Girl Who Cried Flowers
by Dylan Babb
In the town where I grew up, there was a girl who could cry flowers; tears formed into delicate honeysuckles, calla lilies, tulips, and puffy hydrangeas. I don't remember why the flowers were so different each time. I'm not even sure she couldn't shape the petals, unremembered dreams forming the blossoms.
I met Emily in high school. I'd just moved to town in the middle of the school year, an unknown and still unlabeled new member of the herd. Emily was also outside the pack, and together, it was easy to come up with reasons not to try and get back in.
She'd been very popular in elementary school. She could cry on cue, and all the little girls wanted flowers. They wanted flowers for their hair, woven into crowns and necklaces. They tucked them in between the laces of their shoes. Once she told me that she'd cried a flower from her imagination; she hadn't been able to find it in any of her botany books. It had five petals shaped like an iris, but the blossom was as big as her hand. The purple petals were so dark that they almost looked black when you turned down the lights. The flower smelled like the beach, a cool ocean breeze off the hot salty sand. Emily didn't think I would believe her, so she showed me a picture and told me I would just have to imagine the smell.
I always wondered what she did with the flower. Did she bring it for show and tell? Did she try and hide it under her bed or did she rush to show her mom? Did her mother ever discover the flower when she came in to her room collecting the laundry? Did she press it in a book? I wish I'd known to ask more questions. But we never know to ask them.
• • •
Eventually, Emily got tired of crying. It was exhausting to be crying all the time. Her eyes were always puffy and red — she constantly looked like she had a cold, the skin around her eyes raw and tender. I remember she told me she had to stop going to see sad movies, especially movies about war. She said the flowers got into her popcorn.
• • •
When we meet in high school, she'd just finished going through a goth phase. When she stopped crying flowers on demand she'd shed a large circle of friends and landed in with the goth kids. It happened that one of them found her in the bathroom crying black rose petals, Emily became their tragic mascot. If she could concentrate on her deepest, darkest, saddest thoughts, she was able to replicate the black roses. Emily bought into the look for a while; the heavy eyeliner hid her swollen eyes and the white makeup covered up her red nose. She even mastered silent crying, no sticky sobs or shaky exhales, a good clean cry.
We met at lunch in the cafeteria after I'd been unsuccessfully hopping from table to table. It seemed impossible to find anyone who could like me. At fifteen, life was over. Emily was sitting alone at a table towards the doors, her curly hair dyed deep red. In her black jeans and thin black tank top, she looked like a girl you'd have written songs about.
• • •
I wish I could remember exactly what about her made her look so glamorous — back then I'm sure I could have told you why she stood apart, but nothing really comes to mind now. My journals are littered with lists of Emily things: what she did, what she wore, what she said. Maybe people only become special, singular, when you know them better. You can't really know someone who doesn't also want to know you. I don't remember what we talked about. I just remember that I listened.
Friendship is all about timing. I needed someone, and she needed a less demanding audience. We both wanted to make sure that we didn't feel like losers.
• • •
Emily would take me to see shows, not the goth bands where she was too well known, but other places, bars or small venues. She was the one to get fake IDs. If you spend too much time crying, you start to look older than you are.
One night we went out to see this band, a dance group with a loud trumpet, accordion, base, and guitar. The show was in a converted barn. The owners had come from a big city on the west coast to our smaller city on the east. They were looking to create something "authentic." They bought the barn, set up lights in the rafters and the soundboard up in the hayloft. The whole building shook with the music, the way a child might rattle a birthday gift to guess what's inside. I suppose that was authentic.
The trumpet player was the leader of the group, with the most handsome face and skinny tie. They were pretty young, not much out of high school, and I'm not sure what it was, but the trumpet player just seemed to radiate fun. He was shorter than the rest of the band members, and when we got up close enough we noticed that he didn't wear shoes while he was on stage. He would hop around the stage with long white feet below tuxedo pants. He would sing the lyrics, then blast away on a solo and make you think of magic.
Usually Emily and I would chill in the back, people-watching, deciding who was really cool and who was only pretending. In my best jeans and a shirt I borrowed from Emily, I remember only that I was pretending to be a grown-up, not that I felt grown-up. No one noticed. One of my first adult realizations: no one really knows when you're faking.
