The beat dropped in the quaint coffee shop.
“Turn it up!” Maddy called over her shoulder as she took a break from wiping down tables to jump up and down with the rag twirling over her head. Closing time was Maddy’s favorite time. Especially when she was closing with her best friend, Kate. The persistent chatter of customers coming in and out finally quieted, she could turn off the practiced polite smile she wore throughout the day, and they could change the music from the standard smooth jazz station to whatever they were in the mood for. Tonight, it was good old-fashioned House Music. As the song ended and led into another, the volume dimmed. Kate’s voice called out as she approached Maddy from the break room.
“So, what ever happened to Mr. Swirl and Sniff anyway?” Kate had taken to calling Maddy’s most recent fling “Mr. Swirl and Sniff” due to his incessant need to bestow his beer knowledge upon anyone around, whether they were interested or not. The night Maddy had introduced him to Kate at a local brewery, he had notoriously ordered a beer for Kate, then went on to explain at great length the flavor notes and why it would be served in a snifter glass. When the beer arrived, he had instructed her, almost aggressively, to swirl the liquid and smell the contents before taking a sip in order to fully respect the flavor. Little had he known that Kate hated beer, and she had quickly dubbed him an arrogant prick with a superiority complex.
“Did I not tell you? I cut it off with him over the weekend. Just couldn’t deal with him anymore.”
“Ah, I called it! See, Maddy? Guys like him only care about asserting their dominance and hearing the sound of their own voice. I knew he wouldn’t get a rose.” Kate liked to relate Maddy’s love life to the show “The Bachelorette” every chance she got. Maddy pulled a face and felt her cheeks flush.
“Oh, shut up. Just because you’re in a perfect relationship doesn’t mean my love life is some sort of sad reality show meant for your entertainment.” Maddy slumped her shoulders and sulked jokingly before Kate slung an arm around her.
“No, no, I know. I’m sorry, Mads. I don’t mean it that way.”
“Ugh, it is sad though. Like, I’m 25 and I’ve never had a serious relationship. When am I gonna’ find someone who is actually good for me? Maybe no one is! Maybe I was just meant to be alone forever.”
“Oh, stop it. There is someone out there for you, and you are gonna’ be a perfect couple and have sexy babies one day. This is just the storm before the calm.” Maddy giggled.
“Isn’t it the calm before the storm?” Kate looked at her quizzically then shrugged her shoulders.
“Whatever. You know what I mean. I know you’ve had a lot of bad luck lately, but it doesn’t say anything about you. You are perfect. You just haven’t found your match yet.”
“Aw, wow. That was actually pretty sweet.” Maddy grinned at her friend, then went flatted faced. “Wait, where is Kate?” They both laughed and Kate strode away toward the back of the shop.
“You about ready to get out of here?”
“Hell, yeah. Looks clean in here to me.”
After the two girls grabbed their bags and locked up, they exchanged goodbyes and walked their separate ways home. Kate’s duplex, which she shared with her boyfriend of four years, was several blocks away, and Maddy’s one-bedroom apartment was just around the corner.
As she walked the short distance home, her long blonde hair flapping in the evening breeze, Maddy grinned to herself. Overall, it had been a pleasant Tuesday. She’d gotten to spend it was Kate, she hadn’t encountered any rude customers, and she had found a twenty-dollar bill while cleaning the restroom. Once she reached her apartment building, she dug around in her bag for her key, beeped herself in, and climbed the stairs to the third floor. As soon as she pushed open the heavy door that led from the stairwell to the hallway, her stomach dropped and she froze. As she stood there, with a wrinkled brow and slumped shoulders, a pang of envy shot through her like a blade.
“Again?” She said out loud, then immediately blushed and clasped a hand over her mouth. Oh my gosh, did I just say that out loud? She looked around in horror, then breathed a sigh of relief to see the hallway was empty.
She’d never met the woman who lived in apartment 308, but she’d heard her voice once. The woman had been talking on the phone, closing her front door behind her just as Maddy had been walking by. Maddy hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, but now she wished she had been more observant. After living in the building for just four months, Maddy had seen at least four elegant flower bouquets sitting outside the door of 308. The one that sat there now was even more stunning than the last. A vibrant assortment of pink and orange roses, golden daisies, and touches of greenery, all contained within shiny gold wrapping and adorned with a complicated-looking bow. Maddy contained her urge to stomp over and claim the flowers for herself. Hadn’t this woman gotten enough? Who was she anyway and what was her secret?
