Three Orchids by E. Alexandra

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When I was seven my father threw out my mother’s vintage dining table.  It was a beautiful, untrustworthy beast that sucked all the air out of the room and swallowed up any tendril of light.  Both marveling and fearing it, I’d run my hands down the curvature of its chestnut-colored legs; weeks later my hands would swell, numb from splinters lodged deeply and forgotten.  Festering wounds that would only be extracted by monsoons that breathed life into the dark caverns of my body.

The new table was a shell of the old one – featherweight, aluminum, safe but cold to the touch.  My dad, with one skinny, pale arm lifted it over his head and twirled it with the palm of his hand.  Light from the kitchen’s bay windows shone onto multi-generational spider webs, corners connected by intricate silk roads, peacefully built in the shadow of the beast who once lived there.

“The kitchen looks so big!” I said excitedly.  I was dressed as the Tin Man in a silver-sequined leotard, my body covered in grey glitter, and a thick, black smile painted robotically across my face.  I ran towards my father, spun in circles in the spaciousness of the kitchen, and watched the sun turn silver sequins into rainbows, dancing across my body.

“Whoa! What is this? Miss Tin Man?” He leaned back with his arms open wide.  His Boston Red Sox T-shirt rode up and revealed a Tasmanian Devil tattoo sliding down the flabs of his bicep.  “Hey! Did you take a video of the rehearsal?  You know I’ll miss the recital.”

My mom crouched in front of the fridge as she loaded asparagus and spinach, teetering on her heeled black boots.  The pink strap of my unicorn dance bag wrapped around her neck and pulled her backwards.  She wobbled and fell back slightly before she caught herself with both hands on the linoleum.  I look towards a rainbow on my body but all I could really see was the sound of her heels stomping across the tile.  I looked towards my dad who’s face crinkled like water pushed back from a dam.

“Is that a no?” he asked.

“Hm,” she huffed, ripped my bag from her neck, inhaled sharply, placed a long purple nail on her black leggings, moonstone dangling from her wrist, and began chopping beets.  A ray of sunlight danced across my shoulder, skipped towards her, stopped abruptly, twirled over her head, turning her mahogany hair the color of dried blood, kissed the remaining petals of a dying orchid on the windowsill, and escaped on the tip of a red butterfly’s wing.

The orchids were had once been giant white petals with purple grins that watched over us from the windowsill.  Sometimes I’d catch my mm sneaking bites of the petals.   Good luck, she’d wink, for a baby brother or sister.   But the baby brother or sister never came and it was as if those grins had turned inside themselves, the petals brown and wilted, so fragile it seemed all it would take was one slammed plate or shout of pleasure for them to disintegrate into the soil that birthed them.

My mom was a beautiful woman with dark hair she wore down to her waist, eyes like robins’ eggs, and plum lips that accentuated the purple undertones of her hair and eyes.  She possessed a darkness so complete it sucked in the whole rainbow.  She was five years older than my dad.  Before me, she was an executive in an ad agency back east who fantasized about a simpler life with a houseful of children.  She’d paid his way through law school and when he got a job out west, she was the one to put the down payment on the house we lived in, passed the financial baton him, then seemed content for a while with a life of gardening, cooking, mothering, and preparing for the new babies to come.  It had been four years, all she had was me, and I sometimes caught her squinting towards me, the house, my dad, the brown hills of the town where we lived, as if her life were being played on a screen whose brightness had been turned down.

“Do you like the table?” my dad asked her, balancing it on his knee.

“It’s fine.”  She pushed her right hand on top of her left, her biceps bulging from the 6:00 a.m. Pilates class she attended five days a week, and forced a dull knife through an uncooked beet.

“That’s the wrong knife.”  He dropped the table carelessly on the kitchen floor.   She held her breath and eyed the shaking petals of the orchid.

“You always make things so hard.” He reached in front of her waist to open a drawer.  She breathed in sharply as he pulled out a thin knife and lifted the jagged edge towards her face.  She slid the chopping board away from him and he watched her silently as she went on muscling the old knife through the beets.

“At least put them in the pressure cooker first.”  He dropped the knife in front of her.

“I’m making a soup,” she said slowly, continuing to force the dull knife through the uncooked beets, “I’ll just cut them first, boil everything together.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” He threw the thinner knife back in the drawer, slammed it shut.  A petal from the orchid floated through the air, its wilted edges skimming the soil.

“Why do you still have these?  They’ve been dead for months.”  He threw the petal in the trash.   Finally, she looked at him.  I think everything he ever did was in hopes she’d see him, no matter how briefly.  She put the knife on the counter and shifted her weight into her hip, accentuating the curvature of her body.  She was wearing a white silk blouse, buttoned to reveal a lacey black bra underneath. She knew she was beautiful and when his face softened, she smirked.

