There Are Always Flowers

Asmina met Sonia by chance, both of them waiting out a spring downpour in a car shelter at the edge of the greenway. They stood side-by-side, dark heads bowed, two strangers both immersed in The Show. They were as separate and distinct as two moons orbiting the same planet, alike and yet infinitely distant.

It was an especially gripping moment in The Show for Asmina. Her main star, the magician Leta, had been working up to confessing her love for Juta, the harried administrator. Leta had finally worked up the resolve to confess her feelings--even buying a bouquet of pink tulips, Juta's favorite. And that's when a shadowy hand knocked on Leta's door. Lights up to reveal: Granite, Leta's old flame, long ago lost in the war. But now, suddenly, confusingly, he had returned.

Asmina gasped and took an involuntary step back from the shock of it. Beside her, Sonia did the same: the gasp, the step. They both noticed at once what had happened, and the coincidence broke through the thick shell of etiquette that protects urban strangers from one another.

Their eyes met and they chuckled at each other in shared delight. "What happened in yours?" Sonia asked, her eyes wide and bright.

Asmina smiled apologetically, shrugged with one shoulder. "I have an unusual mix, so my lead is Leta, and a character from a long time ago just came back--"

"Granite?" Sonia asked. Her eyes had grown wider still.

Asmina's heart pounded. "Granite," she breathed. "You, too?"

"Were there pink tulips for you?" Sonia pressed. Her eyelashes, Asmina noticed, were as long as forever.

"Y-yes. And in yours, is Juta still the secretary, or did she get--"

"She was promoted three months ago."

They gazed at each other in silent wonderment. The rain drummed on the roof of the shelter above them then cascaded in showy ripples down its walls.

"I've never met anyone else who had the pink-tulips Juta before," Sonia said, after a time. "This is amazing. What are the odds?"

Asmina's car pulled up to the shelter and waited obediently for her to enter. Instead she hesitated at the edge of the shelter, just out of reach of the curtain of rain. "Where were you heading?" she asked, shy and brave all at once.

Sonia twisted the hem of her jacket nervously. "I was just going to go home," she said. "But if you're free for dinner... Would you...?"

Asmina laughed, loud and joyous as the rain itself. "Please," she said. She waved toward the open door of her car. "Please, let's have dinner together."

They retreated to a Pinoy restaurant and over pancit and sangria shared notes on their private experiences of The Show. The coincidence ran far deeper than they could have guessed. The two had all the same plots and subplots. They remembered the same sets, costumes, characters from seasons gone by. It was as if they were watching the same show.

At last, breathless and drunk on far more than the sangria, they concluded that they had achieved something rumored but never believed; something legendary. They were a perfect match.

The Show was the perfect entertainment for everyone, all the time, which naturally meant it was different for each viewer. It took each person's true measure through data and autonomic responses, generating a completely tailored story for each one.

Not to say that everyone's Show was entirely unique. One could often determine what kind of person someone was by learning about The Show that they watched. Millions of people had the variant where Granite had returned from the war a hero, for example; mostly sunny optimists. Millions who had lost a parent of their own had grieved anew when Chase visited his daughter from beyond the grave to say his last goodbye.

Beyond that was a many-limbed tree of possibilities, each more tailored than the last. Granite went into politics, or business, or became a shiftless alcoholic ruined by memories of violence. Juta was a generous redhead who loved roses, a blue-haired quipster fond of sunflowers, a laconic blonde who hated flowers entirely.

Almost nobody had careerist Juta who loved pink tulips and had captured Leta's heart. Almost nobody had Leta-the-magician; many, many viewers had no magic at all. And yet Sonia and Asmina had the same show, and they had somehow found each other. It was something beautiful and precious. The rarest kind of serendipity. Or maybe, as Sonia suggested, it was destiny.

#

Spring gave way to summer, and the days were long and hot. Sonia and Asmina were instantly inseparable, bound together by affinity and affection won through deep shared experience. What did it matter that they had gone through those experiences alone?

They had picnics on the greenway, feeding one another strawberries with cream and cooing over the adolescent ducks. Then they lay side-by-side in the long grass to watch The Show, fingers twined together. They giggled as Granite cracked the same jokes for both of them. When Leta's mother grudgingly delivered approval of her achievements, they whooped and opened a bottle of bubbly. When Juta swore to never get between Leta and Granite, they wept in each others' arms at the injustice of it all.

Larkspur bloomed, then camellias. The Show continued to be identical for them in every detail, and gradually their two lives combined into an inseparable whole. They were twin trees emerging from a single set of roots; nourished by the same rain, reaching toward the same sun. They spent every night together, and every weekend, and then they agreed that nothing else would do but to start a new household. 

It was quick, to be sure, but what did they have to fear? They were a perfect match. The Show knew everything about their truest selves and judged them two bodies with the same soul. What point could there be in waiting?

#

Everything changed, as everything does, in a moment so small that one can only notice it in retrospect. Asmina stopped for flowers on the way home on a Friday afternoon late in October. The sky was a perfect blue and the air crisp and pure as a mountain spring. Nothing should go wrong on such a day as that.

