Flowers are funny things. You never would have expected them to grow inside, trapped in a pot; you would never have expected them to bloom perfectly. They’re supposed to be these wild things, fighting the weeds for themselves. Yet somehow, they do it. They live in captivity. They do more than live -- I have yet to meet a flower that hasn’t had some tiny perfection in it’s own way. And even with the last bit of light you can give it, a plant will still try to grow.
It occurred to me once that people are almost exactly like flowers. In the dark or in the sun, we still grow... The only difference is that we can choose where we grow, and how much water we give ourselves, and how much light or dark. That, and we don’t have sex via photosynthesis and the wind and whatever else.
I think about this a lot.
Not the wind sex thing.
The thought came back to me absently, while I wasn’t paying attention. Most good things often do. I stood in the center of my flower shop, scrutinizing, trying to remember if I’d covered everything before I left early for the night --
I remembered the sunflowers. Every night I closed the shop at 9 and moved the sunflowers from their display on the wall to sit in the shop’s window, turning their heads and plucking the wrinkled, dead leaves away. It gave them the most chance at getting light when the sun hit this part of the street for a few hours.
It was the first time I’d left early since I bought the shop a year and a half ago. When I shuffled the tall buckets of sunflowers from one side of the long room to the other, I realized with a jolt that they could have a few more hours of sun, and maybe live better or longer and more beautifully, if only I decided to leave early more often, if only I left two hours earlier --
And I was having deep philosophical thoughts about flowers again.
“I’m not insane,” I told the bucket of hydrangeas by my feet. They did not reply.
There wouldn’t be much left sun in the evenings for too long, anyway. October pressed it’s face to the glass of my shop and it chilled me when I bumped my arm against it, setting the sunflowers into place next to the tiny pumpkins I’d put out for decoration.
Yes. I am a grown ass adult man decorating with tiny pumpkins in a flower shop, telling flowers not to judge me and feeling guilty about leaving at 6 o’clock instead of 9.
There hadn’t been a customer for a few hours, which meant no soil spilled in the aisles or heckling demands, no scooping dropped pennies off the floor when a senior citizen tried to pay. Peace and quiet, interrupted only by the low hum of the coolers lining one wall and the New York traffic outside the door.
Nobody would be bothered at all if I closed the place early. Really. The guilt pressing down on my shoulders was completely unnecessary.
I checked the clock on the wall, determined not to leave until exactly 6. It was 5:53.
I passed through the aisles slowly, winding my way from one display to another until I reached the counter in the back. Wrestling with the knotted strings of my apron took a full minute. I took my time, and pulled my stained black t-shirt off as well, the shop’s logo on it’s chest nearly peeled right off. The nicest shirt I owned was stowed deep in the drawers beneath the counter. My party shirt. For parties. Because I obviously went to a lot of parties. With one shirt.
5:54. Shrugging into the shirt was slow, and I buttoned it from the bottom button to the top, because I’d read somewhere that doing it like that took longer. This idiocy is the only way I can explain what it feels like to be your own boss and want to yell at yourself for being a crappy employee.
“No one’s going to die if I close early,” I reasoned to the vase of roses on the counter. Hell yeah, I could leave whenever I wanted and no one was going to stop me, I could walk out right now --
Keys. I dug for them in my pocket and swung into the back office, grabbing my jacket and closing the door. 5:57. I wondered what my great grandparents would say, working hard every single day all their lives and then seeing me, leaving early to go to a party. Oh God. I never even met my great grandparents. I think they were Italian.
5:58. The string of bells hung on the front door clanged when a customer walked in.
The guy moved quick, disappearing down one of the aisles immediately, but I caught the dark blue uniform tucked in at the waist, where a gun and a feverishly polished badge were hung. I knew he was a police officer, and a lump rose in my throat. Not because I thought he was arresting me for shirking my responsibilities or anything, but...
Sometimes flowers grow in different directions than we thought they would.
Regardless of floral proverbs, this guy had given me an excuse to stay. I was grateful.
“We’re closing early today,” I called to him at the front of the store, satisfied.
“I’m dead if I don’t get these flowers.” The voice was deeper and more forceful than I’d expected for someone so... not tall. The only part of this guy visible over the aisle was the top of his mousy brown hair, tousled by the wind. At least I could kind of see over the top.
“You’re the last one,” I replied.
“Thanks.” At least he tried to sound more friendly.
I hung my jacket on the doorknob of the back office and pulled the apron over my head again, tying it tight around my waist and covering as much of my nice shirt as I could. Take no chances when you don’t want to pay for dry-cleaning.
The officer moved methodically through the aisles, examining the flowers in a flurry of motion but going from one to the next. I caught a glimpse of his eyebrows, deeply furrowed in what must have been the mightiest of frowns.
