Eileen Skidmore has been published in The Chicago Tribune; The San Francisco Chronicle; Brain, Child; Brain, Child’s Greatest Hits, Eclectic, Oxford Magazine; Green Hills Literary Lantern; Full Grown People; The Meadow; Monarch Review, and The Umbrella Factory. She has been editing her first novel for what feels like an eternity. She writes using the pen name Eileen Bordy.
This story was inspired by an article I read in the New York Times about florists in the times of Covid. And then I was thinking that for introverts the social isolation enforced by the pandemic wasn't all bad.
In the way that eating too much mint chip could turn you off to ice cream, a decade of fulfilling floral demands for fussy clients had turned Jess off humanity. There were anxious brides who sent texts in the middle of the night—I just wanted to remind you not to put BABY’S BREATH in any of the arrangements! Thanks!— and husbands who called at the end of the day, having forgotten birthdays or anniversaries and asking for two-dozen red roses, like she had bunches of those laying around, like they couldn’t spare two minutes to think of a flower that might be more particular to their special partner. For the last ten months, it was mostly sympathy arrangements, one after the other. Some people got very specific—cala lilies, pink-tinged carnations, yellow narcissus but the ones that are all yellow, not white with yellow centers—as if the right arrangement could quell a river of grief. Some asked for planted azaleas or succulents—"I don’t want anything that will wilt and die." So, Jess was relieved but unprepared when she received an order for a spring bouquet she called "Cotton Candy." The order came at the end of the day from Jack in San Francisco, being sent to Amelie in Mountain View.
Jess had stopped expecting orders for this exuberant arrangement and had no hot pink Gerberas. The Flower Market didn’t have them either. There wasn’t a great demand for carnival-colored flowers. Jess knew better than to make the substitutions without first clearing them with her client. Some people didn’t care—"It’s the thought that counts."—but others got irate if she used freesias instead of hyacinths. She sent an email to Jack offering to substitute larkspur, asters, or pink stock. Minutes after her message whooshed out into the ether, her phone rang. It was an unknown number and she hesitated. She usually listened to voicemails first, crafting a response in her head and then calling back. There was a reason she worked and lived alone—she didn’t count Daisy, her half-feral, anti-social rescue cat with mixed-up social cues. She preferred the company of flowers and her own thoughts, but her phone’s jingle-ring felt particularly loud and insistent today and before she could overthink it, she clicked ‘accept.’ "Hello?" Her voice had gone raspy from lack of use, a piano out of tune. She cleared her throat and tried again. "This is Jess, the Flower Lady." She tried to strike a tone between cheerful and professional.
"And this is Jack. I got your email about the flowers…"
"I’m sorry I don’t have the Gerberas," she interrupted. "If you don’t like larkspur, I can do delphinium with ceanothus or bouvardia, maybe a little sedum." She was running through options in order to get off the phone as quickly as possible.
"Are you speaking Greek?" Jack laughed. "I have no idea what you just said."
"You ordered an arrangement of flowers to be delivered to Amelie." She slowed her cadence. "It’s my policy to let my clients know if I have to make substitutions." She was sitting on a stool at a long, narrow stainless-steel table in the middle of her kitchen that also doubled as her studio, stripping thorns from a bunch of yellow roses. At one end of her table were the remains of the day’s flowers stuck haphazardly into sturdy vases, along with piles of discarded cuttings. At the other end were finished arrangements, ready to be delivered. In between these two extremes sat Jess, the catalyst.
"Great, Jess the Flower Lady, but I was hoping you could give me some advice."
Jess couldn’t tell if Jack was angry, joking, or flirting. Her social skills had never been very sharp. She had a lot in common with Daisy. "Advice?"
Jess heard Jack typing, imagined that he, like Jess, was multitasking at his workstation.
"Don’t flowers have meanings?" Jack asked. "Do you have any that say, ‘Sorry I was an ass?’ Or maybe, ‘I’m a doofus?’"
Jess was certain he was joking this time, and something sparked in her. "I think Birds-of-Paradise scream ‘I am a doofus.’" Jack laughed and Jess felt her insides fizzle. She liked his laugh—a quick bark that startled her at first but then bubbled in her chest, effervescent and light. She wanted to make him laugh again. "Several orchid varieties look like asses."
