by Zahra Barnes
“Heroin?! Tessa. Shut. The. Fuck. Up.” Marley stared at me, her mouth agape. We were at a cafe before I had my first interview with Savannah, who had finally gotten back to me.
“Not just heroin.” I held up a finger and corrected Marley. “Everything. Pills. Uppers. Downers. Sideway-ers, if those exist. Celine said when she was keeping track, she was mainly snorting heroin and taking prescription pills. Klonopin. Adderall. Whatever she could get her hands on, sometimes with coke mixed in. But then she’d lose track and just…take whatever. I still can’t believe it.”
“She’s so tiny. How did she not overdose? Jesus Christ.”
“By the grace of God, according to her mother. It’s seriously the craziest story. I guess I shouldn’t say that, because it’s really sad. But, I mean. Just listen.” I leaned forward and cupped my hands around my intimidatingly large coffee. If Marian had taught me anything, it was the value of a few extra shots of espresso on an important day. “So you know how Celine’s a fashion designer? Her parents had been bankrolling all of it. Her rent, the material for her designs, everything. She always made it sound like they were basically paying her to stay out of their lives, but I think they just tried to shower her with money as a way to prove how much they cared. When Celine was a senior at boarding school, she got kicked out because her headmaster found her drugged out of her mind in his office, of all places. Apparently she’d broken in on a dare, so her parents sent her to a rehab in Utah. She got clean, got her GED, then moved here. At first it seemed like her fashion line was getting off the ground, but it all just started falling apart over the past few months. It was easy to start using again, because it’s not exactly hard to find drugs when you’re in fashion.”
“Yeah, but hard drugs like that? I mean, sure, everyone in fashion does coke. But that’s glamorous, you know? Not mixing freaking heroin and pills in a drug den downtown,” Marley said. “Calling it glamorous isn’t right, but you know what I mean.”
“I know. I thought Celine was hiding those pills that I found behind the drawers in her vanity, but it turns out they’d fallen and she assumed she’d just taken them and not remembered. She went out to get high, and that’s where we found her. So far gone,” I said.
I shook my head, remembering how Celine had shivered and cried when we got her into the apartment, snot running down her face, screaming that she was fine in one breath and hissing at us to fuck off in the next. Even when Celine was across the room, Bette jolted violently with each one of her howls, like Celine had stabbed her and was twisting the knife. And in a way, I guess she was.
“What’s going to happen to her now?”
“Her mom took her back to France this morning. 90-day rehab. She said she would have chosen one in the United States, but she didn’t trust that things would be OK if she weren’t close by. So Celine’s going to some place in the countryside, and her mom said she’s going to rent a place near the property.” When Bette had announced this, Celine finally stopped spitting like an angry cat and curled into her mom’s lap, blinking as tears streaked silently down her face and dampened Bette’s skirt. She looked like a child, which was who she really was deep down. A child who, unsure of her parents’ love, tried to find relief from her insecurities at the bottom of a pill bottle.
“I know. And, this part is almost crazier: Bette’s paying Celine’s rent while she’s away. She says after everything Celine put me through, it’s the least they could do until Celine’s lease is up.” When Celine finally admitted that she sold my watch, Bette’s face had collapsed in on itself. After discovering that seeing Celine steal my money been the final straw that caused me to move into Jack’s, she’d insisted on honoring Celine’s lease. “Then I can get a new roommate. It seems like Celine’s staying in France for a while even after she’s done.”
Again, Marley’s mouth hung open. “These people are loaded. Can I get in on some of that French money, si’l vous plait?”
I laughed at her awful accent. “You want real proof of how rich they are? Guess how Celine’s mom found me?”
Marley’s eyes became saucer-like in anticipation of the bomb I was about to drop. “How?” she whispered, grabbing my hand. There was nothing more gratifying than telling Marley a good story; she always played the role of captivated audience member perfectly.
“She hired a private investigator. He tracked me down pretty much immediately, which is good because I’m sure he costs like $500 an hour. Jack was pretty freaked out that some guy trailed me to his place.”
“If you were in any other situation, it would be so creepy. But a determined mom is a determined mom in any language, you know? Good for her.”
“Definitely. I would have just sent a message on Facebook, but I don’t think Bette even knows what Facebook is.” I tapped my phone to check the time. I only had a few minutes left to make it up to Savannah’s office at a comfortable pace.
“So, listen, I can’t get you any of that French money. But I can promise you Celine’s room when her lease is done, if you want it. It’s less expensive than your place, and I know things aren’t going well with your roommate—”
“Of course I want it!” Marley shrieked, interrupting me. “Are you serious? We’re going to live together, just like God intended? Are you ready for this?” She reached across the table and threw her arms around me.
“I’m actually not sure I am.” I laughed and squeezed her, rocked with a surge of gratitude for my friend who had been there through the Grant, Liv, and now Celine debacles. “Listen, I’ve got to get to my interview. I’ll let you know how it goes.” I stood up and drained the rest of my coffee.
