The Smell of Roses – Alena Sigsby
Andrew was the boy who smelled like roses. All the time, unequivocally. We had four classes together, and I always passed him in the hall to and from each period. No matter where we were, if he was near, the aroma of roses would be present. It never bothered me, but sometimes, I felt like the exception.
Whispers of “fag” and “queer” followed him wherever he went, floating on the air, more pungent than any flowers ever could be. I wondered what those whispers would do if they knew I could smell them too.
“Do you think he, like, bathes in the stuff?” I heard one girl ask.
“Maybe he drinks it, and it just comes out of his body,” a guy said.
“What do you think, Roy?”
I shrugged, not wanting to be part of this. As the ace of the varsity soccer team, I wasn’t allowed to be gay. However, that didn’t mean I had to insult someone that everybody assumed wasn’t straight. “It’s none of my business.”
“Aw, you’re no fun,” the girl simpered at me.
I smiled. It was easier to pretend they effected me. Easier to pretend I was interested. Everything was simpler this way.
My every afternoon was spent stretching, passing, dribbling, scoring. The field always smelled like freshly mown grass, paint, and sweat. So much sweat. It was times like this I’d much rather be smelling roses. They’d been on my mind more than usual, lately. Petals and thorns, and this thick, rich scent that clung to clothes and skin relentlessly.
“Mark him, mark him!” a teammate shouted, and I found the nearest forward to cover. The ball made its way to us, and I intercepted, dribbling it down the soccer field, scoring the winning goal. My teammates all cheered for me, and the match was over, just like that.
All sweat and fresh-cut grass.
I saw him on my way home from the game. He was crouched down low in the dirt beside the school. Something in me decided walking toward him was a good idea. I told myself I wanted to smell the roses, but in reality, I think I wanted to see him.
Andrew stiffened as he heard my footsteps, but he didn’t stop whatever he was doing. I noticed he was hands deep in dirt, gloves thoroughly blackened by earth. He had an uprooted plant in one hand, its roots like long, thin fingers reaching with all their might for the comforting touch of the soil, its embrace like that of a lover.
“What are you doing?” I asked him. Roses. Even when he was knee-deep in other plants, he still smelled like roses.
“One of the teachers asked me to replant these,” he said. His voice was flat, unfeeling, much like when he was called on in class.
“What are they?”
He looked at me, frowning as though trying to see through me, see what I was playing at. There was no doubt he thought I was going to make fun of him, call him those terrible things everyone else always whispered when they thought no one could hear. The unoriginality of their tasteless barbs didn’t escape me, like plain tofu: porous and boring.
“Lilies,” he finally replied. “They have to be separated and replanted or they won’t stay healthy.”
That was when I noticed the other gardening tools beside him. He had a hand rake, a little shovel, and some shears. I knelt beside him, and while the rose smell grew stronger, I could also smell the loamy earth, the sharp scent of recently cut plant stems, and sweat. It was a hot, late spring day. Everything had an edge of sweat. Even the plants were sweating.
“Can I help?”
I must have looked ridiculous to him. Roy Turner, captain of the soccer team, kneeling in the dirt with the school pariah, asking about plants. I was still wearing my soccer gear, shin pads and all, as I waited for him to decide.
He grabbed the little shovel, thrusting it at me. “Dig a hole, here.” He gestured at a spot in the dirt, jabbing at it with the shovel. “Make it as deep as this one.” He pointed to another before he went back to shaking the dirt from the roots of the plant he held in his hands.
I started digging, and soon my hands were brown as his gloves and hurting. I wondered what kind of calluses Andrew had on his covered hands. Upon closer inspection, his hands were pretty big. They might have been bigger than mine. He could probably throw a soccer ball well if he ever tried.
“You know what people say about you?” I said, eyes focused on the dirt.
He laughed, a breathy sound. “I’d have to be deaf not to.” There was silence, and then he said, “I am, you know.” He had an inscrutable expression on his face. It made me want to see how big his hands were by lacing our fingers.
“You’re what?” I asked when he didn’t say anything more.
“Don’t say it like that.” He’d said the word the way it was whispered, rudely, nastily, like someone swearing and trying to sound cool. “If you’re gay, just say you’re gay.”
He shook his head. “I think queer fits better. Weird and gay.”
With a sigh, I dropped the shovel next to the hole I made, getting to my feet. “I hope I dug deep enough for you.”
I turned to walk away when he said, “Wait.” He stood, holding some weird blue flowers in his hand. “Here. Hyacinths. Thanks for helping.” Then, he knelt right back down and kept working on the lilies.
Hyacinths. I Googled them. They meant constancy and a sporty attitude. I think he was trying to be funny. They smelled heady, an interesting change from roses and sweat.
The next day, I left a picture of a flower on his desk. Asters. They meant patience.
He didn’t respond to that, but we smiled at each other when we passed in the halls. I wondered if, somehow, I hadn’t opened him up a bit. Maybe I was being full of myself, but it made me feel a little better about walking out on him like that.
It was about a week later that I found him crying by the lilies he’d replanted. When I approached, he looked up at me, a bruise already forming on his face. Someone must have decided he was too queer for them, in every sense of the word. I sat at his side, taking one of his hands in mine. It was rough, callused, probably from gardening. He didn’t pull away, and we sat there, smelling of dirt, roses, and sweat.
I walked with him between classes. No one dared to say anything when we were together, but in the two classes I had without him, I got bombarded with questions.
“Roy, what the hell man?”
“Why are you hanging around that freak?”
“What did he do to you? Is it blackmail?”
All of these I responded to with a shrug. “He’s all right by me.”
Andrew had a few friends, all girls, who walked with him when I couldn’t. They seemed nice, but it was obvious he wasn’t interested in any of them romantically. I wondered what they thought of his rose smell. Lately, I’d been getting drunk on the scent.
