When the Ink Dries

Other than a cone of lamplight over my shoulder, the remainder of the sunporch sits in darkness. Occasionally, I hear Joanna pitter-pattering here and there, rediscovering another partially deformed toy plush to pull apart before jumping up on my leg and smacking my sweater with her paw. It’s nearly 9:00, and it’s closing in on her bedtime. She’s anxious to get to dreamland, but I have another page on the application to complete.

With surgical precision, I carefully spell out my name with the ballpoint pen – making certain I’m not bleeding over into a neighboring field, or smearing the ink with my hand. I angle the 2×2″ photo just inside the designated box, and accidentally staple right through the paper and into my index finger.

FUCCCCCK!

Joanna scampers to her bed, poking her head behind a finless Dory doll. Nursing my blighted finger, I finish the stapling exercise, infill a few more fields, and write the check with all the add-ons to get the critical part of my “just in case” plan returned before the white nationalist fascist takes our country’s helm.

I’d imagined reapplying for my passport would be much more enjoyable – with visions of scenic countrysides to explore dancing through my head. But instead, I’m siphoning the necessary funds from my “maybe I can actually save this at the end of the month” account, rationalizing the expenditure as vitally necessary.

While I’m not a catastrophist, I am paying close attention to the growing warning signs that the coming sadistic “administration” plans to act as judge, jury, and executioner – without any care or concern for the Constitution, much less the Bill of Rights, or human morality. I fully intend to fight and defend what I know to be good and true in this country, but I’m also incredibly terrified of what could come to pass, as well as the violence incited along the way.

Every single day when I leave for work, I envision a time in the near future when the final straw becomes dangerously heavy – when I’ll have to race back, scoop up Joanna, vital documents, maybe a keepsake or two, and just go, leaving my mended home and garden to the coming ravages.

I hope beyond hope that sensible, smart, dedicated, compassionate people will unite and push back against this scourge and his minions. And I fully intend to play a part in it – even if the story’s epilogue ends with me and JoJo in my Toyota, speeding north.

***

Rain cascades down in sheets, and a few shingles fly off the dilapidated roof. Boards above in the attic pop from the dry air and sudden moisture co-mingling, and heated air pipes through the vents – resembling the sounds of the open sea.

I sit and watch the moonlit branches dancing in the wind, and listen to the creaking of the makeshift garden fence just outside the windows. I rub my socked foot along the painted floor, recognizing how important this place is to me, and how much I want to grow here.

As I tuck all the documents into the large envelope and seal it tightly, another hearty gust blasts the windows, making the panes shudder.

I stare past the envelope on the tabletop and into JoJo’s marble-like eyes, and quietly murmur.

“We’re in this thing together. And while the storm may rage and weather us, with hope, we’ll still be standing when the sun rises.”

Forward-effacing

The long, expansive access ramp juts out from the midcentury rambler’s facade like a metallic tongue, beckoning me and the other circling vultures inside.

Nearing the front door, I hug the railing as a white-painted headboard bursts across the threshold, followed quickly by the footboard. The couple shuttling the bed frame makes their way to a battered Chevy Silverado as I scoot past the mattress and box spring leaning idly by the door.

Just inside, the hallway is plastered with signs reading “50% off!” My eyes dart to every fixture and shelf, each of which sports a peel-off orange price tag. This is the first estate sale I’ve ever been to, and I’m struck by its emotional heaviness.

I’m so used to seeing antiques and keepsakes wholly divorced from their context; but here, scattered among bedrooms and basement nooks, along patio edges and kitchen counters, everything is laid bare with trace amounts of significance. A couple stands behind a cash register in the living room, and I soon learn they’re part of an auction house group hired to sell off as much of the contents as possible, before the rest is donated to charity. They suggest I check downstairs in the basement, and I wind my way past other oglers coming in through the front door, and down a narrow carpeted staircase.

In the basement, tables upon tables are stacked with tools, drill bits, cigar tins, and every other sort of appliance part imaginable. I’m immediately overwhelmed by the smell of oil and leather, and make my way to an open patio door. Outside, three large wheelbarrows and massive metallic tubs are lined up like prize cattle. In a nearby shed, a few boxes of broken parts sit among an old push mower from the fifties; I briefly entertain the mower, but then counterbalance it with utility, and exit – flies swarming in the dank air behind me.

