Master Class by Emma Bushnell
Thanks to Davis, Mia arrived late to the Blossom Academy. She slid in a seat close to the door. Seven well-groomed women and one man sat at a wide, slate table set with shears, wire cutters, green florist tape, and aprons bearing the flower school’s logo folded into a neat rectangle.
“The French style is not to wire so much,” a scowling Frenchman was explaining. He stood at a smaller slate table across from them, methodically stripping pale pink roses of shriveled outer petals and tossing them to the floor. A young assistant swept the debris away almost as soon as it fell. He was gorgeous, darkly featured and disheveled in a French way, looking as though he’d been sent down from central casting. A bright light, almost like a spotlight, shone directly down on the demonstration table.
“English designers, yes, wire everything. Shane Connolly wired every flower in Kate Middleton’s bouquet,” the Frenchman continued. A wave of tsking swept the room. Mia looked around. The others at the table, her fellow students, were a mix of young and middle aged women, who had decided to be floral designers instead of charity executives or nail salon owners. Some were taking notes on monographed pads. Large, rainbowed diamonds shone from each ring finger. The executive director of the school, with whom Mia had exchanged many emails, had boasted of international clientele who flew in exclusively to hear Sebastian Bonnaire divulge the secrets of his Parisian style wedding bouquets.
“It is not a problem,” Bonnaire shrugged. “It is personal style only.” The room, cowed, fell silent.
Mia had stormed out of the apartment without her notebook, so she dug her phone from her purse to take notes. “Look up: Shane Connolly,” she typed. The phone buzzed in her hand as Davis texted. She ignored the message. It was as likely to be an apology as a continuation of the fight, and either way Mia didn’t want to be distracted. The lone male student, a silver haired gay man with an expensive fake tan, peered curiously at her screen. She tilted it away.
“We will begin with the spiral,” Bonnaire said. He took up his stripped and trimmed roses one by one, tilting each diagonally against the other. “Always honor the spiral.” The room nodded. Mia nodded as well.
Mia continued to take notes as Bonnaire performed the spiral, threaded thin wire through buds and leaves his assistant prepared for him, and showed the correct way to trim the lilac, preserving the lower shoots for the cascade. He gathered a small handful of mossy fern, flicking his wrist artfully to detangle the right amount from the pile.
“Is that maiden fern?” the man next to Mia asked.
“Oui,” Bonnaire nodded. “It is very difficult to maintain.”
“Yes,” agreed the man emphatically. “I have a bush at my place in East Hampton. It has to be kept covered in the sink during the week and spritzed every day.”
Mia watched Bonnaire weave the maiden fern through the flowers. The armpits of her sweater were still damp from her dash from the subway. Her phone buzzed again. She again hit ignore.
“Please do not text during this class,” Bonnaire said without looking up. Mia blushed and lowered her phone to her lap. The women looked her disapprovingly. She couldn’t remember how the fight had even started, which followed the pattern of most of their arguments. She’d thought they were only bickering before Match Day, both of them anxious about which residency in which city the computer would spit out for Davis. But he’d matched at a hospital in New York, a good hospital. They would continue their joint existence in their matchbox apartment, continue to speculate about getting a cat and investing in real furniture. It was a happy ending.
She tried not to consider any of this now. Under the table, she typed “maiden fern=delicate green component,” because that’s what her job required her to do.
Mia worked at a magazine that taught rich people how to design their homes. She wrote and fact checked articles in a fluorescent-lit cubicle, visited a few times a day by her boss who had a penchant for jeweled tie pins and cupcakes from a marble-floored shop in SoHo. He was fond of Mia, and treated her to long stories about weekends on Fire Island and his brownstone facade renovation. He liked to joke that Mia was Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins, which she didn’t altogether disagree with. It had been his idea to send her to the Blossom Academy.
She liked sharing her more ridiculous assignments with Davis. They had looked up the Academy on Mia’s laptop together. A black and white headshot of Bonnaire twenty years ago regarded them with a clenched-jaw scowl.
