A tragic love story.
Floral Hand Grenades
By James Baxter
I can’t remember whether our eyes met. I don’t know whether it matters. Even if I’d raised my head and let my glance travel across the coffee table I wouldn’t find any significance. Maya ran her fingers through buttery hair before letting it rest neatly on her shoulder. The machine was running overtime.
“Won’t you feel awfully lonely? Isolated, you know?” She wore a half smile and waited with anticipation for my comment. There was none. “I mean, living abroad is one matter but leaving everything, everyone behind is something I can’t understand. I just can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
Feeling her greedy eyes on me I didn’t want to speak. I feel naked when I speak.
“You say it’s your boss that’s making you do this?”
“It doesn’t seem like something I’ll be able to escape from.” I paused for a moment, embarrassed. “I have to do this.”
Each syllable was forcing its way from the pit of my stomach. I started to feel ill.
“Well… Is it permanent?”
“I don’t know.”
“He must have given some indication though?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“But, surely…” Maya let her voice naturally decay into a whisper, her sentence left unfinished.
Some time passed where neither of us uttered a word. Like a sniper, I stole brief glances from behind the safety of my wine glass. We were tucked away in the dusty corner of the coffee shop. While the adjacent window provided some light, the shadows of the surrounding tables lowered a thick darkness between me and my partner.
I peered through the darkness, towards Maya. She was wearing a formal grey skirt, slim fit, topped off with a navy business jacket. My eyes were drawn to her sleeves and then further down, towards her hands. A thin layer of dirt was trapped underneath her fingernails. It was disgusting. Instinctively, I shot towards her face to be met with that same insipid grin.
Somewhere, behind her mask, I could hear the machine raging; the intricate series of gears and cogs grinding together, busily repairing her sympathy. At the core of it all, where her heart should have been, there was a computer. I was sure of it. A glowing source of power dictating Maya’s every thought and action. I tried to look deeper but was plunged into darkness. Nothing. I simply couldn’t delve any further; nobody could.
I sighed under my breath to not attract her attention.
“Look…” She’d obviously heard me. I sank into my failure. “I know this is a hard time but you have to understand, I’m here for you. We all are. You just have to let us in. No one can help if we can’t…” I prayed she wouldn’t continue “… Nobody can help if we can’t understand what’s going on in that complicated head of yours.” Each word was a little explosion.
In my lowest moments I’m all too aware of my own tragic make up. I too, am merely a walking representation of a predetermined mechanical process. I have the same violently glowing computer; cold and inaccessible. The fact is, I am exactly like Maya, yet not a moment passes where I don’t feel broken, like a cog worked its way lose at some point.
I’ve never known whether to be thankful or resent the damage I’ve suffered, leaving me repelled from human contact and disgusted by my own humanity. And while I accept the machine, I fear the underlying truth keeping everything painfully grinding away. For instance, imagine a man born into complete seclusion with only a bookcase, filled with books, for company. Years later, it’s probable that he will have read every book available to him, memorising much of the text. And yet, however brilliant this man may become, his knowledge of anything outside those four walls is limited to these books. The machine calls out for knowledge outside of itself, a call that’s never met and never will be. The machine is the machine’s own worst enemy.
“Listen to me.” The abruptness of my reply left me shocked. “I don’t need any help…I never asked for any help. Can we please talk about something else?” My words didn’t sound right. It was as if I’d forgotten the sound of my own voice.
“I’m just worried. Surely you can understand.”
“But I’ve been talking with Mike and he says you’ve been really quiet the past week or so. What am I supposed to think?” She took another pause, probably hoping the silence would intensify her concern. “You need to take care, maybe get some more sleep. Just look at yourself.”
I took a deep breath and casually lifted my wine glass up to eye level. Maya was right; I looked exhausted. From the tiny reflection in the glass the smoky outline of my eye became apparent. I brought the glass closer; all I could see was the black of my pupil.
“A problem shared is a problem halved you know.”
I rattled my brain for a response that would bring this doomed conversation to a close.
“Work’s tough and… life’s a bitch.”
Immediately, I blushed, overcome by shame. Judging by her silence I guessed that Maya found my reply equally as embarrassing.
