The Smell of Jasmine

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My winter jasmine is blooming. The mounds of creamy flowers resemble an indoor version of the snowdrifts outside. It was my grandmother’s favorite flower, but I love jasmine because it reminds me of Marks & Spencer and of my first day of living in Albemarle Street.

Not long before Jamie and I were married, his friend Danny won a portion of an enormous multinational construction contract in England; Danny wanted Jamie to come to London to work on it, and was ecstatic when he agreed to go. Jamie was thrilled and so excited that he made the plane reservations that day. I was the only one unsure about the plan. Living for the first year of our married life in another country with no familial support system seemed unsettling, almost like a strategy for divorce. Additionally, I had to take leave from my editorial job in New York. Jamie had a new professional challenge and would be busy all day and half of the night but with no documents to edit, what would I do? I begged my boss to send me FedEx pouches of articles to edit and pay me half of my salary so my entire professional identity wouldn’t disappear into the puff of a jet contrail. As I packed my clothes to leave New York, I wished for a crystal ball so I could see how this would work out for us. I knew it was a phenomenal opportunity for Jamie but what would it be for me?

A few weeks after returning to New York from our Hawaiian honeymoon, we took a taxi to JFK and prepared to board another plane. Inching our way along the Jetway, I juggled my carry-on bag testily and turned to look at Jamie. “Are you sure we are doing the right thing?” I asked for the one-thousandth time.

Jamie nodded toward the stewardess checking boarding passes six feet in front of me. “Yes, I am, but even if I weren’t isn’t it a little late to be worrying about that?” He shifted the shoulder strap of the Hartmann carry-on. “Laura, we have been all through this. It is a fantastic opportunity for me, for both of us. Besides, you love London.”

I sighed. I did love London, having visited it frequently during the year I spent studying at Oxford University, but this was different; it wasn’t graduate school, but real life. Despite Jamie’s attempts to trivialize it, living in London for a year was more serious than a pinchy pair of heels from Bergdorf; I could return the shoes if they didn’t stretch, but what would I do if London pinched? Or if my brand-new marriage did?

I stuffed my uncertainties deep down inside as we turned left at the entrance and settled in. I always like to put on my BA-provided sleeping suit early, comfort trumping vanity, for a change. I returned to my seat with my jeans and sweater over my arm and saw that Jamie was deep in conversation with the man seated in front of him. I slid into my seat and tapped my fingers on the dinner menu. I wanted to eat early then fall asleep to try and remain calm. If I didn’t take a sleeping pill soon I would be up all night and begin my new life in London quivering like a bowl of Jello and looking like a wrung-out dishrag in high heels. Nothing would trump vanity once I was out in the morning light.

We ate dinner and soon my misgivings fell asleep. It seemed only minutes later that the breakfast announcement came through the speakers. I opened the opera shade on my window and squinted in the dim, grey, light; it looked cold. I touched my hand to the dripping pane. It was cold. Trained since childhood by my Russian grandmother to look for signs in the universe I wondered whether that boded well or ill. No way to tell until more time had passed, until I could look backward and reconstruct, searching for the plot points on the narrative arc. Four was the tipping point to my grandmother; two or even three small mistakes could be coincidence but when four consecutive things went wrong the universe was unquestionably telling you something.

We landed and gathered our belongings, then joined the trudging migration of lemmings in search of a new habitat. The Customs and Immigration lines were long, serpentining through the hall endlessly. Another unwelcome sign, perhaps, or just the reality of a dawn landing? We had been inching along for nearly twenty minutes and were third in line from the Arrivals desk when I heard a quick snap and stumbled backwards. After righting myself against Jamie, I looked down at the floor near my feet; what had I stumbled over? Nothing. The short, spike heel of my suede Manolo Blahnik boot had snapped. Shit. Now that was a sign.

Jamie looked down. “What is that?”

I picked up the conical heel. “The heel of my boot.”

“How did that happen?”

I shook my head. “No idea. They are almost new. This is only the second time that I have worn them. Shit. Seven hundred dollars for handmade boots that I cannot either wear or return because we are nowhere near Bergdorf.”

Jamie opened his mouth and I glared at him, “Don’t you dare say I gained weight on our honeymoon.” He held up both hands in surrender and said nothing. Then, as we inched forward again, he cleared his throat. “I was going to say that there is a Manolo store in Chelsea on Old Church Street. I am sure they will take them back.”

“I don’t want to take them back. I want to wear them.” I whined.

“So ask for another pair.”

“What if they don’t have them here?”

