Avery was a rapist, but that’s not the first thing you’d notice about him. You might observe his pale skin or his glasses, the way the slender metallic frames highlighted his blue eyes. How his eyelashes brushed up against the glass. Or maybe his narrow, straight nose, and the way he was thoughtful when he listened; how he tipped his head to the side to regard the speaker. Every week when she saw him, Jackie noticed his long, white fingers and how he held each stem over the bucket, weighing it between his thumb and index before adding it to the bouquet.
Jackie always bought the most inexpensive flowers: irises or tulips, a few stems of gerbera daisies. After her purchase, she went straight home, sixteen blocks, to put them in water. She discovered that the flowers cast a kind of dignity on the small apartment. But on this day, when she spied Avery from a distance, handling a blush-colored carnation, Jackie decided that she wanted something more.
She hung back on the crowded street corner and concentrated on Avery’s movements. He queried every flower before committing it to the bouquet. He held a white tea rose against the pale hydrangea and questioned a slim orchid before trimming its stem. Avery spun the bouquet in his hands and tucked sprays of hypericum and green berry mums up under the roses. Jackie inhaled deeply, but the scent of the flowers was interrupted by the dampness of the street and she left, without purchasing anything, and then, two blocks away, turned around and walked back to the stand. Avery was alone now, discharging water into the street and stacking the empty buckets.
Jackie stared at the flowers, weighing the price as Avery would weigh a stem, and he said, before she even asked, that he’d make her something special. She nodded. There was a gravity to his movement then. He spent a long time gazing at the buckets of flowers before tapping a single one. She waited while he gathered several long branches of violaceous delphinium. He moved around the stand and added mulberry-colored roses, blue hydrangea, and magenta lisianthus. He named each flower for her, ending the litany with a double white freesia. It was a surprising bouquet.
Jackie fumbled with her purse, groped for her wallet. From the outside it looked like any other transaction.
After three months, Jackie moved into Avery’s house with a box of books, two boxes of clothes, and one of dishes. She carried a cheery teapot in her arms. Avery borrowed his boss’s van to move the four boxes eight blocks. Jackie unpacked. She found her things fit easily next to his.
When Avery was nineteen, he saw a woman on the city bus. Imagine him, uncherished—alone. It’s not just a word, lonely. Lonely adds to solitary a suggestion of longing for companionship, while lonesome heightens the suggestion of sadness; forlorn and desolate are even more isolated. Avery hated the woman on the bus. She carried friendship, that fragile animal, but she withheld it from him.
He sat alone. He took off his glasses and pressed his hot forehead against the window. He tucked his fingers under his thighs. There were any number of approaches; countless words that he could use to communicate friendship. Gestures to demonstrate affinity. Avery was not stupid. He knew that there were just as many things he could do to cause her to recoil. He saw the distance between them and anticipated her rejection. He rolled his forehead against the cool glass, eyes closed. They were the only two on the bus.
Avery was just nineteen. He followed the woman every day for two weeks. Even when he promised himself he wouldn’t, he did. Eventually he knew the consistency of the barkdust under the rhododendron across from her building. He knew her neighbor’s standard poodle, Lily, and her habits. He knew the woman’s skirts: the gay striped one, with pink and yellow and thin lines of pale blue; the straight, somber grey one, with a little slit in the back; the emerald green, identical to the grey. Every day the woman from the bus rejected him in a thousand tiny gestures. She refused to meet his eyes.
One day, though, she saw him. She reported him. And he was caught under the rhododendron by two large police officers.
When Avery was young he was arrested for following the woman on the bus. Is that all that happened? That’s all that Avery told Jackie.
When Avery was sick, Jackie was at her best. She loved to hold his face in both hands and slide her thumbs over his forehead until he closed his eyes, and the ropes in his neck loosened against the pillow. She wore a faded calico apron with lavender ricrac and wide pockets. She knelt next to their mattress on the floor and held Avery back against the sheets—he hated to stay in bed. The wind blew straight through the house. She wore the apron over an old sweater, a turtleneck, and a pair of corduroy pants. She wore two pairs of socks.
She kept him, naked and sweating, under every wool blanket and down comforter they owned, and fed him soup that she made from rendered chicken fat, yellow onion, and mashed cloves of garlic. Avery was as small as a woman. His thin, white skin barely covered the irregular pattern of beating blue veins. She stroked the inside of his arms and convinced him to lie still. Jackie believed she could cure him—it took attention. She stayed home from work, stayed home from school, and when his fever broke, she made him hard in her hands and fit herself on top of him. She held his wrists above his head and buried her face against his neck.
Jackie was good at a great many things and empathy was one of them. Avery trusted her. Bits of Avery’s story leaked out over their years together. Even the uglier bits inspired compassion in Jackie.
But there was something about the borrowed van and the sick mother. Did he borrow the van at night, when Jackie was at class, to visit his mother? Avery’s mother was very sick, this was true. And Avery’s boss was quite generous about the van. Let’s take a vacation in the van, Jackie suggested. But Avery didn’t want to.