I turned my head from the table and gazed out of the window and onto the street. It was empty save for a small group of ramblers marching down the cobbled road. They laughed between themselves, or maybe they were screaming; it was hard to tell. As they left my vision and my life forever, the florists became clear on the opposite side of the road. Through the shop window, I spied a number of beautifully arranged bouquets. There were carnations, roses and many other vibrantly coloured flowers just waiting for me across the street. There was something reassuring about this party of colour, something that made me momentarily forget about everything. Suddenly, I heard a heavy rumbling, my stomach began to swell. Shortly afterwards, a sharp pain rang through my body; I was forced to turn away.
I began repeatedly looking to the far corner of the coffee shop, to the exit, indulging the thought of a quick escape. I wouldn’t have to bother with Maya any more. I wouldn’t have to look at that hideous mask and be reminded of my own. I wouldn’t have to see anyone ever again if I so chose. But she remained in her seat, an intervening force between me and escape.
Noticing my dreamy gaze, she too looked onto the street. I watched the condensation she left partially distort the view and my stomach made a hostile sound. Her blonde hair curtained her face and hung loosely below her chin.
It was funny. Maya by most people’s standards was considered a real beauty with her gentle curves and Barbie doll hairstyle. But it frustrated me that while she drew men in their dozens, she repelled me so. The very idea of her touch felt unnatural and always sparked tremors of fear to well deep inside me. I felt like a wild animal; it was instinctive fear.
For most, her charm consisted of childishly giggling at unimportant things. Perhaps she also had a fondness for hop scotch, or maybe she wore a daisy in her hair throughout summer. While I found myself warmed by the idea, I knew the score. She was unclean like the rest of us.
Over time, the machine collects a thick black dust that gradually covers what was once spotless. Eventually, not even the harsh glow of the computer is left visible and all we’re left to do is break into pieces. It’s a lonely existence made worse by the backhanded promise of closeness and security. But it’s all fake. No one truly cares for one another, it’s just an illusion.
The bustling of tables caused me to immediately lose concentration. I sleepily looked towards Maya. She was now surveying the coffee shop, her blonde hair shimmering as she moved.
“You’re difficult to read.” She made a stifled laugh and continued to look around.
“I can hardly argue with that,” reticence found its way into my voice. “Like I said, I can’t shake my way out of this. It’s my boss’ decision and one of the many things I have no control over.’ I paused for a second. ‘None of this matters anyway. How are y-”
At that moment I was interrupted by the waitress arriving at the side of our table. She stood a second too long without any motion and the situation became uncomfortable. She was holding something in her left hand. As I let my eyes investigate I noticed her fingernails. My face dimmed as the dirt met my eyes and laughed; I could do nothing about it.
Giving an abrupt and clown-like smile she left after placing the object at the centre of the table.
“Here is your wine, sir.”
I waited a short moment. My vision was out of focus and my head began to throb. I lazily rubbed my eyes but still wasn’t able to achieve clarity. A palette of malleable images danced in front of me. Colours diffused into colours and, after a short while, they faded into a monochromatic warmth. I hadn’t drunk anything but my body was definitely filling up with something.
Maya excitedly yelped over the table.
“Just look at that!”
I didn’t really know what to think. My stomach eased.
“Well, isn’t that fantastic?! It’s one of those Swiss wine glasses. A Boccalino is it? I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
As I looked on the Boccalino’s pearly white exterior I felt my face turn a similar colour. The pulse of my industrial heartbeat seemed less prominent. I began to wonder whether the machine was finally shutting down, putting an end to this cruel joke.
My throat closed and Maya laughed at my speechlessness. It seemed like an infinity before I could talk.
“Yes. It’s beautiful.”
Our words seemed distant. Surely there had been some misunderstanding. Surely the waitress had made some mistake. My questions were cut off by the intrusion of her voice.
“Look at that wonderful design along the body. Those roses! How romantic!”
I made some half attempt at a response but my attention was elsewhere. Like a skeleton I sat in my seat, staring at the Boccalino. Three roses were dotted along its body like lazy drops of paint. As hard as I tried to fight it, I was drawn in. How could I let this happen? I began to feel embarrassed. However, on the second it connected with my sad eyes its presence hit me like a tidal wave; a flood of security billowed in my chest. Staring the mug square in the face it looked back with compassion. There were no expectation, no unpredictability; it was just me and the Boccalino for that moment. The machine was losing power and I was able to breathe.