“I am sure they have them here.”

“What if my size is gone?”

Jamie sighed. “They will get them for you from somewhere. Stop trying to make things difficult.” He shoved the carry-ons forward with his feet as the line shuffled forward.

“I am not trying to make things difficult,” I snapped. “They are getting that way all by themselves.”   What I didn’t add was that the broken heel was the third sign after the cold, grey dawn and the infinite line. There was no sunshine on our arrival either literally or figuratively; my grandmother was telling me that we shouldn’t have come to London.

The light blinked on the Customs Officer’s desk and I hobbled forward, one foot stepping heel-to-toe and the other just tiptoe.

The Customs Officer raised an eyebrow, “Is something wrong?”

I plopped my passport on his desk, then crouched. “She broke a heel on her shoe,” I could hear Jamie respond.

“Well, could she come up long enough so I can compare her photo to her face?”

Jamie poked me with the toe of his shoe and he hissed, “come back up here!”

I was scowling as I rose. “You looked a lot happier the day this picture was taken,” the Customs Officer observed. “You should smile more.”

I nodded then sat down on the floor and began unlacing both boots, muttering under my breath about the idiocy of people telling other people to smile. Finishing, I jammed both shoes into my red Goyard tote bag and stood. As we headed toward the baggage claim Jamie said, “You know you can’t walk outside like that. It’s raining.”

I clutched the escalator handrail. “I have walked barefoot in the rain before.”

“Not in this you haven’t.”

I glanced through the plate glass window of the baggage hall as the step disappeared and we stepped off; he was right, it was sleeting. Well, maybe we could catch a taxi right outside the door.

We found the correct baggage carousel and waited for the luggage. Minutes ticked by on the giant clock hanging from the ceiling. “Is there a baggage handlers’ strike today?” I asked Jamie. He shrugged. More time passed. My feet were growing cold on the floor. After about twenty minutes the warning light flashed and the buzzer sounded. Luggage appeared sporadically on the belt. We watched people from our flight choose their bags from the rubber track. Where were ours? After about ten minutes the belt stopped turning and uniformed BA employees began removing the unclaimed bags for storage. Ours weren’t there.

Jamie and I stared at each other. “Where do you think the Claims Office is?” I asked. We located it and asked the agent in charge about our luggage. After about thirty minutes of conversation with BA at JFK, referencing and cross-referencing luggage tag numbers, ticket stubs, and boarding passes, she reported apologetically that for some reason our luggage hadn’t been put on the plane.

“You are kidding,” Jamie deadpanned. “We were in First Class. Doesn’t the First Class luggage go on first?”

The agent smiled. “Ordinarily, sir, yes, but there was an abnormality in the loading protocol on the tarmac at JFK.”

“An abnormality in the loading protocol on the tarmac,” I hooted. “Does that mean someone forgot to put our bags on the plane? And they were left on the baggage train?”

The woman shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“It does, doesn’t it?” I crowed. “Shit! That’s it! This is the fourth time BA has lost our luggage!   Fourth! Bermuda last October and Hawaii the first Christmas we went to Lanai. And your cousin’s wedding in Dublin! Oh, my God, Jame! Remember that? I had to wear a cotton sundress to your cousin’s wedding in a castle because BA lost our luggage!” Jamie and the baggage agent were staring at me in growing confusion and dismay as my voice pitched higher. “That’s number four! Number four! Oh, my God, the lost luggage is number four! My shoe broke, it’s sleeting outside, the Customs line was long, and now you tell us that all of our clothes are missing! That’s four things! My grandmother was right! I knew we shouldn’t have come here!” I burst into choking sobs.

Her face stricken, the baggage agent excused herself and all but ran out of the small office, closing the door gently behind her. I sat and cried while Jamie stared at me in shock. Finally, he reached out and touched my shaking hand. “What’s wrong? Is this just because you didn’t want to come here?”

I inhaled raggedly. “It’s not that I d-d-didn’t want to c-c-c-come here; I am unsure about coming h-h-here.”

“What do you mean? We discussed this, Laura. We discussed it to death. This is a terrific opportunity for me.”

“B-b-b-but what is it for me?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Wh-what is it for me? I h-h-had to give up my j-j-job to come here. A-a-a-nd my f-f-family.”

He remained quiet for a few minutes. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I thought this was an opportunity for both of us. I didn’t realize that you felt so . . . so robbed by it.”

I felt like a spoiled brat. My breathing relaxed. “I don’t feel r-r-robbed, exactly; I just feel . . . I don’t know . . . l-l-left behind, maybe. And at a c-c-crucial point in our r-r-relationship.”