Back inside, I find a small dinette chair covered in oil-soaked slip covers, a handful of old stoneware pickling crocks, a lamp, a handmade rolling cart, and a hanging bamboo tea light holder – all of which I pile upstairs near the register.

On my last circuit around, I stop in the bedroom farthest from the center of the house. There, in a corner, stands a potty chair walker; the only other furnishings in the room are a partly deconstructed twin bed, and a Kmart shelf with old hat boxes piled on top. I don’t know whether or not I’m supposed to be in here. For a moment, it’s just me and the potty chair, and the bright pink shag carpeting.

I delicately remove one of the closest hat boxes, peering inside at the crumpled tissue paper forms shaped into half-spheres, having cradled spherical glass ornaments for decades; two lone ornaments wobble on the shelving unit below, residual glitter flaking off. Along the interior box rim, I can barely make out a name  – something with a “G,” maybe George.

Suddenly, one of the register operators pokes her head around the doorframe, and I shove the hat box back on top of the unit, give her a slight smile, and cast my eyes down to the shag carpeting – away from the walker in the corner as I shuffle out the door.

After paying, the auction group hands me a receipt, a bright stamp reading “Please Call Again” – ever the reminder of death and endings coming to pass. On my last trip out, I notice a mirror hanging by the door – reflecting so many memories and lives and futures as the past collides with the present, fleetingly out through the door.

With the backseat piled high, I adjust my rearview mirror and quietly assure the former resident that I’ll take care of all of their things, realizing in the same breath that everything on Earth is merely rented.

***

About 12 hours later, a liter of saline fluid drips into the IV plug at my wrist, the dancing light of early afternoon filtering between the slightly opened blinds. The room is dark and silent, and I fade in and out of shallow sleep, readjusting myself on the papery tarp cascading across the pleather examination room recliner.

Whenever a nurse or doctor comes in to check that I’m not dead, I rally both eyes to focus, and my speech to resemble something slightly more robust than a jellyfish slopping through a vat of peanut butter. Every single time I assure them I’m alright, and supplement my verbal affirmation with a thumbs up – the quintessential sign that things are not alright.

Later, in moments of hydrated lucidity, I startle myself awake reeling from the feeling of waking up in an alien place.

I catch my breath, and try to breathe.

In and out.

In and out.

In

and

out.

Life has gotten terrifyingly weird. No one really knows where they’ll be in a few days, a couple months, a year; everything I do now feels like it’s on borrowed time.

The week a KKK-underwritten demagogue was elected to the highest office in our nation, I was planning a fundraising party, and had to keep smiling. But It’s hard to be festive when you feel like your country is on the brink of collapse.

Even still, in the scary days ahead, we must rally and fight to build the brighter future we know is possible – that we’ve been fighting for all along. It’s hard to do – to push back. But, to pull out a Trekkie reference, “We will do what we’ve always done. Find hope in the impossible.”

Things will be getting worse before they get better.

And I must recognize every morning, that while I feel like I’m waking up in the middle of a dystopian novel’s prologue, I do have a voice, and can do what I can to rewrite the narrative.

“We’ll Get Through This” Isn’t Enough

If you’re like me, you woke up Thursday morning hoping the horror of Wednesday morning was just some sort of Inception-like nightmare within a nightmare.

You read through your newsfeed despite swearing off social media and/or human interaction for the next four years, and unfriended that one person you thought was pretty cool, but somehow turned into a raging insaneclownpants and voted against everything you stand for.

You were reminded that this isn’t just a nightmare; it’s a horrorscape, and everyone you care about is at risk.

***

Early Wednesday morning, a close friend called me from Raleigh. We vented, sat in silence, and vented some more.

“This is how fascism will take hold,” he said, trailing off. “And what’re we to do? They’ll control the House, Senate, and White House.”

After we hung up, I erased my blackboard’s grocery list and scrawled an escape plan: Save money; Renew passport; Research Canadian towns and pet travel laws. I wore all black and dusted off my LGBTQ activism pins; I had to get my armor on.

