THOSE WERE ROSES THAT WERE HER EYES
The roses were deep red, and as the days passed they curled black around the edges, and drooped fleshily on their stalks. He liked the unopened ones best. Velvety, large, and heavy with inky rims, he saw her eyes there.
“I heard you were ill,” she had remarked pleasantly, as she handed him the bunch. “How are you now?”
“Fine,” he mumbled.
“These roses will cheer you up.”
“If you are not better, I will come again.”
“You are too kind.”
“What are friends for?”
Now he was well in body, but his heart was as heavy as the wilting roses hanging on their stalks. At work, or with his family, there was a hiatus between him and everything else.
He touched the withered flowers gently, observing how well the faint wrinkles on the backs of his fifty-seven year old hands matched the shrivelled paperiness of the petals and leaves. She should have given me dead flowers, he thought, that would have been far more appropriate.
When he first saw her he had felt that casual passing interest that expects no fulfilment, routinely undergone, explored and tossed away with the rubbish of all those things that did not help his life go forwards.
Her eyes did not turn away when his gaze fell upon her. Her look was without word or smile, just a look, black, dark, shinning, that came from depths that invited him in. He was not given to losing his head, but thirty years slowly melted when he found those eyes following him for days on end, eyes in which he saw his own desires reflected and enlarged. He established a pattern within which they could interact casually, friends, of course. At his age a paternal interest was easily assumed.
Gradually he became more besotted, clinging to the moments in which they met, treasuring the words exchanged. She was free, she was open, she looked up to him, she had never had a friend so interested in her, someone she could trust, who cared for her without expectation of return. The men she had known had given her a terrible time, they could learn a thing or two from him. Afterwards he was tormented by desires that flickered over everything she said, translating gestures into invitations.
Time lost its meaning. Each moment came to be either weighed down with the heaviness of his pain or sometimes – too rarely – imbued with joy from a suddenly happy heart.
His age embarrassed him. He was fifty-seven, balding, paunching, wrinkling, heavy in step.
When the roses finally died, he could not bear to throw them away, the only thing she had ever given him. He carefully tore the petals off, filled a little jar with them, and added rum and sugar between the layers. He eagerly examined the compote every day, and watched the dark red leaves become bruised and mashed.
If I might have her – only once – I will never ask for anything again. I will contemplate the desert of age calmly, carry out my responsibilities mindfully. Dear God let me have the pleasure of touching her, tasting her before I die.
Every day he took a spoon of the sticky rum flavoured mashed roses. He was eating something her hand had touched, he believed in the compelling quality of essences.
The potion began to work, she came oftener, lingered longer, began to respond to some of the words he daringly used. Words of ardour, need and pathos.
She sighed, she seemed to echo, his elation grew uncontainable. He advanced forwards. When she did not repulse him, he threw himself on her. I had no idea she said, as she held his hand, stroked his face with gentle fingers and turned away her body.
The equation between them changed, as she tread on his devotion with a firmer step. He felt she was even more at ease with him. The list of things she allowed him to give her expanded at his insistence.
Fancying their intimacy to be increasing, he took her to his own special room. He was fond of making preserves, did she know that? Here was a compote made with the very roses she had given him, did she remember? He had loved them so much, he had wanted to keep them, just see, this last little bit, taste it.
She smiled in a way he did not try to understand. He watched as she bit into the spoonful he held towards her, watched as she savoured the sugary rum flavoured petals and at that moment, found her eye lids flickering shut, obscuring her expression, while his own became naked with longing. This time he was more circumspect, as slowly his trembling hands reached out for her.
You have already eaten me, she mumured. There is nothing left.
But I never had you, he wailed.
You had me, I assure you. Those roses you ate were me, those fantasies you lived were me, that restlessness, that pain, that bliss, were all me.
That’s not fair, he screamed in anguish. All I had was torture, a guilty conscience, and an ageing libido. Where were you in all that?
In the space between the seeking and the consummation.
You mean – you mean, that’s it? he stammered.
What do you mean, it? I gave you the intensity of yearning, the vitality of desire, I gave you something to dream of. For this, suffering is a small price to pay.
He never saw her again. Efforts to locate her lead to nothing. In memory of his passion, he focused on red roses, surrounding himself with their huge, lush presences, the darker the better, till he became known as quite the rose fancier.
His wife was grateful for an occupation that kept her husband busy, for the man retired at fifty-eight, and men were notorious for the trouble they caused their wives when meaningful occupation was gone.
Published in Earthen Lamp Journal, an online magazine.