When he had first started buying flowers for her, it was the spring of their relationship. Not yet the winter of their discontent. In point of fact, flowers are what had brought them together. It was like something pulled straight from a rom-com: their meet-cute. There she was, bending over to pick one of the tulips at 54th and Park, having just come from Bobby Van to pick up a steak for her boss—an expectedly dickish partner at the law firm where she served as his assistant. The world runs on assistants, after all. While her day was going in a typically horrible fashion, she always made it a point to stop and smell the tulips (had there been actual roses, she would have done that instead).
It seemed only natural to her that tulips should be such a staple of Manhattan, what with its rich history of Dutch infiltration. And as she was thinking this, bending over just a little too far to “discreetly” pick one of the yellow tulips, the container holding the steak inside the bag managed to open just enough to drip all of the juice from the meat not only onto the flowers, but also her form-fitting white pencil skirt. It was at that moment he arrived. Materialized from the ether, it seemed to her in retrospect. He was undeniably mesmeric. Not dashing, per se, but he exuded the confidence and calm of someone who was.
Just as the rest of the contents of her bag were about to slip out—roughly two hundred dollars’ worth of food—she could see her job flash before her eyes. It was then that his quick footing and remarkable agility first made itself known. For he swooped in just in time to grab the paper sack, correct the positioning of the goods and, all at once, pick a bouquet of tulips to give to her. Everything she should have been able to do herself, but for whatever reason, could not. Maybe some aspect of her was “asking for it”—to be rescued, that is. For most women are still preprogrammed to believe that “the rescue” is a primary component of “romance.” She supposed that was the subconscious trap she had set for herself, conjuring Calvin out of thin air in order to fulfill some latent fantasy.
Grasping the flowers in her hand, Calvin handed the bag back over to her and said, simply, “Hello.”
“Hi,” she offered back, as though they were old acquaintances.
He stared down at the blood-red juice that had spilled right in the triangle of her crotch. Like she was having a backward period situation. She followed his gaze to the site of the catastrophe and jumped up in horror. “Oh no… oh fucking—”
“Yes. All the nos.” She averted his penetrating gaze for fear that he might see directly into her soul. Or, worse still, be able to intuit that, despite her embarrassment, she was still finding the time to have lascivious thoughts about him.
“What’s your name?”
“Grace,” she replied automatically. Choosing to follow it with, “Grace the Graceless, it would seem.”
She started to try “brushing off” the blood juice, but was stopped by an insistent Calvin who offered, “Grace, look, I know you don’t really know me—I’m Calvin, by the way—but I think, thus far, I’ve made myself come across as a relatively ‘standup’ fellow, and I’d just like to offer my services once more to help you.”
Grace arched her brow and inquired, “How do you mean?”
“Well, you see, my apartment is just over—”
“Let me stop you right there, Calvin. This isn’t Notting Hill, okay? I’m not Anna Scott in desperate need of hiding from the press so they don’t catch me in a compromising tabloid shot. I’m not going to fall for your romantic comedy bait. Not when you could be a Ted Bundy type for all I fucking know. I’m perfectly fine going back to my high-strung, easily rattled boss looking like this.”
Calvin blinked at her expectantly. Grace sighed, capitulating, “Okay. Fine. Where do you live?”
He smiled and said, “Follow me.” Holding her flowers and the steak sack, she obeyed, with Calvin grinning back at her, “So you think I’m handsome enough to be compared to Ted Bundy?”
She grumbled, “Please. I’m not in the mood for quips.”
“What about quills? I write a mean sonnet.”
“I’m starting to get why you’re so available to help me.”
It took thirteen blocks to discover his apartment was a marvel. One of those dream places you would see a main character living in on a TV show. Someone with the unrealistic job of “editor” or “journalist” spouted as a way of the person somehow being able to afford this. He had no such profession. Instead, he was proud to admit, “I inherited it. Isn’t that the only way to live in this city anymore? Or at least to have a title to an apartment in your name, anyway? I mean, Christ, who can bear to live in a shitty room?”
