It was Ella's idea to hire a gardener for my mother's tulips.
"I've been doing fine with them," I had said, a little surprised at the sudden suggestion. My sister had looked pointedly at the small patch of tulips that had previously encompassed the whole side yard. They were already dying, and the bulbs would have to be planted again soon. I had been planning an intense Internet search for that.
"I'd like to see you do better," I had muttered, but agreed nonetheless. I left the actual hiring to my sister, though.
Which led me to this moment, staring at a stranger on my doorstep and hoping rather desperately that there had been a mistake and he was not, in fact, the gardener my sister had hired.
"Can you… wait here, for a moment?" I asked the man. He nodded, clasping his dirt-encrusted gloves in one hand, and tugging at his ponytail with the other. I scurried inside.
Ella was supremely unconcerned.
"Who cares if he's dirty?" she asked, looking torn between amusement and exasperation. "Gardeners are supposed to be dirty."
"He's wearing cut-off overalls, Ella. I'll say that again. Cut. Off. Overalls. And high socks."
"Again, he's a gardener. It's not a stretch of the imagination that he might've worn clothes that he didn't mind getting dirty."
"Dirtier," I muttered. "Couldn't you just hire some nice old man?"
She burst out laughing. "What, Reginald being young makes you uncomfortable?"
"No! And good God, his name is Reginald? That's a joke, right? That's not a people name, that's a rabbit name."
"Reginald III, actually. You can make a new friend," Ella continued, ignoring my last comment and grinning at me. "It'll be good for you, Emily."
I was glad someone was getting enjoyment out of this awkward situation. Sasquatch (I wasn't buying that his name was Reginald III) probably wasn't, since I had left him at the doorstep for the past five minutes. Oops. I turned on my heel and began to march away from my sister. I paused.
"I just don't know if I want anyone touching mom's tulips." I blurted out before I could lose my nerve, though I kept my face turned away from my sister, staring down the hallway to the front door. There was absolute silence from behind me. Perhaps I had crossed a line.
"They're going to die, otherwise," I heard Ella say without emotion. I turned around in time to see her take her lemonade and leave the room.
His name actually was Reginald III, I found out later, though he quickly asked me to call him 'Reggie' instead. He was also eternally dirty, which would've bothered me more if not for the fact that he handled the tulip bulbs with almost terrified, delicate care. He also knew a great deal more about planting and taking care of the tulip bulbs than I did.
This I found out through watching him near-obsessively for the first couple weeks he came to the house.
I wasn't completely transparent. He was probably well aware of me watching him, but I would often bring a book outside to read, or some homework to work on. I wanted the tulips to be as vibrant and lovely as they once were under my mother's fingers, but I was determined to only keep Reggie around until I had mastered what he knew. I didn't think it would take long.
I was wrong.
"What is the sand for?" I asked him one day, having forgone pretending to read my book and placed it beside me. This was rapidly becoming a more common occurrence, especially since I had gleaned that he hadn't been fooled by my "homework" at all. I liked the way he stopped to listen to me, the way he would tilt an ear in my direction as if every word I said was important. It had been a long time since someone had paid such careful attention to me; I found myself luxuriating in the sensation.
"Protects the bulbs," he mumbled, long nose practically brushing the ground as he spread sand over the tulip bulbs.
I nodded, though I had no idea what he was talking about. He had a smear of dirt under one eye that made the green color of his eyes stand out. I thought it ironic that a gardener should have green eyes.
My mother had been terribly proud of her tulips. They had consumed nearly all her time once Ella and I had gone away to college, and, in Ella's case, to pursue a career.
The garden, under my mother's care, had sprawled across the entire side yard next to the driveway, cheerfully bursting with colors and painstakingly outlined in seashells my mother had collected over the years. There was also a pretty wooden birdbath covered in colored glass my mother had made, since she was fond of handmade objects. Unfortunately, my mother wasn't very good at making anything by hand, and so the birdbath had a large leak in the bottom and was useless.
