No matter how much he loosened his tie, Joe could not seem to get enough air into his throat – as if some unseen force was gripping his trachea as hard as he was now gripping the leather of his steering wheel.
They had ordered pink azaleas and the florist sent them white lilies.
‘And where will you put the coffin?’ the lady who delivered the flowers asked, with the fragile delicacy that people affect when speaking to those in mourning. It was then that Stella – at last reaching her tipping point – stormed out of the church, making the Christ fixed above the entrance tremble on his wooden cross. Joe immediately signaled at their videographer to quit filming.
‘Is she the daughter of the deceased?’ asked the delivery lady, holding a black pen out to Joe so that he could sign for the sympathy flowers. It was at this point that he first began to tug at his tie.
‘Death is not the problem,’ he said. ‘The problem is that no one has died.’
It wasn’t just the flowers.
Stella and Joe had been communicating back-and-forth through their wedding planner all week.
Joe says he doesn’t like the playlist.
Stella says she’ll be home late tonight.
Joe knew he wasn’t blameless. He had never believed in cold feet, which is why he hated to admit to himself that his feet now felt so frozen that they could shatter to pieces in his brogues with a single love-tap. His feet were the cold, dead feet of a corpse.
‘It’s a sign,’ Stella said to him on the steps of the church after seeing the white lilies.
‘It was just a stupid mistake, Stell.’
‘Maybe this was all a stupid mistake,’ she told him, finally.
Maybe she was right. Maybe it wasn’t just cold feet. Maybe all his relationships were fated to end in tears and white lilies.
There were no maybes at first. At the start there were only idyllic certainties. Stella was still a substitute teacher then, dreaming of one day having a classroom of her own. They had designed it together in bed one night, looking up at her ceiling and picturing it to its very last detail. It was that attention to detail that got to Joe – something about the unwavering beauty of Stella’s dreams. Joe knew he loved Stella when she told him she wanted her class door to be a ‘stupidly vibrant yellow’, so that students could enter her room a little happier than they were before.
But in his car, heading back to the church from the florist with a backseat overflowing with pink azaleas and dreading to see what kind of condition Stella was in, thinking about that door did little to brighten his own disposition. A sudden claustrophobia set in, one that Joe didn’t know how to shake. All he wanted was to escape the grip of his tie and the smell of the pink azaleas in the backseat – so sickly sweet that he began to feel ill.
When the white lilies had first arrived, Joe couldn’t help but think of Lila.
Joe could still recall the white lilies at Lila’s funeral: an agony of pale, like her face against the black silk lining of her coffin; their lavish scent mixing with the perfume that the mortician had sprayed on her corpse. A perfume she would never have been caught dead wearing while she was alive. It was too elegant, too subtle. Lila wasn’t one for subtleties. She liked extremes; she liked venturing too far in a direction – any direction, as long as it led her somewhere interesting. If she had had her way, she would have worn a perfume that you could smell from the other side of the fucking room. Joe barely caught its scent when he leaned over her body one last time, to say his final goodbye.
Joe had never mentioned Lila’s name to Stella.
Their paths first crossed at the church of Santa Maria Novella after one of his tours, when he noticed her quill and ink bottle tattoo peeking out from under her sleeve in the Tornabuoni Chapel. At the time he had been living in Italy on a work visa, guiding English speaking tourists around the many museums and churches of Florence.
He remarked that this was the very church where the party first met at the start of The Decameron, deciding to flee to the countryside together out of fear of the plague.
‘So, are we fleeing from something too?’ she had said to him.
‘From everything,’ answered Joe.
Over lunch at a Donair shop, Joe discovered that she too had recently graduated from university with a degree in history and literature. Lila’s father owned a farmacia, a somewhat upscaled version of the Western convenience store where you could also sit down for a coffee or even a grappa. It was her mother, an American who had come to Florence once on holiday and had not left until her death some years ago, who taught her English as a child, reading to her at night from Hemmingway and E.M. Forster. They spoke for hours – more than Joe had spoken with anybody in his months living in Italy. They talked about books and family, about the smell of cheap cologne mixed with cigarette smoke, and the despair they felt at the sight of fireworks.
Afterwards, swept up by the romance of wet cobblestone streets and poorly lit Donair shops, they both silently and secretly acknowledged that their encounter in Santa Maria Novella had been an act of God.
Some weeks after that first meeting the Arno River flooded the city streets, and together they watched from the balcony of Lila’s apartment as the workers carried out the marble statues from the museum gallery like pallid corpses.
