Originally published in Élan, Volume 3, Number 8. (June 2002.) David Reynolds, ed.
© Copyright Jessica Allegra Seigel 1997. All rights reserved.
There was a woman who was neither here nor there. She was neither beautiful nor altogether plain, neither young nor yet old. This woman had neither anger in her eyes nor did she have any spark of joy. In short, she was like many other women who came to the city seeking the excitement of a career and who found instead the gray solitude of work; one in that dull army of women who boarded the train each day in suits and heels, with makeup or without, to join leaden-eyed men on their daily trek to an airless office and home again.
On Friday evenings, the woman and her friends went forth to combat the grayness. They adjourned to bar or restaurant and sipped wine while one complained there were no men; another instructed where to meet men; a third cursed a man who had taken her number and never called; and a fourth examined from every angle the intent of a man who repeatedly invited her out but canceled or didn’t turn up, or turned up but acted coldly, or behaved cruelly but, when asked what was wrong, insisted nothing was wrong.
And the friends examined the couple’s behavior in minute detail, asking could it be this or could it be that. Had she been sufficiently alluring, aloof, passive, aggressive? Perhaps he was shy, tired, obsessed by his work, afraid of commitment? There followed an unending list including every conceivable explanation except his bad manners and lack of interest. And the woman who was neither young nor old listened to these women, sighed, and went home alone to bed.
Sometimes, on a Saturday night, the woman went with her friends to this or that bar where they met men and talked with them. But the conversation was awkward and stilted, that of strangers searching for common ground. Questions were asked like what do you do, and where do you work, and where do you live, and what do you like to do? Answers came: softball, dancing, long walks, sunsets, beaches, massages, firesides–as if such questions and answers could tell one anything worth knowing about the other.
And while the men and the women asked these useless questions, they did not listen to the answers. Each was too busy measuring the other. She was not as attractive as he had first thought. He had a bald spot. Her laugh was peculiar; his teeth were crooked. His job was boring. So was hers. He made a joke and flirted, but his eyes were already on someone else. She laughed and flirted back, but the laughter rang false and the flirtation was forced.
And the woman who was neither young nor old, watching all of this, felt trapped by the lifeless ritual, wanted to break out of it, but couldn’t think how. If a tree falls in the forest…she thought. How can one have a sparkle in the eye if there is no one to receive it? And she felt melancholy as she went home, alone, to bed.
Time passed, and the woman stopped going so much with her friends in the evenings. Instead, on her own, she took long strolls through the streets of the city. She passed among people on their way to the theater, in line for the movies, off to dinner at a restaurant, and she inhaled the stray words that traveled in her direction through their air. She sat in cafés and absorbed the conversations–lively, loving, angry, distressed–that came toward her from the right and from the left. Then she passed again onto the street, moving with the flow of humanity; borrowing, for the moment, its life and its light. But the sense of a heavy, toneless gray always returned.
Until, early one Saturday evening, when the woman entered the train station to wander in the city, she heard a vendor hawking the last of his roses.
“Roses,” he called. “Roses. The last of the day. Still fresh. Half price.” His voice was thick and his accent strange. It arrested the woman’s attention and she slowed her pace.
“Roses,” he called, and when she’d stopped, “buy a rose, cher’? Every pretty woman’s gotta have roses.”
The woman turned. A subdued smile came onto her lips as she shook her head no.
“Ah, c’mon, cher,” the vendor persuaded. “The last of the day.” He grinned at her, holding up a bunch, wagging his head from side to side. “C’mon cher’,” he wheedled. “When I sell these, I can go home. Half price. Four for two dolla’s. Help me out, cher’.”
Two dollars for four. And he could go home. And they were still fresh. The woman took two dollars out of her purse and gave them to the man.
“That’s it, cher’,” he said, still grinning. “Pretty girl like you. You can give them to your boyfriends–one for each.”
The woman smiled shyly and went down into the station. As she descended, she stared at the flowers and thought that she really didn’t want them. There was something too lonely about buying flowers for oneself. But they were too fine to throw into a dumpster. Someone should get pleasure from them.
The woman entered the train and sat down opposite a man who appeared to be carrying his office home with him. Files were piled on the seat next to him; files sat on his lap; and he had his face buried in one as well. A dull cloud circled the man from head to toe. What would he think, the woman wondered, if she gave him the roses? Would he think her forward? Or mad?
As the train approached her stop, the woman stood. She slowly pulled one of the roses from the bouquet. “Excuse me,” she said to the man. “Excuse me.”
He looked up from his work, blinking as if aroused from a daze and trying to get his bearings.
“Excuse me,” the woman said once more, smiling at him. “To be working so hard. And on a Saturday night. I thought you could use one of these.” As the doors slid open, she slipped the rose into his hand and stepped off the train. She looked back only briefly. Saw through the train window the man’s astonished expression: eyes wide, mouth half open forming the word, “but–” Then the doors shut and the train disappeared into the tunnel. Hers had only been a small, quick thrust of the hand, but it was as if an imp had been released from its bottle. She went up and out into the night. There were three roses left.
The woman walked up and down the main thoroughfare, searching faces, searching for someone who needed a rose. Stopped by a corner traffic light, she observed, at a small distance, a young couple, talking. The woman could not make out their words, but the couple’s movements bespoke misery. The girl’s shoulders sagged and her mouth turned down at the ends. The young man’s face was cold and impassive. He glanced at his watch and down the street as he spoke. The girl crossed her arms tightly against her chest and stared down at the cement. Finally, the man put a hand on the girl’s shoulder, released it, and walked away. The girl, watching him go, looked as if she might crumble. Observing the girl’s pain was painful to the woman, and so she approached her.
“Excuse me,” the woman said, “are you all right?”
The girl looked at her, swallowed hard, tried to hide her eyes. “What? No, no. I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?” the woman said, hesitantly, feeling like an intruder. “You seem–upset.”
“I’m–,” the girl said. She forced a small smile for the stranger. “No. It’s okay, really.” She sniffed. “But, it’s kind of you to ask.”
“Whatever is wrong, I hope it will get better,” the woman said. She gave the girl the second rose but, suddenly made shy by her own act, walked quickly away. She looked back once though, over her shoulder, and saw the girl inhaling the rose’s perfume. The woman inhaled deeply herself. She found the air unaccountably light.
There were two roses left, and the woman walked for some time before she could summon the courage to give away either of them. As she walked, she heard music and followed the sound to a small crowd of people gathered about some jazz musicians. The woman stood at the crowd’s edge, looking for someone to give a rose to, and saw no one suitable. But as she looked from face to face, she drank in the pleasure of each. And the music also raised her spirits. The woman felt the grayness finally lift; her chest felt light, her eyes began to crinkle, and a broad smile spread itself on her face. She breathed out a deep, satisfied sigh. The woman passed the musicians and dropped the third rose into their hat. Then she went back down into the train station and home.
The woman went home, still alone, holding the single remaining rose. She put the rose in a vase of water and placed it by the window. Then the woman put on some music, some sweet jazz like that she had heard with the people in the street. And she sat in semi-darkness, looking out of the window and up at the sky, which seemed very large, and very bright with stars.