February 2015: The Tea Cup Smuggler
Every morning Elspeth walks the fifteen frigid blocks from her apartment to the Flower District to scout the best selection of flowers before sunrise. She loses herself amongst the cut amaryllis, Indian shell ginger in full bloom, frothy fields of maidenhead ferns, the riotous bursts of giant dahlias. These quiet, cold, predawn walks amongst delicate living things is a form of ritual for Elspeth. She loves the way she can feel the flowers souls vibrating like the chords of a violin, still alive with the energy drawn across their sinews by a bow.
She loves the way that flowers saturate the air with sweetness, with freshness, even in their hour of death. These exquisite creatures are, after all, recently executed. Shorn from their stalks, plucked from the earth, deprived of the precise and mysterious balance of light and soil and water that keeps them flourishing and then packed on ice and flown like severed limbs by medivac planes to be admired after death, here in New York City. A place so cold and dark and dirty that none of these lovely species could ever have occurred naturally.
Elspeth stands transfixed by this thought. This sweetness of death and all that it represents, a cloud of nihilism settling over her until she spots a perky garden rose bush, still nestled in its rich organic soil. This one is living, she thinks lovingly, as she touches its hopeful blooms. Yes the potted variety still has a chance. A chance for a few more days of life until, of course they are sent off to their certain death in the hands of their soon-to-be owners. Drunk girls leaving Market Table and Blue Ribbon and happening up on her shop, squealing with glee “Omg succulents!” only to take them home and forget them when they become hidden under a discarded equipment blouse after a particularly champagne-soaked night out.
Light is beginning to soften the dark communion she has been lost in with her blooms and she knows soon the other florists and plant vendors will begin stalking her prey. She hurries to grab up all the supplies she needs for her busy day and rushes back into the hum of city life. Her arms are heaped with orchids and cotton branches and she struggles to collect everything she needs, not even noticing as her vintage needlepointed eyeglass case slips from her bag and falls beneath the hopeful rosebush.
She dashes off to her flower shop, The Tea Cup Smuggler, on Carmine Street to begin the day. One of the biggest days of the year for a florist. February 14th. Valentine’s Day.
Shudder. It’s such a cliche, isn’t it? The perpetually single yet hauntingly beautiful bookworm, who hates Valentine’s Day, is a florist.
Elspeth was born in Copenhagen to celebrity florist parents Emil and Peter Eijck who cultivated a coveted strain of the Semper Augustus tulip worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per bulb, traded exclusively through Christie’s. Their cavernous and rumored-to-be-haunted greenhouses were hallowed ground. Considered members of Netherlands most elite echelon of society, Emil and Peter and their baby daughter, Elspeth lived the life of luxury in a five story fully sun-powered townhouse made entirely of glass planes, decades before the green movement and sustainable home building would become popular.
However, all good things must come to an end. Emil and Peter got caught up in some very nasty insider trading in the late 80s and had no choice but to flee their beloved country for America, entering as unknowns, exiled pilgrims starting over from scratch in order to save their lives.
They packed only one suitcase and it was filled with their precious bulbs, a few pieces of Emil’s grandmother’s silver and the original sketches of the plans for Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring and, their sweet daughter, Elspeth’s needlepointed eyeglass case, which had been handmade for her by Emil while she was pregnant.
Emil said she knew that her child would be born nearly blind because the greenhouse ghosts had spoken to her in the form of a prophecy and she she began right away, needlepointing a case for her child's eyeglasses. The case was done in bright, lively colors so that her baby would be able to see it easily and bore the design of three pretty little teacups.
When the Eijcks entered the states after their nerve-wracking voyage with forged passports, the customs officer looked suspiciously at their one suitcase. What’s in the bag ma’am? He asked, poking it aggressively.
Emil, desperate not to disturb her precious bulbs and/or be imprisoned for dozens of infractions ranging from money laundering and mob involvement to passport fraud to entering a country with live active plant life, offered up the first thought that came to mind to protect what little she had left of her former life. “Only teacups sir. Please do not poke them, they’re very fragile!”