Without my mother to take care of them, the poor tulips had quickly begun to die. I had managed to save the most precious of them, the ones my mother had placed at the very opening of the driveway so that everyone could see them. The ten or so tulips there were bronze and a purple so dark they were nearly black.
"You'll be hard-pressed to find tulips like these somewhere else, mon petit chou," she had said with relish, fingers alighting on the shimmering petals. My mother had a horrible French accent, and knew very little of the language besides, but she found the nicknames endearing and used them often. These pet names of hers were one of the first things I missed.
Some of my last memories of my mother had been spending time taking care of those tulips with her. She had been so tired by that point, but still they had bloomed spectacularly under her care. She had wanted to plant tulips with many-colored petals next.
I hated looking outside and seeing the bare patches of grass where my mother's vibrant tulips used to be.
"Your ponytail is getting dirty," I told Reggie, though he was otherwise so covered in dirt that I doubted it mattered to him. He was crouched over the tulip bulbs, checking the muddy ground, a product of the rain the day before, with a worried expression. A grimace crossed his face at my words, and he flicked his hair over his shoulder so that it fell down his back again. My sister's hair used to be that long, before my mother had gotten ill. My mother had loved Ella's hair, despite my constant declarations that growing it out long was useless and stupid.
"Nothing beautiful is useless, Emmy," my mother had said. "Look at your sister's hair, look how pretty it is. It doesn't have to do anything."
She would run her fingers over my sister's black hair, parting and plaiting constantly. My mother taught me how to braid using my sister's hair, her quick fingers inspiring my own. I always preferred to braid my mother's hair, though. Her curls were easier to braid and twist, not as slippery as my sister's wavy locks.
My sister had gotten her hair cut by the time I got home from college.
"Maybe you should cut it," I told Reggie. He hummed unconcernedly at me, still running his fingers over the dirt.
I wondered if there were many wrinkles under the dirt on his face. I wondered how old he was.
My mother would have liked Reggie. He muttered to the flowers in the same tender way that she had, though there was one difference between them. My mother spoke to the flowers as she did to other people; blathering on and on without pausing, speaking whatever came into her mind at the time.
Talking with my mother had been disconcerting in that sometimes she seemed to forget the other person was there. She would derail from the point of her conversation into random thoughts and observations. My mother would be one moment lamenting the possible candidates for president, and the next, inspired perhaps by the candidate's receding hair-line, commenting on a hair-growth infomercial she had seen on television, wondering aloud if it would work. She never quite explained these odd topics.
Reggie spoke differently, to the flowers and to me. He spoke as if he expected an answer, and would sometimes substitute his own if there was no response. His conversations with the tulip patch became oddly endearing. I suppose he didn't know that I had heard him speaking to the tulips, though, because he blushed ferociously when I mentioned it to him.
"I can stop, if it bothers you," he said, words barely intelligible with the slight movement of his lips.
"No, I like it." And I did, I loved the way he would murmur nonsensically to the dirt as he worked, the way his hands would hover over the bulbs sometimes, as though he could feel them growing underneath his fingertips.
But I hadn't meant to reveal so much, so I was glad when he remained facing the tulip patch and not me. Tendrils of his brown hair had become loose and were falling into his face. My fingers itched to braid his messy hair the way I had my mother's.
"Maybe we shouldn't replant the tulips," Ella said, a month after Reggie had started working for us. I stared at her, a rotten feeling curdling in my chest.
My sister wouldn't look at me, but staring down at her, I could see all the things I had been ignoring before: her tired eyes, the gray pallor of her skin, the permanent frown. The dark smudges under her eyes were as black as the tulip petals my mother had been so proud of, as black as her once-long hair.
"That's stupid," I said. A flush of shame crept up my chest at the immature and abrupt response, but I had never been good at consoling people anyways.
"We should be moving on. Neither of us even really likes tulips." Ella got up and walked to the other side of the kitchen after speaking, supposedly looking over the large calendar that hung on the wall. The cheery kitchen décor, with its pale yellow walls and white tiled floor, suddenly seemed oppressive and stuffy. With my sister's words, my mother's knick-knacks that littered the room became cheap and overwrought, painful mementoes rather than the comforts they were before.
