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The promise and prose of posies

At a little Platt Street shop, flowers stand in for the words needed to find love, forgiveness or just sex.

By KATHRYN MARTINS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2002


At a little Platt Street shop, flowers stand in for the words needed to find love, forgiveness or just sex.

The first time I needed flowers, I wandered into a little flower shop on Platt Street, on the right hand side, across the street from Publix near downtown.

I was in my first relationship and didn't have an inkling about what that meant, or about buying flowers. All I knew was that I wanted lots of purple. I indicated this after saying that someone needed cheering up, and then I nodded dumbly to a suggested vase, sprigs of fern and selected flowers.

Bay Bouquet Florist is a small, beige box of a building with a white wooden door, complete with glass panes.

A heart with a rose has been glowing in the window after hours since Valentine's Day, the busiest time. It hangs next to what used to be the "Fresh bouquets for $4.95 and up" sign, now just a blank square. An antique looking trinket box and floral arrangements sit in the show window.

The blue minivan in the parking lot advertising the shop and its phone number belongs to Heike Longo, the owner.

Heike is thin and of average height. Her hair is straight and dark blond, and she wears it, like her clothes, with little fuss. Heike left Germany years ago because of a love connection. A connection that she says obviously didn't last very long.

Such is the nature of romance and fresh flowers.

Life and the little death

Fortunately for Heike, Bay Bouquet, now in its fifth year of operation, has outlived its spoiled flowers, that love connection, and the romances of many of her on-again, off-again clients.

I say "many" and not "all" because some of the couples whose wedding floral arrangements she provided still patronize the shop.

As for those couples who part ways, they will predictably find a new beloved; and newness tends to send lovers running to the flower shop. As does sex. Men in long-sleeved shirts and ties come into the shop and prefer not to write on the tag, or they ask: "I'm going to get an envelope with that, right?"

One man admits to buying flowers only for the sex. And not very expensive flowers at that. He is either a man of calculated risk, fairly decent self-esteem, or frugal.

"I don't know what women see in him," she says.

But to be fair, people rarely go into flower shops without motive. Even those "just because" bouquets are tethered to something, however indirectly.

File under: all of the above

My second visit to Bay Bouquet was a "just because" visit. The arrangement was bigger than the first, but I had driven there this time; I hadn't wandered in off the pavement, nervous and wired and searching.

This was the possible beginning of my third relationship. I still didn't know what I was doing but had learned that this was the case with romance.

Despite nodding at Heike's "Just because?" I was full of messages after I left her shop, flowers in hand, creased straw dangling from both ends of the bow.

When door No. 104 opened, I stood like a gushing ventriloquist.

I want you to think of me when you look at these.

I think of you when you're not around.

I'm sensitive and spontaneous.

Flowers for all occasions

Flowers, like words, are meant to communicate. We hope that flowers will express our nuances and reflect our overcrowding.

Sometimes we buy them without knowing or acknowledging why. They are cliche, but still less trite than the messages they are purchased to convey. Like the Holocaust prose poetry of Cynthia Ozick, flowers create a realm where fragile beauty is appropriate for death and suffering.

We buy flowers to console ourselves as much as the sick, the dying, the deceased and the aggrieved family members. What else can we do when, really, nothing can be done or said. We send flowers. We are at least able to do that.

We will not have to keep the water levels high. Decide which flowers need to be thrown out, while others, mere buds, prepare to burst open. Watch the arrangement thin, subtly and then unmistakably. Sweep up the fallen, yellowing petals or smell the rotting ends of the cut stalks.

No, we just send flowers. Freshly sprayed with water. Full of life, thought, and all that we can't express or understand.

The currency of pleasure

It's midday on a Friday. I find myself in Bay Bouquet for the third time, once again with a motive. I had called Heike earlier in the morning, asking to spend some time with her in the shop.

Today was bad, she'd replied. She had planned to leave by 1 p.m. Did it have to be today? When I told her that I would try my best to stay out of the way and merely observe, she agreed.

I had realized that "Did it have to be today?" was not anchored anywhere in particular. Her tone had that strain of hope that doesn't expect to be realized. She didn't seem like the kind of person who said no a lot. Perhaps working with flowers every day does that to you.

