The flowers arrived on a Wednesday night — huge, long-stemmed white roses in a glass vase. Alice had seen them on the doorman’s desk as she was heading out for dinner with a friend. When she returned, they were still there and the doorman flagged her down to tell them that they were for her. A fluttering hope arose in her heart. She’d spent the entire dinner distracted by a secret fantasy that the flowers had been sent by her ex to apologize for her recent and abrupt breaking off of their relationship.
Having made it through the other end of her grief, or so she told herself, Alice no longer desired to renew the relationship — the fantasy was instead of rejecting her ex’s apologetic overtures after she had realized her mistake. She envisioned herself on the receiving end of the kind of pleading she’d been too proud to do herself, Jaya desperately begging her to get back together with her. Alice would be compassionate but firm — it was over. You were right after all, she would tell Jaya, I am doing better without you.
But when she read the card, she saw that the flowers were not for her at all. Instead, they were addressed to a name which was passingly familiar to her as one that occasionally appeared on pieces of mail delivered to her: Rose Cantrelli. An old tenant, one who had evidently never bothered to update her mailing address when she left.
The card read: “We’ve been out of each other’s lives longer than we were in them, but: we met five years ago today, and I’m forever grateful for it. I hope your life is everything you want. – Michael”
The bouquet contained seven long-stemmed white roses. Alice brought them up to her unit and set them on the dining room table, reflecting that while her fantasy remained unfulfilled, she had at least received free flowers. Something about them made her uneasy, though. It was a strange thought to consider, that someone could be intimate enough with another person to send them flowers yet not know enough about them to realize they’d moved away years earlier. Whoever sent them was either a hopeless romantic or a stalker.
Days went by and the roses in their glass vase began to wither and droop. Their crisp white petals sagged and yellowed, and long past the point at which most people would have done so, Alice finally had the wherewithal one evening to dispose of them. She left the vase sitting on the windowsill, not having any immediate use for it but also having just read a story about recycling which indicated that most materials which were supposedly destined to be recycled actually ended up in landfills.
Work had gotten unexpectedly busy at Alice’s firm, keeping her in the office later and later in the evening. She arrived home late one night so exhausted from hours of calls and meetings that she barely noticed another vase of flowers sitting on the doorman’s desk. But as she passed, he looked up from the small television he was watching and called to her. The flowers were for her, he said. She walked over and inspected the card. Once again, it was addressed to Rose Cantrelli.
“These aren’t for me,” she explained to the doorman. “I think this person moved out years ago.”
He shrugged. “Well, you can take them or we can throw them out.”
Alice sighed. The bouquet looked identical to the last, a collection of elegant, white roses. Were there more flowers than the last time? She couldn’t remember. Grasping the vase with both hands, she ascended the stairs to her unit and placed the vase on the table as she had with the last one. She opened the card, which read: “I still feel so lucky to have gotten to know you. I hope you’re well. Do you ever think of me? I miss you and think of you often. – Michael”
Whoever this Michael was, Alice thought, he was pretty pathetic. One set of flowers sent to an old address could be construed as a romantic error. A second was simply sad. Still, Alice couldn’t help but wonder who these people were. What had Michael and Rose’s relationship been like such that Michael had now sent multiple bouquets of roses to an address she hadn’t lived at in years? And not just flowers, but white roses — expensive, long-stemmed roses, the kind you saw at weddings.
Alice did a quick search for “white roses meaning” on her phone in bed that night. She knew they had something to do with innocence, and the search confirmed it — they allegedly symbolized loyalty and purity, as well as eternal love and fresh beginnings. That explained their popularity at weddings, she supposed. But what was Michael trying to communicate to Rose? His undying loyalty? His wish for a new start? Regardless, she would never get the message. Where was Rose now, Alice wondered? But then she got distracted watching short videos of unlikely animal friends, and her eyelids got heavier and heavier, and she finally put her phone down on the nightstand and tried to get to sleep.
The next morning, as Alice groggily prepared the drip coffee machine and slid two slices of whole grain bread into the toaster, the doorbell rang. She ran back to her room and pulled on a pair of jersey house pants and opened the door. A middle-aged man with short dark hair and a mustache in a delivery uniform stood there holding — she couldn’t believe it — a vase stuffed with over a dozen white, long-stemmed roses.
“Flowers for a Miss Rose Cantrelli?” The man said.
“She, uh, she doesn’t live here,” Alice replied. “This is the third batch I’ve gotten.”
