She grew up in Le Havre. Her father, whose job had something to do with city planning, was aloof and wooden, and he tended to his houseplants as Lucy thought he should have attended to his daughter. He talked to them each evening, wiped the dust from their leaves with soft kitchen rags, played the sort of music he suspected they preferred—Brahms, mostly, but sometimes Liszt’s Foust Symphony. They thrived.
Her Chinese mother (whose devotion, it seemed, was bought out of the back pages of an adult magazine, though Lucy was only willing to admit this once she reached her own complicated adulthood) spent most of her life cajoling the neighborhood housewives into playing Mah Jong, which they claimed was difficult to grasp, and took too much of the afternoon to play. Lucy thought it was probably her mother’s opaque instructions, not to mention the cluttered, dusty living room and her mother’s odd, off-kilter hors d’oeuvres: cucumber sandwiches with whole-grain mustard, broken hunks of hard, salty cheese. They stopped coming after a while, one by one claiming that they had other obligations, something at church, shopping, or simply ‘a conflict.’ Her mother eventually gave up; the phone quit ringing all together. With her husband’s savings she opened a flower shop.
As a teenager, Lucy worked there every day after school and on Saturdays. It was an endless parade of anonymous happenings, strangers impressing upon her the utmost importance of the event: funeral, birthday, anniversary, funeral, anniversary, birthday, funeral. Lucy took the job very seriously—she took any kind of work seriously—and her mood was often affected by the customer’s occasion. It was too easy to absorb other people’s sorrow; she sopped it up unconsciously. Four funerals in one day and forget it, she was cooked, wilted like a piece of lettuce. There was once two fiftieth anniversaries in the same afternoon, and so she rode her bike home elated, taking two turns around the neighborhood, breathing the air and laughing.
She bounced into the house, and her father asked if someone had filled her skull with meringue. She pulled her diary from underneath her pillow, where surely it was safe from marauding intruders, drew a radiant sun, and next to it wrote (in English, should her mother discover it) the words ‘silver dust’ and ‘orange glass.’
Her mother spent all day on the phone to China, crammed into a closet masquerading as an office, leaving Lucy the details, and after a few years every event felt the same. She learned to translate the fumbled, emotional orders: the uneasy fastidiousness of a memorial arrangement, an attempt to say something memorable, but afraid to come off as clichéd; the basic anniversary bunch, requested by husbands with bad taste who usually defaulted to whatever she thought best; the murky, inside-jokey birthday requests. There were men who wrote dirty messages to their mistresses and widows who sent flowers to themselves. In the end, no one ever complained that their arrangement was wrong, or not what they ordered, or unattractive. And no one ever called to say that their arrangement was gorgeous, or especially fragrant, or just perfect.
“I would love to work in a flower shop,” Helena said, an hour after having met Lucy in line at the market years ago, back at the beginning of their friendship—they decided to have a cup of tea. “To be surrounded by so much beauty all the time,” she said. Lucy was enjoying the conversation so much, that when it came time to refill her cup, she neglected to replace the teabag, and for five or ten minutes drank only hot water laced with a brown cube of raw sugar. “But you have your paintings,” Lucy told her. Helena said the paintings were more like bills that needed to be paid, or else they were watched pots of water waiting to boil.
Lucy said that as for the flower show, indeed it was very beautiful. What she didn’t say—or had learned not to say after telling the story to heaps of reporters and having it read quite differently in print—was that when you work in a flower shop, you are constantly reminded that none of the flowers are for you. The blooming jungle encroaches—fronds of sweet alyssum, frangipani, St. Christopher’s lily—and you begin to disappear. She thought it was a little childish, and was embarrassed to admit that she felt that way.