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©2001    Carly Issitt
January 31, 2001


Fresh Flowers

 I knew I needed to stop driving by Mark’s house to spy on him.  It was spying, no matter how much I tried to convince myself that it was something more innocent, like showing that I still cared.  I don’t know why I did it exactly.  I would be out in my car, and the next thing I knew, I was rolling by the front of his house with my lights off, rid­ing the break while I scrutinized all the evidence of what he might be doing inside. 
    Sometimes there would be cars in front that I didn’t recognize, but those were probably friends of the neighbors, the Westers.  They had company all the time, or at least they did when I knew them, which admittedly was almost six months ago.  Mrs. Wester always made her famous cheese balls for the guests, and anytime she saw me she’d invite me over for some reheated hors d’oeuvres from the night before.  Honestly, I didn’t even know at this point if the Westers still lived next door to Mark.  For all I knew, they could have moved to South America and some strangers could have been living in their house now, and one of them might have been a luscious young woman, who might have been making passionate love to Mark at the very moment I was outside with nothing better to do than drive by my ex-boyfriend’s house. 
    At least I never got out of the car.  From the street I could see that he’d let all our plants die, and he’d put up a porch swing.  The smooth contours and the bold, crisp color of the wood brought an artificial vivacity to the porch, especially in the midst of the clay pots with rotten leaves and shriveled flowers hanging over the sides, advertising the sadness that must lurk inside the house and inside of Mark.  I always dreaded the thought that one day I’d see him on the porch swing with another woman. 
    I knew I had to stop driving by, but it was the only connection I had to Mark and I couldn’t seem to stop doing it.  After a while, I got to the point where I would drive a lit­tle faster because I was more and more afraid of what I might see, of what would have changed. 
     I tried to focus on everything that had changed for me since Mark and I had bro­ken up.  I was on a “voyage of self-discovery.”  I started reading self help books and learning to spend quality time with myself, I took up yoga again, got back in touch with old girlfriends, everything I could do to try to make something good out of being single.  I wanted to be proactive. 
    I even went to a therapeutic paper-making class where you write down all your feelings on paper and then dissolve that paper to make more paper in a symbolic cleans­ing ritual.  I think it was at that point that I realized I had lost all perspective.  I was sit­ting in a “friendship circle” with fourteen other people who were desperate enough for help that they resorted to art therapy.  Suddenly Jordan the art therapist’s spunky voice became very annoying. 
    The room was filled with a labored hopefulness, everyone struggling to get com­fortable sitting and writing on the cold cement floor and trying to get something good out of all this, to prove that they could be helped.  One woman spewed out insults at her ex-husband as she furiously wrote pages and pages of her gripes out on paper.  Most people didn’t have much to write, or maybe they couldn’t bring themselves to write it all, so they just gazed up at Jordan the art therapist, waiting and hoping to be shown the way to inner peace.  Jordan the art therapist played with her pigtails and chipped away her glitter nail polish while talking about grinding up our inner demons like paper.  The smell of her fruity perfume had overtaken the small air supply in the room, and I had an impulse to open a window, but when I got up I knew I had to leave.  I got my coat and walked out without looking back.
    I finally settled with a resolution to spend one hour each day enjoying my own company in some way.  I loved this plan because it was flexible.  I started by eating a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream while taking a bubble bath.  Sinking down into the warm, ca­ressing water and savoring the cool tingle of the ice cream sliding down my throat, I thought I will never get tired of thisThis is heaven.  A week into this plan, though, I was getting tired of my own company.
    A lot of times I’d just sit and look out the window.  I started noticing the short redhead across the street, whose floor-length kitchen window was directly across from me.  Sometimes she’d be watering her plants and she’d wave to me, and I’d wave back.    The kitchen was painted an inviting shade of blue, and she would start every day by making oatmeal and coffee with cream and three spoonfuls of sugar for breakfast, and reading her newspaper.  Every morning she’d finish eating, fold her newspaper neatly, and then sink down in her chair at the kitchen table and cry.  It never lasted more than two minutes.  Some days it was a sobbing, heaving sort of cry, and other days it was a lonely cry, and the only way I could tell was that she always folded her napkin into a rectangle and used the corner to straighten her eye makeup.  Then she would puff her chest out in a few deep breaths and run her hands over her hair and down her clothes.  And finally, with a bounce in her step, she would leave for work. 
    She would always dance in front of the stove when she was making dinner for herself.  I imagined she was listening to Frank Sinatra—the upbeat songs like Fly Me to the Moon and You Make Me Feel So Young.  She made herself martinis with two olives, which she plopped into the glass one at a time with a festive flip of the wrist.  Sometimes she’d bring home fresh flowers with her groceries—always something modest like dai­sies or irises—and she’d change the water every day to keep them fresh for as long as possible. 
    I found myself thinking about the redhead the next time I was tempted to drive by Mark’s house, about the way she would sit confidently alone at her kitchen table.  I de­cided to go to Max’s diner instead of Mark’s and attempt to enjoy my own company.  I ordered a huge plate of french fries and played Johnny Cash on the jukebox.  It wasn’t so bad, being alone.  I could handle it. 
    I was enjoying my fries when all of a sudden I heard a familiar voice that filled me with dread.  It took me a moment to place it, but when I looked behind me toward the door there she was—Jordan the art therapist, in all her glittery splendor, ordering a diet coke with vanilla ice cream.  Suddenly the bite of french fry in my mouth was unwel­come.  I hated the thought of her seeing me here, much less knowing what state my life was in since I walked out of her class feeling superior.  She saw me right away, and came over to talk to me. 
