When I took the job as a personal assistant to a prominent political media consultant, I never thought I would learn so much about flower arranging.
I walked into the townhouse and was greeted by magenta orchids. The pastel leaves were slightly wrinkled, and they seemed to wink at me from the foyer and the living room. Later that day, the housekeeper would get in trouble for replacing them. These were New York orchids, superior to the Washington, DC, ones that she purchased.
"You can't go cheap with orchids," my boss said, staring at the perky white ones.
They died quickly.
I was raised with mixed feelings about flowers. My mother expected them on every birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day. She gave us our own bouquets after ballet recitals, graduations. My grandmother would look on with disdain. On her deathbed, when she lost her capacity to speak, she wrote out the words: "Who brought flowers?"
She was not a wasteful woman, and she associated flowers with waste. She was my father's mother, and he would repeat her words, "All flowers do is die."
My boss loved hydrangeas. So did I. I never thought about them in a vase, though. The hydrangeas I knew grew wild, thick in bunches in overgrown bushes. Some years, they would be white, others a periwinkle, magenta, pink, one weird year, orange.
My father did not like store-bought bouquets; those were the flowers that were far too expensive and withered far too easily, but he did like to plant. Every spring, I would go with him to the seed store. We would buy soil and seeds and collect advice from men in overalls. We planted sunflowers, hydrangeas, little pink and purple flowers that would sprout from potted hangers my father would attach to our porch that never did become a reading nook, although we entertained the idea for a while, and still sometimes do. One year we tried to plant strawberries and tomatoes, but the birds ate them before we could. We planted green leafy plants, a little tree.
I would buy my boss blue hydrangeas from the Trader Joe's I walked by on my way to work. I bought them on special occasions. I wanted her to like me. I would buy them, present them to her, bask for a few seconds of thanks, and then go upstairs to the kitchen, where I would cut the stems in half, as taught.
The most important thing about flower arranging is for the flowers to be just above the rim of the vase. They should look like they are floating. I can't have them any other way now. Whenever I get flowers, that's always the first thing I do. They last longer that way, too, I think.
I disagreed with my boss on many things — mainly her treatment of me, which was silent at best, abusive at worst — but she certainly knew how to present flowers.
The next time my boss received orchids, they were dropped off by her friend's driver — about 15 of them, fresh from New York, or as fresh as they could be. They cost $500.
Meanwhile, I was living on avocados that had gone bad and boxes of brown rice that I would cook in the microwave. I lived in a room in a house with a rat problem. It was 20 minutes away from the metro in an "up-and-coming" part of DC. There was a man named Outlaw who would collect my packages.
I watched as the housekeeper carefully potted them. My boss was taking a two-week vacation. The housekeeper was taking advantage of this, going to visit her family in the Philippines.
"One cup of water, three times a week. Don't overdo it."
I was all alone in the beautiful townhouse. Bookshelves filled the walls, creamy couches sat stiff, hardly ever used. The house scared me; it was as rigid as a fancy museum. There was a Warhol in the living room, blue and white vases on narrow antique tables, daring me to knock into them. I sat in the basement office on my desk chair, worn from the assistants before me, hardly able to breathe.
There was a lot of trust, looking back. I could have thrown a party. I could have had friends over. I could have, but I didn't, and I wouldn't. I was always obedient, always afraid.
I hardly watered the orchids. I did once and was paranoid that I drowned them. They were resilient. No wilting here. They lived for another month.
Later, when I moved to New York, I stayed with my mother's wealthy friend. Her apartment was the size of the house I grew up in. It was bigger than any other space I had visited in the city. I never felt cramped. My mother's friend was hardly ever there, being an important businesswoman.
In the mornings before I left for graduate school, her maid would let herself in, leaving pastries and muffins from Zabar's on the table for me. I would walk around the various rooms with a croissant, basking in the loveliness: Real oil paintings by famous deceased artists hung on the walls, spectacular views of the Hudson shined through the windows.
She had orchids, too, I realized with a jolt. It must be a fancy-lady thing, I decided. I promised myself then and there that if I ever made it, I would have one in every room.
But did I even want it?
My boss was a lonely woman. She had a son, with her half the time. She had friends. She had her job. Working for her, I was led to believe that the only way to get to the top was to care less about everything else. I think part of me still believes that — or at least my theory hasn't been disproved.
"You'll learn a lot of life things," my boss said taking the tulips out of my hand. I didn't know there was a right way and a wrong way to cut tulips, but as usual I was doing it the wrong way.
"It has to be on an angle," she said, swiftly cutting the ends so that the remaining pieces were diagonal.
Tulips were always my least-favorite flowers.
"Now try this," she said, nearly force feeding me chicken liver on a hard piece of bread. I hate chicken liver. It freaks me out. I forced myself to swallow, nearly gagging.
On the résumés I sent out after this job, I bulleted: kept track of bills, coordinated travel and meetings. One year, two things. The real skills I picked up were not so easily translated.
On Thanksgiving, I was able to put my life lessons to use. In the store, I picked out autumnal flowers — two bouquets' worth. At home, I cut the stems down. I arranged them in three vases. I cut the tulips on an angle.
No one in my family said anything about them, but that was OK. A good flower arrangement is a lovely backdrop. They shouldn't be the focal point of a room. They are important to have, though, not just for the added bonus of scent, but because flowers remind us about the fleeting beauty of life.
Of course, my boss never said that. But I would think about that, whenever she would storm out of the house, when I could finally unleash a torrent of tears, leaving only the orchids to watch.