The man was bewitched by her dutch accent and the pleading look in her beautiful eyes and, not wanting to be the reason this lovely woman would begin crying if her teacups shattered, let them move on without inspecting further.
With a legacy like the Eijck tulip mafia hanging over Elspeth’s head, she had little chance of growing up to become anything but a florist. And little chance of avoiding the annual pain of February 14th as each year she would greet the dreaded holiday, single and shivering in the winter darkness to go gather beautiful, massacred flowers for men to give to other women.
Fred had watched the forlorn redheaded beauty every morning for what felt like forever. He loved the ritual of seeing her come to the flower stalls, speak softly to the buds and then hurry off before sunrise from his perch in a 24/7 indian deli across the street. The only place he claimed he could work. He would sit for hours in the window, the deli’s only customer, sketching passers by. Many mornings, his sketches would turn out to be the flower girl. Always distracted, pushing her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose, gathering bouquets of jasmine vine and seeded eucalyptus. It never occurred to him to go across the street and say hello. It was too early, he’d tell himself. No one made small talk at 5 am.
Until today. Today, he saw a sadness in her that felt more significant than other mornings. He sensed almost certainly that she wished someone would speak to her in the very moment he spotted her, looking intently at a rose bush. He shuffled his sketches together into his leather case and was fishing for change to pay for his tea, finally summoning the determination to go say something, anything, to her. But when he looked up she was gone.
He walked across the street anyway, stopping before the rosebush, peering one way and then the next but there was no sign of her long red hair. Sighing, he turned to walk home to his West Village studio, when his toe nudged something. A needlepointed glasses case with three faded, but visible teacups stitched across it. Fred was not one to pick up other peoples things, but he felt like this might just belong to the girl. Maybe he’d see her again and return it to her, finally a reason to speak to her. Maybe she’d come back for it, maybe even today!
This idea gave him hope and he promptly trotted back to the deli, ordered more tea and camped out in his window to wait for her, sketching with a newly inflamed fury and intensity. Cold February light slid across his sketchbooks, turning the shadows longer and longer until night had fallen. He had sat in the window all day, but she’d never come back. Discouraged, he left the shop, leather case brimming with sketches and began his walk back to Carmine street.
Elspeth is exhausted. The line of men (and a few frazzled interns) had been unending for twelve hours. People barking orders at her while they multitasked and texted - more roses, NOTHING yellow, she hates lilies! take out those oleanders, add hydrangeas, what do you mean ranunculus aren’t in season!?!
She had thrown herself into the task of creating other people’s tokens of love all day. Feeling more and more angry with each one. These men had to have their flowers, how desperately they urged her to hurry with their bouquets. And yet she knew that after the initial shout of happiness and the well earned kiss, these would be forgotten and unwatered by the women who received them, withered and then tossed out with the cartons of seamless food orders.
This isn’t for me, she thought. I’ll never love a man who only brings flowers one day a year. I’ll love a man who tends a garden year round.
Emil had been shocked and horrified by the American tradition of Valentine’s Day when she arrived in New York. She had always told Elspeth that a man who buys flowers on February 14th wasn’t exhibiting a true sign of love, he was conforming to a national stereotype.
I’ll love a man who mends broken pieces of my heart, she thought as she turned the sign on the door of The Tea Cup Smuggler from OPEN to CLOSED. I’ll love a man who finds pieces I didn’t know I’d lost and carries them home to me.
Just then Fred appeared, windblown and frozen, in the light of her shop window, peering with a face of expectant recognition at her logo, painted across the shop window of three teacups all in a row. Elspeth began to motion in exasperation at her CLOSED sign, determined not to serve yet another man his yearly dose of flowers, when she stopped, gasped and clapped her hand over her mouth.
There he stood, at her door, with her needlepointed glasses case in his frozen hands. Three teacups all in a row. A piece of her heart, she hadn’t known she was missing.