The hydrangeas were the color of sunshine in crayons. Wavy sprigs of stock, as purple as a king’s cloak, felt like tissue paper flowers when he pressed his finger against them. The tulips were a beautiful shade of apricot. They looked like they might not last the weekend, yet he shrugged off the thought and bought the bouquet anyway. It would be nice to have a little color in the flat. When Bryce moved out, he took everything bright and bold with him.
They had only been together a year, yet they had quickly meshed together their lives. When the rooms were reduced again to only what he had before, Bennett was astonished to discover that on his own he was quite drab. His friend Alison brought over Thai food and beer the first night and they sat together on the tan sofa, staring at the wall where a collection of paint by numbers had hung the Saturday before.
“It looks like the first, sad half of an allergy commercial,” Bennett said.
Allison said, “It’s like if ‘mid-century morgue’ became a thing.”
They laughed a short bray, something they did to make fun of themselves being funny.
“Well, anyway,” Allison said, digging through her dinner.
It became a joke among his friends, how dismal his place was without Bryce. People said it was funny, they didn’t remember it being so colorless before. Had he given some of his things away?
“I never thought Bryce was that dynamic,” his friend Sharp said as they walked Washington Square one morning. “But it really is like the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz now.”
Bennett laughed, but the joke had started to wear thin.
Bryce had liked thrift store art in mad shades. If he found a scrap of ribbon on the sidewalk, he brought it home and tied it around a cabinet knob. He was a cheer scavenger. He loved summer bright shoes and coats, so there was always some of that around, too, peaking out from under tables or spilling over the sofa arm.
They had grown apart quickly, once the early magic of sex and common loves was mined. If he were honest, he would say they had only been sharing home for a couple of months when it stopped feeling right. By Christmas, they were eating together in near silence, like old couples in diners, without the years to make any sense of it. It was no shock when Bryce announced he wanted to move out when he got his tax refund.
“Okay,” Bennett said.
“Is that it?”
“I guess so. Is it?”
“Yes,” Bryce said. “I guess.”
They were stiff with each other for a while, then friendly again – one small kindness at a time – until one day they were as happy to see each other as when they were in love. Except that now they weren’t.
“It’s like we should have just stuck to dating,” Bryce said one night, as they walked home from a movie.
“We really are a lot alike in some ways.”
Later Bennett had to smile when he thought about the two of them being a lot alike. How could it be true, he wondered, when everything that was lively went out the door with Bryce. If his world was charcoals and Bryce’s was Crayolas, could they be that much alike?
It was hard to fall asleep the first few weeks alone. He missed the warmth beside him in bed, the brush of elbows or thighs as he rolled over in the middle of the night. The pillows were no longer to his satisfaction; the streetlight peeking through the blind seemed brighter than before. Maybe they had changed something about it. He drank a little heavier to sleep deeper and it worked, though he felt groggy for much of the mornings.
Sundays were drab and lonely, so he made himself get up early to go for long walks. He took pictures of things with his phone, stopped at cafes to drink coffee for far too long. He was really quite bored when he wasn’t doing things. When he was done avoiding the flat, when he could stand being out no more, he made his way back home. It was usually early afternoon. He always passed by the flower vendor without a glance until today.
When he put the arrangement on the coffee table, the flowers seemed small, their color swallowed by the vast, beige room. They had looked so promising down on the sunlit corner, tucked in among the tiger lilies and the irises. Shrugging, he flipped on the TV and said to the blooms, “Welcome to Kansas.”
There was nothing on worth watching, he decided in seconds, but he flipped through the channels for another fifteen minutes at least. Finally he turned off the set and closed his eyes, shutting out the sunlight and shadows, the wall where Bryce’s paintings had hung, the pathetic little bouquet in the mason jar.
He opened his eyes a moment later because his nose picked up a memory smell, something that reminded him of the first place his folks had ever owned. A ranch house huddled on a windy cul-de-sac, it had brick walls the dull, dark red of old scabs. It was a little place with big shrubs, shy on sunlight, neighbored with old people. The floors had dog piss stains in the wood. His father couldn’t sand them out.
He hadn’t thought of that place in years and the memory smell was not of dog piss nor of wood dust. It was the odor of fresh paint, which his mother had used everywhere to chase off the gloom of a house his father regretted from the beginning.
“It looked so much better with their stuff in it,” he said on moving day.
“Bullshit,” his mother said. “We’ll make it work.”
He remembered the weeks that followed, the stacks of boxes, half opened. His father wanted to set everything up and tackle the changes later, but she wouldn’t hear of it. When Bennett got home from school each afternoon, she had a roller or a brush in her hand. There was always a Virginia Slim hanging out of her mouth and a crease in her brow you could have lost a dime in. He changed into cutoffs and a tee and took over while she started supper.
“Your father is a pessimist,” she said one day from the kitchen doorway. “Don’t ever be a pessimist.”
“I mean it now.”
Bennett sat up and looked around the flat, surprised by the memories. It was funny that he should smell paint like that, opening up a forgotten afternoon with his mother. He could even remember what they had for supper. Salisbury steak, TV dinner. It had always been his favorite.
“Well, paint,” he said. “That’s funny.”
Then he glanced at the bouquet again, thinking about color and wondering why he never had before. Maybe fifteen years of rentals, of wanting to get back deposits, had made him dull. Was beige a pessimist color? He shrugged. It didn’t feel like it fit him very well, in any event, not that he’d ever questioned it until now. Well, to be bold, he’d have to simply leap without a second guess.
“Apricot,” he said to the room, reaching for his shoes.