“Look at this asshole,” Mia laughed. Davis, home from another twelve hour rotation, leaned back into the couch and sighed. It sounded like an attempt at a laugh. His hair, in bad need of a cut, hung almost to his eyes. Mia closed the computer on Bonnaire and got up to make dinner.
Overall, she was relieved to be with someone as pragmatic as a future doctor. But ever since Davis had started rotations their lives had begun diverging uncomfortably. It was hard for her to feel proud of what she did all day when he was sleeping five hours a night, disappointed in her for forgetting to pick up coffee filters, then going off to save peoples’ lives.
At her cubicle, Mia often considered the fact that she could have gone to medical school herself. Or law school. Or gone for a doctorate. The fancy East Coast college she’d been surprised to get into could have made that possible. But she’d realized this fact too late; it was graduation before her bemusement had worn off and she’d realized she hadn’t, in fact, been a mistake admit, and she hadn’t, in fact, had to stuff her schedule with music appreciation and Spanish intro courses in order to skate by. She might not have family money, connections, or significant accomplishment, but she was pretty smart. She kept up with Davis, anyway.
But because she had followed Davis she had taken a job that sent her to the Blossom Academy and Sebastian Bonnaire, who had now completed his signature wedding bouquet. His assistant held the finished product under the bright light, letting the cascade of asparagus plant tangled with the wired rosebuds and lilac tumble freely.
“Et voila,” Bonnaire said flatly, as though he knew he had made something sublime, but that the sublime was pedestrian to him.
“It’s so beautiful; it’s so free,” one woman cooed.
“Very French,” another nodded.
“It reminds me of a woodland nymph. Like it belongs in that opera, that Dvorák opera. What’s it called? The one with the nymphs?” a middle aged woman cast about the room. Everyone pulled thoughtful faces, as though the answer was only just eluding them.
“Rusalka,” Mia said.
“Ah!” several women said. The tanned man appraised Mia in a manner that reminded her of her boss. As though he hadn’t thought it before, but now he believed she might be worth something after all.
“It would go well with a Valentino dress,” he said.
“Oui,” Bonnaire shrugged. “I work very often with Valentino.”
After the shower of praise, the class had to create their own bouquets. Mia donned her apron and selected several roses, ridding them of their more unsightly petals, as she’d seen Bonnaire do. She kept pricking herself, twirling the stems. The man next to her blew a puff of air into each of his buds before trimming them.
“A trick I learned in Rome,” he winked at Mia. “It opens them up.”
“I need all the tricks I can get,” Mia said, showing off her pocked fingers.
“Todd Nichols,” the man extended a hand. Mia shook. “I feel lost with all these pros too.”
“You’re not a florist?”
“No, just an enthusiast. I used to be the head designer of Victoria’s Secret. The lingerie, that was me.” He paused for a moment. Mia realized he was disappointed she had failed to recognize his celebrity sooner. “But they realigned the company and I chose to leave. I could have stayed, they offered me another job, but I was miserable. Not the happy person you see here. I’m only pursuing things that interest me now.”
“You’re Eat Pray Love-ing?” Mia asked.
“I guess you could say that,” Todd Nichols smiled. He turned to his lilac. He trimmed the sprigs just long enough to be threaded with wire, a look of private, blissful contentment on his face.
Mia began trimming her lilac as well. The taciturn assistant passed by and deposited thin wires at Mia’s workstation, leaning over her, brushing her shoulder. He smelled pleasantly of flowers and cologne.
“Wiring is tricky,” Todd Nichols warned. “Have you done it before?”
“I haven’t done any of this before,” Mia said. She slid a wire into the side of the rosebud, near the base of the stem, and pushed it about three centimeters in. She pressed green florist tape to the spot where the wire protruded out, and tried to manage the press and twirl motion Bonnaire had demonstrated so effortlessly to cover the unsightly grey of the wire. “I’m just covering the Academy for a magazine.”
