Before I could stop her, Lilly picked up the phone, called Robert, and told him what had happened. Her face relaxed as she listened to him. "I knew it," she said to him, and then handed me the phone. "He wants to talk to you."
"Jordan, I'm sorry about those flowers, but you know I'd never send you red roses, don't you?"
"Well, I didn't think you would have, but the card -- " My voice trailed off.
"The florist must have mixed my order up with someone else's. Except I don't know how. I ordered them in person from that florist on Sixth Avenue."
"I should be over this by now. I can't keep breaking down every time I see some reminder of that day."
"You know better than anyone how easy that is to say and how impossible it is to do. You'll never stop loving your father, will you?"
"No, of course not."
"Then how can you expect to stop being horrified by the way he died?" Robert's voice was warm and familiar.
For the first time in years, we were having a conversation that wasn't about Lilly, and yet I couldn't answer him directly. "I'm sorry. Of course it was a mistake." For Lilly's sake, and his, I made an attempt to sound as if I were fine, but I couldn't stop thinking that of all the flowers they could have sent by mistake, why had it been those?
"Any other mix-up would have been all right, but not red roses, especially not on your birthday." So, after all this time, he still could read my mind. "Jordan, listen to me, as soon as we get off the phone, I want you to take the roses and throw them out, okay?"
"That's not necessary, I can -- "
"Yes, it is. I want you to take them and put them in the garbage bin outside the house. Will you promise me you'll do that or should I ask Lilly?"
"Yes, I'll do it, Robert." And as soon as I said it, I felt surprisingly better.
How curious that in spite of everything that had happened -- his unfaithfulness, my withdrawal, and our separation -- some intimacy between us had endured. And how ironic that if not for those red roses, I might not have known it.
The roses had spurred one set of memories; the lilies would have stimulated very different ones.
One night, not long after we had first moved in together, Robert had come home from work, holding out an oblong florist's box, tied with a white satin ribbon. Inside, nestled in tissue, was a slender stalk. A single calla lily. I put it in water, and after dinner, Robert asked me to pose for him with the flower.
Although he'd photographed me several times before, each time I stood in front of his lens, I shed more inhibitions and became increasingly comfortable under his scrutiny. With his cold metal camera, Robert was exploring my secrets and my soul.
"Will you get undressed for me?" he asked. "Just down to your underwear," he reassured.
I was still shy about posing completely nude, but I had let him photograph me in my bra and underpants before; so while Robert set up the lights, I undressed slowly, knowing that even though he was busy arranging the shot, he was aware of every move I made.
The camera had not yet become an intrusion in our life; it was still a revered object revealing the depths and talent of the man I lived with. Robert looked at the world through the viewfinder and saw it in a very special way. And in his photographs, I saw all his passions, but they did not make me afraid. I still believed the promises Robert had made: to be faithful and never leave. Blissfully unaware that all love leads to loss, I never thought he would disappoint me.
My father's death had been the exception, I had thought all those years ago -- some loves did last.
With my back to Robert, I took off my blouse and my jeans and then my bra but left on my white lace panties. I sat on the bed, against the pillows, as he adjusted the light meter. He looked up for a moment and his eyes focused on my bare breasts. My nipples hardened. He smiled and went back to setting up the shot.
Copyright © 2000 by M.J. Rose. For permission to reproduce this excerpt please contact the author at http://www.mjrose.com
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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