"You're the one who wanted to hire the gardener," I said quietly.
"You're the one who wanted to keep the tulips going," Ella shot back. Her hands were clenched into fists around the material of her cardigan.
"I don't want to forget her," I said. Ella wouldn't look at me. It wasn't the complete truth, anyways. It would be nice to forget the aching guilt that traced my footsteps every day, to be free of those final days in my mother's life that I had missed.
I suppose I wasn't completely surprised when Reggie came to the house a few days later with his hair cut to his chin, instead of down his back. Still, I noticed it annoyed him more than ever, the shorn ends falling into his eyes more than the long ponytail ever did.
Not to say I didn't like the change. I did.
I still wondered about the wrinkles, though.
I spent a lot of time with Reggie. More time than I quite realized, at first. I took my homework out there - readings of Oedipus, The Canterbury Tales, rough drafts of papers I was working on. It was surprisingly easy to sit with him and actually get my homework done when I wasn't trying to watch his every move. Not that I ever really did get much accomplished, since I talked more around him than I did almost anyone else. He was strangely easy to talk to, comfortable in that I had never seen him belittle or be angry with anyone. It made me relax around him, made it easier to speak without fear of being hurt or regretful. He was one of the first genuinely kind people I had met, outside my family.
He always answered back, which I liked a lot. Always very softly, so I had to strain to hear his replies, but they were always there, as constant as the ground beneath my feet. I felt relieved in a way I hadn't since before I went to college. Since before my mother got sick.
He did, however, clam up when I asked him about his own family. After much persuading, and eventually outright questioning, I gleaned that he came from a well-off family, which explained his name, for one, and why he was taking care of the tulips for so little pay, but not why he was gardening in the first place. This information he could talk about at length, expounding on different flowers and new agricultural methods and other things that, frankly, I didn't really care about. It was interesting to see him so passionate, though. His eyes lit up and he waved his arms around as he spoke.
"It's really just that I like working with my hands," he said sheepishly, once he had gotten off a tangent after noticing my glazed-over expression. By this point I had abandoned my homework on the picnic table in the side-yard and moved to lie next to him as he worked in the tulip patch. I had a book clutched loosely in my fingers, but I hadn't picked it up to read it the whole duration of my time outside, preferring instead to doze while Reggie waxed poetic about eucalyptus leaves. Or something along those lines, at least. His smile turned impish as he glanced my way, taking in my sprawled-out figure in the grass next to him.
"Not that you would know anything about that, being an English major," he added almost absentmindedly.
I grabbed a handful of loose dirt next to me and tossed it half-heartedly at him, not wanting to get up from where I was lying down. The dirt rained down well away from Reggie, and where I had been aiming. Reggie stared at it, silent.
"Don't judge me, I'm comfy," I said, pointing an imperious finger at him. He grinned at me, unrepentant.
"Besides, I doubt you'd care if I covered you in dirt, Pig-Pen," I said, gesturing to his dirt-caked clothes. He blinked, surprised, and looked down at himself, before throwing back his head and laughing.
It was the first time I heard him laugh. For such a soft-spoken man, he had a surprisingly boisterous laugh.
I found, almost reluctantly, that the more I found out about him, the more I wanted to know.
Reggie planted the bulbs in fall, but they didn't even begin to bloom until mid-spring.
I couldn't stop touching the petals, as soon as I was able without Reggie snapping at me to stay away from them until they were stronger.
The black tulip's petals felt like impossibly thin strips of velvet under my fingertips. The very ends of the petals were the softest parts, and the parts that I ran my fingers over, again and again.
I came home one day to find nearly all the tulips gone from their spot at the front of the driveway. Horror rushed over me, and I ran over to the practically empty patch. The ground where the tulips had once been was torn up, as though someone had grabbed the flowers and ripped them straight up from the ground. The churned, messy soil where there had once been carefully maintained perfection made my throat close up tight. I ran inside.