I found wisteria on my desk one day. It meant “I like being friends with you.” The next morning, I left him a photo of anthurium. It meant happiness.
Summer was on its way. Soon, school would be out. The lilies Andrew had planted were blooming, making that my favorite spot. We sat there during lunch most days. Sometimes, one of his friends would join us, but it was usually just the two of us. The varsity soccer season was coming to a close. We’d won enough games to score a championship title, and Andrew had even come to the last game. He hadn’t stayed after, but he’d come.
We talked a lot. I asked him all sorts of questions, and he asked me as many in return. The one thing I never asked was why he smelled like roses. I was worried if I asked the smell might disappear, like it had never existed in the first place.
On the last day of school, he gave me his cell phone number along with a daisy. Daisies meant innocence. I didn’t have the courage to ask him what that meant. I texted him a picture of king protea. They meant courage and diversity. We didn’t talk for a few days after that. It wasn’t until after I sent him a snapdragon for strength that he texted me back.
Lily was Andrew’s best friend. Her family ran a diner downtown that served the normal diner fare along with a quirky, special menu for people who wanted vegetarian options. Lots of them. One day, I went in there, just to see what the hype was about. It was called Calla’s, and working the front register was Lily herself. She smiled at me when I came in, handing me a menu.
“How goes it, Ace Turner?” She always called me that.
“It’s all right. You?”
“It goes, it goes.” She smiled. “First time here?”
“Then I don’t recommend Callum’s Corner.” That was the name of the special menu in the back. I glanced at it and laughed. It was full of the scientific names for plants. “Just order a sammich or something.”
“A sammich?” Lily didn’t care what anyone thought of her. She was confident, and indifference rolled off her in waves. She’d been friends with Andrew for years, and when people picked on her, she just let it go. I wished I had half her tenacity.
That was when I noticed a suspension slip framed on the wall behind her. “Why do you have that framed?”
She looked over her shoulder, a strange smile on her face. “I beat the snot out of some kids who were picking on Andrew. My parents were so proud of me they decided to hang that up where everyone could see and ask about it.”
I stared at it for a long moment, shaking my head. Lily Callum was a force of nature. I ordered a sandwich, and when it came to my table, there was a note attached. It read: ask about the roses, and it was signed with a drawing of a lily and a sunflower. Lilies meant purity, where sunflowers meant dedication and pure thoughts.
She was trying to show she had good intentions. It made me wonder who came up with the idea to speak with flowers: her or Andrew. It wasn’t until I left that I realized the whole place smelled like roses.
Why roses? I took the plunge, sent the text, held my breath for his reply.
Why not roses? Not the response I’d been hoping for.
He sent me an address and a time. I got in my car and drove to a part of town I hardly ever visited and stopped outside an enormous garden. The sign outside said Calla and Leanna’s Botanical Garden. I wondered if it was the same Calla as Lily’s diner.
I went inside and found a letter wedged into a trellis. It said “Jonquil for Roy.” I desire your affection. I looked it up on my phone and started running. There was another note resting on a patch of flowers. It said “Coreopsis arkansa for Roy.” Love at first sight. I kept running. When I got to the “Amaryllis for Roy” I started crying. Worth beyond beauty.
I came to a stop at a greenhouse. The plaque outside the door read: “In Loving Memory of Leanna Rowan”. That was Andrew’s last name. I slowly, hesitantly pushed open the glass door and was struck dumb.
Roses. Everything was covered in roses, and the air was so thick with the smell that it nearly bowled me over. I stepped inside, eyes wide with wonder. They lined the walls and floor in every color imaginable, their green leaves beckoning me further, further, filling my nose with the heavenly scent of these flowers and making my heart pound out of my chest.
In the back corner, fingers cupping the bud of a bright pink rose, stood Andrew. When he saw me, our eyes locked for a moment, freezing me in place. He gave me a tentative smile, and I walked toward him. We stood in silence as I breathed him in, breathed in the overwhelming scent of Andrew.
Andrew’s voice reached my ears, like a spell as he said, “My mom was a botanist. She worked with Lily’s mom, and they founded this garden. When she died…we dedicated this greenhouse to her. Roses were always her favorite flower.”
I nodded, unable to speak. This was why Andrew always smelled like roses. He spent his free time engulfed by them. He’d been giving the flowers all the love and affection his mother had poured into him. It was a cycle he refused to let be broken, whether by her passing or the monsters at school who could never understand him. Understand us.
I watched as Andrew took shears to the bud he held in his hand. He passed it to me, a smile on his face. He gestured to my pocket, and I pulled out my phone, looking it up. One pink rose bud–new love.
With a smile, I handed him the flower I’d picked on my way here. A honeysuckle. He laughed, taking it from me and inhaling deeply.
“How can you smell anything with all the roses?” I asked him.
“You get used to it.”
I knew I never would. Every time I saw Andrew, every time he let me help him in his mother’s greenhouse, the smell hit me anew, and I thought of him. His smiles, his frowns, his harsh words when we first met. Roses would always mean Andrew and whole, unconditional love. The love of a mother, of a best friend…and of a boyfriend.
I took his hand in mine, and he smiled at me. “It won’t be easy.”
“Nothing that’s worth it ever is.” He raised an eyebrow at me, and I laughed. “Well, I think you’re worth it.”
We spent the rest of the day in that greenhouse, talking, laughing, holding hands, and thinking about a future filled with the smell of roses.
Alena Sigsby is a soon to be graduate from the University of Mary Washington and this is her first publication. She spends most of her time on stealing moments to write, school, and work. She’s totally not worrying about what she’ll do with her time once school is finally over. Totally.