Venus in Bloom
The shifting of weight on her mattress alerted Ivy to the man’s desperate escape to avoid an awkward morning scene. Relieved that she would not have to remember this one’s name – John, or perhaps James – she focused on steadying her breathing as if in a perfect slumber. The rustling of trousers signaled that her guest was almost gone. She hoped that the pitchers of beer they had shared hours earlier would not hinder his ability to find the shoes he had so quickly kicked off upon arrival. There was a clatter as the man bumped into her bedside table, a soft swear, and then the creaking of her bedroom door as it opened and then firmly closed. She stayed still until she heard the sound of a car rumbling awake.
She staggered to the bathroom. A woman with matted long brown hair, smudged eyeliner, and the traces of smeared lipstick stared back at her in the mirror. She showered until the water ran cold, creating mini-mountain ranges of gooseflesh along her body. As she stood dripping wet in the tub, she examined her hips and thighs. Ivy had been gifted a slim yet shapely physique. It was only recently that she noticed the softening of her body. Her once perfect thighs were now streaked with marks that resembled thin silvery lightning bolts.
A light filtered in through the window above the kitchen sink, providing just enough light to see the counter top while leaving the rest of the room in shadows. She considered making a new pot before microwaving a cup of yesterday’s old brew. While sipping her coffee, Ivy’s gaze turned to the east facing window. The light lavender sky was tinged with rose. Sitting on the window sill was a small pot that held a Venus fly trap. Lilian had always teased her about having a ‘black thumb’ when it came to plants, yet somehow against all odds this little plant seemed to flourish in her care. She watered it regularly and was thrilled to find the occasional gnat caught in its red-flushed leaves. Ivy was pleased to find one of its traps closed, in the process of devouring its prey. “So you caught one last night too, little guy?” she murmured.
As the sun bled into the morning sky, Ivy’s eyes were drawn to a movement beyond the old fence that separated her own disheveled backyard with that of her neighbor’s manicured garden. A large silhouetted figure shoveled furiously against the backdrop of the hemorrhaging sun. Eugene O’Keeffe had moved into the house next door almost two years ago. He was a large bear of a man standing approximately six-foot-three with a grizzly dark brown beard. He had a non-descript, forgettable face, and until one got to know him, his personality seemed much the same. He worked full-time at one of those chain home improvement stores and his garden was his pride and joy. It was only a matter of time before the old crones of the cul-de-sac had discovered his knack for household handiwork, earning him the occasional pound cake in exchange for a fixed dryer or cleaned gutter. At the age of thirty-two, only three years older than her, Ivy and Eugene were the youngest residents on Tranquility Court, a dead end circle with small two-bedroom homes. It had taken almost a full year for the two to be on comfortable speaking terms. Since the beginning of the summer they had become good drinking buddies.
Ivy was the kind of woman who always did get along better with men, having only one female friend to her name. She had a natural affinity for drinking and swearing, and could tell jokes that could make grown men blush. The problem with having male friends was that it seemed only a matter of time before she ended up in bed with them, often a fatal blow to the friendship. Something about forbidden men awoke a predatory side in Ivy. But things were different with Eugene. They both had difficulties opening up to the chaotic world around them, yet felt a kind of amiable comfort in the shared evenings spent sitting on Ivy’s back porch.
Realizing the time, Ivy rushed to prepare for work. While walking down the driveway, she heard the high pitch yapping of Daisy, her neighbor’s Yorkshire terrier. Ivy waved to Ms. Bickerings, earning a scowl in response. Ms. Bickerings was a cantankerous old lady with a penchant for gossip and a hatred for Ivy. It was no coincidence that Ivy was the focus of most of the neighborhood gossip. Ms. Bickerings had never had any children, and she treated Daisy as if she were her child, adorning the dog with hair bows. On this particular morning Daisy’s hair clip was a small white flower. Ivy had suffered many sleepless nights due to the dog’s incessant barking habit.
Starting her car, she began her long commute to uptown for yet another monotonous day of work in finance.
Somehow she managed to survive the workday but by the time Ivy pulled onto I-77 southbound to return home, rigor mortis had set in on the five-o’clock traffic. She took the back roads to Lillian’s house where she would wait out the traffic rush. Lillian lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood that strived to be suburban despite its close proximity to the strip clubs and fast food restaurants of South Boulevard.
