Les Fleurs Mortes
She looked angry.
Her: “What did you mean by that?”
Me: “Well, I just meant that your eyes are pretty, like deep pools of indigo sky.”
Her: “Oh, so you're once again judging me based on some patriarchal notion of aesthetics, some male-defined ideal you're trying to impose on me to keep me in chains!”
She had misunderstood. Her girlfriend was no help.
This was too much. Call me a quitter.
Me: “I'm sorry, but this just isn't working out.”
She stopped the car and I got out of the back seat. I wasn't allowed to sit in the front during our dates. There wasn't any room up there anyway, her girlfriend being there and all. I watched the tail lights fade into the black night, a decent metaphor of the end of our love.
Once, she pulled out a handful of my hair when I told her she smelled nice. Another time, when a bit drunk after a night at the Sappho Bar & Grill in Toronto, I told her she had a lovely voice. It took a few days for the treads of her boot to fade from my forehead. Sometimes I miss her gay and gentle soul.
Laufhildur. Three sweet syllables that trip off the tip of the tongue.The temperature on the industrial air conditioner I bought for her visit was set at thirty degrees below. She was from Iceland and I wanted her to feel at home, this being her first time in the United States. I was chipping ice from the inside of the windows when she knocked on the door. She looked radiant.
Me: “Velkomin!” I had picked up an English-Icelandic dictionary the night before.
As we lay in bed that night watching our breath ascend in smoky streams I asked her to marry me. Her teeth chattered, she couldn't speak without stuttering. She sneezed four times. Women have this sort of reaction to excitement. She spoke in her native tongue for the first time.
Her: “á€°g íarf hjálp.” Yes, there was no doubt in my mind. And then, my snow angel, exhausted by the thrill of the moment, dropped into a deep and blissful sleep. In the morning the paramedics told me she had died of exposure, that the only thing that saved me was my electric blanket. At least she knew the enormity of my love before the end. A few days later I was writing this all down in my journal when I checked my English-Icelandic dictionary for the spelling of her last sweet words. I noticed the translation. Translation: I need help. I threw out the dictionary. It was chock full of inaccuracies like that.
I bought her a guitar on the first day of Hanukkah. Then a string for each of the next six days. Then a pick on the eighth. I was short of ideas for gifts so I had to milk this one for all it was worth. I'm not very familiar with Jewish holidays. As an afterthought I bought her a guitar lesson book. This wasn't an extravagance. All women, Jewish or not, like spontaneous gifts.
She practiced every night. She started to get good. She could play all the classics: “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Me: “Hey, that sounds great. Keep it up and pretty soon you'll be a rock star.”
The next month she filled in on lead guitar for Slash when he was sick during the last Guns N' Roses tour. I never saw her again. A few months later, out of the blue, she called from Baraboo, Wisconsin.
It was awkward.
Her: “I'm broke and it's Passover. Can you send me a box of smokes?” Some nerve she had, like she was entitled. I mean, a box of smokes costs at least fifteen bucks, not including postage. Rock stars.
She was from a blue state but I can't remember which. A few make me depressed when I hear their names. Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island. She must have been from one of those because I rarely get depressed when I hear state names.
I wanted to impress this one and fought hard over our three dates to keep her attention. But I was frustrated and not hitting the mark. It was difficult to compete with the laptop.
Her: “Where are we going tonight?”
Me: “Goose Island in Wrigleyville.”
Her: “Do they have Wi-Fi?”
Me: “Yes, I called to check.”
I sat my pint of Honker's Ale, my fifth during the appetizer, on the table. Her laptop lay next to a plate of untouched buffalo wings. While I tried to avoid looking at the Cubs game on the giant-screen TV, she happily tapped away at her blog, sniffing at the banal comments GOP Freak had left on her last posting.
Her: “Of course the Bush administration felled the Towers with explosives that left noresidue and then executed the hired saboteurs afterwards.”
Her: “Like I really need to post evidence for that.”
Her: “Another moron from the herd.”
Me: “I'll be back in a moment.”
I splashed water on my face and stared into the mirror in the men's room. As I reflected on the evening, staring and dripping, I realized it wasn't working out. I mean, she was sweet but confused. I left without saying goodbye. Better that way. I hate confrontation.
Making my way down North Clark and back to the parking garage, I felt at ease with my decision. I knew I had done the right thing. Conspiracy theorists have baggage.
I was stopped at a red light when she opened the door and threw a satchel bulging with cash into the back seat.
I have this way with women, always have.
I couldn't resist her. She only wanted a ride but I would have given her my head on a platter if she'd asked. She didn't need the 9mm pointed at my temple. We sped down Interstate 4 and the wind blew her hair wild. It was one of those moments you hope last forever. The Florida State Police roadblock broke the back of that hope, broke in two what had become one. One heart is what I mean. Hers, mine, ours.
