So what I did, really did and not just thought about or dreamt up or dreamed of doing, was to break into the Brooklyn Botanical Garden at midnight. Me and Geoff, my cousin. And the reason we did that was to eat flowers. And the reason I wanted to eat flowers-all flowers, in huge handfuls, not just the pre-packaged kind, the plastic salad box of marigold and mallow and nasturtium you can get at any D'ags or Food Emporium-was because I was in love with the idea. And the reason I was in love with the idea was because in an old Agnès Varda short film, L'Opera Mouffe, a pregnant Frenchwoman bites into a rose on a stem with such insouciance, such Gallic charm, such pleasure, that I absolutely had to eat flowers right away and be utterly transformed
(Interruption: memo to Dr. Smarm-yes, I hated myself and I wanted to be someone else. Who doesn't? I blow a kiss to Juana. She growls and glows her eyes up at me. I yawn and nestle down into my sacky sweatshirt. Must tell her that unlike withdrawal from what she's doing, withdrawal from flowers has no physical side effects. Maybe your breath's not so pretty anymore. Maybe you're imperceptibly less and less and less charming. Otherwise none. I think.)
Geoff is my bad cousin. He didn't go to private school—he didn't even go to high school, you know what I'm saying. Well he went technically but not really. Maybe not even technically. And he knows from crow bars.
"Geoff," I said, "I need your help." At which point he lit up like an absolute light bulb, so pleased was he to be asked for anything from anyone in this insane asylum of a clan.
"Sure Haze," he said. "Anything." We'd met outside the Hip-Hop Laundry Shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn. He looked alright there, next to the low bricky buildings and the curvy faux-gas lampposts. Sort of like he was in his niche. Who knew, maybe he wasn't even "bad." Maybe he really was, as he'd kept claiming and claiming, particularly to my Aunt Marjorie, a sculptor who worked big. Maybe he really did live "near Smith Street" in a place with room for his "soldering and welding equipment" and his "friend." We never liked to delve, not in the clan. "Poor Marjorie," my mother always whispered, trying hard not to break into some Jewish version of a ward-off-evil tarantella. "Poor poor Marjorie."
"Geoff," I said, "I need a crow bar." I held my hands apart to demonstrate the size and heft of what I meant.
"Sure Haze," he said. "Anything." But he dug his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, like he was nervous. In the patches of his copper-red stubble, I could see the beginnings of sweat.
"It's for a project." I looked around, one-two quick like in the movies. I took a big movie breath. "A - nocturnal escapade. Capisce?"
My cousin chucked the end of my chin kindly, and a little sadly.
"Okay Hazel," he said. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I have no idea why you need a crow bar. I have no idea why you called me out of the blue after four years and arranged to meet me on this corner. But-." And here he placed his hands square on my shoulders and gave me a bad cousin death-glare-"I have better things to do."
"Oh yeah?" I said. I was beginning to hate him. I also wanted to kiss him. "Like what? Sculpt?" At which point I thought he was going to hit me. Instead he grabbed the back of my shirt, as if it were a puppy's wrinkly neck, and pulled me around the corner.
"Haze," he said. "Number one, I am a sculptor. Number two, I work big. Number three, I live with my boyfriend around the corner. You know that. Your mother knows that. My mother knows that. Number four, I'll get you a bar, but I don't want anything else to do with your
"Nocturnal escapade?" I added helpfully.
"Whatever," Geoff said, backing away. He kept his eyes fixed on mine, as old animal behavior books tell you to do.
So I've got "paper privileges." Hence the "dark pages" of this little book. You never heard of paper privilege right? Me neither. But I guess things are different in the Tombs. I guess when they think the holding is going to go on and on and on, things are different.
They can't figure out what to do with me. The talk of Bellevue ended quickly, the first hour, after I recited the first canto of the Inferno in Italian. (Don't ask.) The talk of Legal Aid ended quickly too, after they studied the contents of my wallet. (It was the Saks credit card. Not that I shop at Saks. "But honey," my mother always said, "what if you need a pair of stockings?" Not that I wear stockings.) So I'm here in my corner, writing and writing, with my sweatshirt pulled out and down over my knees. The girls are good though. Juana is. And Maryellen. I gave them paper but we only have one pen-I've got it, I mean. So they're eyeing me and eyeing the pen and "tsk"ing from time to time, meaningfully. You think you're the only one who needs a pen?
