By Tanya Bomsta
First, it was a painting of sunflowers. He had always been afraid of them, had always thought their gaudy yellow petals blossomed from something sinister. And their height—it was unnatural, he thought, for a flower to stare you in the face. They were plants, not people. Christopher was tall himself, just about six feet. Tall enough to meet a short sunflower, but not quite tall enough to tower over one. It unnerved him, the way they seemed to look at him, the seeds in their disks like so many spider eyes. He shuddered every time he drove by the boundless fields of them on his way to work, with their leggy stems bending un- der the gross weight of their heads, their huge blank faces open and screaming in the wind.
But there had been a painting in the museum, and he hadn’t been able to stop looking at it. In the background, a nasty storm with deep purple clouds billowed against a bruised sky. In the foreground, the shadowed, golden petals of three sunflowers were being buffeted by the fierce gusts. Dark sky, dark flow- ers, the threat of storm so strong he almost turned his head and looked out the museum window to see if it was raining.
Despite his opinions about sunflowers, the painting compelled him, and he stood there staring at it for several minutes. Maybe it was the sense of vali- dation he felt: finally, a representation of a sunflower in its truest nature. Not all sunshine yellow against a clichéd blue sky, but dark and threatening and dangerous. Or maybe it was because he knew, the second he saw it, that she would like it. And he was right; she had joined him in front of the painting and let out a satisfied sigh, gazed at it the same way she sometimes looked at him. “It’s so . . . ” She brushed her eyes over every stroke of paint as she searched for a word. “Compelling,” she finally said.
The word made him smile. He hadn’t even said a thing and she chose the same word he’d used. Of course she had. Their thoughts seemed as nebulously connected as those dark purple storm clouds.
“It is, but they’re sunflowers,” Christopher protested. “I hate being com- pelled by sunflowers.”
Elizabeth smiled as she tilted her head to look at it from a different angle.
“Maybe you’re compelled because it’s proof that sunflowers are a lot more complex and interesting than you want to admit.”
“Oh?” he asked, stepping closer to her and putting his hand lightly on her back.
“Yes. You like it because these sunflowers look exactly the way you’ve al- ways seen sunflowers. All scary and threatening. But it’s compelling because it’s just a little uncomfortable, no? Because there’s more to it than that. Look how resistant they are to the storm.” She pointed to their rigid stems—an odd contrast to the wind-tossed petals. “They’re strong. Resilient.”
She was right, of course. Brilliantly so. “That’s true,” he said.
“It doesn’t always have to be one way or the other, you know,” she said, raising her eyebrow with a smile.
“Or,” he added, stroking her back now, “maybe they’re just stubborn and they have no awareness of what’s happening to them. Stupid flowers. They’re about to be blown off their stems.”
She shook her head, smiling. “You’re ridiculous,” she said, and looked up at him.
Those eyes were more compelling than any painting. A gray-blue sea that stirred up a storm within him. He had drowned already, succumbed in a way he hadn’t known he was capable of. He broke the gaze, glanced around furtively, and seeing no one, kissed her deeply, but briefly.
They passed through the gift shop on their way out, and they both saw small prints of the sunflower painting at the same moment. Elizabeth grabbed two instantly. “Let’s both get one,” she said. “We’ll each hang them up and have something to remember today by.”
The idea had charmed him. But when he got home and set the print on his mantel, still in its cellophane wrapper, he felt a strange unease, a nagging ques- tion.
“Is it weird?” he messaged her as he stood near his fireplace. “To have such blatant evidence of each other in our homes?” He had never brought anything into his home that was connected to her.
As Christopher waited for her reply, his wife turned the corner. He tucked the phone in his pocket.
“Oh,” she breathed, seeing the print. “That’s beautiful! Where did you get it?” She picked it up and looked at the brew of clouds.
“At the museum,” he said, and was glad he did not have to lie. “I stopped by after work.”
