Where is Paul Flowers?
By Matthew Kasper
When Nina attempted to break up with me she did it with the style and élan of, ahh, let's say, a Siberian wolf hunter. In other words, she became a person I had never met before. As soon as I arrived home from work she stood in front of me and made intense eye contact with those cobalt blue irises. Then she said it was over. She even got as far as packing my clothes to pick up at the door before she spotted the wedding invitation missed in the mail. It was for Mike and Tiffany's wedding. It was happening in Middlebury after all, so, you know, who passes up Vermont in the fall? The occasion even had a Robert Frost-like quality: a rendezvous to savour before the snap of death (romantically speaking). In the weeks leading up to the date it was treated like a kind of premonition. When the time came we grinned appropriately, posed for all the huggy photos and champagne toasts. No one could have known what was going on between us. Outside of the public eye though we took our time in each other's company. Holding on tightly, we were braced for departure, and the prospect of soon becoming strangers to one another was the flicker and justification for our slowly dying romance.
On the evening of the Paul Flowers discovery, I didn't want to do anything more than take Nina to dinner. We were going to Bistro RX, "The Beast," as we liked to joke, was our favourite restaurant situated just off Patterson Park in East Baltimore. They serve flaky Empanadas there with fluffy couscous that wash down well with mojitos in mason jars. At night the candles melt into long icicles of wax that you can bend around your fingers and there are little bowls of sugar on each table for dipping strawberries during dessert. At my request, the strawberries had been arranged in little hearts on our plates. Sure it was corny. But the resentment was coiling with a silent, scary intensity inside of her. She was going to strike again: It was obvious. I had to do something.
Paul Flowers had other plans. Waiting for the light, I spotted a white piece of paper tacked to the steel box above the crossing button. At first glance it looked completely forgettable: the sketching of an art school graffiti project, a bunch of black words huddled together for some vague conspiratorial purpose. PLEASE HELP ME FIND MY FRIEND, AN OLD FRIEND OF MINE, it said in thick black letters. In an even larger font it announced: HIS NAME IS PAUL FLOWERS. No reward was mentioned. Judging by the colour of the paper the poster seemed to be new, and I was charmed by such an antiquated mission in the age of Social Media. On the other hand, it seemed to be hopelessly naïve: The premise that people, busy, everyday people, would walk by and see this poster and care enough to help?
"It's probably some psycho," Nina said. "Let's go before they give our reservation away."
By the time our check arrived, I was hoping that Nina would want to talk about something that would remind me why we were together. Because I swore to myself at the mere mention of anything relating to "promise me" I would walk away.
"What kind of name is Paul Flowers? It sounds kinda made up," I said.
I was on my fourth mojito then and doing a bad job of stifling the laughter.
"You're such a goof," she said, sweeping the bangs from her eyes.
"What difference does the name make. Who would do such a thing? There's the intrigue."
It was clear the conversation that used to move so breezily between us was no longer there. The sun had nearly disappeared, and the remaining feathers of light warmed our faces to the possibility night was only minutes away.
"Who would do such a thing is like chasing your tail," I said. "Why ask why?"
She practically yelled at me as I began shuffling around the table in her direction, rattling our plates and glasses as I headed for the men's room.
"Relax. It's not like I'm getting on one knee here," I said.
Then I really couldn't stop laughing because everything was unravelling and I was running out of ideas.
Still, I did my best. I could see in the way that Nina acted in the bedroom that my edginess was at least half my appeal. So I played the part of the rake. I partook in hobbies of the dusk-till-dawn variety. There were affairs with assorted clients causing me to show up late — or not at all. Nina was no perfect princess. On more than one occasion I discovered her checking dating sites in the search history of her browser. One night, suspecting I was out, I came home early and spied her walking toward our house with another man. Pressing my ear against the front door, I heard them exchange goodbyes before he moved in for a kiss. There is nothing quite like staring through the peephole of your door and watching the convoluted funhouse mirror image of your girlfriend making out with Mr Whoknowswho. She even winked at me when it was over. What did Conrad call it: the fascination of the abomination? I guess this was the dating equivalent, a broken heart of darkness. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't thrill me. And it does, yes, still does, when I think about it.
In the beginning, our relationship was more predictable. We poked around cafes and the grungy record stores in the hipster section of the city. Other days we wandered neighbourhoods and made a game of ranking our favorite murals. What we liked best about our time together was the distance from other people, a solitude which became a kind of intimacy. Each of us had pasts we were eager to forget about. On our good days we had a mojo though: a juju, a magic existence that none could match. I'm talking picnics. Book swaps followed by long, hot-tub soaked conversations that ended, as these things do, with what was most essential between us. Our bad days? We were just like everybody else. Of course, before there was Nina, there was Karen, and Claudia, and Rachel. Part of the excitement later in our relationship, I suppose, was knowing it could not last. Because even back then I was already picturing my next girlfriend. She would be taller, fuller in the hips and chest, maybe a little quiet. Maybe a little reserved.