I ugly-cried most of Wednesday – at the bus stop, at work, in front of complete strangers. I joined other stupefied cohorts and rallied at City Hall, then protested that night.

And despite feeling exhausted, depressed, angry, lonely, and in complete shambles, I felt recharged by the energy of everyone around me; I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t curled into a ball. I wasn’t running. I was part of a crowd of strangers united by a common goal of letting our voices be heard, of refusing to be silent and complicit.

Wednesday night came, and I found myself back home, staring at my blackboard. My adrenaline pumped, and my eyes hung heavy. I took a deep breath and another piece of chalk, and added a line beneath my exit strategy:

Fight as long as possible.

***

I hope that the push against this vile dumpster fire will continue every single day – that we won’t let the spark and fervor of our rage die down.

We were on the cusp of a bright future, and we will not let it go. I still see it every morning, in every sunrise, and I have a painful longing for it. We must reach for it – our arms outstretched, fists clenched in solidarity. This is not about “being a sore loser.” This is about opposing authoritarian dominance of the most insidious kind. Being comfortable is a pastime; and if you are, you’re part of the problem. We should all feel a fire burning inside us – the drive to do something.

I am a white cisgender gay man in a liberal city; I’m afforded absurd privileges because of that, and I intend to leverage them every single moment I can – to speak and act up, and call out injustice against anyone this cadre of neo-fascists targets. I cannot and will not be silent – my friends of color, female-identified friends and family, LGBTQ family, and friends with disabilities deserve better.

It’s mind-boggling and terrifying how far this country may fall, and who may use this significant weakness to capitalize on our fragility. It’s going to be exhausting and heart-wrenching, but we must keep pushing this country in a progressive direction.

I will not flee. I will not hide. I will not change how I present myself to the world out of fear of persecution. I’ll have days when I’m tired, where I feel defeated.

But I will never be defeated. Because I will dare to be defiant.

And Darkness Comes

Like you, I’m numb.

I don’t have the words to articulate the deep sadness I feel in every inch of my bones. Personally, this year has been rife with mourning, and this election’s outcome has broken a part of me.

At 1AM, I woke up from a nightmare in which my house was being ripped apart along with people I love. But I couldn’t exhale, knowing it was a dream. I rolled into my pillow and screamed and screamed and screamed.

I can’t fathom what’s to come, but only know that we can’t cower in the face of such vile, contemptible evil. We have to lift one another up, even when it’s dauntingly hard and we’re racked with grief, and his minions dance with glee.

So much is legitimized by this power-hungry hobgoblin – and I worry for us all, but especially for people of color, women, fellow LGBTQ-identified people, people with disabilities, and our environment.

People throw their hands up in these moments and claim some deity’s divine plan. I can’t, and not just because I don’t believe in any of that. If you for one second think His or Hers or Their plan is for some racist, misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, Islamophobic sexual predator to become Commander-in-Chief of the United States, you really need to get your head checked. Clinton was beyond the most qualified candidate. And my skin crawls when I think about the Obamas leaving the White House to these creatures.

So many people’s lives will be impacted by this horror, and I’m fucking terrified.

Children will grow up with that rotting sack of human garbage in this country’s highest position of power, and aspire to sit there; it’s going to change people. Education will continue to suffer, and normalize this behavior.

America has officially become a toxic wasteland.

My bank account balance is in the double digits, and savings nonexistent. I want to sell everything, grab the dogs, and run into the night toward Canada. But I don’t have a valid passport and, really, nowhere is safe with this lunatic in power. The claustrophobia of being trapped is suffocating.

I don’t know if I can pick up the pieces of what’s been broken inside of me. But I’m going to try.

And I’ll be right here for each and every one of you, ready to mend as much as I can – as we step into the darkness together.

Moored

The closing credits of A Little Chaos roll through the rain-streaked windows, the lamplight fuzzed by condensation forming inside the sunporch’s drafty windows.

Plumes of steam from the steel mill quietly explode into the night sky, drifting uphill with the wind and spreading around this sagging house.

