August Buds

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There’s the yellow of lemon or the gold of the sun, but neither describes the base color of this bloom. It’s like the hue of sweet butter: that primary yellow with the creamy cast that oleomargarine doesn’t achieve.

The markings in the flower’s cup are red, but can’t be called crimson or scarlet. They may be vermillion: a deep tone moving toward purple and brown – almost burgundy but less heavy.

The pistil rises tall, straight up from the bottom of the cup, like a stalk in a radar dish. It’s sweet butter yellow for almost two inches, topped by half inch threads carrying pollen of gold.

There are two flowers on each stalk, but they don’t open on the same day. Each will unfurl on its own morning, pose all day in the sun, and then wither along with the light. They are called tigridia, and Pam doesn’t notice the blooming specimen on her way out of the house.

She is thinking about her diet. Pam’s 52 years old, 5’6″ or so, probably 150 pounds, and she’s determined to lose ten. Twelve or thirteen would be better, because then she’d have a little breathing room to accommodate more wine and cheese, she says. She’s trying to skip dinner and be careful at lunch. Erica, a compulsive calorie-counter since puberty, is astonished at this primitive approach.

They are meeting for lunch. They have a regular monthly date with their friend Anita, but problems with a mutual client have motivated them to get together for a quick one. Pam orders a roasted pepper salad. She directs the waiter to eliminate the sweet pepper but double up on the pasillas. He’s young and obviously wants to be helpful, but he doesn’t understand her request, probably misled by her Anglo pronunciation of “pasilla.” It’s true that she attempts to be tea-party gracious as the confusion continues through two repetitions, but it’s also true that she is always ready to give directions to others about her special requests, and she always has special requests. Basically, Pam plays to herself.

Erica helps lighten and clarify the situation, by meeting the waiter’s eyes and using correct pronunciation. She orders a seafood salad, thousand on the side. The waiter leaves and Pam expresses regret: “I should have had my dressing on the side, too.”

The waiter brings cappuccino for Pam and bread for both. Pam likes to pull little pieces of bread across soft butter, use that softness to pick up crumbs from her plate, and then eat the crumb-dotted, greased morsel. Erica thinks it’s an unsanitary habit. Because of her diet, Pam tries to enjoy unbuttered bread with her coffee, and finally resorts to mopping the sourdough through residual cappuccino foam. Erica watches foam-flecked bread as it goes between Pam’s ribbony lips.

The salads are served.

“Where’s the red pepper? I wanted more pasilla instead of the sweet pepper, but I still wanted the red.”

“I’ll bring…” they hear the waiter say, as he leaves their table.

“So tell me,” Erica starts as she squeezes a lemon wedge. “Is Bert still acting resistant?”

“He was an hour ago. We had one of those relationship talks.”

“By phone.”

“Well what else? The man lives two hours away, and he’s been saying we have to talk for a week. I even got a card from him on Thursday. A nice card, signed ‘with much love.’ But he also wrote that we need to talk.”

“And so you talked.”

“He did. All about how he decided after his divorce that he needed to live alone and make decisions alone, for awhile. He says he’s not done doing that. He says he has a good time when we’re together, but that he’s not fully present on those occasions. He says there’s much more he can give. He keeps saying he values this relationship so much that it really bothers him not to give it more. I don’t get it.”

“What does he want?”

“To not see me as often.”

“Well that’s straightforward.”

“I only see him twice a month! I can’t figure him out. Does he want to, like, see if I can stand the test of time?”

Erica is momentarily marveling. She has met Bert and knows how unattractive he is, physically and emotionally. Her friend Peter calls him “the odious Bert.” She gets it that Pam wants someone, but can’t figure out why she has picked this one. Especially now that it’s clear he hasn’t picked her. Before she has to say anything the waiter appears. He edges a white saucer onto Pam’s side of the table. It’s holding two or three roasted red peppers.

“Oh! Thank you,” Pam says, making her straight blonde hair swing about her neck. She addresses his retreating back, “You really didn’t have to bother.”

Two evenings later, the mid-August air is warmer than normal. More humid, like there are tropical storms to the south. The gardens feature princess trees in abundant velvet bloom. Folks call the color purple, but that’s not accurate. It’s more like darkest lavender.

