I wasted years of my womanhood waiting for some joker to give me the flowers of my fantasies -- the bouquet so extravagant that it would be both evidence and gauge of my desirability. I can't kick myself too hard over this notion, or think it was original: The candy-and-flowers idea is part of our cultural landscape, a message bred into our communal subconscious over generations. But I did, as a teenager, let the fantasy get the upper hand. I read in some cheesy teen magazine that a way to get attention from an ambivalent boy was to thank him for the beautiful flowers he'd sent, and tell him that even though he hadn't signed the card, you knew they had to be from him. No man could resist taking credit for doing something romantic (counseled the duplicitous, misguided logic of this article), and he would be so intrigued by the possibility that someone else was after you that he would come sniffing around.
I'd been reconsidering the breakup I'd initiated with my high school boyfriend, who, after months of dog-eyed suffering and shuffling dejectedly through classes, finally seemed to be getting over me, which simply wouldn't do. Since I was basically an honest person, I realized I would have to send myself flowers in order to rise to a believable performance on the phone. The predictable outcome was not just that my high school ex wanted nothing more to do with me, but that I'd also tainted the roses I'd sent myself. They had the whiff of lies and manipulation about them, and I couldn't wait for them to die.
A decade later I was still waiting for flowers and a boyfriend. I got them both (or so I thought until he dumped me) on a late August night when I went home for the first time with a painter I was falling precipitously in love with. Anticipating my arrival, he'd placed a single, heavy-headed stargazer lily in a glass vase on the floor of the bedroom in his attic apartment. All the windows were open to starlight when I walked in the room, and the lily was sending out its intoxicating scent in what, in a cartoon, would have been smoky tendrils that curled up our nostrils and wrapped vinelike around our legs and dragged us helplessly toward the bed. All through the night that lily perfumed the summer air, which was the same temperature as our skin, and in the morning the floor was sifted with gold and purple pollen.
Just once more I fell for the flower fantasy, although I have to say in my own defense I really needed it at the time. No more boyfriends! I decided after my awful divorce, but one persistent suitor wouldn't take no for an answer. For a few weeks I held him at bay, rejecting all offers for lunches, movies and drinks after work. Mine was justifiable caution, I felt: I had a small child to protect, and my luck had not been good so far. Better to take no chances, especially with another eccentric artist-type, and give my trampled ego an opportunity to rebuild itself.
But one night, after I heard an unexpected knock, I opened the front door to a six-foot cascade of blooming wisteria branches so voluminous I couldn't see who held them. This man, soon to be my last bad boyfriend and someone who had an instinctive understanding of what a sucker I was, had climbed up on the corrugated tin roof of his neighbor's shed to bring me an armful of wisteria for my birthday, which I would have otherwise spent eating cupcakes with my toddler and listening to Raffi. Sadly, it was all downhill after the wisteria.
After that last doomed romance I finally got it: Buy your own flowers. But buying flowers for myself was not merely a petulant, knee-jerk spasm of feminism. If I had to think, every time I bought flowers, about the stupid men I was defying by the very act of buying flowers, the whole experience would be pointless. The point is pure sensory pleasure.
Even when I was really impoverished in the early years post-divorce, it was worth it -- in fact, it was especially worth it then -- to bypass the extra piece of cheese at the market and buy instead a cheap, airy bunch of pink saponaria or a couple of Gerber daisies. I was also lucky, sort of, that I lived back then in a succession of tiny houses in demoralizing neighborhoods where there tended to be overgrown gardens in the backyards. So I lived with free flowers for a while, and I consoled myself with masses of tiny, tight-fisted pink roses while the commuter trains rattled right outside my kitchen window in one house. At another house I cut tangled, sweet-smelling jasmine vines from my back fence and stuck them in a water glass by my bed to keep me company while I lay awake at night waiting for the neighbors to break in.
Which brings me to the two things I've learned about flower power: 1) get the ones that smell, and 2) get a lot. Some flowers, such as the budding branches of dogwood, pussywillow and forsythia, don't have to smell, as they look so heartbreakingly lovely and hopeful that fragrance would, well, gild the lily. And others, such as a single gardenia floating in a tea cup placed at your bedside, are perfect in their simplicity. But there is something immensely satisfying in seeing two dozen tulips gracefully nodding in a vase or being hit from across the room by the perfume of a bunch of imperfect, overbloomed garden roses.
The other great thing about buying your own flowers is that you can buy just what you like, rather than mustering up a weak thank-you for the bruised bouquet of green St. Patrick's Day carnations your sweetheart picked up for you at Stop 'n' Shop on the way home from work. Don't waste your energy on disappointment, or on trying to train the florally inept into better habits. March yourself down to the flower stand and get yourself a big, fat bouquet of something that satisfies the longing in your romantic soul. And tell the florist to put a ribbon on it.