The Names of All the Flowers by Laura Jane Faulds




Prose


 


Before I start off this story with a picture of me cleaning a bathroom, it’s important to me that you understand I’m not really any avid cleaner of bathrooms or anything. Actually, prior to maybe a month before the afternoon this story starts on, I don’t think I’d ever even cleaned one in my life. It’s not like I’m rich or anything, it’s just that I’m lazy, and I really don’t care if things are dirty, or even broken. I dropped my phone a couple months ago and cracked the screen. Then I dropped it again. It looks pretty bad, but it still works perfectly as a phone except for the camera’s gone kind of wonky, but only if you hold it in the selfie position- it takes a picture of the cracked glass too, a picture of its own self, so now all my selfies are prisms, which is great. Why would you want your selfies not to be prisms? But people get so worked up about it. They really want me to get a new phone. Whenever it comes up, which is nearly every time a person sees my phone, I just tell them “I’m not eligible for an upgrade,” which I think is probably true but it’s not like I’ve bothered looking into it. I work a lot and the last thing I want to waste my days off doing is looking up information about my phone contract on the Internet or worse yet, calling up my service provider, if that’s even the name of it—service provider? Are those words, at all?

Worst of all would obviously be walking into a phone store. Having a cracked-open phone screen is the price I’m paying to never have to interact with a phone store employee and it’s a steal in my opinion. The other day some dull guy whose boss I am was on my case about it and I said the thing about upgrades, but I was trying out a new way of saying it, “I’m ineligible for an upgrade,” which made it sound truer somehow, and made me seem impressive, I hope. His boss in high-heeled boots, the fanciest toughest person who tosses ineligible around like it’s hi or happy or day, and I’m sure inside he was really blown away by it, just dying over his own luckiness, the cool boss hand he drew, but he played it cool and unfortunately chose not to drop it, to keep on chugging and trudging around and along about phones, phones, cool phone things and phone tricks, hacks is a thing we say now, we’re all hackers, all of us- something about how when you call the phone company you have to ask for retention, I asked him What’s retention? though if I’d been thinking straight I would have asked him If you hate my phone so much, why don’t you buy me a new phone?

I cleaned the bathroom out of laziness, too– the same intricate sub-laziness that explains why I’m so on point about washing dishes despite my being a person who spends her life adamantly refusing to replace ink cartridges, call a locksmith, unclog drains. Like say you just ate a bowl of cereal– an amateur lazy person might think the lazier option to pursue would be “not washing the dish,” but laziness is all about looking out for your Future Self’s well-being: Today Self would never screw Future Self over by making her wash a complicated dish. Cereal bowls are the most important dish to wash immediately after use unless you want to be picking a dried piece of flake off the side of the bowl with your fingernail tomorrow morning. You can go your whole life avoiding ever having to use steel wool if you want. There are so many little things you can do to make it easier.

I was living with a girl named Pasteface at the time. Obviously, Pasteface’s real name isn’t Pasteface. I just started calling her that because my other roommate at the time was a skinny yellow-haired girl I called Gluestick— she really looked like one. And then in rolls her childhood best friend Pasteface with her podgy grayish face that calls to mind the word and substance blanc-mange, or maybe papier-mache before it dries, while you’re still mixing it in the bowl- but I wanted to keep it in the glue arena for the sake of consistency. Though I’m pretty sure there’s glue in papier-mache, at very least it’s a pretty gluey substance. I don’t know, I don’t really want to argue with myself about hypothetical gluinesses anymore.

Pasteface was from the suburbs, an ugly town rife with strip malls like they all are. I thought I was going to be able to describe it and have it be interesting but it’s just the same as every other suburb and it’s nothing new to talk about how sad they are. Mine was her first apartment in the city. She liked to brag about her being much less trashy than she used to be. To compound her point, she’d talk about how everyone used to tell her she looked like J-Woww from Jersey Shore, and then she’d grow forlorn— she missed her J-Woww days, you could tell. She’d put on quite a bit of weight. She missed her slammin’ J-Woww bod.