Ivy found Lillian in the den on her knees scrubbing a plastic child-sized table. On the table were three overturned little pots of paint. Sitting on the floor observing the spectacle was the youngest, Cole. At three years old, he had inherited his mother’s blue eyes and bouncy blonde curls. For an instant Ivy was tempted to reach out her hand and touch the golden tendrils.
“Adam’s mother got finger paint for the kids,” Lillian explained. Lillian wiped up the rest of the paint and then turned her attention to Cole. “All right kiddo, let’s get this shirt in the wash,” she said as she started to tug it over his head. This incited a sudden loud cry from the boy that made Ivy cringe. “Let me just put him down,” said Lillian.
Ivy leaned against the doorway to the den and looked at the family portrait hanging on the wall. Each family member wore a fall-themed sweater. In the portrait Lillian was holding Cole while the girls stood in front of their father. Just as Cole took after Lillian, the girls took after Adam with their gray eyes and dark hair. Lillian had put on some pounds over the years, even a few since the portrait was taken. Adam, however, appeared like a more handsome version of his old high school self, back when he was still her
For a split second she imagined what she would look like in the tacky sweater.
“That sweater is pretty awful, isn’t it?’ said Lillian from behind her. “You’d never be caught dead in something like that.”
“It’s not so bad,” replied Ivy.
“Uh-huh,” said Lillian.
Ivy trailed behind her toward the laundry room.
“So any updates on that guy from last week? He sounded nice,” asked Lilian.
“He was nice,” said Ivy. Nice and married
, but there was no point in telling Lilian that detail.
“I plan to see him again,” said Ivy.
“That’s great, Ivy! I have a really good feeling about this –”
“Mommy!” shrieked Katie from the doorway. Both women jumped. Katie was six years old with cherubic cheeks and a banshee-like screech. “Cole’s in my room.”
Lillian stopped folding a pair of jeans. “What? I just put him down for a nap.”
Ivy was left alone in the cramped laundry room with only the hum of the washing machine as Lilian went to check on Cole. Noticing the pair of jeans on top of the dryer, she peeked inside the waist band. The tag read size sixteen. Ivy felt a flash of smug satisfaction followed by shame. She flipped the jeans back the way they were just as the door opened and she came face to face with Adam.
“Traffic jam again?” He had a habit of barely looking Ivy in the eye when he spoke to her, and now he seemed particularly focused on hanging up his jacket.
Ivy straightened and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Yeah, it was bad.”
“Must’ve just cleared up. I-77 was running pretty smooth just now,” said Adam as he slid by her into the kitchen.
“Oh, I guess I should get going then…”
Lillian asked, “You aren’t leaving already, are you?” as she stepped back into the room, kissing Adam as he passed. “I didn’t get to tell you the bad news yet. You know that girl that went missing? Jasmine Gates?”
Ivy shook her head. “No.”
“Well, she went missing from South Park Mall the other day. She was in my class two years ago.”
“That’s awful, Lilli. Who knows, maybe she’ll turn up. You know how teens can be. Maybe she ran away,” said Ivy, hugging her friend. Lillian was the kindest person Ivy had ever met, which was why their friendship had survived. In fact, Lilian was the only real friend Ivy had which was why she had backed off of Adam all those years ago when Lilian first confided to Ivy that she had feelings for him. It had just been sex anyway.
“…having a prayer circle to pray for her safe return,” Lillian said into Ivy’s long hair.
Caught up in memories, Ivy only halfway heard her friend. Ivy pulled back from the hug. Declining Lillian’s offer to stay for dinner, she headed home.
Once home, Ivy retrieved her empty trash can from the curb while eyeing the crimson rosebushes planted between her and Eugene’s driveways. She inhaled the sickening mix of roses and rotting trash.
“Good evening, Ivy,” said a deep voice behind her. Eugene grinned awkwardly while holding up a 6-pack of cheap beer. “You up for it?”
“You know it, just don’t expect me to drink that swill in a can,” teased Ivy.
“Beer snob. If only you were this selective about your men,” he replied, smirking.
“Yeah, yeah. Come on inside,” she said. Inside her kitchen Eugene leaned over the sink, peering at her Venus fly trap. “Looking good. I knew you wouldn’t kill it.”
“That plant and I have a mutual understanding. It hunts for itself and I won’t kill it. What country are they from anyway?”