I tilt my head back and exhale, my breath hanging momentarily before disappearing into the woods behind me. The makeshift door to the garden hangs open, and light from inside the house casts just enough of a glow to guide my impulsive, late-night garden cleaning.

I shove my hands into shadowy corners of the planting beds, lifting giant, drenched leaves off purplish kale starts. My lone celery plant’s neon green stalks glisten in the refracted light. Rain drizzles down the back of my hoodie, and soil grinds under my nails.

And I laugh into the darkness. 

This is what it feels like to be alive.

A train blasts its horn far downslope, fracturing the drip drip dripping from the rain spouts above. But the momentary break reminds me of why I came out here in the first place.

I feel around in the dark crevices of the wood pallet wall for the pot of chopsticks – the perfect mini stakes for training seedlings to grow upward. I snag a splintered one, its old Made in China sticker flaking away. I scrape off the rest, letting its gold flecks mix with the dirt beneath my nails.

After one last glance at the darkened garden, I amble uphill to the cottage’s bright red back door, and scuff the bottoms of my slip-ons across the doormat. Beneath the porch light, a tiny stream of rainwater drips down the weathered clapboard, breaking at the edges and pooling on the saturated wooden stoop. Ballerina-like, I sweep a large terra cotta strawberry planter over to the corner, situating it just beneath the cascading drops.

Everything in its place. 

The pot’s dried soil quickly saturates, and I will the bell pepper seeds just below the surface to germinate.

When I toss my shoes onto a rusted midcentury serving platter just inside the door – my own makeshift shoe tray – the clatter jars me unexpectedly. Water-logged leaves and twigs pepper the platter’s paint-flaked surface, and coat my shoes – barely distinguishable as the crisp, preppy pair I’d bought for my wedding. Now soggy messes, their sides fold in, giving the appearance that they’re imploding. I stoop and gather the leafy leavings, which is when I realize the scene depicted on the platter is a wedding ceremony.

Oh, Universe. You cheeky asshole.

Dusting off my hands, I switch off the light and head over to the drooping yucca plant – the weight of its opening leaves causing the stalk to bend in on itself and kink. I bury the chopstick alongside its base and gently tie it up with some stray string.

A little support

Over the past two weeks, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long time. I want to do everything at once, be everywhere. But I have to remember that, sometimes, I start growing so quickly, in every direction, that I lose my balance and nearly collapse in on myself.

And while I’ll keep striving to rebuild my life with purpose, I’ll be mindful to do so slowly, intentionally – reminding myself that a little mooring every now and then may just be what I need to flourish.

Moonlighting

Half moons carry with them something sinister. Beyond the kitchen window, the yard is silent, wrapped in a shawl of darkness – slats of moonlight fracturing through the mossy branches of the plum tree.

The meteor is just about to destroy Earth; Keira Knightley sniffles, staring glassy-eyed at Steve Carell.

“Somehow, I thought we could save one another.”

The living room fills with light from the screen; the world is gone. And the painfully apropos soundtrack cools my blood.

This is the stage of crushing realization – when the recent past seems like ancient history, and the lonesome present is an alternate reality.

I can feel the tremors rippling behind my eyes, the pulsating inhalations as my nostrils flare. The deluge is instant and heavy. And there’s no one to hear me. So I let my labored sobs fill the cottage, absorb into the walls, and filter through the cracked floors and drafty windows.

In this moment, I am fully alone – vis-à-vis with the weighted knowledge that my life is forever changed.

The sofa’s worn leather stretches under me as I rock back and forth. Joanna scuttles over, burrowing her head under my arms – licking at the salty delicacies pouring from my eyes. She’s confused, and so am I.

Behind every laugh, every tear, there’s a blend of uncertainty and loss, longing and fulfillment, despair and fortitude.

Sometimes, my thoughts get away from me and riddle idle conversation with unnecessary bleakness; I don’t really know how I’m feeling until I start talking, determining if the wavering in my voice will subside or snowball into a tumbling mess.

Even still, despite being physically deflated, I’ve never felt as emotionally full.

Now, I let myself feel the jagged edges of ugly, dark moments, and absorb the humbling, beautiful ones – all generating the momentum I need to get through a day, to pay a kindness forward. To put more good out into the world than bad – to place a dollar in an outstretched cup, to acknowledge someone who feels forgotten, to laugh at a bad joke, to dodge a snail sliming across the sidewalk; to lift up, not bear down.