“About ninety-nine percent of New York, I would say.”
“Is that the percent you’re part of? Do you live in a shitty room?”
He was fussing about in the hall closet, digging through boxes until finally pulling out, remarkably, a white skirt. Before she could respond to his question, he triumphantly held it up to her and said, “I knew I had something similar in there. I think it belonged to Mother, believe it or not.”
She shuddered as she took it from him. “Okay. I’m officially creeped out. I get that you were Mommy and Daddy’s boy all too well now… was there any inheritance left for your siblings?”
“Figures,” she said as she went into the nearest bathroom to try on the garment. To her dismay, it fit like a glove. Her boss would never even notice the switch.
“Does it?” he called out from the kitchen as he prepared two espressos using his machine. “I think my generosity bears the mark of a middle child.”
“We rarely see ourselves as we are,” she returned, emerging from the bathroom looking brand new again.
Calvin even stopped his preparing process to remark of her appearance, “That’s perfect on you. Maybe we were meant to meet just so you could have it.”
“Yes. I’m sure that’s just what it is.”
“So…do you?” he continued.”
“Live in a shitty room?”
She sat down at a bar stool and admitted, “Yes. I’m a twenty-nine-year-old assistant who lives in a shitty room. In Crown Heights.”
Calvin passed her an espresso. “That is perhaps more depressing than I could have dreamed. Though I do find it so fascinating to learn about how the other half lives.”
“Okay. I think the limits of your ‘charm’ have been stretched, and I should really get back to work.”
“You might want to heat that steak up. He’ll know you’ve been playing hooky.”
She hated to admit that he was right. To take him up on yet another brilliant offer. But she had little choice, rushing to the microwave to heat it for a minute before gathering her things and starting to take off.”
“Don’t forget your flowers,” Calvin shouted as she was halfway out the door.
“No, you keep them. They’re what got me in all this trouble in the first place. Never should have stopped to smell them.”
“I suppose that’s not what life is about in this town. For someone like you.”
She didn’t take the bait on delving into what that comment was supposed to mean, instead giving him a little wave as he approached to close the door behind her. The glint in his eye more prominent than ever, he confessed, “I’ve enjoyed playing Will Thacker to your Anna Scott, you know. Perhaps we can reprise the roles of two other rom-com icons during another meet-cute?”
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea, Calvin.”
“Oh please. That’s classic faux female resistance as made obligatory by the first act of the rom-com.”
“Sounds like you’re using rapist’s logic, not rom-com logic.”
“Are they not the same logic?” he retorted, tousling her hair as he added, “Guess we’ll just wait and see about that, won’t we?”
“Uh, probably not,” she insisted as she fixed her hair. “This will likely be the last time I see you at all. Though I’ll always look back on this lunch run as one of my strangest.”
He smiled. “Hope you don’t get fired.”
She sneered, “Hope you’re forced to get hired.”
He chuckled. “You’re a bit of Katharine Hepburn type, aren’t you?”
“Okay. Bye.” She slammed the door behind her, wishing he hadn’t kept on speaking so that she might hold onto at least some “fond” image of him for masturbatory purposes later. But now, the dialogue he had laid on too thick at the end of their exchange would ruin any such fantasies. She sighed as she watched the floors of the elevator go down, down, down—until finally: ding!The lobby. Her final descent back into the bowels of Manhattan had arrived. And suddenly, she did wish she was back up there in Calvin’s apartment. There was something safe about it, removed from the rest of the city—the rest of the world. She knew then she was in trouble. That he had called her bluff about being “faux resistant” to his advances.
Back at the office, her boss was tapping his foot expectantly as he waited for her at the front desk to make a grand point about how he had been waiting at all. “Where the hell have you been Grace?”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Broman, there was a mix-up with your order and I had to wait a little bit of extra time for them to fix it.”
He glared at her suspiciously as she handed him his lunch. He did not take it. “So you’re saying if I called Bobby Van right now, they would confirm your story?”