So I'll try not to be too prolix. Cause really, if
you think about it, this story could unfold in all sorts of ways. All
sorts of stories-from-jail ways. All sorts of girls-down-on-their-luck
ways. All sorts of women-from-proper-families
Two days after the Smith Street meeting, Geoff met me at eleven forty-five at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. I was waiting for him under the arch, which glowed bluely and serenely, even Arc-de-Triomphally, in the light from hidden spots and from the large pearldrop moon. He'd called me the day before and breathed on the phone.
"Geoff?" I'd said.
"I changed my mind," he said. "Blood."
"What?" I said. I was chewing a sour apple Jolly Rancher.
"Blood Hazel." He exhaled mournfully. "You're blood."
"That's my boy," I told him. Then I explained the plan.
Now here we were, in hooded sweatshirts, with a penlight and a map of the garden and a crow bar. Geoff bounced around, hopping from one crack in the pavement to another.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Trying to break my mother's back." He grinned at me.
"Geoffrey," I said.
"Kidding Haze. Kidding."
I shone the light at the key parts of the map: the stand of lilacs that would greet us soon after we walked through the dark grassy lane, the rose garden behind its lattice-work fences, the water lilies that, closed for the night, would be floating like mute and tremulous gifts on the rectangular pools beside the conservatory and the hothouse and the shop.
"We're good to go," I said after a minute.
"Copy that," Geoff said.
We crossed the circle to the library's wide-open front, and then headed down Eastern Parkway.
"Remember the story?" He asked.
"Who could forget."
"Great-Grandpa," he said.
"Was walking," I said.
"Down this very street one day in 1923 when he looked up and saw"
"The prettiest girl he had ever seen wearing a"
"Hat with a plush canary nestled into its brim"
"And he took her home with him then and there and then"
"Nine months later," Geoff said, although this was not officially part of the story.
"They had a son who was so jaundiced he looked just like a canary and"
"Then they got married."
"We're pathetic," I whispered, clenching my back teeth. "A color can't leap from a plush decorative bird into a person's skin."
"Oh Haze," Geoff said, play-punching my arm. "Live a little."
We walked rather quickly, as if we might soon break into a time step. Above us, the moon sailed along too.
"Oyé." Juana again. Maryellen's using her thumb to draw on the wall; she's given up on the idea of getting the pen from me in this lifetime.
"What." I point the pen tip at her and pull an imaginary trigger.
"Write an English letter for me when you're done?"
Of course I will. I tell her so. She's not ever getting the pen either. Scratch scratch over the dark pages. In an odd way, I'm enjoying myself. In an odd Tombs sugar cane papaya salad fluorescent-bulbed sleep-deprived way.
Geoff beat me to the garden's entrance. He was whistling La Dona E Mobile. He was good too. He had the bar across the back of his shoulders like a woodsman with an axe in an old illustrated Grimm's we had once read together. Hearing him whistle made me want to skip a little, so I did. When I reached his side he winked at me. Then he started shaking his head.
"What?" I asked. Still with the gemmy moon above us. Next to us, blacksilver branches and leaves.
"Hazel Bo Bazel," he said.
"What what?" I said.
"It's a fucking turnstile, Hazel. We can leap over it. We don't need the bar."
"Just in case," I said. "I thought maybe there would be more of a kind of a"
"Gate? A fucking gate which I would have had to bash through leaving a hefty amount of what is generally called evidence?"
"You came along," I said.
"Hazel," he said, leaning on the end of the crow bar like an old man with a cane.
"No offense, but are you-seeing anyone?" With great dignity I clambered over the turnstile and inhaled in a manner I considered both elegant and kicky. I waited. I gave him my best good cousin snob glare. When he was next to me, panting, on the dark grass, I took his hand very gingerly and said, "Thanks." We didn't yet know about the garden's state-of-the-art motion sensors. We held hands and ran and skipped and tumbled down the long nocturnal sweep of the lane, breathing in the scents of lilacs and roses and lilies and all sorts of greens.
"Thank you," Geoff said when we got to the end; and it was as if we'd waltzed together, that formal, that sad. And then the real work began. If he was scared he didn't show it.
"See," I said, "in the movie it's an urban street scene-gal just walks into a florist and comes out with a red rose (I think) and chomps into it."
