Over 260 species of iris exist worldwide, adapting to climates on every continent except Antarctica.
Along Nanticoke Creek, irises bloom along the banks of thick, waxy grass, and get trampled as kids in my neighborhood make their way across the shallow water. Beyond the creek lay adventure–a small wooded area about two hundred feet from the road where we hear but cannot see cars going by. In the woods, we find tires and crushed beer cans and the most perfect sticks we’ve ever seen–sticks to defend forts, sticks to thwack unassuming girls’ behinds, sticks to carry for no other reason than they’re sticks. This is a place for West Endicott kids, a place that has always been. Scott Goforth and I ride bikes along the floodwall, following the creek (we say it “crick”) to the IBM complex in Glendale before turning around and biking back in the hazy dusk, spitting at each other.
The iris takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow, which the goddess Iris rode to deliver messages to humankind. She is often depicted with wings and a staff, serving wine to the gods on bended knee. Some believe she was something of a personal assistant to Zeus’ wife, Hera.
I lose my virginity early and everybody knows it. At school, boys start fondling my hair when they sit behind me in class, start offering me rides in their Dusters and Datsuns, start inviting me to parties at the floodwall. I drink Miller High Life and sit on the concrete slab around the drainage pipe. I smoke clove cigarettes and leave the smell on my clothes for days.
Having sex once doesn’t mean anything. You have to have it again, with different people, in order for it to count. The boy I sleep with first is an artist-type who adores but doesn’t trust me. I’m too nice, he says, I can’t help being nice to everyone. And he is right. I want everyone to love me and I want to love them all back.
Jaime Renfro is the quarterback of our state champion football team, so all twelve hundred students at Union-Endicott high school know him. He has dark, shining eyes and what my mother calls a shit-eating grin, and he would be out of my league if he wasn’t also basically my neighbor. Even though he lives only two streets away, we talk at night on our computers.
“What are u wearing?”
I am not the prettiest girl in school who has lost her virginity, and Jaime is not the biggest asshole on the football team. He’s not an asshole at all, in fact. He writes poetry and plays the drums, and sometimes we talk about that stuff when no one is looking, even though people are always looking at Jaime. From the centers of cliques as separate as continents, we raise eyebrows at each other across the tree room (a room in our school with trees), or sneak glances among the stacks in the three-story library. Sometimes, when we feel especially brave, we brush fingertips as we pass one another in the halls.
One night, online, we make arrangements. Jaime comes over the next afternoon and we walk to the floodwall. It is spring, April. Tiny pastel flowers cover the embankments, their blooms as small as the gemstones in my earlobes. On the banks of the creek, the stout, cylindrical stems of irises and daffodils promise flowers any second. Jaime leads me partway down the other side of the hill, then pulls me down gently into the young grass. An ecosystem of grass and insects and dew moves beneath us, and I am aware of it the whole time, thrilled and disgusted. Halfway through, I blow an ant off Jaime’s shoulder, and on the way home, he picks a leaf out of my hair and we both watch it drift down to the sidewalk.
In his 1856 painting, Broken Vows, Philip Hermogenes Calderon places a small iris at the foot of a beautiful, darkly-clothed woman, who leans against a wooden fence with her eyes closed. Some art historians speculate that Calderon included the iris as a nod to another myth of the Greek goddess Iris–that she led young girls to the underworld. In Broken Vows, the iris may signify “lost love and silent grief.”
When I am seventeen, I fall in love with a roughneck named Ralph. He hunts deer and ducks and rides four-wheelers and likes both angry and incredibly sad rock music that he sings along softly with the radio on long drives to nowhere. Not only am I in love with him, I am obsessed with him. This may have something to do with the 40 I pulled on my last English exam, as my mother believes. It may.
Ralph works a part-time job at Wendy’s, and there are always girls from his school there when I come by to see him. Ralph pays more attention to me, but he is also nice to the other girls because he is like me, he wants to return everything given to him. The second time I visit him at work, he leaves the restaurant with a red-haired girl in leopard print shorts, abandoning his cashier post to the pimply kid who’s afraid of Ralph’s all-star wrestling holds. Ralph and the redhead are gone for twenty minutes. I sit at a table in the back breathing fry grease, and when I finally have enough dignity to storm out, the pimply kid jumps to the drive-thru intercom and says something I can’t understand.
I start my car and try to figure out how to make my tires squeal in the parking lot. Then I see it. An iris on the passenger seat atop the undone edges of spiral notebook paper.
Ralph taps the driver’s side window and motions for me to unlock the doors. “Her brother taught her how to break into cars,” he says through the glass, pointing to the red-haired girl now waving from her own car as she drives off. I press the automatic lock.
“How did you know these are my favorite?” I say. The curvy petals drip rainwater down my wrists.
“I didn’t,” Ralph says. “I’ll plant a garden of ‘em, if you want.”
At my school, everyone knows which girls are beautiful by the fourth grade. These ranks don’t change even if you lose fifteen pounds or your skin clears up or popular boys want you in secret. But Ralph goes to a different school. He doesn’t know he’s not supposed to think I’m pretty. One night we sneak into Highland park after hours, and run into a pack of girls from my school, sitting on the jungle gym drinking Kool-Aid-colored Mad Dog. They stumble over and size Ralph up in the darkness. “Geez, Amy, he’s kinda cute,” they say, giggling.