At the trial I winked at her and smiled. It had been a while since that ride and I wondered if she still felt anything. I wanted to say something after the judge handed down the sentence but she lost herself in a crowd of guards.
I still see the old Wanted poster in the Clearwater post office and I hope they never take it down. Whenever I walk in it's like seeing her for the first time and I get butterflies. Sometimes I wonder if I'll still feel this way in twenty years. Sometimes I think I will.
She played in the bell chorus at Saint Peter's in the Montmartre District. I was so proud to see her on stage. Although agnostic, I went for a month of Sundays and heard her do every song in the hymn book. At night when I lay beside her, trying to fall asleep, I would often hear a ringing in my ears. One night I turned on the bedside lamp and caught her leaning over me, a tiny bell in her hand. I threw her out. A week later I heard she had a new boyfriend and new job at Notre Dame Cathedral, ringing the bourdon bell in the South Tower. A few months later I ran into her in the Latin Quarter.
Me: “Hey, what's up? That hump of yours is coming along nicely.” She raised her hand to her ear. I took out pen and paper and wrote.
My writing: You're looking well these days. She smiled her French smile and limped back towards the church and I knew why I had once fallen in love with her.
Now it was too late. The bell had tolled.
We were getting serious.
I knew it when she started leaving things at my apartment after that first overnight stay. The toothbrush. The pair of jeans. The earrings on the dresser. The dog-eared novel on the nightstand. The head in the freezer.
The freezer bloomed like our love. At first I only had to move the odd hand or breast to get to a bag of frozen peas. Then it was larger parts—legs, arms, half a rib cage. The leaky kidneys wrapped in the Kroger bag tipped the scale.
Me: “You're crowding the freezer with your stuff. You don't even use it. Why don't you throw it out?”
Her: “I don't know how you were raised but I don't waste.”
Me: “Well at least reorganize it so there's room for my fish sticks. Maybe chip some ofthe ice away from your femurs.”
Her: “I'm not your maid.”
She sounded like my mother when she said that. I lost it.
Me: “Get out.”
She burst into tears.
Her: “Go to hell!”
She gathered all her things into a leak-proof, industrial-sized plastic bag and walked out without another word. I stood in the doorway and watched her drag her bag down the stairs. She didn't look back, not once.
My neighbour, who often complained about the smell coming from my apartment, poked his head out his door. When he saw my face he walked over and put his arm around me.
Him: “You're gonna be alright. Plenty women out there just like her.”
I knew he was right but it still hurt like hell. I went back inside and got a beer and sat down in front of the fire. At my feet lay her novel, overlooked in her rush to leave. I threw it in the fire, watched the flames devour the pages and thought of our love, which was so intense and passionate, yet so destructive and devouring. The fire was a decent metaphor.
Then I remembered something my father told me when I was a boy. My father: “You gotta defrost the freezer once every couple months because the ice will build up and you won't be able to fit stuff in there. You'll know what I mean one day. You'll see.”
The older I get, the more I realize the old man knew a thing or two.
She often spoke of Jake. He wore a sweater knotted around his neck in the fall. He called the fall autumn. He liked Barry Manilow, sunsets, walking barefoot through the grass, piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain. Jake this, Jake that. She would hold my hands and apologize when she called me by his name. I didn't mind. I was secure enough in who I was not to feel threatened. I mean, sometimes old flames smoulder before snuffing out. I understood.
Me: “Do you have a picture? Maybe looking at him together will bring you someclosure.”
She pulled out a signed 8x10 glossy from her purse.
Her: “Keep it, I have copies.” I wasn't upset. She eventually stopped mentioning him. I have patience with the human condition. I know how hard it can be to let go of the past. But letting go meant starting anew. And the new, she told me, she was ready to embrace. I was elated. She was coming over for dinner the next evening to celebrate.I had much to do. The shrine I made for Jake needed new candles and the fruit offerings from the last week were starting to rot. The brass frame I bought for his picture needed a polishing. Fresh flower petals strewn around the base of the frame would add that final touch. When she came over and saw it she was speechless. She wanted to leave. I didn't understand.
Me: “I thought you were ready for a new start.”
Her: “Stop blocking the door!” I thought she had let go of Jake, put the past behind her. She said she had. I said she hadn't. I told her she was in denial and how else could she explain her reaction? She tried to tell me that I was the one with the problem. I told her that I had nothing but sympathy for her in her struggle to let go of Jake.
Her: “For Christ's sake, get away from the door before I start screaming!”
I did and she rushed out and down the stairs. I called after her.
Me: “Wait! Do you have his number?” She didn't answer. I was devastated.
I went back inside and re-lit the candles that blew out when she flung open the door. When I looked into Jake's eyes I felt better. They told me something I already knew but still needed to hear.
