As the owner of a floral shop, Hua knew that people gave flowers for every occasion: marriage, birth, celebrations and loss. Today, as she walked around straightening the displays and dusting the vases, everything in the shop reminded her of loss. Especially the roses.
Hua wiped a tear escaping from the corner of her eye and faced the door as a customer entered her small shop. She forced a smile when she saw Mrs. Lee. The sweet old woman came in every Tuesday to buy the same small bunch of flowers for her husband’s grave. Hua already had it prepared, but out of respect for Mrs. Lee, she waited until she asked for it.
“Good morning, Mrs. Lee. What can I do for you today?”
“Ah, Hua, I’ve come for an arrangement for my husband’s grave.”
Hua listened to Mrs. Lee’s selection of flowers, then went to the back of the shop and puttered around for a few minutes before opening the floral case and taking out the prearranged bunch.
“I hope this will be good enough.” She offered the grouping of narcissus, white daisy and baby’s breath to Mrs. Lee with a slight bow and smile.
“Perfect. As always.” Mrs. Lee bent her arthritic fingers with painstaking care and extracted a ten-dollar bill from her wallet. But, instead of leaving, as she usually did with a wave, she stood there.
“Was there something else I could help you with?”
“How are you?”
Taken aback, she said, “I’m well.”
Mrs. Lee looked at her with skeptical eyes. “And your husband?”
Hua didn’t know how to answer that. She wasn’t accustomed to lying. “He is well.”
“Ah.” Mrs. Lee tottered past the ferns and other live plants to the small café table in the waiting area and motioned for Hua to follow. “Come and sit.”
“I don’t have a lot of time right now, Mrs. Lee. I just got several new shipments in, and they need to be refrigerated.”
“Give a few minutes to an old woman, will you? Do you have any tea?”
After bringing a pot of jasmine tea and two small cups out to the table, she sat down across from Mrs. Lee.
Mrs. Lee poured the tea into the cups and watched the steam rise. “I have not seen your husband in the shop for some time.”
Neither have I. “He’s often gone. Business is good for him.”
“I thought you owned the shop together.”
“We do, but he was offered a job two years ago in the sales department of one of our suppliers.” It was supposed to secure their future. Tears threatened, but she blinked them back.
“He’s a hard worker.”
Hua just nodded, afraid of what she might say if she spoke.
“And how long have you been married?”
“Twenty-five years.” Today. Not that he’d bothered to call her. She wasn’t even sure which town he was in.
“Ahh. You are just beginning.” Mrs. Lee’s eyes grew wispy. “I was married to Mr. Lee for sixty-five years. We met at the immigration office. Then, in citizen class, he would come and sit by me. I didn’t want him to, so I would always move to the most uncomfortable section with the worst view of the teacher, hoping he would not follow, but he didn’t stop. Once I actually saw him give money to another person so that they would move and he could have their seat near me.” She clucked her tongue. “Even though he was very handsome, it wasn’t proper to encourage such actions.
“Finally, on the day we were granted citizenship, he asked me to lunch. As soon as I heard his voice, the gentle tone, I knew I would say yes.” Mrs. Lee let a happy sigh escape. “We were married just two weeks later.” She extracted a crumpled tissue from the sleeve of her coat and dabbed at her eyes. “And how did you and your husband meet?”
Hua stiffened in her chair. “I don’t want to keep you, I’m sure you have many things to do today.” She began to rise, but Mrs. Lee stilled her with a wrinkled, gentle hand on her arm.
“Please, honor an old woman with a quick story.” She smiled encouragingly at Hua.
Hua relented. “On the subway. I was working in this same shop, but back then I had to travel across town to get here. One time I looked up and saw Joseph sitting in the seat across from me. He was very tall.” She remembered feeling small and alone on the train—his size seemed to amplify her feelings. “The next day, there he was again. Later that week, I looked out of the window of the shop and saw him walking up the street. The day after that he was at the newsstand on the corner. The following day he was getting coffee from a vender, then sitting in the restaurant next-door.
“He started to come into the shop, every day, to buy just one flower. As soon as he’d see me working in the back, he’d leave. This went on for three weeks.”
“He was following you? I would have been afraid.” Mrs. Lee made a tisk sound with her tongue.
“I was. My boss didn’t take it seriously, and he chalked it up to cultural differences—but I didn’t think anyone from any culture would like to be stalked. One morning I took a later train, hoping to avoid him, but when I got off, there he was. As soon as he saw me, he turned away and bought a newspaper, hiding his face behind an article. My fear turned to anger and I confronted him.”