“What country? Hell, Ivy, it’s native to North Carolina. This fellow here is homegrown,” Eugene answered with a wide grin.
“Really? I never thought something so dangerous looking could be grown right here in my own backyard,” mused Ivy as she stared at the plant.
“They don’t always look like this,” explained Eugene, “in fact, if you trim the traps off, it’ll use its energy to grow little white flowers.”
“Sounds boring. I prefer the teeth.”
As with most of the nights this summer, the two spent the evening on Ivy’s back porch drinking beer and making conversation.
“People are stupid mindless ants, but I just humor them at work. They aren’t smart like us, Ivy,” explained Eugene.
Ivy nodded in agreement. “Makes you want to crush them, right?’ she giggled. She felt the tingling of her cheeks and knew that she had achieved a wonderful buzz.
“See, you get me, Ivy,” he said with sudden seriousness.
She focused on the blur that was Eugene’s face, but was startled by Daisy’s sudden yapping next door. “You know, one of these days…” she turned toward Ms. Bickerings’ house and screamed, “I’m going to kill that dog!”
Eugene laughed, shaking off his somber mood. For the next half hour Eugene carried on about his garden and the various flowers he had planted in his backyard. He teased Ivy for her own overgrown backyard, and said he would be over to mow her grass on the weekend.
“I’ll take care of those vines, too, if you don’t mind,” he said, eyeing the dark green tendrils that were curling over the fence and invading his own pristine yard. “So, did you hear about that missing girl?” he asked. “She looked real sweet.”
“Looks can deceive. For all we know she ran away,” said Ivy, before taking a swig of beer. “I used to all the time at that age,” she slurred.
“She wasn’t like you. She was a good girl,” he said quietly.
“Oh, Eugene, if you only knew just how good I can be,” she purred as she placed her hand on his thigh.
Mumbling about it being late, he went home before Ivy could process the moment. As she turned off the light, she felt vaguely aware of how large her bed felt with only her body in it. Hugging her pillow tight, she passed out to the sound of Daisy’s barking.
The next morning, Ivy put on her bathrobe and went to get the mail. There was a commotion in the circle, and she saw a sobbing Ms. Bickerings in a group of neighbors.
“You!” screamed Ms. Bickerings, pointing a bony finger at Ivy. “You killed my Daisy!” A neighbor held Ms. Bickerings until she broke down in sobs.
Ivy stood stunned before the crowd. “I’d never…”
“Now, hold on Ms. Bickerings. I know you two aren’t on the best of terms, but blaming Ivy is a bit harsh, don’t you think?” reasoned Eugene. Ivy hadn’t even noticed him.
“Oh, Eugene, you can’t see this tramp for what she really is. She screamed at my Daisy,” cried Ms. Bickerings.
“Now wait a minute—” Ivy started, but was intercepted by Eugene.
“Listen,” he whispered to Ivy, “She found that dog of hers dead in the backyard. It was something awful. If you go cussing her out in front of everyone, it’s only going to make matters worse.”
“You’re right,” Ivy conceded. “But you’ve got to believe me. I never touched that dog.”
Eugene stared at her. “Did you go straight to bed after I left last night?”
She jerked her head up. “You don’t think that I actually hurt that dog.” She felt her throat tighten.
“I just wanted to know if you heard anything,” he said with a concern she had never quite heard in his voice before. Looking her in the eyes, he said, “I know you didn’t do it.”
Ivy felt some of the tension in her shoulders dissipate. As she closed the front door behind her, she thought to herself how lucky she was to have Eugene in her life. Closing her eyes, she tried to recall the events of last night. There was a growing ominous feeling that something had not been right last night, and that perhaps she did have a faint memory of Daisy barking. “No, I couldn’t have…” she mumbled.
The rest of the day proved to be just as dreary as the beginning. The dark saturated clouds of a summer storm hung heavy overhead. Sick of driving in the rain, yet not ready to go home, Ivy drove to the only place she knew to go. Ivy let herself in and heard the steady flow of the faucet and the occasional clink of dishes. Adam’s broad back was bent over the sink.
“You never struck me as the domestic type, Adam.” Her voice, acting as an electric current, jolted him, causing a plate to slip from his hand.
“Ivy!” He shot her a reproachful look and reached for the plate.
