No Flowers

I open my curtain and the sky is bright blue. Very few clouds. I stretch and sit in front of my computer. Turn on the screen. It’s covered with Instant Messages.

“Are you okay?”

“Where are you?”


“Bro grab your AK, we’re at war!”

“Call me”

I looked around for my small blue Nokia cell phone. Voicemails but no reception. No way to hear them. My heart is a distraction, I want to talk to someone. No land line and the internet is slow. All I smell is cigarettes and stale beer. My mouth tastes like ash. I open a window. My roommate is at work.

I turn on the television.

*  *  *

My friend Maya and I are transitioning from friends to inseparable quickly and easily. When it’s time to figure out what the fuck we’re going to do now that there are smoldering pits where the World Trade Center used to be and the sky is thick with smoke, we decide we’ll go out to Long Island to my parent’s house together. My roommate can give us a ride most of the way, and my dad will pick us up.

It is an unrecognizable trip through well-known territory as we head east out of the city the same way we’ve done thousands of times. Today, fire trucks from all of the surrounding Long Island towns are blazing west on the highway. I spot one or two from Oceanside, where we’re headed.

*  *  *

The intense tragedy of these days cemented our relationship forever. Until we get married five years later, we call September 11th our anniversary, and to this day, we acknowledge it as the real thing.

*  *  *

Rosh Hashanah falls less than a week after the attacks, on September 17th, and we are back on Long Island, to eat dinner as a family and be thankful for a chance at a new year, which often rings hollow, but this year feels full.

As usual my Mom’s cousin Barry comes to dinner with his partner Jim and his mom Lilyan, my mom’s Aunt. They always bring flowers and joke about how they’ve been fasting for days in anticipation of my mom’s matzoh ball soup, brisket, the works. Lilyan, in her late 70s, cautions me against my long beard, telling me I’ll get in trouble because I look like an Arab.

“He doesn’t look like an Arab, he looks like a Rabbi,” Barry retorts.

*  *  *

Barry, my mom’s first cousin, was a florist. His shop on the south shore of Long Island, tucked into a strip mall, was called, elegantly, Jardin des Fleurs. He told stories about going to the flower market in Manhattan every week, leaving early and getting home before anyone else was awake. He bitched about his customers, about 1-800-FLOWERS stealing his business, about how people in general just didn’t know how to do things formally anymore. No elegance.

He would come to holiday dinners in his work clothes, change as soon as he got there, and deftly place his arrangement in the middle of our table, always perfectly tailored to the season, mood, and my mom’s tastes.

Maybe you know a Barry. He was a different sort of person than the rest of my family in a specific way that doesn’t have a name but is very clear in my head. Born in the 1940s, he had two children with his wife and then realized that the love of his life was a man and by his early thirties he was living with him in Brooklyn, not far from where I would end up living in my early thirties, thirty years later.

Bold opinions, loud jewelry, and a louder voice. He conducted himself as if he was waiting for the world to catch up. He made bigoted comments but demanded tolerance from others. He said the 45th President’s name like he was spitting and cursing at the same time. He wasn’t nuanced or reasoned with his opinions, but he loved me, my wife, and my kids unconditionally.

As a kid I stared at his jewelry, silver and turquoise. He was the only man I knew that decorated himself this way. The last time we saw him, in Florida for the holidays with my parents, I teared up as I watched my 6 year old son sit on his lap and idly play with his rings, squish his wrinkly skin.

Barry maintained a relationship with his ex-wife and his children, but my Mom and our family didn’t see them regularly, so especially to our family, Barry wasn’t just Barry, he was one half of Barry & Jim.

Jim was the precise foil that Barry’s sharp edges needed — soft spoken, a spiritual man, a man of Jesus, a man of the same God, but a different God, deeply involved in his Church and his people. About as different as Barry on paper as possible, but that was Barry. Who he was. Get it or don’t.

*  *  *

About six months into the pandemic I get a call from my Mom telling me that Jim passed away. I know he’s been sick but it stings badly. I feel trapped.

I remember the last time we saw him. He was frail but in good spirits. He had a new tattoo on his wrist, a short jagged line representing a heartbeat on an EKG monitor. I noticed it only as we were saying goodbye — I was holding his hands and I rubbed the tattoo with my thumb. His skin was smooth. I still had the taste of dessert in my mouth, sweet chocolate. He always smelled a little bit like flowers. I kissed his cheek and asked about the tattoo. He told me it was a symbol of survival.

I call Barry, walk out onto my deck, and look out onto a quiet and still, hot summer yard. I breathe deeply — cut grass and ash from last night’s fire, no flowers. I tell him how much we all loved Jim, how badly it sucks that we didn’t get to see him one last time, how far apart we feel not being able to go to the funeral, sit shiva properly. Barry didn’t exactly brush it off, but he sounded okay with it. Almost at peace.

“It is what it is.”

Two weeks later I get another call from my Mom. Before hearing what she says, I know. This time it’s Barry.

*  *  *

A Zoom funeral, no flowers.

*  *  *

Something striking happens in the spring garden when the tomatoes are just starting to strengthen and the end of season brassica are spraying showy yellow flowers. I like to pretend that they’re pretending to be each other.

*  *  *

On my daily bike ride, where I’m writing this sentence, a yellow petal from a tulip poplar, the last of the season, falls on my bare knee and hitches a ride for about two miles, hopping off right before the tree-covered trail gives way to the long, exposed, open road.

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