Hua remembered the shocked look on Joseph’s face.
“Just what do you think you are doing?”
“I’m sorry. I just…” Joseph stopped, his face flushed pink with embarrassment.
Her hand balled into a fist and she shook it at him. “You leave me alone. Quit following me.”
She caught herself smiling at the image in her mind, her tiny Asian form threatening his six-foot frame.
“I wasn’t. I mean, I was, but,” he paused, hands up as if she held a gun to his chest.
“If you continue, I’ll call the police.” Hua began walking away, but he ran ahead, blocking her path.
“Please. I’m sorry. Let me explain.” He held out a bunch of flowers, dried to perfection, arranged so that the colors blended yellow, gold, red, pink and white, one into the next. They were all roses, perfectly preserved. The aroma was sweet, but it was the adoring look in his eyes that took her breath away.
“I’ve been trying to get the courage to talk to you, but I didn’t know how.”
“So instead you follow me?”
“I work down the street. I started to see you every day on the subway and then I saw where you worked.” His eyes searched her face. “I didn’t know how to approach you, or if you even spoke English.”
She kept her eyes narrowed at him.
“I brought these hoping to catch you.” He held up the flowers again, but she didn’t reach for them. “Will you tell me your name?”
“It means flower.”
A pleased smile grew across his face. “Flower.”
She felt her cheeks go warm under his gaze and decided to change the subject.
“You did this?” She motioned to the bouquet.
“I made them for you.”
Hua let the memory of it work through her. She could see his boyish face, so handsome and fair; his green eyes reflecting worry and hope as she’d finally accepted his flowers.
She finished the tale to Mrs. Lee. “And five months later we were married. Three years after that, we pulled together our life savings and got a loan to buy this shop.” She shrugged and smiled in spite of herself.
“A lovely story. Thank you.” Mrs. Lee finished her tea and stood to leave. “May God bless your marriage.” She took her flowers and left the shop.
As Hua cleared the table, she looked out the window, and saw Mrs. Lee stop by a man on the corner. He leaned down, bowing to her and she walked past. The man strode up the street towards the shop, his coat collar up against the cold, but she couldn’t see who he was. She put the tea things away and looked up over the doorway. The sign Joseph painted for her hung there. It read, “A flower fades, but true love remains.” She shook her head, wondering how she could have ever believed that.
Just then, the door opened, jingling the bell above it, and in walked the man she’d seen. As he turned down his coat collar, revealing his face, she froze. Joseph. Once again, he stood before her with worry and hope in his eyes. His face was more lined than it used to be, his hair sprinkled with gray at the temples. Yet he still took her breath away.
“Hua, my flower.”
Joseph hadn’t called her that for some time. In fact, she hadn’t seen him in weeks, or heard from him in days. Every call grew more distant, every conversation more strained. All they’d dreamed and worked for was fading away.
“What are you doing here?” She hadn’t meant to sound so accusing, but her anger had gotten the best of her.
“These are for you.” He held out a bouquet of dried roses, twice as large as the one he’d given her all those years ago. “One flower for every year.”
Taking the bouquet, she recognized some of the flowers that had been grown in their private garden. Some of the plants weren’t there anymore. “You must have been collecting these for a long time.”
“Not everyone gets to be married for twenty-five years.”
“What did you say to Mrs. Lee?” She could see the surprise in his eyes. His face fell, like a little boy who’d just been caught breaking the neighbor’s window with a baseball.
“I asked if she would come in today and remind you of how we met.”
“I quit my job.”
Shock and relief rushed through Hua, but did she dare hope?
“I know we decided I should take that job so we’d have a solid retirement, so that in the future our days would be secure.” He took a few steps closer. “But I realized as I put this bouquet together, that soon I would be financially secure, but I’d also be alone.”
He put his hand under her chin, tipping it up to look into her eyes. “I would rather work hard every day by your side, than retire early and have no one to share it with.”
She felt the tears in her eyes spill out, washing away her anger as he brushed them away with his fingers.
“Did the Tuesday shipment come in?” He used a business-like tone, but she could see joy in his eyes.
“Let’s get it unpacked.”
She nodded and started toward the back of the shop. Instead, he blocked her path and pulled her into his arms, his eyes locked on the sign over the door. A flower fades, but true love lasts forever.
She followed his gaze. “Mrs. Lee says we are just beginning.”
“I hope she’s right.” He kissed the top of her head. “Happy anniversary,” he whispered.
Copyright by April McGowan 2010