By the time I was through the door it felt as if there was a hand around my throat, squeezing it mercilessly. I didn't feel like I could cry, even if I had wanted to, through the block in my throat.
I could cry, though. I found that out pretty quickly when I encountered all the ripped-up tulips lying on the kitchen counter inside, and my sister sitting calmly beside them. A small sob burst out of me, seemingly clawing its way up my throat, and for a brief moment, the scene in front of me seemed akin to a massacre, with the bodies of the victims lain carelessly across the table.
"What did you do?" I heard my breathing as if I were standing outside my own body, harsh and fast and almost a sob. I felt light-headed and heavy all at once, and the air around me was suddenly far, far too cold.
My sister looked up at me, alarmed, and was rising from her chair when I shoved her forcibly back into it. I was impossibly angry with her for ruining the one thing that had been bringing me peace lately.
"What did you do?" I screamed at her. The band around my throat had lifted, and I was making full use of my voice. My throat felt as if it was tearing with the force of my yelling.
"I didn't-," Ella began, her voice breaking, "I, I just, I didn't want-"
Something harsh and hurting bubbled up in my chest, and I laughed, high-pitched and hysterical. I didn't know why, but I couldn't stop. Every breath came out as a giggle, so much so that I began to get dizzy from lack of air. My shoulders rose and fell in a twisted parody of mirth, and I covered my mouth in an attempt to stop the laughter. Ella's eyebrows shot up the same time that her eyes filled with tears.
She tried to get up again. I shoved her back down.
"Em-" She began. I ran outside. There were a few tulip blossoms that were salvageable.
I called Reggie the next day, once I had calmed down. He only came over to the house twice a week now to water and look after the tulips, so he was surprised to hear from me. I think. I couldn't really tell over the phone. It was interesting, though, talking to him over the phone- he mumbled into the receiver the same way he did when he was standing next to me.
He didn't seem upset when he saw the wreckage of the flowerbed the tulips had rested in. He stared at the ruined mess of soil for a long, long time, and then crouched down to run his fingers over the remaining three tulips. All the bronze-colored ones had been pulled up, and the last three had black petals.
"We can save the ones that are left," He said, his voice soft but clear. I looked over at him. He was looking straight at me, without worry. His confidence soothed me.
"We should talk." Ella's voice startled me. I shrugged. I didn't want to talk to her.
It was a common experience among us. I never wanted to talk about problems after they happened, and she never wanted to talk about problems while they were happening. It's why we never talked about Mom when she was getting worse.
It's why we never talk about Mom now.
"I'll clear things up," Ella said, her voice hard and determined. "We are talking about this. Now."
"Will you promise to leave the tulips alone?" I asked, "The ones Reggie and I are taking care of?"
My sister stared at me.
"Why do they matter so much to you?"
Why? Because they were the last living shred of my mother. Because I didn't have the chance to be with my mother in the months leading up to her death. Because college had seemed more important. Because I didn't know my mother's illness was very serious until it was too late. Because this was the last way I could think of to make it up to my mother. Because they were beautiful, like my mother.
"They're beautiful," I ended up saying.
We didn't really talk things through that day.
I watched Reggie carefully replace the soil around the tulip bed, smoothing down the scattered dirt with precision. He saw me looking and turned to smile at me.
It was strange, how often he would smile at me now. I had barely ever seen his face in the beginning, when he was always looking at the ground. He had such a nice smile.
At some point I was going to have to talk to him about bathing, though. He was still constantly dirty.
"There's really not much to do here," he said, startling me out of my examination. "As long as we water them on schedule, they'll bloom for another couple weeks."
"Can we replant the bronze ones?"
He shrugged, looking uneasy.
"I'll check the bulbs, but I don't think…" He trailed off. "Your sister tore the stems away from the bulbs when she picked them. I don't know if that's… salvageable."
In that moment I felt as trampled on and abused as the ground beneath my feet; only a thin veneer of calm to hide behind.
"Okay," I said, resigned.
