Arrangements – No. 181

The smell of cashews and orange chicken melded with the roses, lilies, and tulips, mixing our savory dinner and my life in flowers into a surprisingly pleasant perfume. Collecting the last takeout container, I stuffed them into a plastic bag, and tied the handles into a knot.

“I can take that to the trash.” My mother stood, offering her hand.

“It’s Mother’s Day. You shouldn’t be taking out the garbage.”

The phone rang and Mom beckoned the remains of our celebratory meal with a waggle of pudgy fingers. Giving up on my attempt at good daughter protocol, I handed over the bag before trotting through the plastic strips separating the public and workspace sides of my shop, and reached the counter before the answering machine could pick up what I guessed would be another last minute order.

“Trent Flowers.”

A woman on the other end cleared her throat. “Irene Trent?”

“Yes.” I snagged a blank pad of paper and a pen, one I’d topped with a silk hibiscus. “What can I do for you?”

“Open the front door.”

I leaned over the counter, eyeing the darkened entrance through the menagerie of garden decorations and refrigerated cabinets. A shadowed figure stood on the other side of the glass, silhouetted in the parking lot’s lights. She had an elbow bent, holding what I assumed to be a phone to her ear.

“Um…” I tipped behind my register. “I’m afraid we’re closed.”

“Please. I’m asking as a mother. Your mother.”

I flinched from the receiver and stared at the earpiece. The back door slammed and my mother returned from the garbage bin in the alley, her plodding steps taking her to the plastic strips.

“Anything more I can do for you, Irene?”

I turned to her, and whatever look I had on my face caused hers to go white as a daisy. I gazed into her blue eyes, ones so much brighter and rounder than my own. They hovered above plump cheeks and a plumper body. Mine had sprouted too tall, like a blade of grass never trimmed. My brown irises and figure had been from my father, Mom had explained when I’d first noted the difference, the father who’d left us behind before I’d entered the world. Her explanation had been enough for a while, but my mind had kept churning on the possibility of something else at the root, although I’d learned to stop asking.

“Irene, please,” said the woman on the phone.

I brought the receiver back to my lips and whispered, “Just a minute.”

Cupping the speaking end of the phone, I faced my mother and angled my chin at an array of cut stems cluttering the floor and ribbons needing to be wound. “I have to finish cleaning up. Why don’t you head out and we’ll meet for coffee tomorrow?”

Mom’s furrows deepened. “Honey? Are you alright?”

I worked up the grin I’d used when introducing her to teachers or boyfriends who’d inevitably do a double take at the mis-resemblance. “I’m fine.”

My mother’s mouth flattened into a patient but disbelieving line. “Jackie’s. Tomorrow. Nine o’clock?”

“Nine, sure.”

With a bob of her head and a bit of a wobble, Mom headed into the back where she’d hung her purse and coat on the rack. I listened for her plodding to take her to the back door, the sticky hinges snapping, the latch slipping into place.

Placing the phone into its cradle, I grabbed a pair of shears and headed for the front door. The figure lowered her hand, the glow of her cell phone fading. Shadows played on her face, one I might have met nose to nose if the glass and my trepidation hadn’t created a wall in between.

I flicked the entry lights and balked.

An older version of the tan visage I looked at each morning faced me from the sidewalk. She had the same unruly mop of brown curls swept back from her angular face, eyes bagged by sleeplessness or some deeper plight, and a willowy body, one that had to be as gangly as my own in a tee-shirt and mint green peasant skirt. She smiled, a weary one, reminding me of folks who came into the store to make preparations for a funeral.

“Who are you?” My question rebounded against the panes and she cupped her ear.

When I saw the word “Sorry” mouthed, I fished the keys from my pocket. The bolt thudded with a less satisfying thump then when I’d opened the store hours earlier anticipating a good day of business working smiles out of petals. Opening the door a crack brought the smell of oncoming summer, asphalt, and a fainter perfume of ginger and spice.

I repeated my question although I could still hear her answer through the phone. For some reason I needed to see it come off her lips.

The woman clutched the strap to the messenger bag slung over her shoulder, one bulging more than the body she held it against. “I’m your mother.”

I blockaded the sliver of space I’d made with the door. “I have a mother, she just left.”

“No, Irene, I didn’t.”

I swiveled around and froze.

