The Last Rose of Summer
Today’s a special day for me. It’s always a special day when I can share an original composition with you. Today’s offering is inspired, in part, by the Standards to Love: Everything’s Coming Up Rosy post that I did last month.
The Last Rose of Summer, the title of which was taken from a Thomas Moore poem, is a short vignette. The protagonist is Lilya. She’s going through a difficult time in her life. One of her dearest friends, Samantha Lourdes, has passed away, and with her death, her horrendous family have descended on her considerable fortune and desecrated all that Samatha had held dear in her life. When the scene opens, Lilya is furious. She’s just learned something that has incensed her. And nothing her husband does can console her. She’s about to do something drastic, desperate, destructive. Will Constantine be able to stop her? Well, you’ll just have to read on to find out. Without any further ado, I present my short story:
(Oh, and leave me a comment to tell me what you think of it, please.)
Lilya put extra verve into the closing of the front loading washer. The door shut with a resounding click that echoed in the vaulted cellar, the clanging metallic note dispersing and diminishing with each recall.
Taking a deep breath, she selected the wash cycle- heavy duty, the water temperature- hot/cold, and the spin speed- high. Then she retracted the drawer.
The detergent was on the highest shelf. Even in her feathered stiletto slippers she couldn’t reach it, but she wouldn’t lower herself to ask him.
“Lilya, let me.”
Stalwartly ignoring him, Lilya brushed past, retrieved a folding step stool, unfolded it, and brought down the Tide bottle.
One fierce look silenced him. With extreme care, she unscrewed the cap and set it on top of the washer. She poured detergent to the number 2 line. It went over. By 1/8 of a centimeter. Exhaling loudly, she poured the viscous blue liquid back into the bottle. Then she started again. Detergent sloshed out and filled the cap nearly to the fourth line.
She poured it back into the bottle, willing herself to ignore his presence. He was trying to calm her; she would not be calmed. This storm would bellow and rage and blow itself out when she was ready for it to.
Lilya smoothed her hands over her hips then grasped the detergent handle. She poured with the utmost control, bringing the blue soap to the second line. Perfect.
Draining the soap into the dispenser, she waited a full minute until the final drop discarded from the cup. Then she screwed the cap on, climbed the step ladder, and replaced it on the shelf. All the while he stood in stoic silence, waiting. This is what he did. He allowed her to set her own course, but remained in the wings, still and watchful, until she could no longer withstand the torment of her own mind.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed her awareness of him away from her. The white vinegar set on the ground in a wholesale sized bottle. She poured it into the fabric softener dispenser, adding two golden drops of lemon oil. After recapping the oil and vinegar, she jammed the drawer shut and rammed the start button with her thumb.
The door lock clicked; the drum began to whirl. The water pipes clanked loudly. Clunk- water on. Clunk, clunk- water off. Lilya listened to the intermittent whoosh of water while she shook out the pile of towels on top of the dryer.
Snap. Snap, snap. Fold. Through the pile, she went. One lilac and navy towel after another. Then she stacked them. They were perfect. Crisp corners, smooth tops, uniform size. This where she excelled. Organization, regimented order, neatness, methodology, care, these were her gifts. She had built her life cultivating them, defining her worth through what she could accomplish by utilizing them to their fullness. But now, it all felt for naught. Visitations with one’s past could do, especially when one’s past made a point to call her up and gloat.
Lilya stared at the top of the washer, feeling the overwhelming urge to cry. Lifting her head, she tossed the dryer lint in the garbage; only then did she allow herself to look at Constantine.
“You know, Meghan has never been able to fold anything.” She took up the stack of towels. “Her linen cupboard is a shambles, to say nothing of her closet and drawers.”
With those parting words, she moved past him and up the stone steps. When she reached the kitchen, the culinary perfume of duck roasting in its own fat met her.
Constantine was several steps behind her. She looked over her shoulder and said, “She can’t cook either. Can’t even boil water.”
She proceeded through her meticulous kitchen, dining and living rooms, down the hall, into the bedroom at a quick pace. She heard Constantine behind her at a distance, his leather soles whispering against the hardwood floors, that silent presence that only wanted to encourage and that she loathed at this moment because she could not, would not be comforted out of this.
She felt him there in the doorway of their room before she saw him. She always did, even from the beginning. That cold, dark day in late October when flakes of snow had dusted his knit hat.
“Lilya, will you tell me what upsets you like this?”
His German accent was always more pronounced when he was upset, the sonantal syllables guttural and deep.
“Come now, mein schatz, this is not nothing.”
Lilya ignored him. Everything in the master bath’s pristine linen closet was folded and neatly stacked. It was also color coordinated in gradient order, whites to taupes to grays to blues from top to bottom shelf. The towels she held were decidedly medium. With one hand, she rearranged the middle shelf to accommodate them, then shut the frosted glass door. In the tiled, glassy room, the click sounded like crystal shattering.
Again, Lilya fought the urge to cry. Facing the linen door, she took a staggered breath.
Constantine’s hand encircled her waist. For a moment, she let herself relax into him, his nearness stilling the tumult that had wreaked havoc within her all day. No, longer than that. Since Meghan Towler had reappeared, sifting through her great-grandmother Samantha Towler’s estate, as though the woman were nothing more than a cash cow.
“And all her roses are balled,” he whispered, his breath caressing her neck before he kissed it.