Nina and I were technically broken up by the time of our second Paul Flowers sighting. We were physically active though not living together; we told each other we weren't sleeping with anyone. Overall, it was the equivalent of relationship purgatory. This time, Nina spotted the poster on a bulletin board as we cut through Patterson Park.
"There he is!" She said, running toward him.
This poster was surrounded by missing cat notices, babysitting offers, all the zany things people leave behind when every other means of communication is exhausted. Paul Flowers still retained his alluring, melancholy glow. We studied each picture as if it was a painting hanging in a museum.
"I wonder. This doesn't seem like love," I finally said.
"Maybe the difficulty is precisely the point," Nina countered.
"Paul Flowers needs to know that this is for him. Nobody else," she said, nodding as if it made it so. "I bet it was how his friend or lover or whatever thought they could fix things."
I thought about that for a moment. Whereas I was happy with letting the world be what it was, Nina was always chipping away at an explanation. It was as if things should naturally make sense.
"Or, maybe this is a ferocious stalker posing as a long-lost friend trying to get everyone to help him? Paul Flowers is actually trying to escape," I countered.
"Poor guy," she said.
"I don't know," I said. "Cats and dogs stick close to home when they run away. People usually get lost for a reason."
"I was talking about you. Your lack of imagination," said Nina, raising her eyebrows.
Then I saw the portrait photograph. Some impulse prompted me to trace the finer lines of the young man's face above whose deep-set almond-coloured eyes his lashes curled out, almost as an afterthought. The positioning in his posture was a contradiction. It made him appear to be concentrating and also simultaneously distracted by something just outside the frame of the photo and I found myself moved in an unexpectedly sad way. Here I was, standing on a street corner drinking in the private details of this strange little soul.
"I changed my mind. No. I think they must be lovers."
"Go on," Nina said, encouraged by my new tone.
"Well, who wants company this bad who isn't already in love?"
Leaning into me, Nina said: "He's all ours."
I whispered in her ear: "We should disappear."
It was delivered as more of a question than I had intended but the effect was the same. Nina settled deeper into my arms and I sniffed for the perfume I knew she liked to daub behind her ears. It was a wonderful aroma that reminded me of sun lotion and cinnamon. She closed her eyes and I closed my eyes. In the end, we knew we were better off together.
"Or," she said, pausing and moving her index finger to the tip of her mouth as if deep in thought.
And I'll never forget what she said next because the questions stayed with me longer than I expected them to.
"Maybe this is the opposite of love? Maybe you do this when you don't know any better? When you're just lonely. When it's better to move on."
I don't remember what I said in response. But, relationships take us to these places. And when you're young, everything has a way of seeming more dramatic. After that encounter with the Paul Flowers poster, I started to daydream about looking for him. I even caught myself imagining finding him and telling him the peculiar story of the posters. Posters? With me on them? He would say, shaking his head and rolling a cigarette. Thank you for telling me. I can't imagine who would do that. Who that would be. In one version of this encounter, we would become good friends and, later, occasionally laugh about the story of our acquaintance. In other versions, he would immediately call the police and flee with his family, the four of them moving in a huddled mass into a waiting car, screeching away, never looking back. In my least favourite version — the most realistic version — after telling Paul Flowers, he would stare back at me. He would look confused. He would blink as if waking from a deep sleep and would wait, patiently, for me to disappear like a mirage. Each of us doubting the truth of what was right in front of us.
Of course, that was all a long time ago. My life today is more of the 'suburban, two car' variety. I don't even live in the United States anymore: Singapore is my home now. In the morning I run on the treadmill before breakfast to stretch the years a little longer and in the evening I pray with my family at dinner in case they do not. I am balding, I am practical. I am not given to musing. There is nothing mysterious about my day to day. I read my news in silence and smile at my neighbors when we pass on our way to wherever we are going. Still, alone with my thoughts, it's another matter. As I arrange the emotional pieces in my life and account for all that does and does not fit, I can't help but wonder if I missed something about him all those years ago. Something that could have made the difference.
Because, eventually, Nina and I became more serious than ever. It seemed we had been wrong about each other. It was as if the strain and hardship had been a test. It was such a beautiful formula to discover: You become who you really are when who you try to be, melts away, over time. And we knew each other well at that point — we liked what we had to offer one another in the way of company. One night while messing around I came up with the outrageous plan for us to make our own poster for a wedding invitation. We would photograph the original Paul Flowers poster and use it as a model. I was the one doing most of the picture taking. Shuttering photo after photo in the receding evening shadows, I was ready to stop when Nina suddenly grabbed my wrist.
"This isn't right," she said. She was speaking in that slowly deliberate way I always found irresistible.
"Of course not," I said, smiling.
"No, the poster. Look at it: it's like a staged theatrical production."