Pasteface was good-natured but I was usually a jerk to her; her stupidity was frustrating to me since I don’t have much patience for well anything really. She was always drunk in a way that might have struck me as problematic if she were a person I cared about, leaning against walls and pestering me Come let’s drink vodka-waters and then make ourselves barf so we can drink more vodka-waters and look at folders of old photos of me in my J-Woww days and some strangers in their Situation days. She was always knocking my door down asking me if I wanted to eat some toaster oven pizzas at inconvenient times, 12-grain pita pizzas topped with bullshit ingredients like feta and “fire-”roasted red peppers instead of the greasy white flour and salty meat you actually want. 

She named her cat after Axl Rose but, tragically, spelled it Axel. I liked Axel. Axel was a blood donor cat, which meant that a vet paid for all of Axel’s food and medical expenses in exchange for Axel’s having to give blood once a month. Axel was always really cute when she came back from donating blood. She was disoriented, and affectionate because of it. She liked me more than she liked Pasteface, and would sneak into my bedroom when she had the chance. Maybe it’s because animals have a purer way of seeing things and in her heart she could tell that I was a cooler, chiller human. I’d sleep with my door open a crack so she could get in. I would pet her sleek ears and coarsely run my hand over her tiny, delicate cat-skull, pulling up the skin of her forehead and exposing the whites of her eyes to make her look weird and surprised. I loved her for trusting me not to smash her skull. I loved her for knowing that I loved her.

I’m trying to remember what Pasteface’s cleaning schedule looked like. That’s the only reason I was cleaning the bathroom- because Pasteface found the extremely low standard of cleanliness that Gluestick and I maintained appalling. The cleaning schedule was inherently annoying in its being a cleaning schedule but relatively inoffensive as far as annoying roommate bullshit goes. I remember that there were only three items on the cleaning schedule, 1) kitchen 2) bathroom and 3) living room, and it rotated every week, but then I had to go and open up my big old mouth- I never used the living room, the dull and horrible place reserved for eating crudité and French onion dip while watching The Bachelorette (the second runner-up of which becomes the next Bachelor! And so on— I’ve always really loved that concept; I think it’s sweet. A “rooting for the underdog” sort of thing. I’ve always wanted to make art about it but most likely will never) and wanted to get out of cleaning it. It was one of those things I thought about a little bit, it was a little bit unfair that I had to clean it, but then I got drunk one night. I was walking home drunk, it was raining which always gives things a darker edge, and it suddenly seemed very unfair. An injustice. There was nothing I could do but begin writing a very powerful speech about it. In my head.

I didn’t have an umbrella. I felt wild. I was selling myself so hard on how good of an idea it was to get home and confront my roommates about it! The injustice! I felt passionate. Passionate about being a person who believes in the TRUTH!

In real life my speech came out weird. I was obviously very drunk; it would have been difficult for anyone to take me seriously. Pasteface and Gluestick were watching The Simpsons, the one where Bleeding Gums Murphy dies, when in bursts good old me. I smelled like an earthworm. I interrupted the sad episode only an asshole wouldn’t think was legendary to holler about So You Think You Can Dance and JUSTICE and also… INJUSTICE like a maniac, a whimsical maniac, and all that came out of it was my having to clean the bathroom twice.

But it didn’t matter. Most weeks, I didn’t even clean the bathroom once. Great believer in the TRUTH that I am, I’d just sign off on Pasteface’s sked when no one was watching, and nobody ever said anything, because nobody had obsessive-compulsive disorder and, justly, nobody cared.

 

I used to think a lot about the lampposts on my street. They’re really pretty, because they’re from a long time ago. I don’t know how pretty they must have been back in 1900, if they were exceptional lampposts even then or if they were just regular but have aged well, since now everything is sleek but back then everything was ornate. They’re called “pole-tops,” or “light-pillars,” and we’ve still got them because back in 1992 the city was going to rip them down but a bunch of chill hippies or maybe even not hippies, maybe just regular old appreciators of beauty or even just blah Dads who wouldn’t consider themselves appreciators of beauty but for some reason those great old pole-tops struck a sentimental nerve in them, or blah Moms. Sorry to be so old-fashioned and imply that only men are unsentimental; Moms can be blah too. Obviously there are millions of blah, pragmatic lawyer Moms who forget to water houseplants on the regs, women who never learned the names of flowers and billions of simpering Dadas who bake weird yet weirdly delicious Pinterest cookies out of white chocolate chips, pink peppercorn and chestnut flour. But I never finished my original sentence. Point is, the hippies fought to keep the pole-tops, and they fought for the gates, too, our nice old stone gates, and they won. It’s always nice when the hippies win; they’re usually fighting the good fight. If you’re ever thinking of becoming a politician, I want to give you that advice: you have to make sure the hippies win sometimes.