Ralph takes the long way home, stopping at every red light. “Those girls are bitches,” he says. “You don’t hang out with them, do you?”
I want to believe Ralph loves me even more than I want to believe in God. But I know my rank on the list some douchebag posted to a locker in the eighth grade, a rank I think about every time Ralph says I’m beautiful, says he’d marry me right now if he could. A few months later, on the night Ralph dreams I save him from a burning building, I sleep with a boy whose name I don’t remember, a boy I couldn’t tell you a thing about.
Vincent van Gogh painted Les Iris at the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the year before he died in 1890. There are no drawings of it, as van Gogh considered it merely a study, a way to prevent madness through painting. It was van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who saw the work as something more, a painting “full of air and life.”
I date an artist in college, but do not understand most of his work. He calls it “abstract,” or “deconstructed,” swirling patterns of circles and smaller circles that remind me of the posters on my dentist’s office ceiling meant to distract me from my root canal.
Like most philistines and self-absorbed people, I have a secret wish about dating an artist: I wish he would draw me. Every night as we work on projects spread in semicircles on the unmade bed, I wait for the evening light to strike me in just the right way, so that when he looks up from his indecipherable patterns of ink and paint and colored pencil, he will rush to get a new piece of paper.
In college, I take writing classes and read theory on the sublime. Longinus reminds me of the pair of overalls I wore clipped on one shoulder in the seventh grade, a kind of smock to hide my dumpy figure. I was a terrible artist, probably the worst in Mrs. Randesi’s class. But I liked the wheel she tacked to the board at the front of the room, the way she said complementary colors made joy and sorrow collide. All year, I painted landscapes in purple and yellow, and Mrs. Randesi gave me a C. I had no language then to tell her how those two colors worked on me, how they made me delight in some nameless, expanding pain I brushed into those mountains, those lakes, those flowers. Like the things I do not tell my boyfriend, so that I remain unfulfilled, wanting.
The iris is the inspiration for the fleur-de-lis, a symbol used in France, Quebec, New Orleans, and Saint Louis. In Florence, the fleur-de-lis appeared in white on a red background on the coat-of-arms, a symbol reversed in color in the fourteenth century, when the Medici family took power. For centuries, until the Medici dynasty collapsed, Floretines tried to hybridize a red iris.
My college boyfriend’s family sends us to Italy as a graduation present. In Florence, I know it’s over between us. My boyfriend drops his camera in the Duomo cathedral, sending thunder to the gods, and I want to impale him on a Renaissance gargoyle. In museums where Americans mob us at the Venus de Milo or the statue of David, my boyfriend spends hours looking at gold leaf applications on endless Madonnas With Child, room after room after room. I think the Virgin Mary looks manly. I want to eat crusty bread and drink wine and never go indoors again.
But we don’t fight in Italy. I keep the future to myself, moved to silence by the scenery his family has paid for, something to convince me I’m wrong about him. We take a day trip from Florence to Fiesole, a mountain village with a view of Florence’s red clay rooftops, and I do my best to be moved, to forget about my textbooks and travel shows. We climb a long stone road to a monastery where monks are chanting beyond a tall wooden door as old as time. I have a notebook with me, and for the first time since we arrived in Italy, I pull it out and sit down, try to say something about what we are experiencing. Instead, I start weeping, sobs rocking me against the hard-packed summer earth. My boyfriend, the artist, says it’s beautiful–the woman he loves so moved by the monastery and this place and, of course, him. He tells me not to worry. He will remember it all and draw it.
At night in Fiesole, we have one of those Tuscan dinners that last hours, with two bottles of wine and runny cheese and many-colored olives and pasta made with egg. We watch the lights of Florence come on after dark, and still, we sit. My boyfriend takes pictures of me across the table wearing a silver-threaded pink shawl I bought in Rome. Tiny yellow lizards climb the stone walls around the restaurant’s outdoor seating, and just as my boyfriend is about to snap the money shot–my shawl pulled Audrey Hepburn-like over my head–a lizard leaps onto my face, sticky little feet clinging to life on my long Sicilian nose. We laugh so hard I almost tell my boyfriend I can’t be with him anymore.
The fleur-de-lis is also the nearly-universal symbol of American Scouting.
I carry irises down the aisle to marry an Eagle Scout, who reminds of boys I knew when I was young, and also of no one else. Our story goes on. I cannot clip a single scene and make it root, the story sprawls like kudzu. Here is what I can do: It is October and irises are out of season–my friend has them shipped to Ohio as a surprise because I said it didn’t matter, I would just carry nothing, who cares about flowers when you’re getting married? But my friend is a good friend and takes this bride thing seriously. She wraps four irises in green calla lilies and ivory satin, presents them in the bridal suite where I shed the only tears of the day. I marry my husband in front of fifty people in a ceremony that lasts four minutes, during which we stand too far apart and I manage to drop his ring (“They call me Grace!” I say to the crowd). We shyly whisper “I do” and kiss and hear applause. On our way back down the aisle, I hand the bouquet of irises to my friend because my husband, the scout, has planted a perennial love with me, the kind that blooms and keeps on blooming. So we drop the unimportant things. We give the rest away.