Rachel has been deflecting Kat for months, but then she invites Kat to her apartment to swim. It’s a strange invitation: swim? The kind of thing Kat did with girlfriends when she was a teenager. Around Rachel, she feels like a teenager, despite being forty-six to Rachel’s thirty. Right now, standing in Rachel’s living room, Kat’s underarms are so wet, sweat is dripping down her torso like condensation along the glass panes of a greenhouse. Because (surprise!) Emer, a member of Rachel’s chemistry coterie, is here. Chemistry grad students might not immediately come to mind when one thinks of prickly, cliquish types, but Rachel introduced Kat to Emer and the rest at a tapas restaurant, and as Kat cut into her pulpo gallego—octopus braised in paprika—every one of those women looked at her as though she were a corpse flower emanating its scent of rotting flesh.
When Rachel lets Kat into the apartment—“Kat, you made it!”, as though Kat had not texted Rachel that she was coming—Emer doesn’t acknowledge Kat. This, although the sliding glass door to the balcony is open, and Kat can easily detect Emer’s jasmine perfume, mingled with Rachel’s gardenia scent. Always flowers. Emer’s standing out there in a green bikini, her fingernails and toenails painted a pale pink. She holds up a can of sunscreen and sprays herself, and, collaterally, the potted plants Kat helped Rachel pick out and arrange. The chemical blend is nauseating. Kat worries about the goldenrod in the large blue pot. It’s particularly sensitive to pollutants.
False advertising is typical of Rachel. Once she tried to set Kat up with one of her chemistry professors, whom she sold as artsy and “fiendishly good-looking.” Kat only agreed to the date because she was curious to see what Rachel considered a “perfect match” for her. Turned out that the “art” this guy was into was Japanese comics depicting childish-looking women with boobs the size of Thanksgiving hams. He whipped a stack of them out of his messenger bag, right there at the bar. By fiendish, she’d meant that he had a devilish beard. By perfect match, Kat gathered that Rachel meant that he was fiftyish, his hair graying like Kat’s.
When Rachel tried to set Kat up again, the second time with a woman, from Rachel’s gym, Kat declined. What would she have in common with someone who ran six-plus miles a day on a treadmill?
If Rachel had told Kat she was inviting anyone else to swim, Kat wouldn’t have said yes. Rachel’s other friends are the reason Rachel has been avoiding Kat. Or more aptly, Kat expressing her opinion that Rachel is too interesting to be hanging out with such boring people is why. She pinpointed John specifically—John who is now smiling at her from five photographs displayed on Rachel’s bookcase. Kat said he was immature, which he is. He’s twenty-five and spends his free time playing shoot ’em-up video games. Then Kat likened him to a dandelion puff. That she compared Rachel to an orchid did not nullify the dandelion comment.
In Kat’s defense, Rachel once said that she appreciated Kat’s honesty. She’d emerged from her closet in an orange halter dress that Kat said made her look jaundiced, and Rachel said, “Damnit! I was worried about that. Why did Emer let me buy it?”
Because Emer is like Arisaema griffithii, a lily with the head, and tongue, of a cobra.
At the pool, Rachel and Emer arrange their towels on chaise lounges. Then they arrange their bodies so that their swimsuits expose only the flesh they want exposed. Kat thinks of window displays.
Rachel is wearing a bikini, too—hers a blue-gray that matches her eyes. Kat lies on the chair on the other side of Rachel. She keeps her cover-up on but reluctantly allows the sun to shine on her legs even though she frets about sun damage no matter how high the SPF of her sunscreen.
“So what’s been up with you?” Rachel says to Kat.
When Rachel sent the invitation by text earlier in the day, she asked the same question, and Kat texted back an itemized summary of the previous five months: March—visited my mother in the hospital (gallbladder surgery); April—joined a meditation group, got rid of my television and cable; May—broke a toe, joined a feminist reading group; June—went to Arizona to see the Queen of the Night in bloom; July—acquired a new orchid, submitted my doctoral dissertation.
So now Kat says, “I told you already.”
“Oh, right,” Rachel says. “You finished your dissertation. You must feel accomplished.”
“I do,” Kat says.
To Emer, Rachel says, “Kat studies night-blooming flowers—plants that bloom for only a few nights and then they die.”
