My plane landed and I found my way back to his house, the house he shared with so many others, a communal monstrosity in the Parisian suburbs. My trip had been long and tiring, back from deep, dark Africa, and I headed straight for a long, lovely soak in piles of bubbles in the old, cracked claw-footed tub. I closed my eyes and let the warm, sudsy water wash away my aching heart and confusion as months of emotional turbulence came to an end. I needed this couple of hours alone before I faced him, after all that we had been through, a space in time ending one lifetime, beginning another. The house was empty, no one home, so I took my time, pampered myself, long and luxurious. After what seemed like an entire afternoon, I climbed from the tub and slipped into my gold satin robe just as he walked in. He had wondered nervously if I would make that decision to return, to join him, doubted that my love was strong enough, real enough to come back. He had rushed home from work, still not sure if I would be there waiting. But come back I did, as uncertain of my reception as he of his. He stepped across the threshold of that steamy bathroom and smiled shyly and I walked into his open arms. He wrapped me in his warm embrace, never to let go.
And he had brought me a bouquet of tulips. Yes, I still remember the tulips, orange and red and yellow, wrapped in crisp white paper, fragrant and beautiful. Tulips the same gold as my robe; tulips as perfect love.
We weren’t a couple made for roses. Deep red or pale pink, roses are too traditional, too mundane, a flower one is expected to give to a lover along with diamonds and Champagne. Yet I’ve always preferred deep, mysterious, blood-red garnets to diamonds, a nice, fruity white wine to Champagne and voluptuous, lush peonies, frilly, feminine carnations or gentle, sweet tulips to roses.
We are no ordinary couple and the flowers we choose reflect our outlook on life, our unpredictability, our romance and passion for life as it is, not as we wish it to be, not as others claim it should be.
For our wedding day, his sister brought us carloads of flowers, purple and blue, cream and pink, roses, yes, but globe thistles and fuchsia, chrysanthemums and irises and so many I can’t name. She created arrangements, vases and bowls filled with flowers, bouquets bursting forth in wild abandon. Like our untraditional wedding garb, our outrageous, red tartan-clad best man and artistic, gypsy matron of honor, formal, tame, traditional arrangements just wouldn’t suit for this out-of-the-ordinary day. Festoons larger than life spread throughout the house, an air of celebration. And she brought me a bridal bouquet in shades of violet and lavender and creamy white, tea roses, thistles and baby’s breath to match what I wore, to complement our passion.
When we moved into our first home together, that tiny doll’s house of a home sandwiched in between two grander constructions, squeezed in like a second thought, his sister came back and edged our handkerchief-sized lawn with plants, green and bright, and offered us 3 lovely, tiny rose bushes, beautiful, sweet-smelling yellow roses that would burst into bloom in sunshine bright color every spring. Living in that miniature love nest brought us some of our happiest memories, learning to cook in that white, bright comfortable kitchen, the French windows thrown open onto our beautiful garden where I could watch the flowers bloom; the walks to the market, coming home, basket brimming over with flowers, tulips, of course, and dahlias and carnations, whatever I chose, to arrange them carefully in the vase in the center of my kitchen table, an audience as I cooked, and tiptoeing up that walk to our front door a few months later, another basket in hand filled with bouncing baby boy like a lovely blooming flower himself.
My first love was the gardenia. Plump, creamy, velvety gardenias, heady with the scent of something exotic and wild, their dark, thick clusters of leaves hinting of the jungle.
We lived in a world rich with hibiscus, yellow, red, pink and orange with their colorful, fuzzy pistil bursting proudly from the center. Hibiscus, bright and gaudy, show-offs of the flower world, ostentatious like glittery showgirls, reminding me of old movie Island girls swaying gently in that tropical Florida climate, the breeze blowing through their hair, huge hibiscus tucked gaily behind one ear. But the gardenia stole my heart.
