I had the rough idea for this story but didn’t feel driven to write it immediately because of the other projects I had going. When I told my mom about it, she encouraged me to see it through. Because of that, I churned it out in time to give it to Lynn for Valentines Day.
While this is a love story, it is because of my Mother that it was written.
Love you Mom!
I like to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. It has become a game I play with myself. Sure, I face family kerfuffles, relationship disasters, and financial pinches the same as everyone. But wallowing in my misery never did me any good. Reveling in my blessings may not change anything, but it is certainly more enjoyable.
The longer I have looked for beauty in the minutiae, the better I have become at finding it. That’s why I became a photographer. As it turns out, everyone wants to be made aware of the good, the light. We simply need each other’s help to see it sometimes.
Toulouse is drizzly grey this May morning as I splash off the bus and into a yellow plaster building, one in a long row of terraced houses turned business. I take the narrow stairs to an administration office on the third floor where I work as a visual artist for a non-profit center aiding low-income families.
Bursting through the office doors, singing blithely and out of tune, I am met by palpable malaise. “Bonjour, everyone!” I declare, raising my umbrella like a scepter.
Since I only come to the office to edit and communicate about the odd project, there is no need for me to arrive early, so I never do. It is already almost noon, and by this time, my coworkers are up to their armpits in cubical lethargy.
They raise their dismal heads at my greeting. I receive one ‘hey Soliel,’ a few nods, and a grunt from Margery. I am not sure what she does for the company, but it evidently involves a lot of paperwork and taking grumpy pills. She’s the only other female employee, but instead of us being comrades, I always want to give her a glass of laxative-laced wine.
I stop by the café bar where Jean is complaining about how the damp weather gives him headaches, and Fabian replies that it makes his old rugby injury act up. I laugh at them and point out how cliché their conversation is, adding that because of the sprinkling, I was able to take some beautiful pictures of raindrops windowpanes.
Birk walks by and says, “Oui, like the tears of innocent children.” His broad jaw and stony expression make his dry humor intimidating. Fabien and Jean laugh nervously, and I roll my eyes.
With café heavily doused with chocolat syrup, I pass Searle’s desk and tell him I’ll have the new batch of pictures ready for him to put on the website by the end of the day. He looks even more ho-hum than usual and blinks extra-long before muttering ‘bien.’
Habit sends me across the office to our balcony. It’s a quaint little space I’ve claimed for myself, not that anyone else would sit out there. It has a small round table, a chair, and a handful of plants I’ve managed not to kill, twining the iron railing. On a typical day, I sit in the fresh air, with birdsong and city chatter in my ears, and watch the people as they pass below.
I reach the balcony door as a gust of wind spatters rain across the glass. The table is drenched, and the chair pillow is soggy.
My enthusiasm falters but is quickly regained when I reach my tired, cramped old desk and spot a flash of color.
In a miniature blue vase sits a single sunflower. I look around, but everyone is occupied. Plopping into my creaky swivel chair, I read the tag dangling from its stem.
You radiate sunshine
That is all. No signature. No hint as to the identity of the sender. For all I know, my mother could have ordered it from a floral shoppe on the internet. But that doesn’t add up; those places only send big, elegant arrangements. This is simple like someone bought it off a street vendor. Pleasantly suspicious, I glance at my male cohorts. I can see their bald and tufty heads above the low office dividers. All are behaving naturally enough.
Had one of them put it there? Or had someone else snuck in and left it for me? I am mystified as to who it could be but also flattered.
A faint tingle warms my insides, and my smile is irrepressible. For the rest of the day, a hint of yellow exposure creeps into the photos I edit like secret sunshine.
The next day, the heady clouds break and drift, and I spend the morning in the park taking pictures of dew on leaves and children in rainboots. Around 1 pm I realize the day has gotten away from me and quickly ride my bike to the office. I still have to put the finishing touches on a collage Fabien needs for the month’s newsletter.
I am juggling my satchel, straightening my beret, and locking my bike when I hear:
“Pardon mademoiselle!” It is a miserable looking woman on the sidewalk a few steps away. I straggle over, and she points down the storm drain.