Without missing a beat, she assured, “Of course.” She knew Mr. Broman would never deign to make his own call, and exuded resoluteness with the knowledge of that. Finally accepting her excuse, he snatched the bag and declared, “All right. You’re off the hook. This time.”
He then proceeded to whisk away in a huff that indicated he was through with her for the next hour or so, at which time he would then come up with a fresh and innovative way to torture her. She didn’t have much room in her head for the rest of the day to give any further thought to Calvin, but when she emerged from the building and walked past the planter that had orchestrated their meeting, she was flooded with longing—wishing, indeed, that she had taken his bouquet with her. But that would’ve been too much of a tip-off to Mr. Broman that she had been “dilly-dallying.” Still, what a rare concession to “romance” it would have been.
She sighed as she passed the spot, standing patiently at the red pedestrian light even though there was nary a car on the horizon at this late hour. She decided she would pick a few for herself and call it something like “sisters doing it for themselves.” But as she bent over to suss out the ones she wanted, she saw on the sidewalk the distinct silhouette of a cop. Turning her head to look back, there he was. Mr. Piggy all ready to jump on her dick about this petty crime.
“Ma’am. I’m going to need you to step away from those tulips.”
Grace obliged, backing away slowly, while contemplating making a run for it. The cop would never be able to catch up in his shape. She, on the other hand, ran three miles every day before work. The last thing she wanted was a fine, or any evidence whatsoever of a “crime” on her record. So, in her emboldened, lovelorn state, she ran to the nearest sanctuary she could think of: his apartment.
The cop was outrun even more quickly than she could have envisioned. The pathetic potato was practically passing out from the pain after three blocks. That still didn’t stop her from going to Calvin’s to be extra certain she wouldn’t be caught. She needed to lie low for the night, and potentially wear a headscarf to and from work for the next couple of weeks to throw him off the scent in case he recognized her in the daylight.
In the present, there was Calvin. He faced her with a warmth and lack of surprise at her presence that made her want to melt. “Well. Good to see you again. Come in.”
The apartment was dimly lit, and it seemed as though he was in the midst of making dinner. She apologized, “I’m so sorry to interrupt. It was an emergency.”
“Oh, I have no doubt. Love is the most urgent emergency of any kind.”
She broke her polite façade then to say, “For fuck’s sake. You’re not gonna believe anything I say about why I’m here, right?”
“I know why you’re here.”
“But you don’t.”
He proceeded to stir some of the simmering tomato sauce in one of the pans on the stove. “Grace, whatever reason you’ve told yourself you’re here for, that’s not it.”
She couldn’t help but internally agree. She had come, ultimately, to be near him. To spend more time in his presence. Was it the pheromones or something? Because it surely couldn’t be his personality. Or could it…
It was at that moment that he flung some sauce in her face to entirely negate her ephemeral perspective. Hot sauce, mind you. Sauce that might have permanently scarred her skin had he not immediately come over and licked it off her.
“I like my sauce like I like my women: spicy,” he said after he had marked her. Before she could react, he then kissed her with the ferocity of a ferret. She was starting, once again, to doubt this entire enterprise. Well, he was certainly capable of keeping her guessing—she had to give him that. And maybe such a characteristic was what she wanted at that time in her life. But this period of “youthful folly” was already starting to come to a close. Grace knew that she might not be able to stay on this breed of “roller coaster” for very long.
But what was three years, really? Not so lengthy in the grand scheme of things. That was how much she had given to Calvin since that initial encounter. And it didn’t take many months after they got together for her to be slowly persuaded to quit her job and “just move in” with Cal. Cozy, cacophonous Cal. She didn’t think it through. How, despite the largeness of his apartment, he was constantly, hopelessly “there.” Looming at every corner, waiting to annoy and pester. He had no need of a job and, now, because of him, neither did she. The recipe for disaster should have been immediately apparent. Yet it took several months for Grace to see that the “honeymoon period” could not last forever.