Immediately, an animated scowl overpowered the curling of a smile. Surely the machine wouldn’t allow this? And yet, the only response was the faintest whir of my otherwise stagnant mechanism. The grinding of gears and turning of cogs, along with the cold glowing computer, vanished under the warmth of my happiness. Excitedly, I jerked my head from one corner of the room to the other. I was like a child.
It was at this moment that I felt the coffee shop walls begin to close in. I felt them squeeze as my focus achieved clarity. The angelic white, the warmth of the red roses, the complete absence of complication. What purity, what virginal simplicity! I would have burst into song if it weren’t for how far lost I’d become. But none of this mattered. I was released! Liberated! Carefree and careering back into childhood; thoughts of being eight years old filled my head. The walls kept closing in and I was forced to squint. The Boccalino became a messy haze in my line of sight.
I can’t remember how long I was stuck in this semi-catatonic state. Time had become an irrelevance. My only connection to the room and the monster sat opposite me was the muffled leakage of her voice. I felt my fingers excitedly grasp the table cloth as the walls began to subside.
“Are you ok?”
As if awaking from a year long slumber I looked around the coffee shop with new eyes. The room seemed more vivid, like someone had turned up the saturation on everything. I let my gaze naturally fall on Maya.
“I guess so.”
“You guess what?”
My drowsiness made it difficult to concentrate.
“I’ve just never seen a… well? I’ve never seen a Boccalino outside of the internet.” Each word lacked conviction but none of this mattered to me. I took a deep breath enjoying the steady rise and fall of my chest. I could feel the refreshing cool of the oxygen dance through my redundant mechanical lungs; it was beyond belief. Never before had I felt so natural, so distanced from my tragic machinery. I felt human.
Out of the corner of my eye, the Boccalino still begged for attention. I was flattered. A curious smile crept onto my face.
“What are you smiling about? Did I say something funny?”
Although I disguised my amusement, my stomach was still madly convulsing under the table. Folding my arms I casually reclined in my chair, my subtle smile taken over by a drunk grin.
Change is such an exciting idea. The fact that each breath of air could turn out to be your last terrifies most people. For me, I’ve never fully understood this. Surely the idea of a world so ready to turn its back upon years worth of human storyline in an instant is thrilling in its unpredictability. Whether this change is from a state of life to death, or merely the complete reinvention of oneself, change is liberating. Either way, it’s always felt like a pipe dream; until now.
There was something organic about my relationship with the Boccalino, something that I believed I would never enjoy. In my mind’s eye I saw long strands of ivy intertwined with the now redundant machine. I journeyed along the mix of rusty brown and green up to the computer, where masking its once harsh glow was a soft layer of moss.
Maya’s voice started to leak through my mental walls. Just malformed grunts and mumbles at first, then full words. The hum and ruckus of the coffee shop eventually broke through. As I raised my head I was startled by the giant hand rocketing towards me.
She reached out and touched my face.
“No wonder you’re acting strange, you look feverish!”
I felt the pressure of each finger as they slowly worked their way from my brow down to my cheek. My eyes rested on the brown crust hiding underneath the nail of her pinkie. It was more than I could bear, but I didn’t move. I just hopelessly sat in place, my eyes resting on that one finger. I must have looked terrified.
Those seconds seemed like forever. Eventually, she removed her hand but I remained silent; just an audible groan at the moist residue left on my cheek.
I quickly craned my neck over to the window to escape the horror of the moment. The street was busier than the last time I’d checked. A small crowd had congregated on the cobbled road, blocking the view of the florists. I waited, hoping someone would leave to make the shop visible again. Everyone was happily immersed in conversation. I pathetically turned my head towards Maya; she let the edges of her lips curl upwards into a concerned smile. While I made some weak attempt to smile back, it dawned on me how long I’d kept quiet.
I tentatively opened my mouth but was immediately thrown back into silence; Maya had the Boccalino in her hand. Positioned over the wine glass, the deep red contents began to escape. She paused and bared her teeth in a malevolent grin.
