The Tulip Collector

On that day, as always, he woke up very early. He arranged the tulips in crates, helped to store them carefully inside the truck, signed the shipping form and walked home. Without looking back. He was determined to not look back. Opening the door to his home, he reflected that “If tulips were people, they wouldn’t be able to hide a tear or two.”

Sitting on the porch, he began to make plans for yet another day. Ever since his arrival, twelve years ago, he became attached to his daily routine. As if it would help him to survive. He worked very long hours, day and night, until early morning—the constant activity banging away his memories. His few friends, Brazilians like him, also didn’t have any time to spare. Life’s meaning was reduced to the daily grind... In the cold of the morning, the light blue skies looked ever lighter. In Brazil, the skies were of a deeper hue, the dark blue contrasting with the intense green color of the vegetation. Eventually, he closed his eyes. In his solitude, he became accustomed to daydreaming. Recurrent images of the past came to him sequentially, impregnated with nostalgia. That sadness which used to get stuck in his throat had long left.

He recalled the day he had decided to leave. His decision was made while he sat on the beach, with no job and no hope, staring at the reflection of the sun on the water pointing towards the horizon. Maybe he could go somewhere else and live in peace... He packed only the bare essentials. He selected only his best clothes from the closet, picking two books he loved to read and the portrait of his mother. In time, sadness would be sure to arrive, an uninvited guest, an intruder unaware of the profound disturbance it would cause. Looking around, he tried to memorize every detail in the room. He was certain that he would never sleep in that room anymore.

Fear took hold of him as he entered the plane. “Everyone is looking at me as if they knew my secrets,” he thought to himself. He sat down next to an American woman and felt like an idiot because he could not speak English. Sleep came easily after two glasses of wine, and when he awoke, the city was before him, looking just like an enormous chessboard. The streets were clearly marked, each house symmetrically built, every roof the same color. “Will I be able to survive in a strange country?” The fear returned...

After waking up, he went into the kitchen to make coffee. He still used the old drip method with an old cloth funnel, already brown from so much use, always with residue on the bottom. That familiar smell permeated the whole house. Through the window, he could see his employee cutting off the dead leaves from the tulips. Putting down his cup, images from the past rolled beyond the windowpanes. Nights in the homes of strangers, offering his body as a lab guinea pig in exchange for a few bucks, carrying bricks until his hands dripped with blood, hiding in strange places to avoid being deported. He only attained peace of mind when he worked as an attendant at the gas station. He remembered that great day when that Brazilian lady asked him to change the tire of her car. He told her about his past as they exchanged conversation. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head when she found out he had a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. Instantly, she looked at him with a new perspective, as if he were suddenly transformed into a rare bird. Shaking her head, she moved around the station and said: “Tomorrow, I will bring my daughter so the two of you can meet!” She gave him a generous tip and went home in awe, her eyes still wide open. As she moved away, he thought: “I am the owner of my own past. And that nobody can take away from me. Nobody.”

On that cold morning, windy like the conditions in his homeland, he observed her car from a distance. Drawing nearer to meet them, he was convinced his life would never again be the same. Laura was there, at her mother’s side, to meet the “young man who became a doctor in France.” He greeted her, rather shyly, and he used his hand to clear the snow from his forehead. It had been snowing for days, incessantly. Laura held a tulip pot on her lap. Inside there was a red tulip, full of life, the color of blood, hungry to be fed and caressed. Who did he love most, Laura or the tulip? For him, both were inseparable from that moment on. Abruptly and without any pretense whatsoever, Laura occupied his lonely life. He still remembered the day she moved in with him. She climbed the steps, carrying a small suitcase, and with that sense of wonder and suspense, asked him to bring up seven small pots from her car, her tulip collection. She took hold of half the closet, a little corner on the veranda, a bookcase in the living room. Entering the kitchen, she became the lady of the house. Brazilian music, food, and smells invaded the apartment after so many years of seclusion. Laura brought back an abundance of memories, long repressed by suffering. His body swayed to the music, the taste of his favorite foods, the scents and colors of his past. That night, he made passionate love to Laura.

The employee woke him from his reveries. They had to buy additional pots to plant bulbs during the fall. His “business,” as he called it, came as a natural extension of Laura. Gradually, he became more and more involved, learning to cultivate flowers. After some time, he started to supply tulips to the neighboring flower shops. He spent his nights studying, experimenting, researching. His “business” grew. In a few years, he would be exporting tulips—except the ones he loved most, white with red stains, his true passion. He shared his enthusiasm with Laura, who made him a gift of her enigmatic smile. She contemplated the flowers tenderly, with a distant look in her eyes. He still recalled clearly the day he entered the room and saw her lying down in bed. Lately, he noticed, she had stopped cooking as before, having lost her lust for life, one bit at a time. “I miss Brazil,” she said. One day, she took him by surprise, finding Laura packing her small suitcase. “I want to go back, smell our forests, and look at the waves and the sunsets in Ipanema. I miss my Rio.”

Laura went away just like the tulips. Hiding her tears. One day, though, she would be back. Once again he, an unsung hero in a foreign land, did not look back.

CLARISSE BANDEIRA DE MELLO was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and moved to Florida in 1990. 

With degrees in the Portuguese and English Languages and Literature, and a Master’s Degree in Spanish Language and Literatures, she works as a translator, interpreter and is a former adjunct professor at Florida International University. She has several works on Portuguese translation and teaching in academic publications. 

Clarisse writes short stories and poems, having received literary awards both in Brazil and the United States. Reading, cooking and traveling are her favorite hobbies, as well as participating in literary groups for the study of Brazilian and Portuguese literatures. 

She lives with her husband in Weston, FL, has two daughters and four grandchildren.

Translated by