“We need to frame that.” She set it back up on the mantel as he put his arm around her waist. “Maybe put it on the family room wall?” She looked up at him, and he brushed the blond hair away from her eyes.
“Perfect,” he said. Her eyes were a bright blue, clear as a mountain lake, no hint of storm in their color. He had loved them since he had first met her twenty years ago, he loved them still. This thing with Elizabeth, it hadn’t changed his desire to be married to her. And yet, he loved Elizabeth too. From the moment they met—at that very museum, in fact, when he had accidentally bumped into her while simultaneously walking and reading the museum map—she’d brought a kind of vibrancy to the days, like the shimmer of sun on perfectly still water.
His phone chimed. “I don’t think ‘weird’ is the right word,” he read after his wife had left the room. “I think it’s a little risqué. Slightly problematic. Kind of impulsive. Transgressive. Symbolic. Just like us . . . for better or worse.”
He looked at the painting, his phone in hand. He couldn’t help but be de- lighted by the idea of a symbolic gesture. It was one of a million things about Elizabeth that made him fall for her. She could draw out shades of meaning in anything. They discussed and debated every topic that arose between them— from the abstract academia of philosophy and religion, to quotidian parenting problems, to the stealthy march of age that caught them both in their forties; even the housing market became an interesting conversation with Elizabeth. He found himself moved to share things he rarely even thought about, things he wanted out of life, things he was afraid he’d never have. Soon enough their talks brimmed with a sexual tension. Although at first he kept telling himself she was just a friend, within six months of meeting they had fallen into a passionate and unprecedented and beautiful affair.
His phone chimed again. “But,” Elizabeth followed up, “if it feels at all in- trusive, you should just hang it in your office. You know I don’t want to disrupt your family in any way.”
Yes, he knew. It was a conversation they’d had a hundred times. One that seemed to have no answers, that spun them around in a bottomless spiral of philosophy about morality and guilt and love. They had tried before to stop seeing each other, but the length of their willpower measured about the span of three days. He found himself pulled to her, as powerless as one of those pet- als caught in a windstorm. Helplessly, tumultuously pulled. The whole thing was such a sharp contrast to his home life. The same contented, comfortable life he had known for twenty years, the one he wouldn’t give up, not even for Elizabeth. His wife and his kids needed him. They still knew him to be the same person he had always been, the steady father and devoted husband, and really, that’s who he still was, and that’s how it needed to stay. Somehow, this made the affair more acceptable. Besides, he did not want to become a cliché, one of those men who let their affairs take over their whole lives and destroy their families. Elizabeth understood this. She had her own child from a previous marriage and a bad divorce to boot; she seemed to him to be a wonderful mother. “I would do the same thing,” she said, “if I were in your situation.” And the sincerity of her words only made him love her more.
So, they had decided their world would be contained inside a limited map, within the boundaries of the nearby city where they both worked. They both commuted from opposite directions, and there was little chance of running into anyone they both knew. It was a perfect setup—there were several museums they liked and a rotation of hotels they could check into for a day. They could take advantage of all the culture they could find, from concerts and exhibits to film festivals and quiet walks along the river trail, and then they’d go home. A discreet, nine-to-five kind of affair.
In a way, it almost didn’t feel like cheating. He didn’t come home late from work to stay with Elizabeth, and when he got home, there was no trace of her in his life. Well, until he had brought this print home, anyway. He picked it up and unwrapped the cellophane. He felt guilty, yes, frequently. But separating the two worlds made him feel better. Anyway, it was only right to keep the two relationships within their own realms. Because, after all, they were two different types of love. His wife he loved with a fierce loyalty. She was his life partner, the mother of his two children, an avid reader, a graceful dinner companion, his faithful supporter. Elizabeth he loved with the same force that tethered his soul to his body.