“Good luck!” Marley leaned over and pinched my butt so hard I was sure it would leave a bruise that I’d need to explain to Jack. I yelped and grabbed my left cheek, which was clad in a pair of wide-legged black pants that almost verged on man repeller territory, but in what I hoped was a fashionable way. Combined with a structured white top and my new earrings, I felt ready.
I walked a few doors down from the cafe to the sleek behemoth that was One World Trade, where the security guards checked my bag and sent me on up. Once I exited the elevators, I called Savannah then waited by the glass doors for her to get me. Minutes passed, and I went to check my phone to see exactly how long I’d been waiting. Hold on, I thought. What if this is a test? What if she has cameras out here and she’s trying to see how well I handle this kind of situation? My paranoid mind ran with the thought, and I left my phone in my bag untouched.
Finally, Savannah came to the door. “Tessa, hi,” she said. She smiled warmly, her long nose and hollow cheeks giving her something of a birdlike effect in the building’s bright light. “Come on in.” I followed her down the hallway and, weirdly, didn’t see a single person on the way.
“Thank you for coming in,” Savannah said as we walked into her office. She smoothed out her skirt and settled behind her desk.
“Of course! Thanks for inviting me,” I responded. I still had no idea what I was there for. When Savannah had finally emailed me back, she’d only asked if I was free to meet at 3:00 p.m. the next day. I’d responded that yes, I was, and asked if she had any information about the company she could share so that I could prepare. She’d only responded with the address of the office and a quick “Ask for me. See you then.” So, there I was, utterly clueless.
The Hudson River winked behind Savannah, who’d apparently scored a clutch office overlooking the liquid expanse, which stretched out until it collided with the buildings on the horizon. They looked tiny enough to pocket. The view was awe-inspiring, but the flowers were what really caught my eye. A lush bouquet graced Savannah’s desk, teeming with prettiness. Its heady scent perfumed the air, combining with my nerves and making me a little woozy.
“I couldn’t not ask you in after seeing what you did to those flowers at STK. It was like you gravitated toward them,” Savannah said. She ran a hand through her hair and smiled encouragingly.
“I guess I did! They were so pretty, but they looked a little off-kilter. Like I mentioned before, I loved choosing the flowers for events at my last job. The habit must have stuck.”
Savannah nodded. “Tell me about that. Your last job.”
Well, shit. I’d prepared for this, and I knew what to say. Still, I felt completely transparent as I pasted on a smile and said what I’d practiced. “I planned events for Grey & Boehm, a gallery in Chelsea, where I helped put on different exhibitions and openings. I worked on a small team, and as we got busier, I ended up making some mistakes because of the increasing workload. I learned so much about how to communicate in that kind of workplace and how to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page about who’s doing what, so I know I won’t find myself in that situation again.”
She cocked her head. “So you were let go?”
I felt sick to my stomach, but forced myself to meet her eyes. “I was. And like I said, I learned so much from it that was almost a blessing in disguise. I know the experience has made me a better employee than I was before.”
Savannah was silent, as anyone would be when trying to suss out if someone who got thrown out from a job on her ass was telling the truth.
“I know,” she said simply.
My fingers tingled from the tension. “Sorry?”
“I know that you got fired. I looked you up and saw you worked at Grey & Boehm. I have a lot of friends in the art industry. You certainly made a splash.”
Heat rose to my cheeks and my mouth went dry, making my tongue feel clumsy and twice its size. “Well,” I finally said, “I did always love to swim.”
Savannah burst out laughing. “You just passed your first test. If you’d lied, this interview would have been over. You’re honest. I like that. Listen, we all make mistakes. I’ve always said everyone should get fired once. If I hadn't gotten fired from what I thought was my dream job years ago, I wouldn't have been on track for my actual dream job, which is this one. ”
I exhaled. I’d passed. But she’d also said it was my first test, as in, there would be more than one.
“Tell me a little more about what you did at Grey & Boehm,” said Savannah.
This, I was ready for. Even though I’d had no idea what the job would be, I put together a portfolio of materials I’d created for various events throughout the years, making sure to include some floral arrangements in the mix. I swiped through the pages on my iPad, proving that, yes, I may have been fired, but I’d done good work.
“Nice.” Savannah nodded, seemingly satisfied. “So, you’ve sold me on you a little bit. Now let me sell you on us. I can tell you’re resourceful. Do you know what we do?”
I had to admit I didn’t. “I searched like crazy, but nothing came up. Whatever you’ve got going on here seems like it’s under lock and key.”
“That’s because it is, for now anyway.” She waved a hand, gesturing around the office. “This, Tessa, is Bloom. We deal in flowers. Specifically, in the most beautiful arrangements possible for any event, big or small, as long as the client is willing to pay for our customization. Our founder Dee and I worked in fashion and beauty before this. We climbed the ladders, did some schmoozing, and now we have a long list of companies that are ready to call on us the moment they have an event. That’s loyalty for you.” She winked at me, and I marveled at her skin. She’d gotten far enough to have some kind of major industry pull, so she had to be at least 30, or maybe 35, unless she’d been some sort of prodigy. She was Gwyneth levels of glowy.
