This short story was submitted as part of our Valentine's Day open contribution. You can see the other submissions here and here.
My brother called and told me that the husband of an old family friend of my mother's was dying. I called the flower shop where I had a charge to order a plant. I hadn't forgotten the Christmas that this lady turned me away because I was wearing blue jeans. But I remember that she was nice to me when I was little and that I called her "auntie." All my mother's best friends were to be called "auntie." She used to provide little plastic baggies of nuts and raisins and always there would be collection of dolls that sat in a group in the corner of her living room, just for me to play with, but when my brother came along, she'd added a truck. I was too big to play with dolls. "I'll come and visit," I told her. “But I'll call before I come, and I won't be wearing blue jeans." "Oh," said my mother's old friend, having somewhat mellowed out now that she was in her seventies. "That won't matter." My friend who owned the flower shop was in his seventies too, and unlike my mother's friends, he was never stodgy. Maybe that's why I liked him. A gay ex-priest, he'd told me about seminary life, the wearing of hair shirts, and the four-story bar in New Hampshire that catered to clergymen out rock-and-rolling without their collars. When he left the church, he'd moved in with his sister. They'd lived a simple life, neither of them ever marrying. It was George's nephew who took my order. "I'm an old friend of your uncle's," I said, and "I've been trying to get George's phone number for months. I know he'd be happy to hear from me." "Uncle George doesn't like us giving his phone number out, but he's down the Cape now, working at a hotel for a friend of his." Reluctantly, he gave me the name of the hotel, and, within the hour, I'd placed a person-to-person call. When I was 13, we'd become best friends. As a florist in a small city, George was a gold mine for gossip, which I, a writer-to-be, found fascinating. George was the first person people called for births or deaths, and although he promised to take me to look at a cadaver, he never did. He would complain about a woman who pissed on herself whenever they were out drinking. By the time I was old enough to drink, George had introduced me to every smelly working-class bar near our neighborhood. I never met his girlfriend and I never questioned how he could admit to being gay and still have a girlfriend. And it never occurred to me that people would think I was his real girlfriend. Pals, that's all. So, I was entirely unprepared when, the day before my wedding, George took me into the hot house behind the florist shop. I thought he might have some new porno. "I hope you'll be at the church tomorrow," I said, "and find someone else to deliver the flowers. The ceremony is at twelve o'clock." "What time do you want the flowers there?" I was going through the trauma of not knowing if my husband, who'd tied the knot with me three days before in a civil ceremony, was going to leave me at the altar, a pathetic fallen woman in hypocritical white. The night before, we'd had the rehearsal and he got drunk at the pizza parlor where we'd gone to treat our attendants. He hated me, he said, for forcing him into marriage. What I'd really done was give him an ultimatum. It was marriage or the candy store was closed. This shtupping business had been going on for far too long, skulking in dark hallways doing "it" standing up, the back seat of his car, wherever and whenever we could, like sneaks. Stupid fool that I was, I'd even driven him home, a scalding hate in my heart. "Eleven will be fine," I said to George. "By then we ought to know if he's going to go through with it." I'd lost ten pounds and there were circles under my eyes. The night of the wedding shower, he'd threatened to gas himself, and I'd raced to his side, leaving behind my mother to pack up and haul away twenty-two identical pieces of Corning Ware. "I won't be able to be at the church by twelve," said George, turning his back, maybe so I couldn't see him cry. He was a short, lumpish guy, with bifocals, given to wearing an old woolen sweater with leather elbow patches. The effect was dear. Unlike the flower shop, the hothouse was stuffy and I was anxious to be on my way. There's a zillion things to do before a wedding. "Why not?" I demanded he tell me, stomping my foot pettishly on the fern-covered hot-house floor. You could write your name on the windows, they were so steamy. No one could see in. Here and there amidst the bromeliads and schefflera and flats of gay-faced pansies were gargoyles and ashen-faced Pans, some cast in metal to look like stone. "At twelve o'clock I'm going to be up on the Mystic River Bridge getting ready to jump. I just know that man you're going to marry won't let us be friends anymore." If I didn't know him better, I would have thought he was joking. But George was very sensitive, just the way I was, and I remember being terribly moved. "Marriage is not going to change my whole way of life. I'll still be able to bum around with you." I used to love killing time instead of doing my homework after school. Swinging my legs from a stool, classical music on from a small plastic radio on the bench, watching George make flower arrangements. It was relaxing. Like a maestro, with short, swift wrist movements, he would pluck long-stemmed flowers from a metal bucket, snip with his scissors here and there, wrap the stems in sticky green tape or wire, and finally