Jamie stared at me.   “Crucial point?” he echoed.

My head snapped up, nose streaming. “We just got married, literally just.” I wiped my nose on my left sweater sleeve.

“We have known each other for five years, Laura. We have been living together for three. What has changed? If I didn’t want to be married to you, I wouldn’t have done it. Where we live has no bearing on my happiness about marriage.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I stayed silent. So did Jamie. “And what were you talking about your grandmother?” he asked finally.

“S-s-signs,” I sniffed.

“Signs of what?” he asked, puzzled.

“S-s—signs that we shouldn’t have come here. F-f-four things went wrong in qu-quick suc-suc-succession,” I sniveled.

He scooted his chair closer and put his arm around me. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” he asked.

I didn’t answer. Seconds passed. “Well, maybe you do,” he concluded finally. “But why do the signs have to be of impending disaster?”

Digging in my tote bag produced no Kleenex, so I wiped my nose on my sweater’s other sleeve. “What do you mean?” I asked suspiciously.

Jamie shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe a bunch of stuff has to go wrong so when things go right, it is especially sweet,” he said. “Maybe the signs are that we should appreciate what we have,”

“That’s idiotic.”

“No more idiotic than counting mishaps, reaching an arbitrary number, and then interpreting them as universal signs of impending doom.”

Somehow when he said it like that, it did sound ridiculous. I poked him. “Don’t call my grandmother an idiot.”

“I surrender,” Jamie sighed, leaning back into his chair just as the door opened. It was the baggage agent. She entered and sat tentatively on the edge of her chair.

“I just checked your travel records and I saw that you have indeed filed lost baggage claims on four discrete journeys including this one. I am so sorry. I just don’t know what to say. I don’t think any other customers have flown British Airways as often as you have and experienced the same kind of misfortune.”

Jamie and I traded glances.

She continued. “Are you staying at a hotel?”

“No, we have leased a flat on Albemarle Street,” Jamie answered.

“Oh, how lovely. Now, by way of apology, I have arranged for a car to take you to your destination and I have two one hundred pound American Express gift cards so that you may buy yourself a nice meal or perhaps a few essential items of clothing.” Here she looked at me. “I realize that these won’t pay for your shoes,” her eyes darted to the broken Manolo peeking out of the red tote, “but maybe you can get a pair of trainers to hold you until your luggage arrives. And it will arrive tonight. Kennedy has told me that it is being loaded on to the next plane even as we speak. And when it arrives it will be messengered to your flat, if you will just provide the address.” She smiled, no doubt hoping this interview was over.

We thanked her and she led us to a waiting black taxi. When the driver inquired about our destination, Jamie gave him the address of the Albemarle Street flat we had rented for our year in London.

We sat in the back seat of the cab and held hands as the grey and drizzly scenery passed. As we reached Cromwell Road, I remembered my sodden socks.

“Excuse me,” I tapped on the Plexiglas partition. “Could you please stop at the M & S at Marble Arch before you take us to our flat?”

“Yes, indeed, madam,” the driver replied.

When we reached the big Marks & Spencer store, I attempted to hop out quickly. Jamie caught my wrist. “I am coming with you,” he said. “It’s bucketing out. Let’s just get something to cook for lunch and stay home for the rest of the day.”

“Don’t you have to meet Danny on the job site?” I asked, surprised.

Jamie shrugged. “Yes, but I will tell him we were jet-lagged and needed to rest. I can start tomorrow.”  He smiled. I grinned back.

“Come on.” He pulled me out of the taxi. “You go find sneakers while I go to the food halls. Meet me there when you are done.”

Separating at the door, I hurried to the shoe department. I chose the cheapest sneakers that would fit and paid for them with the American Express gift card. The shoes were so inexpensive that I had a large balance, so I bought underwear and socks, too; tearing off the store tags, I sat on a display to put on the new socks and sneakers, dropping my wet socks in a refuse bin on my way downstairs.

When I reached the food hall entrance I was struck by the smell of winter jasmine, my grandmother’s favorite flower. Ten pounds bought a lush plant with creamy flowers and tendrils curling around the small trellis planted in the center of the terra cotta pot.   I reached for one and inhaled the luxurious scent, the fragrance of my grandmother, and of a new life in London. “Maybe this is a good sign, Grandma,” I whispered, placing it gently in my shopping trolley. I stood on tiptoe and peered around me. It was time to find Jamie and start that new life.

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