Palo Alto Weekly 29th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult

A Distinct Shade of Blue

By Zarin Mohsenin

About Zarin Mohsenin

My name is Zarin Mohsenin. I just finished my sophomore year at Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, but I am from Woodside myself. My inspiration for my short story "A Distinct Shade of Blue" came from an episode of 60 Minutes I watched when I was around 9 years old. The episode was a series of interviews with people who were face blind. I never forgot the episode and therefore decided to use it as the topic of my short story. The biggest challenge I faced while writing the story was to make it about more than the character's face blindness. I wanted readers to be able to relate to the feeling of being in a new place, while also recognizing the extra obstacles the protagonist faces.


Judge's comments

Noelle, the neuroscience-student narrator in "A Distinct Shade of Blue" suffers from prosopagnosia, "or more simply, face blindness," in a story that is thoughtfully narrated and perfectly pitched, bizarre and beautiful. From the fascinating opening scene -- Noelle at her new Boston apartment, discovering her face -- to the incredibly moving and beautifully delivered last line, this writer uses an extraordinary circumstances to illuminate a universal emotion, to exquisite effect.
— Meg Waite Clayton

I look at the stranger who stares avidly back at me. It is clearly a girl in her late teens, possibly eighteen or nineteen. I smile awkwardly at her, and she repeats the expression. Her wide, bottle green eyes crinkle slightly at the corners when she smiles. The stranger then lifts her hand to push back a lock of waist length, curly brown hair from her eyes. At that precise moment I do the exact movement. Tugging on a lock of my own hair, I have a spark of realization and see for the first time the gilted, metal frame surrounding the stranger. I recognize the young girl in the mirror is me...

"Of course," I whisper. I try to avoid looking in mirrors as much as possible. It only brings a jolt of complete unease and confusion.

I had always figured that I was bad with faces. You hear this commonly enough and I thought it was just extremely applicable to me. Only when I failed to recognize my own mother each day when she came to pick me up from school, did my family realize there might be more to it.

They took me to a specialist who diagnosed me with prosopagnosia, or more simply, face blindness.

Ever since, I have shied away from my own reflection, and of course other people. The embarrassment that comes with being unable to recognize people I've met before gets old, quickly. It doesn't matter if I have seen the face two times or two hundred times, there is little chance of a connection.

Looking around my new, cramped apartment, I try not to compare it to my spacious bedroom at home. Regardless, a mental picture forms of the robin's egg blue walls, antique desk, and inviting bed where I had lived for most of my life. I sigh. How easily I can describe in detail the appearance of my room but when asked to point my little brother out of a crowd, I am hopeless.

By the time I have made a decent dent in moving in, by which I mean scraping the first layer of clothing and books from my boxes and depositing it unceremoniously on the narrow bed, I am itching to leave the small studio in exchange for the roaming and bustling city that is now my home. Locking my door behind me, I step into the monotone hallway, followed by the elevator, and finally I emerge into the weak sunlight of early autumn in Boston.

The city is undeniably beautiful, but what makes it truly unique is the way in which historical and contemporary elements evolve elegantly around and each other, as if the architects were engaged in some elaborate dance, meant to compliment and outshine the other.

I wind my way through the streets, teeming with every kind of person imaginable, until I find a suitable café for a bite to eat. Buying a blueberry muffin and smirking at the thought of my mother's disapproval if she saw my first "meal" in Boston, I find a table in a corner to eat my snack. I look around at the other patrons in the cozy patisserie; judging by the friendly, easy manner of the staff, it seems to be a popular spot with many regulars. I take out the novel I am reading, but quickly get pulled into the intricacy of the people with the café.