Cajoling blooms and foliage, already beautiful, into an exquisite whole. Dealing with fragility that is both alive and dependent, that will meet its end in her shop or in the homes and offices of customers.

Persuading those flowers to become a piece, balanced in color, texture and shape. And all so that a customer will be pleased; a loved one will feel loved; someone will be forgiven; a mourning parent or child will be consoled; an office cubicle will seem less hopeless.

Yes, Heike is in the business of pleasing.

Not part of the arrangement

And what of those who have no business? No income?

The shop is on Platt Street, where many homeless people roam, stand or slump on benches. Occasionally, they open Heike's door. During her first encounter with a dreadlocked guy, he asked to borrow a dollar, which he actually repaid a few weeks later. Since then, he stops by, usually soused and incoherent, to say hello.

A disheveled woman came in once to buy a single flower. Heike gave her the pink chrysanthemum that she picked out.

"How did she react?" I ask.

"I don't know," she says. "I think she was crazy."

The floor

I'm sitting on a chair in the corner of the shop while Heike slices the ends off of long-stemmed red roses. A large glass vase with a few roses and pieces of fern stands on the floor in front of her.

She pauses to tear a loose outer petal from a tight bud before lowering the stalk into the vase. From years of practice, she instinctively knows when an arrangement is finished.

A man in his 30s comes through the doorway, dressed in a shirt and tie. He is early. When Heike mentions this, he says, only part-joking, "Five minutes?" She replies hopefully that he can help pick out the flowers.

Heike taps the large, dumb keys of her calculator. While wrapping the flowers in green paper, she asks how many years he's been married. Five years. She congratulates him.

A man in a black Mons Venus T-shirt stands by the door. She introduces him to me. He looks at me and says, without skepticism or curiosity, "So, you're the writer?" I nod and realize that he is her friend.

Five minutes later, the customer has paid her, not wanting his change, and is out the door.

She looks at her friend. "Coffee. I want coffee."

"Superman isn't in today," he replies, revealing a foreign accent.

But Heike puts him to work in another way. He slides open the refrigerator's glass door and removes the bucket of red roses. The fridge is equipped for shelves but has none. This afternoon, it is practically empty, except for some blue flowers, a bundle of greenery and the just-removed bucket of roses. He takes over the cutting of the roses for the arrangement on the floor.

Two or three red roses thump to the floor, their upright stalks beheaded. Heike asks him if he's ruining her roses. (These heads will amuse me later when she insists that roses aren't that fragile.)

"They're breaking themselves," he insists.

"I need those roses," she says.

She had told me earlier that, for some reason, everyone wants roses today.

Little shop of surrender

A young man in a red baseball cap steps into the shop. He has a little stubble on his chin and speaks softly. Heike asks him what the occasion is. Another anniversary. He doesn't know which flowers to choose. He always gets roses.

Sometimes, part of pleasing people is telling them what they want. Many customers come into Bay Bouquet not knowing what they want, or even if they want flowers. Others, like myself, just have a color scheme and price range in mind. And the rest just wants one less decision to make.

Heike says that she hardly ever encounters a difficult customer. When people are unsure, they usually go with her advice. It's not like buying shoes.

Perhaps this is because flowers aren't practical or utilitarian. They are only going to be with you for a few days, or not at all.

"Well, find out for next time," Heike says, partly scolding the man in the red cap as she scans the shop for ideas. "How about some lilies?" she asks, touching them in a jar by the front of the shop.

He nods and then does so once or twice again before shyly declining her suggestion.

"Too much money. Okay," she says.

He agrees to a small card but will wait until later to write it. She reaches for her calculator again.

Heike's friend seems to have convinced the remaining roses not to swan dive into the floor, now littered with similar red heads and the green of stalks and fern.

The back of the red cap bobs out onto the street, the white, wooden door opening a fissure of car horns and wind before sealing it up and out again.

She rubs her friend's head, glances down at the growing arrangement and quips, "What, you're arranging now?"