***

Hot cocoa steams from my Pyrex mug as the cottage rattles from the thunderous percussion of massive metallic sheets clattering out of the steel mill downhill.

Car headlights stream along the bridge in the distance, the traffic more visible as the branches shed their burdensome foliage.

The dryer buzzes and I shuffle over, throwing open the door to amass the warm sheets.

Heated air pulses through the tiny laundry room and unmoors a large dandelion seed from a nearby succulent’s dried soil. I watch it dance and shiver mid-air, spiraling and somersaulting.

I cup my hands around it as it begins to fall, and push open a window. Slowly, delicately, I open my hands, but the cool air whips it from me with little fanfare, casting it above the trees.

I think about reaching after it, but resist.

I track its ascent, watching its feathery pappus blanch in the moonlight as it vanishes from view into the inky night.

To root and grow beyond anyone’s grasp.

Authentically Vulnerable

Vulnerability isn’t something most people find comforting. It’s almost always conflated with some form of weakness – the whole, “Life is hard, so deal with it” mentality.

Not until I started therapy did I realize the importance of being vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be authentic – my full, honest self.

What I’m still getting used to is the fallout from being authentic; sometimes, I’ll get hurt. And that’s okay, as long as I’m authentic. Bruised feelings are indeed part of life. But as long as I let the sting of a botched conversation, a misplaced phrase, an awkward moment subside – laugh it off, remind myself that it’s okay to fuck up – it won’t morph into something unbearable.

This year hasn’t been easy. Starting over is hard. Divorce is harder.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking, and deep dives into myself. I’ve purposefully stayed away from people because I just can’t handle a lot right now. But I’m gradually opening myself back up – not because I feel guilty, but because it’s time.

Divorce has made me question a lot about myself – where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and how I’ve become the person I am right now.

So I mapped out some of the most painful parts of my journey, mostly because I had to get them out, turn them into a collective literary punching bag that I can acknowledge – from which I can move on.

I’m a small-town Alabama kid
Nobody knows
Because I dropped my accent years ago
To conform,
To be taken seriously,
To be learned;
Forcing myself into a new, clipped
Academic vocabulary
To subvert all the things that made me
Me
In voice and expression,
Because of listening to puppets chanting
“You don’t belong here,”
“You’re not worth the time” –
That “you’ve fallen through the cracks” –
And that no one is sorry,
Except me.
Because now, every time someone says,
“You don’t sound like you’re from there,”
A part of me crumbles.

The pain takes me back to
Elementary school where I sit out of PE
To go to Speech Therapy,
Where I learn about Sally and the Seashore
And all the damn shells
That I can’t pronounce
Without making my therapist
Grimace,
And sigh –
So she makes me do it all over again
While handing me worksheets of cows with hard “C”’s
And snakes with slimy “S”’s,
Expecting that I can “just get by”
If I really try.

So I’m an impostor in my own skin,
My own mouth,
My own mind; nothing is really real.
And so I drift
Unmoored,
Believing that I’m not smart enough
That I can’t understand
That I’m lazy and inactive
And that’s why I’m not growing –
So I eat and eat and eat Boost bars
In the hopes that my height will change,
My voice will deepen;
I’ll no longer be all the names the other kids call me.

And then I walk into the house one day
And find Mom-Mau, my friend, my confidant
Unconscious,
Blood everywhere,
Handprints smeared across the wall,
A pool of blood by her head,
And the slightest moan –
Me screaming to Dad
And the ambulance sirens
And the quiet stillness of being alone with the blood,
The metallic odor crippling me
As I push our skittering dog away from the bathroom door to
Close myself in with it –
To rinse and wipe and absorb the moments of impact from the tile,
To feel her pain –
And watch, weeks later, her become a shell
Talking about people who aren’t there –
The lizards running around the floor,
Her eyes glazing, taking her somewhere else;
Watching her in the final hours reaching toward the ceiling
And smiling,
And thrashing,
And saying, “I love you” in a moment of lucidity
Before disappearing forever –
And I go home and wind her music box,
Sobbing as the music chimes
Somewhere…over the rainbow.