What I didn't tell him-what I'm just telling you now, just telling myself-gal made me feel less alone. Cause I'd always wanted to do what she did. But natch never saw it or heard about it. And then there she was, and it was the fifties, and she was nine months pregnant maybe, doing it. Sexily. Sweetly. And well.
"Whatever," Geoff said. "I wanted to help you. And to hang out."
We'd run under sprinklers together once a long time ago. Once a long time ago we'd counted water-rainbows broken on the sopping lawn grass. When I tried hard I could still hear us laughing, that kid laughter that's louder than everything, than city streets, than it all.
"Are you really a sculptor?" I asked. To which he appealed to the sky, filmed by a glaucous haze, for an answer.
I've been in for a day and a half. That's too long for holding cell standards, too long for the Tombs. But they can't, as I think I said, get me. Sometimes Stella-the-guard (faux-chestnut hair, wavy and glossy, girlish Buddy Holly glasses if that's possible, cracked chapped lips even though it's summer) comes over and looks as if she might speak but she never does. She fills up with air a bit, a pre-speech almost, and then walks away. We're not supposed to know her first name but we do. She's not supposed to use ours but she does. Not only that but she abbreviates: "Haze," "Juanita," "Maryelenina." I think she has a soft spot.
For the first day I had no paper privileges. I had nothing. Apart from Dante and the Saks card, I mean. I had a vision of my mother committing ritual suicide, as the Riverdalers threaten to do when one of their own goes, as they say, "off." I wondered what had happened to Geoff. And I tried to make friends with Maryellen and Juana, who were unimpressed by my overtures.
Then this morning the paper-the gift from God-came in the form of a legal pad of which the edges were so damp and curled that I lay on them for two hours to flatten them.
"You could write," Stella said, pushing the tablet through the bars. They still have bars here. Very old school.
"Um Stella?" I said. I was very nervous, pushing hair out of my eyes.
"Not Um Stella," she said. "Just Stella."
"Stella?" I said. "Could I have a pen?"
She eyed me without speaking. "Yeah," she said. "But-."
"I know." I told her. "Don't try anything." (Like what? Writing on her? Writing on my cellmates? Writing on the impossible-to-mark deeply scratched walls?)
It's a blue Bic. Not the best, not the worst. Not the Montblanc-kept always filled with cerise ink from a very wonderful stationer's whose name I won't, I think, divulge-which I received for my graduation from Vassar. On the other hand, not one of those of which the ink after two seconds forms a gigantic blob at the end of the ball turning you and yours and all your clothing blue.
In answer to Geoff's question: no. In answer to yours: not for the past several years I don't know maybe it's this way I have of being too something or not enough something or something. One can accommodate oneself. One can resign oneself.
This is all taking far too long.
Juana: "Can you write that letter for me today, Blanca Nieves? I meant today."
Picture a stand of lilac. Twenty or thirty bushes planted all in a row, boughs and leaves black in the night air, blooms nacreous and lavender-white. That's where we started. We had two stems apiece, Geoff nibbling and me working methodically around each piece in rings.
"Mm," he said. It didn't taste like chicken. It tasted like perfume and grass.
"Yeah," I said. "It's good." Shredded petal in our teeth. Flower breath.
"Let's have roses," I said. So we moved to the rose garden and leapt that second gate and cut apricot-color and damson plum-color and ruby ones down and ate them. ("You can make rose syrup," I said. "They do in lots of places.")
Geoff sat down for the roses, he sat right down and cut down what was closest and shoveled the moon-soaked pieces into his mouth. I by contrast stripped petals and bit them, and tore fancy shapes that looked like letters.
Around us the bushes trembled when wind came; when it passed, they sat stilly, crouched like animals asleep for the short night.
Soon I wanted lilies and I told Geoff he did too. He sat for a minute, looking up at me with a stained mouth.
"I'm full," he said. Maybe in his bad cousin way he'd sensed the guards coming closer; maybe he wanted to be at home, with the studio and the friend and the friendly Smith Street night. Who knew.
"Geoffrey," I said, drawing my shoulders back. I'm older. Then I pulled him up by the hands, leaning my whole weight backwards and up into my heels until I collapsed down and he fell on top of me, breathing heavy rose breath straight up into my nostrils.
"The two stooges," I said, when I could speak again. "Get off." So when we got to the reflecting pools we weren't speaking. Moon skin lay on them like milk skin, rippling and bright. Nothing else moved. In the dark glass of the conservatory windows the garden was reflected: the rare Malaysian hedges and the sloping bowls of the lawns and the zinnia leaves; and we were, in broken pieces.