Jake's eyes: This too shall pass.
I knew it was the end. Perhaps we were doomed from the start. Sometimes love is blind.
Me: “So what if you're a cyclops?” She just stood there, blinking away a tear. She wiped her eye.
Her: “It will never work. We're just too different.”
I gazed deep into her baby blue.
Me: “Look, I know my friends don't know what I see in you, but it doesn't matter to me. I only want one thing, honey muffin: you. I don't care if no one sees eye to eye with me.”
She stared and again, her eye became watery.
Her: “I do. But we'll always be friends.”
She kissed me softly on the lips, then turned and walked away. I didn't try to stop her. I knew she was right. She was a freak.
She was giving me the look-see.
Her: “Are you on holiday? American?”
Me: “Yes on both counts, mademoiselle.”
She rang up my cantaloupe and slipped it into a bag. Me, a stranger in a small town in England, American accent, new face. We made chit-chat. I gave her my story. Mutual smiles. There was potential.
I went back a couple of days later for rice and gum and she looked happy to see me.
Her: “You're American, aren't you? On holiday, right?”
Me: “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
I took her to see a triple bill at the Hippodrome in Bristol. Carmen, Blue Man Group, The Boston Pops. They told me it was quite a night for the venue. After the show we dined at Lobster Bob's Bungalow, a hidden jewel on the banks of the Severn. She beamed over her lobster bib.
Her: “This is the greatest night of my life!” And indeed, there was more to come.
Next day I stopped in at the grocer's for a copy of the Guardian.
Me: “Hello, pumpkin.”
Her: “Hi. Are you on holiday? Canadian?” Small towns are all alike, no matter where you go.
It was tolerable for a while.
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “You love me?”
Me: “Yup, more than ice cream.”
Her: “More than ice cream?”
She smiled and hugged my side and we walked past the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier. We were headed to the IMAX theater but the night was young. I stopped us and wrapped my arms around her waist.
Me: “You wanna go on the Ferris wheel?”
Her: “The Ferris wheel?”
Me: “Yup. We can see the whole city from the top.”
Her: “The whole city?”
Me: “The whole city.”
While we stood in line for tickets she reached into her purse and took out some money.
Me: “S'ok, I got it.”
Her: “You got it?”
I didn't answer, just nodded.
When we got to the top we could see the city lights sparkling on Lake Michigan and I kissed her hard, deeply, and thought about how I would make love to her later that night, and that right then at that very moment there was no other place I wanted to be than right there with her, and when our lips broke I told her.
Her: “No other place than right here with me?”
That was it, it was over, right then, right there, over in the high Chicago sky.
Me: “Actually, there is.”
Her: “There is?”
I didn't answer. I just wanted to get off that goddamned ever-turning wheel. She could see it in my face.
Her: “Are you upset?”
Me: “Am I upset?”
Her: “Yes, your face is red.”
Me: “My face is red?”
Her: “I can't take this anymore. I think we should break up.”
Me: “You think we should break up? Why?”
I didn't say anything else the rest of the night. Neither did she.
It was our first date. We dined at Le Grande Cajun, danced at the Con du Lac ballroom and were walking in the moonlight along the edge of the bayou. She wanted to hold hands but the air was thick and her palms too sweaty. The night had been full yet she said something about feeling empty. It was a weird thing to say.
Me: “In what way? Are you still hungry?”
Her: “No, it's something more, deeper. It's not physical.”
Me: “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
We kept walking and passed a tent revival meeting. Music boomed from inside.
Her: “Let's go in!”
Before I could object, which I was just about to do and do vehemently, she grabbed my hand and pulled me inside.The place was packed. We sat on a couple of folding chairs at the back. Everywhere I looked people were hopping and clapping and crying, and it made me think of the way ants act when you've stepped in the middle of an anthill.
At the front, a pompadoured evangelist paced and screamed into his microphone. He seemed pretty popular. Some people were fainting and rolling on the dirt floor, and you've got to be something to make people do that. She seemed enthralled and sat on the edge of her chair. I wasn't really listening to the guy's sermon or whatever it was. I was thirsty.
Me: “Where's the guy with the drinks?”
A crowd this large had to have a vendor walking around but he was difficult to spot. And how would I get his attention if I saw him? Raise my arms and wave? Everyone was doing that.
Evangelist: “Come to the altar and give your heart to the Lord!”
She leapt out of her seat and rushed to the front as the whole crowd closed in behind her. I stayed in my seat. I don't mind if a girl is independent and I didn't want to miss the drinks vendor if he passed by. After an hour or so she came back and picked up her purse off the chair.
We walked out and started back down the dirt road by the bayou. The night had cooled so I tried to hold her hand. She refused.
Me: “You've changed.”
Her: “You haven't.”