He fiddled with the placement of the print on the mantel, pushing it a few inches to the right, sliding it over a knot in the wood. He leaned a little closer. He hadn’t noticed that knot before. It was perfectly circular, with varying hues of walnut and oak. He loved those types of knots, how they made each piece of wood unique. It even played off the brown disks of the sunflowers in the painting.
He glanced up at the three golden flowers, and felt a sudden unease.
It was those damned brown disks, with their endless spirals of seeds. The museum plaque had said something about those spirals, something about a complex math equation whose answer looked like the pattern of florets inside the disk.
He didn’t much care for this idea. Not for the messy crossover of math and nature, and not for the disks that looked like dizzying, unfinished faces, like a million eyes peering into him.
* * *
The next day after work, he was emptying his pockets onto the kitchen counter when he found one of Elizabeth’s hair clips among his loose change. He had for- gotten she had given it to him to hold earlier that day. They had been sitting at a table by the river, having lunch and talking about their kids. “So you’re telling me,” she said, removing the clip and letting her rosy brown hair fall across her shoulders, “that your son has never packed his own lunch?” She ran her hands through her hair. “Here, would you hang on to this? I don’t have a pocket.”
He took the clip from her. It was a simple, silver barrette, understated and classic, her style.
He tucked the barrette into his pocket and shrugged. “My wife has just al- ways stayed at home, so I guess she doesn’t really mind doing it for him.”
He laughed at the look on her face, and pulled her chair closer to his so that their legs touched. “Okay, you’re clearly distraught by this. Is it really that bad?” Elizabeth leaned toward him, and he took a second to inhale the floral scent of her hair. “What, he’s twelve?” she asked. Christopher nodded. “I just think it’s important to encourage self-sufficiency early on. So, you know, he doesn’t grow up and expect his wife to do that kind of stuff for him.”
She had a point. “I’ll have to see if I can get him to stop playing basket- ball long enough to pack his lunch,” Christopher said, and then ran his hands through her hair. He liked the way the sunlight picked up hues of caramel and rose, how the scent carried on the breeze.
He was surprised, now, that he hadn’t remembered to give the clip back to her when they parted, seeing as he had spent so much time admiring her hair. And now here it sat, gleaming against the counter. It was the same tone, actually, as the silver flecks in the granite his wife had chosen. Like diamonds, those sil- ver flecks—he hadn’t really appreciated the way they sparkled under the can lights before. He leaned a little closer to the countertop. There were brown flecks in the stone too—the same light brown as Elizabeth’s hair. The color of sunflower seeds. He looked up and admired the rest of the kitchen. It was a lovely space, really. He didn’t cook much, so he never fully appreciated it. But there was a pleasantness to it, he decided, a cohesiveness to the color scheme, a welcoming cleanliness to those silver-brown-cream granite count- ers where Elizabeth’s barrette still lay. He picked it up, held it to his lips. He would return it tomorrow.
* * *
But he forgot. The barrette sat on the kitchen counter until his wife, assuming it belonged to their daughter, put it in her bedroom.
A few days later, he accidentally brought home one of Elizabeth’s earrings. He had pressed her up against the wall of his office that day, kissed her pas- sionately, whispered in her star-studded ear how much he loved her, how much he needed her. The little earring must have fallen off during their lovemaking, gotten caught somehow in the green cuff of his button-up shirt. When he got home and changed, he heard a small ping! as he stripped his clothes off, and he looked down to see the star-shaped earring bouncing across the hardwood floor towards the heater vent. He didn’t even have time to move before it fell perfectly through the slats of the grate, as silently as though it didn’t exist.
A stab of unexpected panic drove through him. He got on his hands and knees and pulled his phone from his back pocket, turned on the flashlight, and pulled the grate out of the floor. The light illuminated only the first foot or so of the vent, before angling off into god knows where. He turned the phone this way and that, shining into the corners, seeking a sparkle, a glint, anything. But the earring was gone.