‘Is it too early in the day to cry?’ asked Lila.
He didn’t have an answer, too busy raging against the inevitable. Tomorrow, he would be on a plane home to Canada, and Lila would not be with him.
Unable to leave the apartment on account of the ravenous Arno, they brewed coffee in the moka pot on the stove and passed the time reading over yesterday’s edition of La Repubblica which her father had abandoned, coffee-stained, on the kitchen table
From where they sat in the living room, they could hear muffled cries set to the tune of the duomo’s ringing bells, paired with a miasma of sewage penetrating the windows. In the corner of the room, with furniture pink like the city’s rooftops − as if having soaked in the color from years of simply existing in their presence − sat an untuned Fazioli grand piano. The ivory on the keys had taken on a stained yellowish color – with all the charm of a smoker’s mustache – and the wood of its frame reminded Joe of a shipwreck that he had seen on a beach in Cartagena. It was a monstrous thing, yet it stood there unflinching.
Neither of them spoke. There was a simultaneous sense of having both everything and nothing to say. They had done everything they could all week to avoid the inescapable topics of exclusivity, long distance and visits across the ocean, hiding behind a makeshift barricade that seemed to have just gotten swept away by the flooding waters of the Arno. Suddenly, the two lovers saw the fraying fabric on the tapestry that was their reality, revealed to them without warning and with a painful clarity: mere love, on its own, would not be enough to keep them together.
Joe got up to smoke his last cigarette on the balcony – just one more thing that he would need to let go of once he arrived back home. It was growing dark now. Tomorrow, he would be on the other side of the ocean, and Lila would not be with him. He knew now that there was nothing to be done – in fact, nothing had ever been under his control to begin with.
That is when he heard Lila – the music from the broken, distorted piano filling up the empty living room. As he came back inside her back was to him, her onyx hair draped around her face as her fingers danced the steps of Wild is the Wind across the keys, and in that moment, an unsettling dissonance reverberated against Joe’s skin.
This song rang in his ears as he sobbed on the plane after leaving Lila in Florence. As he faced the flight attendant with glazed red eyes and ordered a third cup of sickly sour red wine, endlessly mining his mind for the things he should’ve said, or the things he should not have said at all.
Many months later, after he learned of her death, it was the echoes of Lila’s song that would haunt Joe’s dreams – for nights on end, for years to come.
Pulling into the parking lot of the formless church that he and Stella had chosen as the venue for their matrimony – so starkly contrasting the old European churches of his memories – with pink azaleas flooding every inch of his car, Joe remembered the striking brilliance of Santa Maria Novella and its frescoes, faded from many floods yet still haunting the walls like clinging ghosts. Those macabre scenes near the ceiling, the grisly reveries. The depraved faces of Herod’s soldiers as they dismembered the infants with their blades. John the Baptist’s severed head served on a gold platter.
He had learned of Lila’s death from her father. He was a wiry man, with a faded tattoo of a lion on his bicep from his time in the army service and a thick mustache the color of cracked pepper. He was the one who contacted Joe, who told him as much as he could piece together about the night that Lila drove her car into the river. Who invited him to come back to Florence to say his last goodbye.
On her final day, her father told him, Lila had gone to the market. Joe imagined her bargaining with the vendors, asking after their families as she always did, sampling their products. None of them could have possibly had any idea at the time. When she returned home, she read through the first half of Elena Ferrante’s newest novel that she had been looking forward to for weeks (he’d found it splayed face-down on the coffee table). He saw an untouched moka pot full of coffee on the stove, discarded the empty cigarette carton she left on the windowsill. The only thing she brought with her to the afterlife, he said, was a photograph of her mother, which he saw was missing from its frame above the fireplace.
There had been no note. No, she would never let everyone endure such a cliché.
At the funeral Joe sat restless in the hard wooden pew. How insane, he thought, to be grieving over comfort right now. Pale sunlight pierced the stained glass, falling onto a cross bearing a Jesus who appeared more defeated than usual. And Joe couldn’t help but think back to the last time he saw Lila, the day after the flood – their final hours together trickling away like the remaining river water in the streets – when she took him to a rose garden high up in the hills just outside the old city.
It was a sobering day, with an early winter’s chill hanging heavy in the air around the leafless trees and what was left of the ancient city walls in the distance. It was Lila’s favourite place to be, and her favourite season to be there – the rose bushes all jagged and barren like brambles of barbed wire. To her this was the world in its true state – naked – without the shawl of beauty to conceal its sharp edges. For better or worse, she was the kind of person who saw the thorns lurking beneath everything.
