When I was little, my mom used to make paper flowers at night and sell them to a craft shop. For a long time, that was my after-school activity.
Sitting at the kitchen table, we cut crepe paper into long strips, pressed a thumb over one edge to make it curl up, held the other edge and swirled it between fingers into a stem. Layer by layer, paper petals embraced each other in a circle like pretty girls spinning in a dance hall.
"I could make a dress out of it," I said, "better than any dress you've seen."
"Silly girl," Mom chuckled. She then fastened the stem with a metal wire and dropped the flower into a cardboard box.
Flowers accumulated, petals touching petals. I could hear a whisper coming from this pile of genuine beauty, muttering about a secret that was beyond my comprehension.
A storm came one night. Rain gushed in through the open window, turning one week's product into crinkly rags. Mom threw the soggy box into the dumpster, face puckered-up like she'd bitten into a sour apple.
"There go your new shoes." She spoke under her breath. Quickly she summoned the whole family to make up for the loss. Two brothers were disqualified for tearing off a roll of paper. Dad had slow hands and made small flowers; Mom hid them at the bottom of the box.
Three of us hunched under a single yellow lamp. The kitchen was heavy with the odor of linoleum and left-over dinner. My thumb tingled, the colorful paper on the table was expanding and turning blurry. Mom and Dad chatted a great distance away. I wanted to ask where these flowers went? Did they achieve eternity in a vase? But when I opened my mouth, a yawn came out instead.
Years later, I bought a house on eastern Long Island. Close to the deck stood a shrub with slim branches shooting up to the sky. In late spring, it came into blossom. The violet flower was as big as a fist, papery petals ruffled as if the breeze rippled them up.
It was a hibiscus.
For several weeks, old flowers shrank and drooped, and new flowers burst up. At peak, it was like a mini volcano spurting out a profusion of purple smoke. And the scent, reminiscent of the linoleum floor, made me woozy and lightheaded. But it attracted bees and wasps. They swarmed this plant, buzzing and hovering to have a carnival themselves.
"This ugly flower is annoying me," I texted my mom, "someday I'll chop it down and feed it into the fireplace."
"Nonsense," she replied from an assisted living apartment 7000 miles away. "There is no ugly flower in this world. All flowers bloom for you, each in its own way."
She never saw that after a rain, one corner of the deck was strewn with shed Hibiscus, wilted and drenched like the ruined paper flowers, leaving stains on the planks all summer long.
Taste the Losing
It happened a week ago. I usually fixed myself a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. That morning, I added a pinch of salt. It was bland. I sprinkled more, still felt nothing. After I dumped a half bottle of salt, it occurred to me that the taste buds on my tongue had stopped functioning.
As a baker, losing the ability to taste is like what? Beethoven becoming deaf?
I smeared different things on my tongue trying to wake it up—ground coffee, scorpion butch pepper powder, and the thickest molasses I could find. All failed. After the pepper powder experiment, my lips swelled like carnivorous flowers, scarlet, poisonous, and painful like hell. People said spice was a sensation of pain caused by a chemical irritant, not a real flavor. Damn.
So tonight, I decided to make your favorite Italian wedding soup and hoped it might have a chance to save me.
All the ingredients were spread out on the counter, ground beef and pork, parsley, garlic, and a bunch of luxuriant endive. I had three different brands of chicken broth, the convenience of working and living in a kitchen. You never wanted me, your only daughter, to be a cook. But the cooking skill was heritable in our family, and I guess the same was losing our senses or minds.
You seemed fine until one afternoon the police called us and said that you were drifting in a community park and could not tell people your name and home address. After that you decided to write down your recipes, starting with the Italian wedding soup which you'd made a million times for me. You said that I, at the age of seven, gulped a half pot of the soup and lay on the couch for the rest of the day, belly bulging out like then-pregnant Aunt Paola.
You wrote down all the details, how to roll the meatball, how to smash the garlic. The recipe book grew thicker and days became longer. I opened the bakery and made the pantry my bedroom. It was the reason I got up in the morning and kept going. I was glad that you were not concerned about me—the sickness had drained your brain. At the end of the journey, you sat on the sofa and stared at the wall, motionless like an empty glass. But each time I entered your room, you'd courteously nod to me. Did you know that was me? Extra twenty pounds rounded my face. The gesture was inexplicable, but it filled my heart.
Ma asked me to pick the tombstone. She said you mentioned to her that I had good taste. You never said that to me when you were still able to.
The meatball browned in the skillet. I smelled a whiff of familiarity, savory and sweet. Chopped the endive, and boiled the broth. When a bowl of original Italian wedding soup sat in front of me, I poked my nose into the steam, sniffed and puffed until my eyes burned with tears. I didn't touch the soup, instead gripped as much of the scent as I could. My tongue was still numb, but the flavor came back to me in a different way—It was always a combination of two sensations. For me, one was gone, the other survived.
Ann Yuan lives on Long Island, NY. She loves reading and writing fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine and On the Run.