"I'm sorry," Ella said. I knew she was. I just didn't want to talk to her about it. I knew that this was important, more so than the petty fights and feuds of the past. I was terrified of screwing this up, of breaking ties with the only family I had left.
"Why'd you do it?" I wasn't normally the one to bring up the important questions. I could tell I'd surprised her.
She was silent for a long while.
"You don't have to tell me," I said, regretting bringing the topic up. I already wanted an out from this conversation.
"I put tulips beside mom's bed when she couldn't… towards the end. They remind me of her. Like that." Ella was looking at me. Her lips were set in a firm line, her eyes resolute. The same features I had seen every day of my life and come to associate with strength stared back at me, but barely a moment after meeting my eyes she had to look away.
"We don't need to talk about this," she murmured, rising from her seat and beginning to move away from me. Her unusual avoidance of the issue made me want to confront her more than ever, gave me a sudden, sharp urge to know the truth. Barely a moment ago she was looking me in the eyes and actually talking to me. I wasn't going to let this moment get away from us. I strode towards her and grabbed the back of her sleeve to keep her in the room. Ella looked at me, wary, and I remembered shoving her into her chair as I yelled at her. A now-familiar rush of shame pooled over me, and I let go of her sleeve and stepped back, but I pulled her chair back to indicate she should sit down.
She looked at the seat for a long moment, her hand running absentmindedly over her sleeve where I had clutched at her, before moving slowly towards the chair and sitting down.
"Why yesterday? Why when they just started blooming?" I asked. The whole scene felt too much like an interrogation, so I pulled out another chair and sat next to my sister, nudging my shoulder against hers.
"It was a bad day."
"Why?" I was never this persistent. I felt emboldened by my own daring.
"It's not really impor-"
"Yes, it is. Why?"
She was silent. My sister was rarely this reluctant.
"Mom's birthday is coming up," she said, curling into herself, almost as if she were trying to disappear into her seat.
I had forgotten.
"I would always call you up around this time of year, do you remember?" Ella couldn't seem to stop talking now, stumbling over her words as they rushed out of her. "We would always plan her gifts around this time. She was so impossible to shop for. God, it pissed me off so much."
Ella went quiet again, kneading her legs distractedly. I didn't want to say anything. The moment felt strained, as if any words I spoke would snap the tentative balance my sister had found and send her running again.
"It's not fair," Ella continued bitterly, moving her hands to the bottom of her seat and lurching forward as if she was going to jump up and leave the room. Halfway through the motion she stopped, rocked back into the chair, and said with more resolve, "It's not fair that they're still here when she's not. At the very least they should've died with-."
Her voice broke on the last word, and she leapt up and grabbed a glass off the counter, filling it from the tap and gulping it down quickly as if to cleanse herself of her sadness. I knew from experience that grief didn't wash away so easily.
I watched her for a moment, feeling awkward and floundering and hearing the silence grow between us, knowing I should do something but not knowing what that was. I had never been good at consoling people - I had always left that to my mother, who was excellent at giving hugs. I tried to channel the memory of her comforting embrace as I moved forward and wrapped my arms around Ella. I'm not sure it worked, since there was an awkward moment where neither of us knew where to put our arms, but my sister gave a teary, huffing laugh, so I counted it as a success.
We both needed one, anyways.
"My mother's birthday would've been a week from today," I said the following day to Reggie. He was the only other person I could think to share the information with; that I wanted to share the information with. His steady, reliable presence comforted me after so many unexpected occurrences in my life.
Still, maybe I shouldn't have told him about my mother's birthday. He looked like he didn't quite know what to do with the information.
"The tulips will still be in bloom for it," he said, looking right at me with his eyes crinkling up at the corners, as if he wanted to smile but couldn't quite pull it off. I wasn't sure whether or not I preferred when he used to be unable to meet my eyes.
"She'd have loved that," I said, although I was sure that my mother actually would have been angry that there was only one color left of her multitudes of beautiful tulips. I hoped she wasn't too disappointed, wherever she was.