Each morning as I left the house for the day, each afternoon as I arrived back home after school, those two gracious gardenia bushes edging our tiny front porch would greet me with their enveloping fragrance, would draw me towards their lush, mysterious beauty. I would pause, breath in deeply and all my worries would disappear into the dreamlike quality of these unique, sensual flowers nestled amongst the jade green, otherworldly in their sandy, brown surroundings, pushing back against the stifling hot steaminess of the Florida days.
Flowers are a regular part of our life; flowers filling terra cotta pots lining our Milan terrace, purple and red rhododendrons next to the rosemary and basil, under the vines and swags of grapes; flowers bought at the market, together, on a Sunday morning, wrapped in brown paper; flowers never forgotten on birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries. Cheery bouquets of tulips to brighten up a drab winter day, romantic bunches of peonies adding ardor and warmth to an occasion already brimming over with love, colorful bouquets of fuchsia and tiny carnation buds, sweet peas or sweet Williams, amaryllis and freesia, surely signs of friendship, bringing life and joy into our everyday world.
Plump little hands covered in dirt, proffering fistfuls of handpicked wildflowers from the fields spread out before our house, a bouquet picked just for maman.
The flowers he fills my arms with are never the ordinary, the expected, rather they are blood red dahlias, lush, fragrant peonies in oh so many shades of pink and deep purple tulips, plump and mysterious, the color of aubergines.
My city is a secret garden filled with treasures, treasures hidden in plain sight, before our very eyes. Graffiti moves and twines around corners, paintings larger than life jump out into my path, tiny images play hide and seek, awaiting discovery and my consideration. Although grime and soot encrust tangles and swags of masonry flowers hanging delicately over doorways, besmudge stone faces and Madonnas secreted away in niches, remnants of other eras, each lends a romance to this city of mine, together they tell a tale if only one takes the time to look up and notice.
How lightly, elegantly do the flowers grow, carved delicately, curving graciously over doorways and archways in black-edged white, in swirls of ironwork curling, weaving in and out. Flowers drooping in glittering mosaic, gold, royal blue, fiery reds and oranges and cool forest green, flowers amid bursts of palm fronds and bunches of deep purple grapes showering down the walls.
Flowers spilling out from shops onto sidewalks; sidle around scuffed plastic buckets blooming with frilly tulips and peonies in tiny bunches, roses in every color from feminine to romantic to passionate. Towering golden sunflowers beckon. Primitive bouquets of dahlias, daisies, daffodils in season held together in rubber bands, slender stalks of green shoot up and out like fireworks.
“One thing you should know about me,” he declared as I watched him dress on that morning many long years ago, crumpled sheets pulled up to my chin, drunk on love, “you will never receive anything from me on Valentine’s Day. I will shower you with gifts all year round, buy you jewelry, fill your arms with flowers, but I will not celebrate Valentine’s Day. I just want to make that clear from the start.”
And as our first Valentine’s Day as a couple approached he stoutly proclaimed his disdain for this “American holiday, this commercial invention by some ad man or candy company created for the sake of making a few bucks. - And I certainly don’t need someone else to designate one particular day, tell me when and how I should tell you that I love you! I can do that when and how I please!”
Yet on that first Valentine’s Day together, he placed a bundle of roses in my arms. He understood that expectation fluttered underneath my bold claim of agreement with him, my apparent disinterest for this special date, expectation fluttering like a schoolgirl heart as she places that shoebox decorated with pink crepe paper hearts and white doilies on the corner of her desk as she silently utters a prayer.
So many Valentine’s Days have come and gone since, and each and every year he has filled my arms with flowers as he continues to claim his aversion for any celebration.
As shops fill their windows with pink macarons or heart-shaped candies, boxes tied in red ribbon or fluffy white stuffed animals dressed up in lace bows, our routine never changes. Grumbles and moans emanate from my man, my lover, the most eternally romantic of souls, at the very first signs of cherubin, putti, Cupids, roses and hearts. He curses, fist shaken heavenward, as the date rolls around. Yet Valentine’s Day after Valentine’s Day he woos me, he pampers me and he brings me flowers, placing them in front of me shyly, like a nervous schoolboy wondering if his love is returned, gleefully, like a man caught in the act of an unexpected kindness or a good joke.