I couldn’t bear to see the grease of her fingers, the dirt of her palms ravishing the defenceless Boccalino. But what could I say? I felt a burning heat rising through my body; first my toes, then up to my face which was locked in disbelief. What was she trying to prove? First the hand; now this.
Surely I couldn’t call out against her? She would think me crazier than I was. I let the scenario play out in my head. There was no simple resolution. I was forced to watch as she man handled the most beautiful thing in the world.
Eventually, she replaced the mug at the centre of the table. Her fingers left tiny grey markings, staining the pearly white. Oh, humanity!
She took a sip and the red liquid fell about her lips
“Please say something. You’re starting to worry me.”
I had nothing to say to her anymore. With regret I looked to the Boccalino. The roses dripped pink tears sending a deafening scream echoing through my head. She took another sip.
“Ok, we don’t have to talk but I want you to listen.” There was still the faintest red stain masking her lips. She was an animal! “If you’re actually going to work abroad, I don’t want us to leave on bad terms. I don’t even know much about any of this! Where are you even flying from?” The rise and fall of her voice was erratic.
“John Lennon.” I couldn’t forgive her. My words were short and accented. Nothing I said to her meant anything. My only meaning was sat weeping at the centre of the table.
“Oh, ok then. Do you know the date you’re leaving?” In response, a dismissive edge crept into her voice.
“Not sure, some time early March. I don’t know.”
I wasn’t even looking in Maya’s direction anymore. Resting my head on my fist, I wished the benevolence in my eyes would rid the Boccalino of the mess she had made. That by some miracle I had the power to return the poor thing back to the purity it used to hold.
Suddenly, Maya stood up from her chair.
“I need to go to the little girl’s room.” She left the table and vanished, stony faced.
I sat like a broken statue, not acknowledging her departure. We were finally alone.
The poor mug cried to me. Although there was a heavy silence, I could feel its sadness like a nagging itch. I sighed. Part of me wanted to cry back, but I knew it was useless. I sat deadly still, my gaze firmly planted on the Boccalino.
The roses still had that magnificent warmth but something was different. Motionless, I tried to figure out what had happened. Their colour seemed unfamiliar, closer to a deep vermillion. I travelled through layer upon layer of mature red, all the time wanting to reach out and clasp the mug with my two hands. The very thought shocked me. With a blossoming lust in my chest, I let the silence take over; it was as if I were waiting for something to happen.
I tried to let my eyes travel beyond the table to the window but I could feel its sultry presence pressing in on me. It was trying to tell me something, trying to reach out to me. Surely, I couldn’t ignore such a tragic cry for affection. With a mind of its own, my right hand slowly grabbed the table cloth and dragged itself towards the mug.
My fingers crawled ever forward. Through the silence I could still feel the Boccalino’s call. In a painful crescendo it became an animalistic wail.
I looked down; my hand was closer to the centre of the table. A few more centimetres and it would reach the frail handle. But I didn’t seem to care anymore. I was overcome with lust, only one goal like a crazy siren in my mind.
Seconds later, even my greedy hands could almost taste the Boccalino’s sweet flavour. My grin curled to my cheeks. I’m not even sure if it was a grin, more like the grimace of a man hopelessly in love. The aching of my fingertips was unbearable. I was certain we both wanted this, the validation of each other’s caress. Either way, I had to touch the mug. Desperation ushered my hand forward.
Before I knew it I’d reached the centre of the table. My breath caught in my throat and my heart skipped a beat. I leaned over the table towards the Boccalino’s pearl skin. Connection. In that moment a shot of electricity ran through my fingers and into my body. I quivered with delight, but I was insatiable. I grabbed hold of the mug’s feminine breast. The heavy panting of my breath sounded in the distance but I paid little attention.
My free hand had now become part of the madness. Not a single corner of the Boccalino’s figure was left untouched. It didn’t bother me that minutes earlier, just the thought of Maya so much as brushing the mug’s cheek made me nauseous. In the centre of this frenzy nothing mattered. I was far too absorbed in the beckoning arm of the Boccalino’s handle, the understated lip that peeped from its body, the sunset of the three roses. I couldn’t help myself. With each touch my ecstatic pleasure took on a life of its own.
A small part of me agonized at how wrong everything had become but it was useless fighting it. All inhibition was loudly shouted down by destructive lust and I was happy for it. Intimacy was immaterial.