The man frowned. “Oh. Hm, well, we don’t have an alternate address or anything, so…”
Alice sighed. “It’s fine, I’ll take them. But could you stop any future deliveries to this address with that name? I’m not sure what’s going on, but nobody named Rose has lived here for years.”
“Sure,” the man said, pulling out his phone and punching in some text. “I’ll make a note. Sorry about that, miss. Have a good day.”
Alice shut the door and brought the vase into the apartment. It looked ridiculous next to the existing one, as if the place was being prepared for a wedding. Side by side, this one definitely outstripped the last — there were nearly twice as many roses as in the second delivery. She carried this newest batch into the kitchen, left it on the counter, and dressed for work. The situation was becoming more and more bizarre, and also a little frightening. Two sets of flowers in as many days was surely the territory of the dangerously obsessive. And what if Michael got tired of sending flowers and decided to just come looking for Rose instead?
The questions nagged at Alice throughout the work day. She found herself distracted in meetings, looking up the name Rose Cantrelli online but finding nothing obvious to go on. Michael hadn’t left a last name on his cards, so she had nothing to work with on that front, either. As the day wore on, a sense of dread began to wash over her. She pictured coming home to yet another delivery, or to some other artifact of Michael’s love, perhaps something less benign than a bouquet of white roses. But when she arrived at her apartment, there was nothing of the kind in the lobby. Nor were there any new arrivals at her unit door or inside. Alice breathed a sigh of relief, heated up some leftover pasta from the fridge, and smoked half a joint while watching old episodes of a sitcom she’d seen half a dozen times already before washing her face, brushing her teeth, and collapsing into bed.
In her dreams she was crawling along a massive white plain as a wind scoured its surface, threatening to rip her clean off and throw her into the abyss. She found herself at the sudden edge of the terrain and fell forwards into a vast, crystalline lake punctuated by enormous columns which seemed to stretch infinitely high into the air. Alice attempted to scale out of the columns out of the lake, and soon found she could no longer see the surface of the water below her, nor could she see anything above. She suddenly felt very frightened and exposed, as if all around her some unseen presences were making ready to strike. She turned and saw terrible dark shapes close in on the column around her and woke with a strangled scream.
Alice rolled over and checked the time on her phone. It was barely four in the morning, but she was gripped by a terror that made her unable to consider going back to sleep. The situation sent her straight back to being a scared little child waking from a frightening dream and calling out for her father to come and comfort her. But here, in the vast and empty darkness of her apartment, there was no one to summon. At times like this, she felt the absence of her ex more keenly than ever. During the day, it was easier to feel that she’d overcome the fact that Jaya had abruptly walked out on her without so much as a conversation. But at night, the secret doubts and fears she kept at bay with work and weed crept into Alice’s heart. Perhaps she was pathetic and unlovable, destined to wake up in a too-big bed in a desolate, lonely apartment for the rest of her life.
The impulse to get up and check to ensure that the front door was locked struggled with the desire to crawl under the covers and hide. It was then that Alice realized she hadn’t actually read the card on the latest set of flowers in the kitchen. Gripped by a curiosity that overcame her fear, she climbed out of bed and flipped the light switch in her room on, then reached out into the hallway and illuminated the corridor down to the kitchen. She listened carefully for any sign of activity, but none came. Of course not, the rational part of her brain told her, beginning to reassert itself in the glow of the overhead lights.
She walked cautiously down the hall, passing the vase on the table and turning the kitchen lights on. There sat the third bouquet she’d gotten, the third mistaken delivery to the mysterious Rose Cantrelli. With thoughts of Jaya fresh in her mind, Alice couldn’t help but feel for Michael as she laid eyes on the beautiful white roses. That surprised her — she’d thought of him as a pitiful loser up until now. But wasn’t he grieving like she was? Maybe this Rose had walked out of his life like Jaya had walked out of hers. She pulled the card from the ribbon attaching it to the vase and opened it. This one said, simply “I miss you.”
The awful brevity of the message was in stark contrast to the earlier, semi-rambling missives. Alice found herself overwhelmed by emotion, the words conjuring up the feelings she’d worked so hard to process over the past few weeks. Now, sunk to her knees on her kitchen floor, clutching the card, she felt less like she’d truly worked through those feelings and more like she’d simply tried to block them out by distracting herself, throwing her energy into work and the constant stimulation of weed and TV.