“Pouvez-vous m’aider? Can you help me? I have dropped my keys. I—I don’t know what to do. I wouldn’t bother, but it has my wedding ring on it! I’m pregnant, and it won’t fit on my finger…” The woman starts crying, “—imbécile—Imbécile! How could I be so—why did I—”
My eyes widen, and I sit the woman down on the sidewalk, patting her back, “Lá, lá.” I soothe, “Bien sûr! But of course, I will help.”
After some deliberation, I hop across the street to the tailor shoppe and ask for a wire hanger. He charges me a euro for it. Avare! Heartless miser. Returning, I unbend the hanger into a line with the hook at the end. Crouching onto the grimy street, I wedge my arm down the opening while the woman shines her phone light down the grate.
It was not a quick ordeal, but finally, I emerge from the muck victorious. The woman falls on me with happy tears and kisses, “Je vou remercie! Merci, merci, merci beaucoup!”
It was worth it.
I trail into the office and am shedding my muddy coat when Fabien pounces on me.
“Where have you been? I need that col—”
I hold up a warning hand, “And you will have it.”
He gets the idea and backs off, allowing me to pass. On my way through the office, I glance at my desk curiously, but it is empty.
It seems strange to receive a single flower and never discover who it was from. I step through the double doors onto the balcony and glory in the view of the lilacs blooming on the rooftop opposite, violet against the blue cornflower sky.
My eyes lower, preparing to set to work, when I see the Lilliputian vase on my table! In it is a single sprig bearing small pink florets. The note reads:
You are sweet
Ah, oui! They are sweet peas! My lungs flutter, and I nestle my nose in the enchanting scent. They are lovely, delicate, and remind me of my mother’s perfume. I peer through the balcony door’s windows, desperately wanting to investigate, but Fabien’s trousers are already in a twist about his collage. It would have to wait.
For an hour, I do my utmost to focus, a mediocre success at best. When I can validate getting up to stretch my legs, an idea strikes. Braiding the sweet peas into my long brown hair, I saunter through the office, trying to appear casual while at the same time observing the reactions of those around me. Perhaps someone will give themself away.
At the water cooler, I run into Darcel, who is rubbing lotion into his umber skin.
“Belle,” He gestures to my hair.
One of my eyebrows rises sharply, “Merci!”
“Sweet peas are my fiancé’s favorite.”
Instinctively I recoil. Was he—did he—? Surely not? But Darcel jaunts innocently away, and I am certain he has nothing to do with my flowers, which is good for more reasons than his engagement. While he is handsome, he always smells like cheese—quality cheese, but cheese nonetheless.
I finish the collage and email it to Fabien. I am at my desk, packing to leave when he surges over.
“Soliel, qu’est-ce que c’est?”
At the end of his hairy arm, he waves a hard copy of my collage, “These are too agréable. Have you forgotten? This issue is about our plans to purchase a new building and expand services to homeless families. There needs to be a sense of gravitas to the pictures.”
“But we are offering them hope!” I protest.
“Oui, but the readers need to be made aware of the deep need. That is what will stir them into giving that hope,” he pats my shoulder, “Désolé, sorry, you will need to start over.”
“But they are supposed to be posted tomorrow.”
“I know,” Fabien shrugs, “I hope it comes together fast for you.”
I do not prefer melancholy art; it’s a struggle for me. The rest of the afternoon, I wrestle to combine grit and despair with the hope of new beginnings while not letting that hope overpower the darkness—which is stupid because that is exactly what we are trying to do.
People start clocking out. I watch them longingly through the balcony windows. Fabien must feel bad because he gives me a microwave bowl of noodles, and Searle offers a pear that looks like it’s lived in his bag for few days.
The sun sets, and my mood descends. I cannot put a positive spin on the situation until I discover that by imagining myself kicking Fabien’s bad knee, I am finally able to give my collage the bleak vibe he is after. I feel guilty about it; at the same time, I’m able to leave.
By the time I get home, my sweet peas have wilted, and I wonder if there will be another in its place come morning. I feel like I earned it.
The next day, I arrive early, hoping to catch the mystéreau sender in the act, but he has beaten me at my game. On my balcony table stretch the broad petals of a vivacious tiger lily.
