the shade of grey that had filled my vision for the first time this morning. Only this time, it was expected.


“How much sugar do you want in your coffee?” asked my wife.

But I wanted nothing to do with sugar. Inches from my ink-stained left hand, the plastic honey bear container stared into my eyes. I wanted nothing to do with that either.

My wife’s grey eyes met mine as she handed me the thermos of coffee and our hands touched; I tasted nothing and saw nothing.

“I don’t think I’ll have sugar today,” I said.

Today, I drank the coffee black, to play the role of myself, and left for work as my first day of a journalism teacher.


Gabby's Pic I am an early honors student, born and raised in Anchorage, and next year I hope to attend college in Minnesota and major in Biology. I have a deep appreciation for literature, the arts, and spoken word and I hope to improve my literary and artistic abilities throughout my college years.

One Comment

  • Sarah

    Wow, this is really great! You have an amazing talent for description, the image of rats in cages full of sawdust struck me the most. Your character’s voice is strongly defined as well, I can hear their cynicism and tiredness in each sentence. It’s also really interesting how you portrayed their Synesthesia, it’s neat to see it portrayed this way. I hope you keep writing, I’d love to see more from you one day. 🙂

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