“You need any help?” I asked.
“No,” he huffed. “I can do the whole romance bullshit. I got it.”
“Well I can do something custom for you, if you want.”
I saw the eyebrows furrow again in thought. Finally, he said “Yeah. Yeah, ok.”
I turned my back to the cop and gathered the tools I’d left strewn along the work station, scissors and a stapler, pliers and wire cutters. Romance bullshit, as he’d put it, definitely was not the right occasion to use my halloween-themed paper for wrapping the flowers, but I pulled a sheet anyway. If only to see if this guy could sound any more flustered with anger.
The sound of boots on the linoleum floor rose behind me, and the rustle of plastic and flowers followed when he set a bouquet he’d picked out on the counter.
“Just these.” His voice was suddenly quieter. “Please.”
I turned to the officer with halloween paper in my hands. “What kind of--”
I stopped short. I stammered. I hadn’t said his name in a long time.
“Marco?” The cop grinned, a shocking and breathless thing that changed his whole face.
“Jean,” I managed finally.
“I can’t believe it’s you,” said Jean.
I couldn’t think of a damned thing to say. The silence was a few seconds long, the racing beat of my pulse in my ears and the space in between -- we just stared at each other. His eyes swept every inch of me, from the dark hair I couldn’t get to behave and downwards. I felt my face flush deep red, but where his gaze was intense and thorough, I was frantic; I didn’t know what to look at first. I saw the uniform, but only after I saw the stretch of the fabric across his broad shoulders and the scarred knuckles of his hands gripping his coat, and only after I recognized the tousled lighter hair that tapered to darkest brunette around his ears and the nape of his neck, buzzed so short it must have been doe soft. I saw the metal-plated name tag on his chest that said “Kirschtein,” but only after I saw the firm, familiar shape of his mouth and met his light brown eyes with mine.
“This is crazy,” Jean said at last. “I didn’t know this was your place.”
“It’s called Bodt’s Flowers.” I smiled slightly, my heart heaving in my chest.
“I know, that’s why I came here--” Immediately, his face went as deep a red as mine. “I go by here a lot, I work in the neighborhood. How have you been, man? It’s been so fucking long, five years?”
“I’ve been great,” I replied. It’s been six years. “I’ve got this place going...”
“That’s great.” He hadn’t stopped looking at me, not once.
“And you... You’re a cop, huh?” I tried to keep my voice casual.
“Yep, NYPD. Sorry to say I grew up to be a badass.” Jean gestured vaguely to his gun. “I have to use this thing a lot, all those parking tickets.”
He smiled at me again, sheepish, his face still blushed through. I couldn’t look at him for too long without looking at everything, so I turned away, putting out my tools and getting to work on arranging the flowers he’d picked out.
“So who are these for?” I said lightly, “are you apologizing to someone you busted? I think I saw that on a cop show once.”
“Oh..” Jean looked flustered when he remembered the flowers, and a line between his eyebrows creased in his forehead. “No, no. The guys I haul in send me flowers for not breaking their wrists. These are for my fiancee.”
“Jesus, you’re getting married?”
“Don’t sound so shocked.”
“If anyone’s allowed to be shocked, it’s me,” I said.
Immediately, I regretted it. Jean opened and closed his mouth, unsure of what to say, his face a dark red blush all the way to his hair.
“Congratulations, Jean.” My voice was bright. His name lilted on my tongue.
“Thank you. And thanks for the flowers.” He nodded at the bouquet that I’d wrapped for him, a bow tied neatly where the flowers began to bloom. “Hopefully they help. I’m gonna need all the fucking help I can get.”
I laughed, ringing up the order at the cash register, the counter between us.
“You look good,” Jean said quietly. “You look really good, Marco.”
I looked up at him from the register, but only for a second, the flicker of his eyes on mine. I was afraid of what would happen if I kept my eyes on him too long.
“Thank you,” I said. “The flowers are $18.99.”
“What are you doing tonight?” He blurted the words out.
“I, um -- I’m actually going to a party. One of my buddies just got back from his tour of duty in Afghanistan, so we’re celebrating... That’s why I'm closing early.”
“Oh. I thought.” Jean rubbed the back of his neck. “No. That’s great. Yeah.”
He looks older, I thought, but he still talks the same way. I pushed the thought of his neck out of my head before it even had the chance to expand.
“What?” I said, smiling slightly.
“I just thought it would be cool to... Catch up,” he said finally.
I glanced at the clock -- 6:15 -- and let the cash register finish printing his receipt, handing it to him before I said anything. Then I grinned at him, and Jean’s face went pink.
“Come with me to the party, if you don’t need to get these home right away.”