You are Fierce
I don’t try to stifle my enormous smile. Fierce. I like that. I crop and highlight and contrast my photos with a peppy tippety-tap all morning, the rosy daylight kissing my freckled skin.
I have a late lunch at a street café with my friend Berneen and tell her about the flowers and notes. She immediately thinks it must be Pascual, our mutual friend from church. Berneen goes into a match-making frenzy and sets up an after-work get together, casual drinks at her and her husband’s apartment.
“We’ll be sure and invite a few others,” Berneen ensures me, sending the mass text invite, “So it isn’t obvious.”
Though she is a little zealous, Berneen’s confidence rubs off on me, and I skip back into work, excited to pin my admirer in his romantic sneakers. Pascual always wears chucks, even at weddings.
I have hardly crossed the threshold when the director, Mr. Bogart, calls me into his stuffy office.
“Qu’est-ce qu’l y a? What is the matter?” I ask, “You look as if you’re growing a spiky tail! Calme toi, mon cher.”
“Sit, s’il vous plaît.” He motions me to a chair and scratches his bent nose, “You recall those raises scheduled to come this spring?”
Of course, I remember. I’ve been counting on the extra money. Working a small non-profit has its drawbacks. Myself and the others have been making do with inadequate paychecks.
“Eh, well, it seems that,” Mr. Bogart adjusts his necktie, “Well, we are forced to postpone them, I’m afraid.”
“Quoi?!” I stand.
He pulses his hands to settle me down, then gently takes my hand in his large ones, and his sad eyes meet mine, “Je suis désolé. I am sorry; the budget is just tight for now.”
Dumbfounded, I pull my hand away and turn to leave
My roommate moved out last month. I didn’t look for another because with the coming raise, I could afford it on my own. I had already transformed her room into a studio. Now, what was I going to do? I pick up the odd wedding and senior photoshoots on the weekends, but it’s not enough to keep me afloat. I made this job my priority, and it was supposed to support me long-term.
I remember the tiger lily.
I volte-face and puff my chest, “Non.”
“Non, this is non bien.”
He strokes his go-tee uneasily, “Soliel—”
“Non.” I hold up a hand, “Zut, this company exists for the good of others, but what are you if you do not even keep your word to your own people? Where would you be without this trustworthy, hardworking staff? If you cannot take care of us, how can you pretend to take care of others? You refuse to pay us,” I gesture to the rest of the office, “what we are owed, and at the same time expand? It is disgraceful.”
I turn on my heel, collect my tiger lily from the balcony, and I’m almost out the office door when the old toad lollops over to me.
I do, but icily.
“You are… you make some good points.”
I raise an eyebrow as though he is a naughty schoolboy.
“I will bring your argument before the board.” The ‘board’ is comprised of him and two others who are goggling at me through their open office doors.
I nod and continue my exodus.
“Will—” he calls sheepishly after me, “Will you be in tomorrow?”
I let him sweat a moment before inquiring, “Will you keep your word?”
“Eh…” I watch significant looks passing to and fro across the corridor. Mr. Bogart sighs, “It is not that simple. There is much we will need to discuss, but—oui, we will keep our word.”
I nod as though he has provided the correct solution to an algebraic cipher and march confidently away. Down on the street, I let out my breath and laugh.
I am a tiger!
I arrive early to the soiree at Berneen’s apartment to help prepare hors d’oeuvres and borrow her lavender dress. She says it offsets my hazel eyes.
When I finish assembling the platters, I sip my glass of wine, trying not to look too interested each time someone buzzes in. Pascual is the last to arrive.
As he enters, I move to hug him hello and see a mademoiselle entering on his heels. Une trè belle femme. He introduces us to his gorgeous girlfriend with a boyish charm, standing there in his dumb tennis shoes.
With the aid of my dear companion, Monsieur Chardonnay, I soon recognize my silliness. A few days ago, I wouldn’t have cared if he had a girlfriend. He is perfectly entitled. Good for him.
The rest of the evening we play games and swap funny family stories, and I have a marvelous time.
*The story’s conclusion will be posted later this week. Many Blessings.