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  2. Creative Writing NZ Short Story Prize 2024 Runner-Up

Cupid’s Remains

K. Jane May


     She watches the young man at Checkout 3 as he examines each bouquet, changes his mind several times—as if the identical arrangements offer some choice—and thus adds his contribution to the incremental assault on the rejected: this searching for the freshest looking blooms renders increasingly sadder the selection remaining for subsequent shoppers as the afternoon wears on. Shuffling towards the exit doors, an elderly man, reassured, smiles broadly, his own cellophane-wrapped treasure clutched protectively to his chest. 

     “We’ve been married sixty-two years,” she’d overheard him tell the cashier at Checkout 1. “How could I have forgotten?”

     “Ah, but you haven’t forgotten,” the bubbly, fifty-ish woman had quipped, as she’d carefully re-wrapped the offering. “When she sees these gorgeous roses, you’d better watch out!”

      It’s the same every year, Johanna reflects. The bewildered  young, the relieved old and, always, those somewhere in-between who exude smugness—as though nobody before them has ever thought to purchase the  $15.99 tricolour roses-with-chocolate-bud combo conveniently placed in a cone-shaped bin at the supermarket checkout counter. 

      It had never been as bad, she thinks—as she inches her cart forward—as Mother’s Day, when the clerk would hand her a long-stemmed carnation in honour of a title she’d longed for but had not managed to achieve. She’d never allowed herself to decide if their assumptions were a compliment to her aura, or an insult to her appearance, but year after year she’d taken the stiff, scentless offering home, placed it reverently in a bud vase before putting away her groceries. She would sit at the small kitchen table and gaze at this flower that assumed she was no different from any other; though she had a hundred flowers in her front beds that she could cut whenever and for whatever reason, those flowers all knew the truth. But to that hot-house raised stranger, like the unknowing clerks who had blindly gifted her over the years, she was equal.  Gareth had never questioned the single, alien bloom, had never noticed the lone tear that invariably forged its way down her cheek, not even when she attempted to joke about it. “Imagine,” she would say, attempting brightness, “they just assumed I was somebody’s mother!” Hoping he might secretly picture her presiding splendidly in that role nature had inexplicably denied her, sharing with a rare unvoiced solidarity her what-ifs and if-onlys, eradicating her unspoken insecurities and somehow validating her as the complete woman she’d never quite felt entitled to be.

      But Valentine’s Day, now that was something they could have celebrated. They had, after all, been lovers; there’d been few insecurities in that regard, little beyond the usual—and, she confidently allowed, mutual—early-days doubts.

     “We don’t need to do that shit, do we Jo-Jo?” It was rather more a statement than a question,  him getting things established in their first tentative months as a couple, asserting his tastes and dispelling any of her unspoken expectations before there could be any misunderstandings. And of course, wrapped in early-day bliss, she’d heartily agreed: how could anyone want anything to do with that tacky cliché of a non-event that existed solely to satisfy the fiscal calculations of commercial enterprises of all levels, only temporarily redeeming the worst sorts of partners and further elevating the self-righteous best? Other holidays at their house had fared little better but she’d come to appreciate his point of view. Shouldn’t love be a daily celebration? Should gifts not be given in moments of fond inspiration or jovial spontaneity rather than the dictates of corrupt societal institutions and all the gluttonous commercialism such hypocrisy entails?  She’d learned to keep any burgeoning feelings of disappointment in check, had eventually evolved past even secret yearning. Yet this year she is finding Valentine’s Day unbearable, and she curses herself for running out of bread and coffee as she watches yet another redeemed lover exit the store clasping his salvation to his heart. Because this year she knows that, all too soon, there will be no one at home to not give her these terrible, tacky, things. 

      “This’ll keep me out of the doghouse,” the man in front of her tells the excessively young and attractive cashier as he grabs the closest dripping bundle, slaps it atop leaking red-pink plastic-covered meat packets, allowing the roses—that universally revered symbol of undying love—no more dignity than the other items he has tossed with equal inattention. 