I’m never the same –
Knowing the truth and doing everything to deny it, and
Cutting deep when the mental maelstrom becomes too much
Or purging and binging and not eating –
And sitting down with a chilled bottle of vodka
Vials of anti-depressants,
And reaching for them both, the weight of the finality
Bearing my hands down – pushing the concoctions away, locking them in a cabinet,
As I, defeated, sigh, “Not today.”

Working out to fit into a mold that doesn’t want me,
And finally whispering the truth to myself in a dark apartment
In Tuscaloosa,
“I’m gay”
Echoing through my mind like a bullet through my brain –
And telling my family
All gathered around the long dining room table
Staring hard into the wood, hoping this self-truth will
Make itself known without me saying it,
But speaking it nonetheless
And dealing with the silence,
The tears,
The acceptance;
It ends a life, and starts a new one.

Drunk at a party in college,
I flirt with unconsciousness
When a foreign hand goes down my pants
And men mutter in the hazy background
About what I got,
The coldness and thoroughness of the search
And my dazed attempts to stop it,
Just stop,
That it’s not funny anymore
That my body doesn’t feel like my own.

Creating a chosen family,
And fighting together
For life,
Our rights,
And hope;
Meeting a man when I thought I never would,
And setting out on an amazing journey,
Taking us both away from so much of what we’ve known as
Home –
But where we’re told we’re less than – to a place
Where we say, “I do,” always and forever,
Not knowing forever’s boundaries.

And bonding and loving and building a life
And family
And arguing like all couples,
Until we can’t do it anymore
And our ride together ends –
But what a ride it’s been.

Picking up the pieces
In a different place –
A strange time in life
To be on my own again
And terrified,
And empowered,
And exhausted,
And human.

Watching each day unfold
And appreciating the little things
That make a day worth enjoying,
Worth feeling,
Worth waking up for
Tomorrow morning.

Waking Up

Rain cascades through the canopy and pummels my freshly planted mint into the loose soil – bubbles gurgling up from underneath the clods and resuscitating the bound roots.

A lone curl bobs up and down in the wind, occasionally plastering itself across my forehead and funneling rain down the bridge of my nose. I gulp down the cool, heavy air and meander over to a cleared bed, situating myself beneath a few interwoven branches and gazing across the terrace.

When I’m cycling through a toxic welter of anxiety- and depression- inducing synaptic misfires, I stop, look at the sky, take a deep breath, and focus on something – usually Gay Gardens, my cathartic flex point.

Gay Gardens

On heavy rain days like today, the house always appears saturated and dirty, like the moldy yellow sponge my dad kept in his homemade car-washing kit in our crawlspace. Evening is creeping in, and I begin my slow, calculated circuit around the house, all the while mentally scrawling a running list of things to fix. Off the sun porch, a gutter hangs sloppily, channeling a constant stream of water into my shoddily dug French drain below – causing dirt to splash up and pepper the flaking yellow paint sloughing off the clapboard.

Inside, the residual heat and steam from my shower fog the window panes. I switch off the lights and peer out the gradually clearing windows. Moonlight illuminates the yard, and casts shadows into the garden’s recesses. As the furnace clicks on, the house seems to heave – the floorboards creaking, the rafters popping; the labored, forced air knocking the cold and damp down just enough for me to doze beneath the bed covers.

Just as I’m drifting off to sleep, louder snaps and pops from the back of the house rouse me fully awake. I listen closely for more, and then my imagination does the rest – crafting a horror movie sequence that climaxes with an ax splintering my barricaded bedroom door. Heart racing, I deftly slide my hand down to retrieve a concealed hammer I took from my last job, the name “Kate” scribbled in Sharpie along its dented head.

Flicking on light after light, I study each darkened corner and fiddle with the door locks, convincing myself that everything is fine – that my imagination just got the best of me.

I laugh into the darkness to reassure myself, sigh, and squirrel Kate into her hiding place before sliding back under the covers.

I comb back through the day, reciting off each to-do, like sheep leaping over a fence.

Paint floor.

Seal baseboards.