jab them into a green sponge-like Styrofoam. It was mesmerizing: the ubiquitous smell of lilies and roses, the sweet violins, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. You'll see," he said. "Marriage will change you." I didn't think then that anything would interfere with my flitting here and flitting there as free as a butterfly. But just as George had predicted, when my son was born, five years after my marriage, everything changed. I took my responsibilities seriously. There was Phil, of course, my new best friend after I was divorced, and motherhood, but the biggest difference was a sobering melancholy that followed me wherever I went. Instead of the butterfly, I'd turned into a pupa, a dead dull thing, brittle and colorless, in bed more than I was out. Still, I was overjoyed at the sound of his timid voice on the other end of the phone. "What did you say your name was?" "Oh, cut the shit, George, it's me." "The schoolteacher I read about in the papers who made all those hundreds of thousands of dollars because some dumb shrink couldn't resist her nubile body?" "Don't laugh at me, George. It wasn't funny." "My sister, Mabel, died," he said, sadly. "I was devastated." "I'm sorry to have heard that," I said. "If I'd known, I would have flown up for the wake." "It was beautiful. We laid her out at Weisbloom's. Hundreds of people came." "I didn't find out until I went to order flowers for my father's funeral this past fall." "Yes, I knew that he'd died. I still get my hometown newspapers." The funny thing about my wedding is that when George must have been debating about jumping off the bridge, I was at the altar, bawling my eyes out, waiting for someone to come in where the preacher says: "If anyone knows why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony...." At that very moment, I found out years later when I'd looked him up, my real father was circling the church, debating if he should come in. He figured if he did, my mother would faint dead away, and my wedding would be ruined. He had no way of knowing it was already ruined before it began. "I have so much to tell you, George. If I take a bus out next weekend, will you be able to put me up?" "I have plenty of room here. For sure." "I might bring Sean with me, if I can talk him into it, but he's a big boy now and all he's interested in is girls." George sounded happy. "I'll take the dirty pictures off my walls," he said, chuckling. "Did you know that your old boyfriend, Ray, died?" "No. Ray was just a year older than me. What happened?" "A heart attack on his honeymoon in the West Indies. We had to fly up there and embalm him because of the weather and bring him back." Ray was one of my wild and wooly neighbors who kidnapped me once out of my bedroom window when my parents were asleep. He had a 12 o'clock shadow even after he shaved, so dark was his skin. I'd been crazy about him. Every girl in town was crazy about Ray, I guess, despite the fact that he was a hard drinker and had a reputation for loving and leaving. Why was it that so many women were charmed by rakes? "You see that? Ray should have married me. Phil is still going strong. How are you feeling?" "Eh, not so good. I'll never be the same without my sister." "I'm not feeling so good either. I'm getting pains in my chest and I'm terribly lonely. Spent last night just looking through the telephone book to see if I still had any friends. It'll be good to see you." Later that day Phil came by the apartment. The television was too close to the edge of the étagère and the glass table we used to eat on wobbled on its chrome base, causing Phil to worry someone would run at it and gash themselves to death. The shades were drawn, and even though Phil had just paid a fortune to have the walls painted, compared to my house in Florida where I'd been living for the past few years, every corner was steeped in gloom. "Why don't you let some light in here? For Christ's sake." "Because, in case you've forgotten, that shrink whose license I'm trying to get taken away tried to get me to kill his wife. I'm worried he'll hire a hit man. Some junky patient of the doctor's, strung out, could blow me away for the price of a fifty-minute hour." "Why worry? Just think about who he asked to find a hit man to kill his wife." I thought for a minute and then realized the point was his. I let Phil put the shades up and move the television. "Now, that television. Make sure it's off when you wipe it with a damp cloth." "So, I won't get electrocuted?" "Don't get smart!" "I'm going to Provincetown next week to see my old friend George from the flower shop. I thought I'd bring Sean with me." "You're going to bring Sean into a bunch of screaming faggots?" "My friend is seventy-five, at least. Surely you can't be serious. What could it hurt?" "One of them guys will be wanting to suck his prick, a nice young boy the way Sean is." "What kind of boy do you think I've raised that would let anyone do such a thing to him? He'll be with me all the time. What do you think we're going to do but walk around and look in the shops and have a good time with my friend, have an orgy or something?" Phil threw up his hands in disgust. "Do what you want to do. I don't care." He was remarkably even-tempered, and I suspected he'd popped a Valium just before he'd come over. I didn't enjoy arguing. Peace at any cost. The fun of taking a bus trip with my son to Provincetown was gone, and I never had a chance to tell George how much I treasured our quiet times, that they were the most of heaven I might ever know.