      “Happy wife, happy life!” he prattles on as the willowy redhead wordlessly hands him back the scanned bouquet. The man—donning saggy sweatpants and smelling of beer—crushes the arrangement between his ample belly and the counter’s edge as he leans forward to whisper something that, by his expression, borders obscene. But the cashier, evidently well-practised at disregarding the attentions of his not uncommon ilk, swipes and bags his purchases with professional restraint. He pockets his receipt and ambles away, smirking at his cleverly delivered monologue. A broken off rose and some mangled greenery remain on the counter in his wake and Johanna wonders what poor woman will be the recipient of those Cupid’s remains.

      She fingers the copper choker at her throat, presented by Gareth at the end of one ostensibly usual day. How overwhelmed she had been, to think that he had spent countless hours secretly crafting the piece with only her in mind, an exquisite work unlike any of his usual gallery-bound renderings. How could she, who had experienced the extraordinary, have ever, even for a moment, longed for the ordinary? And now, he’s in the process of leaving her.

     “These are so pretty, Mommy.” A tiny girl of perhaps four is gently stroking the packaging of the remaining bouquets. “Oh, Mommy, can we please get some of these very pretty flowers? I would love them, so much!”

      The woman behind her in the lineup shakes her head; she is too thin, her colourless rain jacket gapes over bony shoulders. Her lank brown hair, scraped severely off her forehead, fails to hide a fading scar. 

      “No, baby, they’re too expensive.”

        Johanna has witnessed many a child throw a tantrum over the years, over cheap toys or candies placed strategically at checkout stands. But this little one makes no fuss—she simply backs away with a slight nod that suggests she is already well practised in expecting little in a world where everything nice is too expensive. Her enormous green eyes, though, remain fixed on the flowers and she soon gravitates back to the display. In an attempt to distract, the mother begins handing her items to be placed on the conveyor belt but the child is mesmerized and keeps returning to gaze at the colourful display of real and foil-wrapped rosebuds, to caress with tiny fingers their shiny cloak of heart-embossed cellophane that sparkles unremittingly in the artificial light. 

       The little girl is so lovely, those wondrous eyes, light brown hair falling in soft tendrils; such an endearing way about her, already so accepting of joy’s limitations. There’d been a time that the very sight of a mother and child could cause Johanna to spiral into an inner state of despair, necessarily suppressed, never indulged, yet she’d fostered a hidden contempt; everyone, it seemed, had flaunted what she’d been denied. Yet now, though faced with lonely years ahead, she wonders… if she had it to do over, would she endure anything to have a child? 

       She imagines the mother telling herself, daily, that this precious girl is the best thing that has happened to her, worth every insult and abuse she’s suffered, every visible and invisible scar. Johanna feels an overpowering sense of kinship with this tragic looking stranger. We have both paid in unimaginable ways for what we hold dearest in our lives. We declare that what we have is all we ever wanted, and after making our choice, what else can we do? It’s not the worst way to survive. But whoever said the best things in life are free was wrong. The costs are incalculable.

     “Will that be all?” the cashier is asking, shaking Johanna out of her reverie. She’s such a vibrant young woman with her non-ruffled efficiency and retro red lipstick; what future choices, Johanna wonders, have yet to muddle her rosy horizons?

    “Ye—no, “she finds herself saying. “I’d like one of those Valentine’s bouquets as well.” She points to the display now well out of reach. 

     . The child, still admiring the flowers, looks at her with interest; the mother’s tired eyes flash with something like contempt.

      “Back up, baby, so this lady can see the flowers,” she says as she gently steers her daughter backwards to make room. Johanna shakes her head. 

     “No, that’s okay.”  She looks over at the child and smiles. “I wonder if you would pick for me?”

      The little girl nods shyly but quickly turns to her mother for approval and, though she appears incredulous, the weary-looking woman shrugs her assent. The child instantly brightens, begins her task.

      “This one is very special,” she says finally. She looks up and over at Johanna, intent. “See, it’s got two pink ones.” Her mother, in spite of her annoyance, can’t suppress a proud smile, which Johanna just catches as beautiful before it all too quickly retreats. 

   And the girl is right; Johanna can see clearly two pink roses and one yellow, the offering undoubtedly passed over by those seeking passionate red. 

     “It’s perfect! I do believe you’ve discovered the most beautiful bunch in the whole store. And here I thought they were all the same.”

     The child giggles, clutches the flowers to her chest like a cherished doll, forgetting; her harried mother makes to gently remove them from her fond grasp so as to hand Johanna her prize, but Johanna puts her hands up, shakes her head no.