“What-- oh, no. She can wait. I might have been wrong,” he said darkly, “but I’m not going to go crawling back to her.”
You haven’t changed, I thought violently, suddenly.
“Come on,” I said instead, banishing this thought as well. I grabbed for my coat and threw my apron on the counter. Together we stepped out of the shop into the evening lit street, talking while I locked the door.
“So... what kind of party is it?” Jean asked, hesitant.
“The type of party you bring a cop to and expect him to start dancing,” I replied lightly.
“I’m kidding. My buddy Erwin just came back from his second tour in Iraq, he’s in the Army. He hasn’t been home in almost two years, and he lost his arm in combat... He’s had a rough time. So someone put this together, you know, to make him feel at home.”
“Sounds great. Do you have somewhere I could leave my uniform, though? Being a cop at the party either makes you a stripper or a killjoy.” His afterthought, the bouquet clasped haphazard in his fist: “And these fucking flowers.”
“Leave them in my car,” I suggested, “That’s where I’m leaving my stuff. The bar’s only a few blocks away from here.”
We approached my car parked some ways down the street from the shop, my tiny eco-efficient baby I’d gotten used a few years ago, and Jean snorted.
“Yes, please, judge my car,” I laughed, “What do you drive, a Hummer?”
“You’ve given me too many lectures about the damn environment for me to ever really appreciate those things.”
When I unlocked the doors, Jean pulled the passenger side open and threw the flowers onto the seat. He worked enough of the buttons of his uniform shirt open until he could pull it over his head, drawing the white t-shirt he wore underneath along with it up his body until his flat stomach and the crest of his ribcage were bare and rippled with goosebumps in the cold.
My mouth felt dry. I didn’t know what car he drove. I didn’t know who had bought him that black coat he shrugged on over his t-shirt, or who had measured it perfectly in the cut of the shoulders and waist. I hadn’t seen him in six years. But the familiarity of him was so overwhelming, the ground felt like it was spinning for a moment.
“Are you coming?” Jean looked at me over the top of the car, raising his eyebrows.
“I -- yeah.” I threw my jacket onto the driver’s seat and locked the door, stepping back onto the sidewalk and falling into step beside him as we walked.
How can a stranger be so familiar?
We walked in silence for a while. The city was alive and going at this time of night, the traffic bumper to bumper beside us until we turned onto a quieter street lined with houses. I noticed him looking at me, unabashed, somewhere halfway down this street.
“Still so intense,” I said, finally meeting his gaze. “What, do I look really different?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Yes and no.”
“You got rid of that fucking bowl cut.” Jean laughed. “What, did you like my haircut so much you got it for yourself?”
I touched the back of my head where the barber had buzzed an undercut. “The guy kind of did it himself,” I laughed, “so I kept it. My ears are always cold.”
Jean’s laugh turned into the smoke of his breath in the cold. “You still smile all the time. That hasn’t changed. And you still have exactly one good shirt you keep for special occasions.”
“What-- how did you know--”
He laughed again.
We crossed the street when the light changed, and after another long moment of silence, Jean spoke again. He was never one to actively attempt to continue a conversation, to feel any awkwardness about not talking, but here he was, getting me to talk.
“So you own that shop?”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “I got hired as an assistant for the old guy who owned it, and when he decided to retire, I bought it off him. A year and a half ago.”
“I thought you were going to be an artist,” he said quietly.
I looked up at him. "I thought the same thing about you.”
His gaze was intense, unwavering when we looked at each other. There were a lot of things that I could have said, but I didn’t.
“Things change,” he said, and fell silent.
“So who’s the lucky girl?” I said, trying to be casual, trying to be light... then I stammered. “It-- It’s a woman, right--”
Jean’s eyes went wide, and he blushed deeply. “Yes. Of course --”
Of course, he says. The light was dimming darker and darker, and the streetlights came on over our heads.
“Her name is Sasha,” he continued. “I met her when I joined the police force. You’d like her. All she does is make fun of me.”
“So she’s a keeper.”
He smiled slightly. “When she’s not being a stubborn little shit, she’s really great.”
“Sounds perfect. I’m happy for you.”
For the first time, Jean didn’t look at me when I spoke.
“She’s a great cook,” he blurted out of nowhere.
“Yeah. You should come over some time, she loves to cook for people. Anything you want, she can find the ingredients for, I swear to god. Even gross shit.”
I laughed. “Sounds very appetizing.”
“No -- it is, she really is a great cook, she just likes finding really weird things to cook. She’s made bison, rattlesnake... The weirdest things.”
“She doesn’t do the roasted bug thing, does she?”
“No, but she was tempted.” Jean grimaced. “I told her hell no.”