That afternoon, seated on a park bench overlooking Florence, both lovers felt more capable to ask each other the questions neither of them had answers to the day before. And among the ghosts of roses and the cold earth, they agreed that this would not be their final encounter – that Lila would fly to visit Joe next year in Canada over the Christmas holidays.
‘I’ve never been across the ocean before,’ she said, looking off somewhere far in the distance.
‘You’ll love Vancouver. All the trees and the mountains. I can take you skiing.’
‘Will you teach me how?’
‘I can teach you,’ said Joe, reaching for her hand.
‘Then that sounds perfect,’ said Lila, though he could tell her voice was tinged with sadness. ‘Do you think we’ll make it to Christmas?’
‘Of course we will. We have to. I’ll write.’
‘You better,’ she told him, meeting his gaze with fire in her eyes.
They kissed, sealing their love like a letter sent to their future selves. A letter that would forever remain unopened.
So, after the funeral, with a few hours to kill before his flight back home, he decided to see the rose garden once more. This time around, Joe found the roses in full bloom – for it was the height of summer – and the place was teeming with people. The air was dense and hot, bursting with floral currents of laughter, and it appeared to Joe that none of the Florentines who were there with him had ever heard of such a thing as death. It was as if the entire world had been transformed since the first time that he’d come there with Lila, for what he saw there now bore no resemblance to that other rose garden from half a year ago, so sharp and so desolate.
It was there, among the roses, that Joe decided that he could not bear being with someone like Lila again.
And although he didn’t know her then, it was there that Joe decided that he would find someone like Stella. Someone who could appreciate the colour and romance of a fully living garden.
The first time they met was also the first time that Joe had ever been punched in the face. He knew that this was simply the price one pays for partying with brokers.
When he returned to Canada, Joe took up a job in his father’s commercial brokerage. Joe didn’t mind the money, the late nights, the pointy leather shoes, the constant partying. If nothing else the job was a respite, a rest house on the endless highway of memory.
On the night in question, he and some co-workers were in the process of winding down at The Stinger – a Mexican bar smothered in blue and pink neon and the smell of cheap beer spilled on vinyl seats. They were drunk, bordering belligerent. He barely noticed the drink he spilled on the man with the red bandanna wrapped around his head, but he definitely noticed the punch that followed.
Afterwards the bartender gave Joe a cigarette along with some ice wrapped in a towel. Not having touched nicotine since leaving Florence, Joe felt that there was no better excuse to reacquaint himself.
Out on the street a misty rain was wrapping itself around everything. A reflection of the moon lay abandoned in the neon puddle by the curb where Joe sat – nursing a cigarette and his bruised eye. The cold air that entered his lungs tasted strangely of promise: a first kiss, the foam on a flute of champagne. It was then that he felt the warmth of Stella’s presence kneel down beside him.
‘Your ice is all melted. Here,’ she said putting her cold glass of beer against his black eye. Joe flinched, then felt his pain subside at the touch.
‘Shit. Thanks,’ managed Joe, scrambling for words.
‘That was pretty much the highlight of my night in there, so thank you,’ joked Stella.
‘Really? It was kind of a lowlight for me.’ Joe smiled.
‘Well, maybe there’s some middle ground…’
‘Just a light?’ Joe suggested, tossing the remains of his cigarette into the puddle. Shattering the moon.
‘Now, I like the sound of that,’ said Stella. ‘Just a light.’
Exchanging names, Joe and Stella decided to abandon their respective groups of friends to walk the city streets, under the rain that was quickly becoming snow.
They talked about their families, their childhood homes. Their dreams and their regrets, their favourite Sofia Coppola films. And as they walked together past darkened shops and desolate streets, Joe suddenly realized that the song that for years he had been hearing in his head – played on an untuned piano, in a pink living room – had warped. It had lost all of the dissonance that it once held.
Strolling through the night with Stella, their hands joined together like two plastic figures atop a wedding cake, what Joe heard playing in his head were notes that glowed with life.
When had the dissonance crept back in?
This was Lila’s song now, her song again. Their final days together, cathedral bells, the barren garden, the flooding river that would eventually be the instrument of her death. Had it been before or after his engagement to Stella? Or had it never truly gone away?
The inevitable was now clear to Joe.