Reggie reached out and touched my hand. His fingers were softer than I expected. I sat down next to him and let him hold my hand; let his thumb brush over my palm.
"Did you, um, want to get mom a birthday present this year?" I asked Ella, catching her off guard as she typed furiously on her computer. Her typing stuttered dramatically before slowing to a stop, her fingers resting over the keys, just barely brushing them.
"She hated when we spent money on her," she said, sounding torn between fondness and sorrow.
I used to have a secret theory that the reason my mother loved making things herself was because she was too cheap to spend money. Remembering that particular suspicion made me smile.
"Well," I said, "we could always fix that dumb bird-bath for her."
My sister laughed, a sudden bark, followed by an almost startled expression on her face, like she hadn't been expecting to hear such a sound.
"Yeah, if it's not completely irreparable by now," Ella said, smiling weakly at me.
"It might take some work, but yeah… it's fixable." I was sure of it.
"I wasn't sure if I should bring them over," Reggie said anxiously. He was clutching a clear bag of tulips close to his chest, fingers curled tight over the plastic, knuckles white from his tense grip. I stood frozen in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob. I hadn't been planning to leave the house today. My sister was in the kitchen making hot chocolate with cinnamon, and the warm, spicy smell had permeated the house, infusing the rooms with a comforting aroma. It was my mother's favorite.
"You said it was your mother's birthday, right?" Reggie continued, looking at the 'You again?' doormat my mother had bought and neither my sister nor I had the heart to throw out. "I just, I thought that I might, that, um… that I could, well, ah, these are for you."
He thrust the bag towards me, his breath stuttering and a flustered look on his face. I knew I should thank him for the gift, but…
"Reggie, you're wearing a suit," I said, unable to comprehend anything other than his appearance. I had known that he came from a wealthy family, but seeing him look wealthy was unbelievably strange.
Reggie's hair was falling around his face, no longer clumped in odd strands and covered in dirt, but brushed out, soft and touchable. It looked darker than usual, a chestnut brown against his tan skin. The suit he was wearing made him seem taller, his shoulders more broad and his waist more trim. He looked like a completely new person.
"I, yes, well, I wasn't able to change before I came, and I'm not staying long, so I, um…" The rest of Reggie's sentence trailed into obscurity as his voice got smaller and smaller. I could actually see him blushing now, without the normal layer of dirt over his features. His skin looked very soft, prompting me to try to imagine the feel of it under my fingertips. I failed, though for a second I believed it to be as soft as the tulip petals I had caressed so short a time ago. He didn't look old at all. No wrinkles.
"A three-piece suit."
"I'm meeting with my father after this." He looked uncomfortable, tugging on his - were those real jewels? - cufflinks with one hand. He wasn't meeting my gaze anymore.
"Is your…" I faltered, and then continued, "is your hair combed?"
"You're in your pajamas!" he burst out, as though hoping to even the playing field. We looked at each other. I wanted to laugh, but didn't know if it would be rude. He started laughing for me.
"They're bronze tulip bulbs, by the way," he said before he left. "We'll have to refrigerate them until fall, but…" He shrugged and gave me a sheepish grin. I noticed, for the first time, a freckle underneath his green eyes.
"Thanks," I said, holding the bag close. I could practically feel my mother's excitement; hear her squeals of joy reverberate in my ears. "She'd have loved these."
On an impulse, I leaned in and brushed my lips over his cheek, feeling for myself the texture of his skin.
I was right. His skin was very soft.
I set the bag carefully on the kitchen counter next to my sister, who was stirring the pot of hot chocolate slowly, eyes fixed on some distant point. She started out of her reverie when she heard the clunk of the tulip bulbs against the wooden countertop.
"What are those?" She sounded wary.
"Bronze tulips," I told her. I hesitated before continuing, "Reggie's been teaching me how to plant them. I was thinking, maybe, if you wanted…?"
My sister was looking intently at me. I almost lost my nerve.
"I was thinking you could help plant them. If you wanted."
Ella swallowed nervously, looking at the bag of tulip bulbs.
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I'd like that."