The glass vases of table flowers had belonged to someone else, left in disarray on trays in the empty Tap Room at the New York city club where Craig’s wife Nina was a member--remnants of a wedding Craig hadn’t attended the night before. He was returning from a solitary breakfast, having stayed the night in one of the club’s sleeping rooms after an architectural project that ran late. The flowers appeared to have been randomly discarded, as if their original circumstances had since been lost. Anyone could take a vase, he thought, why not? It certainly wasn’t stealing. Someone else may already have. Rather like telling a very small white lie, the thrill of such a rare indiscretion going unnoticed. So unlike like him and simply because he could.
There were four cardboard trays stuffed with arrangements in glass vases, yellow budding roses, deep purple chrysanthemums, round tufted green and lacey blooms anchored by smaller, airy salmon colored ones, each vase a slightly different array of a common theme. Craig did not know all their names, though they were familiar to him as blooms Nina liked. He selected an unobtrusive bouquet in the middle of one of the trays, one that would not be missed.
The glass bowl was wet, something sticky on the bottom. He grasped it, then looked about, thought better of it for a moment, but then moved instinctively on to the elevator bank, imagining a quiet car ride to the club’s eighteenth floor. Rising between floors, Craig rode pleasantly alone, the wood-paneled elevator car humming and creaking, pulling itself upward. He was nearly there when the car stopped on fourteen and a young woman rushed in, as though planning to travel further than the back side of the old car would allow.
“You look just like you belong right here,” she said. “No offense of course.”
“Like I belong here?” He looked at his khakis and button down shirt, the casual version of his studied look. To her, Craig was probably like one of the members in the old photos lining the walls of the club hallways, multi-generational members who seemed to have been born into the place. He did belong there now, having spent his breakfast reading a history of the architecture of the club, the kind of thing Nina always said made him seem bookish and removed.
“Yes, the kind of person who’d naturally belong to a club like this. I’m just crashing the place. The bride’s sister, Sydney Taylor, Syd to you.” She stuck out her hand.
Syd looked down at the flowers cradled in his palm. A few familiar brown party curls remained from her night before. She wore workout clothes, leggings and running shoes. She had friendly green eyes set above soft round cheeks; her gaze rose now to his face.
“Those are from the reception,” she said. It was an observation, not the accusation he might have anticipated. But then, “Caught you, eh?” she laughed.
“I think they are,” Craig said. He had seen her last night in evening wear banging on the door next to his as he returned from a late dinner alone on the rooftop.
“Quite a party it was. Were you there? I didn’t see you.”
“Ah, no I wasn’t.”
“Well, you missed a helluva party. Everything went off just the way it was planned. The ceremony. Then a great band. You must have heard them.” She looked down again at the vase of flowers. “Funny thing, no one won the prize. No one found the purple dot under a vase. Nice prize too, given by the groom. A really good case of vintage red wine.”
Craig felt the bottom of the still damp vase, then held it aloft. The purple dot, somewhat moist and faded, was fixed to the center.
“Well, will you look at that?” she said, eyes brighter now with surprise. “Someone wasn’t paying attention or worse, didn’t care.”
The car stopped on eighteen.
“Come on then,” she said. “Emily’s on this floor, the bride. I was her maid of honor.” She managed a mock curtsey while continuing to flounce down the hall. “Wedding night’s over. They don’t leave on their honeymoon til this afternoon. She won’t mind. Oh, but she’s gotta see this. We’ve all been wondering.”
“I don’t think--”
“What’s your name?”
“Craig, Craig Polk.”
“Follow me, Craig Polk. I’ll share the prize with you. I didn’t catch the bouquet either, by the way. I guess it wasn’t meant to be my night. But then you missed the band so I guess it wasn’t your night either.” She slowed and looked down at the flowers. “So pretty,” she said, then, looking back at Craig, “I’d say I looked swag.”
“I’m sure,” Craig said. She had looked swag.
She turned and asked quickly, “what are you, by the way?”
“I’m an architect, if that’s what you mean.”
“Oh, right,” she nodded, understanding, “what were you like artistic when you were younger and ended up there to be practical?”
“Something like that, yes.”
Absent the flowers, he could have refused her, perfunctorily gone his own way. But his possession of the arrangement bound them, obligating him now and giving her an odd power over him. He couldn’t just walk off with them. The purple dot. So, he followed her down the hall, culpably carrying the flowers for all to see, wishing he had left them behind in the Tap Room, chastened now for one of the few times he had ever broken the rules.
“This way,” she ordered, leading him down the columned corridor, against his will, as though being commanded by an older child at grade school who held some mysterious sway over him.
Still, he loved the contrast of the club’s 1880 classic design with the modernist house he had built for Nina in nearby Branson. Nina’s money. The opened doors, the architectural commissions over the years for friends and family. He could almost see himself now in the club photos full of the older members, those other times, people who truly belonged. He studied the long faces with their long ago money, this cross-section of American aristocracy that he had so badly wanted to belong to as a young man, that he had felt a distant outsider to in his youth.
“My sister’s new name is Edwards. Married her college sweetheart. Decent guy. Kind of a dull thing to do, marrying a college sweetheart, if you ask me, but no one did. I’m talking too much. Come along, around the corner. Groom’s hungover. Typical of him. Kind of a party boy, truth be told. Why are you wandering around the club alone stealing flowers, by the way? Who does that?”
“I had to work late last night and didn’t want to make the drive home.” He surprised himself, saying, “It was kind of nice not going back home. I didn’t think anyone would miss the flowers. They seemed to have been abandoned.”
“Guess we’re both cast-off’s,” Syd said. “Why was it fun not to go home? Who’s waiting for you there? Or not waiting.”
