That was the summer I tried to build a garden. I had always dreamt of being a farmer as a kid, saving the seeds from my apples and the pits from my peaches and attempting to bring them back to life by soaking them in water. I planted avocado pits in the yard and prayed for the right amount of sun, watering faithfully, checking each day before and after school to see what progress had been made.
That summer, as an adult who didn't really believe in dreams anymore, I called in sick from work for a week and rented a rototiller to tear up my grass. I loaded a truckful of grass clumps and took them to the dump and came back with a truckful of topsoil from a nearby nursery. Once I had more dirt than grass, I worked in amendments, I laid down a thick, smelly layer of compost and I made rows. I bought thick gardening books and ordered a yearlong subscription to Better Homes & Gardens. I built, and then I planted.
"That garden is a waste of time," Lauren said when she came to pick up the rest of her things. She pushed past me without making eye contact when I answered the door, carrying a few black trash bags. She smelled like grapefruit. She opened drawers and pulled shirts from hangers and shoved her clothes into the first bag without folding them.
"You smell like cow shit," she said from inside our closet. "And the yard looks like it was hit by a tornado."
"You could've used your key to get in," I said quietly. "I could have stayed out in the yard, working, if that's what you would have preferred."
She took a full bag down the stairs and left it by the front door. "It's not my house anymore, Jimmy. I don't just break into other people's houses."
I rubbed my forehead with both hands and caught a whiff of myself – she was right. I did smell like shit, but I didn't care. I had a lot of work to do. I was anxious for her to leave.
Now Lauren was rooting through a hall closet, collecting candles and towels and a foot spa I gave her that she never used. "Well," she said, "aren't you going to say something? This is the last time I'm coming over here, Jimmy. And all you can do is stand there all sweaty and watch me take our wedding pictures."
"It's not a waste of time," I said after a moment. "My garden…it's something I've been wanting to do for a long time."
She snorted and went out the front door, dragging the bags behind her. When I made my way back to the yard, I noticed the key she left on the kitchen table.
Better Homes & Gardens had an article about talking to your plants. Successful gardeners from around the country were quoted saying their flowers and vegetables thrived from a daily dose of poetry or just plain old conversation. By mid-summer, I had impressive buds. I figured talking to them might speed up the growth.
One night after work I grabbed a beer from the fridge and headed outside. I watered first, then parked myself in a foldable lawn chair. "So, how was your day? Pretty hot out here," I tried at first, but felt ridiculous. I started talking about Lauren, about the way we met at a karaoke bar on a night when neither of us was supposed to be there (on account of being dragged there by friends who really liked getting up in front of a crowd). "I'll tell you what," I said to the section where soon, I would hopefully have daisies and petunias, "she and I hit it off so fast I just knew it was fate." I described the whole night from start to finish, including the tequila shots and the "I've got you babe" duet that led to our first kiss.
The next evening I talked about how I proposed to Lauren on our one-year anniversary. I explained to the tomatoes that I didn't have the money for a ring, so I gave her a bracelet instead. The night after that, I talked about the first time I knew that I loved her. I hopped around a bit, but by the end of two weeks, I'd gotten as far as our honeymoon, mostly chronological. The plants didn't seem to look that much healthier or larger, but I felt better than I had in awhile. I looked forward to the talks, thinking of things I wanted to talk about when I sat at my desk at work.
I avoided talking about the more recent events in my relationship with Lauren. Somehow, I couldn't help feeling guilty about this, as if I were keeping something from a friend. I didn't mention the fact that Lauren wasn't my wife anymore, and I purposely avoided using any words I'd heard her use in our sessions with the marriage counselor ("failing," "inattentive," "spacey," "indifferent," "unmotivated").
The garden kept me completely occupied. The few friends I had left that Lauren didn't get in the divorce rarely called now, and when they did, I made excuses for why I hadn't called them and why I couldn't go along to whatever it was they were inviting me to.