Although, at the outset of their romance/move-in together, they spent their days taking long, philosophical walks through Central Park, gradually, Grace began to dread and resent the expectation that she had to come along whenever he was ready to take his daily constitutional. More than ever, she wanted her alone time. A few goddamn moments or so to process her own thoughts instead of constantly processing his. But no, Calvin wouldn’t have it, even started threatening that he would kick her out if she didn’t comply with his wishes. That’s when she realized it was an abusive dynamic (even though the sauce incident should have been her first clue). Despite Calvin consistently apologizing after every cruel threat, complete with a bouquet of fresh tulips from the nearby florist. The appearance of these bouquets became so constant as a result of Calvin’s vitriolic words that it got to be, for Grace, an almost vomit-inducing sight. The visual and aromatic onslaught of these flowers made a mockery of what the relationship truly was.
Gradually, she found a way to finagle a part-time job so that she could squirrel away some cash of her own and escape. She told Calvin she was taking sewing lessons. That she wanted to start a clothing line—a bourgeois aspiration befitting an Upper East Side wench with time on her hands. He bought it. Even gave her some money for the classes that didn’t exist, which she, in turn, also squirreled away. If he had ever really made the effort to get to know her, he would be aware that she already knew how to sew. Even frequently repaired the buttons on his coats and shirts. But she supposed he assumed little sewing fairies did that for him, the well-off being so secure that everything in their life will and should fix itself.
As the months passed ever so slowly during what would be their final year together, Grace only kept going—kept putting on the charade (including letting herself be fucked by his darting dick)—because she knew there was an end in sight. Soon enough, she would have enough money to flee. And the truth was, she was looking for a reason to leave New York anyway. Having to pull a Sleeping with the Enemy getaway was the best excuse she was ever going to get. Three years ago, if someone had asked her if she had plans to leave the city, she would have responded with an emphatic no. But after all this trauma and all these memories she wanted nothing more than to erase, a different environment was absolutely essential to her survival.
Preparing for her “sewing class” that last week of their tenure together, she could tell that Calvin had finally started to suspect her of being dishonest as he asked her questions like, “So, what would you think about meeting with a potential investor for your line? That is, if you’ve actually made any designs to show him.”
Grace would titter the questions away, staving him off a bit longer. That is, until the final day when she was getting ready to leave for work. It was at a diner on the Upper West Side, and she found it a pain in the ass that it should take so long to get there despite it being technically a stone’s throw. She was already in a slight rush because she knew she would be late. As she flitted toward the coffee maker to pour herself a quick cup, she noticed the tulips in the vase on the table. The ones that were perpetually there, indefatigably replenished. It had been a grossly “romantic” gesture Calvin had taken upon himself ever since they’d been together. But rather than being “sweet,” Grace found it repulsive. A manipulative way for him to remind her of a period when she didn’t despise him. When she actually thought he was “the one” for her. Alas, no—the only one for her now was Freedom. From his control, his gaze, his constant “thereness.”
Today, the tulips stood out to her because they hadn’t been changed in over a week. It was unlike him not to replace even the most vaguely “unfresh” batch. And as she drew closer to the vase to examine it with her cup of coffee in hand, she could feel his presence looming behind her as it made her bristle—sent a chill up her spine. “Looks like you finally noticed,” his disembodied voice announced somberly.
She knew what he was talking about, of course. The tulips were limp, the petals falling off the bloom. In every way, it was a mirror of where their relationship had arrived. In spite of how fresh and full of vigor it had seemed that first day, the two of them standing in front of the vibrantly peppered planter.
Grace turned around and nodded her confirmation at him.
He stared stoically at her and demanded, “What do you want to do about it?”
“Let’s just leave it.”
“You mean let it die.”
She nodded again, caressing his cheek in a rare moment of affection. He swatted it away and walked back toward the bedroom. At last, her chance had arrived. She knew she wouldn’t be returning that day. Everything that needed to be said between them had been achieved by that dying bouquet.