“Hey!” I tapped my shoes against the kitchen tiles, “I can show you the dance now!”

“Carrie, we don’t have time for that,” she said without looking at me, “and we don’t have bread.”  She turned away from both of us, chopped another beet.

“Bread?” he asked.  “Let her show us the dance.”

“No.”  She blew a stray hair from her forehead.  My dad stared at her face as if searching for the shape of some door he’d once known.   “Because once we start eating, I know all you’ll talk about is how much better the soup would be with fresh garlic bread.  Fresh bread and fresh garlic.”  His face dropped as if black tape were being sealed over the last remaining light cracking through that door.

“Excuse me,” she said avoiding his gaze.

“Fine.”  He stepped out of her way, “If it’s that important to you, I’ll go.  Carrie, you want to go with me?  You can show me some of the dance in the car.”

I stared at her beet-stained hands, her purse strap resting in her mouth, a twenty-dollar bill squeezed between her elbows.  I thought about the time I’d found a leaf, spotted with gold in the middle of winter, how my dad had sealed it between two sheets of wax paper, and my mom had guided my hand on the iron, smiled, promised it would stay like that forever.

“Hmph,” she said, using her elbows to grab a twenty from her purse, “where are you going, Wal-Mart?”

“Keep it,” he said, smirking, “Carrie let’s go.”

“Carrie! Go!” she said and so I went.

***

“What’s wrong with Wal-Mart?” I asked my dad in our gold-colored SUV.  I was sweating underneath the paint and sequins of my costume, grey streaks filled with glitter ran down my arms, the black smile dripped downwards, staining my leotard.

“Nothing’s wrong with Wal-Mart.”  He leaned forward, gripped the steering wheel with both his hands, and accelerated past the rows of brown stucco houses.  At the intersection of our neighborhood and the highway, he exhaled loudly, and fell back into his seat.  “Your mother doesn’t understand money.  She thinks everything’s replaceable.”  He rubbed a hand through his thin, brown hair, smiled at a man with a cowboy hat in a large black truck, and his skin seemed to loosen around his body.

The cashier at the grocery store was a square woman with badly bleached hair.  She looked from my dad to me, then me back to my dad, and said, “Well, can’t deny that one.  Even if you wanted to.”  He chuckled, stood a little taller.  “Aw I’m sorry sweetie, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.  I just don’t think I’ve ever seen a daughter look so much like her dad.”  He nudged me playfully on the shoulder, “HEY!” he said running his skinny hands over his reddish face, “come on, your dad’s not so bad!”

I thought about a barbeque we’d gone to the week before.  An old man in a bandana played the banjo on one side of the park; a woman in an evening gown played a violin on the other.  My mom wore a silk, floral tunic, gold high heels, and her hair in a low bun with a red butterfly pin clipped at the base of her neck.   She closed her eyes and swayed as if floating in a river.  My dad, in red and blue plaid shorts, old New Balance running shoes, and a navy baseball hat moved his knees and elbows jerkily to the sides like he could fight his way out of his skin.

I sat between them in a red corduroy jumper unsure of which way to go.  My mom  shook her hair loose, it swiveled in the grass like blacksnakes that made me want to crawl on her back, hide underneath her and pretend it was me with snakes that flowed from my scalp.  I scooted towards her, pulled my short, mousey-brown hair behind my ear and reached for the pin in front of her.  She swatted my hand, grabbed the pin, and squeezed its wings tightly.  My dad turned quickly, watched her suspiciously, then asked me softly, “what did you want?”

“She wanted something that wasn’t hers.  Everything isn’t for her.”  She looked down at me, pulled her hair to the base of her neck, secured it with the pin, straightened her spine, and turned from us back towards the woman.

***

When we returned with the bread she was drinking red wine, strewn across a white couch in the fancy living room no one ever used, her head thrown back in laughter, a cell phone cradled to her ear.  My dad slammed the door behind me and the laughter stopped as if a circuit had broken.

The new table shook and wobbled throughout dinner, filled the house with a terrible noise, like screws raining from the sky.  I kept spilling my soup.  I leapt to clean it up but my mom was unusually kind, calling me sweetie, and telling me over and over it wasn’t my fault.  My dad ate in silence but eventually bent down, crawled beneath us on his hands and knees, and seeped up the soup dripping from the table like blood.  My mom  ignored him, sipped her wine, and watched the sunset turn the mountains from brown to some strange mix of green and pink, a fruit bursting from the center with life.

The next morning my dad left on a business trip and that afternoon a man appeared at the door with a yellow tool bag.  He was dark like mother and when he smiled, his chest lifted, and long, deep lines ran up the entirety of his face like strings of honey.