Upon further inspection, Nina's observation appeared to have a kind of truth. Some of the photos on the poster looked grainy and out of focus. In one photo, Flowers seemed to be laughing and pointing his finger at someone while holding a small glass in his hand. It wasn't really clear whether he was outside at a cocktail party or standing in a poorly lit house because the background was entirely black with glimmers of silver and a wash of gray. Another photo showed him with a dour expression on his face standing in the sunlight. He was wearing a tan military uniform and his arms were stretched out at his sides. It looked like he was possibly standing in the middle of a desert. This one caught Nina's notice. Her eyes shifted focus and the high, dark arches of her eyebrows pulled into tight lines of concentration.
"It's an interesting photo," she said, "this one," pointing in the middle. "He is defiant. Heroic."
"Yeah? How so?"
"I mean, look at his expression. It looks like he's made some strange peace with himself and he isn't going anywhere. At the same time, he's daring someone to follow. It's quite vulnerable actually."
She clapped her hands together.
"I like it. It's strange and sexy."
Then she patted my upper thigh with the back of her hand. When I leaned over and kissed her lips they felt dry. She turned away from me to pull out her cigarette lighter. "I can't see a thing now," she said. "Wait! Shit! There's a phone number here!"
Sure enough, the last line on the poster included a number with nothing more than the disclaimer: I have tried Paul's old phone number and searched for him online and nothing works. If you know anything about Paul (especially his contact info) give me a call at 410-835-2743.
Nina beamed. This point of contact was a tremendous find.
"Oh my God. We have to call!"
"No, no, forget it," I said, "it could be some psycho, remember? Let's look at this tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Nina flicked her lighter off and put her hands on her hips. "What do you think this is, man? Paul needs our help today!"
"He does! We can help him," I said, laughing.
"We can help him!" she yelled back, giggling and close enough to me that I could feel the light patter of her pulse.
"If we shoot a photo or write that number down we would be golden. Wait, the light is going, we need to do this quick."
She started going through her purse again. I noticed that excited, expectant look from when we first met. I've thought about it a lot. And it's tempting to see yourself as a victim of history in retrospect. As much as I'd like to excuse what I did next there's really no defense for my actions. Because I was probably hoping there was still something I could do to send her away, once and for all. I rolled up my sleeves like a cartoon good guy about to deliver a knockout blow.
"Don't bother with the lighter. Watch this," I said, my arm still around her waist.
I ripped the poster off the box with one hand. Before I knew what was happening, it ripped apart in one long, searing tear, that ended with me standing there, stupidly, with two halves that didn't make a whole. Even the ends or corner edges had shredded so that the phone number was unreadable. I tried to rationalize the situation to myself. It was hilarious! Nina would just roll her eyes. When that didn't happen I started mumbling something about getting scotch tape. Then Nina held up her hand, which was barely visible at this point, to silence me.
"No. Stop," She said, and started to rub her temples. "Just stop."
I wish I could say the first thing I worried about in that moment was her feelings. The fact that I had caused, or seemed still to be causing, some deep hurt in her life. But by the time we got to my car we were both too tired to talk. I still remember the feel of her fingers as she reached into my pocket and took my keys. I could feel my eyes fluttering shut and I knew that pretty soon we would both be asleep.
Whatever it was we were waiting to discover about each other ended that night.
When I look over at Nina getting dressed in the faint light of the morning, all I need is her voice to remind me who I've been spending my life with. The first time I told Nina I loved her I remember folding her tight, ballerina body underneath my chin and the words startled from my mouth before I could do anything about them. Turning to look up at me, she nodded, and the fact that she didn't answer back recommitted me all over again. In one of our most vicious fights I demanded she acknowledge the reality of our situation, that there was no such thing as us, never was, our whole lives an unintentional history of waiting for something else. Less fate, than happenstance. Familiarity had kept us together.
"Then leave," she said, with tears this time, lovely tears for me to touch and smooth against her cheeks.
There are times I know she would just as soon forget we ever found those posters. Not me. I saved a piece from that night and I've never told her about it. Because when she goes to sleep I have a ritual. It has to be a clear evening. Then I pull the photo from my drawer and squint my eyes to look at the last, and perhaps, most arresting image of Paul Flowers: a colour headshot in which he is looking down. With his eyes-half closed and his lips parted as if he were about to receive communion, it remains the brightest portrait on the poster. But, like the other ones, the mystery of its circumstances do nothing to lighten the fog. Was he alone like me? Maybe, but there is a quiet grace in the way his gaze does not meet the camera that seems intentional. Although he is still a young man, he is beginning to look older. A spectacular bright orange mustache crawls over the top of his lip before drooping at the corners. His skin is soft and healthy though the stubble dotting his chin betrays the onset of a few grey hairs amidst the otherwise red and blonde whiskers mixed together in a swirl of jagged edges. Even if he isn't praying, Paul Flowers looks like he is waiting for deliverance.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021