“I miss you,” Alice whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. It had only been a few months ago that she and Jaya had been together, planning trips and even talking about moving in together. She missed the woman’s crooked smile, her biting little comments about the things that annoyed her, the spicy amber scent of her perfume. All of these details, all of the things she had been cut off from when Jaya texted her to say that she was leaving her crawled up from within Alice’s gut. They had been together for nearly two years. How could she have done that, cast her out like something disposable? Alice began to weep, a loud, ugly noise she made no effort to hold back.
She felt as she had in the days after the breakup, when she had just tried to sleep as much as possible because being awake was too painful. Every thought she had turned back to Jaya, wondering how she could have done this to her, how she could have hurt her so badly. Maybe she had never really loved her at all. The spasming sobs wracked her body for what seemed like hours, until she eventually fell into a dreamless sleep on the cold tile floor.
Alice awoke shivering and confused. She laid there for a few minutes before she remembered the events of the previous night and, mortified, collected herself and checked the time on the microwave clock — 7:32 AM. Startled, she realized she had to get ready for work. But she felt too exhausted to leave the house, much less go make herself presentable enough to go into the office. She called in sick and realized, blessedly, that she had her weekly appointment with her therapist later that evening. Crawling back into bed, she slept until late in the afternoon and awoke disoriented and aching, shielding her eyes from the midday sun as she staggered into the kitchen, made herself a cup of coffee, then drank it on the couch while scrolling mindlessly on her phone.
“I feel like I’ve just reverted to how I was after the breakup,” Alice told her therapist, sitting at her desk with her laptop propped up on a pile of hardcover books.
Her therapist, a middle-aged woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a bob, nodded understandingly. “Grief isn’t a linear thing,” she said. “We move through these feelings in spirals.”
“I just can’t stop thinking about it,” Alice said, her voice beginning to hitch up in her throat. “We’d been together for almost two years and she just texted me while she was on a trip to say we were done. We hadn’t even fought or anything.”
“That was really callous of her,” her therapist said. “You don’t deserve that kind of treatment. Nobody does.”
“I just… it’s…” Alice began to trail off, sensing that if she continued to speak, she would begin crying again.
“Is there anything that you think might have triggered this sudden recurrence of these feelings? Did you see something about her online or hear about her from a friend?”
“No,” Alice said, “nothing like that.” She contemplated mentioning the flowers, but, for reasons she couldn’t entirely explain, decided not to.
“Well, there aren’t always obvious reasons for these swells of emotion. But we can try to manage them. Let’s do some grounding exercises before we run out of time…”
But when the session ended, Alice didn’t feel any more grounded or calm. She felt twisted up inside by the pain of Jaya’s absence. Her thoughts were circular, always returning to that same place of agony regardless of which direction they set out in. And in the rare moments in which she would escape that trap of thinking, she would lay eyes on the white roses on the dining room table or in the kitchen, and the black hole of her grief would draw her in once more. By the time she made it to bed, her eyes were red and sore from crying, her throat raw from the howling sobs.
The next day, she realized with some relief, was Saturday. She wouldn’t have to be anywhere or do anything for another 48 hours. The thought was a balm. All she wanted was to wrap herself up in blessed unconsciousness, to be as dead to the world as possible. There were glimmers, here and there, of a desire to take that desire to its logical conclusion — to end everything. But mostly she just wanted to be alone, to wallow in her pitiable despair. Except, she thought, she wasn’t alone, was she? She had Michael’s flowers, those beautiful roses sent to someone who shared their name who had lived in her apartment who knows how many years ago. That bitch, Rose Cantrelli.
Alice startled herself at how easily that thought had come into her mind. She didn’t know anything about the woman other than that she was the object of Michael’s grief and longing. She didn’t know anything about Michael, either, except that he was hurting like her. They were the same, weren’t they? They had both loved and lost. Michael probably wasn’t that bad a guy. He wasn’t a stalker or a creep. He just missed someone that he’d loved and who he thought had loved him. Was that such a crime?
The night passed in a feverish blur. She thought of reaching out to a friend, or even Jaya. The feeling of calm acceptance she’d had only days earlier had dissolved. Now she wanted, alternately, to beg her to take her back and to give her a piece of a mind, to tell her how idiotic and cruel she’d been and how she’d never find anyone who could love her as well as she could. Alice awoke in a cold sweat more than once from a dream in which she’d confronted her ex — taken a car to her apartment and banged on the door, or ran into her at a movie theatre, or encountered her making out with someone else at a party. It was all too much.
