I lived next to a boy, years ago, who did time for stealing cars.
When he got out, he worked at a restaurant downtown.
He wasn’t the first person I ever met who had a story to tell, but he was the first boy I ever met who bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon on his way home from work.
His kitchen whites were splattered with an astonishing amount of raw ingredients. He smelled like pie crusts and warm milk.
Like many folks you meet, this boy’s life was bifurcated by a singular event.
There was a before and an after made up of two different sets of choices, two different lives.
He stole cars. Then he went to juvie for three, four years. Afterwards, he got out and he did not steal cars. Instead, he made pastries.
He didn’t even like cars. He liked his job in the kitchen of a small upscale bakery. He liked his girlfriend. He liked to sun himself like a house cat on the steps of the turn-of-the century porch attached to the ancient duplex where we lived.
What this boy did as a teenager was not a secret— otherwise, I would not be telling you this story now— neither the stealing, nor the part afterward, where the boy that smelled like pie would sit in the sun and wait for his girl to get home.
You see, writers tend to steal little things off of people—
a complete set of figured naval buttons on a man’s patched pea coat; a certain way a woman pushes back her bobbed silver hair; a child that can whistle with two fingers like a man.
Writers pocket these moments and pull them out to look at later under a lamp with a notebook. This is fine with me— it’s magpie stealing. It is general and gestural and often sweet.
There’s another kind of stealing that happens, though, where a writer will pick the lock on your life story, touch a couple of wires together, and roll your life down the driveway before you even know your story is gone.
One day, your life may turn up in a book— it may have a new paint job and four white wall tires, but you’ll know it’s your story. You’ll know. Trust me. And you’ll feel mugged.
Joan Didion once said that you’re not a writer unless you’re selling somebody out.
In theory, that makes sense. Writers tell stories about people.
But when Didion says these words, it sounds even more tough and souped up and justified. Like they had it coming to them. Those people. For talking and telling their stories.
She was young, or youngish, when she made this pronouncement in the prologue of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I was young when I read it.
I believed, and believe many things Didion said, and says, but I never bought this one part, not really.
And I wonder, sometimes, I really wonder what it cost Didion to sell out so many people’s stories with a practiced flick.
This boy from all those years ago did not keep this side jaunt from his own story a secret from anyone.
And I’ve met people before, and since, who have done more astonishing things than stealing a car with a team of teenagers in the middle of the night for a living.
What I like to remember about that boy is a moment every Friday when we would have the same conversation.
I lived behind the house in the old servant’s quarters above the garage. Most days, I would back down the driveway with the windows down. And most days I would stop because the neighbor boy would wave at me and pop his chin in my direction.
“Hey girl! What’s up? A— ‘s gonna be home soon.”
“Lotta nada! Gotta work.”
“You’re always working.”
“Don’t I know it. You need me to bring you all anything?”
“No, I got dinner for A— and I bought her some Zinnias today. Gonna sit here in the sun ’til she gets home.”
“Lucky you! Give A— my best.”
His eyes would close. His smile would widen, and his chin tilted back to the sun. He knew what lucky was.
I once lived next to a boy who stole cars and went to jail.
But, this? This is not the remarkable part of the story.
What is remarkable is that he bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon, without fail.
Zinnias. Orchids. Gerber daisies. Tulips.
He never bought her roses. Not once.
He said that roses lacked imagination, and he loved his girl too much to be lazy.
So he bought her Calla lilies— blooms that smelled as rich as a warm Friday afternoon spent daydreaming, daydreaming in the sun.
This story has been revised. Originally published on May 4, 2012.