Shall I Compare Thee to a Wilted Rose by Elias Keller

Shall I Compare Thee to a Wilted Rose?

Stefan, a tall, gangly poet, was just as intelligent as Marie, a chopstick-thin graduate student with bleach-white hair six inches shorter than his; but early on in the date, their conversation stumbled forward, his jokes clanging against her shins and his opinions stepping on her feet as they drank tea in a quiet Philadelphia café.

“This is like fieldwork, then,” Stefan remarked when Marie described her thesis about radical re-examinations of gender roles. “Look at our hair.”

Marie twiddled a silver ring pierced through her eyebrow. “But why should long hair be associated with women in the first place?”

“Fair enough,” Stefan replied, though it really wasn’t a fair question for a first date. He glanced aside at a neat row of glass jars of loose tea leaves and noted the contrast between the light, delicate leaves of green tea and the dark, hardy leaves of the various black teas. Hypersensitive to caffeine, Stefan had ordered a peach green tea; Marie, upon learning that the café didn’t serve coffee, asked the barista for the strongest black tea in the shop. Then she’d put up some resistance to Stefan paying for her tea, but he’d overcome that by joking that if she had to drink this wimpy beverage, she at least shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Marie had smiled: “Tea isn’t wimpy. It’s just not—”

“Your cup of tea?” he’d interjected, making her laugh, finally.

By the time they finished their teas, the rapport felt fluid enough for Stefan to suggest they visit a secondhand book shop. “It’s a good one,” he said. “Small, but well-curated.”

As they walked to the shop, Stefan paused a few times to remark on atypically-painted houses or colorful porch gardens. Marie nodded patiently, but when not halted by his observations and musings, she strode forward briskly, purposefully. “I don’t have much time to get to the gym these days,” she explained, “so I try to make walking my exercise.”

“Very efficient,” Stefan replied, hustling to keep apace and looking longingly at a large, plump sunflower.

The bookshop was called Last Words and Marie browsed through the sociology section with him, suggesting a few classic titles about gender theory, which Stefan interpreted as a good sign. Then he subtly shepherded her toward the poetry shelves. She knew he was a poet, a published poet, and he knew the bookshop had a copy of his debut collection, which had received critical praise for its melancholic tone.

“Is this yours?” Marie asked. He’d re-shelved it to face outward while she had been perusing tomes about feminist theory.

Stefan feigned an endearing bashfulness. “Oh — it is, actually. It’s nothing much.”

“Yes, it is.” She read the laudatory blurbs, smiling and touching his narrow forearm. “I guess I have to buy it.”

“Or: we can stop by my place and I’ll give you a copy.” Stefan smiled back and touched her forearm, feeling faint traces of perspiration on her pale-as-paper skin.

“That’d be nice.” Marie put the slender book of poems back on the shelf.

On the way toward his apartment they strolled through Rittenhouse Square and passed by a bush of wilted roses, dullish white with crisp brown trim on their flaccid petals. Stefan stopped to gaze wistfully at the flowers, taking Marie’s hand and impulsively reciting some extemporaneous poetry:

“Now high the summer sun
Alas, rose, thy bloom is done.”

Marie smiled at the couplet, her shallow cleavage showing as she bent over to look at the wilted roses. “Who wrote that?”

Stefan froze. Blake, he should say. Or Keats. Better yet, Shakespeare. But he did not. “Um — me. I did.”

“Oh. Very pretty.” It sounded like she was praising a child.

Their hands drooped like the rose petals and unclasped. Alas, date, art thou done? — it would have been one of the wittier things Stefan had ever said to a woman. But he just ricocheted mutely between poetry and gender re-examinations.

“I appreciate your offer,” Marie said, glancing at her phone. “But actually, I should really get home. I have so much work to do on my dissertation. You understand.”

“Of course. I’ll — keep a book aside for you.” The words withered as soon as they touched the warm air.

They parted cordially at the subway portal and Stefan watched Marie descend the concrete steps. Then he returned to the wilted white roses and continued composing his new poem.

 

djuna_barnes_-_book_of_repulsive_women

 

Elias Keller is a Philadelphia native. His fiction has appeared in Wordhaus, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Forge, and elsewhere. He currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com.

 

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