Christopher straightened up and took a deep breath, steadied himself. He didn’t need to worry about being unable to return it to Elizabeth—no, this would just give him an excuse to buy her a new pair and make her smile. He turned off his flash- light, but continued staring at the black hole of the vent. It’s not like his wife would find it and start asking uncomfortable questions. The earring was buried deep, an unseen gleam in the bones of his home. He could almost picture it, sitting there in the house’s bowels, its stiletto stud just waiting to poke an unsuspecting mouse paw.
Christopher turned and finished changing out of his work clothes. No one would ever know it was there. It really wasn’t a big deal.
But all through dinner he couldn’t stop thinking of the earring. It didn’t help that his daughter was wearing a pair similar to Elizabeth’s, and every time she moved her head the light would catch on the jewelry and glint at Christopher as brightly as a laugh.
After he finished the dishes, he went down into the basement armed with a screwdriver and flashlight. He looked up at the maze of ductwork and wires and pipes, a labyrinth of innards that kept the house running. When he found a vent he thought might be connected to his bedroom, he saw with a glance that it was a hopeless mission. The vent wrapped into unreachable places, and he couldn’t even tell for sure it was the right vent at all. And yet, he went up to it anyway, placed his hands against the cool ducts, the damned things. They should be made of plexiglass or something so that you could see inside.
If only Elizabeth could see him now. He considered texting her, telling her all about how he’d lost her earring and was on a gallant quest to retrieve it. Yes, that’s how he could frame this sudden obsession.
Just then the furnace rumbled on, and he could feel the slight vibration of the ducts against his hands. He frowned and gave up, sitting down on a dusty, old patio chair. The earring would just have to remain where it was, out of sight. Yet omnipresent. He took out his phone, started a text, and then stopped. Elizabeth would see through this compulsive hunt in a heartbeat. For the first time in his life, he felt he had met someone who really knew him. Their thoughts seemed so mingled together sometimes that he had a hard time distinguishing which was hers and which his. When he talked with her, it was as though some- thing inside him was cracking open, some ancient well he hadn’t even known existed, that only she knew how to release.
It was a little unnerving, actually. The basement felt suddenly dim and damp. Christopher shifted in his seat. A stray spiderweb brushed across his face, and he brushed it away distractedly, hurriedly tucked the phone back in his pocket, and went upstairs.
* * *
Next, it was a vial of her shampoo. This one, he had requested. The smell of her hair drove him wild—jasmine, she said, with a hint of musk—but a lock of hair would have been too obvious. So she had poured a little of her shampoo into a glass cylinder with a cork top and given it to him to keep in his office. To breathe her in, she said, whenever they couldn’t meet up. He had meant to keep it in his desk drawer, he really had. But somehow it too had found its way into his house, fallen out of his briefcase maybe. And then one evening as he was sitting at his kitchen table reading, he looked up to see his wife holding the vial in her hands and mumbling, “Where did this come from?”
He almost dropped the book he was reading. A sudden vision bloomed before him where his wife opened the vial, smelled it, and the scent of his other world blossomed outward and infiltrated this one—like two incompatible chemicals seeping toward each other, closer and closer, almost touching, just before they meet, kiss, and explode.
He opened his mouth to say something—what, he didn’t know; a shout of warning, or surrender, anything to divert the inevitable.
But then, with an almost imperceptible shrug, his wife threw the vial into the catchall drawer and started packing their son’s lunch.
Christopher exhaled. He set his book down on the table and swore to himself that no more of Elizabeth’s things would end up in his house.
“Hey,” he said to his wife, after collecting himself. “Why don’t you let him do that? He could probably start packing his own lunch, don’t you think?”
She paused, halfway through building a ham sandwich. “I mean, I don’t mind doing it, but I guess that wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “I’ll have him finish it after he gets home tonight.” She glanced at the clock. “You better go if you’re going to pick him up on time.”
He had forgotten about basketball practice. He would find the vial and put it back in his briefcase after he got home that night.
