by Caru Cadoc
Rolling out of Los Angeles, Steven imagined his arrival as a scene in a romance comedy: Noticing ‘unavailable’ on her caller I.D., Gala asks where he’s calling from. He replies ‘look outside,’ and from her window she sees him hanging up the phone in the street below.
He turned back to The Times to distract himself. There was only a small story about the flurries—covering a protest of the new petal incinerator in Inglewood.
…Rev. Jones shouted through a bullhorn, “The neighborhoods in which our Caucasian brethren reside,” he mentioned Santa Monica, Westwood and Culver City, “have not a single incinerator among them! Now we got two!”…
At first, when the flurries still dominated the news, reporters had rushed out in heavy gusts to be filmed with backdrops of whirling pink. Breaking footage of the first storm was seared into the collective memory. Reviewing quarterly reports at Kaufman Property Management, Steven had noticed people gathering at the break-room television and followed, fearing a terrorist attack. Everyone had crowded the windows to see them flutter down like mammoth pink snowflakes.
When the news agencies realized the phenomenon was global, people wondered if they blew in from outer space—somehow surviving the atmospheric incinerations of other debris. Transmissions to orbiting astronauts were not returned, the reception presumably lost.
Weeks later, rumors spread that the international space station was due to run out of food. In a press conference, a disheveled scientist mechanically read, “It is true a mission to the space station is not currently feasible due to transmission conditions, but deployed astronauts have enough supplies to last years.” He didn’t elaborate or take questions—leaving as reporters shouted, “How many years?”
Steven still occasionally saw, standing in the line at Vons, tabloids pronouncing: Flurries or Furies? Astronauts Presumed Dead.
He was amazed at how fluidly everyone had returned to their daily routines. The morning after the first flurry, the president addressed the nation saying the world’s best scientists were working around the clock. Eyes gently skimming the teleprompter, he highlighted the emergency priorities of keeping roads clear and ensuring no one, especially the elderly in rural areas, were trapped in their homes, emphasizing everyone’s responsibility for their own loved ones and neighbors. We are working with local governments to retrofit snowplows and pick-up trucks into street sweepers. More information will be forthcoming as the situation develops. Thank you and God bless America.
Apart from his old USC roommate, Nick, showing up at his door in a petal inspired frenzy, normalcy returned. Steven went back to watching Monday Night Football (Zamboni like carts raking the fields during half-time, the bestial athletes sporting pink smears on their uniforms), back to helping LLCs squirm through tax loopholes at Kaufman, back to awkward dates across white tablecloths and baskets of Italian bread.
Then, six months into the flurries and less than a week after Nick signed him up for Facebook, in the avalanche of messages from forgotten acquaintances was a friend-request from Gala. The Gala. She had wanted to be an artist and he’d fallen hard for the acrylic smears on her jeans. Fallen hard, after her mother died sophomore year, for the sexually mythic aura of teenagers with dead parents. Fallen hard for her dark humor about it, for gleefully pulling the “dead-mom card” to convince him to join her for movies he didn’t want to see. But when he summoned the courage for a confession she had said, under wincing half-Chinese eyes, that she only wanted to be “amazing friends.”
So, the message with the request read, who are you these days?
That was Gala. Shift one letter of one word and revolutionize a cliché.
He clicked accept, knowing she’d be able to see the phone number on his profile. She called the next night.
After the laughter and mutual professions of how weird it was to hear each other again, he learned she was still in Chicago, living in a loft and “playing the starving artist.” He could hear her smile through the line. He was “an accountant, a total sellout, I admit it,” and she replied with wonderful, shameless laughter: “I knew it! I totally knew it!”
Soon they were talking everyday about their lives, routines, past relationships. Gala was waitressing for her day job. Her current project was a collage called Raining Men. It took the oldies hit literally with men falling from the sky, splattering on the street in comedic bloody gore, women stepping out of stores with designer bags and avoiding the brains and entrails on the concrete. She spent her free time in the Harold Washington archives finding photos from wars and catastrophes to use for the corpses. Keeping the conversation off the banalities of his cubical, Steven brought up his eccentric friend Nick—who had moved to Antioch after college but saw the petal storms as a life affirmation, packed up his car, and drove back to act.
“He wants Hollywood?” Gala disgustedly, delightedly sneered.
He remembered her contagious excitement. On his seventeenth birthday she’d taken him to his favorite Italian restaurant and gasped at the menu. White sauce, she looked over the rim with wide, excited eyes. I haven’t had white sauce in forever. I’m definitely having the Chicken Alfredo. She dropped the menu with dramatic flair.
“Nick corrects people who say he’s trying to make it,” Steven went into his deep imitation of Nick’s voice, “I just wanna see the scene.”
“Ah,” she replied. “Not pursue, peruse.”
At thirty-two, with no acting experience, even that had seemed unlikely. But Nick was finding work as an extra, making enough money since he slept in Steven’s living room—even bringing home girls he’d met on set. Steven left out the argument they’d had about sex on the leather couch. He didn’t want to seem yuppie to her.