Clear weeds.

And then, I’m waking up the next morning.

Over the past few weeks, each morning has been successively refreshing. With mental cloud banks clearing, I’m steeling my nerves for what I know is going to be an uphill battle.

It’s been over a year since I submitted my manuscript for publication, and received my first crushing “Thanks but no thanks” response. Since then, the manuscript has migrated from my underwear drawer to a top closet shelf – always relegated to the darkest of alcoves.

Like my personal life, I’d deemed the tome complete. Now, it’s time to start again.

***

Sun rays pierce the foggy haze, and the floor vibrates – the slumbering house rattles awake.

And I sit here, feet firmly pressed against the cold floor, willing the warmth to pulse through my legs, propelling me forward – awake.

Growing Season

Her bouncy hair bobs up and down as she bulldozes over to the cash register.

“CHARLENE,” she booms to her counterpart three feet away, “I’M GOIN’ ON BREAK AFTER I RING THIS GENTLEMAN UP.”

Without looking up, Charlene nods – an apparent pavlovian response to her colleague’s generously full voice.

Ears ringing, I turn back to my cardboard tray sitting atop the counter as the nursery cashier rounds the high wood island and takes her position behind the cash register. She clears her throat, as if preparing to conduct an orchestral suite. Instead, she curls her arm around the entire tray and begins scanning my veggie starts, interjecting commentary regarding the growth rates of each teeny sprout. Shoving the bulk of the starts aside, she eyes two wispy asparagus plants closely – even suspiciously.

“Well, you do know that these won’t be ready for years, right?”

Fuccccck. My face flushes.

“Oh, OF COURSE. Just figured I’d get them in the ground now!”

A card swipe later, I fasten everything into the back of the car while casting intense shade at my two albatrosses and muttering, “I may just eat you out of spite.”

***

Back home, I set my full trays down inside the piecemeal garden enclosure I spent the previous afternoon methodically crafting together – using chunks of concrete as ad hoc sledgehammers, driving corroded metal stakes and rebar into the ground for structural support; wood pallets from my neighbors’ garbage for windscreens and walls; scrap fencing and old, severed wire strands for holding things together; wood paneling from a deconstructed closet for a makeshift door; and cast-off, roadside planters for additional storage.

Adding the clearance veggie starts to the mix, I halfheartedly chuckle and call up to Joanna peering out the window.

“Well, our scavenged garden isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, is it?”

JoJo sniffs the air, then disappears inside as I begin to gut bags of soil, emptying their contents into the raised bed.

Hours later, and ankle-deep in dark, rich soil, I step back and admire the hodgepodge before me: planters overflowing with half-wilted mint, parsley, basil, green onions, and shiso, and the rotting raised bed filled with rainbow chard, beets, broccoli, purple cauliflower, and kale. Mopping my brow and taking in the scene, I realize I haven’t tended a garden since I was 8 years old.

The garden

I have no clue what I’m doing. The only thing I do know is that this is more of a necessity than a hobby. I really need this to succeed.  

***

A few hours later, as the sun begins setting, I’m toting my last full watering can to my parched starts when my super hot neighbor waves from his side yard, and ventures over. Like a deer in the headlights, I stare entranced, my vocabulary quickly descending into unintelligible gibberish.

He starts chatting about the garden, and I try to play it cool, but then I notice his fly is wide open.

There is a god! 

Quickly noticing his wardrobe malfunction, he adjusts himself and zips up without the slightest bit of embarrassment. Without thinking, I sigh loudly, dejectedly – catapulting our awkwardly stilted conversation into mortifyingly tragic territory.

But as he turns to go, he calls back.

“You know, this place looks really good. You should be proud.”

My response can only be described as 40% dolphin squeak, 60% hyena shriek. I watch him walk back to his place, and then swivel around to my ramshackle garden – and then at my little rotting house.

It is something, isn’t it?

I pull open the newly secured garden door, and wander inside my little corral, nudging planters here and there, and dousing everything with water.

Tiny beads dangle at the ends of the fragile shoots, the wilted leaves. I take a deep breath, smile at this haphazard life, and whisper to myself.

Confidence. Patience. Courage.