Alas there were no pink tulips available that day, but for once the shop had a rarer treat: white jasmine blossoms, soft and aromatic. Asmina took an armful of them at once, imagining the scent of jasmine in Sonia's hair and the taste of it on her lips.

Once home, she scattered blossoms on the bed and in the bath. She tucked a few into her hair and settled the rest in an elegant glass bowl. She opened a pomegranate, humming with pleasure, and waited for Sonia to come see what she had done.

Sonia stepped over the threshold and spied the jasmine, the pomegranate, her love. The frown line between Sonia's eyebrows creased deeper, ever so slightly. "No tulips today?"

"They were out," Asmina said. She did not say that she liked the jasmine better, no matter what Juta happened to prefer. The thought flitted into her brain and then out again, so quickly it might not have ever happened. "Don't you like jasmine?"

Sonia smiled. "This is nice too," she said.

A small moment, too small to see except with hindsight. An optical illusion: going forward through time, through this moment, nothing at all had changed. But looking backward, this marked the point after which everything was different.

#

Nothing more came of it until winter. It was an unusually weather-stricken year; Sonia and Asmina spent days on end snowbound, gazing out their high windows into the muffled streets of the city, drinking tea, and of course watching The Show.

A dark power had come to threaten Leta; the war was at risk of breaking out again at any moment. The tension was delicious. Leta vowed to sacrifice everything for the safety of those she loved. In that moment, she plucked a jasmine blossom from a nearby tree and gazed at it as if she could divine the future in its heart, and then threw it into a pond.

It was very dramatic.

After, Asmina thought to brew a pot of jasmine tea, inspired by that brief moment in The Show. The packet of jasmine had been shoved into the back of the cabinet, neglected for long months, but she smiled over the fragrance the steam brought her and then poured two cups.

Sonia held the cup just below her chin, breathing in the scent. Asmina waited for Sonia's remark about the tea, the jasmine, The Show. Instead, "That was so sad," Sonia said. "That the tulips were there to remind Leta of Juta. Did you think that, too? That when Leta talked about protecting the ones she loves, she meant Juta more than anything else?"

Asmina blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"The symbolism was a little heavy-handed," Sonia agreed with herself. "But I really think they'll be together in the end. Those tulips gave the whole thing away."

Asmina rolled this statement around in her brain, desperately searching for a matching memory, but there was nothing there to be found.

Sonia finally noticed her distress. "Is something wrong?"

Asmina hid her face in her teacup, but she knew she couldn't conceal the truth for long, not from the other half of her soul. "It wasn't tulips for me," she said. She smiled a tight smile, the kind that asks forgiveness for an unknown offense.

"No tulips?" Sonia froze. "I'm sure it doesn't mean anything. Just... randomized. To stay unpredictable."

A white lie to let them both hide the truth; there was nothing left to random chance in The Show. The pair lay awake all though the white night that followed, neither one able to sleep. They were straight like boards, together and apart, dry and brittle. The unthinkable had come to pass. Destiny had been wrong. They were no longer a perfect match.

#

In the weeks that followed, Asmina and Sonia clung to each other with renewed ferocity. They spent less time watching The Show; they went ice skating and played chess instead. They cooked elaborate dinners à la Francaise and grumbled over endless leftovers soaked in butter and wine.

They curled together every night like puppies and endlessly explained to one another how nothing had changed. And if it had changed, it meant nothing. The life they were building was bigger than The Show, more real, and strong enough to weather any eventuality. But it didn't matter anyway, because this was just a blip, and it would probably never happen again.

It happened again. And then again.

For Asmina, jasmine bloomed in Leta's hands all that winter and onward into the rainy grayness that cannot possibly count as spring. Leta waged war against the dark power alone, and where her magic touched, white flowers and dark leaves fluttered behind.

Sonia did not mention the jasmine, and so Asmina did not mention it, either. She burned to know, but didn't dare speak first and reveal her unwitting betrayal. Instead she searched for a way to learn the answer without invoking the question. "Can you get flowers tonight?" she asked one Friday morning. "I want to go to the greenmarket across town to see if I can find leeks for dinner. They're almost in season."

"Fine," Sonia said absently. She pulled a sweater over her head and then freed her hair. "Can you look for fresh eggs, too? I haven't liked the ones we got last time."

"Of course." Asmina leaned forward and kissed Sonia on the lips, soft like a wish.

The flowers Sonia brought home were a mixed bouquet of crocuses, daffodils, the inevitable pink tulips. There was no jasmine. Asmina accepted them with a carefully cultivated smile and arranged them by the table. Her fingers settled on one of the tulips for a moment. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen one on The Show. Juta always used to keep a single tulip in a bud vase on her desk, but she'd been traveling all season.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Sonia asked. She rested a hand in the small of Asmina's back.

"I was thinking about Juta." It wasn't a lie so much as an incomplete truth.

Sonia pressed her cheek to Asmina's ear. "And you noticed the crocuses?" Her delivery was too casual, her arms too tense. It was a test that Asmina could not pass.

Asmina nodded hesitantly. "Of course." She spread wide the tattered remnants of her careful smile, then turned away to the kitchen before its poverty could catch her out. "I'll go chop the leeks."