“His new thing’s planning a drive to Tijuana. He read about Kerouac massaging Mexican prostitutes and wants to go buy time with one to give her a massage.”
“You live with this guy? You’re crazy!” Her voice was wonderfully shocked, suggesting his own eccentric bravado for living with such a nut.
Steven segued into whether she was living with anyone.
Just a roommate. He mentioned the Relationship Status on her profile had read In a Relationship. She explained she was seeing a guy casually but wasn’t “diving-in.”
“Or even wading in,” she quickly added. “Just a shallow bath to wash off my ex.”
Gala Lee has changed her relationship status to: It’s Complicated.
Three weeks later, the night fading to morning, their conversation fading to silence and neither initiating the hang up, she said, “I wish you were here.”
Toasting a bagel for breakfast, Steven asked if surprising her in Chicago, just showing up, would be romantic or creepy.
“Creepy?” Nick asked through a half-chewed mouthful of microwave mozzarella stick. “You got to! Petals are falling from the fucking sky!”
He said the petal line daily. Like the storms themselves, its romance had been faded by constant exposure. Still, Nick’s flower-induced joi de vie was infectious. Steven had felt it, and chomped at the bit of his own life, but until now had no goal to chase with the Zen-like focus Nick threw into extra-ing and women.
The train ride would take just under two days. Since satellite communications were generally blocked by the unpredictable flurries, traffic control routed air travel through landlines prior to flights. The cost skyrocketed—far too high for anyone but business execs, the military and entertainment elites. A renaissance of train travel blossomed.
He was secretly giddy for days. He knew he didn’t know her now but lamented the stagnation of his past five years. He wanted to charge into her with the refreshed recklessness of what Nick called “neo-youth”: the refined carefree abandon some geriatrics return to, cleansed of the arrogant-insecure pendulum of “rough-draft youth.”
“Don’t scream my name when you fuck her,” Nick joked, dropping him off at the station—the same line he used whenever Steven left for a date.
“I’ll do my best.”
The train was delayed and it was already past midnight when Steven’s Audi pulled up outside her place. He tended to rent a Lexus on vacations but still worried about seeming yuppie. There was no payphone outside her building for romance comedy fantasies. But across the intersection was one of the new booths, installed after the flurries effectively killed cellular reception. She might see a figure hanging up the phone inside if the petals didn’t pick up. He called—no answer. He returned to the Audi and watched the building’s front door under the washed out fluttering streetlight, turning the car on occasionally to wipe off the gently gathering foliage.
“Here,” he remembered her saying, during the last week they had hung out before he left for college, grabbing his hand and leading him through the glass doors of a Crate and Barrel.
“Excuse me,” she asked the sales clerk. “We’re looking for a barrel.”
“One of those big wooden barrels. The kind monks keep wine in.”
“We don’t carry barrels.”
The lady, seeing the game, turned her back on the pair while pointing, “Only the white ones over there.”
So Gala, Steven had written in his effusive teenage diary later that day, stroked her pale porcelain chin skeptically. Laying a hand politely on the clerk’s back she says, “I’d like to speak with your manager please.”
At the time they thought it was hilarious. He’d written that she was a guerilla performance artist battling gentrification. But four years later, working at the front desk of a USC dormitory, Steven was confronted by a freshman in a frat shirt with a tank-topped girl in pajama pants, freshly curled hair, and make-up. “The so called ‘bathrooms,’” the frat boy raised an eyebrow theatrically, “only have showers. No baths. But this official dorm brochure, here on page fifteen,” he laid the pamphlet on the desk, “refers to them, in writing, as ‘bathrooms.’” He pointed to the word. “Technically, that’s false advertising. And I demand,” he paused and stifled a smirk as the girl giggled, “my bath.”
Steven had immediately remembered and empathized with the woman Gala mocked years before. Luckily, Nick was working that shift too and fielded the question.
“Dude, are you telling me you have no better way of trying to get laid than dragging this poor chick here and pulling this boring shit? That’s pathetic. Go sneak in some beer or something.”
Sitting in the Audi at thirty-three, fourteen years after bowing to his mother’s pressure and changing majors from digital cinema to public finance, on the Number Crunchers accounting team of Kaufman’s interdepartmental softball league, Steven realized he now identified with the Crate and Barrel manager who’d threatened to call the police if they didn’t “leave immediately,” and snorted to himself.
He checked his watch: 1:21. He wondered where she was. In her apartment, ignoring his calls, in bed with the guy? On a date? On her way home with someone? His mind launched into second tier fantasies of his reactions. If another man showed up he’d just drive back to the train. Then again, maybe she was gone because she just had a death in the family. Maybe she would wear pajamas on the couch and nestle her tear-streaked face into his engulfing arm.
Even from across the street he recognized the walk. She bounced on her toes like a little kid. Alone.
He waited ten minutes before calling.
“Look out your window.”
“Look out over Wolcott. Across the intersection.”
“I don’t have a window that looks onto Wolcott. I live on the other side of the building.”
“Fuck,” Steven smiled. “Then just come down and let me in.”
Her arms thrown around his neck, he felt on his temple her cheeks were flexed into a smile through her kiss.