“What are you doing?”
Maya had returned but remained standing at the corner of the table. She had found me holding the Boccalino with outstretched arms. I blushed and then tried to say something. She made no response; for all I knew my words came out a jumbled mess. I looked to the object resting in my two hands. The Boccalino looked sad and used up. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Ambivalence was soon replaced by harsh guilt. With utter disbelief I turned to Maya, my face that of a lonely old man.
“I…I don’t know what to do with myself.” My voice began to shake but I couldn’t burst into tears. I was dried up like a corpse, incapable of feeling anything. I’d been reborn but at what cost? I felt isolated once again.
I placed the Boccalino back at the centre of the table. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” I repeated. “I don’t know what to do with this,” gesturing to the mug. Maya looked confused. “I don’t know what I am anymore.” My final syllables seemed to come from the depths of my stomach. Maya remained at the side of the table.
“Look, I don’t want to seem distant or even unsympathetic but you’re acting strange and I think I should leave.”
At that moment, the clown-like waitress suddenly returned to our table. Maya flashed a smile, they both turned towards me, grinning maniacally. I fidgeted uncomfortably in my seat sensing that something was wrong; an ominous distortion hiding behind those smiles. Were they conspiring against me? I could never know. I began to reach forward for the Boccalino but it was too late. I should have seen it coming, it was inevitable really. The waitress had already made her move and was now performing a balancing act, the mug resting in her right hand.
“I’ll just clear this away for you.”
Pathetically, I reached out to the waitress and then to Maya. All I could muster was a pathetic “no,” under my breath. The waitress briefly turned her head towards me and then continued to whisk the Boccalino out of my reach. Arms still outstretched, I looked to the mug with desperate eyes; the three roses gazed back, disappointment etched onto their petals.
“Call me if you need anything…but sort yourself out first-ok?” Maya turned away and left onto the open street. Not a word more was said.
The coffee table was deserted save two discarded wine glasses. Overcome with emptiness, the enormity of the situation began to sink in. Everything had changed. The whirring of gears was permanently silent now; I guess I had that much to celebrate. I’d been biologically revived but also suffered a thorough education in destruction.
Looking towards the window I saw Maya escape round the corner of the street. The sky was a dusky maroon bringing darkness to the cobbled road. Something reassured me that this darkness would envelope me too.
It began with a sigh. An eerie silence had taken over the coffee shop. I then let my head fall to be caught by my open hands. Before I could stop myself, I had begun to weep uncontrollably. My tears dripped from my wrists to the table cloth, creating a salty puddle beneath my face. I wept for the Boccalino, I wept for Maya, I wept for the clown-like waitress and I wept for myself, the broken mess sat near the window. Bringing my head up from my hands, I noticed the small crowd of people surrounding the coffee table. I stared back with violent passion. They whispered amongst themselves and I emptied my lungs, trying desperately to align myself with the mutual heartbeat of crowd.
That night I dreamt I was lost. Expanses of lush green field stretched out all around me, no end in sight. I raised my head and the sky was a perfect blue. As I began to explore, a slight breeze whispered through the grass and out into nowhere.
Looking down on myself I found that I was considerably younger, perhaps eight years old. I was the only person around for miles it seemed, no trees or buildings obscuring the landscape. I ran forwards with all my might, eventually arriving at a large patch of daisies. I was amazed by this sight and began excitedly jumping up and down. The daisies happily swayed in the breeze.
I eventually tired and threw myself into the middle of the daisy patch. Lying on my back, my eyes were pointed towards the sky. Something in that interminable blue inspired me to begin picking the daisies like I would have done back in school. With a face full of happiness I reached to the ground and gripped onto the flower’s loose neck. I pulled lightly. Nothing happened. Feeling confused I tugged a little harder. Still nothing; something was wrong. Like a madman, I began reaching for fistfuls of daisies in the vain hope that one would part from the ground. However, it didn’t matter how hard, how passionately I tore the flowers, they were immovable. With desperation I shouted out into the sky, my cries echoing into nothingness.
I don’t remember much after that. Just my dispirited eight year old self, head hung, surrounded by daisies. Lost and confused, I began walking out into that endless green, the ominous drum of my heart thumping in time with each step.