But when he returned and opened the drawer, it was empty. Completely.
His wife was at the kitchen table, reading a magazine. “What happened to the stuff in the junk drawer?” he asked, his hand still on the knob.
“I cleaned it out while you were gone,” she replied, her eyes still running along her page. “I needed something to do to keep myself from packing lunches.” She smiled, glanced up at him. “Why, are you looking for something?”
He closed the drawer, mumbled no, and walked out to the family room. He sat down and opened his phone to a news story, but couldn’t focus. Instead, he looked at the portraits on the wall, of his family on vacation at the beach, at the Grand Canyon, in Niagara Falls. His wife and kids standing in front of the safety rail, laughing in the spray of water from the falls plunging over the edge and into the deep.
It was silly to worry. So a few of Elizabeth’s things had ended up in his house. The essential boundaries were still in place. Nothing had changed in his family. His wife, his son, his daughter—they were all doing fine, they were all exactly as they had always been. They didn’t know anything about his affair, and they didn’t need to, because it hadn’t changed anything fundamental. He was still a loving husband, a good father. Admittedly, he did seem to see the world a little differ- ently. Through a kind of Elizabeth-colored prism. He couldn’t watch a movie or read a book without imagining what she would say about it. If he saw a necklace in a store, he couldn’t help but wonder how it would look draped near Elizabeth’s defined collarbones. He couldn’t see the river without hearing the way Elizabeth had described it once, a current of madness. He found that by the time he got home from work, he already missed her, already looked forward to seeing her at lunch the next day, in his office, or near the river, anywhere in their safe little bounded world. He looked down at his phone and started reading. Here, though, he was husband and father, and nothing about that was going to change.
* * *
Next, it was Tupperware. Elizabeth had brought them lunch: chicken beurre blanc she’d made the night before. It was delicious—was there anything she didn’t excel at?—creamy, tangy, drizzled over roasted peppers with garlic and tomatoes. She would’ve taken the Tupperware back, but he hadn’t quite fin- ished his portion, and he planned on cleaning it and returning it to her the next day. He washed it by hand in his kitchen sink, left it to dry in the dish drain. He even put a reminder on his phone to put it in his briefcase. But by the time his phone buzzed the next morning, the Tupperware had disappeared. Probably put in some cupboard he didn’t have time to look in, he figured. He shrugged and tried not to think much of it; the container was barely discernible from the mishmash of other ones they’d collected over the years.
Then it was receipts, just the minor ones, from coffees they’d had together, for muffins they loved from a local café. He threw them unwittingly in the bas- ket that his wife had for such detritus. And then a scribbled recipe in Elizabeth’s hand for the chicken beurre blanc found its way into their recipe drawer. And then her ChapStick—he never found out where that ended up. One of her bookmarks. A little horse statuette they’d picked out together at an art show that his wife put on display in the china cabinet. A teal pencil she’d lent him. Complimentary soap from the hotel where they stayed that got thrown in a bathroom drawer.
Then, one day, he brought home a book Elizabeth had given him. It was a collection of poetry by an author they both loved, and this specific edition had a cover Elizabeth couldn’t resist: a bowl of sunflower seeds centered on the white background, sitting among a mess of ragged leaves and yellow petals. “Sunflower carnage,” she had called it, laughing, and read one of the poems aloud that described their fallen stems as spines uprooted from cold, earthy graves. (“Fields of broken, sun-topped bones,” she’d said, adding in her own lines.) She had a way of reading poetry that embraced every word, somehow made it sound as natural as conversation.
He had to move a few things around the shelf to make the book fit, and while shuffling through the books, he picked up a volume he didn’t realize they owned: a photo guide to different breeds of horses. He couldn’t recall anyone in his family expressing an interest in horses; in fact, the only person he knew with a love for horses was Elizabeth.
As he was looking at a photo of a Trakehner, his daughter walked by on her way out the door.