My mother stood between the plastic strips, purse clutched at her belly. Stepping into the store, she laid a hand on the glass counter and looked past me to the woman before the door. “Hello Marsha.”

“You know this woman?” I wielded the shears back and forth, causing both older women to shrink a step. I didn’t care. They had answers they weren’t sharing, ones about my past, ones nibbling at suspicions I’d harbored for too long, and I’d be damned if I was going to go another night without an explanation.

Mom regained her poise first. “Perhaps you should remember your manners, Irene, and invite your guest inside.”

I hid the shears behind by back as her chiding tone reminded me of questions I’d blurted in school, the ones earning me principal notes about politeness. Shuffling around to my guest-this Marsha-I yanked the door wide and spoke between clenched teeth.

“Won’t you come in?”

Marsha gripped messenger bag tight. “Thank you.”

Mom motioned at a patio set and she inched toward it, carefully keeping her balance on the counter, then a wired bookshelf, then the wrought iron frame of the chair. She plopped down and Marsha perched on another.

After closing the door, I took the one in between and kept the shears in my lap. “What’s going on?”

“Irene,” said Mom, “meet Marsha Harrington.”

Marsha matched Mom’s smile, but it never reached her eyes. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the two of you.” Slipping from Mom’s grasp, Marsha set her hands on the tiled table and twined her visibly trembling fingers. “I recently lost my husband, and well, we never had children of our own and I wanted to—” She caught my eyes and I saw my face reflected in her muddy depths. “Reconnect.”

I turned away. “I don’t understand.”

My mother met my simmering irritation with her usual placid expectation. “I think you do.” She held herself upright, her rounded body oozing a sense of inevitability. “I think you always have.”

Retreating to the table’s tiles I sought some pattern, some order out of their mosaic. A line led me to a single broken piece shattered in two and then pressed back together with plaster.

“I was adopted?”

My mother sighed, a single breath longer than a lifetime. “I’m afraid it was never an official arrangement.”

“Never something official?” I grasped the shears, the handle’s grooves working into my palm as I suspected some distant typewriter should have been used to fill out custodial paperwork.

“Marsha was one of my students,” said my mother.

“One of her more troubled students,” added Marsha.

“So what happened?” sprang out of me.

They exchanged a glance over the table, and Marsha braced herself against the wrought iron. Words started tumbling as if she’d had them ready to spill like water from a bucket.

“I met a senior at the end of my sophomore year. He was a charmer who swept me up, and I, foolish thing, went along with my head in the clouds. I think he works out west in the movie industry now, but I haven’t seen him since high school. I never told him what happened. I did tell my family who, it turned out, were the real problem.” Marsha stiffened, her body narrowing into a brittle twig. “I guess I’ve never been good with families.” Waving a spindly hand, one I’d seen making bouquets for the past two and half decades, she raked up her bitter humor like a bothersome weed. “They kicked me out. Mrs. Trent was the one who took me in.”

She and my mother locked eyes again over the mosaic tiles. Weariness and understanding floated across the shattered surface and I wanted to jump in, to wave my arms about, to disrupt their passive calm. They were at peace while I was being rendered. I squeezed the shears instead.

“And you gave me up?”

Marsha turned to me, her eyes sober and sad. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. Especially since afterwards, I found out I couldn’t have any more children.”

“I’m so sorry dear.” My mother squeezed Marsha’s hand and their fingers gripped one another like wrapping vines.

“Harold understood.” Without releasing Mom, Marsha perked in her chair like a closeted plant given sunlight. “And Mrs. Trent has kept me updated on how you’ve grown, Irene. I’m not looking to barge in now and worm into your life, but when she suggested I come by, I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see the woman you’ve become, see you in flesh and blood rather than envelopes and photographs.”

Marsha retrieved a battered album from her messenger bag and opened to the first page. Faded black and white pictures of me in a crib my mother has kept in her closet, along with her silent hopes of it being filled sometime soon. The images dominated the next few pages, my face behind clear film. Marsha flipped through others and I watched myself aging in silence. She’d framed every elementary school picture in colored construction paper like in some kindergarten project, but proper photo corners took their place by adolescence. Copies of report cards accompanied glowing letters from science teachers, and not so glowing ones from history and English instructors. My graduation portrait from high school faced a photocopy of my college acceptance letter, and then those four years melted into my struggling attempts as a florist that had culminated in the shop where we now sat.