“Sounds fun,” I said, genuine. “I’d love to meet her.”
The thought of sitting at a kitchen table he’d gone out and bought with someone else was what made this even stranger; this twisted, twi-lit parallel universe I was in, walking next to a Jean that I hadn’t seen in years, not knowing where he lived, not knowing him really at all.
“How far is this place?” Jean replied, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat.
“Not far. Two, three blocks now.” We walked in silence for a little longer, our breath puffing into the air between us.
The shrill cry of my ringtone surprised the shit out of both of us; I’d left it at the highest volume from when I used it as an alarm clock this morning, and the old-timey phone ring echoed like a siren in the street. I whipped it out of my pocket and answered immediately, only stopping to check who it was when the ringing had stopped.
“Levi,” I said, more surprised. “Hey.”
Jean stood back where we’d stopped on the sidewalk, frowning.
“Erwin’s boyfriend,” I explained to him in a whisper.
Levi’s voice was low over the phone. “He’s not going.”
“We cancelled the party. Erwin won’t go. He won’t leave the house.”
“Jesus,” I replied, “What happened?”
“He won’t say. I think he had another panic attack, but he won’t say.” Levi was always calm and collected, to the very last disaster, but I could hear the strain in his voice.
“What can I do?” I asked, “Do you want me to go to the bar and tell them, or do you want me to try to talk to him?”
“The bar is dealt with, and he’s not talking to anyone tonight.”
“I can come tomorrow.”
He was silent for a long time on the other end of the phone. I glanced at Jean, and found him watching me, his expression dark. His eyes hadn’t left my face, and illuminated in the street lamp’s harsh white light, they were tawny, the colour of an owl’s wings, the colour of burnished, faded gold. I didn’t realize Levi had started speaking again for a full minute. I just kept thinking that word, tawny, rolling it around my mouth, getting it stuck in my head.
“Can you do that?” asked Levi.
“I’m sorry. Do what?”
“Tomorrow. Don’t bring up the arm, or I’ll kill you.” Levi hung up.
I lowered my hand and looked at the phone, gone black after the call ended. I looked up at Jean and said, “the party got cancelled, man.”
His reaction time seemed staggered. After a minute, he raised his eyebrows. “What happened?”
“I think it was too much for him. The party, all the people after everything he’s dealt with.” Pity washed over me, and I felt bad for my friend, but trying to help would make it worse. “Erwin just needs to feel safe again. And the arm thing...”
“What do you want to do now?” Jean asked quietly.
That hadn’t occurred to me. Without the mission of going to the bar, we stood on the sidewalk looking at each other, no more reason to be together provided. We stared at each other, at a loss. The look on his face made my stomach knot.
“We could go get a drink,” I suggested. “Or... we could go get something to eat, or -- we don’t have to --”
I didn’t know what to say. All at once I wanted to see him and stay with him and talk to him, but the party had afforded us a crowded environment, a reason to joke around and be light. But I didn’t want to be alone with him, really alone with him, eating dinner, across the table from him, sitting next to him -- I didn’t know how to, without...
“Marco,” Jean said quietly.
“Hmm?” My face was burning.
He came closer, his expression unreadable. A fraction of an inch shorter than me, just enough that he tipped his head back, just slightly, so his eyes were parallel with mine. He searched my face, that intent stare piercing, his brow furrowed, the curve of his mouth, his lips bitten. My heartbeat rose in my throat. A little bit closer, the tiny expanse of space you move when you exhale, and the street lamp’s light caught in his eyes. All I thought was tawny, tawny, fucking tawny.
“Jean,” I said softly.
When he kissed me, it hurt, but that was always how he kissed when he was afraid. Jean moved with his whole body, primal and reactive, pressing me up against the faded brownstone apartment building we stood before. His hands slipped under my shirt to the bare skin of my hips and pulled me toward him at the same time as pushing me back. I wrapped my arms around his neck and held onto him tight -- he kissed me desperate, pulling away and coming right back, not caring if he ever breathed again. I loosened my grip on his neck and held his face in both my hands. Jean was gasping, but still wanted it, nuzzling his nose against mine, brushing his lips against mine, the softest question.
I waited until his breath had evened somewhat. My head clear, my pulse racing, faster than it had in six years, I kissed him again, my hands in his hair. He deepened it immediately, his response rugged and intense, his hands finding the small of my back under my shirt and pressing me closer, closer, his fingertips sinking into my skin, the familiar taste of him, the smell of him...
I wanted him so bad I could feel it everywhere, down to the tips of my fingers.
“Please,” was all Jean said when he broke away, the word a hot breath on my skin.
“My place.” My voice was shaking. “I-- My place -- three blocks away.”