He laughed again. "You’re funny, flower lady."
She blushed. "Are you going more for ass or doofus?"
"I guess the former. Are the Birds-of-Paradise expensive?" he asked.
"What’s the most expensive? I’d like those and a lot of them, like three dozen."
"Peonies then," Jess said, punching in some numbers on her calculator. "Three dozen of those will cost almost $250. Does Amelie have a favorite color? They come in red, white, pink, yellow, purple, lime green…"
"I don’t know," Jack said.
Jess wondered who Amelie was. She’d assumed girlfriend, but wouldn’t he know her favorite color? And would he be flirting with Jess if he had a girlfriend? Maybe Amelie was a co-worker but $250 of peonies? Jess decided that Amelie was probably Jack’s mother. Jess sent a lot of grand-gesture arrangements from sons to mothers.
"Let’s go with the florist’s choice," Jack said.
Jess pushed aside the roses she was working on and opened her laptop to update his order. "You left the card area blank. What would you like me to put on it?" She had studied calligraphy. It was that extra touch that impressed people and set her apart.
"Sorry," Jack said.
"It’s okay. Lots of people miss it." And some people tried to write novellas. Jess’s other value-add was to correct the grammar and spelling and massage the messages. "We are sorry for your loss" became "These flowers are the words we are not able to speak to you." "Happy Anniversary" became "My love continues to bloom year after year."
"No," Jack said. "That’s what I want the card to say: Sorry."
Jess cringed at her misunderstanding, her throat tightening, leaving her momentarily speechless. She was the doofus. That was where she and her cat differed. Daisy didn’t care when she made a mistake, such as when she forgot that she liked being scratched behind her ears and turned around and bit Jess, then acted as if it were Jess’s fault.
"Is that okay?" Jack asked. "Do you think I should say more? I don’t want to remind her of what I did, if you know what I mean."
Did he forget his mother’s birthday? That isn’t so bad and lots of sons did it. Besides, Jack laughed easily and seemed just as easy to forgive. Jess knew she shouldn’t ask because she was just the flower lady, but the question flew out of her before she could filter it: "What did you do?"
"Do you really want to know?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. Maybe tulips would be better. White tulips with wisteria and stephanotis. The arrangement was forming in her mind. And she would write the perfect sentiment, something funny and wry, like Jack: Would you believe I meant to forget your birthday so that you could continue the celebration?
"It’s not my proudest moment," he said.
"I’ve heard it all. It can’t be that bad," she said, trying to sound encouragingly teasing, while scanning a shelf in the corner to see if she had white ribbon on hand, or burlap. Burlap would be better.
"I may have accused my girlfriend of cheating on me."
Girlfriend? Jess’s internal fizz went flat. Of course, Amelie was not his mother. Of course, he had a girlfriend. Jess fought the urge to end the call but instead sat there, mute, waiting for words to come to her, but all she was thinking was that people like Jack were why she preferred flowers. Their thorns and spikes were visible, so Jess knew what to avoid.
"It sounds bad, but it came from a good place," Jack sputtered. "Amelie is taking care of her diabetic dad during Covid."
Jess wasn’t listening. Her chest was tingling and hot, spreading to her cheeks and ears. She was disappointed in herself for feeling disappointed. She wasn’t looking to add people to her life.
"I said I’d wear a mask. I thought she was overreacting. Do you?"
"What?" Jess asked.
"I had a test and I said I’d wear a mask. That’s safe, isn’t it?"
She knew she was supposed to answer. That was how people conversed. Give and take. "I don’t know…it’s a pandemic. People are sick and dying…"
"I haven’t seen Amelie in months."
Amelie. Her name sounded like an orchid. "How did she respond?" Jess asked.
"She hung up and now she won’t answer my calls or texts," Jack said. "I can be a hothead."
Yes, Jess thought, a passionflower. She never liked them. The flower was obscene, an alien sea creature with protruding sex organs and come-hither petals.
"Are you there?" Jack asked.
"What is she like?" Jess asked.
"Amelie? She has long dark hair. She’s in law school. She likes to run. She smells fruity."
Jess could see her jogging down a sidewalk, tan legs pumping, her brown ponytail swinging from side to side. Dark Star orchid. Jack wanted to see her in the flesh. To be in the same room with her, to touch her glossy hair, to smell her fruity skin. Jess opened her own t-shirt and whiffed. The chemical smell of her Secret Powder Fresh Scent deodorant.