      “I meant them for you… and, well, your daughter. I’ve never seen anyone view these supermarket flowers with such reverence.” She smiles at the child. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

     But the child, on the verge of reciprocal response, abruptly relinquishes her perceived joy: so briefly on the cusp of good fortune, her cheerfulness dissolves instantly as comprehension takes hold; so in tune she must be to her mother’s temperament.

     “I suppose,” the young woman tells Johanna, “you think you know everything about us. Well, no surprise, everyone else in this town does.” She speaks quietly, to spare the child, Johanna supposes, but her face has transmuted from what had been merely weariness to undisguised anger or, perhaps, it’s simply raw despair.

      Oh God, what have I done? Johanna had neither meant to be condescending, nor to make a display of pity. But what right had she to infiltrate their fragile world, to use their misery to alleviate her own? To satisfy some vague selfish hunger she hadn’t fully realized was still gnawing? She knows nothing about them—there could be a violent man at home waiting for an excuse to beat his wife: accuse her of frivolous spending, of cheating. The woman will have to refuse, or toss the flowers somewhere, and that sweet child will suffer disappointment, once again.

      “I’m sorry,” Johanna mumbles. The sound of her own feeble words inflames her with shame but she plods on. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. I wasn’t thinking.” The child, still clutching the bouquet, seems to be holding back tears, and Johanna can see that it is not so much that she knows she must relinquish the flowers, but that she knows her mother is on the verge of a pain only too familiar. She has already acquired, in her brief years, the protective instinct; she will be feeling the loss of the very pretty flowers for both of them. 

     “I’m so sorry,” Johanna mutters again, and now tears are forming in her own eyes. “I just… I have no…” She swipes a hand desperately across her dampening eyes, looks around dazedly, anywhere but at the woman and child; wishes the floor would swallow her. “I see it was wrong, but I only wanted to… to cheer you up.” She shakes her head sadly. “To cheer myself up.”

      The checkout girl, unperturbed, waits patiently for the scene to play out and minutes, perhaps seconds, masquerade as hours. When Johanna finally dares look back at the woman’s face, she is astonished to see that she is studying Johanna’s own, that her frown is no longer of anger but of concern, and before she can say another word, that frown is slowly curving into a smile. And in that brief transformation—as Johanna comes back to herself—she understands how very fortunate the little girl is. 

     “No,” the woman is saying. “I am sorry. We so rarely have…” She sighs and tries again. “We can’t take…” She looks at her child, seems to make a decision. “You are so kind, and have made my daughter very happy. Freya, what do you say? ”

     The little girl comprehends immediately and, clutching her bouquet, looks up at Johanna, radiant. “Happy valid… times, Gramma. Oh, happy valid times!”

     The woman, smiling, rolls her eyes. “She’s very good at please, and we’re working on thank you. I’m sorry. She’s never known a grandmother. She thinks all—”

    “She thinks all women with white hair are named Gramma.” Johanna, beaming, looks from mother to child. “That’s perfectly understandable. And you’re very welcome, Freya,” she says as she gathers her bags to leave. “A very Happy Valentine’s Day to you, as well.” 

     She’s just starting her car when she’s startled by a rap on her windshield; it’s the young mother from the store. Puzzled, she rolls her window down to reveal—standing beside her— the little girl, still grinning, clutching protectively with one arm her treasured flowers to her chest. In her other hand, she holds a single pink rose and she thrusts it unceremoniously through the window.

     “Freya didn’t think it was fair that we have two pink roses and you have none,” the mother tells her. She smiles again, that beautiful warm smile and shrugs apologetically. “I’m afraid she’s not quite so generous with the chocolate buds.” Johanna wipes joyful tears all the way home.

     “Happy valid times,” she tells Gareth as she hands him a cup of coffee. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a positive. There are days he can’t get out of bed at all, but on days like this, she allows herself to hope he’ll stick around a while.

     “You’re a strange one, Jo-Jo,” he says with that familiar, devastating grin. “Never forget you were loved, okay?”

     “We’ve had some, though, haven’t we Gareth? Happy, valid times.” 

     She reaches over and squeezes his hands—so much beauty these beloved hands have created over a lifetime. She studies the single pink rose she’s placed in a small cut glass vase in the centre of the table, stifles hated tears. Just imagine Gareth. Today I was mistaken for a grandmother.