When she was sixteen, Suzy’s mother came into her room one afternoon with a glass jar filled with fresh cut roses.
“Where do you want these?” her mother asked.
Suzy sat at her desk writing one thing or other – perhaps a school assignment or letter, but years later, when she looked back on that moment, she recalled very clearly the two distinct feelings she felt before and after her mother brought the roses. Of these, she would never fully revisit the first.
Suzy surveyed her room, wondering where she ought to put the roses. It didn’t happen very often, this offer to have fresh flowers in her room. Suzy’s mother had a green thumb, but she showered most of her attention on her orchids, her favorite type of bloom, and left the roses to the gardener’s shears.
Roses could essentially protect themselves, what with the thorns and all. And while educated pruning could ensure the most beautiful and stout blooms, it appeared that they grew and bloomed regardless of the care they received. There were certain breeds that were smooth stemmed, Suzy noticed, but they were different from the thornier roses. They seemed weaker, needing more wiring or perhaps a trellis to snake around for additional support. But Suzy’s mother had only one of those bushes and the blooms upon it were often the first to wilt.
Orchids were a different sort of flower, her mother once told her. They were like cats – paradoxically high and low maintenance. When you administered the right kind of care, they could be left alone for a long time. Though they required special bark instead of soil and thin green sticks to prop up their stems and a certain temperature to thrive, her mother’s orchids could bloom and bloom for weeks if not months with only light watering in between. It was a different kind of maintenance, but the result were stunning, exotic plants that all of her mother’s guests oohed and aahed over whenever her parents had dinner parties. Suzy noticed no one ever cooed over the roses. When an orchid began to show the slightest signs of tiring, her mother would whisk it off into the greenhouse and nurse it back to health until it was ready to show off its pristine blooms once more. If the roses began to wilt, she simply cut them off the bush.
But still, roses were beautiful in their own way and Suzy’s mother had a soft spot for them. She half-heartedly grew a dozen rose bushes in the planter in the side yard, where they kept their garbage cans. The soil there wasn’t really suited for much else. There had been a time before when orchids were a luxury, bought only on special occasions or received as a birthday gift. They were, as nursery hierarchies go, exotic blooms that could command exorbitant prices, but those were the early days, before her husband’s business stabilized and began to do quite well. By the time Suzy was a teenager, Suzy’s mother had loosened her flora budget so that almost every month a few new orchid plants would appear. The roses and indeed the other plants in their yard became the gardeners’ ward and the orchids, both in the house and in the greenhouse, Suzy’s mother’s sole focus.
And hardily, the roses bloomed for no one but whomever happened to take out the trash on Thursday evenings, though usually this happened at sundown and you couldn’t see them anyway.
Except for this day. It was Sunday and the gardeners would come tomorrow, but Suzy’s mother took it upon herself to prune the roses. She waited patiently as Suzy considered a place to set the roses. Suzy tapped the pen to her head, her wrist on her knee. Suzy’s room was neat as a pin. She liked it that way, though for some reason new friends visiting for the first time were always taken aback, as though from Suzy’s person they had expected a less tidy room. There were plenty of open surfaces upon which to place the jar of roses but where would the roses look best? Suzy imagined someone coming in to snap a photo of her at work, bent over her diary or a letter she was writing, the roses sitting wanly on her bookshelf – but it was too dim there. Perhaps next to her desk lamp? It cast a warm glow on Suzy’s workspace and there was an old tin can in which she held her pens which would go nicely with the glass jar the roses stood in, as it was an old peanut butter jar with the label washed off. There. The lamp. The pens. The glass jar of roses.
“Put them here, mom,” Suzy said, tapping the space on her desk.
Her mother set them down and, like the photographer Suzy imagined, smiled and said, “Well isn’t that a pretty picture.”
The bouquet changed the entire landscape of her desk, making her feel feminine and artistic and smart, in the British sense of the word. Virginia Woolf probably kept roses on her desk.
Suzy leaned over and smelled the roses, taking a deep inhale of the largest bloom. Compared to the rest it didn’t smell like much, but that didn’t matter – it was so pretty to look at.
But she admired the way one of the roses was apparently in full bloom. It did not have as vivid of coloring as the other roses, but it certainly took center stage in that its massive petals threatened to cover the other buds entirely.
“I like this one,” Suzy said, fingering one of the velvety light orange petals.
Her mother was silent and Suzy, expecting a murmur of agreement, looked up.
Her mother had a strange expression on her face, one which, as Suzy grew older, would come to adopt as her own when she found someone’s taste questioning. Truly it was a matter of taste, which bloom mother and daughter found attractive, but Suzy’s mother wanted her daughter know:
“That rose looks like a fool.”