The agapanthus are past their prime, but the bougainvillea are abundant. The prunus trees litter the sidewalks with sticky fruit.

But the enduring floral spectacle is supplied by naked ladies. The belladonna plants sent out blades of green in spring and early summer, which gorged on water and sunlight and manufactured all the food the flowers would need. Then the green died back and down, making room for the leafless stalks of pink bell-shaped flowers to dance in the air currents of August.

Peter is re-gestating, preparing to be born again into a refined metaphysics. He is also dining with Erica on fresh bread and a caramelized onion tart, anticipating with relish the entrees they’ve selected. Erica is willing to discuss the quiche-soft quality of the tart, to trade a sip of her white wine for his red, to smile. But she finds his Personal Transformation talk fatiguing; some of the ideas are provocative, but the sensitivity she must use to talk to him about them is simply too taxing.

The restaurant is an easy walk from Erica’s house, unsuccessful enough that a reservation is not necessary even on a Saturday night, with surprisingly good food. The unsuccess must be owing to terrible timing; whether it’s the kitchen, the waiters, or both, and through three different names and four owner/managers, the place has never gotten its presentation timing right. There can be a gap of ten minutes from when coffee is served to when dessert appears. The wait between appetizer and entree is often worse.

Erica tries to amuse Peter with Pam news, but it doesn’t distract him from his personal haj. He used to find the subject interesting; they’d laughed together at the stories from Pam’s last attempted relationship, when the guy decided it wasn’t a go but Pam harassed him for reasons and then tried to debate any obstacles he offered. Peter and Erica agree that Pam permits no emotional side in her life. Now he quickly shifts the subject back to his interest. “I’m still not certain about my ‘not-to’ decision regarding the Leadership program,” he says as he mops sauce with a piece of bread.

Not certain?”

Not. I wish I had more time to make up my mind. I think it’s what I want to do, but I’d like to go through the advanced introduction before I decide.”

Erica thinks: “Advanced intro. That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one.” Aloud she says, “But not doing the Leadership seminar now doesn’t mean forever. It just means not now. I thought you were going to sign up for that communications thing, and finish that first.” She tears off an end of the bread and puts it on her plate. “Also, though it’s obvious what you’ve been doing is intense, you really haven’t been at it very long.”

“I’m actually well aware of that and consider it often.” He sounds convincing and pompous. “But I know that what I really want to do is enroll people and share possibilities. And that’s what Leadership trains you to do.”

Erica is so put off by his words that she almost chokes. She clenches her jaw to prevent herself from responding; she knows there’s nothing she can say that will be effective. She takes a bite of her bread and wishes the entrees would arrive. She changes the subject to Peter’s concern about his thirteen year old son.

That doesn’t work either. Peter has been a seeker since he was young, and had been with at least two cults before he and Erica met a year ago. They had a quick flare of an affair that subsided within a month (for her) to friendship and (for him) to waiting for her. His former stepdaughter introduced him to the Landmark program a few months back, and he’s now fully and cultishly immersed. Tonight he wants to talk about his homework for this week: to find and then present his “unacknowledged dedication.” As far as Erica can tell, “dedication” in that phrase doesn’t mean conscious decision to commit oneself. It’s not only unacknowledged; it’s undiscovered. So it’s not dedication: more like deep-down attitude. But the series is about dedication, so every concept is couched in that term.

“I’m still searching for my unacknowledged dedication,” he says.

“I thought you’d decided it was cynicism, based on hopelessness.”

“I thought that at first, but now I’m rethinking it. I’m at heart an optimist; that seems to sit below the hopelessness.”

“Oh you’re cynical, believe me,” she blurts. “Here’s a word to think about: powerlessness. I just offer it for your consideration.”

Peter looks at her silently. The waiter serves his steak, her chicken. They eat and discuss the food.

“Maybe you have something there with ‘powerlessness.’ I’ll have to think about it in the morning.” He finishes his wine.

