I used to think heaven was the workroom floor in the back of my parents’ flower shop. When I was little, my mother would spread out an old quilt under her antique work table and tell me it was a fort—probably to keep me quiet. There I’d stay for hours, snuggled in a nest of frilly pillows, wearing a glittery tutu with my red cowboy boots and speaking in strange tongues to tiny dolls of wire and felt. As my mother worked, flower petals would fall down around me, silken bits of perfume that stained my fingers pink and filled me so full that even my tears at bed time would taste like roses.
Dad doesn’t want me to talk about heaven anymore. He says it’s nothing but a hat stand for cowards and brown nosers.
Back before the Freedom to Marry Act, we were a normal, law abiding family. Technically, we still obey the law. We just don’t do it in a safe, socially acceptable way.
I don’t really know how to explain everything. It’s sort of like what happened with the Civil Rights Movement back in the sixties. The government gave some people rights and other people—my dad calls them melisha or something—took those rights away . . . without . . . I think it’s called due process.
I don’t always understand my dad when he’s ranting about the government. He doesn’t really do it for my benefit. When I try to ask him about it, he says that everything better be okay by the time I’m old enough to benefit from his profanity or he’s moving us all to Canada.
Maybe I should just explain what my family does and why it is so dangerous. My dad is a wedding officiant and my mom is a one-stop wedding coordinator. We hold super secret weddings on the roof of our shop where tall fake solar panels block us from view. The melisha is what makes is what makes this so dangerous. After the government said that everybody had the right to get married, the melisha made it so that only the people they liked could get married in public. If they didn’t like you, the only wedding you’d ever be allowed to have was the printing of your marriage certificate off of your home computer. If you tried to get married in public, you might be shot or kidnapped or a bomb might go off and kill everyone at your wedding. You’d have to get married in shame, without the sanction of your community or the blessing of your family and friends.
Here are the people that the melisha doesn’t like:
- People with disabilities or with family histories of certain conditions or diseases.
- People who’ve made mistakes with drugs or who’ve gone to jail.
- Atheists and Non-Christians.
- People marrying outside of their race.
- People who are infertile.
- People who don’t have health insurance or lots of debt.
- People who live together before marriage, who are not virgins or who have been married more than once.
- People who are gay.
My dad says that no one should ever be ashamed of love. That’s why we do what we do and why we don’t care about heaven.
“Mom,” I turn to my mother who is pressing gum paste into pale sugary flowers. “How did you learn all of this stuff?”
“Well,” she says in a way that tells me she’s editing the truth. “I didn’t have very much help with my own wedding.”
I try not to look too interested. My mother never talks about the past. Maybe if I’m quiet enough, innocent enough, a bit of the story will press its way to the surface. I wrack my mind for a non-threatening question.
“What flowers did you make then?” The air around me is thick, as if she know what I am thinking.
“Daisies.” She laughs, releasing a sigh. The delicate, giant peony trembles in her hand. “Little white daisies.”
“Like the ones I stamp out now with cookie cutters?”
“Exactly. They were always the easiest.” She creases her brow, pretending that the giant white flower is especially tricky even though we’ve made about eighty of them today. Our freezer is full of sugary flowers. “Make sure you roll the paste out thin enough, Love.”
My whole life is rolling out gum paste.
When I’m not rolling out gum paste, I’m sewing on pearls, practicing the harp, making phyllo cups and sweeping up rice.
Downstairs, the store bells jingle open. We both freeze.
“You better get it.” My mother says gesturing to my work gloves. “I have gum paste under my nails.”
Tossing the latex gloves aside, I leave the sugary dough where it is and zip down the staircase at the back of our condo into the flower shop below. On my way, I pull my hair out of its netting, tie on my red apron with the words Valentine’s Garden embroidered across the front and paste on a big cheerful smile.
“Hi,” I squeak in the direction of two frumpy middle aged women. Cheerful, cheerful, cheerful, I think. “How can I help you?”