Fall

For days, I’ve watched this dead leaf hang from a mossy branch – suspended by a spider’s silken thread. The brittle carcass dances in the strong breezes, and I’m constantly left wondering when it’ll flutter along – when the thread will wrap in on itself just enough to sever the strong mooring it once had.

***

Fluorescent, sugary sprinkles captured the creeping morning light, sparkling on the black formica countertops like diamonds. I brushed them into a small pile, along with dog hair that’d fluttered up from the canine melee unfolding at my feet. Toby and Joanna wrestled briefly, posturing and provoking one another after gorging on breakfast, before tearing into the next room with a plume of dust motes in their wake.

I rummaged around in the refrigerator for the chilled cupcake box I stuffed in there the previous night, flipped the top, and selected the lone survivor – its icing hardened, the formerly moist, cakey body stiff and disturbingly crusty. When I bought the cupcakes, I was the teeniest bit buzzed, which ended up being a good thing since the cake blobs were apparently made of gold, and cost more than their weight in it. But I felt it’d be in poor taste – or worse, tacky – to show up to my second board meeting with nothing but a smile and a sweaty brow. As the evening had worn on, our business-centric conversations strayed into movie reviews while we nibbled on homemade bánh mì sliders and watermelon salad, watching the sun fracture behind the Space Needle and disappear completely beyond the mountains. Cloaked in darkness, the rooftop suddenly became a confessional; deep secrets and exhaustion-fueled confessions rumbled out. I’d pulled my knees up to my chest, appearing ball-like in my chair, and silently absorbed the commentary, realizing that I wasn’t the only one feeling a certain brand of loneliness that came with the setting sun.

With the battered cupcake dispatched, I walked out my front door without the slightest idea of where I was going. But I was fully aware that I was inappropriately dressed for the rapidly cooling evening – with its crisp breeze and intermittent raindrops. Still, I had to get out of the house. Even though it’s been my haven, my own genie bottle, it can also become intolerably claustrophobic – suffocating even. I felt like screaming down the street, spewing out all of the internal mess roiling through my mind into the uncompromising wind, feeling the burden lighten and disappear into the ether.

Tiny brick fragments from a recently demolished house crunched underfoot as I heaved up the sidewalk. Near the top of the hill, I quickened pace and crossed the street to avoid a youngster freshly weened from training wheels weaving wildly down the pavement. From the other side of the street, I glanced back as she pedaled past a rusty, pink bicycle leaning precariously against a cracked retaining wall adorned with faded chalkboard families; she smiled widely, even though no one was watching except me, the ill-dressed stranger.

I pushed into the wind, turning my head against the gusts. One yard over, a black cat lounged on a sun-dappled porch pier, and a young boy watched intently as a man replaced a window on a sprawling rambler; as if sensing the boy’s gaze, the man looked up and waved, calling something to the boy, who then laughed and disappeared into an interior room. But the man kept watching, the way a father watches their child: his gaze fixed, a smile creeping across his face – love disguised in the most mundane moments.

Without warning, my face flushed and heart raced as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” pounded through my earbuds.

…When the war has took its part
When the world has dealt its cards…

I had the strongest urge to sprint until I collapsed. But instead, I rolled my ankle off an uneven curb and stopped myself just short of falling into an old bottle garden. Hunched over, I breathed laboriously, calming my nerves and watching as the smudged, cracked glass cast a faded rainbow across the sidewalk, reminding me that there’s plenty of color in the world.

***

I’ve spent the morning doing absolutely nothing except staring out the window at the damned leaf. The sun is rising higher now, and the birds have woken fully, their songs drifting in and out of the thick bramble beyond the flower beds.

Suddenly, I decide I have to go. I grab my camera in preparation, and scroll through; the memory card is full, and I foolishly peruse the backlog, immediately regretting it.

I flick a series of switches, hesitate over the trashcan icon, and then press it until a message prompt flashes, reading “No images.”

I exhale, emptying my insides through the open windows. The sky’s blue hues seem deeper than they were moments ago, the air a little less oppressive.

I turn to go, but something catches my eye.

Beyond the open window, the silken noose somersaults in the breeze; the old leaf is gone.