His scent, clove and oranges, enveloped her. She closed her eyes. How could she think he wouldn’t divine the true source of what had pushed her over the edge? It wasn’t Meghan’s ineptitude at folding laundry or cooking, but her unexpected entry into the Annual Rose Festival. He had always possessed that canniness where she was concerned, especially where she was concerned in relation to Meghan. But that did not assuage the true hurt pricking her heart.
She lifted her head first then stood up straight, stepping away from him before stating, “Don’t patronize me.”
“I do not patronize you.” Anger hinted in the crispness of his consonants.
“Her roses are stunning. They're all heirloom. Nothing grafted. After all those months helping Samantha with those roses, I should know.”
All those months while her kindred friend had slowly withered, the newfound kinship between them the last rose of summer before Samantha had gone to her final loamy bed.
“Lilya, all your roses are Old Garden. Samantha herself said she loved them more than her own.”
“But I only have three varieties. Now Meghan has seven. Seven, Constantine. Seven.”
He opened his mouth then shut it. Of course he would. There was nothing more to say. Even he couldn’t come up with a good reason why Meghan would not win the Annual Rose Festival Best in Show.
Swiping at her tears, she left the bathroom. Even though there wasn’t a wrinkle in their California King comforter, she smoothed it again anyway.
“Just shut up! You have nothing helpful to say, so just shut up!”
The barbed outburst struck. Pain sharpened in his green eyes and flattened his lips. And, even though she knew it was unjust- cruel, even- she did not retract it.
Sixteen years of daily care- mulching, pruning, deadheading, and propagating, rain or shine, hot or cold- and Meghan Towler would waltz in and take everything Lilya had worked so hard for. And was it because Meghan was a green thumb enthusiast like her? No. It was because she had inherited Samantha Lourdes' house and extensive gardens. And after an appraiser had discovered the treasure trove of roses in the backyard and turned her on to the idea that collectors would be interested in purchasing those bushes for their own gardens, Meghan had seen big dollar signs. Meghan Towler had entered the Rose Festival for publicity and the love of money. And maybe, just maybe, to spite Lilya. Some things never changed.
Lilya wanted to cry, but that would solve nothing. Instead, she needed to do something to show Meghan that she could no longer be the thorn in her flesh. Decisive action! She rushed from the bedroom and straight to the mud room. The pruning shears were on the square wooden table beside her suede gardening gloves. Grabbing them, she ran out the door, beelining it to her walled rose garden.
The gate squeaked when she opened it and she made a mental note to grab WD-40 once she’d finished disbudding and decapitating every rose in her ill-fated garden. No roses meant no thorns.
“Lilya!” Constantine’s anxious voice called out. He was still in the kitchen garden.
Plenty of time, she told herself. Plenty of time.
She opened the blades with a press of her thumb on the release button. Pop! The coil was stiff and strong.
The blades were open, the tender shaft of a Grandiflora rose stem at the V. Constantine’s hand closed on hers and wrested the weapon from her grasp.
“Stop this! You are behaving like a crazy woman!”
Lilya saw red, and it wasn’t the Florentinas in front of her either. But before she could unbraid him with her anger, he thrust his hands up in surrender.
“Nicht verrückt,” he said, defensively, apologetically. “But you must stop this.”
“But Meghan Towler has been the bane of my life since I was four years old. Every year, she would ostracize me and the other kids at school just went along with her. I’ve worked too long and too hard to build up too many charities and events and festivals here to see her waltz in and undermine me and my reputation.”
“She will not do this thing.”
“You don’t know her. She’s like a virus, this dead thing that thrives on the life of others until she kills them! She’s… she’s…” She threw her hands up.
“She’s not you, schatzi. There is no one who thinks Meghan Towler is a lady. She holds no integrity in herself. There is not one generous bone in her entire abgemagert body. Only avarice does she have, and spite.”
“But she has Samantha’s roses now, and she doesn’t care how uprooting them pains her great-grandmother’s heart.” Her voice thickened in her tightening throat.
“And your’s, too, schatzi. A rose possesses thorns for protection, but its bloom is delicate and tender, like mein Lilie.”
Lilya bit at the inside of her bottom lip to stop it from quivering, but she could not stop the tears that bloomed over her lashes. Her fury had burned itself out. Now all that remained was smoke, stinging her eyes.
“It is not the Rose Festival which causes you such pain. Having one of Samantha’s joys so disabused and destroyed, that is a grief added to the already great grief at the loss of your friend. Do I see it rightly?”
Lilya swallowed thickly before nodding her head. Constantine pulled her against him in a comforting embrace. And, as they looked over the capacious rose garden, at all the blooms of varying color and variety, he whispered, “Tonight I shall sneak into her garden and come back with the most expensive bouquet of flowers for you. Would that make you happy?”
Lilya laughed, in spite of herself. Her first real laugh of the day. No. It would not make her happy for him to destroy Samantha Lourdes’ pride and joy, but the fact that he would do it for her was enough to banish the tumult of emotions wrought since Meghan’s return to town. Let her take the Rose Festival, let her uproot the irreplaceable roses tended for generations in the Lourdes’ gardens, let her do what she would, but she would never have what Lilya had. She would never have satisfaction in her life. She was too voracious for the finite to fulfill her. But Lilya knew the secret to happiness, and it could only be found in the infinite. It could only be found in love.