“Dee’s more your typical businesswoman, so she’s handling a lot of that. I’m doing most of the hiring and getting our social media off the ground until we find someone to do it, then I’ll help Dee oversee things beyond the business aspect. We invested our own money in this, so we’re eager to see it go well. Got it?” I nodded, my stomach jumping in anticipation.
“Good. Follow me.” Savannah pushed herself back from her desk and strode out the door. I jumped to my feet and thanked my lucky stars I’d worn shoes with sturdy enough heels to keep up without wobbling.
“Our goal is to craft the most stunning floral arrangements for events, but we don’t want to stop there. We want to truly have a hand in the success of the galas, parties, and various launches that we’ll be hired to help succeed. Tell me, what does this arrangement say to you?”
We’d stopped in front of a stone vase that came up to my hip, spilling over with a tangle of gorgeous purple and white flowers, all wreathed in a spray of delicate cream buds. I noticed small flowering cacti at the base, which struck me as strange but somehow worked as a whole. I shot Savannah a nervous glance. Was this a trick question? She looked back, a barely-there, curious smile set on her crimson lips. I looked back at the arrangement.
“It’s wild, definitely, but there are touches of refinement. I’d say it’s almost dizzyingly romantic, but the rugged cacti keeps it from going overwhelmingly in that direction.” I laughed, embarrassed by what I’d come up with. “First and foremost, it’s gorgeous. I should probably have led with that.”
Savannah clapped excitedly. “No, you were exactly right! The amaryllis is pride, but the calla lilies are modesty. There’s a fascinatingly dynamic conflict between the two, and when you factor in the lilac and cacti, well, their meanings just add to the whirlwind sense of romance. That’s where the spines come in, to make things interesting and keep it from being one-note. It’s all about the language of flowers.”
I looked back and forth between her and the vase, my mind processing what she was saying. “You mean you make arrangements based on the actual meaning of different flowers?”
She nodded, beaming at me. “Yes. And it’s more fun than you could even imagine.” She whipped around and kept walking, and I hurried to catch up. She made a sharp right turn down a hallway, which was flanked by tall black and white bar tables. Each table displayed one type of flower, clustered into its own bursting bouquet.
“Lobelia for malevolence, jasmine for attachment, aster for patience, the poor white carnation, so maligned, for sweet and lovely,” she listed, pointing at the corresponding groups of flowers as we passed by. “Dee and I read about something similar in this book, The Language of Flowers. We were just taken with the idea.”
“That’s because it’s brilliant,” I breathed. I felt something unfolding in me, stretching and making room for something else that I couldn’t quite name.
She grinned at me, tossing her hair. “We like to think so, too.” She pointed out a few more flowers, divulging their secret meanings, then we looped back around to her office. “Come on in for just a few more questions.”
She kept going as soon as she sat. “The position we have open now is in marketing. No official title yet, as that’s something we want to decide with the person we choose. Marketing sounds different from what you were doing before, but we’re going to be a small team at first so you would have a direct hand in pretty much everything, including planning events. Of course we have top experts in the field to consult about the exact floral meanings, and we’ll have interns to actually go to the flower market, although you would have to pitch in for both areas at first. This position would really be about getting our name out there, whether that’s through events, campaigns, or whatever else would work. Does that sound like something you would be interested in?”
“Absolutely,” I said as soon as she stopped talking. Suddenly, I wanted this job so badly I felt the need clutch at my throat, making it hard to breathe. “I did so much of that and Grey & Boehm and would love to do it for you, too. This is an incredible idea that really has legs. It’s the perfect mix of idealistic and innovative.”
“I’d agree with you there. Perfect. OK, I want you to come up with a campaign package. Do you think you can send it to me by Friday?”
“Definitely.” Not like I was doing too much else.
“Good. The people who do the best will come in to meet with both me and Dee. I do have to warn you that if you get the job, there would be a trial period of a month since I can’t exactly go to your former boss for a reference. Unless you think I can?”
I thought about what Marian would say about me and had to stop from cringing. “A trial period sounds more than fair,” I replied.
“Great. Any questions for me?”
I rattled off a few, mainly about what she was expecting from the campaign, then told her that was all. I felt inspired and wanted to get to work before my ideas snaked away from me.
“Well, Tessa, thank you so much for coming in.” Savannah stood up and led me out. “I know I was a bit cloak and dagger in the beginning, with not telling you what this was about. We just want to keep it very secret to get maximum impact when we go public, rather than having information trickle around and dilute the effect.”
“I completely understand. That’s really going to help me shape the campaign, so I can’t wait to get to work on it!”f
“Lovely. Fantastic to meet you.” Savannah stuck out her hand, which I took and shook a few times, mentally reminding myself not to crush it out of excitement.
“You too, and thank you so much! I’ll talk to you soon.” I turned and headed into the elevator, where I stood stock-still until the doors closed. Then I jumped around, pumping my fists and wriggling like a five-year-old, finally releasing all the pent up energy that had been building, surveillance cameras be damned. For the first time in a while, it seemed like everything was coming up Tessa.