Conjunctions:19 Other Worlds

Two Sketches
The following is an excerpt from Phillip Lopate’s Two Sketches in Conjunctions:19.

Cherry Blossoms

For two weeks in May (or sometimes the last week in April and the first in May), the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. They grow in nearby Central Park as well as in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, but for some reason my friend Emily decides that the ones in Brooklyn are more “representative.” So after much consulting of schedule books, we set out on Saturday afternoon, May 9, to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. 

Emily is my best platonic friend.

Emily’s spies in Brooklyn have assured her that the cherry blossoms are at their peak. It seems farfetched to me that one day more or less can matter so much; and yet, as Japanese art classically tells us, cherry blossoms are indeed that short-lived.

I am feeling very Japanese as I walk up the broad garden lane to the aisle of cherry blossoms. We have so few rituals any more—especially around Nature—that it would be nice to do this every year. I am thinking this way because I am already afraid of getting bored, so I tell myself let’s make this an annual excursion.

I am thinking how most rituals are family-bred: repetitions of holidays and habits nurtured in the bosom of domestic life. Single people, like Emily and me, have to be more inventive in our development of rituals. For us there are no tooth fairies, no half-birthdays, no bringing the children to Grandma. Living quite alone, my temptation is to view myself as a bizarre romantic monster outside the human community. Emily, with her surer grasp of custom and propriety, leads me gently by the hand to that most buried of continents, normality.

The long line of cherry trees on either side sends swirls of petals across the avenue in the wind. The trees are so weighted with cherry blossoms, poor things, that their limbs seem to sag from the burden of pink. Emily is of the opinion that last week they must have been perfect—this week they are a little over-ripe.

On the ground, scattered cherry blossoms pile up thick and wasted and bruised, destined to be trampled underfoot.

It’s too cold to sit for long on the grass. The sky is overcast, threatening rain.

Emily marches us away from this melancholy vista and over to the tulip beds. A woman of decision, she has a constant map in her head of where to go next, what is the best way to come upon any terrain. This time she finds us a spectacular double row of tulips, set almost too self-consciously on display, like a Cezanne exhibition. I like the ones that are pale yellow outside and dark yellow inside. Emily considers the insides of tulips very sexy. She used to be a photographer. We both agree that the black tulips are also wonderful: they’re not really black at all but a deep purplish-brown, thin and wrinkled as antique velvet. “Texas Flames” are white with orange tongues of fire streaking the petals.

I’m getting bored, I want to go home.

We stop in the commissary to buy notepaper with lilac sprigs. As we leave the park I keep seeing beautiful bushes with different-colored flowers, and I ask Emily what they are, and it is always the same answer. “Azaleas.”

On the way home in her Volkswagen, Emily and I are talking as usual about the difficulty of finding anyone with a set of quirks and appetites to match our prickly personalities.

“Why don’t we get married?” I ask.

Emily laughs: “You say that once a year.”

“Well, why don’t we?”

“Because you’re not attracted to me.”

I sit back in the seat, breath taken away by her honesty. At the same time I remember how I had kissed her in greeting a few hours before and how adorable she looked. “That’s not true. Sometimes I’ve been very attracted to you.”

“But not enough,” she says with good-natured dismissiveness.

We drive on in silence. I think: Keep your mouth shut, she’s right, it’s not enough. She’s saved you from an awful scrape.

Finally, Emily says: “You’re not the only who thinks that.”

“Thinks what?”

“That we two should get married, My sister Dora says it all the time.”

Phillip Lopate is the author of the essay collection Portrait of My Body (Doubleday/Anchor). He is the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor) and The Anchor Essay Annual (Anchor), and teaches at Columbia University.