This story is our thanks to you for being you.
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daisyandphoebe (aka BelieveItOrNot and thimbles).
Thanks to myimm0rtal for stepping up to beta the fantastic way she always does. And thanks to Maplestyle for prereading. Your enthusiasm is so motivating!
Heart's Desire (Ceanothus gloriosus)
Summary: Bella's life, predictable and streaked with poor timing, can use a re-landscape. The decision to make some changes brings with it an old friend. The boy who had pulled up a chair, opened a sketch pad, and infiltrated her mind for four years stands, now a man, behind her screen. But inviting him in is not as simple as opening the door.
Sitting here, confined to my chair, cemented in this spot until released, I'm reminded of my office. The waiting room walls, drab but for the abstract painting in a mix of colors best left to rest in the early nineties: mauve, the dullest lavender, muted gray-blues. I check my watch. Twenty-four minutes now just sitting. For the first time in a long time, I'd rather be at the office. At least there I'd be inputting numbers, filling out forms. As monotonous as that may be, it's something. I toss the magazine I've vacantly been flipping through onto the heavy glass table and sit forward, turning to look at Emily. Her near-black eyes are glazing over, half-closed now.
"How you doing?" I ask.
"You know what Maggie said to me? They're moving to Palm Springs, you know?"
"I know," I say, patting her shoulder. "I'm the one throwing her the going away party, honey. You okay?" From this side, I can't see the scar on her right cheek, and she hasn't touched it once since I'd picked her up this morning. This is the longest stretch she's gone without touching her scar since the night it was sliced into her. It has to be the Valium.
"Last night she said, and I'm serious, she asked me if I thought they should buy the biggest house in the poorer neighborhood or the smallest house in the richer neighborhood. And I'm serious. She asked me that. Seriously."
I chuckle—partly because of the way she's talking and partly because of Maggie's ridiculous question. I half want to ask Emily if she's serious, but I can't mess with her like that while she's in this state of mind. "What did you say?"
Her answer comes slower than she might intend, her words slurring together. "I said I thought she had quite the conum-conundrum on her hands, but I couldn't think about that right now because all I could think about, thank you very much, was that by this time tomorrow, my battle scar will be gone. Gone." It's like she tries to smile, but only part of her mouth goes up and her eyes close as though they've won a fight. She rests her head back on the wall behind us. I slide my fingers through her hair, dark and tangle-free, like always.
Battle scar, that's what she's always called it. I can't understand how she's maintained this droll attitude about this situation, as if the scar is something she accomplished. Maybe that's all she can do—to cope, to persevere. It's been a year since it happened: Sam, in a drunken fit, slicing right into her skin like her face was a slab of meat. I hadn't witnessed Emily cry over it once. When I raced to visit her in the hospital as soon as her mom called me, Emily said, "See. They were always all over us for getting stoned. Smoking weed won't make anyone do something like this." Lying there on the hospital bed, she swept fingers down the bandage on her face. "This is liquor, darling. And what's more acceptable? Tell me."
"Liquor," I told her, tears slipping from my eyes.
"It's going to be gone," I repeat to her now, still sliding my fingers through the ends of her hair. I couldn't do this with my hair. While mine is similar in color and length, it's wavier than Emily's. Right after I comb through it, tresses find a way to wrap themselves around each other again. I liken my mane to Medusa's snakes, like my hair's alive and each strand is a separate entity. I envy hair like Emily's.
We say the scar will be gone but the truth is, it will be mostly gone. Her doctor warned her that while it will be harder to notice, it was a deep enough cut that traces of it will be left behind. Lighter, smoother, but still—faintly—there. The nurse calls her name, and Emily tells me that's her as if it's new knowledge to both of us. I stand with her and kiss her cheek before she half-staggers toward the woman behind the partially opened door. Emily bumps into the wall and I reach to help her, but the nurse takes her hand.
"I'm on medication," Emily says before the door is closed. My eyes tear up despite the laugh behind my lips.
I fall back into my chair and to keep my mind off Emily's surgery, I think of Maggie and her family's impending move to the tip toes of California. Maybe that's what I need to shake up my world. A move. A new job. New possibilities. If Emily would come with me I'd do it. Not that I can't handle a move on my own, but I couldn't leave without Emily. While our friends continue to get married and have kids, unwittingly putting the pressure on us to do the same, Emily has been, and is, my other half. It's the way we like it.
"I'm never getting married," she said at the last wedding we attended, and I could've said the same. "And if I do, which I won't, it's not going to be like this." She hit the huge bow of tulle attached to the back of my chair. It flopped, unperturbed from its billowy form.
"We should just have a 'we're never getting married' party," I said. "Without tulle. We'll be like married to each other." But deep in my gut, mixing with wine and champagne, stirred the desire for a family. Someday.
"Are you proposing, Swan?" She ran her fingertips down her scar. "Hell, I'd marry you in a heartbeat." She took my hand. "Let's dance." She gave me a sardonic look—small, tight smile, long-lashed eyes slightly narrowed. "Bet you a hundred the next song is Sister Sledge."
