I set aside the yellow chrysanthemums and wondered about the oranges, reds and purples. They were arranged one on each step to our house and I thought the colors should be coordinated like an outfit of clothing. Greg, my housemate, didn’t like the care I took with the chrysanthemums every year because he considered them out-of-season flowers—because they were flowers that bloomed in fall rather than in spring or summer. “What are you doing?” he would snap at me. “Didn’t you do enough gardening this summer?”
He didn’t appreciate the full growing season, thinking it should be confined to April or May through the beginning of September and then be done. I tried also explaining crocuses to him, which he saw himself every year in March but dismissed as weeds. He was on the fence about daffodils.
So, while he fixated on changing all our light bulbs to ones he called “energy efficient,” which I called less flattering and more garish, I arranged the chrysanthemums wondering how best to show them off.
Just as I decided to place the purple up top, then the orange and then maybe the bluish followed by the pink and yellow, Greg appeared at the top of the stone steps in a t-shirt and track pants. I always wondered why he didn’t just wear jeans. Was it to give the impression that he was fitter than he really was? He wasn’t fat, but maybe he liked people thinking he was either about to leave for the gym or just back from a rough workout. He blamed me for liking Hershey bars better than gyms, though I have no idea why. I wasn’t fat either—and with much less effort than he exerted. Why blame me for having a smarter way of living?
“The chrysanthemums again?” he said. “I thought you were done with those and were going to help me change out the light bulbs.”
“I don’t like the light bulbs you bought—and I don’t care about whether they’re better for the environment or more economical. I think the lighting tones they give off are less pleasant than the old bulbs. So, since you’re taking away a little beauty from my life I thought I would concentrate on the beauty I still have control over.”
When I agreed to be Greg’s housemate a few years ago I had no idea he thought efficiency was a good idea over comfort and that he wasn’t tuned into daffodils, tulips, peonies, lilacs, lilies, roses and, especially, chrysanthemums. The whole season built up to them and they were such a soft-spoken, unostentatious, flower. I appreciated that they didn’t take advantage of their end-of-season status to flaunt themselves like a rose. They were outside nearly every shop door and many houses by the middle of October, but they weren’t glamorous. Nobody chooses chrysanthemums for their wedding reception.
Greg laughed and began pointing at dandelions left over from the summer. “What about those? How do weeds fit into the ‘beauty?’” He liked to look me up and down while he talked, but not in an admiring way—more like an insurance rep who visits a house after a disaster and eyes everything up and down affixing costs here and there.
“Actually, I don’t consider dandelions weeds. I always thought they were misclassified,” I said.
He snickered but I pretended to ignore him and just smiled in return. It was unfortunate that three years after agreeing to share the house (he the first floor; I the second with shared access to the kitchen, living room, garage and outdoor spaces) we still lived alongside one another. I commiserated with the dandelions. They were called weeds because they found themselves growing on the outskirts of someone’s doorstep. They were like flowers except nobody planned for them. My big hope was Greg’s love of adhering to society-approved timelines and the fact that he just turned 36 would mean he’d finally propose to his girlfriend and move out.
“How’s it going with Stephanie?” I said. “If you don’t speed it up and claim her she’ll find somebody else.”
“I don’t know—we’ll see. I’m thinking about it.”
It wasn’t like he was a treasure—balding with glasses and on the short side—so I couldn’t imagine what was keeping him from asking his kind, decently attractive (though admittedly not beautiful) girlfriend to marry him. It’s not like he had a line of girls waiting to go out with him.
“If you think about it for too long, she’ll find somebody else,” I snapped.
He laughed as if to say he didn’t care, and walked back into the house leaving me with my chrysanthemum companions. Stephanie would be over later so I thought I might plant a seed in her mind about leaving him. His lack of appreciation of chrysanthemums and dandelions and the whole growth cycle indicted him as a person who didn’t appreciate wildlife and nature. Did such a person deserve to be given a mate and probably children? That would put him fully in synch with the natural cycle of life, death and reproduction. He didn’t recognize the beauty of the natural world, so was that something he deserved?