Erica no longer invites Peter to sleep over, so she doesn’t know what he does the next morning. It’s Sunday, and she has arranged an afternoon walk with Gwen. They’re the same age and in the same business, and they met five years ago at a conference. They weren’t compatible enough to become close friends, but they’re at least fond acquaintances, and each has too much time on weekends. A walk is exercise, an opportunity to trade bad-client anecdotes, and a filler of time that might otherwise be spent eating too much.

Gwen is picking lavender. It seems to Erica that Gwen never notices plants, except lavender bushes now and then. And when Gwen notices lavender, she tends to pause near the plant and pluck not flowers but bits of foliage, which she carries with her, sniffing it without crushing it, for several forward feet.

“So as I was telling you yesterday, I had a really hard week.” Gwen looks away at the traffic as she speaks, then ahead again. “All kinds of problems were in my face. No matter which way I turned, I was giving somebody bad news, or dealing with someone I’d trained who did something stupid and then claimed I taught them otherwise! For seven years I’ve tried my hardest to bring them into compliance, and look how far I’ve gotten.”

“Whoa! Time for a little perspective. Maybe you’ve tried too hard with this career.”

“I don’t know. My skin is very thin these days. I could lose it today, too. I really need this break. It seems the closer my sabbatical gets, the faster it recedes.” She pauses for three or four steps. She’s already dropped the lavender crumbs and she glances around for more plants. “To top it all, I was in Safeway last night on my way home. I’m just about done and headed for the checkstand, when I look up and see Barbara.”

“Oh shit,” Erica commiserates. “I bet you thought about her all the rest of the evening.”

“Evening and night. I didn’t sleep well.”

“Did she see you?”

“I don’t know. I avoided her, and I looked the other way, so I couldn’t tell where she was looking. She may have noticed me, but I was pretty far. She had a woman with her. I got the impression they were buying things for a group. But you never know with Barbara; they may be dating.”

They enter the little breakfast cafe they’d been aiming for. A waitress seats them at the far-back table near the kitchen. Their food arrives quickly. Erica pulls apart a biscuit and bites in. Gwen ignores her food while she talks about sabbatical plans, and about ideas for stress reduction when she returns. Her eggs cool, the sour cream softens on the potatoes, the ivory biscuits balance on the rim of her plate.

Gwen is overweight and makes unhealthy food choices, but when they’re together she tends to ignore the food on her plate. While Erica eats yogurt and fruit and pieces of biscuit, Gwen drones on and doesn’t ingest anything from her plate of eggs and potatoes. It’s almost like Gwen is teasing when she cuts a piece of her breakfast and even spears it with her fork, but still fails to bring the nutriment to her mouth. Erica has to slow her own eating to try to match Gwen’s. Then she figures she has to do the talking – it’s the only way to get Gwen to chew. “You’re not asking for my advice, but you need to get your piano out of storage, or regrow the calluses to play your guitar, or write or paint or serve food at St. Anthony’s. You need to be involved creatively. You keep trying to find significance in our work, and being disappointed. Stop it! We solve puzzles that help rich folks reduce their taxes. It’s a nice way to earn a living but you have to keep it in perspective. We’re not Schweitzers.”

Gwen’s wide freckled face seems to enlarge. She reddens. Behind her small dark glasses tears run down her cheeks and plop like large raindrops onto her safari vest. The tan fabric turns to wet sand in quarter-sized circles. “When Barbara and I were together, I wrote to her. I sent her cards and email. I noticed everything then. I was so happy.”

“Oh Gwen, I’m sorry.” Erica leans forward, sips coffee, looks aside while her Gwen tries to compose herself. “I know it’s no substitute for a real person, but for now you could do what I do. Invent your lover on paper, and make it perfect. Or just write fly-on-the-wall pieces about people you know.”

Erica glances around the small restaurant and makes eye contact with a waiter. She mimes a request for more coffee. She notices Gwen’s plump tapered fingers splitting a biscuit, lifting a blunt knife and spreading blackberry jam on half. She test-tells the story of Pam trying to argue Bert into a closer relationship. She tries to convey Peter’s earnest attempts to move up in his newest EST-like cult.

Gwen is grinning, nodding, even laughing a bit with her head going back. Her eyes appear a little happier behind the small dark lenses. And on the walk to Erica’s house after, along the curving street to her corner, Gwen stops to pick more lavender leaves.

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