I take myself out to lunch while I wait for Emily. Clomping down the street in my boots, concrete buildings sprouting up to the sky on either side, I draw my jacket tighter around my waist.
Well across the bay and through the hills, in my own backyard, I'd likely be perspiring in short sleeves, but not in San Francisco. At least the sun is out for now. I watch the sparkles on the sidewalk between dark splotches of who knows what as I head to the nearest cafe.
Emily is even loopier when she's discharged. "I'm pretty," she says, looking up at me from her wheelchair—if you can call it looking. Again her eyelids are winning their battle to remain closed. I can't see beyond the bandage covering the surgeon's handiwork, but I tell her she's beautiful. The nurse hands me Emily's prescription, a few pills, some packets of cream, and helps me wheel her out to my car.
My girl, my pseudo-wife, sleeps the whole way home. It's so quiet in the car, I can hear the ticking of my blinker as I turn off at my exit.
If the trees seem to welcome you into town, well, the welcome doesn't stop. Up the hill I drive, canopied in green.
Sheltered by more trees is my street, almost unseen until you're upon it. Between larger homes my two-bedroom crouches, a lowly runt among giants, deep-set at the bottom of a slanted driveway. I bought the house a few years back for the lot size and for the long-term. The backyard is so big that it forces the native trees back and lets the sun reign during the peak hours of the afternoon. The sunlight is broken up only twice, once on either side of the yard, by an ash and a maple, planted long before I moved in. They offer much-required shade in the spring and summer months. The forty-year-old home was within my price range, and "I can always build out or up if I need to," I'd said to my dad, who'd offered to help with the down payment.
Any need for expansion has evaded even the farthest reaches of my periphery, and the more time that passes, the more it seems such a need might dodge me altogether, just whip around me like I'm no more than a tumbleweed blowing across its path.
I'd imagined, though, what I would add and where. Wide stairs off the entryway, all wood, leading to the master bedroom with a large-tiled bathroom made for at least two, and maybe a balcony where I could sip my morning coffee and read the paper before I slip into my shoes. A formal living room branching off the kitchen with French doors opening onto a garden. Tomatoes, green onions, bell peppers, an apricot tree.
Strawberries, I'd dreamed, so crimson and sweet, the breeze would carry their scent into the house. My mother had always grown little strawberry patches even when it meant plucking out snails near daily. I remember a snail every once in a while making its way toward our front door as if an invited guest, the slimy trail exposing his path, betraying his friends or family still hidden under strawberry leaves. Why they wanted inside I couldn't figure. They never made it though.
The fantasy garden has become nothing but a hazy line on my to-do list, knocked down like an unfolding Jacob's Ladder each time another item is added.
A few hours after I get Emily tucked into my bed, I hear the bathroom door slam. She's retching. I grab a glass of water and wait outside the door for her.
She exits and I offer her the glass. She takes a long drink. Her voice is barely a mumble. "Remind me never to have plastic surgery again." She shoves the glass back into my hand and plops herself into bed. I lift the covers over her shoulders and pat the top like she's my little girl. A part of me wants to climb in with her.
I slept in her bed for weeks after Sam did what he did. Emily liked to act like she didn't need me. "I'm not going to disappear," she said. "There's no goblin king lurking under my bed." I ignored that. She needed me. And maybe I needed her.
I trace the jagged edge of the pot of soil on my kitchen counter. I let my finger slip down the mosaic of turquoise and white tile chips that Maggie had announced she'd grouted and designed herself. "What the hell am I supposed to do with you?"
Emily left it here when she went home a couple of days ago. She tucked her fingers under her thumb and flicked them out at me as if to indicate a dismissal of my objections to keep the plant. "Just water it, darling. How hard can it be?"
I squinted at her. "If it's not hard, then why, exactly, aren't you taking it with you?"
"Just add it to your routine," she said. "Water it before you leave for work. Schedule it in between, oh, I don't know, putting on your nylons and pouring your coffee into that fancy-schmancy travel mug."
I frowned. "I put my watch on before I pour the coffee. And I read the paper before I even think about nylons."
Emily's eyebrows reached toward her hairline. "That's lame, Bella. Seriously."
"It's not lame. It's efficient." I could hear the lack of conviction in my own voice. It was lame. That's what my life has become: maximizing the efficiency of my morning routine so I can stay in bed, drifting in my oblivion for as long as possible. "And you remember what Professor Torrence used to say."
"'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?'"
I couldn't help but laugh recalling the old jokes we used to crack at our Professor's expense and his unfortunate last name. I stifled my chuckle and feigned anger. "No! About how important it is to keep up with current events."
I tried again, pointing at the pot. "Maggie gave it to you, Em." She'd brought it over the previous night, along with what she titled her "Gourmet Aubergine and Lemon Risotto"—enough to leave me with leftovers for weeks—and a bottle of wine that we didn't end up opening because Emily's doctor was pretty firm on the not mixing pain meds and alcohol thing.
"It matches the couch in your living room," I said. "She definitely intended it to be in your house. What'll she say when she finds you've abandoned it?"
