I walked in and slid into an available seat in the corner. I plopped my purse on the credenza and ploughed through the stack of magazines housed inside two large wicker baskets. I settled on House Beautiful and Cooking Light. I took my coat off and laid it across my knees. That’s when I saw them. A huge arrangement of light and dark pink roses sitting on the receptionist’s desk. I closed my eyes and traveled back in time.
I found myself outside my childhood home kneeling in the dirt with my father. He’d tried many times to plant grass in the backyard, but us kids had other plans. Our backyard had four large trees perfect for serving as bases for our kickball games and hiding spaces for hide and seek. My brother climbed them while I huddled underneath making mud pies. We loved the dirt. We also loved my mother’s clothesline that served us well during our volleyball and badminton tournaments. Mom never had to yell at me on warm, sunny days to bring in the wash. I got it off the line as quickly as it dried. Kicking up dust around mom’s clean wash was akin to a death sentence; we’d be stuck in the house with her, gazing out of the window watching everyone else run around. None of us wanted that.
The roses on the side of our house were dad’s compensation for losing the backyard. I’m sure he went with pink because they were mom’s favorite. Dad and I talked a lot while we dug and planted and pruned and watered. He told me stories about making deliveries with his father and going to church with his mother. From his stories I could tell my grandparents were very much in love, and that family meant a lot to them. It sure meant a lot to dad. He told me that after he was discharged from the Air Force, he fell in with a bad crowd. “I’d have been on drugs, in jail or killed,” he told me. But then he met mom and they had a family.
He never said the words, but dad was grateful for mom. Dad wasn’t one for big overt gestures or flowery declarations of love, but he made sure you knew how he felt. It was the way he looked at you. The way he remembered the little things. He appreciated my mom. Looking back, perhaps if he told her as much as he told other people, things might have been different between them. Mom gave him the family he lost when his father died when he was eight and his mom three years later. He was a gentle man; much like the light pink roses he interspersed with the darker ones. Before I left the salon, I asked for permission to take a picture of the roses. Because of them, today, I heard my dad’s voice.
When I started the car, Bruno Mars and Cardi B singing “Finesse,” boomed through the radio. Singing loudly, I catch a few stares at the light. Like I care. Getting my hair done always makes me feel good. Especially, getting rid of the gray that only seems to pop up in the front. I’m ok with my age, but; crap, I forgot to get toilet paper earlier. Right as the light turns green, I hit my blinker and dash into the turning lane in front of two guys in one of those jacked up pick-up trucks. The driver lays on his horn as I speed off. As I slow down, I look in the rearview. They are following way too close. I can see them giving me the finger. I’m doing 50 down a residential street, but I’m afraid they’ll ram me. Now, the idiots have their high beams on, and the intense light is blinding me. I pull up to the corner, and I’ve never been so happy to see the police. The jerks must’ve spotted the cops, because when the truck comes to the corner, it jumps into the other lane and makes a quick left into a development. I quickly make the right and my heart starts to beat normally again.
The roses follow me to Shop-Rite, and meet me at the entrance. I pluck a dozen light and a dozen dark pink and head to the back of the store to get the badly needed toilet paper.
Arriving home, my upstairs neighbors are at it again. Why do people who argue all the time stay together? During the day, I listen to him whining and begging her not to leave him, and at night I endure the torture of squeaking floorboards, heavy breathing and hearing him shriek her name. I don’t care what they do, I just don’t want to hear them doing it. After my near-death experience with the jerks in the truck, I’d had enough. I grab the Swiffer and bang on the ceiling with the handle. They keep on going. I bang several times more; louder each time. Finally, they stop.
I take advantage of the peace and quiet to order a pizza for dinner. When the doorbell rings, I scamper out of my apartment to open the outside door. Only it isn’t the pizza; it’s the guy from upstairs; a six-foot tall man with a beer gut wearing a Giants jersey.
The Saturday they moved in, I came home from running errands to find the outside door held open with a rope and a sofa resting precariously on the steps. Raised voices and the “F word” flew down the stairs, as I tried to shoo a huge fly out of the vestibule before I opened the door to my apartment. Pissed at the lack of consideration, I reached for the rope, just as the upstairs door opened. A petite redhead stepped out onto the landing. She frowned at the sofa and then her gaze fell on my hand. She lurched her head forward with her hands on her hips; like a charging bull. Her green eyes shot daggers, daring me to touch to the rope. Suddenly, my keys slipped from my hand and echoed on the grimy tile. I quickly bent down to scoop them up, and felt the green eyes watching me as I unlocked my apartment door and hurried inside.
Now, I face the other half of the duo. I’ve only seen him out of the window; getting the mail or bringing in groceries. He looks much bigger in person. Maybe banging on the ceiling hadn’t been the smartest thing to do.
He steps into the tiny vestibule and I back up. My socks stick on the grimy tile, preventing a full retreat.
