In honor of (or in great resistance to) Valentine’s Day, below is a short story I wrote six years ago, in the spring of 2007. You are welcome to embrace, reject or forgive the 20-year-old (me) who wrote this. Please do not share without explicitly crediting my name, thanks!
The Compromise Flower
(Original Short Fiction)
by Irene Shih
She was better today.
In April, when their son finally accepted profound happiness in a suitable marriage, Mark began to entertain the thought of a vow renewal. Just as a way to reclaim the things, the feelings that had already been claimed but seemed to have dissolved, with age and wear, into a paling backdrop, the dumping ground for sentiments beaten back by tired survival and its relentless, mechanical meter of routine. Miriam resisted – of course – but he romanced her, as he always did, into hesitant appreciation. Thus, when the desperate heat of summer swallowed the breeze and came in spasms of uncompromising assertion, he watched from the kitchen window as they arranged bouquets of tiger lilies – his favorite of her favorites – on the porch and around the house, seducing his spirit with sunburst hue and hallmark radiance. The floral feeling savored like pride, pride over the thin tranquility of enjoying something that was neither the best nor the most satisfying. The compromise flower.
“You like them?” he asked, gesturing vaguely as he brushed his lips over that soft spot at the nape of her neck, just below the wispy, uncertain outline of a birthmark.
“Mm,” she said.
“You seem tense.” His hands explored her torso, gliding in fresh wonder over sensuous curves immune against time and gravity. Proportioned like beauty in measured practice.
“Wanna talk about it?” he asked.
She reached behind to pat his head and he felt his face mush into strands of graying hair. He kissed her again, a teasing nuzzle in mock protest of her passivity.
“They’re very bright,” she said, quietly slipping herself from his embrace.
He held her hand on a Tuesday, the dust chasing his palm as he fanned himself, trying to concentrate on the details of her. His thumbs traced over a faint trail of veins raised on the back of her hand, the skin thin and slack beneath his touch. It felt familiar but seemed incongruous with memory, as though there might be some part of that memory he could not share. Odd.
“Do you, Mark Neff – “
“I do. I did. Still do.”
“And do you, Miriam Townsend-Neff – “
Afterwards, he went straight for the orange juice. Spiked.
To you, he mused, raising the glass in his wife’s direction, absorbing her generosity as she spent herself, arms waved and voice raised in sincerity, in a conversation with Jaime, a neighbor he – and she – barely knew. He wondered – only for an instant, a fleeting jab in the side no more than a pin-prick of discomfort – whether he could yet inspire the same fervor, the same generosity of spirit in her. For a moment, their eyes locked and he waved, making mockery of the distance between them. But she’d already looked away.
In his distraction, he spilled on his suit – rented, naturally.
Some came with cleverly wrapped gifts impressive in sheer size only – probably toasters or coffee makers or some convenience item barely appropriate for even newlyweds – and others with spare cash. The Changs handed him a red envelope and he only later discovered it was rude to look inside right away. Only Jaime left a large bouquet of lilacs, fresh with dew and too purple for his palate; how the lilies glared in contrast! Gentle hue could yet suggest nameless threat. Miriam just smiled and took them inside anyway. Out of politeness, he thought.
He didn’t remember much afterwards except that he somehow made it past reception and other congratulatory formalities before she’d let him slip the dress from her shoulders, its crisp whiteness sliding beneath them as they tasted the first night of their second forever. And in the settled quiet of night, after they were not spent but, rather, mutually acknowledged, he whispered in the only way he knew how, with words splicing through tranquil contentment,
“I love you.”
She settled herself in a false space somewhere between his open arm and her edge of the bed – the limbo of intimacy – her breath exhaling in secured rhythm,
That Christmas, his wife discovered Jaime – she barely knew him, of course – limp against the cold, chipped tiles of his bathroom wall with an empty pill bottle in hand and some stray Zoloft tablets quivering with telling silence. On his wrists ran deep impressions of fading purple, like agitated veins lost in a labyrinth of chaotic intersections, all in active atrophy. A closer look revealed them to be the brutal handiwork of one particular fountain pen, cracked and bleeding thick purple into the chunky yellow of a rug mat just two feet away. The neighbors gathered only briefly as his body was carried out in a long, sinking, black bag, the flaky blankness of snow barely contrasting with the certainty of ending. Death was somehow more interesting than the dead. And all Mark could think afterwards was how easy it was to keep a secret and how, for all the curiosity in the world, people never seemed to really give a shit. He lingered for only a moment as the crowd dissipated, convinced his hesitation should count for something.