"She’s just awesome."
Jess could hear the moony tone of budding love in Jack’s voice. She tried to skip ahead and picture the prickly, inevitable divorce. Cacti, globe thistles and pampas grass. But she couldn’t conjure it; all she saw was Jack and Amelie holding hands in the fuzzy silhouette of a 70s soft rock album, the fairly lights and peony arrangements at their wedding.
"I know I overreacted but it’s because I miss her. And I’d had too much coffee. I get it now. I was out of line. Definitely. A total doofus and an ass."
"A doofass," Jess said, forcing a smile.
"Ha!" Jack said. "God, I’m so sick of this, though. I’ve never spent so much time alone in my apartment."
"It will end someday." Daisy was sleeping in a discarded flower box on the kitchen counter. Jess tossed an empty spool of ribbon toward her and Daisy opened her eyes, looking perturbed, then went back to sleep.
"Not soon enough. I miss Amelie but it’s not just her. I miss shaking hands. I miss smiling at babies. I miss seeing people’s teeth." She heard him take a gulp of something—coffee or water. "I shouldn’t complain. It’s been hard for everyone. And a lot harder for some."
But it hadn’t been hard for Jess. Other people didn’t know how to be alone with their own thoughts, to be quiet, to sit with their own fears, but Jess had been training for a pandemic her whole life. And for the first time in her life, she had felt normal. The world had had to conform to her way of living, everybody in their own bubbles, connected by the internet. She finally fit in. When everything else went back to normal, she wouldn’t be. She hadn’t missed people’s teeth.
"What do you think?" Jack asked. "Can flowers save this?"
Jess noticed on the shelf above her sink that one of her coffee mugs was facing the wrong way, the handle facing left instead of right. Did he really think peonies could make up for his callous outburst? "Flowers can soothe a broken heart, add joy to a room, be made into tea, put into salads, used for dye." She leaned in and brushed her cheek against the cool, powdery petal of a yellow rose. "Do you know how peonies got their name?" she asked. "Zeus turned a man named Paeon into a flower after some hothead rival threatened to kill him out of jealousy."
"That’s intense." Jack was silent for a minute. "I may have come off sounding like I was jealous of Amelie’s dad. I’m not."
Jess plucked the petal off the rose she had been brushing her cheek against and rubbed it between her fingers until it fell apart. Jess realized she’d been asking a lot of flowers herself. They’d been her constant companions for years and, although they served a place, they had their limits. They were an amendment to joy or sorrow, not a replacement for feeling it. "There’s only so much a flower can do."
"I hear you," Jack said. "I’m going to work on my temper. I can do that."
Jess was skeptical. Then again, when Jess brought Daisy home three years ago, she had cowered under Jess’s bed and hissed whenever Jess got near her. Daisy still wasn’t cuddly, but she allowed Jess to scratch the soft fur under her chin and purred. If a cat like Daisy could change, certainly people could change. "Jack, I think we should send Amelie protea. It’s named after Poseidon’s son, Proteus, who was a shapeshifter." The arrangement formed in her mind: pink protea, flouncy peach garden roses, pale grey eucalyptus, and sage green thistles. It would be a mixture of soft, spiky, sweet and pungent, like people, actually. "It will be stunning."
"Maybe I should say something about shapeshifting in the message, like how I’ll change."
"I’ll come up with something." Jess had already written the message: I’m sorry for what I said. I can’t promise I will ever be perfect, but I can promise I will do better.
"It’s been nice talking to you," Jack said.
"It’s been nice chatting with you," Jess said, and the fact that she meant it surprised her. Jack hung up and Jess felt the disconnection. Normally, when Jess ended a conversation, it felt like a Friday at six—a well-earned rest after putting in a week’s work. Jess was again alone in her kitchen studio with her flowers and her thoughts and Daisy—everything the same but somehow different. Once everybody got a vaccine, the world would go back to normal, but it couldn’t be the same normal. Everybody had changed. Jess wasn’t sure what that looked like for her, but it didn’t feel like fear. The sun was starting to set, sending a warm glow across the kitchen and Daisy mewled for her dinner.