On the other hand, a conventional thinker like that could hope for nothing more than marriage. I imagined marriage as a locked tree house from the male perspective. The roaming bird, haphazardly dropping seeds here and there, seemed the true male mentality. If you have that mindset, what could be worse than being tied down to one place, one person, one garden?
As I heard Greg pattering around the kitchen opening his energy drink-in-a-can, I wondered if the chrysanthemums regretted their pots. It wasn’t like I put them there—I purchased the chrysanthemums already in their golden brass-looking pots. But maybe energy-wise they counted the pots against me. I also wondered whether I was receiving bad energy from the chrysanthemums for not planting them myself—enjoying them without having grown them.
The chrysanthemums only had about three weeks left before the first serious frost would come and shrivel them up, so I thought the right color arrangement was important—like a dying person dressing up to her best since she would want to look good for whatever time she had left.
“I thought you were going to dust,” Greg yelled from the kitchen.
“The chrysanthemums are more important, and I don’t have time to do both,” I said. “I suppose when this latest blooming season is over, I’ll have no excuse so I’ll have to take care of the dust so it doesn’t interfere with your energy drink regimen.”
“I’m allergic to dust,” he said sniffling dramatically enough that you could almost hear the phlegm going down his throat. “It makes me sick.”
I laughed not to be spiteful but because I really thought it was funny that he was that weak and prissy-ish that he couldn’t stand a little dust. And that he was so petty that he wouldn’t then just pitch in and take care of it himself. When we first became housemates we decided on a division of household chores. Dusting was in my column. He would rather sniffle and choke on his own phlegm than deviate from our assignments.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” I said. “It’s awful not to feel well, isn’t it? I think I’d like to spend more time with the chrysanthemums. I’ll let you know when Stephanie gets here.” His girlfriend was due to arrive in the next hour or so for their weekly Saturday night date.
Stephanie usually wore the same thing every Saturday—tight skinny jeans with an animal print top of some kind. She was a girl who loved efficiency and since she liked animal prints she decided her days-off outfits should be comprised of nothing but designer skinny jeans, various animal print tops—leopard, zebra, giraffe, even cow—paired with a selection of $400+ designer high heels. She said it simplified her life to have this animal print-skinny jean-designer shoe algorithm that she could just plug in to quickly put together an outfit for her leisure hours. Her work hours—as a financial consultant—were spent in pants suits in various colors—red, navy blue, pink, even purplish—with the same high heels she wore during her leisure hours and a variety of decorative silk scarves (paisley, floral, striped, collage, etc.). Her goal was to eliminate the need to think about anything other than what she considered the substance of her days—her work and her quest to get married by the age of 30. She had latched onto Greg because, because, because—well, I’m not sure. I suppose because he was her romantic equivalent of what college seniors call the “safety school,” meaning a man who fit the general profile she was looking for, and was acceptable even if he wasn’t her first choice, or even her second or third choice. Who had time for all that choosiness anyway?
The Chrysanthemums’ petals retained their color. Until they shriveled up after the first deep frost, they would keep it pretty well. At that point, you could still see their colors but their ends would be tinged with brown. It was mid-October, so I thought they might have another month. After the shriveling would come the potpourri stage, when I would collect whatever was left of the colorful petals and throw them in with other petals I had collected from earlier blooming cycles of the year and add pine chips.
Just then I heard Stephanie’s SUV coming up our gravel driveway. She was driving the way she usually did—tentatively. She was going at exactly a mid-range speed for driveway travel, careful not to so much as skim the grass at the perimeter of the gravel. It was a snow leopard day as she emerged from the car with the white and black pattern of the cardigan offset by a red-pink silk scarf and silver stiletto heels beneath her weekend skinny jeans. As she came closer to where I stood on the cement steps, I pretended to be paying most of my attention to the chrysanthemums. I hated that long interlude between the time you see someone walking toward you from far away and when they get to within the zone of hearing and communicating right in front of you. I never know if I’m supposed to wave at them from afar and then continue to stare at them smiling and seeming interested or whether I’m supposed to smile, nod and ignore. So, I just pretended to labor over chrysanthemum decision-making until I heard her heels click close enough for us to talk.