Suzy was taken aback. The rose, a fool? What had it done but bloomed beautifully for all to enjoy?
Her mother sighed, wondering if it was too early in her daughter’s life to impart one of the most important lessons a woman needed to learn, though it seemed that few did. She hadn’t even thought of her now apparent distaste for roses in this stage of bloom when she clipped it and only brought it up now because Suzy’s attraction to it brought it to her attention. There was a small but dangerous fire to be stamped out – a young woman’s identity was at stake.
“For one thing,” her mother said, “It is an inelegant bloom. Roses can be quite elegant, but not at this stage.”
Suzy acknowledged that the rose had probably bloomed to maximum diameter and was on the verge of wilting, but it surprised to hear her mother say this about a poor flower nearing the end of its short life.
“Then why did you bring it in here with the rest?” Suzy asked, “Why didn’t you throw it away?”
Suzy’s mother searched for the right words. If she was absolutely honest she would have said that how the rose bloomed was no different from when a whore spread her legs for clients. There was no mystery, nothing secret to anticipate or unwrap. It had opened its very last petal to reveal all of itself so that even the fattest fly could trample around, freely spreading disease and God knows what else.
But Suzy was sixteen – a young, naive sixteen penning young, naive sixteen year-old thoughts in loopy cursive.
Instead Suzy’s mother replied, “It’s so open-faced,” then added, “There’s no mystery.”
She paused, wondering if Suzy understood what she meant. Were mother and daughter on the same wavelength?
“But aren’t your orchids the same way?” Suzy asked, “Aren’t they all open-faced too?”
Suzy’s mother couldn’t help but be a little offended. They were, mother and daughter, still worlds apart in experience, and rightly so – but this would be, at the very least, a lesson in art. Suzy’s mother left the room briefly and returned with an orchid plant whose petal edges showed decline, but was still regal in bearing.
“Suzy,” her mother said, “Look at the rose and look at the orchid.”
Suzy did. From her seat at the desk, she looked down at the rose and up at the orchid, the blooms of which were suspended in a prim row, like pretty virginal sisters who had hung themselves from a slender green stem.
“They are both open faced blooms,” her mother conceded, “but isn’t the rose more inviting? If it was a person, would it not be more approachable?”
“Isn’t that a good thing, mother?”
“Yes and no,” and then Suzy’s mother turned to look at Suzy’s confused expression. As she did, she felt a mild panic, as though all this talk of roses and orchids wasn’t getting the important message across. That as a young woman, as any woman at any age, for that matter, Suzy had to keep something of herself for herself.
Her young daughter was on the brink of a long bloom, more rose than orchid. And there was nothing wrong with that. Suzy was and had always been that kind of girl – open and approachable, friendly, chatty, giddy. Though she did have her quiet moments, such as the one her mother had walked in on, with Suzy bent over a piece of writing. What did roses write about?
Suzy’s mother realized she had no idea. But she knew then that if her daughter was a rose, she wished her thorns – big fat thorns found on the hardiest of rose bushes. The rose bushes that during winter, still stood straight albeit barren, in three feet of snow. They wouldn’t always bloom, but you could tell, a mile away, that it was a rose bush and that sometime in the spring, the color would return and the petals would be soft and open and inviting, but the thorns would still be there.
Mother and daughter looked at one other, each searching the other’s face until finally Suzy’s confusion melted away and her mother’s very mild panic subsided.
And that was all. Suzy’s mother kissed Suzy on the forehead and left her daughter to her work, whatever it was. But Suzy was not quite ready to return to the thought her mother had interrupted minutes ago – what had she been writing? It no longer seemed important. She pursed her lips and furrowed her brow, her features suddenly feeling very heavy. Slowly, she turned the jar so that the fool faced the wall, then thought better of it. She plucked the fool out.
It was a ridiculous sized bloom, nearly the same span as her long-fingered hands. The stem was incongruously thin and quite useless – pliable, without a thorn in sight. Suzy held it like she would a pen, but it flopped to and fro, and Suzy felt almost irritated by it. It had bloomed itself to a point where it could not even hold up its own head. Finally, with a quick, sharp pinch, she snapped the stem in two, causing a few velvety light orange petals dropped to her desk. It was not indifference she felt but the strange subtle force of an unspoken vow – the kind young girls make to themselves when they are about to become young women – that provoked her next actions. She reached underneath her desk for the trash bin and putting her pen down for a moment, swept the fool away.