A woman with a notebook sits at one of the high counters, and despite scrawling furiously in her journal, takes frequent breaks to drink from an immense mug of coffee, which seems to never empty because of the closeness with which a waiter watches her progress. A young man with hair cropped close to his head waves a video camera around and seems to be begging one of the women behind the counter to let him film. Although she gives a resolute "no," she does so with an exasperated smile as though this were some sort of well-enjoyed routine of theirs. A tall, tall man with legs as long and skinny as church spires, seats himself near the door, stretches out his extensive legs, and unfolds a newspaper with a rustling like dry leaves in the wind. He is the picture of comfort and ease, that is until someone opens the door, when he is forced to draw his legs up towards his body to avoid the swinging door. This constant yet random movement could give one the impression that he is attempting a very strenuous core workout. Several of the staff giggle, while others simply look sympathetically in the direction of the irrationally tall man.

Just staring at these people in their everyday lives, I am overwhelmed with a sudden sadness. I analyze them in the moment and can see details so clearly, but I will never see any of them again. Even if by chance I were to happen upon them again, I would never know and never be able to know that I had seen the person before.

While I am studying the customers, the door opens once more, bringing a particularly fearsome gust of wind, as well as making the giant scrunch up yet again. The young man who joins the society of this small, busy café is my next object of observation. I watch him cross swiftly to the counter and order a black coffee. Drink in hand, the man turns, scanning the café for an empty table. I glance around the room too and we simultaneously reach the same conclusion. The tables and plush armchairs are all occupied by noisy groups of people enjoying their morning snacks. As his eyes sweep over the corner where I sit again, I drop my gaze back to my book. After a couple of seconds I glance back up to see the young man heading straight for my table in the corner.

"May I sit down?" he asks politely, and inwardly I curse at the prospect of making small talk with yet another stranger.

"Of course," I respond, and outwardly I smile brightly as he pulls out the chair across from me.

The young man takes out his laptop and begins to type intently, giving me the opportunity to study him unashamedly. His eyes, a district shade of blue, sit in a pale face, cheeks flushed from the wind outside. Black hair curls around his ears, a tangled mess that obviously hasn't been cut in several months.

Without looking up from his computer, he asks what book I am reading. Hesitant to fully enter the dangerous realm of small talk, I show him the cover without actually saying anything.

"Is it any good?" he asks with a smile, "I haven't read it yet."

"It's alright," I reply, effectively killing the conversation.

He goes back to whatever he is working on and I try to turn my attention to my "alright" novel. The awkward silence that seeps in like the plague has me feeling guilty for ruining his attempt at discussion.

"So what are you working on?" I ask, sounding incredibly lame to my own ears.

"I'm trying to organize my notes before the next term starts," he replies, "it's a more work than you would expect."

"What university are you going to?"

"I'm in my second year at Emerson."

"Really?" I say, "I'm starting there next week!"

"Well welcome to Emerson um..." he looks at me, silently asking for my name.

"Noelle," I fill in obligingly.

"I'm Casey, good to meet you," is his response.

I nod politely and look away until, "So what are you studying?"

"Neuroscience," I say, "what about you?"

"Double major in computer science and music," Casey replies.

"That sounds like a lot of work," I say, impressed.

"It is difficult," he muses, "but definitely worth it I think."

"How do you like the school in general though?" I ask, "Does it meet your expectations?"

"Of course!" he exclaims, "It's absolutely fantastic and as soon as you adjust to college, I am sure you will be very happy."

"I hope so…"

"Well I would be happy to help you out," Casey offers, "if you think you need it that is."

"I might just take you up on that," I reply with a smile.

"Can I give you my number just in case?" he asks.

"Okay," I respond, and he produces a pen from somewhere in his pocket. My internal monologue is questioning why I am simply giving this complete stranger more chances to talk to me.

The lack of paper leads me to simply hold out my wrist for him to scrawl down the ten digits in a small, cramped font.

Glancing up at the clock above the espresso machine, I see that it is nearing the time which I promised to video call my mother.

I take a last look at Casey, knowing I will forget his face as soon as I leave my comfortable chair, and then excuse myself. He smiles goodbye, telling me to call or text whenever, and then his dark head bends down once more over the computer screen.

I exit the café swiftly, forcing the tall man into yet another curl up. It has begun to rain and the ink on my arm runs in black rivers down my arm. I look back through the slightly grimy, café windows, but I do not recognize a single person within, and the one who has so kindly offered me help, is a stranger yet again.

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