A Gift of Luxury

She woke up and remembered it was Saturday. She didn’t have to go to the lab. She felt temporarily relieved.

It had been five weeks since school started. In addition to all the course work, she had to familiarize herself with everything: numerous administration offices of the university and the department; lab facilities, hardware and software; professors, fellow students; the bank, the post office, the immigration office…. She had been trying very hard to keep up. Saturday was the only day in a week that she would allow herself a break.

She turned and lay on her side comfortably. Now she could see the whole room. A table on the verge of breaking apart stood near the window with a rocking chair beside it. Adding the mattress she was lying on, it was all the furniture she had, making her studio apartment look big and empty. They were kindly given to her by the janitor, who collected them from former tenants. Her two suitcases were still standing side by side along the opposite wall, as on the first day she moved in, revealing the unsettledness of the occupant.

She turned on the radio by the bed. Soothing music rose from the clumsy-looking gray box, adding to her apartment some life and cosiness. Pulling her hand back from the radio, she turned on the telephone ringer.

She had bought the radio and phone set after spending two entire mornings walking up and down Boulevard St-Laurent looking for a bargain. Since the day of her arrival, she found herself constantly struggling for a balance between time and money. If she had had more time, she would be able to save more money for her living; if she had had more money, she could save more time for her study. Unfortunately, she was short of both.

She got up and opened the blinds. It was a gray day. The sky was as plain as her apartment.

After a quick breakfast of a piece of bread and some milk, she sat down on the rocking chair and pulled out the grocery advertisements of the nearby supermarkets.

Even though she had received a full scholarship from the university, after paying all necessary bills, including the incredibly high tuition fees for international students, the rent, the electricity, and the phone, she had only a hundred and fifty dollars left for her monthly expenses. She had calculated several times, hoping that somewhere she had made a mistake and somehow the number would be larger. But no mistake: a hundred and fifty dollars was all she got, for her food, for pots and plates, for sheet and quilt, for her soap and toothpaste, for bathroom tissue and cleaning cloths, for pens and paper, for her textbooks and reading lamp…. Checking sales became her weekly homework, and she wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t on sale.

She took notes on a sheet of paper while going through the product information, the name of the product, its regular price and its sale price. Coming from a foreign country, she had no clue about prices here. Taking notes was the only way to help her remember whether a product she found in a store was on sale or not.

After comparing prices in different supermarkets, she came up with a shopping list which included what to buy at which store. She put on her coat and slid the list into her pocket.

The air of early October was a bit bracing and felt like late autumn in her hometown. The leaves were changing color. Now and then, some drifted off the trees in a dance with the wind, and wove a yellow carpet covering the streets. It was her first time living the autumn of a northern country. She smiled, facing the wind.

As soon as she entered the supermarket, she noticed a difference in the atmosphere. An old lady near the entrance smilingly invited every customer to the tables covered with large white cloths for a coffee and a cake. A big teddy bear, disguising somebody, strolled around the store, bouncing up and down. It was the Thanksgiving holiday, so she was reminded.

The warmth of the coffee dismissed the coldness from outdoors. She hadn’t tasted coffee or cake since she came to this country. She simply couldn’t afford them on her tiny budget.

She walked around with a cart, searching for each item on her shopping list. She had already learned to ignore the vast variety of products that looked alien to her. Food experimentation was not something her budget would allow for.

While she was picking vegetables, a red flower appeared in her view. She looked up. The teddy bear was standing right before her, handing her a rose from a bouquet in his arm.

She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t sure if she would have to pay for the flower. She didn’t know how much a rose cost, but she knew that she could not afford it. She hesitated….

The teddy bear knelt down on one knee, pressed his hand against his heart, bowed, and again presented the rose to her. She heard quiet laughter and found a dozen customers standing around and watching them.

Finally, she decided to forget all her worries and took the rose. People applauded and she smiled back. The teddy bear bowed again with his hand on his heart, and bounced happily away.

She looked at the rose in her hand. The blossom hadn’t fully opened but remained in a bell shape. The delicate petals, evenly painted by nature in dark red, were shining with a subtle fragrance.

She found an empty bottle in the kitchen and filled it with water. She had thought about buying a little vase at Dollarama but eventually gave up the idea. She put the flower in the bottle and placed it on the table in front of the window. The red color looked even richer against the gray sky.

She opened the letter she had just picked up from her mailbox downstairs. It was a greeting card from the other side of the planet, and on it was written—

“Happy Birthday!”

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