The greatest problem was the wood stove. Who had a wood stove in the city? Avery did, in his old house, and it was a perverse beast. Bad tempered, changeable. At first it was all very romantic: the forest-green living room heated by the fat-bellied stove. But she never mastered it. For kindling, they used lath from the empty attic. It was thin and musty and gave her splinters. She kept a pair of tweezers in the pocket of her apron. Avery had a sense, could get it lit, keep it lit, and use half the paper and kindling that Jackie did.
It was always winter. It raged on or crept through for months. Ice storms lacquered the city. Jackie was forever cold in the decrepit house. But she loved to fill the mason jars with the day-old flowers he brought her: bruised freesia, cut violets, lilies of the valley. She cherished every drooping, engorged blossom. She went to work. She went to school. She brought stacks of wood in from the side of the house. When the city hit record lows, she got pregnant and Avery had to borrow the van from his boss to take Jackie to the clinic. Be careful, his boss said: There was black ice on the roads.
The abortion came out like a sneeze. Avery took her home and made them mugs of hot chocolate. Jackie tucked her legs up under her and accepted the blanket that Avery brought. She felt dreamy and drowsy. Avery stoked the fire and the forest-green living room crackled with heat. He sat cross-legged next to her and stroked the back of her hands with the tips of his fingers. It was strange how the abortion made them a family.
It’s not that she was uncurious. Avery had shown her the box when she first moved in. He held her by the fingertips with one hand and touched the corner of the box with the other. It was more a chest, like a sea chest, than a box, but Avery called it a box and inside it held things that were meaningful to him. Mementos. His lips were dry and thin and they stuck together on the Ms when he said the word. Mementos.
Jackie was understanding. Above all, Jackie understood. And what she couldn’t understand she could imagine. She imagined Avery’s comfort and his hurt twisted together. For many months she didn’t think of the box at all, and when she did, she was struck by an image of the lath from the attic, the violet-tipped flame it made. When she imagined what was in the box, she pictured this: a bright, blue flame. It wasn’t that she was incurious, but that she understood.
They’d lived together for more than two years when she first opened the box—that unlocked chamber. And she no more expected to find him there than in the despoiled flowers. The box swung open for her. Its contents were not terribly surprising.
Avery turned the van down a familiar street. There, on the left, was the house where the woman lived. He parked and a moment later was standing in the bedroom of her house. The smell of her was stronger here. He knew her, had studied her for many days. How many days?
He pulled the curtains so that no one could see him inside, but the fabric was thin and the late afternoon light brightened the room. The walls were painted a sunny, lemony color and the woman had made her bed, her nightgown folded, resting on the corner. He was not a thief. He didn’t go through her drawers.
He waited on the corner of the bed, not disturbing the carefully folded nightgown. As the room grew darker, Avery became angrier. He was tired of waiting. He stood up and with one movement struck out and broke a bedside lamp. It was porcelain and it shattered. Then Avery sat back down. He felt calm again. He could wait.
When the woman got home, she didn’t notice the broken window, the closed curtains, Avery’s proximity. She tapped on lights and then a radio and took off her jacket as she walked toward the back bedroom. When she saw Avery, she didn’t notice any of the good things about him. She didn’t take in his aquiline nose, his high cheekbones or the way his long lashes crimped under the small glasses. She didn’t see the roughness of his hands or understand how hard he worked. She didn’t consider how long she’d made him wait.
Five days a week Avery stood outside at the flower stand. He returned home with cracked, chapped hands and stiff, swollen fingers and Jackie washed them with a warm cloth. She smoothed on a thick, sticky balm. When he complained, she covered his mouth with hers and moved one hand down to unbutton his pants. Sex is your answer to everything, he argued, but he couldn’t push her away with his sticky hands.
The cops came.
Avery was still at work, and when Jackie answered the door, she understood. The word “appreciate” would involve valuing or sympathizing with the information. Without value or sympathy, there is only recognition.
One cop sat on the forest-green couch and wrote in a little notebook while the other explained. They were confident that it was Avery. They had, in addition to the woman’s testimony, placed the florist’s van outside the apartment. They suspected him in other attacks. Other rapes.
Jackie listened as they described the victim. She pictured angry waves of dark yellow and streaky green bruises. Crimson scars. She thought of Avery’s calloused, cracking hands with their beating blue veins.
As he spoke, the policeman fondled the edge of an overblown rose in a vase on the windowsill. Jackie stared at flower. Avery will be home any minute, she said.
Avery was late leaving work. He stacked the buckets, emptying water into the street. The remaining flowers were loaded onto a cart so they could be refrigerated overnight. As he broke down the stand and loaded the cart, he brushed an Asiatic lily and stained his sleeve with the powdery yellow pollen. He slowed and thought about Jackie. She never liked lilies; they reminded her of funerals, but these were so beautiful, not the common oriental hybrid.
Avery removed five stems from the bunch and gathered them loosely in one hand. He fished out seven stems of solidago and fit them between the bright red petals. He added three strong stems of Israeli ruscus. The scissors were in his apron and he trimmed the stems, but left them long. It was a tall, sunny bouquet.