“You’re a journalist,” Todd Nichols nodded in approval. “Well, you’re doing great for a first timer.”
It was silly, but the compliment made Mia sit up straighter. She wondered if she’d ever leave the student mentality behind, stop working to please a teacher. Because that’s what, she realized now, she had been doing. Bonnaire was working his way down the table and she wanted to fashion something he would praise. She twirled the tape down the wire quickly, finding a rhythm, snipping the end with wire cutters.
All Davis had done lately was nag, finding her at fault. Maybe that’s why they had been fighting. Maybe she needed less of an ego. As she pondered this she wasn’t paying attention, and ran a piece of wire straight through a leaf vein into her finger.
“Shit!” she said, and sucked her fingertip. A woman across the table, who smelled strongly of vanilla, looked up disapprovingly.
“Mazel tov,” Todd Nichols said. “Baby’s first wire prick.”
Mia, trying not to drip blood on anything, gathered her roses and honored the spiral. She started setting sweet peas, lilac, and moss among them, adding splashes of color and texture in the places that seemed appropriate. She attempted the same breezy manner Bonnaire had.
“Very good,” said an accented voice behind her. “You are finding the holes. Hold it here, down. Regard, this side is the face. This is where the bouquet wants the bride’s face to be.” Bonnaire, from behind, held Mia’s arm down with light force. He twisted the bouquet so that a flatter part was pointed upwards.
She turned around. Bonnaire’s face was right next to hers. She saw pockmarks in his cheeks she hadn’t noticed before. His eyebrows sloped toward each other in a permanent fret. At this distance he had more gravitas. Mia knew she shouldn’t feel intimidated. What did she care about Parisian wedding bouquets, or those who made them? But everyone else had so simpered to this man. People paid fifteen hundred dollars to watch him gather a handful of flowers together.
“Now for the cascade,” he said. He pronounced it cas-cahd, making it sound more like a noun. He closed his hand around hers at the bouquet. He picked up a long, gangly piece of asparagus and wedged it in the side so that it flowed down in a tumble.
Todd Nichols openly stared at their progress.
“Go look in the mirror. Find the holes. Let the flowers find them.” Bonnaire said. He moved on.
Making a wedding bouquet was heavy work. Mia nestled her half finished bouquet between her knees and tied it off with raffia. She didn’t know if it was gauche to leave it on the table, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold it up.
The other students were still wiring buds and creating spirals. Mia was surprised to find that she seemed to be making the speediest progress. She and Todd Nichols.
Davis often told Mia that she needed to stop caring so much what people thought. That people respond to confidence. So she tried not to look apologetic as she placed her bouquet on the table, slightly squishing the spiral, and slipped out to the courtyard to check her texts.
There seemed to be two movements to the messages Davis had sent. The first were a string of finger-waving points. Tenuously connected, largely mean-spirited thoughts. And-another-things. Then, about half an hour of silence. The most recent two read, simply, I love you. Please let me know when you can call.
Mia sighed. She looked around the courtyard. A small fountain sat in the center, topped with a cherub shooting a steady stream of water from his arrow. His chubby stomach hung in folds over his thighs. Tubs of flowers took up most of the courtyard, most in muted, winter colors. Barrels of soft gold Chrysanthemums and ivory tulips. A whole host of pretty, green, unidentifiable shoots. She breathed in. The air had a pleasantly damp, fragrant quality.
She liked being among all this greenery. The flowers were expensive blooms imported from Holland, but being among them triggered a meditative calm she usually associated with home, her small town in Oregon. The field of pastureland behind her parents’ house, an expanse of uninterrupted green, always pungent after near daily rain. The low thrum of crickets and bullfrogs. She had spent the majority of her life there, had only been away eight years, but that place had already become something other than reality, jockeyed into her consciousness at unexpected moments, like some sort of acid flashback.
The glass door slid open and Todd Nichols appeared.