After that, Asmina knew something had broken, and she was sure Sonia knew as well. Neither of them spoke of it; they spoke of increasingly little, and about The Show least of all. Asmina remained silent even when she was watching The Show, pressing her lips together and hugging herself to stifle any reaction, in case her reactions were wrong--different from Sonia's.

The Show, at least, remained the perfect entertainment. Leta's war against the dark power went well, and then badly. Her own mother turned to the darkness in despair. Even Granite and Juta seemed on the edge of giving up. Juta went back to her mundane life, her desk and her job as an administrator. Leta watched her through the ripples her tears left in a magic pool of water.

And then Leta performed the greatest spell of her life. She summoned Chase, her dead mentor, to help her change the fabric of reality such that the darkness had never been spawned at all. It worked, but the price was high. Leta woke in a world where there was no darkness--but nobody had any memory of her, either. In this world, Juta and Granite were married, and they had daughters.

Asmina could not suppress her reaction to this latest twist of the knife. Her cheeks shone with salt water, her breath hitched in sobs. It was so beautiful, so perfect, so sad.

Across the room from her, Sonia whooped a victory much purer and less costly. Then she set aside The Show and noticed Asmina: her grimace of sorrow, the damp patches on her shirt and cuffs.

Asmina sniffed, and then hiccuped. "I'm sorry, it's just--"

Sonia's voice was cold as steel, as remote as the moon. "What happened for you? Did she--did she lose?"

"No, it's just--"

Sonia crossed the room to Asmina, but loomed over her, fists in her armpits. "Tell me."

"Granite and Juta are together now," Asmina blurted. "And they don't remember her anymore."

Sonia was silent.

A fresh batch of tears sprang from Asmina's eyes, partly for Leta and partly for herself. There was no pretending at a perfect match anymore. This was a major diversion. From here on, it was clear The Show was never going to be the same for them again.

#

They did not fight about The Show; that was too petty, too obvious. But in all other matters, where before they assumed unity, now they began to discover a thousand fractious difference. Sonia planted a sill full of bamboo where Asmina had spoken of planting bushy pepper plants. Asmina ate endless garlic where Sonia complained of the smell. They argued about the usual things: dishes and slovenly behavior. Who had gone to the market last; who should have closed the windows when it rained; whose relations were more unreasonably demanding. There were slammed doors and shouted accusations. Silent days. Nights in different rooms.

Sonia took up staying out in the evenings and came home smelling of gin. Asmina took up cooking for only herself. The growing heat of summer did little to counteract the chill between them.

At last, Asmina came home on a Friday with an armful of jasmine and discovered that Sonia was gone. It was a relief.

#

Asmina spent the rest of the summer alone. She watched Leta struggle with loneliness, too, and wondered if The Show had known that she and Sonia were growing apart, or if The Show itself had caused the wedge between them. How could a perfect match have gone so wrong? But if The Show had misread them so thoroughly, then had that perfect match ever meant anything at all?

Asmina cut her hair short, since Sonia had admired its length. Then she took up visiting the greenway at every chance. She spent long days hiking by herself, smelling deep the live and carefree earth. It was a much-needed balm to her heart.

One day, as she approached her favorite vista, she discovered that someone was there ahead of her: a woman with a knapsack at her feet, gazing downslope at the charming lake with its rainbow of sailboats. Her hair was a cloud of blue hovering just above her eyebrows. She nodded companionably as Asmina approached. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

"It is." Asmina dropped her own knapsack beside the woman's. "I like to come here to listen to the birds and be alone."

"I hope you don't mind a little company today?"

Asmina shook her head. "No, of course not. My name is Asmina, by the way."

The woman stuck out her hand to shake. "Lane." Her skin was velvety and warm.

"Do you come here a lot?" Asmina asked.

"Not in a while. I've spent the last few years in Senegal staying with some cousins. But I always did love it here. Especially when that stand of jasmine is blooming, and you can smell it from up here."

Asmina laughed with delight. "Me, too! Jasmine is my favorite."

"You're obviously a person of quality and excellent taste, then." Lane's eyes twinkled. "I bet you'd love Bijan’s."

"What is it?"

"Ah! A restaurant downtown. They make cocktails with jasmine syrup, so delicious--you should try it, it's fantastic."

"I will," Asmina said. "Thank you for suggesting it."

There was a lull. The sailboats curved across the lake, leaving curls of foam behind them. "What's The Show like for you?" Asmina asked at last.

Lane chuckled. "I have an unusual mix," she said. "In mine, Madio is a wedding planner."

Asmina blinked, then tipped her head to the side. "I've never even heard of that before," she said. "But I'd love to hear more about it."

Lane smiled. Her lips, Asmina noticed, were plump and very red, like holly berries. "I'd love to tell you. Are you free for to meet up with me sometime? I know a place that makes wonderful jasmine cocktails."

Asmina's blood tingled. Not a perfect match; no kind of match at all. But perhaps that was even better. "I'd love that," she said. It was summer: past time for Asmina to grow. And in time, two people might learn to grow together, instead of growing apart.