By the morning she felt hollowed out by her grief. In the mirror she could see the toll the last couple of days had taken on her. Angry dark circles hung beneath her eyes, and her skin was pallid and blotchy. The most she moved was from her bed to the couch, where she wrapped herself in a blanket and tried to sleep some more. When she awoke, her mouth dry and limbs aching from sleeping in an awkward position, it was dark again and the first thing she saw were the flowers. Had she moved them to the coffee table at some point? She didn’t think so, but then, she always did feel disoriented after waking during the day.
The vase seemed fuller than before, even more beautiful. The roses were practically stuffed into the vessel, and they looked healthier than ever — each petal simultaneously fleshy and full yet delicate and crisp. The sight of them brought the tears rushing back almost immediately. How could someone be so cruel? How could love be so easily discarded? Alice pulled the blanket over her head and begin to bawl again. A small voice inside of her told her that she was acting like a child, but that only made her feel worse.
There was a knock at the door, and for a moment Alice’s breath hitched in her throat. Could Jaya have come to see her? Did she know how badly she was suffering? She tried to calm herself, tossing the blanket onto the couch and dashing over to the mirror hanging in the hallway to make the best of a bad situation by smoothing and tucking back her hair. But when she opened the door, Jaya wasn’t there. Nobody was — there was only another vase bursting with white roses. She craned her neck down the hall, but there was no one in sight. When they’d been delivered before, the man had waited to make sure she signed for them. Had Michael himself shown up to drop these off? Alice hefted the glass vase into her arms and carried it into the apartment. The feelings of apprehension she’d had previously were gone. Now, she felt strangely touched. The gravity of Michael’s grief seemed to justify her own.
Heartbreak, Alice reflected, was all too commonplace. And perhaps the banality of that pain had inured people to it. She wanted to wail in the streets, trailing her gathered up sheets behind her like a banshee. The rules of society, however, dictated that she get over it and keep her expressions of suffering reasonable in the meantime. To allow the fullness of one’s furious sadness to bleed out into public life would be out of the question. Nonetheless, she couldn’t stay in her apartment forever, no matter how much she might want to. Her therapist would say that these feelings would inevitably fade with time, but as she ran her fingers over the tender petals of the newest batch of roses, she found that difficult to believe.
There was a purity to this suffering, a purity like that of the flowers that had come to occupy more and more of the surfaces in her apartment. It was something raw and primal, a total rejection of the way of things. That was beautiful, in a way. To pour oneself into the vessel of grief, to give oneself over utterly to the crashing waves of the tearing pain of loss, was a kind of freedom. Alice rooted through the cupboards and found a bottle of vodka she’d kept for cooking. The sight of it reminded her of how she’d made penne vodka for Jaya the first time she’d been over to her place. She winced, unscrewed the cap, and began taking slugs from it straight. The alcohol burned her tongue and throat but she gulped more and more of it down, wandering around her apartment and letting the building warmth in her stomach fuel the intensity of her feelings. Half an hour later, spurred on by rapid intoxication, she decided that it was time to take action.
She got up from the couch and paced the apartment, her thumb hovering over the dial button on her phone. She took a deep breath and held it for what seemed like minutes, then hit the button. Her feet carried her back and forth in a whirl — she couldn’t seem to stand still as the dial tone rang and rang. She began to chastise herself. Had she really expected Jaya to pick up? After how she’d ended things? But then that memory stoked the anger inside of her, and Jaya’s refusal to answer her call raised the flames even higher, and she wished her ex would answer the phone so she could tell her off, tell her what a big fucking mistake she’d made.
But when she stopped her pacing in front of one of the vases of white roses and heard Jaya’s voice on her answering machine telling her to leave a message, her resolve wavered. It was as if someone had doused her fury in ice water, and she immediately hung up and collapsed on the couch, crying herself to sleep.
When she awoke, she was someplace cold and dark. She stood in ankle-deep water, massive columns stretching up into the blackness that hung above. Alice realized she had been there before, in the dream she’d had after the roses had started arriving. This time, however, it all felt more real, more solid. She spun herself around to try and get her bearings and noticed a young man standing a few feet away from her.
“Hi,” he said with a quiet, sad voice. “I’m-“
“Michael,” Alice said, startled at her recognition.
“That’s right,” he replied. “And you’re Alice. I’m so glad you’re here.”
Alice glanced around their surroundings. “And where is here, exactly?”