Once the band started, we danced. We danced with each other and maybe that made us cool, but it was probably because Emily was the best dancer in the room. You wouldn't guess that about a girl who made friends crying flowers, but she was electric. She moved like her own murmuration of birds or a live wire and made me feel good. That night when the jazzy band with the magical handsome trumpet player took the stage, she couldn't take her eyes off him. Maybe it was the way he sang, smoky and really, really sexy. He wasn't like anything else in her life, not like high school, not like her family, not like me.
We followed the band for weeks. After two months, Emily knew all his songs. I can remember their most popular tune, but not much else. I never really could remember music. I didn't see it right away, the way she started smiling more. She laughed at my jokes more, though I'm certain I didn't get funnier. She made it fun to laugh at other people, to feel sophisticated.
• • •
The night Emily and the trumpet player finally met, I only remember what we wore. She had on a green green dress that made her hair look redder, less brassy. Had she dyed it? We were dedicated to home hair dye kits. She liked to pick out colors with names like dessert blossom, and I went with dark black-blue, the kind of color that reminds you of faux patent leather. Emily had her hair pulled back so the curls sprang out around her face. I wore my favorite blue dress; we'd both agreed that the cobalt blue color looked fantastic. She a tropical fish, me the dark ocean.
There were a few bands that night and the smoky sexy trumpet player's band was one of three. He came on after a mediocre banjo band that was visiting from somewhere in Ohio. I remember the club was not overly packed, but definitely hot and sticky. Our shoes stuck to the tacky floor, and the smell of people, musty salt, lingered between bodies. A smell compressed between strangers.
When their set was over, he came over and introduced himself. Said something about noticing Emily before, that she was a really good dancer, that she had pretty hair, maybe he liked her dress.
That night, Emily and I went back to my house, giddy, or at least she was giddy. Chris had invited her to see their next gig. They were going to play at this small bar downtown and he knew the owner. He was sure he could get her in. I remember thinking that he looked shorter once he was off stage.
I went with her the first time. We got dressed up again; this time she wore silver. She was heart-stopping, again like electricity. She was light on water, fish scales, the first lightning bolt, the high sound of a trumpet. I wore blue again. An inky blue; the color of the ocean where you might find a gigantic squid or the remains of a pirate ship.
The bar we went to was smaller than any of the ones in our hometown. Here, people were close to you. I was nervous and worried about sweating through my dress even before we started dancing. When we got there the band wasn't up on stage, and Chris was hanging by the bar. He seemed to know most of the people there, waving and nodding to almost everyone around him. When we got to him, he had a chain of people circling him, hangers-on, a kind of necklace of bodies. Some of them beautiful, others shadows. They moved about him, their drinks little jewels catching neon light. They laughed together and made big gestures with their hands. I stayed back while Emily worked her way up to them, becoming the perfect centerpiece in the necklace.
I stood in the back and watched the band take the stage. The ring of people expanded to watch Emily dance. Songs stretched into each other and were layered with improvisations. They played songs that they hadn't recorded yet, songs that were new and tender. Emily would start to sway to a new song and without thinking about it, the crowd of people would follow her, a mass of people no longer following the band but following Emily, who seemed to have become more important than the band.
After that night, I still believed that I was an important person in her life. And when we were together, she made me feel that way. She continued to come over so I could dye her hair, and we would paint our toes. But in the city and at shows I resisted becoming part of her chain of people. I told myself then that it was because I was above it all. I know now it's because I didn't feel beautiful enough to be a part of it.
That night of the silver dress, Emily and Chris stole away to a back street and she let him kiss her. She told me later on our way home that he tasted a little like Chinese take-out and potato chips. Not fancy potato chips, but like regular potato chips that have lost some of their saltiness. It sounded really gross to me, but she thought it was really one of the best tastes in the world. She also told me that he made her laugh so hard, she cried one single tear, and that's how he found out. She cried one perfect pink tulip.
• • •
Jealousy is one of those emotions that you don't know what to do with when you're young. It forms like a vague hatred around someone, and you come up with really stupid reasons not to like them. You decide that crying flowers really isn't so special, and if you could do something like that, you'd be sure to open up a specialty flower shop and not spend your nights dancing in a silver dress, kissing a guy whose mouth tasted like potato chips. You think to yourself that a gift like that is a waste on someone like her.