“Hi! How’s it going?” Stephanie said as she made her way to my chrysanthemums on the steps and me hovering over them. “Oh, hi there, Stephanie! I like that you’re a snow leopard today. Gold and black leopards get all the attention. It’s time the snow leopard had his day.”
Stephanie laughed, but mostly just to be polite. Greg told me that she thought I was strange and didn’t get my humor. I didn’t worry much about that because I couldn’t bear to make small talk. So, I just tried to be nice, but as myself rather than as a person she wouldn’t find strange.
“Is Greg around?” she said. “I’m a little earlier than usual so I wasn’t sure.”
“Yeah, he’s brooding over his energy drink because he’s angry that I’ve neglected my dusting duties in favor of the chrysanthemum tending and color coordination you see I’m involved with. I guess that’s something to look forward to—the luxury of staying on top of the dust if the two of you eventually move in together.”
Stephanie laughed again and looked past me into the house. “Yeah, I guess I’m kind of a neat freak. I thought the two of you had worked out a shared housekeeping schedule for the common areas,” she said.
“We did, but unlike you, I don’t owe him anything so if I happen to rather spend time with chrysanthemums than with a dusting rag or a sponge, that’s what I do,” I pointed out, smiling proudly. I got lonely sometimes but liked that I wasn’t beholden to anyone except the gardens I created.
Stephanie continued her perfunctory social laughter. “It’s not that bad. I like to keep things tidy, too, so I’m not doing anything I wouldn’t do on my own.”
“I guess you could say the two of you came together over your shared love of the tidy,” I said. I looked at her and giggled and then stooped over the crysanthemums again tinkering with the arrangement of colors, wanting each color to set off perfectly both the color above and below it. I knew they were the last of the season’s flowers, so I wanted to make the most of them. I kept thinking how awful it would be to be a crystanthemum and have colors that didn’t suit me surrounding my pot on all sides.
“Yep, I guess so,” she said. “You know, I think I’m going to go in if you don’t mind and see if I can find Greg.”
“Sure, maybe you can help him with his energy drink,” I said. The chrysanthemums seemed to be aligned properly now color-wise, so I started futzing with each of the flowers in each of the vases. I didn’t want any to be twisted, with chrysanthemum stems tangled. Integrity of the stems was important to me, with each stem set apart from the others even as they all shared the same pot and the same colors within that pot.
I thought maybe each pot of flowers would last longer if the bounty were even side-to-side rather than lopsided, though I knew there was no scientific evidence to back that up. One idea I had that I thought I might follow through with that afternoon was mixing colors within the same pot. So, instead of having orange crysanthemums on the top step, followed by purple, then blue, then pink, I would bleed some orange into the purple pot and some purple into the blue pot and some blue into the pink pot, and then mix things up even further by, say, taking some blue and putting it in the orange pot along with the orange and purple and just keep mixing everything up. But to do that I would have to start ripping up the stems from the roots and turning the pots into vases rather than planters.
“I think you can still go out without your gray pants,” I heard Stephanie say from the kitchen. The screen door was drawn to take advantage of the mild autumn day, so it was perfect for eavesdropping, or impossible to escape private noise, depending on how you looked at it.
“Well, the only other pair of pants I have that’s clean are my jeans, and I don’t feel comfortable going to that restaurant in jeans,” Greg said.
“I’m in jeans,” Stephanie pointed out, laughing. “What difference does it make?”
“Yeah, but it’s different—women can get away with it. Besides, those are designer jeans. Mine are working-in-the-garage jeans.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Stephanie said. “Of course you just don’t want to go. It’s like last year when you said you couldn’t go to church because you didn’t have the right kind of dress pants, and that you didn’t want buy cheap dress pants and so you wanted to wait until you got your end-of-the-year bonus to splurge on a designer suit. The end of the year came and you never got the suit and finally admitted that you just didn’t want to go. If you don’t like the places we go, why don’t you just say so?”
“I like the places we go—I’m just not able to dress for those places tonight.”