Her body in the coffin, pale as a marble statue. And the flood – always the flood. Flood of tears, flood of flowers. Her father’s hand, grazing against the wood on the coffin one final time before its descent into the dirt, a last desperate plea to Lila for an answer.
The inevitable was now clear to Joe.
He had kept it together better on his second flight out of Florence. He drank a reasonable amount of wine, felt proud of himself for the way he hung in there when the man beside him initiated small talk in Italian. At some point, he’d even managed to fall asleep. When he awoke the plane was dark and silent; the other passengers were all forcing their circadian rhythms to acclimate to the approaching time-zone. For a brief instant he felt in flux – occupying the space a needle does as it moves between songs on a record, no clue as to what time it was or how far he was from home or even where home was, knowing only that he was somewhere above the clouds. For a brief instant Joe felt like he was completely lost and alone. Was he leaving his life behind, or flying headfirst towards it?
The inevitable was now clear to Joe – there would be no wedding bells tomorrow.
Thinking back on everything now, about to enter the church where his fiancée awaited his return, Joe could not shake the possibility that somehow he was still trapped in that brief instant on the plane – unstuck in time, unstuck in place, unsure of where he was flying from or what he was flying towards. Whether Lila was simply a relic from his past, or the lingering specter of his present.
At last Joe switched off his car’s ignition. Peeling his hands off the steering wheel and tightening his tie, he began to make his way to the doors of the church, inside of which bouquets of white lilies sat – waiting to commemorate the death of something.
As the weeks went by Joe oscillated wildly between various states of certainty about his decision. Some days he would convince himself that he had never been happier, and other days he would spend scrolling through old photos, or precariously letting his finger hover over the call button next to Stella’s name in his contact list.
Out of nowhere, he noticed his friends all suddenly beginning to speak to him in clichés. In times of uncertainty, we all fall back on the familiar, the manufactured. They told him that he would make someone else really happy someday, that everything happens for a reason, that time heals all wounds. Thankfully, these were not all as ridiculous as they sounded.
As more weeks went by, the oscillations of certainty began to get less and less wild, and eventually faded away altogether. Some of those old photos had to be deleted to free up space. He got used to scrolling past Stella’s name on his phone without getting sentimental. After a month there would sometimes be entire hours where memories of her would not play on loop in his head. In another month, these hours would turn into days.
Seasons became different seasons, then eventually became years. Stella and Joe found new lovers, and most of the memories that they had made together were recorded over by different memories. Like old home movies on dusty videocassettes.
Joe met Rina at the tail-end of a New Year’s Eve party. 2am – sticky champagne flutes, burnt-out sparklers and bodies sprawled drunkenly on couches. She was barefoot on the balcony, and he was still wearing his paper party hat. They exchanged numbers and a kiss on the cab ride home, and he texted her as soon as he woke up just to make sure she was real.
It was after their third date that it dawned on Joe. Rina was selfless and giving, wild and adventurous. She thought deeply about everything and didn’t give a damn about conventional wisdom. She brought laughter with her anywhere she went. These features, Joe realized, had echoes of both Stella and Lila – features he had fallen for so hard, so completely.
Of course, Joe never fully managed to untether from his past. Sometimes, when he least expected it, Lila’s song would rise violently above the riverbanks, flooding his mind with memories of Florence once again. Other times it was Stella who quietly visited his dreams, who left him wondering how the flowers would have looked in that church. He would picture the faces of family and friends in the pews – a soft pink glow reflected in their smiles, caressing everything. A pink glow, and a hopeless longing for the impossible.
Joe knew there would be no absolute escape. He accepted that fact now, and when he told Rina about his exes one evening over a bottle of rosé, she seemed to accept it too.
‘It’s okay to have a past. We all do.’ Rina said, with a slight hint of tipsiness in her voice. ‘But at the end of the day, it’s the now that really matters.’
Joe thought a lot about what she said that night, laying in her bed, listening to the symphony of the city – those magical sounds glowing softly against the night. He listened to the din of the passing train, the faint music from the apartment upstairs, the fountain in the courtyard, the car engines, the leaves against the wind – as if hearing them for the very first time, as if the city were playing just for him.
And as he lay there next to Rina, Joe did not think about the lost opportunities, the alternate timelines. There would always be maybes, he realized. Always the chance of receiving the wrong kind of flowers.
But life was too short to keep dwelling on all that never was – the things that could’ve been.
Too short to lose yourself in dreams of pretty, pink flowers.
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