• • •
I started spending my afternoons with the art class kids. My parents got me a used car, a nine-year-old Honda, and I was using it to cart around art supplies. The teacher was a really nice young woman who'd gone to art school in the city and was still friends with designers and illustrators. She wore feather earrings and smelled like coffee. I remember being really surprised when I found out she had a kid. She knew bands and said interesting things about art and life. I don't think I'd met an adult like her before.
I guess it would have been the beginning of winter when Emily and Chris started officially dating. Emily stopped me after school to get a ride home, bursting to tell me all about it.
"Did you sleep with him?" I asked.
"No!" She laughed and fished out some lip-gloss from her bag. She pulled down the visor mirror and checked her reflection. "We're not there yet. He just wants to go on a date."
I took her at her word, but I think back and I know she lied to me. Maybe she thought we would stop being friends, that having sex was like crossing over into a different class of person. Virgins and non-virgins didn't mix. But I also think we both knew that sex wasn't really the reason we'd stopped hanging out. The reason was much worse: love.
She would absolutely tell me when it did happen. I was her best friend. I would be the first person to know. She swore she'd call me and tell me all about it. I nodded. I was pretty sure I didn't want to know.
As we drove, Emily kept her feet up on the dashboard of my car. I can't remember why this annoyed me, her shoeless feet, but it pissed me off that she couldn't just keep her boots on and sit like a normal person. Why did she feel like she had to make herself so special? I didn't say anything at the time, I couldn't. It sounded just as stupid then as it does now.
• • •
After that, she sort of disappeared. I started taking art seriously and drew gigantic pictures of the ocean and clouds and what I imagined our town looked like from an airplane. Emily kept going downtown to see shows, and I still went sometimes. It felt different; Emily didn't dance with me. Maybe she stopped looking so beautiful. She was still iridescent Emily, but now she was just familiar, and none of that beauty was directed at me.
• • •
We kept up this half-friendship until summer; then school was out, and we both had to make an extra effort to hang out.
• • •
That summer I worked on a crush I had been nursing for quite some time. He was a guy in art class who made sculptures out of packing peanuts and objects he found in his mom's basement. His name was Bryan. I would go over to his place, and we would spend the afternoon turning broken picture frames and dusty records he collected into bizarre lawn ornaments. I liked his floppy hair, dark, coffee-colored eyes, and easy humor. He wore old jeans and t-shirts, and smelled musky but also faintly of paint. I liked that he liked art.
I kissed him when we were sitting in the basement taking a break from digging through old junk looking for a new project. We were drinking soda and I remember his lips dusty and dry from the basement but his mouth sugary and cold. Later that summer we would have sex in that basement. Now I think of it as tender and sweet, but for a long time, his awkward fumbling with the condom and my shyness about bleeding were embarrassing. Isn't it always? I didn't do a very good job cleaning all the blood off myself and when I put my nice underwear on, I ruined them. We did get better at it, if only in small ways.
• • •
I did not tell Emily.
• • •
I wonder now what it was about Bryan that I loved. We never said, "I love you," but maybe I did. I think we were trying to be artists, and it was unsophisticated to be in love. Maybe I loved him because he wanted me. He made me laugh, and he wanted to kiss me.
• • •
Emily and I did meet a few times in the summer. We got french-fries at the Hot Dog King. We had milkshakes at the Tasty Freeze. She spent most of her summer with Chris and his band. She knew everyone that came to the shows. She gossiped about imitators and fakes as a way to make me feel like I was still a part of it all. She knew which records had been released on vinyl and which bands were selling out to a larger label. I told her that Bryan would probably let her go through his mom's old records if she wanted to come by. She said that they were probably ruined by dust.
She spent her time with the band in their green room, if there was one, drinking cans of cheep beer. She didn't have to just wait by the bar. She didn't tell me she'd become part of the act. I found out about that from a friend of mine, who talked about going to see this amazing concert in the city. The band had been really good, but the best part was their final song when petals fell from the ceiling. She said they were the most amazing white blossoms she'd ever seen. The petals were almost a half an inch thick and soft like velvet.