For the funeral, Miriam asked him to bring lilies.
“Is that what you want?”
He never wore suits on the second day of the new year, but…Exceptions have to be made, he thought, his fingers fumbling with the fuzzy brown tie, its fabric raised in strange patterns like nonsensical Braille; she always tied them better. He made do.
“Everyone will like them,” she replied, turning to face the wall, her bandaged hand draped loosely over the mattress’s edge with finality. She’s better today, he thought, carefully pushing the knot against his collar and feeling it at the base of his throat.
She replied in stillness suffocating, unavailable.
“Anyways, I thought you liked lilacs,” he teased, landing a sloppy peck on her right ear lobe. But she was already asleep.
Just days before the New Year, he found her.
Dr. Helms informed him that the blood transfusion was successful, that she would be okay. Thanks to him. He remembered smiling, maybe a little too thinly, as he grasped the doctor’s hand in a desperate handshake.
She wouldn’t touch her food.
“You know I hate hospital food.”
Holding a blank stare, she didn’t challenge him. Just receded, declined. Reclined. Yet somehow still completely impenetrable. Seeing her shoulders slumped forward in acute weariness, he thought she seemed much smaller than…
She just seemed smaller.
Jaime’s sister had come to see him just days after Christmas, bullying her way through a foot of snow on their driveway before her frigid knuckles met the front door in one demanding knock. She was arranging the funeral by herself (poor thing) and had been sorting through her brother’s sparse belongings when she found a thick volume titled Pressed-Flower Poetry. Page after page, he discovered a compilation of poetry by Bishop, Thomas, cummings, Yeats, and even one by Shel Silverstein:
All the Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
Layin’ in the sun,
Talkin’ ’bout the things
They woulda coulda shoulda done…
But those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
All ran away and hid
From one little Did.
– all handwritten in careful, purple ink.
And flowers! He’d never seen such a collection. A blue rose for “One Art,” a sunflower for “since feeling is first,” a pencil-sketch of the elusive daffodil for “Do Not Go Gentle”, and lilacs – the explosion of color both brilliant and enticing and, well…obsessive. But no lilies; not a single one. He found, on the inside of the jacket cover, a dedication written in abrupt, block letters:
FOR M. NEFF
He tried talking to her on the first day of the new year. Fresh beginnings.
“How do you feel?”
His hand brushed over the chalky yellow spread of her – their – comforter. Smooth, even.
Her fingers distractedly agitated the fabric encasing her wrist. Scratch.
“You scared me,” he said, avoiding her eyes.
“That’s not what – ”
“I’ll be okay.” Scratch.
She took his hand, lacing her fingers through his. His thumb absently traced below her palm, to where the rough gauze lay tightly wrapped around her wrist.
Against the chilled closeness of dusk, the fear of slipping and the terror of knowing too much, against the insufficiency of her promise – her commitment – he indulged himself just one question, to which he expected no satisfaction and no calming resolution:
“Do you love him?”
And, to his dismay, she stayed. Quiet, assured. Cold.
“I hardly knew him.”
“Don’t. Come on. You were there – you found him.”
“I love you. You.”
“Be honest with me,” he said, finally looking at her for the first time in days, maybe weeks. Maybe ever.
Glancing to her left, she saw the fresh bouquet of tiger lilies he left by her bedside.
“You brought me flowers.” She smiled, the first since their ceremony. He remembered.
“Do you like them?” He leaned in, grazing his lips across her forehead and settling on her left temple.
She gave his hand a squeeze.
“I like lilacs more.”
That night, he placed a book – heavy in his hand – by her bedside, next to the lilies. And he saw its blinding compensation of lack, already resigning from false effusion – retreating to contented oblivion, marked by stifled, wilted weeping.
In the morning, she woke him, her eyes glistening with inexplicable calm, maybe tranquility.
“Mark? Will you bring lilies to the funeral?”
And though he knew the real answer, he indulged yet again in irresolute inquiry, just to hear staccato-ed lies sing like syncopated truth,
“Is that what you want?”
“Everyone will like them.”
She was better today.