The next page faced us, pure as a field of fallen petals. Marsha covered the emptiness with her hand, her wedding band catching on the plastic.

I tore my eyes from the album and found myself wheeling on my mother, or I suppose, the woman who had raised me from a baby. I think that still made her my mother. Blooming ire cut into my certainty and made my voice as sharp as the shears I clutched.

“You knew this whole time?”

She sat back, her body pressing into the wire frame, her voice soft as dandelion fluff. “I did.”

“You lied to me. Lied from the day I was born?”

“I did,” she whispered.

I couldn’t sit. Smashing the shears onto the table lest I started hacking at innocent plants or guilty necks, I spun on my heel and marched the length of the shop. I doused the front light with a slam on the switch, and then stormed through the plastic ribbons and into my workroom.

The smell of cashews and oranges saturated the air. I wrapped my arms around me and shivered. I wanted to be shaking because of the cold coming off the refrigeration cabinets, from being tired of working an eighteen-hour day, from the waning adrenaline of creating one bouquet after another. Staggering back, I landed against on the doorframe, plastic sheets knocking my legs. I closed my eyes, bent my head, and held myself close.

I heard them whispering at the patio set, but I didn’t want to hear. I didn’t want to hear anything. My mother’s voice remained easy, a shower of autumn leaves. Marsha spoke at a lower pitch, one annoyingly similar to my own.

When I opened my eyes, I met my reflection in a frosted cabinet. I saw her again, standing outside my shop’s front door with a face I knew too well but not at all.

“I suppose I should go.” Marsha’s chair scraped the terracotta flooring, her messenger bag shifting on her shoulder.

“Wait.” I dipped through the plastic, the strips flapping behind me.

We stared at each other, Marsha and I, across the landscape of the life I had grown. She gripped her messenger bag, the album’s corners poking at the leather casing. Space opened between us, as empty as the last page and a need ignited in me, one to color the blankness and fill the hole I could see gaping in Marsha’s heart.

Another pair of shears found my hand from who knows where and my feet brought me to the first cabinet. I opened the chest, releasing a breeze of chilled air tinged with the scent of roses. Choosing one of sunny yellow, I snipped, leaving the stem long, the thorns alternating with the leaves. I let the door fall closed and I inhaled the rose’s fragrance, drinking the slightly sour tang into my toes.

Holding the aroma in my chest, I approached the patio set and offered over the flower. “Happy Mother’s Day, Mrs. Harrington.”

Tears pooled in Marsha’s eyes, but she did as I would have and blinked them away before they had a chance to streak her cheeks. Pinching the stem between the dangerous pricks and the delicate leaves, she brought the rose to her nose and inhaled. Her mouth curved into something halfway to a smile.

“Thank you, Irene.”

“We’re having coffee at nine,” said my mother, “down at Jackie’s.”

Marsha’s reedy back stiffened and she glanced between us. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“You’re not,” I said before I realized how much I wanted her to be there. “Please come.”

Marsha’s eyes misted again. This time she couldn’t stop the first drop, although she brushed away the rest without disturbing the rose’s petals. “I will.”

“Good.” I crossed my arms, unwilling to give into the embrace my body yearned for. Perhaps later, when I knew this stranger better, although facing her seemed like facing myself in the years to come.

“Good night Irene,” said Marsha. “Mrs. Trent.”

My mother rose as Marsha made her way from my store, her messenger bag and rose kept close. The door clanged shut and my mother collected her purse.

“I’ll go too.”

I didn’t challenge her to stay, to explain, to defend what she’d done. Instead, I followed the woman who had given me birth and locked the door to the niche I’d made in the world.

When I turned back, my shop lay vacant, the thump of my mother’s departure echoing on the counter and cabinets. I skimmed over the refrigerated cases, at the careful bouquets I’d made, at the simple gathering of complimentary hues or textures, marveling at the ease it took to bring them together and how they each, regardless of species or color, seemed to belong.

The urge to make my night as simple as life in a vase made me shiver and I rubbed at my sleeves. I started on the last clean up tasks, the sense of order satisfying in the wake of the shattered suspicions. Now the pieces lay all around, my mother, Marsha, and me. The future, however, seemed cleaner, like the album’s final page, and I began looking forward to coffee in the morning and the fresh arrangements life had in store for me next.