“I study the relationship between the flowers and their pollinators. And not all night bloomers bloom so briefly. You’re confusing the life of an individual flower with the blooming season of the plant,” Kat says. She’s told Rachel all of this plenty of times, including the night they met. They’d both gone to view the university’s collection of Nottingham catchflies in bloom; or, more precisely, Kat had gone to view them, Rachel to smell them. A heady, sweet scent like hyacinth. Rachel had been the strange woman who had pitched a fleece blanket beneath one of the blooms. She was lying there with her eyes closed, not even looking at the flower. When she did open her eyes, it was to reach her finger up and touch the pale green stigmas. Kat’s first words to her had been, “You’re a strange breed of pollinator.”
Emer says, “Right. Evening primrose blooms for months.”
They are alone at the pool and hermit-prone Kat is surprised to find herself longing for kids to come out and make some noise splashing around the pool. The quiet makes her feel conspicuous; like that tentacled pulpo gallego flanked by Rachel’s other friends’ more discreet plates of croquettes and empanadas.
She says to Rachel, “So, you and John are doing well, I take it. I noticed the photos.”
Emer is the one who responds. “They’re engaged. Didn’t you notice the ring?”
Kat never notices rings, a blind spot that has gotten her in trouble a few times. But she looks now, and sure enough, Rachel’s left hand is adorned with a diamond on a white gold band.
Kat doesn’t mention that Rachel once said there was no way in hell she’d ever wear a diamond. Not even an ethically-sourced diamond because diamonds “are so generic.” Rachel’s words.
“Well, congratulations,” Kat says.
“Well, thanks,” Rachel says.
Emer says, “He wrote out his proposal in element symbols. Tungsten-iodine-lutetium-argon-yttrium-neon.”
Kat says, “Will you ary ne?”
Rachel says, “He made a few edits. Wrote in the two m’s, subtracted the n. It was sweet.”
What Kat thinks: She should have known that Want to come over to swim? meant something other than swim.
And she should have been more specific when she compared Rachel to an orchid, selected a species known for its trickery, like the laughing bumblebee orchid, Ophrys bomybliflora. The flower looks so much like a bumblebee that real bumblebees try to mate with it. Like how Rachel fooled Kat once by kissing her at a bar. Some guy—the now-fiancé John, in fact—said to them, “Are you two together-together?” They were just drinking martinis and talking, but maybe he could see what Rachel seemed not to grasp. In response, Rachel leaned in and put her lips to Kat’s. Kat swore later to her friend Joanna that the kiss was hella convincing, except that when Rachel pulled away, she winked at John.
Or maybe the type of flower is inconsequential, because all flowers are tricksters. Their raison d’être is to seduce, to manipulate. Even dandelion puffs. What child hasn’t put her lips to one and blown?
Joanna said, “Straight female friendships have all the drama of romantic relationships, only minus the perk of sex.”
Then she said, “Still, your problem is you’re always rounding up.”
Kat said, “But she kissed me.”
Joanna said, “Round down and you get this: she used you as a prop.”
That kiss had been as heady as the scent of the Nottingham catchfly. It couldn’t have simply been a performance, Kat had told herself.
But nothing more happened. It was a one-night event. Like the night-blooming cereus she’d gone to see in bloom that June.
Kat had planned to sit with the flower for several hours, but all the cellphone camera flashes had ruined her enjoyment. She supposed she should be impressed that so many people cared about visiting a botanical garden at night just to see a rare bloom, but the way they circled the plant with their phones up in front of their faces, contorting themselves to capture different angles, depressed her. She’d barely lasted twenty minutes before returning to her hotel room and ordering a pizza. Of this, Joanna said, “You imagined people would just stand there quietly and appreciate the flowers? Round down, woman. Round down.”
In fact, Kat’s thinking had been even more ridiculous: she’d imagined that she’d find a cereus that nobody else had found and so she’d have the plant all to herself.
Kat says to Rachel now, “I’m going for a swim.”
Rachel says, “Let us know how the water is,” even though Kat knows that nothing she might say would inspire Rachel to leave Emer’s side to join Kat in the chlorinated, pee-filled pool.
Kat stands. She pulls off her cover-up. Just a month ago, she would have kept the cover-up on, only dipped her toes. But she decides that at forty-six, she is too mature to worry about what a couple of thirty-year-old women think of her body. Let them think of themselves as flowers all they want. As she has had to remind Rachel, while plants may bloom for months on end, individual flowers are short-lived organs. Sometimes they get replaced, sometimes they don’t, but soon enough, they all wilt.
© Michelle Ross
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Michelle’s interview]