“Hey, is your mom home?”  I blushed because I knew he was handsome, and I wasn’t used to being around handsome men.  My mom ran up behind me, leaned into her hip, and lifted her bare heel from the ground.  She had painted her toes a bright pink.

“Thank you for coming.”  She flipped her long dark hair over her shoulder, smiled, and cocked her head to the side.  When he entered the house, they touched each other’s arms awkwardly, and I noticed how my mom’s hand curled around the edge of his bicep, as if she’d been falling from a cliff, and here suddenly, miraculously was a ledge, offering her something, anything to grasp onto.

“What do we have here?”  he said playfully as he set his tool bag by the wobbling table. He walked through the house with an air of ownership I hadn’t seen in a man before.  She didn’t follow him into the kitchen like I thought she would.  Instead, she followed me into the playroom while the man watched us with a polite smile.

“Can I draw with you?” she asked in a sing-song voice I’d never heard before.  When she bent down next to me, something cold and stern flashed beneath her eyes.  I bit my lip and nodded.

“She’s so well-behaved,” the man said as he unhooked the legs of the table, seamlessly like it were made of paper.

“Isn’t she?”  Her skin glistened like the man had infused honey into her veins.  She brushed her hand down my hair and I smiled, wanting to take in all that honey I’d never seen.

We drew pictures of smiling foxes, dressed in wide-rimmed purple hats, drinking tea from porcelain cups, and eating blueberry jam biscuits from towering plates of silver.  He kept stealing glances towards us, and my mom would blush, look down at the foxes on the page, and laugh to herself.

“What?” she asked me in a low whisper that made me feel as though we were sisters.  I shook my head and looked down at a fox in pearls.  She snorted out of her nose, “What do you keep looking at me for?”

“Nothing, you just look pretty,” I said quietly.  For a moment, she stared at me with an air of sadness.

“You’re such a sweet, sweet girl Carrie.  It’s a good quality in a girl like you.” And we both knew what she meant, and both knew she’d never say it.  She squeezed my knee slightly and began drawing a sun at the bottom of my picture.

“Is he your boyfriend?” I asked.  She drew the sun like a crescent moon, and I thought about how cold the animals would be in her picture.  When I looked up, the coldness in her eyes was piercing.

“No.”  The coldness pushing against the surface of her eyes, the tip of an iceberg I had no idea the depth of.  “He’s a friend.  Moms can have friends too, just like you have friends.”  She spit the words out carelessly like a girl my age trying on meanness.  But there was something in me that must have looked unreliable, some hurt in me she worried would grow into resentment.  She softened, petted the top of my head, and said sweetly, “You know, I was watching you in your rehearsal last night, and you looked so much like me at your age, it was almost…”  She trailed off.  We both knew it was a lie.

“Well, I know, I just know our guest would love to see your dance routine. What do you say? Wouldn’t that be nice to show him?”  She winked in a way that made me know she was offering me something I couldn’t refuse and when I nodded silently, the iceberg in her eyes melted but it oozed like lava into the sea.

“Isa,” the man called from the kitchen. I knew her name, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her called it.  From the hallway, I watched the man open a cabinet and pour himself a glass of water.  He touched the small of her back as she leaned over the kitchen sink and patted the soil of the dead orchids.   Her body tensed, then released into a terrible, retching motion.

“Isa, it’s okay.  It’s okay Isa,” he told her over and over.  I had never seen her cry.  The man cupped her face with his hands.  She smiled at him through wet eyes, plucked one of the last petals from the dying orchid and fed it to him.

I turned, skipped up the stairs to her room, opened her purse with an ease I hadn’t felt before, and placed the butterfly clip in my hair.  Her silk, floral dress hung on the back of a pink satin chair.  I slipped it on and felt a heaviness envelop me, like a leaf being ironed between wax paper, quicksand swallowing me whole, sucking me back into exactly where I wanted to be.

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E. Alexandra

E. Alexandra is a psychologist in New Mexico. She studied creative writing at New York University. Her fiction/poetry has appeared in Cathexis Northwest Press, Prometheus Dreaming, unstamatic, and Eastern Iowa Review. She is working on a collection of short stories.

If you enjoyed ‘Three Orchids’  leave a comment and let E. Alexandra know.

You can read more of E. Alexandra’s words below:

Love was  (Poetry) https://www.cathexisnorthwestpress.com/lovewas

Mud (Fiction) https://www.unstamatic.info/mud

Reincarnate (Poetry) https://www.prometheusdreaming.com/reincarnate

Pinwheels (Fiction) http://www.portyonderpress.com/emily-mathis—pinwheels.html

You can find and follow E. Alexandra at:

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