In Maddy’s mind, it was clear that one of two things were true. One, Ms. 308 had a romantic partner who adored her enough to shower her with a continuous stream of lavish gifts. Or, two, Ms. 308 had several admirers trying to win her over. Fighting for her attention. Either scenario sounded like bliss to Maddy.
She opened her apartment door, stepping over a feathered cat toy, and headed straight for her bedroom. She quickly slipped out of the jeans, button-down shirt and coffee-stained apron she’d been wearing all day and into her favorite pair of black yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt. In the moments it took her to change, she had devised her plan. She grabbed her mailbox key off her nightstand, rushed back to her front door and squinted out the peep-hole. If she stood to the right and angled her eyes just so, she could see down the hallway past the flowers sitting outside apartment 308 several doors down to the left. For once, she was grateful for the thin walls and loud latch of the door that led from the stairway to the hall. If she stayed by her front door, she would surely be able to hear if anyone was entering the hallway. When the occupant of 308 arrived, Maddy would act as though she was going downstairs to check her mail so she could finally see the mystery woman in the flesh.
“God, this is crazy. I am such a creep.” She whispered out loud to herself. Then, before the angel on her shoulder had time to retort, she shook the thought away. So, she was observing a neighbor. No harm in that. It was no big deal—as long as no one ever found out, obviously. She stood there anxiously for several minutes, tapping her foot and drumming her fingers against the door, until she resigned herself to sitting on the floor. Her cat, Jupiter, came and curled up in her lap as she sat scrolling through her phone. About twenty minutes and fifty Instagram stories later, she heard the hallway door squeak open then latch heavily shut. She jumped to her feet, causing Jupiter to flee under the couch, and peered out the peephole once again. A tall, thin woman in a smart-looking pencil skirt and blazer entered the hallway. When she stopped in front of the bouquet of flowers, Maddy opened her door and walked out to the left.
As soon as the door shut behind her, she suddenly felt exposed, sensing a heat rise up her chest and into her cheeks. She stuffed her hands in the front pocket of her sweatshirt and bowed her head as she approached the woman, who looked like a supermodel. Up close, Maddy could see that the woman had expertly paired her business suit with suede black heels that accentuated her already thin physique. A pristine black Prada bag was draped over the woman’s shoulder. Feeling immediately foolish, Maddy averted her eyes and tucked a piece of blonde hair behind her ear. Upon passing, they inadvertently made eye contact for a millisecond. The woman flashed a bright smile in greeting, but all Maddy could manage through her awkwardness was a nod and slight grin. She had the urge to run out into the stairwell, but she forced herself to maintain an even stride.
When she finally pushed open the hallway door, she stopped in the stairwell and leaned up against the wall. She let out a sharp breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in and the berating began. She felt pathetic. What a loser. A complete loser. Didn’t she have anything better to do than snoop around to catch a glimpse of the recipient of a flower delivery? If her neighbor ever found out what she was doing she would be completely humiliated. Clearly that woman was superior to her and would scoff at the intrusion from a simple girl like Maddy. That woman was highly desirable. She wore expensive business suits and carried herself with confidence. She was probably in a position of power. She was undoubtably gorgeous. And Maddy would never hold a candle to her. Her stomach suddenly feeling queasy, she shook her head and slumped in shame.
April gathered up a few folders and placed them carefully inside her new Prada bag. She had she aside a portion of her paycheck for the past four months to pay for the item, then waited until it was on sale to make her purchase. If there was one thing April took pride in, it was her responsible spending habits.
Pushing in her chair, she peered above the wall of her cubicle to see Kaleb still in his office. She gave a silent groan. Kaleb Wallace was the boss from hell. She’d applied for the job of Marketing Manager’s Assistant as a steppingstone, knowing full well that it would be less than glamorous. But working under Kaleb made it almost unbearable most days. Her mother had chided her for not standing up for herself, and her friends ranted about labor laws and workplace harassment policies. But April’s reluctance to challenge authority or do anything that may lead to conflict kept her silent.
She walked toward the office exit, which was just on the other side of Kaleb’s glass-walled office. Maybe she would get lucky. Maybe she would be able to slip away with just a wave. She clenched her jaw as she walked into Kaleb’s line of vison.
“April!” He barked. It took everything inside her to force a smile before entering the doorway of his office.
“Kaleb, I was just heading out for the night. I hope you have-“ But he cut her off.
