Poppies by Sydney Chaney Thomas
In an effort to put some distance between myself and my recent past, I retyped a short story about the year I was twenty-five.
I had broken up with my boyfriend, and when it ended, he went to medical school and I moved to San Francisco.
Although, I wrote this story long ago, it resonates with the feelings I have now, of being between two places, and starting over. It’s a love story, but one you have with yourself, but only when you allow yourself time alone.
by Sydney Chaney Thomas
At twenty-five I am alone. High above the city in my apartment over looking San Francisco Bay, I watch television. I watch the ten o’clock news, turn the television off, and then do nothing. Sometimes, I sleep in my bed without sheets, I pull my down comforter over my head and fall into a deep sleep, other times, I stay out all night. And when I do come home, I throw my clothes on the floor and go out and buy new ones. When I am out I tell the waitress, “I want this and I want that, and this, and that,” and no one says anything like you would expect them to. Other evenings, I read well past midnight and get out of bed at noon. I don’t answer the phone and am routinely unaccounted for.
On the third floor of 2727 Polk Street, I smoke cigarettes and listen to music while I paint. I spend a great deal of time watching the light change out my window on the San Fransisco Bay. I don’t want to be criticized, I don’t want to depend on anyone, but most of all I don’t want to be disappointed. I have wrapped myself in cotton and can’t be touched. And mostly, I am doing fine.
My childhood would infuse my adulthood with a silence that was uncomfortable for me to tolerate. The peaceful periods were often unbearable. Threatened by the calm again, I begin to notice the choices I am making, unnecessary changes that are not improvements, new jobs, new boyfriends, new cities to take me away from myself most of all. I shake things up without regard to the consequences, the more difficult my life becomes the more expert I become at putting it back together again. I cannot bare the silence of a quiet life, it opens the door for a flood of memories. To keep them at bay, I have to be too busy to care, too embroiled in my own life to hear the voices from the past calling out to me, until now.
In San Francisco, I go out to the clubs with friends, to restaurants and museums, filling up my time so I won’t be alone, but I feel alone even when I am surrounded by a crowd of people and alternately, alone when I am with myself. I sit in a bar on Union Street, my slim legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. I wear a short herringbone skirt, a black turtleneck sweater, and low-heeled suede shoes with pointed toes. My hair is straight and cut to my chin. I’m drinking beer after work, my girlfriend and I are laughing, but exchanging glances with the four boys at the table next to us. Two of them are wearing round glasses. They send drinks over, we are perhaps four years older, a nice margin.
Later, they are sitting with us and we talk with them until well after midnight. I take a cab home and crawl into bed at two a.m., slightly drunk and perfectly numb. I get up at six, work all day and go out again the next night.
On most days after work, I run the Embarcadero from my flat in Russian Hill. I run along the water toward the Golden Gate Bridge. The air is salty and cool and the path is unobstructed by tourists. I run back up the steep hill toward Polk Street. I am in the best physical shape of my life. I wait for the traffic light to change at Van Ness, the bright white light of the city glowing all around me.
The sunlight plays brightly against the light colored buildings like so many post cards, while the turquoise bay sparkles to the North. I think the water looks like melted silver, the surface reflecting just the light blue cloudless sky.
At work I am making a training video for a product I am launching. I am interviewing actors, they read for me as I sit in my directors chair. I look at all of the actors that the agency has sent over. They are all different ages, shapes and sizes. As each one reads for me and the director, I try to picture them in the part, finally I choose a man in his early thirties wearing a blue suit. He has curly strawberry blond hair. He is handsome, but not too much so. I pass over the really cute guys, the ones who stare at me as I look down at my paperwork and try not to smile. I don’t ask them to repeat lines like I do for the other actors. In the late afternoon, I leave the studio on Montgomery Street and walk back up Market to my next appointment.
In my office I am eating pizza and writing the dull script. My boss joins me and we finalize the copy in a relative short period of time.
Later, at the elevator he reminds me to ask the actor that I’ve hired if he has been in any blue movies.