“Is it broken?” Ivy asked as she crept up to the sink. She spied a small chip on the edge of the plate, and recognized it as a part of the set Lillian had picked out before her wedding. Adam had refused to go with his fiancée to select items for the bridal registry, so Ivy had gone in his place. The plate had a house in the center and an embossed detail like a vine that snaked around the edge. Ivy traced her finger along the chipped edge of the plate.
“Lillian isn’t here,” Adam said, eyeing her dripping hair. “She and the kids went to some prayer circle thing for that missing girl.”
“Oh, I forgot. I’ve had a bad day,” she replied. Ivy couldn’t remember the last time she was alone with him.
“Well, sorry about your day, but I can’t help with man troubles.” he said.
“It’s more like neighbor troubles,” she replied.
“Then stop screwing your neighbors,” he said as he turned off the faucet.
“Excuse me?” He was never overly friendly to her in Lillian’s presence, but this tone surprised her.
“What? Did I guess wrong?”
“Yeah, you guessed wrong,” she snapped, turning toward the door.
“Ivy, wait.” He caught her arm. “I’m sorry. It’s not my place to say stuff like that –”
“You’re right, it’s not.”
“It’s just that… You should be more careful. One of these days you’re going to bite off more than you can chew. I mean, do you even know these men?”
“I’m a big girl, Adam,” she said. “In fact, I’ve been seeing a really nice guy lately, named Eugene. He lives next door, and he cares about me.”
“You weren’t referring to him when you mentioned your neighbor troubles?”
“No, I was talking about the old hag that lives on the other side.”
“Oh, I see,” said Adam. He brushed a clump of wet hair back behind her ear. “I’m glad you found someone, Ivy,” he whispered as he moved his head slowly down toward hers. All Ivy could hear was the rain on the roof, the pounding rush of blood in her ears, and the sudden slamming of the screen door. Adam only had time to take a step back before Lillian appeared in the kitchen doorway.
Lillian froze, her eyes darting between Ivy and Adam.
Finally, she spoke, “I forgot the snacks.”
“And I forgot that you weren’t going to be home tonight,” Ivy said.
For a split second she saw Lillian’s brow furrow slightly before her friend plastered a beaming smile on her face. Ivy helped Lillian carry the food containers to the truck and headed home.
In her kitchen, Ivy looked at the little plant in her window sill. That moment with Adam had awoken something deep within her, a craving. She had almost made a huge mistake. No,
she thought, the mistake was giving him up in the first place.
Shivering, she realized that she craved warmth. Her eyes moved beyond the plant to the house next door.
Ivy turned on the front porch light and closed the door behind her. It was dark out, and there was the occasional rumble of thunder, but there was not a drop of rain in sight, for which she was thankful. Always a firm believer in the power of a little black dress, she felt like a goddess rightfully restored. Tonight would be the night that Eugene realized just how powerful a woman she was.
As Ivy crept across the grassy division between their yards, she felt a tug at the hem of her dress from the thorny hand of one of the rosebushes. Freeing herself, she proceeded to the front door and gave a resounding knock. Minutes passed before Ivy started around the house to the back door. As she stalked through the garden, her stilettos sunk into the ground, creating tiny open graves in the damp earth. Ivy paused with her hand on the knob of the back door.
After a deep breath, she entered. Her nostrils drew in the stale air. Absent was the cleansing fluorescent lighting present in her kitchen and in its place was the dim, sickly glow from a single uncovered light bulb. The counter tops were cluttered with tools and various gardening instruments. Newspapers sprawled over the table. She hesitated in the kitchen before curiosity urged her to continue.
“Eugene?” she called out as she approached the bedroom. A small lamp in the corner of the room emitted just enough light to see the room. A dull gray mattress on the floor, a small bedside table, and a dresser were all that occupied the otherwise barren room.
The sharp crash of thunder caused her to yelp as she slammed her thigh into the corner of the bedside table. As she rubbed her aching thigh, she noticed the items on the nightstand. Did Eugene have a girlfriend? He certainly never talked about one. Scrutinizing the items, Ivy wondered what kind of woman would have such an eclectic collection; a dainty gold chain necklace with a locket, a purple plastic beaded bracelet, a small white flower hair clip, and a tube of pink lip gloss.
At that moment Ivy realized just how invasive her presence was.
Hurrying back down the hall, she passed the dark open expanse of the living room. In her peripheral vision she saw a flash of movement. She halted. A booming crash of thunder forced a chill along her spine.