The nicest part of the pole-tops is the lights themselves. They’re perfect white orbs contained by nothing. They look like a little pinker from far away, a nice light pink grapefruit. When you look out your window in the nighttime they just dot and bob along either side of the street like a boring connect-the-dots of nothing, you connect the dots to make a straight line, but the dots are more gorgeous than they need to be. They don’t need to be. The posts of the lampposts are not so bad themselves; they’re painted glossy black and the tops and bottoms fan out to make the shape of a taller, skinnier hourglass. We’re the only street in Toronto that still has the old pole-tops, there was one other street, a street named Chestnut Street in Rosedale, but in 2002 they tore down the pole-tops. I don’t know what any other lampposts in Toronto look like; I’ve never noticed them. I remember the streetlights from the street I grew up on hung low like a person hanging his or her head in shame. When I thought of them just now my brain went to “deadly nightshades made of pale cement” to describe them but when I was a kid they reminded me of brontosauruses. They made me think of those poor mammoths frozen braying in pained tableau at the tar pits in Los Angeles. They are just sculptures a human made out of the same pale grey cement as a suburban lamppost when I was a kid and the world was out of focus and full of possibility, it just seemed so like life for an entire family of woolly mammoths to be perfectly preserved in the moments of their death, destined to live eternally as a wacky spooky tourist attraction in LA. And then you grow up and you realize it’s a fucking miracle that a scientist who went to university for thirteen years excavated a solitary bone from the middle of, like, some desert in a country you’ve never heard of.

But to get myself back on track here: it was the thirteenth of July, and in the early afternoon I walked out of my front door and the trees were so green it looked like they were kidding, like they were making fun of their own greenness. And I believed that I was a naturally lucky person, and that the happenstance of my being one of the like forty-five people in the world blessed enough to live on a street studded with the pole-tops was an extension of my luckiness. I remember looking at the pole-tops, taking stock of them. It was about a promise I had made to myself. To never stop being grateful for the pole-tops.

But I’m not grateful for the pole-tops. I was never grateful for the pole-tops. I am grateful for the sun and that I don’t have any major physical deformities. But I’m not grateful for a damn lamp. I’m barely even grateful for the sun.

 

I was on my way to the drugstore to go buy some cleaning supplies. I’d got it into my head that I was going to do a really exceptional job of cleaning the bathroom. I’d overheard my roommates talking, or bitching rather, about what a messy person I am, which is true, but it still hurt my feelings to hear them say it. I wanted to prove my roommates wrong and show them that I actually knew how to properly clean shit. Which wasn’t true, but I figured if I spent a whole lot of money on state-of-the-art cleaning supplies I could surpass their expectations at least.

I must have listened to a bunch of songs over the course of my walk from the apartment to the drugstore and back, but the only one I remember listening to is a really cute little song called Little Bird. It’s a Beach Boys song, but not one that anybody’s really heard of. It’s really short, only two minutes long. It’s by Denny Wilson, who drowned to death. On the day he died he was drinking all day and then he dove into the Pacific Ocean to find some little trinkets he’d thrown overboard three years ago.

I don’t want to make light of any person’s death but I think that’s a pretty sweet death as far as deaths go. I don’t mean “sweet” like how a rapper would say, I mean “sweet” the way you’d use it to describe a little kid presenting a flower to a kitten. I don’t know what Denny Wilson was diving into the ocean to look for— I said “trinkets” because I was trying to think of a nicer word for “things”— when I think of trinkets I think of, like, a statue of an elephant made of aquamarine, a miniature mahogany music box that plays Puttin’ On The Ritz, a vintage Dutch or Danish edition of Breakfast of Tiffany’s, that kind of thing. But whether it was that or something way cruder, I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world to die in the ocean drunk and while looking for something. I love being drunk and I love the ocean and I guess I even love while looking for something— there’s hope in it. If you’re looking for something, it means you’re expecting to find it.

 

I had a bottle of pink wine in the fridge that I was trying not to drink but then I was standing over the sink holding a sponge, threatening to wipe all the toothpaste crud out of its belly, it was like three-thirty in the afternoon, and I just thought “Oh fuck it,” and poured myself a glass. I drank it quickly, the uncorked bottle open on my kitchen counter, then poured myself another. The first glass of wine is only a platform, the stage for the second glass to stand upon.