“What’s a blue movie?” I ask naively.
“Porn,” he says and winks.
I stare back at him blankly, turn, and walk away and allow the elevator to thankfully devour me.
I grab another coffee and head to my next meeting. I am doing a conference call with all of the Presidents of the out of state banks. I am running the meeting and introduce all of the players from San Francisco, we talk about our campaigns for the year, what they will entail, what they will cost, who will pay for what, and who will opt out. I take notes on my project status report. I take notes on all of the things I need to do next.
I adore my job, landing it because the Senior Vice Present thought I looked like a marketing person, even though I was applying for a Systems Analyst position. I didn’t know the first thing about marketing, but I had a technical background and had worked for a lobby firm, compared to those jobs this was simple to pick up. And I am very precise. During one conversion project my predecessor made the error of misreporting the routing numbers and none of the ATM cards they shipped to the state of Arizona worked. Banking customers are notorious for getting terribly upset when they don’t have access to their money.
There is nothing else to do at the card facility in Omaha, Nebraska, but make sure the routing numbers are correct and your plastic is in order. Personally, I found it worthwhile, in a tribute to accuracy, to spend the night in the beige lunch room drinking coffee and checking ten cards from every run to ensure they were right.
Sitting in the conference room now, I look out over the San Francisco Bay Bridge. I can see the cars moving at a slow crawl, like ants along the upper deck, and I realize, I am careless in other ways.
The sharks are after my job, because it’s considered a glamor job, they come by my office and say things like, “You do such a good job, you are so great at what you do, we were justing talking about you, and how nice it would be if your department really appreciated you.” Lillian leans on my desk wearing an expensive red rain coat, she is nothing if not well dressed, our colleague Dan, stands at the door rolling his eyes behind her back.
If I want information passed on to anyone, I make sure to tell Lillian in confidence. I use her like a conduit, knowing her proclivity for gossip. I go to parties at her Cow Hollow apartment. I do this in keeping with the adage, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
My job is the most important aspect of my life now. I like doing the print work, I like writing copy, and it has all come easily to me. I love being at work, I dread the weekends, having to deal with myself. I wish I could work all weekend, but they won’t let me. They won’t let us into the building. But, I scheme about work as I walk down Market Street smoking. I scheme about it all the time. Day and night I think about it, as I ride the Muni train, as I wait for a friend outside a cafe, as I run in the cool San Fransisco air. This is the primary reason I am so good at what I do. I care about it. I think about it.
One spring afternoon, I meet my sister at the Macy’s cosmetic counter where she works. The April day is warm and the streets are full of sunshine, it will not last, by June the city will be frightfully cold with an arctic wind.
The tourists will shiver in disbelief as they wait in the cable car line at the end of Powell Street in Union Square. There’s a reason the locals walk around in wool winter coats and scarves all through the spring and summer.
The city is International now, full of people from around the world, a German girl named Listal works behind the counter wearing a white coat, her light brown hair is pulled back from her white face and she is wearing red lipstick. The up-lights from the cosmetic case light up her luminous skin.
“What color lipstick is Listal wearing?” I ask my sister in a low whisper.
“Poppy,” she tells me, as she pulls her purse from under the counter and removes her own white coat.
It is a splash of color across her snowy white skin. Later, when I am painting a watercolor of a field of poppies, I remember her as I place the orange red paint against the white porous paper. I remember that day, the way I confronted the sea of lipstick samples and found the exact color and smoothed the poppy color between my fingers and against my lips and the way I felt then, carefree and happy.
“What do you think?” I ask my sister.
“No, it’s awful on you,” she tells me.
“Well, then what?” I ask.
“Buy whatever you want, but try this,” she says, pulling out a lipstick at what appears to be random.
“That? Isn’t it brown? Do you think I would look good in brown?” It seems such a departure from the beauty of the splendid poppy.
“Yes, it’s what I”m wearing,”she says.
And for the first time I look at her lips, and the lipstick looks the color of clay. It is the direct opposite of the poppy. She can tell I’m disappointed.