"She'll say that you loved it so much you couldn't let it go. You know it has a better chance of survival here. If you send it with me, you're killing it already." Emily touched her face, absentmindedly, I could tell. I couldn't see even the shadow of a scar from where I stood. "You can think of me when it's sitting here spouting pretty flowers in your ugly kitchen."
My kitchen seems even uglier now without Emily's smile brightening it, without our laughter filling it. The laminate counter top with its hideous beige and salmon coloring, the flecked cork floor, the ridiculous back splash, its tiles depicting drawings of zucchinis and potatoes and squash—it's a memorial to the poor taste of interior design in the late seventies.
I poke a finger into the cool soil. "Is there even anything in you?"
It's supposedly some kind of bulb—maybe a tulip or daffodil. I wouldn't put it past Emily to give Maggie—or myself—an empty pot. She'd amuse herself at the thought of us standing over it, watering it, feeding it, getting impatient, wondering why the hell nothing was growing … But Maggie? A gift we can't yet see isn't her usual style. She's more the "ornately flowering, exotic species found only in specialist nurseries" kind of girl.
I grab the half-empty glass of water from beside the sink and drizzle it over the pot. As the liquid soaks into the soil, I imagine a tiny green tendril uncurling. I imagine it lengthening, pushing its way upward, seeking light and warmth and life.
I relocate it to the breakfast nook and set it on the pine table that actually belongs outdoors. There's even a hole in the center for an umbrella stand. With the linen tablecloth thrown over the top, its rotting picnic-table-look is almost disguised. Unfortunately the bench seats, in need of a good sanding, give its intended use away. I've often thought of adding padding to these benches for comfort and for a more indoor aesthetic. This has fallen to at least thirty-seventh on my Jacob's Ladder.
I raise the shade over the large window behind the table so the plant can bask in sunshine. From underuse, the shade sticks a few times before it allows me to release it. The window offers an expansive view of my backyard and is therefore rarely bare. I aim my attention at the pot of dirt, visualize how it might look when color shoots from it, when the flower opens up.
I lean closer and touch a tile, sort of tickle it. "Grow, little sprout."
I shake my head at myself. I'm spending my Friday morning conversing with a potted plant.
The splashes of sunlight over the floor warm my feet as I wander to my back door.
It squeaks as I slide it open. A breeze brings me the mixed scents of my neighbors' well-tended gardens—lavender and jasmine and the heady perfume of Mrs. Banner's much-vaunted gardenias.
I sigh at my original two trees as if it's their fault the yard hasn't been improved since day one. I narrow my eyes at the fence-lining bushes, overgrown, their feet spattered with lanky sun-gold poppies and weeds.
Those weeds sprawl across the yard. I can almost see them reaching toward my toes as I stand here. The grass—long enough to tickle my calves should I step out, something I haven't done for weeks—is slowly but surely succumbing to the invasion.
On the other side of the fence, Mr. Crowley takes off his bucket hat, the same kind my dad wears, and waves it up at me. I return the wave.
"Workin' out back today, too?" he calls to me, hope lightening his typically scratchy voice. "Nice day for it."
"No time," I shout back. I point to my watch. "Work."
"I'd help you out. It's my knees. Damn arthritis. Limits my work time."
Too stubborn for a cane, he grips a big walking stick to assist him in his trek up and down the slope of the hill. Last year, he presented the stick to me across his two palms as if it were a jeweled scepter, explained where he found it by the creek, how he varnished the thing.
He makes his way closer to the fence and I meet him there. "Should you even be doing your own yard? Where's Tyler?"
The last time his grandson was in town, Mr. Crowley sent him over here with orders to tame the jungle behind my house. But now that spring has taken hold, everything is growing faster, the greenery flourishing. Who can keep up?
"No break for a few weeks." His voice has thickened up again. "He's looking toward exams. I don't mind the work. All worth it in the end. Your yard? It's an extension of yourself." He passes a concerned glance over my yard.
"An extension of yourself?"
"Who do you think chose what's planted in my garden? Who put that bench in over there?" He points behind him, the bench under a trellis of climbing vines. "A nice escape from the missus." His laugh is throaty.
I nod, turning from him, my gaze wandering my yard. This extension of myself. It feels too true. It's enough to make me shudder.
"Anyway," he says. "The garage'll be open if you need my mower later."
"Will do." I wave goodbye as he gets back to his weeding or pruning. I think I actually mean it for once. I will use his mower. He usually manicures my front yard when he does his own. He claims he likes doing it. He's always wanted a granddaughter, he tells me. He'd do my backyard if he could. But I wouldn't ask him or expect him to. Besides, my yard needs more than a good mow. It needs an overhaul.
"Maybe it's time," I say as if someone else is listening, catching my words, mulling them over, and will speak to me in return, offer me what I need to hear or want to hear, or both. "It is time," I say, speaking for this ethereal being—my validation.
At the office I run an internet search and dial the first number listed.
"Stanley's Landscape Design," a perky yet bored voice answers, as if the perkiness is rehearsed. "Gianna speaking."
Thank you for reading. More to come!
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