“I need you to look over these reports for me for a meeting tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning?” she replied, trying to hide her annoyance. “I, um, it’s getting pretty late…”
“Take them home with you, then.” He shoved a stack of papers toward her with one hand and flipped the other in the air dismissively. When she didn’t immediately reach to retrieve them, he shook them impatiently. With a practiced exhale, she accepted the papers and forced a slight grin.
“Sure, no problem.”
“Great.” Was all he said back, then returned to typing something at his computer.
“Have a nice night.” There was no response but for the clacking of the keyboard. She stared at him stone faced for a moment, then turned to leave.
Exiting the office building, April took in a long gulp of fresh air. Some days she felt so cooped up, so constrained, and all she wanted to do was escape outside and run. Run, and run, and run. Run from her degrading job. Run from her failed engagement. Run from the reminders of her mistakes and from her friends who were all moving on and having babies. It wasn’t until one day when she found herself thinking she may be better off dead that she decided to see a therapist. Among countless other discoveries, April unearthed a longing to be loved coupled with a debilitating case of self-loathing. Over the course of a few months, the therapist had convinced her that her inability to treat herself with the same love and respect she offered to others was the main barrier to her happiness.
“What makes you smile?” She’d asked.
“Nature, I guess.” April had replied.
“Okay, and what specifically in nature do you enjoy?”
“Great, flowers. What is it about flowers that you like?”
“They are colorful. Cheery and bright, and… And they remind me that life is pretty incredible. That something can start out as just a tiny seed and then, with some water, sunlight and love, it can grow into something else entirely. Something really beautiful. Something really beautiful that can bring happiness to others.”
“Well, then,” the therapist had said with a thoughtful smile. “Flowers it is.”
It was then that she’d recommended April bring more flowers into her life. So, at first April placed a small succulent on her desk at work. Days later she scattered several house plants around her apartment. When Valentine’s Day came around—a challenging time for April, along with millions of other women who are led to believe they are worthless unless they are sleeping with someone when the dreaded holiday rolls around—the therapist had suggested April gift herself with a Valentine’s bouquet.
“Isn’t that a little pathetic?” April had protested, rolling her eyes.
“What is pathetic about it? Valentine’s Day is about expressing our appreciating and admiration for those we love. And self-love is the most important love of all.”
April had sneered, but by the end of the session she had placed an order for a dozen roses to be delivered to her apartment on February 14th. And, ever since, she’d been replenishing her supply every few weeks. She didn’t even mind the cost. The excitement of seeing a new arrangement of life and color waiting outside her door after a long day, followed by the satisfaction of knowing that she had the capacity to be her own friend—her own greatest love, ultimately—was addicting.
Tonight, April walked up the steps to her third-floor apartment, feet aching from the high black heels she’d subjected herself to all day. She could not wait to take them off. Take the whole costume off. In the mornings she always felt energized by the business suits, the pencil skirts, the high heels. It made her feel put-together and ready to take on the day. But by the time she returned to her apartment, the imposter syndrome would come back screaming in full force. She felt like a child who had just been playing dress-up in her mother’s closet. And all she wanted to do was throw on sweats, big fluffy socks, and eat a bowl of ice cream in front of the TV.
When she opened the hallway door a jolt of energy shot through her. For her most recent flower order, April had selected a surprise bouquet, rather than putting one together herself. Now she feasted her eyes on the vivacious arrangement waiting just outside her front door. Her smile softened shyly when a younger girl stepped outside an apartment just down the hall, then headed straight towards her. Oh god, please don’t ask who they are from. April thought to herself, a touch of panic rising in her throat.
The girl looked to be in her mid-twenties, but had the youthful skin and thin frame of a teenager. Though she was dressed simply in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, April thought she made the outfit look chic in a way only a girl with natural beauty can. Suddenly, her own skirt felt too tight and her heels a bit too tall. Like she was trying too hard. A desperate woman--thirty-two, single, living alone and in a job she hated--just wearing nice clothes to make herself feel better. A twinge of envy stung April’s heart, but she quickly pushed it aside to smile at the girl as she passed.
April hastily collected the bouquet as she fumbled to open her front door. Once inside, she shut the door securely behind her then leaned up against it. Although nothing was revealed, she felt the hot burn of embarrassment rush over her. If that girl knew she had sent flowers to herself, she would be humiliated. That girl probably had men groveling at her feet. That girl probably never had to deal with rejection or loneliness. And she certainly would never understand the plight of a woman like April. After all, what kind of woman sends herself flowers?