He studies the money in my hand. “Oh. Sorry,” he said. “I meant to ring upstairs. I left without my keys and phone.”
I awkwardly stuff the money in my pocket. “No problem. I thought you were my pizza.”
I tried moving my paralyzed legs the few inches to my apartment door. After a few uncomfortable seconds, he blurts out, “Sorry about the noise.”
Just then the pizza guy finally shows up. My neighbor moves over to the stairs, but doesn’t go up. I’m embarrassed for him to see all the food I’ve ordered – two pepperoni pizzas (they’re running a special), pasta bowl and brownies.
“$22.50,” the pizza guy announces; thrusting the cardboard boxes into my arms.
I shift the boxes into my left arm, trying to get the money out of my right pocket. The brownie box slides from the top, and my neighbor catches it before it hits the floor.
I finally get the money out of my pocket. The pizza guy grabs it out of my hand and practically runs to his double-parked Toyota Camry.
“Let me help you,” my neighbor says. He holds the apartment door open for me, and follows me through the living room into the kitchen. He puts the box on the counter and points at the vase of roses on the table. “My mom liked the pink ones.”
“Mine too,” I said. “My dad and I planted them when I was a kid. I don’t know why I bought them.” I fidget with the pizza boxes. “I saw some today and they made me think of him. My mom too,” I quickly added. Why am I justifying spending my money to a perfect stranger?
He plucks a light pink rose from the vase. “My mom died last year. Every time I went to visit her in the hospital, I brought her one.” He gently twirls the rose.
I hold up a plate loaded with a huge slice oozing with cheese and pepperoni. “Would you like some?”
He nods and I hand him the plate. I grab two wine glasses from the cabinet and sit them on the table. By the time I’d put a slice of pizza on my plate, he’d poured the wine.
“I feel so lost,” he gulps. “I got in trouble a lot as a kid. It got worse after my dad left and my parents divorced. I was just mad all the time. I hated other kids who had both parents living with them. I thought if I was good, he’d come back. I tried. I tried really hard, but it didn’t make a difference. He married some woman and had another family. He didn’t want me and mom anymore.”
We eat silently for a few minutes. I feel bad for him, but I’m not equipped for this. I mean, what if that girlfriend or wife or whatever she is, finds out? I take a big sip of wine. Random thoughts run through my mind, but I have no idea what to say to the teary-eyed, gentle giant sitting across the table from me.
When we both finish our slices, I pluck the aluminum bowl of pasta from the counter and we both spoon some on our plates. As I wind pasta around my fork, he picks up the rose and starts twirling it.
“She never gave up on me. One time in the eighth grade we had to do this dorky essay on a person we admired. Everybody in the class picked a celebrity or athlete, but I picked my mom. The teacher made us read them aloud in front of the class. When it was my turn, I tried reading really fast, but the teacher kept telling me to slow down and speak up. Because she kept stopping me, it felt like I was up there forever. When the kids realized the essay was about my mom, this one kid, he was a real badass, yelled out “Mama’s baby. Daddy’s maybe.” Everybody laughed. After class, I tore the essay up and threw it in the trash. When I came home from school the next day, my mom had it. When I asked her how she got it, she said my teacher brought it to her. She made me read it to her. When I finished, we both had tears in our eyes. She hugged me so hard. When I was packing up her things, I found it. She’d kept it all these years. I guess I’m a mama’s boy after all.”
Now I have tears in my eyes. “What did the essay say?” I ask.
“Mushy, stupid stuff.”
“Your mom didn’t think so,” I coax.
“I’m talking too much,” he says. He puts down his fork and stands up. “Thank you.”
“For listening. It feels good to talk about,” he pauses. “Things.”
“Take this with you.” I hand him the rose. He touches the pedals to his lips, and raises the rose to heaven. He nods at me, and disappears out the door.
After the door shut, I realize I never asked him his name. Was it really that important? The roses connected us in a way names never could. The roses inspired memories – People. Places. Trials. Tribulations. Happiness. Appreciation. Gratitude. The roses reminded us to say, “thank you,” to the past.
Things are surprisingly quiet upstairs for the next few days. I haven’t seen or heard either of my neighbors. I wonder what happened. My curiosity is heightened when I arrive home and find a blank envelope under the door. The note inside reads:
“You asked what was in my essay. It said that I admired my mom because she was brave. When our lives fell apart, she put them back together. She never gave up. She always made me feel special. Sometimes in life our wounds come from others, and sometimes they are self-inflicted. Mom taught me that the important thing is finding a way to heal. The roses and our conversation helped me understand why I feel so lost. I pushed the memories away. I thought remembering would be too painful. But it’s through my memories that she lives on – a piece of her is always with me. I hear her voice. Feel her arms around me. Smell her perfume. The strength of her spirit embraces me and lifts me up. I’m leaving to start the healing process. I wish you well. And again, thank you.”
The guy from upstairs