Luckily, the chrysanthemums were always dressed appropriately, so I was glad I didn’t have to worry about their wardrobes. I had friends who fretted about what they would wear, but what do you do with a man who uses wardrobe deficiencies as an excuse to get out of things you feel like doing? I admired the chrysanthemums’ colors. They only had one season but they always were attired perfectly. Their colors went well with the oranges, reds, yellows and the remaining greens of mid-October and November and if the season was colder than usual and the leaves just turned brown or fell off early, the brightness of the chrysanthemums offered a colorful counterpoint. Greg, on the other hand, was Stephanie’s stripped tree—a tree that night that had lost its foliage and had nothing else charming, like, say, a fresh coat of new snow, to compensate for its barren offering.
“Oh, alright,” Stephanie snapped. “Just put on your jeans and we’ll figure out someplace else to go.” With that she stamped outside and came to sit on the steps with me and the chrysanthemums. I decided to just admit I’d heard everything because it would be phony not to, and, plus, she knew I was right outside the screen door. And on top of that, she and Greg knew one of my favorite pastimes was eavesdropping.
“It’s hard when there’s a shortage of gray slacks, huh Stephanie?” I said hoping to make her smile, though kind of enjoying their argument.
“Yeah, right,” she said, smiling and giving one of her social laughs. “He’s absolutely ridiculous! If doesn’t want to go someplace why doesn’t he just say so?”
“That’s Greg for you,” I said. “I don’t even like sharing a kitchen, dining room and livingroom with him, so I can’t imagine spending a life with him. I shouldn’t say this, of course, but to be entirely honest—and I’ve told him this directly already—I think he’s awful,” I said.
Stephanie grinned but didn’t bother with her social laugh this time. She was just trying to meet her age 30 deadline and time was running out. It was pretty much the same as having a week before a big splashy affair you’re obligated to attend yet have no dress or partner for. Now it was a week before the big party and she was racing around forcing herself into whatever “gowns” she could find. I would say she was at the stage where she was ready to just start dialing names out of an alumni association directory along with squeezing herself into a gown that didn’t fit, but she showed enough reservation that there seemed to be still a chance she would decide not to attend after all.
“Well not that bad,” she said staring at the orange chrysanthemums. “He can be insensitive and maybe doesn’t think as much as he should, but he’s not a bad person. Remember the starving raccoon he fed?”
I had to control myself to only chuckle at that one. Greg had discovered a skinny raccoon late one night in our driveway, so he crept into the neighbor’s driveway (a neighbor he couldn’t stand) and opened up the neighbor’s garbage can, scattering empty or half-eaten cartons of food out toward near where the raccoon was wandering so the raccoon would encamp in the neighbor’s driveway for a feast. The raccoon was still wreaking havoc on the neighbor more than six months later. I told all this to Stephanie.
“Huh, that’s strange,” Stephanie said after I told her the true story. “He told me how sad the skinny raccoon made him, and how he just wanted to do something to help. I thought maybe he was becoming more sensitive.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said. I wondered why Stephanie was so intent on the orange chrysanthemums, while she could see how I toiled to coordinate the colors on all the steps rather than fixating on one pot. If I could have pulled up the chrysanthemums by the roots without killing them, I would have interspersed the colors, cross-coloring all the pots rather than leaving each one with just one solid hue.
“I know you’re about to turn 30, but who cares? You could pass Greg by and keep on looking,” I said.
“You don’t understand,” she said, rubbing her fingers along the stems of the chrysanthemums and keeping her eyes away from me. “My mother won’t leave me alone about this. She just keeps hounding me about making plans to get married. She even roped me into asking Greg along on a cruise I was going to take alone with my her and my dad.”
“I never understood why some parents care so much about their children getting married by a certain age,” I said. “Is it because they’re worried about passing on their genes, or is it more because they’re worried their children will be misfits if they don’t get married by around 30?”
She looked at me with an annoyed expression and rolled her eyes. “Well,” she said irritably. “I think they’re just worried about me. They don’t want me to miss out on anything.”
The chrysanthemums next to us were now perfectly color coordinated and were flourishing in their individual pots. They didn’t have knowledge that it was mid-October and if they did have that knowledge I don’t think they would have done anything different. Was it because they didn’t have to worry about finding a mate, or because they had knowledge programmed into their stems that they should just grow according to their internal selves while taking whatever they could from the climate surrounding them to thrive even more?