“It’s a safe place. Somewhere quiet, where we can be alone with our grief. I’ve been here for a long time, I think. And I’ve been so lonely. I’m so glad you accepted my invitation.”
“Invitation? You mean the flowers? But those were just a mistake.”
Michael shook his head. “It might have seemed that way, but they were for you.”
“I don’t understand,” Alice said. “They were addressed to Ros-“
Michael’s expression suddenly changed, his dull sadness exploding into ferocity. “Don’t say her name!” He spat through gritted teeth before settling back into tranquil melancholy. “Please don’t say it. I miss her so much.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice replied, feeling the urge to comfort this sad man — practically a boy, by the looks of things. “I know the feeling.”
“I know you do. Those flowers, they… they were for her, originally, but she stopped talking to me a long time ago. I thought you would appreciate them. We’re the same, after all. We’ve both been abandoned by the people we love.”
Finding herself in such strange surroundings had temporarily shifted the breakup from Alice’s mind. But at Michael’s reminder, it all came crashing back and she felt herself slump as she teared up once more.
“There’s nothing for us out there anymore,” Michael said. “Not if they won’t be with us. But we can stay here forever, we can keep our grief alive, never forget it.”
Alice dropped to her knees, weeping into her hands. Maybe Michael was right, and this place — wherever and whatever it was — was where she belonged. He reached out and touched her on the shoulder, a tender gesture that reverberated through her despite their unfamiliarity.
“She was perfect, wasn’t she? My beloved was. Ro… Rose was,” Michael said, beginning to sob himself. Alice was struck with compassion for him, felt his own sadness seem to amplify her own. It was intoxicating, the way she could give herself over entirely to this feeling. Here, she would never have to worry about work or her friends or anything but feeding the pale flame of her suffering.
But there was something about what he’d said that turned on a light in the corner of her mind. It was dim at first, as if fighting to shine through a smothering fog. But it began to glow a little more brightly, until, spurred on by it, Alice found her lips forming a single word.
Michael nodded. “Yes. She was perfect, wasn’t she? Just like Rose. And we’ll never be with them again, never see them again. It’s so cruel, so terrible. But we can be here together, at least.”
The glow in Alice’s mind expanded, beginning to fill the corners of the small dark box that had been her mental prison for the last several weeks. Jaya had been many things — attractive, confident, a good cook — but perfect wasn’t one of them.
“No,” Alice said quietly, pulling away and looking Michael in the eyes. “She wasn’t perfect. She could be really rude, sometimes, especially to waiters. That always bothered me.”
Michael’s head turned slightly, like an owl’s, then shook slowly. “That doesn’t matter though, does it? That’s just a little thing. She was still perfect, and you can never be with her again. Think about that.”
Thoughts of the good times she and Jaya had shared rushed through Alice’s head, and she winced against the pain of the memories. But she clenched her fists and repeated. “She wasn’t perfect. She was always late. She could be so inconsiderate.” As she went on, Alice’s voice began to fill with certainty and indignation. “She had no ambition or drive. She never wanted to go out. She was pretty lousy in bed. She would never listen to my problems. And she always talked during movies, even at the theatre!”
“You don’t mean all of that. You don’t mean it.”
Alice stood up, planting her hands on her hips. “I bet Rose wasn’t perfect, either. Nobody is. I bet she chewed her food loudly or thought the art you liked was stupid or always took her friends’ side against you.”
“Shut up,” Michael said, visibly agitated. “Shut up!”
“You may be happy to stay here forever, but I’m not,” Alice proclaimed. “I’m not like you, Michael. I’m going to move on with my life. It’s not always going to be easy, but there’s no other way for me to go. Because I’m sure as hell not spending eternity with some mopey boy who couldn’t get over a girl dumping him.”
Michael screamed, and the world shattered. Alice awoke on her couch, back in her apartment. When her eyes passed over the vase of white roses, she no longer felt that pang of sadness stabbing into her guts. She held onto the things about Jaya that she had told Michael, things that had all been true. She picked up the vase, carried it over to the kitchen, and ripped the roses out, stuffing them down into the trash. Her hand was pricked and bloody in spots from the thorns, but it was the kind of hurt — real, physical — that reminded her that she was still alive.
The next day, she stopped at a little corner store after work and brought home a bouquet of yellow lilies, filling the vase with water and depositing them within it. She placed the vase on her coffee table, admiring the blooms. Jaya was gone, but Alice knew she would recover. And she had, she realized after some reflection, never really cared for roses anyway.
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