Space

The round clock on the wall says 12:30. Heike will not be leaving early today. A leaping dolphin is the pinup on her wall calendar. Next to it are two pictures of the same house taken from different angles.

I feel a little odd, sitting at the desk, buckets of flowers around half the store's perimeter; vases on the shelf above the back of my head; reels of ribbon waiting to be spun; bunches of straw; teddy bears and rabbits in pastel green and pink, stuck in random nooks; tiny hearts on sticks; long plastic forks and the little cards they hold; sheets of green wrapping paper; a can of clear glaze.

Even though there are supplies crammed everywhere in the shop, I don't feel cramped. Could it be oxygen from the flowers and leaves? The occasional yellow-orange-pollen-smell tickling my nostrils? Or the illusion of being outdoors? That the outside is in here, making these four walls disappear?

There's a helium tank in the corner that makes me think of frog men and chipmunk voices. A gray-black, somehow colorless skateboard in the space between desk and wall. Half-and-half milk and wax-wrapped ham slices chilling with flowers in the shelfless refrigerator.

My eyes fix on the black and white extreme close-up of a man's face, part of his head cut off, his smile exaggerated and meaningless. Like the reluctant recipients of flowers, or that man in the red cap saying, "I just get her roses." It's the expression we slide into when our minds don't respond and our generators kick in.

Superman and his skateboard

Heike's friend sits at the other desk with two of the fallen rose heads in his hands. She has returned to their intended showcase -- the large arrangement on the floor. As she staggers the sprays of wispy white flowers among the roses and fern, he jerks his hand forward, opening it at full stretch. Petals, like red confetti, parachute down, mutely resting in her hair, the arrangement and on the floor.

"Stop it," she says, after the second shower has fallen. The third one motivates her to throw a handful at him.

She nags him about coffee again. His eventual submission earns him a mini grocery list. He grabs the skateboard behind me, and I watch his figure glide out of sight.

Predictability

"Do I get any strange requests?" Heike repeats, like she's awaiting my confirmation.

Windex bubbles pop into nothing. She is shining the vase of her finished arrangement.

"This one woman wanted a scorpion arrangement for her daughter's funeral," she says.

"Why did she want a scorpion?"

"But it looked like a lobster because the flowers were red." Heike pauses and explains. "Her daughter was a Scorpio or something."

I shake my head, eyes blinking, waiting for more.

Heike continues, "And for those over-the-hill things."

"Sorry? You mean for retirement?"

"No," she says, "when you hit 40. But I don't do those."

Over-the-hill orders are for dead flowers. They reminded me of an acquaintance of my mother's who had a dead wreath delivered to her ex-husband's doorstep.

It's understandable that Heike, who says that flowers aren't fragile if you're careful with them, would refuse to turn her spoils into dead arrangements for the living.

The skateboard figure returns as I'm telling Heike goodbye. I leave them in the shop sorting through the Publix bags, his hand opening the top of the coffeemaker.

On my way to the car, a truck body slides over my view of branches, sky and clouds. It's Bay Bouquet's daily air-conditioned delivery. The truck, now stationary, dwarfs the building.

Hope springs eternal

Three months later, I let myself into No. 104, cradling bunches of flowers, dusty-rose colored and white. This is a cheering up gesture, just because things have been stagnant with relationship No. 3.

While the water runs into a familiar vase, I feel young and hopeful. For the moment, wisdom is incidental.

The flowers succumb to my direction. But for all my cajoling, several holes upset the arrangement. And yet, it is the brightest thing in the apartment.

Flowers will dazzle us in a forever field, or choreographed in a world of glass that fits on a bedside table.

Flowers forgive. Rain-battered, wind-torn, another bud will arrive. An awkward hand mislays them in a vase. They will still arrest the eyes.

Words do not forgive.

I snatch a final look at the arrangement before closing the door.

My phone will ring tonight.

Not knowing what to say does not kill the need to speak.

About the writer

Kathryn Martins, 28, studies writing at the University of Tampa. She lives on Harbour Island.

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Would you like to contribute to My Town? Send musings on South Tampa to pryan@sptimes.com. Short essays (fewer than 500 words) and medium-length essays (fewer than 2,000 words) will be considered.

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