I drank the second glass while wandering around the apartment. I was alone. All the lights were off, but the sun lit it up. It was an old building, and everything about it was beautiful. The floors were made of a dark wood and they smelled like old wood. In the air you could see crystallized flakes of dust turned white-gold from the sunlight hopping and twirling sweetly and gracelessly like little kids participating in the lowest level of ballet class the rec center offers. We had beautiful wine glasses- they’d belonged to the girl who lived in Gluestick’s room before Gluestick. They were fat and shaped like tulips. The glass was rippled and smudged, not like rain falling on water but rather like a Photoshop filter meant to emulate the effect of rain falling onto water. I didn’t care about cleaning at all now that I’d gotten some wine into me— as far as the inside of my head is concerned, wine takes precedence over everything. I always forget that about myself until I’ve had a sip of wine. Then it all comes rushing back.

I wandered into the bathroom and looked at it. It stressed me out in a pretty low-level way. I walked back into my bedroom, looked at the room, and nothing really caught my eye. Really in a bedroom your choices are either look at the Internet or lie down. I rested my wine glass on my bedside table, which is a file cabinet, like it was the glass of water you keep there in case you’re thirsty when you wake up, and lay down on my bed. I just lay there, still, doing nothing. I like lying awake in bed because it tricks you into thinking that you owe the world nothing. When you’re walking around with your eyes open, you become one half of a transaction- or you pretend you do, at least. We’ve been tricked into thinking that our ability to see the world is something the world is giving us. We act like we give a shit about sunsets and the colors of the leaves but I’m sure we could just as easily convince ourselves that the sky and moon and stars are nothing, lame, and totally ugly. We have no choice but to see it, and we put a positive spin on it, which is sweet of us, but probably not totally honest. The only thing worth being grateful for is not being blind, I guess.

The second half of the transaction is that the greedy world asks for something back from you, just because you saw it. I’m not talking about anything too grandiose here. I don’t think the world expects me to walk out my front door and draw the Vitruvian man or whatever. I’m mostly just talking about all the bullshit little things we do or don’t do once we’re not lying still in our beds. Like not throwing your trash on the ground, or blowing cigarette smoke in a stranger’s face, or farting very loudly in a restaurant. Or quietly, for that matter.

Maybe you just owe the world whatever you’re willing to give it: in my case, a blank stare and some semblance of politesse. I wonder sometimes if maybe I just follow rules because I’m too lazy to deal with other people’s reactions to my hypothetical breaking of silent traditions, like how if you never showered you would start to smell bad, and everyone would be a jerk to you about it, or maybe they’d be nice to you and calmly encourage you to take a shower, which would be humiliating, but either way, you’d have to deal with it. It’s like how I was talking earlier about how everyone I knew used to always have these fucking meltdowns about my phone. Because the glass of my phone screen was cracked.

What ended up happening is that about a month or so ago my phone fell out of my pocket while I was squatting down to pee, landed on the tile floor of my bathroom, and broke officially. The screen turned into a pattern of horizontal blue lines of different weights, in different shades of blue. It looked like a businessman’s tie. So I did what I had to do- I went to the Apple store, bought a new phone, and- of course- everybody made the biggest deal out of that. They were all so relieved, and then asked me about what “features” it had, which was duller but less annoying than the initial “Why don’t you get a new phone?” conversation it stood in for. But then a few days- no, not even a few days, literally one day- passed, everyone adjusted to it, and now nobody ever asks me about my phone anymore. The world no longer tricks me into feeling like I owe it that conversation.

 

Axel was gone by then. Don’t worry, she didn’t die. She fell off the roof, but she lived. I mean obviously she lived— she is a cat. There are so many old sayings implying that a cat who fell off a roof is going to live I’m not even going to bother reiterating them. There’s also “Curiosity killed the cat,” but that isn’t true in this case. Curiosity definitely played a role in it- she was just poking around the roof, growing increasingly more brazen, testing the limits of what it means to be a cat. She was checking out the eave. She stuck her little paw into the eave to touch a floating leaf with it and lost her balance. She made no noise and fell off the roof. A human, or even a dog, would have screamed.

Pasteface and I booked it down the fire escape, worried sick, like a frantic couple of moms dramatically freaking out about something pointless that obviously isn’t going to kill their little kids.