Secretly, I kept expecting Lauren to come back, barging through the door announcing that she forgot to take her skis or her hair dryer, then noticing what I'd done with the place (or the backyard, anyway) and softening. I imagined her putting a hand on my shoulder, saying, "Oh, Jimmy, you've done it. It's beautiful! How did you do this all by yourself?" But then I would go out to the garden and see the weeds that were quickly overtaking every space of dirt, and I would read on the internet and in Better Homes & Gardens that I'd planted everything too late to expect full bloom before the end of summer. It wasn't a beautiful garden, and nobody who saw it would say that it was. I was no gardener.
One night, I decided to go to happy hour with some guys from work. I stayed out until 9:00, when the sun was going down. When I got home, I watched football highlights and went to bed. The next night I went to the gym where I had a membership that I hadn't used in months. I did five sets of squats and five sets of bench and then I went out for a beer and a hamburger and once again, I wasn't in the mood to talk when I got home.
A week went by and I hadn't watered. The sun was scorching my garden and I knew it, but I realized it was all a waste of time, just like Lauren had said. Another week went by, and on a Friday night after too many beers, I called Lauren's cell phone. "What do you want, Jimmy?" she answered, sighing audibly.
"Hi," I said, trying as hard as I could to act aloof. "I just…wanted to call because I'm pretty sure you left a few things here. I have them bagged up for you if you want to come by and get them."
"Jimmy, is this just some ploy to get me to come over?"
"There's some clothes, and, uh, a few books that I think you meant to take."
She sighed again. "Jimmy, I'm not coming over."
"Well, I just wanted to tell you that my garden looks great, and I'm actually thinking about switching careers." I put a fist in my mouth. Hang up the phone, I told myself, but instead of following my own advice I waited for her to answer.
"You're switching careers. To what…a gardener?"
I nodded, but said nothing.
"Is that all?" I heard a man's voice in the background. "I'll be right there," she whispered away from the phone.
"Do you want to come get your stuff?"
"Goodbye, Jimmy." She hung up. I paced in the living room for a few minutes, then headed out to the yard. The sun was going down. Some of the plants looked totally dead, some were just yellowing. There were large, prickly weeds everywhere and the soil was dry and cracked. I had neglected everything. The neighbor kids next door were laughing and screaming. I sat hard in the grass next to the garden listening to them play until it was dark and their father called them inside. I took a deep breath.
"Hey," I said to the garden. "Sorry about not watering…" I stood and walked over to the hose. I turned it on and watered row by row in the dark. "I've been going through a rough time, I guess. You see, Lauren…well, she doesn't live here anymore. She left right before I started working on this garden." I waved my hand in front of me. "Technically, we're divorced now, or she's filing the paperwork…I don't know. We had a lot of problems…and I guess she thought they weren't worth fixing. Maybe she was right. I think I finally realize now that I really screwed things up. I think I might have been what some people call a bad husband." I used air quotes.
I finished watering and sat back on the ground. "Next week would have been our three year wedding anniversary." I sat quiet for a long time. I listened to a dog bark, to a plane fly by, to my air conditioner go on and off and on again. Finally I got up and headed inside. When I reached the sliding glass door, I turned. "I'll be back tomorrow. I'll get a start on all those weeds, and I'll trim back the dead stuff. Sorry about all this."
I went inside and went to bed. It took me hours to fall asleep, thinking of all the things I'd do to fix up the garden over the next several nights. It was August, so my season was close to over, but I planned out in my head what I'd do for next year, and even thought about extending the garden by a couple feet on each side. Maybe my sunflowers would reach the fence next year. Maybe I'd plant roses, which were fickle and required a lot of attention according to Gardener's Weekly, but well worth the effort. I had a lot of reading to do. I had a lot of things to fix.
About the author:
Michaele Charles is a writer living in an accountant's body. She resides in Denver, Colorado with her husband and unborn baby, due in June of this year. This is her first publication.