• • •
Emily and I met again just before school was about to start. I came over to her house. We stopped by the Dairy Queen and got chocolate milkshakes on our way to the park, then found an empty bench by the small lake. Well, not really a lake, but a large pond. We sat on the top rail of the bench and sucked on our milkshakes. The air smelled like cut grass. Emily didn't wear a dress, she just had on cut-off shorts and a baggy, white t-shirt. She said she'd been going to the beach a lot with Chris and listening to the sound of the ocean. I couldn't decide if she looked healthy or worn out.
"So, how are you?" I didn't look at her. I can still hear that tone in my voice that means I'm trying to play it cool. I still use this voice sometimes.
"Good, you know, really good." She played with her hair. "Chris is gonna go on this tour, and the band might sign up with an agent."
"Oh, that's cool. So, are you gonna go with him?"
"Yeah, well, they want me to go and, sort of be their grand finale. But I guess I'm not so crazy about the whole thing." She took a sip of her shake
"Really. I thought you'd be into the whole cool band road-trip. Think about all the roadside stops, you could make a point of going to every IHOP and Waffle House you can find." I gave her a playful nudge.
"Pancakes make me retch." She smiled and looked at me. "What about you. Miss In-Love-and-Won't-Talk-to-Her-Best-Friend?"
"No way can you say that." I blushed. "We're not in love, really. Or at least we don't say that we're in love. But he's a really cool guy. You'd like him. You should totally come over and hang with us. We're building a tribute to Miles Davis out of his mom's record collection and broken radios."
"That does not sound like a date to me."
"It beats hanging out smoking and drinking in green rooms or making out at the beach, where you just get sand everywhere."
"No. The beach is totally hot."
"So have you and Chris, like?"
"Have you and Bryan?"
"Now it's your turn. So?"
"A while ago."
"Was it before I met Bryan?"
"And you didn't tell me?"
"No. I just didn't know what to tell you. It's not like it was some magical thing that happened. There were no magical lights."
"Yeah, but it can still be a big deal."
"I don't know. I guess I was still trying to figure it out for myself. When we started, it really didn't feel all that good and I kind of started to cry."
"Shit, that sucks."
"Yeah, but you know it sort of turned him on, I guess. Maybe he thought it was cool, but it still hurt."
"So what happened?"
"Well, nothing really. We finished, and then we had to clean up all these flowers that were everywhere. We had petals stuck all over us, and in our hair. I got blood on the sheets. It was really gross."
"I'm sorry. That's shit. Is he nice at all?"
"He's pretty nice. He just gets distracted, and then it's sort of hard for him to care about much beyond his music and stuff." I'd kept my eyes on my milkshake and when I looked over at Emily she was brushing a few daises from her lap. Looking at her face, she had a few stray petals stuck to her checks, pressed down with the tears.
• • •
This is one of those conversations that make sense in replay. After that we just finished our milkshakes and started senior year. When I remember it, I see how lonely and hurt she was. She wanted him to make her feel special. It's how I wanted to feel. But when you're young, you can't reach beyond your own feelings. How can a girl who cries flowers not feel special?
• • •
They stayed together for the next couple of years. It was one of those on and off again relationships. I would see her around town with red-rimmed eyes, smelling like crushed rose petals. I'd see her out at a show, go into the bathroom, and see the stall would have a few stray daffodil heads on the floor or floating in the toilet. I think about all the flowers she must have cried in dirty bathrooms. Red poppies and purple cosmos and yellow carnations.
It's hard to think about why I didn't try to stay friends with her. Is it hard to be friends with people like her? I used to say that it's because I was really jealous, and she just got too cool for me. We drifted in different directions. But she tried to reach out to me. She called me, wanting to hang out. I probably should have at least gone to the movies with her one afternoon; it probably would have been fine. But I never did. I let her drift away.
• • •
I don't know much about her now. We didn't stay in touch after graduation. And we didn't really run in the same circle. You can find anybody these days on the internet, but I don't know that I want to know. I just like to imagine. I picture her with kids and a husband. She might have cried at their births, showering newborn faces with soft bluebells. Their soft small hands holding onto the sweet petals. I don't know if this is really true, but I like to think that when she wept with joy, the flowers lasted longer.
Copyright © 2013 by Dylan Babb