No one was awake, so I went into the garden.
I walked along the gravel path, almost buried beneath summer weeds. The garden fills all the space on one side of the path, and on the other, lantana, plumbago, the little yellow tree with the name I can’t ever remember. I sit near them and look across at the bright zucchini blossoms; I wonder if I should do something about the tangled vines. I planted cantaloupe too close, I thought it was going to be something else. Behind me, everything continues to bloom despite the drought. It’s impressive. Scents of rosemary and sage while I sip my coffee. A dog barks, someone’s chicken turned out to be a rooster and crows incessantly; it will continue until the neighborhood has had enough. Please get rid of your rooster, politely first, then in a day or two, when the owner does nothing, it will mysteriously disappear.
The sense of community here borders on dysfunction. Once, a chicken came into the backyard and laid fourteen eggs behind our shed. The hen sat for four weeks and nothing happened—duds. The kids were disappointed. Four weeks of waiting and no baby chicks. The day we decided to throw them out, a boy came to the fence. Those are my chicken’s eggs. I want them. It was strange, no one came looking for the chicken during the twenty-eight days, but we were perfectly happy to let his family dispose of the rotten eggs.
I notice the green beans have grown too long. The four cantaloupes are almost ready. You can smell them from a few feet away. It’s glorious, and I don’t even like cantaloupe. I walk over to them and pull some weeds, pick a handful of beans. I hold them in my hand, rub some dirt off a pod with my fingers. The surface is rough. The friction doesn’t cause any pain, but it leaves behind a strange sensation. An invisible substance remains.
I went into the garden, but only in my mind. We left it—the garden and the little, old house, hundreds of miles from here. Instead, I sit in a rusted, metal chair, surrounded by patchy grass and chain link. I put my hands on my swollen middle and sigh.
I didn’t appreciate those mornings when I lived them—waiting for the kids to wake and come outside before breakfast, pull off a deep-red tomato and bring it to me exultantly. I wonder what was wrong with me.
I hated the weeds, and the awkward cement slab just to the right of the house, a few yards past the wooden gate. It all looked better in the evening, when I’d put the kids’ toys away and turn on the string lights. They went out in three rows of bright white and wound around the pecan tree. After sunset you couldn’t see the cracks in the stone skirt, or that we needed to fix all the rotted, peeling window trim.
At night I noticed other things—brakes of a city bus, crepe myrtle confetti blossoms covering the street, couples cutting through the public park at the edge of our yard.
We’d sit outside, crack pecans, throw washers. I usually brought a glass of wine. On rare days that they contained anything, I filled watering cans from the rain barrels. My husband inspected tomatoes in the moonlight, fixed any holes in the mesh, complained about the birds to the chorus of a thousand cicadas.
I planted some basil and tomato when we got here, in large, ceramic pots. They take up all the sun. A giant oak shades the rest of the yard. It’s majestic and makes the afternoons bearable, but how will I grow anything without light?
I gather a few leaves and the only ripe tomato. I don’t think the plant will yield more than a half dozen. It almost feels pointless.
Inside, everyone sleeps. I fill the tea kettle with water, grind coffee beans, and pour them into the French press. These familiar, ordinary motions soothe me. Morning light slowly fills the dark kitchen. I move around barefoot; I love the feel of pine floors in summer. Last night I cleared the breakfast table and counter tops of the week’s accumulation of mail, drawings, and messes: grease stains on the cook-top, coffee rings on the counter, remnants of the children’s snacks—banana peels and sticky milk.
A clean house makes me feel calmer about what is going wrong in my body. I like seeing the top of the dark wood without clutter and crumbs. Apple-green chair cushions, flowers my daughter picked and put in a tiny vase, freshly scrubbed subway tile. I walk into the silent living room and push back the curtains. A car door slams; across the street someone leaves for work.
Starting over is a strange thing, and I feel strange here. I am a stranger. No one knows the things it takes years of friendship to say out loud.
Yesterday I took the kids to the park. We could walk to one in our neighborhood, but I prefer to drive to the edge of the city. Next to the college there’s an old, Spanish mansion, converted into a public library. The grounds are historic and full of loquat trees; they surround a large, wooden playground. I feel at home there. Moms nurse their babies in public, without apology or discomfort. Kids snack on dried edamame instead of Goldfish and when I eavesdrop on conversations, I hear women talking about cloth diapers and articles from The New Yorker in the same breath. I haven’t had to make friends in fifteen years. It has the awkwardness of dating. Do I ask the mom I’ve been talking to for her email? If they want to meet for a play date? Often, I do nothing.
I find myself crying at unexpected moments. I can blame it on hormones or hematology reports, but sometimes, it’s just loneliness.
I go back to the kitchen and my potted-garden gatherings. I pull a few things from the fridge and slice onion, peppers, and my one tomato. I fry some bacon, then throw everything into the grease and sauté it until it has a sticky, brown coating. I crack eggs over the sizzling vegetables and pour it all onto a platter with the bacon. It’s a lovely, familiar smell; I wish I felt like eating it.
The baby stretches inside me. A wave of nauseous hunger overtakes me and I sit down at the breakfast table and close my eyes until it passes. The baby demands sustenance. I eat a piece of bacon and some eggs with my fingers, suddenly too tired to get up for a fork.
The baby moves again, in quick, tiny motions. They are giving her two more weeks to grow, then forcing her out. She will be fine, they say, you will be fine. Everything will be fine. I want to believe them. If I could, nothing else would bother me. Not the naked yard or the solitude. I would be perfectly happy.
When I open the front door to let the dog out, the smell of grass overwhelms me. The temperature rose five degrees in the time it took me to make breakfast. Summer in the south is a powerful force.
I leave the door open and watch the dog wander along the curb, sniffing and pawing the lawn. The air-conditioner kicks on and I go all the way out, sit on a step while I wait. Now the sun is up and morning colors show vivid in the light. Wisteria grows over our bedroom window. The last, faded purple bloom hangs on—somehow it survived through spring. A glare comes off the asphalt, shimmers like water.
I close my eyes and experience deep-in-the-gut longing. Through the darkness of my mind I see it again—cucumbers climbing up and over the back fence, tomato cages sagging with the weight of their fruit—a strange elixir to my isolation and fear. But how can anyone be sick when they walk barefoot through that rich, warm soil? How can anyone fear death in the midst of so much life?
If everything turns out all right, we’ll plant next year. Each summer since the birth of my oldest we added more, tilling layers and layers of hard and dormant earth into a place of nourishment. Those years feel like nothing. How could I have already lived so long? I want more, much more.
The dog and I go in. I hear shrieking laughter and chatter coming from the back. I walk through the kitchen; the platter is empty. Two little, plastic cups sit nearby, also empty. My hands cradle the baby, she squirms in my grasp, her feet push against my ribs. I move towards the laughter.
I watch the flurry of movement from the window and only now, when it all balances on the edge of a fathomless precipice, do I recognize the happiness I couldn’t see before.