“Too bad you can’t just be like chrysanthemums,” I said. She laughed probably thinking I was just joking. But, actually, I saw chrysanthemums as a good model for Stephanie, and especially, for her mother. They needed a reminder from beings in tune with the environment as a whole yet unworried about the growth patterns surrounding them. They grew unto themselves, not caring how I color coordinated them or whether they bloomed too late or too early this year to serve as decoration.
“You think so much of flowers and animals, but you know the only reason they don’t do the things you don’t like is because they don’t have the power of reasoning,” Stephanie said.
That was funny to me. The idea that if chrysanthemums could reason they would worry about getting invitations to cocktail parties or be consumed with worry that the right honey bees weren’t coming around or that the trees and shrubbery surrounding them weren’t pruned in a stylish way. Or, in the animal world, that my cat, Halgar, would be embarrassed because he was caught eating a cheap brand of tuna fish.
“I think the peace of chrysanthemums and other plants and animals like Halgar has more to do with a deep-seeded, intuitive synchronicity with the natural world. They’re oriented strictly toward what’s inside them and what comes naturally to them. They focus on whether they want to lie in the sun or, if they’re a flower, which direction to turn their heads to face the sun. Or they focus on whether they’re hungry or tired. It never gets beyond the primal with them, and that doesn’t make them less. It makes them more,” I said.
“I think wanting to mate and reproduce is very primal,” Stephanie pointed out.
“Well, that’s true, except you’ve said yourself that you don’t like children much and that you’re mainly concerned with your mother pressuring you.”
“I never said I don’t like children. I just said that I don’t go crazy for them and I’m not mainly concerned with my mother pressuring me. It just happens to be on my mind a lot lately,” she said.
“Well, whatever the case, I wouldn’t worry about an arbitrary deadline like age 30 if I were you—even if your mother threatens to throw you overboard on the cruise she’s forcing you to invite Greg along on.” I laughed and felt bad about it, but with the freedom of chrysanthemums before me, I found it funny that this girl sitting on the outskirts of my fall garden was consumed with deadlines related to her age and her mother’s opinion. The seasons speak for themselves and you can either tap into what grows during that particular cycle and look forward to the next growing cycle or you can glower about the flowers that either won’t grow that season or whose season has already past. In any case, it didn’t make sense to me to worry about forcing something to grow that wasn’t. If whatever you wanted wouldn’t grow, it wouldn’t grow. Forcing it would be like expecting a rose to grow in your back yard in October while overlooking the ease of chrysanthemums.
From the kitchen, just inside the screen door, we heard Greg fumbling around the cabinets, swearing to himself. Who knew making a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich could be so frustrating? His deliberation of the dress pants complete, he decided that he would have a sandwich with his energy drink to tide him over until he and Stephanie could get to a suitably casual restaurant or find a place they liked that was willing to deliver.
“I guess I better go in there and show him where you keep the extra crunchy peanut butter. It’s funny. I don’t even live here and I know how you organize your kitchen cabinets. He’s been sharing a kitchen with you for the past three years and he still can’t get it through his head,” she said irritably.
“I guess that gives you a preview of your married life,” I laughed. Stephanie didn’t seem to find that funny. Not bothering with her social laugh, she got up and turned on her designer heels to break through the peanut butter and jelly impasse.
“To the right of the refrigerator,” I heard Stephanie say. “No, not the bottom shelf, the top one. You’ve been sharing a kitchen with her for three years now, how do you not know where the peanut butter is?”
Greg laughed a little in a quick, huffy sort of way, the way a person laughs when he only finds something funny because it makes him mad or bitter. But why be bitter over elusive peanut butter?
“It’s not just the peanut butter, it’s everything,” Stephanie said. “How do you live alongside another person for years and not observe their personal habits, likes and dislikes? After three years you don’t know her any better than a person would know a passerby in an airport.“
“Are you saying I’m stupid?” he said.
“No, obviously you don’t have a mental impairment—you’re better at a lot of things than I am. But when it comes to other people, you don’t seem to retain information.”
“I retain what’s important to me,” he said. “I know how much she spends on groceries every week, picking out the stuff I tell her specifically not to. In fact, I think I’m finally going to insist that we keep separate groceries in the kitchen—maybe we’ll mark off my milk from hers; my Cheerios from hers; my butter from hers; my Palmolive from hers with stickers.”