“Do you know whose book this is?” he asked, holding up the guide. “That’s mine,” she said, barely looking at it.
“Oh.” He studied her for a moment as she pulled on her coat. She was just about Elizabeth’s height, and he suddenly wondered if there were other things they had in common. “So,” he said, feeling a sudden urge to sit down and talk with her, “where are you off to?”
“Just out,” she said.
“Oh, same place as always, then?” She rolled her eyes in the teenage style and turned to flounce out the door, when he noticed the light catch on something in her hair. A simple, classic barrette.
* * *
The next day, he snuck into his daughter’s room to look around for that bar- rette. Not that Elizabeth had ever asked for it back—she’d likely forgotten about it too. But it had felt off, seeing that barrette in his daughter’s hair, like it was just any old hair clip. He couldn’t ask for it, he figured, that would be suspicious. He would just wait until she was gone and poke around her room. She wouldn’t even notice.
He slipped in when the house was quiet and his daughter wasn’t yet home, flipping the light on and closing the door. She had changed some things, ap- parently. The room wasn’t as he remembered it. How long had it been since he’d been in here? The posters were all different, a bunch of bands he didn’t know his daughter listened to. The walls, too—didn’t they used to be purple? But the cornflower blue paint made it feel cozy, and a string of lights hung across the bed cast a glow on the pillows and blankets, all fluffy and welcom- ing. He started opening some dresser drawers, feeling intrusive. No barrette. He looked on the desk, then on a shelf in the closet, then under the bed. He found a diary he dared not open, a few dystopian novels with covers of blank- faced people, a letter jacket that seemed too large for his daughter and raised questions he didn’t know the answers to. The barrette, however, was nowhere to be found.
He walked downstairs, a plaguing sense of unease now hovering. His wife was sitting on the couch, reading.
“Hey,” he said, casually, trying to forget the barrette. “What are you reading?” “A book of poetry. It must be yours,” she said, holding the book up for him
to see. His stomach dropped. A bowl of sunflower seeds stared back at him.
He had a powerful urge to ask for the book back, to take it from her hands and explain that it really didn’t belong here.
“I didn’t realize you liked reading poetry,” he said slowly.
She looked confused. “What do you mean?” she said. “I’ve been reading poetry for a while now.” She turned back to the book. “This collection is really great.”
He stood for a second, undecided. Finally, he left the room and walked into the kitchen, where his son was milling about, getting his lunch together for school the next day.
“Hey Dad, do you know if we have any more bread?” he asked, peering in the fridge.
“I thought your mother bought some—” Christopher stopped. On the counter, the trappings of lunch were spread across the granite, and there in the middle was Elizabeth’s Tupperware, filled with leftover casserole, the freshly washed lid snapped tightly closed. He watched his son close the fridge and then slip the container into his lunch bag. Just then his wife called to him, “Oh, come listen to this poem, dear. You’ll love it. It has sunflowers in it.” He walked into the family room and saw the sunflower painting, now framed, centered and hung among the family portraits. The windows were open, a breeze ruffling the pages of the book in his wife’s hands, and a question of rain hung in the sky. Suddenly the front door sprang open and his daughter came trouncing through, the silver barrette gleaming in her hair, and as she walked by he thought he caught a scent of jasmine and musk; he turned his head to a clinking noise as his son opened the china cabinet, brushing Elizabeth’s statue with his hand as he reached for a glass, and his wife took a tube of ChapStick from her pocket, pressing it to her lips, and his daughter asked why was he standing there all weird like that, and anyway, where was that recipe for the chicken beurre blanc; and everywhere he looked, Elizabeth was there, everywhere he looked, she was home.
Tanya Bomsta writes by morning and works a day job the rest of the time. Her work has been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Florida Review, The Iowa Review, december, and elsewhere, and it has been listed among the Notable Essays in the Best American Essays series. See more at tanyabomsta.com.