Eden Ashley

PLASTIC ORCHIDS 

Humid, dark restrooms. Bryant Park. Five long pink and white orchids are welcoming the full-bladdered tourists. They are in a vase on the shiny marble countertop, in between two sinks. Nobody cares for them; whether they are real or not. Nobody knows if they are made out of plastic or not, because nobody stops to smell them. The tourists only care about the free hand soap scent. How convenient! The soap smells of fake flowers that never existed. The same soap that she herself asked many times to replace. Some of them are even complaining on their way out, yet, still using it. She waits at the entrance, timidly asks for tips. She only wants is to make the restrooms better places. Maybe one day she will afford to get real orchids instead. They ignore her as they ignore the plastic orchids.

Gum wrappers accumulate in her plastic bucket, concealing a variety of coins from around the world. At the end of every day, she takes the plastic bucket back home and together, they pass by five different florists. She can’t help but stop in each one of them. White orchids, mixed with yellow, violet and red. Their divine scents fill her lungs with hope. “Maybe one day”, she keeps telling herself. The fifth flower shop is right by her building, on 49th Street. So again, she stops and cherishes the intoxicating scents. This florist has different outfits for each day of the week, and every week he repeats them in the exact same order. He always throws a penny towards her. He knows that one day he’ll get them all back. She thanks him with a nod, clings to her bucket and enters the building. It’s almost Christmas, and her one and only window is slightly ajar, letting the city lights and the scent from the orchids to sink in.

The moment she wakes up, her teeth start chattering. She looks outside her window and barely recognizes her street, all covered with snow. She can’t smell anything but the cold air. So she closes the window, wears her white work sneakers and walks out. Not without her plastic bucket, of course. The florists are still closed. The crosswalks are more slippery than ever, yet her plastic bucket is all she cares about.

Humid, dark restrooms. Bryant Park. Wet footprints are welcoming her. The floor is even more slippery than the crosswalks. She bushwhacks her way through a forest of bubbles. When she finally manages to get in, she discovers the soap is gone. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe tomorrow she’ll finally get a different soap. She tries to shut the doors and quickly mop the floor. Everything should get back to normal. She doesn’t want her plastic orchids to absorb the awful odor. They deserve better than this. After the place was clean, but still smelling of fake flowers, she gets back to the entrance and stands where she can still watch her beloved pink and white orchids. Until noon, she counts 25 shopping bags with the same Limited Edition print. She wonders where are all those tourists are from. She holds her plastic bucket higher than usual. People tend to get generous around this time of year and she needs to be seen. The gum wrappers have been replaced with sugar candies and more unfamiliar coins. She even received a pair of red fleece socks.

Once again, on her way back home, she stops at every florist. This time, only three were open. Flowers aren’t big fans of snow, apparently. Neither is she. And again, the fifth florist gives her a penny. Today he wears purple. Meekly, she thanks him and walks home. She puts down yesterday’s newspaper at the entrance and dries her white work sneakers. She has seen enough footprints for one day. Then, she pours the entire plastic bucket to the floor. The floor is thickly coated with dust. She didn’t have time to clean. She begins to sort the coins. On the right, she places the American coins and on the left, she places the coins she had never seen before. One coin is stamped with a lion and another with a tree. She imagines herself visiting far off lands, using the coins to buy spices and antiques. She will wear a long floral dress and different shoes. Like the ones she saw during the last summer. A tourist wore them and she couldn’t stop peeking at them from the gap between the door and the restroom floor. They were golden-brown sandals. She could envision herself walking on the desert sand in her golden-brown sandals, with nothing but a bag full of coins, a golden-brown camel and her real orchids.

Her eyes become watery as she finishes counting. Soon she’ll have enough. Just two more work days til she could get real orchids for Christmas; One bouquet for the restrooms and another for her place. She’s too excited to sleep, so she starts to mop the floor. She shines the space in no time. It smells of cherry blossom – at least that’s what it says on the box. This night she’ll not sleep. Instead, she sits by the only window and looks at the Christmas decorations, reflected on snow piled on the side of the road. When the morning arrives, she slides into her new red fleece socks and her white work sneakers and hurries out the door. Not without her plastic bucket, of course. This time, only two florists are open. She could still smell a hint of flowers. She walks down the street and watches a group of girls. They play hopscotch on squares they etched in the snow with a stick.

Again, wet footprints. Again, she has to mop. She claws her way past the tourists, eagerly looking for the new soap. She doesn’t want her plastic orchids to absorb that awful odor. They deserve nothing but the best. Through the door, she again smells the scent of fake flowers. When she opens the storeroom, it’s filled with boxes of the same putrid hand soap. Is she really the only one who cares? While she can bear the oppressive odor of muddy footprints, she will never be able to tolerate the smell of the chemical-infused hand soap. She wonders which her plastic orchids would prefer. She stands by the entrance, where she can still watch them, standing still on the shiny marble countertop. She has already prepared a plastic bag to put them in, when it comes time to replace them with real orchids. Again, she raises her plastic bucket, she needs to be seen. She looks across the street and sees people wandering in and out of shops, struggling under the weight of their shopping bags. Then, she looks in her plastic bucket. Still not enough for the real orchids. But she still has tomorrow.

On her way back home, only one florist is open, the one by her building. He gives her a penny and wishes her a Merry Christmas. Today he wears red. She murmurs her Christmas greeting back at him. She dries her white work sneakers and empties the entire plastic bucket onto the floor. She is almost there. Tonight, she has to sleep. It’s a big day tomorrow.

Now it’s Christmas Eve, and she scurries to work. Not without her plastic bucket, of course. Halfway to work, she stops, noticing a squirrel following her. At first, she tries to ignore it and keeps on her way. Why on earth would a squirrel be following her? After two blocks, she looks back and realizes it’s still there. She opens her pocket and removes a raisin nut snack a tourist gave her yesterday and tosses it towards him. She doesn’t remember the last time she made someone happy. The restrooms today are busier than ever. She raises her plastic bucket in confidence and smiles, revealing her crooked teeth. People are smiling back at her and the plastic bucket gets heavier and heavier. At the end of the day, she runs back home to her favorite florist and finds that he’s closed. He left only a note on the door: “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”, leaving the real orchids locked behind. She walks to the other florists, but they are all closed for the holidays.

Tears stream down her face, turning into ice on their way down her cheeks. She walks with her plastic bucket to Central Park. By the solid water, she asks herself: are the fish still alive down there? Are they watching the people when they ice skate? She sits on the bench and looks into the bucket. She got plenty of candies today. She opens a Sneakers bar and throws the wrapper back into the bucket. The sun has set, the streets are silent but their lights are brighter than ever. She sighs and takes a small bite. Suddenly, she remembers she forgot to lock the restrooms. On her way back, she sees another squirrel. This time, she smiles. She opens another raisin nut snack, tossing tiny pieces behind her while she walks. The squirrel trails behind her all the way to Bryant Park. It feels good to have company for once. As she locks the doors, she spots her pink and white plastic orchids. She can’t lock them in there. They deserve better than this. She grins and delicately gathers them. It’s better to have plastic orchids than have nothing at all.

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