I had to cover my mouth at that point to avoid making my eavesdropping obvious by laughing. If it weren’t for my laziness alongside my love of the garden, I really would have left our shared arrangement a long time ago. On top of that, I was hoping he was one of those people in my life who would eventually remove himself with no effort required on my part. Unfortunately, I was learning that most of the people I didn’t like in this world outlasted me. So, we were really going to have duplicates of peanut butter; duplicates of jam; duplicates of orange juice; duplicates of rye bread. We couldn’t meld so we would duplicate.
Even Stephanie laughed—and her true high-pitched rolling laugh, not her controlled mono-chuckle. “Well, I think that’s taking it a little far, don’t you think?”
“No, I think I’ve tolerated her grocery preferences over my specific requests long enough,” he said, “and I’m pissed.”
I never knew, staring at the chrysanthemums and already anticipating the spring buds (even in late October) that my choice of dishwasher detergent was so upsetting, that maybe I was even causing an existential crisis over it or precipitating a fight between Greg and Stephanie that might blow the whole thing up.
“It’s really not worth getting upset about,” said Stephanie irritably. “And, actually if you paid as much attention as even I’ve noticed just coming over here on the weekends, you would have gotten by now that she has a system for where she keeps things that’s been exactly the same for the last three years.”
“We’re not talking about that now,” he said. “We’re talking about her buying things—brands—that I’ve told her I don’t want her buying with our shared kitchen budget because they’re too expensive.”
There was a long pause at that point and I could hear Stephanie’s heels tapping the floor. She may have been anxiously pacing back and forth trying to figure out whether to continue arguing with an ass for another couple of years—or a lifetime—or whether to cut her losses and walk out.
“I’m not sure what bothers me more—the petty cheapness or the fact that after three years you still don’t know this person you’ve been sharing living space with,” Stephanie said.
“I know the people I like,” he said.
“And what do you have against chrysanthemums?” Stephanie asked. “She said you don’t want her keeping them on the steps up to the front door and that you don’t think they’re legitimate flowers.”
“They’re alright. I just don’t see why anyone would want to bother with flowers in October. She sits out there on the front steps with those flowers like it’s May or June. It’s the fall, so why bother?”
“Flowers bloom all the way from March through the end of October around here,” Stephanie said. “It’s more than just the spring and summer.”
“Fuck the flowers” he snapped. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s dumb. You’re starting to sound like her.”
My coordination of chrysanthemum colors was nearly complete. I was satisfied that as Greg and Stephanie or Greg then Stephanie or Stephanie then Greg stomped down the stone stairs in a few moments they would pass by a perfect cascade of fall colors.
There was a long silence in which I wondered if there was crying going on that I couldn’t hear from my stone steps or whether the two of them had locked eyes, decided they didn’t care about their differences and embraced. The flowers’ colors in my peripheral vision were calming as I stared at the screen door wondering if anyone would pass through to me on the steps. I had anxiety about denouements. I seemed to prefer long, drawn-out, suppressed sadness to heightened bursts of emotion. Feeling in the middle of the fall was comforting because even if Greg and Stephanie had a horrible climax of emotion in which everything toppled, I was immersed in the seasonal, an unending cycle.
After a few minutes I heard the clattering of Stephanie’s heels followed by the lighter tapping of Greg’s sneakers and moved back from the screen door, pretending to inspect the chrysanthemums. They knew I was eavesdropping but I thought it would be rude to not pretend to try to cover it up.
Both of their faces were inscrutable, though I’m pretty sure they weren’t elated or relieved. They both had what I called stone faces on them as they brushed past me. I smiled feigning sympathy at Stephanie, but she walked past me without acknowledgement. Greg, on the other hand, stooped down suddenly, tore out a couple of chrysanthemums from each pot and with at least five of the flowers in hand snorted loud enough to startle Stephanie and I. “Now they’re good for something,” he said handing them to Stephanie and snickering at me: “Cut myself a slice of your garden. Oh, yeah, nice colors,” he added laughing, as he pulled Stephanie in the car and the two of them drove off.