    “Don’t I know you from some place?  Lori?  Lila?  What’s your name again?”
    “My name’s Lily, but I don’t remember meeting you before,” I said. 
    “I’m sure of it,” she said, not acknowledging my denial.  “The paper making class, right?  You were in the paper class!  I knew I recognized you!”
    “Yeah, that’s right.  Jordan, right?”
     “Yes.  How could I forget you?  You turned the class around for me.  I never got to thank you for that.”  She sat down across from me in my booth. 
     “What do you mean?”
     “After you left, everyone started really talking.  It was just what we needed to get people thinking about why they were there.  Everyone was just sitting there expecting me to guide them into some sort of understanding of their lives.  They need to do it for them­selves.  I’m sorry.  I always get into these little speeches and I bet you’re thinking ‘Who is this woman and why is she still talking?’”
    She looked at me for a response. 
    “I just felt like I didn’t belong there,” I said.  “But I guess, I’m glad my leaving helped the rest of the class.  There were some pretty unhappy people in there.”
    “Yes there were.  And most of them are still very unhappy.  But see, I believe in art therapy not because of the whole gimmick of writing down your feelings but because when you’re doing art you can’t help thinking about your life.  It’s good for people to do that from time to time, to really think about everything.”
    “Hmm.  That’s interesting,” I said.  I was still adjusting to the change in Jordan’s voice, or maybe just the way I heard her voice.  It didn’t sound spunky at all.  It sounded more like an old woman, or at least someone with some measure of credibility. 
    “Forgive me,” she said, “I’ve been in such a contemplative mood lately.  I just want everyone to be right there with me.  Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. 
    Then we just sat there, not talking, for several minutes.  She looked perfectly calm, unconcerned with her diet coke float that should have been ready by then.  She wore her hair down; it softly framed her face and curled just at the tips.  She had a light dusting of glittery powder all over her face and neck, and metallic blue eye shadow, but in the sunlight, it looked somehow more dignified than it did in the fluorescent lights in the basement.  The edges of her lips pointed slightly upward and with her pale blue eyes looking off to the side and the sun catching the tiny sparkles on her skin, she emanated tranquility.  She was basking in the sunlight, daydreaming, not caring at all whether her diet coke float was ready or not, and I just stared at her.  The music, and the golden hue of the sunlight coming through the blinds in sharp lines that extended over the tabletops, onto the counter, and up the back wall, over Jordan in her reverie, shimmering with silver dust, and over me and my enormous plate of ketchup-drenched fries—it was one of those snapshots in time that you never forget, even if it’s not particularly profound. 
    “Does art therapy really work?  I mean, have you ever had anyone have a break­through in your class, like a therapeutic breakthrough?”
    “Yeah, I guess you did,” she said.
    “I don’t think so,” I said.
    “Sure you did.  You’re not coming anymore, are you.  You’re helping yourself.”
    “I guess, but, no offense, I don’t think I got anything out of that class at all.”
    “Everyone gets something out of it.  Even if it’s just the desire to leave.”
    On the way home I stopped at the store and bought two huge bouquets of flowers.  I stopped at the redhead’s apartment and I was going to leave the bouquet outside her door but she heard me and opened the door as I was bending down. 
    “These are for you,” I said, handing them to her.  “I’m Lily, I live across the street from you and I noticed that you always have flowers, so I brought you these.  And I got some for myself too.”
    “That’s very nice, dear.  Are you mentally ill?”
    “No, um, I don’t understand.  I’m just trying, I...”
    “Who are you again and why have you been watching me from across the street?”
    “I haven’t been watching you.  I just can see into your kitchen from my kitchen and I noticed your flowers.  That’s all.  I’m not spying on you or anything.  I’m Lily.”
    “Look, young lady, I don’t know who you are but I would appreciate it if you left me alone, like everyone else.  I like it best that way.  It works for me, okay?”
    “I didn’t mean to offend you.  I just wanted to bring you some flowers.  Will you take them?”
    “Yes.  Thank you,” she said quickly. 
    “I’m Lily,” I said. 
    “I know, you said that.  Thank you for the flowers.  Have a good evening.” 
    She closed the door.  Her voice was harsher than I expected.  Her skin was rough looking and her hair was streaked with grays.  She had a veiny neck and her eyes were dark brown and sunken into their sockets.  She smelled like Lysol.  I ran over the conversation in my head on the way down the stairs and across the street. 
    My flowers smelled wonderful.  Their sweetness left a trail behind me all the way up the stairs.  Mrs. Riley came up behind me.
    “My, those flowers smell nice.  Lily with fresh flowers,  how appropriate!”  She laughed to herself.  She had a thick Boston accent. 
    “Yeah, I guess it is appropriate, Mrs. Riley.”
    “Oh, call me Jane, sweetheart” she said.  “You’re such a pretty young girl.  And so quiet.  You know, Seymour and I have company all the time.  We’d be delighted to have you over some time.  I make my famous salmon dip.  It’s marvelous!  I’ll let you know the next time we have company.”
    “Okay, that would be nice.”
    “Well, good night then.  I’ve got a sink full of dishes waiting for me in there and they’re not getting any cleaner.” 
    From then on I kept flowers in a vase in the middle of my kitchen table, and I kept the curtain closed so I couldn’t see the redhead across the street.  My apartment was quiet, too quiet sometimes, and I could hear all the little noises in the building—showers going on and off, music, TV shows, the distant sound of couples in the throes of passion.  Late at night, those sounds would be gone, and I could sometimes hear a faint moaning, like someone in an incredible amount of pain, waiting for death to come and rescue them from their merciless existence.  A few times I opened my door and tried to hear where it was coming from.