“My filthy habit,” he said sheepishly, flashing a cigarette.
He lit up with an engraved lighter.
“I hope I didn’t disturb anything,” he said, exhaling. He was impeccably put together, a pink checkered shirt ironed and tucked into navy chinos. But his stance was manly, not fey. He flicked ash from his cigarette matter-of-factly.
“I was going to call my boyfriend,” Mia said. “But it’s probably better if I don’t.”
“Trouble in paradise,” Todd Nichols nodded. “I’ve been with my husband for almost twenty years, and I can tell you this. If you’re fighting, it probably has something to do with your sex life. Problems in the bedroom play out in all sorts of ways.”
“We’re fine…in that way,” she said.
“Are you orgasming?” he asked. He took another puff.
“Almost every time,” she responded, shocked to truthfulness.
Todd Nichols nodded sagely. “That’s why he’s the one.”
“But that’s the problem,” Mia said, suddenly annoyed. “I don’t know if he is. I thought he was getting a job in another city. I thought we were going to split up. But now he’s going to stay here. And I don’t think I want to be with him anymore.”
“Life never makes it easy for us, does it?” Todd Nichols said. He flicked his cigarette on the ground and checked his Rolex. “Time to make the cas-cahd. Before Bonnaire sends us to the Guillotine.”
Mia pocketed her phone and followed him in.
The other students didn’t bring their bouquets home, but Mia did. She figured if she’d spent her entire day off at the Blossom Academy she ought to have something to show for it. And besides, she’d ended up proud of her creation. Her cascade was full, carefree. The maiden fern sprung out between the pale roses at pleasing intervals. The lilac created a soft halo around the spiral, pointing in unexpected directions. The bouquet had earned a nod from Bonnaire, and a “bon.”
The attractive assistant had said plastic would ruin the bouquet, so Mia held it on the subway car with only the raffia keeping it together. Other passengers gave her curious looks before quickly averting their eyes. She sent Davis one text, letting him know she was on her way home. A courtesy message, just short of loving.
The Q train emerged on the Manhattan bridge. Chinatown buildings rattled by in rosy, late-afternoon hues. The doors to the next car rolled open and an old man with a violin shuffled in. Mia recognized him; he often played on this long stretch across the bridge. He waddled to the middle of the car, leaned against a pole, and bent down slowly to set his hat for tips.
He always played the same song. It was Russian, or Slavic, or Semitic; something aching with a generations-long sorrow. The man was talented. His scruffy beard obscured his expression, but Mia imagined him pained, haunted. He wore faded beige pants several sizes too large, held up by raffia-like twine.
His song enjoyed different receptions on different days. Mia had seen the entire car rapt; tourists, immigrants, and hipsters alike surprised and delighted by an injection of emotional honesty into their days. But mostly it was, as for most subway musicians, indifferent. Mia herself had become indifferent. She had memorized the short, three-minute melody. It was no longer otherworldly to her. It was like hearing a clever saying for the requisite number of times to realize it’s a cliché. Another grab, from another panhandler, for loose change.
Today the crowd was largely uninterested. The man, trying to bring his audience in, swayed emotionally. The music whined from his violin, a guttural cry from the Old World.
The passengers remained unmoved. They stared out the window, squinting against the sparkles of the choppy Harbor, at the bridge beams streaming past, revealing the city in zoetrope. They looked down to their phones. Mia adjusted her grip on her Parisian style bouquet. Bonnaire had warned that a wedding bouquet is not made to last more than half a day. The maiden fern and asparagus were wilting in the overheated subway car, drooping against the backs of her hands. She looked down at it, feeling out of place, unsure of why she’d wanted to bring the thing after all, ridiculous.
© Emma Bushnell, 2016
Emma Bushnell is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Bodega Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Establishment, Bustle, and elsewhere. A graduate of Tufts University and the MFA program at Brooklyn College, she is at work on a novel.
Master Class was read by Amber Bogdeweicz on 5th October 2016 for Truth & Consequences