She fell onto the apartment building’s recycling bin. She seemed a little dazey and freaked out by what had happened and she chose to burrow her head into me over Pasteface which made me feel cool. She had a cute cut on her perfect pink pebble nose. A dab of classic red. I carried her back up the stairs like she was a fallen soldier. I suggested that Pasteface take her to the vet to make sure she didn’t have any internal haemorrhaging or whatever and she did, the next day, and as a result of her negligence the vet declared Pasteface an unfit cat owner and took Axel away, to go be a blood donor cat for somebody else. Pasteface acted pretty torn up about it but she didn’t fight very hard to get her back. If it was my cat I would have got her back. I remember telling people that. “If it was my cat…”

I found out, around that time, that Axel’s name wasn’t really Axel. I spoke briefly with the vet’s office when it called our landline, and the vet, or the vet’s receptionist referred to Axel as “Ella.” I hope once she went to live with whoever adopted her next they treated her with a little bit more respect. If she were mine I would have liked to name her Cricket but if her name’s Ella her name’s Ella. You can’t just walk around calling everything around you anything you want just because you want it to be called that. You can’t just start calling a bottle a ramekin and expect the rest of the world to go along with it. You don’t call your friends the names you want to name your kids, just because you like those names.

 

At around five I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen. Time was marching on and Pasteface and Gluestick would be home soon. I didn’t want to have to say hi to either of them in the kitchen next time I needed a refill. I brought the end of the bottle back to my room with me.

I remember being surprised by the light blasting in through the kitchen window. Like when you go to the movies in the middle of the day. You think night will have fallen by the time you leave but it’s still the day.

In my bedroom the blinds had been down. A group of hippies lived in the building next door and their patio was only a five foot hop out of my bedroom window. The hippies put a kiddie pool on their patio and splashed around in it all day. I was sick of watching them smoke their bongs. Evidently, they didn’t have jobs.

Once I accidentally made eye contact with one of them, while I was farting around on my computer. He grinned and gestured, “Come over here,” and then all his hippie friends got in on it with him. I guess it was sweet. Hippies have pretty decent attitudes as far as attitudes go but it’s not really in my nature to interact with strangers let alone go chill in a kiddie pool with them. It breaks my heart to think of a person earnest enough to crane her neck out the window and ask the hippies in the kiddie pool their buzzer number, draw the blinds to change into a swimsuit, jog up the stairs of their building clutching a beach towel.

In the dark daylight of my little room I filled up my glass to the very, very top. The line of wine was taller than the end of the glass, a concave bubble I had slurp up so as not to spill it all over myself. I remember that part of the day very clearly and in slow motion. I was like a cat falling out of the sky, or lapping up my milk.

I remember taking my wine glass back into the bathroom with me and looking at the picture of myself holding my wine glass in the mirror. I was posing for a portrait that could never exist past those seconds or these sentences, me cheersing Mirror Sam and Mirror Sam cheersing back. I touched my bald head through my hair, and looked at the plastic cylinder of disinfecting wipes I’d purchased earlier. I opened the lid of the packaging. All the wipes were wrapped around themselves. There was no end.

The directions told me to thread the first wipe from the center of the roll through “slits in cover.” I did it. I wiped down the whole toilet with the wipe and then flushed it down the toilet. I didn’t really know how to do anything else. I didn’t know how you were supposed to clean a bathtub. I knew there was shit like Drano you were supposed to put in the drains but I didn’t understand why. I’d bought some blue gel to squirt all over the inside of the toilet bowl but it looked pretty clean to me already. I squirted it in the bowl anyway, and then left the bottle of it on top of the toilet tank so that Gluestick and Pasteface could come home and see that I’d bought a cleaning product. I sprayed some sprays of all-purpose cleaner into the air and accidentally walked through it. When I was a little kid I thought when I grew up that’s how I’d put on my perfume. I thought I would spray the letters I wrote to men with my perfume. I thought I’d grow up to know the names of all the flowers.

 

Laura Jane Faulds is a Toronto-based writer of French-Moroccan descent. Her work has been published in Hazlitt, Drunken Boat, and Cal Morgan’s Forty Stories; she also co-runs Strawberry Fields Whatever, a thoughtful and rabble-rousing blog about food and rock & roll. Her favorite Beatle is George.