They ignore me. I catch the name of someone named Dorris as they putter around the make-your-own fruit basket section. Poor Dorris. The two women exchange catty grins as they load an Easter basket with homemade kiwi leather, Asian pears wrapped in gold foil, pretzels, imported cheese, a sausage roll and a jar of mustard. There is one true thing I know: a sausage roll is not sympathetic.
While I watch the two women murder Dorris with their increasingly impersonal selections, the store bell rings again. Hmmmm. We don’t get many customers this early in the morning.
The woman who walks in is soft and small—much softer than me, with my muscles built up from riding the delivery bike in the evenings. She totters up to the counter in a sweatshirt much too big for her and draws her bright red hair around her face like a veil.
“Hello.” I say as if too many words might make her melt.
She doesn’t say anything at first, only looks around as if she’s not sure that she’s wants to be here. Under her thin hair, a dark bruise blooms across her left cheekbone. Her eyes lock on an old marble statue of St. Valentine behind the register. Only then does she look at me and smile.
Ah, she’s here to see my dad.
I give my line just the way he taught me. “Ah, Miss Johnson, we have your order in the back.”
The corners of my lips and eyes beam cheerful, cheerful, cheerful but I am careful not to let the pitch of my voice crawl to high as I call to the frumpy women in the fruit basket aisle, “You ladies just ring if there is anything you need.”
The women ignore my merry little wrap of the bell on the counter. They are too wrapped up in chocolate dipped shortbread.
I flick on the workroom light. When I do, the metal detector hidden in the doorway springs to life. The woman who follows me in, isn’t even carrying house keys. Somewhere in the basement, my father makes a note of this.
“Are you afraid of dogs?” I ask as Mitzi, our ninety pound German Shepherd rises from her spot in the corner and sniffs her for the scent of explosives. Mitzi flops to the floor disappointed.
“Hold on to the handrail. It’s pitch black.” I push a large bookshelf to the side and lead her down a steep flight of stairs. The office below is sound proof, cell phone proof and magnetized against digital media. It is a place where everything is written longhand, a place where the wrong person can shot from behind a two way mirror.
My dad sits behind that two way mirror now. But I do not look. I have had too much practice. Instead, I hand the woman a clipboard and a stack of forms that will take her an hour to fill out.
“When will your fiancé get here?”
“She was supposed to meet me here.”
She, I think, averting my eyes from her bruise. Must have been her father or boyfriend-figure who did that. I see it all the time.
I go up and look for the fiancé. It doesn’t surprise me when I don’t find her in the shop. More people chicken out than go through with it. I ring up the frumpy ladies’ fruit basket, hot gluing artificial roses to handle as per their request. My mother has a jug of ice tea and a plate of sandwiches waiting upstairs for my father’s clients. I bring them down to the woman in the soundproof room.
“She isn’t here yet.” I say. The woman looks as if she might burst into tears. “Is there a phone number where I can reach her?”
The woman shakes her head. “I don’t want to get her in trouble.”
I look at the bruise on her cheek and think about the fact that she didn’t bring house keys with her. The oversized messenger bag strung across her bony shoulders might very well hold everything she owns. It has happened before. People don’t understand that a wedding isn’t an instantaneous thing. “Do you have a place to go tonight?”
She emits a strange low keel.
I want to tell her that we have rooms and beds for our most desperate clients. But I can’t tell her that she is desperate. So I say, “I should go up and wait for her.”
The afternoon wears on. Customers wander in and out, mostly ignoring me until they make their purchases. I arrange the delivery of eighteen funeral wreaths, three identical virgin-Christian-heterosexual-perfect-Barbie-Doll-wedding-in-a-box shipments and about thirty-five ladies-who-lunch-type arrangements. The smirky, impersonal fruit baskets fly off the shelves and I sell half a gazillion potted orchids meant to brighten up half a gazillion corporate offices.
The fiancé doesn’t come. The woman still waits downstairs.
Dad should really be the one to handle these things.
I draw the shop’s embroidered curtains and sweep the sidewalk in front of the store, gathering the litter into a small pile by the dumpster. I pull the lid of the dumpster open.
All of a sudden, I know what’s happened to the fiancé.