"There we are," I whispered. But Geoff didn't answer. He was distracted. He kept brushing his hands down his front like he'd lost something he was hoping to find there. Even when I began to tear at a scrumptious-looking lily-tried to tear the bloom from the pad and got entangled with the wet roots and the pad's super smooth surface (another kind of skin, this one green, I knew). Even when I began to tear with my teeth at the place where the pad and the roots connected, which required serious underwater work. Even then. Geoff sat on the pool's concrete edge doing nothing. Even when I came up soaking but triumphant and loosed the flower from its place, and held it out for him to see, the flower in its closed night-brown shape.
"Hazel," he said, after what seemed an eternity. "Why are we doing this?"
I scowled at him. (Was I transformed then? Was I turned, not by a god or by fate, but by my own actions, into someone else? I scowled at a family member and lived.)
And at that point the cops came. Bad cop and good cop. And one knocked the plant from my hand and the other said "it's late now, come on." And B.C. pulled me towards his new-fangled silent scooter and G.C. said "there, there" and "you must be freezing" and even (though Stella claims it's impossible) "poor thing." Meanwhile, Geoff was running beautifully-needless to say, we in the clan are not runners-loping like some Saharan gazelle-in the other direction.
G.C.: "That your friend?"
Hazel: "He's my cousin."
G.C.: "First cousin?"
(Yes, Stella. That's what he said.)
Hazel: "Yes, my mother's nephew."
G.C.: "He crazy or what?"
Hazel: "No no no it was all my fault I should never have what was I thinking? I'll have everyone so worried."
Thus the metamorphosis. Thus Hazel's big moment. Thus the shining celluloid city, debased.
"We have to arrest you dear," Good Cop said, while coughing lightly like an especially stolid Mimi. And they did.
Naturally I used my phone call to call my mother, so she could stop worrying herself sick. (I live at my parents'. I've never left. Not since I finished college. Have I mentioned that? Anyway.) Behind my mother, gathered into a housedressy wan chorus, were my aunts and my grandmother. She's where? Where is she? You shouldn't worry? She's where and you shouldn't worry?
And the murmuring, led by Marjorie (who was, for once, not on the losing side) began. Poor Helen. Poor poor Helen. Poor poor poor poor poor poor Helen.
"Hello?" I said. "No offense, um Mom, but I'm the one in jail." The murmuring turned into a terribly high-pitched keening-inhuman, and perhaps meant for dogs' ears.
"Hazel," my mother said between sobs. "I know this is because we sent you to that ridiculous school. But Hazel-we thought it was for the best."
"It was for the best poor poor Helen poor poor Helen" said the chorus.
Then my mother hung up with a loud and meaningful click.
"Hoy Blanca Nieves hoy." Juana again. She's next to me and reading, dear reader, this. By the time you see these words they will no longer be fresh. Maybe it's good she's here. The light does get to me, and so does the cramp in my wrist from writing. Maybe this tale will reach its natural end not through the untying of narrative knots but through altruism-the need to help my anxious blossomy friend. (She's flower-ish, Juana-have I said? She's got that sentient calling beauty.) So yes: the story will end through the sharing of scarce resources. The ink already has lowered substantially, as I've scribbled on page after page.
"Okay," I say. "In a minute," I tell her.
"Por Dios," she says, stretching out for a too-lit nap.
From Maryellen, who's sick of writing on walls: "Quiet, you two. Ka-whyyy-yett." Gum-snapping. Very Barbara Stanwyck.
So last question. Last answer. Last chance. Did I mean to get caught? Did I mean to fail and to commit failure, to make them crazy at home, to make Geoff skin his no-longer-boyish knees bushwhacking through brambles near Prospect-Lefferts? That I can't say. What I can:
Separate from Agnès, separate from Spence, separate from Helen and Marjorie and all of the clan who have, as you've known all along, dreamed at times their own flower-eating dreams, separate from Geoff and his hurt-boy-animal help-apart from all that, and distinct, it was worth it. To be under the moon, which then was full and so silver. To hold on my palm the soft fragrant things, the mauve and rose and saffron ones, and to keep holding them. And finally to tear at them with thirty-year-old teeth, to taste them-the pollen there, the perfume, and the living strips of cells. I'd do it again, I think.
I'd do it again and again.
© Liana Scalettar