“Just a funny thought I had. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“Well, you took the flowers. That’s just a little bit of a bad boy thing to do. So maybe there’s hope for you.”
She knocked on her sister’s door.
The bride’s room was right next to Craig’s. The same door Sydney was banging on last night. The same overheard disturbance from last night.
“Come on in, Syd,” the bride said. She was up and all put together, dressed in a modern day variety of a bride’s traveling suit, ready to hold court as if this were her club. Craig could see a figure slouched in an armchair beyond. “Hello, who are you?” she said. “Where’d you find the flowers? I wondered what was supposed to happen to them.”
“This is Craig,” Syd said. “Found him on the elevator. Helped himself to some of the flowers he found downstairs. Looky here.”
She took the vase from Craig and held it above her head. “The purple sticker! I’m claiming it. Told Craig here I’d share the prize with him. My case of wine!” she said, throwing an arm at the groom who waved meekly, stocky and inert in his chair, a clumsily handsome boy-man. “Bill’s a wine rep, which is so perfect for him. He walks the walk, I’ll say that for him.”
“Syd!” the bride said, “stop making fun of him.”
“Well! He does. Look at him!”
Then Craig remembered hearing the disturbance through the locked common door the night before. Raised voices. “Have I settled?” the bride had asked. It hadn’t made sense at first and then he remembered his own wedding day. Nina’s parents, his parents. No turning back.
“Craig, meet Emily, my sis. And the beer baron over there is Bill.”
“Syd, honestly,” Emily said, “leave him alone. So he got a little tight. He’s just a social drinker and you know it.”
“Please don’t get up,” Craig said to Bill, who showed no sign of moving, only listing in his direction. Craig walked over and gave Bill a pat on the shoulder and retreated to the door.
“He just needs to hydrate,” Emily said, “that’s all.”
“Needs a camel pack and a hose if you ask me,” Syd said, “course no one ever does.”
“Um, you know I should go,” Craig said. “I’m right next door actually.”
Emily looked puzzled. “Right next door?” she asked, emphasizing each word one at a time, considering what they might add up to when put together in a sentence. “What a coincidence, yes,” now again just to herself, “what a coincidence. And now you with those lovely flowers.”
“Wouldn’t you like to have them?” Craig asked, “to brighten your room?”
“No, no, you keep them, please, I’d rather like you to have them. Make up for any disturbance we might have caused in the night.” A laugh. Then she paused, almost quizzical. “I’ve always wondered where wedding flowers that no one has claimed go after a wedding. Does the staff keep them?”
“Well then, enough of that,” Syd said. “I’ll walk you out, Craig of the flowers. Leave these two alone.” She rolled her eyes at Emily. “He’s all yours now.”
Outside in the hallway, as Emily’s room door closed, Syd said, “Bill’s not really an alchy. I just like to rag on him. If you ask me, yeah she loves him, but she coulda had a lot more. Ya know? Love, but it’s not in-love. You can just tell, can’t you? Me, I want in-love.” He watched her, admiring her, so young in her leggings. He thought again of her looking ‘swag’ the night before. He was momentarily caught up in her beauty and spontaneity with its promise of abandon.
Syd looked back over her shoulder as she walked away. “Nice to run into ya, by the way. Maybe I’ll see ya again some time.”
In his room, Craig wiped the bottom of the vase dry and removed what was left of the purple dot before placing the commandeered flowers on the table in the bay window. That spot called out for them. He hoped Sydney would get her prize.
He remembered last night, looking curiously at the locked door separating his room from the bride’s. It had a deadbolt on either side. He went to the door and listened closely. Emily was again talking to Bill. Craig had never heard such strange and plaintive tones from Nina.
“Honestly, Honey, how many times do I have to tell you, I didn’t mean that. It’s just that, well, you know, we both had too much to drink, that’s all. And you know better than to be bothered by what Syd says. But you should give her the prize anyway.”
He thought he heard Emily begin to cry. He knew she had already decided, generously and lovingly, to stay, as Craig had chosen once, making what he thought of now as a modern day arranged society marriage. Like Emily, he would go back home. He hadn’t thought about his own marriage in this way for a long time. There was too much to give up, too much to risk. Sweet Nina and her world. He pictured Bill lumbering to his feet next door. Or not.
He wanted to call through the door and tell Emily that her instinct with Bill was right; she wasn’t just settling for him, she was only settling for him. It wasn’t nearly that simple. Love but not in-love, Syd had said. Sometimes it’s best to do what is expected of you.
It would be unfair for him to say that he had settled for Nina. He wouldn’t be honest if he didn’t admit that her family wealth and social position had been a lure for him along with the headstrong, intoxicating way she had loved him, believed in him, against the subtle pressure of her parents to find someone more of her own background and social class. He owed her something for that, for his professional success that followed.
Craig had packed up his things and was headed for the elevator with the flowers in hand. He imagined now that the entire club had been occupied only by the bride and the groom and their intimates and they had all finally packed up their expectations and departed, leaving Craig as the only remaining inhabitant.
In the quiet lobby, he stopped at the front desk.
“Please have someone take this arrangement to the room of Ms. Sydney Taylor,” he said.
Craig passed again through the Tap Room. Club staff were reassembling the seating arrangement for that night’s dinner service. They might place the forsaken flowers on those tables, repurposing them. Or, perhaps, it was a matter of bad luck, or at least bad form, to do anything else with them at all.
Charles Scott is a writer living in Cincinnati who works in the real estate industry. He has recently begun writing again after a long hiatus and had a story published in the Michigan Journal Third Wednesday.