“Eugene?” Her eyes searched frantically in the darkness.
“You shouldn’t be here,” came his voice.
Ivy’s hand flew to her chest. “I came to see you.”
There was no response.
“This isn’t funny, Eugene. Turn on the lights or I’m leaving right now,” she threatened. Ivy felt the adrenaline in her body. Her instincts told her to run, yet she forced herself to stride briskly to the door, her heels clicking in rapid succession through the kitchen. She opened the door a few inches before it slammed shut. Above the doorknob rested Eugene’s large hand.
She turned to face him, her heels bringing her to his level. She was about to speak, but the dark glint in his eyes stopped the words dead in her mouth.
“You’re scared,” he said. “Maybe you are just like all the rest after all.” He gave a vicious smile. "We had a mutual understanding, you and I.” He looked her up and down. “Why did you come here, Ivy? Why are you dressed like that?”
Staring at him she realized that what she took as a game of seduction was actually something much darker; that she had misunderstood the rules and had violated them. She felt a sinking feeling in her stomach that she was in way over her head.
“I thought you were smarter than this, Ivy; that you were like me. You know you aren’t my type.”
She forced a harsh laugh from her throat and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Is that what you think, Eugene? Don’t insult me,” she said, attempting an indignant voice. “I just wanted to thank you for this morning. I figured you wouldn’t mind me coming in since we’re such good friends, since we understand each other so very well.” She gestured to her clothes and said, “I was planning on prowling the bars tonight.”
She dug her fingernails into her curled palm, hoping that he believed her.
He stepped back and a look of indecision crossed his face. Finally, he seemed as if he had reached some kind of mental resolution. “I value my privacy.” The warning in his tone was unmistakable. He opened the backdoor. As she made her way back through the garden, he called out, “Happy hunting, Ivy.”
She pulled her lips back across her teeth in what she hoped would pass for a smile. Only after the door closed did she begin her frantic dash home.
Two weeks later, Ivy thought back to that night as she lay on the couch in her crumpled work clothes, staring at the muted T.V. Every now and then the news would flash a picture of his face. When she had arrived home this afternoon it was almost impossible to get to her house for all the news trucks and police vans filling Tranquility Court. The sight of Eugene’s house roped off with yellow tape made her stomach curl into a tight knot. Her neighbors stood at the other side of the cul-de-sac, but she had not dared approach them. The news had confirmed her fears, and she looked back on that night with clarity. She had tried to put it out of her thoughts; tried to make herself believe that she had overreacted, that her fear had been unfounded.
The cops were interviewing her neighbors. She could only imagine the things they were saying about their friendship. It was only a matter of time until they knocked on her door. Now the television displayed a school picture of a teenage girl with straight blonde hair and a golden locket around her neck. Ivy’s breath caught at the sight of the locket.
There was a knock on the door.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Adam entered into the living room. “I heard the news. I thought you might need somebody,” he responded, wrapping his arms around her.
The clenching knot in her stomach started to unravel. The feeling of comfort was short-lived though, as the next instant he brought his mouth down hard on hers, bruising her lips.
Ivy pushed against his chest. “What are you doing?” she gasped. “What about Lilli and the kids?”
“I love Lilli, but when you are around I just have this craving. Lillian is the type of girl you marry, but I’ve always wanted you, Ivy.”
Ivy wrapped her arms around herself. “Adam…”
“Tell me that you don’t feel this too,” he said, taking a step toward her.
Ivy’s mind flashed to Lillian’s face that day in the kitchen. “I do. But I won’t hurt another person just to satisfy my own cravings,” she whispered.
“Lilli doesn’t understand me; not like you do.”
Ivy raised her head. “Get out. Go home to your wife, Adam.”
Slamming the door behind him, she swatted at her tears with the back of her hand. She went to the kitchen and stared out the window. They were excavating Eugene’s garden. The news had said that the count was up to three found so far. The flowers had been ruined, thrown off to the side as they dug. It would be dark soon, the long summer day was coming to an end.
Ivy brought her attention to the Venus fly trap on the window sill. She frowned at the sight of a black trap. Its jaws held a fly too large for it to consume. Ivy took her scissors and snipped the trap off at its base. She hesitated for a moment, and then with shaking hands, she pruned each remaining trap.