When the subject is roses, an education in philosophy helps. As in: Picture a rose. What do you see -- a rose? Good. Now try to picture a peony. If you're like me, you see ... well, again, a rose. That doesn't mean they're the same thing. It means I need an expert. That would be my flower guy, Radoslav, or Rado for short.
I wasn't always a man with a flower guy, but my life got better when I became one. I grew up with a flower store a quarter mile from my house, where I bought carnations on Mother's Day, because I couldn't afford roses. When I grew older I could finally afford roses, from the same store or the same kind of store, except on Mother's Day, when the price doubled. Those served me through a procession of relationships that ended in divorce.
I don't wholly blame the flowers for that last part, though to tell the truth I do blame them a little. The thing about the flowers you get from 1-800-FLOWERS, or the supermarket, or the sad old flower store, is that when it comes to love they are the tomb of good intentions. At their worst, they are frozen from storage and refuse to open. In the wrong frame of mind, it's easy to start reading metaphors into this.
Toward the end of that marriage, I finally discovered a great flower store, hidden in an alcove of a clothing boutique. Though it was too late to save the marriage, it carried me through the next several years of entanglements, consisting mainly of a long period of courtship and short periods of apology, with some relationships sandwiched in between. On the apology front in particular, no flag waves as white as a bouquet of calla lilies. If you happen to (true story) mix up your best friend's two girlfriends and then try to persuade one that she must be confused about her identity, nothing else will do, and then only if it's accompanied by bona fide contrition.
By the time I started dating my current love, my flower store had moved on to a better address and higher prices. My need had in no way diminished. Trust me: At my age a crafts project with seashells for Valentine's Day is not the way to go. You end up needing more flowers to compensate for the mess.
That's where Rado came in. Rado and his wife, Delgis, had set up shop in a shoebox-size store called Stem not far from where Charlotta and I had moved in together. I don't know how long ago he had emigrated from Slovakia, a place he names with that trepidation people from small countries have as they wonder if they'll need to pull out a pocket atlas. All I know is it's just long enough to have softened the edges of the accent and left an authoritative central European cadence.
From what must be a basement refrigerator (I confess, I have never checked; I prefer to think of it as magic), Rado brings up a procession of roses in unlikely shades of pink, cream, peach, mauve, pale red and red-tinged yellow. I think those were some of the colors. The point here: lots and lots of colors beyond red and white.
I circumambulate Rado's display tables, snorting like an anxious bull in a flower shop. I move my hand to a flower I like. Then I look at Rado. If it meets with his approval, he smiles. If I am making a mistake, he half-winces, in a "there are no wrong choices but you're about to make one" kind of way. Rado's role is to make me feel like I am choosing the flowers, when really what's going on is that I'm making vague gestures at what's appealing and he's doing the real work of making sure it all adds up to a bouquet instead of a pile of mismatched foliage. After a few minutes of this thrust and parry, we will have assembled an appropriate expression of my affection.
Sometimes I get the notion that I can make do without Rado constantly at my side. It would be hard to exaggerate just how wrong that notion is. I will, for instance, bring back an unusual specimen from Rado's store and, having (as always) forgotten to ask what it's called, try to identify it. I punch some flower names I've heard into Google and try to find something that looks similar. "I've got it!" I announce. "It's an anemone."
Charlotta comes over to look. "I don't think that's it," she says. "Why?" I ask.
"Because," she explains, "that's a sea anemone. It's not a flower. It's more like a sponge."
There are advantages to visiting Rado on a regular basis. On a good day, a spray of muli-colored "broken" tulips can express the fiery intensity of your heart. On a bad day ... let's just say that a rose can erase many oversights. Another benefit of regular flower giving is that if it culminates in an engagement and/or wedding, you will get a really good deal from your flower guy -- assuming you plan on a wedding somewhere close to where you live, and not a destination wedding surrounded by indigenous nuggets of paleo-volcanic rock on Baffin Island. If you're planning on that, you're on your own.
So what happens after that? I've got a confession to make: I haven't been seeing Rado as much as I should. Part of it has been the renovations we've been making on our house. (Ever wonder how so few could accomplish so much in the Golden Age of Athens? They weren't putting together Ikea furniture, that's how). Everything is covered with a fine layer of dust and paint.
In the old days, I'd have assumed those conditions would have precluded flowers. Now I know better. Rado's probably got a hardy rose in his store that stays fresh for four days in a storm of volcanic ash. Or maybe lilies; when it comes to survival, those may be the Delta Force of flowers. And staying at work late is no excuse. Rado, I discovered recently, lives on my block, and he'll deliver for free.
It's high time I made my way to Rado's store, because at this point I'd better start leading by example. I'm expecting a son very, very soon. It's possible that as you're reading this, he'll already be at the hospital, getting born. So I'm doing my best to gather up pieces of worthwhile paternal advice. The first of those, kid: We're not buying carnations on Mother's Day. I'll bring you by Rado's. He'll set you up right.