“Buy it then,” she says impatiently. She is trying to free herself of indecisive customers like me, by going to lunch, and is now disturbed watching me turn into one.
“I think I will. Do you mind waiting?”
She looks pale and hungry and I feel guilty watching her wait as the sales girl rings me up. I take the crisp white bag, and look inside to make sure that it contains the small rectangular box that houses the optimistic poppy colored lipstick.
We go to lunch at the Macy’s lunch counter. I order a turkey sandwich with potato chips and a coke. We sit at the counter on the red round stools that swivel. We talk about nothing really. She asks me to give money to the homeless women when I see them. She says that life is hard for women on the streets.
“What about Turban Head?” I ask. Turban Head is a man dressed up as a woman. And he is iconic in the city.
“Yes, give money to her, for sure,” she advises.
We say goodbye and I leave the sunny street and walk into the dark cavern of the Powell Street BART station. I see Turban Head and give him five dollars. I hold my cigarette in one hand and give him the money with the other.
Turban Head haunts the cosmetic counters of the down town department stores, using their test products until he is the bane of the cosmetic girls existence, but beautifully made up. He is slight of build, with a dark complexion, he wears the most colorful makeup, fuchsia blush and coral lipsticks, but his clothes are plain, tan pants and a white tank top. He always wears a perfectly white towel wrapped around his head.
After this, I see him everywhere I go. In Saks Fifth Avenue, the BART station or just walking down Market Street. As I travel the city, I search for him in crowds, and become an expert at picking him out from the other homeless people. I give him whatever money I have, three dollars or ten. I pull the money out in a wad and stand with it in my hand until he notices me, and comes to me. I hand it to him quickly wearing black cashmere gloves.
As weeks go by, I develop a strange type of jealousy regarding him. He is comfortable in his life in a way that I have never been. He stands on the street corner, makeup flawless with his turban shining brightly in the twilight. He looks like an entertainer, he is the center of attention, and always perfectly at ease.
I walk the city by myself. I long to go home and rest, but once there I am restless. So, I walk to Union Square and meander through the beautiful atmosphere of Neiman’s. I smell the soap and perfume as I enter, I take the escalator to the top floors and look at the $5,000.00 dresses. I look at them as if they were art in a museum. My intention is to simply appreciate their beauty. This is better than a museum because I can touch the fabric, I can hold the garment out in front of me, I can even try it on if I want to, but I do not.
I stop outside to buy flowers at the stall in front of Neiman’s. I choose a bunch of orange tulips and head toward the attendant. He is helping someone else pulling change from his green apron, I look back to the bucket of fresh tulips and this time pull out a bunch of soft white. I hold them together, the contrast of the astonishing orange and the white that requires almost nothing of the eye. The white tulips display the shape and structure of the flower. The orange arrests the eye. I try to choose, but I can’t.
“I’ll take them both,” I tell the attendant and hand him a twenty dollar bill.
I head home as the sun is setting and all of the shop girls, dressed in black, are moving out onto the sidewalks.
When I finally catch a bus and head up the hill toward Russian Hill, a woman on the bus asks me, “Are you having a party?”
“No, why?” I ask surprised.
She points to my flowers, “Flowers are for parties, right?” another woman asks.
“No parties,” I tell them.
“Birthday? Is it a birthday?” the other asks, holding two shopping bags between her knees.
“No, I just bought them for me,” I explain.
They look at each and smile, speaking Chinese now, to one another exclusively.
“You need a boyfriend to bring you flowers,” one says and the other agrees nodding in my direction and smiling.
“I’m an artist. I’m going to paint them,” I say defensively.
“Paint. She said she is going to paint them,” one says to the other making motions with her hands imitating the brush strokes of a painter. They both look at me and cover their mouths as they laugh. Their happy eyes are smiling at me.
I sigh, and get off the bus at the next stop. I walk ten blocks alone in my black coat and pumps, the enormous bouquet of flowers bouncing in front of me as I walk down the dim grey street. The white and orange petals blow in the breeze behind me.