After the “tour of my chateau” – scratched hardwood floors and naked brick walls – she took him out a window to the flattop roof of a lower building.
“My balcony,” she smiled, picking up a half buried broom and sweeping a small spot free of petals. “I sit on the ground so much all the asses of my jeans are stained. It’ll start a trend. Abercrombie and Fitch’ll smear pink paint on the butts of their jeans to stay hip with the kids.”
The petals. The humid August night. And Gala.
“Speaking of kids—I thought you’d have some by now,” she said, brushing petals from the short black spikes of her hair. Her boyish haircut was countered by the mascara, the curves under her tank top, the blue denim stretching tight on her thighs still smeared with paint.
“Always took you for a romantic.”
“Fuck babies,” Steven said. Gala grinned as he smiled—he was quoting a rant she had given him back in high school.
“All they do is eat and shit and,” he noticed the grin wasn’t toward him, but out into the sky, “cry and piss and drool. They’re like old people.”
She nodded nostalgically.
Nick, in an impassioned rant, announced every conversation is a child of the participants—from conception to untimely or miserably drawn out death. Steven, sitting on the roof as she changed the subject from one mutual acquaintance to another, watching the contours of the conversation develop like a teenage body—looked solidly at Gala’s eyes as he spoke, as she spoke, and in the silences. But her eyes kept moving. To the sky, him, the roof, the light of a window, darting around as she talked like he was her brother. In the absence of a returned glance, he noticed in the light from her window the delicate crow’s feet slicing tiny rays into the corners of her restless eyes.
Even late into the night, when—telling himself he had nothing to lose and everything to gain—he really looked at her, she really didn’t look back and everything was embarrassingly clear. Then she casually and tragically asked, “So what brings you out to Chicago anyway?”
“The wedding of a an old buddy from college.” He had preplanned the lie for an emergency.
“What are you thinking?” he asked during a conversational lull, fantasizing she would, with typical gallantry or perhaps a last ditch effort (maybe she was just nervous all along), reply wondering when you’ll kiss me.
“About the stars,” she said. “I miss them. You never see good stars anymore. Not that Chicago had clear nights before all this, but I liked seeing some stars.”
Stephen tried to put this decelerating escapade in the same reflective light. He remembered another of Nick’s rants: that Life is God raping you. You can squirm under the thrusting and anthropomorphize, orient, sanctify or despise, cry like an abused lover or even get bohemian and decide that if you’re getting raped anyway you might as well enjoy it. But ultimately you’re getting raped. He was powerless to make Gala want to give form and texture to the half-kiss festering in his mouth, sinking down to his chest and, robbed of its own potential, brooding like a ghetto teenager in prison.
Realizing he was comparing kisses to fetuses and impoverished teenage convicts, he decided it was time to leave.
Gala was still looking off into the huge quivering shadow. Steven imagined watching the scene on a Depression era silver screen—Gala looking dreamily into the gusts, him looking the same direction with wide, exasperated eyes.
“Well,” he stood and shook his pants to clear the stray petals, “it’s getting late. I should check into my hotel.” The night, the roof, the girl—it was all a bad dramatic sequel to an anticlimactic teenage soap opera.
He watched the clasp of her black bra under the back of the white tank top in the low light while she stood up. She said hurriedly, as though she’d been planning to say this and now seized the imperfect moment as a final chance, “Ask your friend Nick if a petal storm is any more phenomenal than snow.”
He could see she was fishing for a parting smile or a comment of what an interesting thought that was and to spite her he only replied, “Okay.”
They wiped the crushed petals off their shoes on a welcome mat under the windowsill. Hugging in the doorway, she told him to call for lunch before he left town. He smiled, agreed and drove straight to the train station.
Waking slowly in his seat the next morning, Steven stretched his back and looked out the train window. Hundreds of Latinos waded the fields with snow blowers billowing tiny clouds of pink in front of them to save the crops. Petals drizzled down from the vast Nebraskan sky. He remembered sitting on the steps of Whitney Young with Gala in a snow flurry. She had insisted they eat lunch outside because, “Jagged little shards of water are fluttering from the sky!” He refused but she shamelessly smiled, “I’m pulling the dead-mom card. Vamos.”
Looking up, she said, “They’re so unique and anonymous.”
Steven bit into his sandwich, one side of his body warm, pressed against hers.
“That one,” she pointed with her red mitten as though he could make out the one she meant, “is named Roderick.”
He bunched a half-chewed chunk of ham and cheese into the side of his mouth, “Roderick?”
“Isn’t that a great name for a snowflake?” dimples pushed into her pale Asian cheeks. “Your turn.”
“That one,” he stifled a smile through his full mouth, “is named Snowflake.”
It was then, when she made a playful gargoyle face at him the in cold, scrunching up her cheeks and sticking out her tongue, that he had realized he loved her.
Steven summarized the trip to Nick with a shrug.
“It’s a sign!” Nick stabbed a finger in the air, pulling his rusted Corolla out of the train station parking lot. “To Mexico! The hookers await our massage!”
“Cheer up!” Nick smiled. “Petals are falling from the fucking sky!”