Author Lorrie Moore once said, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” With Sunday Shorts, OprahDaily.com invites you to join our own love affair with short fiction by reading original stories from some of our favorite writers.
The nameless narrator of Susan Perabo's sensuous story "The Seventh Garden" is a middle-aged woman who wants...something. Yet she's not entirely sure what that something is; she just knows she doesn't have it. It's not kids, that's for sure. In general, she's content-ish, but also a little discontent with her contentment. She feels "hollow—not sad, exactly, and not lonely, quite, but like if I cut my finger slicing up a peach for breakfast, I might discover there was no blood inside me."
Her life is a bit of a stupor until Audrey moves in next door. Audrey's got an admirable green thumb, and while our narrator doesn't know the first thing about plants, she watches intensely as Audrey tends to her new garden. Audrey also has a husband, a military man who's overseas, and soon their friendship, like the flowers in Audrey's garden, blossoms and flourishes into something else...
The acclaimed author of four books, including two short story collections, Perabo deftly portrays those confusing moments of intimacy in which people are caught between stillness and transition.
“The Seventh Garden”
Sometimes I woke at dawn and lay in bed for hours, listening to the African waterfowl, the herons and spoonbills and black-winged stilts. This was in the spring. Audrey had moved in next door in January, but I didn’t know her yet; the day she arrived I saw men unloading a moving truck, wheeling dollies up her snowy driveway, and I hurriedly closed my front door like the crappy neighbor I was. That winter our only interaction was the obligatory smile and I’m-not-rude-just-busy wave if we happened to be getting our mail at the same time. Come April I noticed, from my bathroom window, that she was planting numerous things along the edges of her backyard. I didn’t know anything about plants or flowers or yards for that matter. I employed a kid from two streets over who mowed my lawn every week in the spring and summer and raked my leaves in the fall. I’d been alone for three years; before that, my partner tended to the yard, even planted some flowers—I don’t know what, they were yellow—beside our front porch. But she and they were long gone.
About the waterfowl: I’d heard on NPR about an app that was loaded with live streams—eagles’ nests and otter dens, panda yards and tropical reefs. And the Tau water hole, inside the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa, where a stationary camera documented the comings and goings of the local animals, 24/7. In my pocket, like a pebble, I’d long carried a little dream of going to Africa. Not a calling, not enough to get me over the intimidating obstacles of actually getting there—plane travel, which I didn’t trust; strangers, whom I didn’t like—but a pleasant little fantasy that was usually soothed by a sweaty afternoon at the Pittsburgh zoo, a big cat marathon on The Nature Channel, or an evening paging through the back issues of National Geographic that I’d saved since I was a teenager. When I heard about this live-stream app, I was intrigued. All year I’d been waking up early, even too early for high school, dead center on my queen mattress, feeling hollow—not sad, exactly, and not lonely, quite, but like if I cut my finger slicing up a peach for breakfast, I might discover there was no blood inside me. I’d lie there and worry about the kids in my student group, or read the news, both of which made me feel worse instead of better. So I downloaded the app. My first time at Tau I spent twenty minutes watching a giraffe get a drink from the water hole. He bowed from the waist, swiveled his head for a look around, adjusted his absurd legs, bent his neck, looked around, straightened all the way up, took a step to the left, bowed, looked around, bent his neck... This was only the first one minute of it. I watched for twenty, riveted, until the giraffe’s blue tongue finally unsettled the shimmering surface of the water, at which time I felt, for just a moment, like there might be some blood left in my fingers after all. What made it so invigorating was the fact that it was LIVE, happening at this precise moment as I lay in my bed, these actual seconds passing for my giraffe just as they were passing for me. He was so fully present in my bedroom that when I put my thumb on the screen I was surprised to feel glass.
Watching Audrey through my bathroom window in the morning during April and May gave me almost the same feeling as watching the animals mingle by the water hole, although I recognized it was a stretch creepier, and I wouldn’t have blamed her for calling the cops if she caught sight of me peeking through the parted curtain, touching the window glass with my thumb. But I wasn’t leering, only observing. She was businesslike in her gardening; she’d shovel and prune and groom with intense focus, almost aggressiveness. But every few minutes, abruptly, she’d stop, seemingly interrupted by thought or memory, and her shoulders would relax and her touch would turn gentle, her fingers brushing the leaf of a plant as if it was a bird or blown glass or something so fragile it couldn’t even sustain a name.
I’d see her in the late afternoons sometimes, too, from my living room window, see her walking to her car with a casserole dish, or a cake pan, or a wicker basket, the kind my grandmother used to carry when she came over for Sunday dinner. I tried to imagine where Audrey might be going. Who was she feeding? I never saw a car in her driveway other than her own. In this way, we were alike.
In those months before we became friends, I assumed we were alike in another way— single—but when we finally had a conversation in late May I discovered that she had a husband. His name was Craig and he was a Marine Corps colonel currently deployed in Afghanistan; he’d been there for five months and would be there another seven. It was, she told me, Craig’s eighth deployment in fourteen years—five in Iraq, three in Afghanistan. She said this with neither pride nor sorrow; it was a fact, like your height, or the amount of your electric bill. Audrey was about my age, maybe a couple years older. If there were kids, she didn’t mention them.
“Do you worry all the time?” I asked her.
We were talking over the fences that separated our backyards. I spent almost no time in my backyard, but the last weekend in May I always went out to the small patio and set up the table with the big yellow shade umbrella and four chairs, rolled the barbeque kettle out of the shed, and wiped away the webs that had been spun through the grills over the winter. My year was nearly over; I was a high school librarian, and antsy for summer—though last summer the barbeque had remained unlit, the chairs in their original positions. It wasn’t that I had no friends; I just had no friends who came over for barbeques.
“It’s impossible to worry all the time,” she said. “A long time ago I got used to thinking, well, he’s at work. Doing his job.”
“What does he do?” I asked.
“He’s a colonel,” she said, which she had already mentioned.
“I don’t really know what that means,” I admitted.
“It means he tells people what to do,” she said. She grinned with something sly behind it, as if we already knew each other’s secrets. “He’s very good at that.”
I wondered if he told her what to do. She didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would like to be told what to do. But so far I’d only watched her from a bathroom window, really, so what did I know? I knew she always gardened in gray capris and a navy blue tank top, that she never wore shoes or makeup, that her toenails were painted dark red. I knew she swatted her long black hair aside when it got in her way, instead of just pulling it back. I knew from her body that she was not one of those middle-aged women who ate only salads, though her arms and calves were toned. I knew that once she had finished her morning work she would slip on a light, colorful kimono (I’d seen at least four different ones) and sit on the sole chair on her patio, sipping coffee—or maybe it was tea, I couldn’t tell from my bathroom.
“What’re you growing?” I asked, motioning over her shoulder, as if her answer would mean anything to me.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she said, her face lighting up at my question, her eyes a thousand watts brighter than when I’d asked about her colonel. “Come see.”
There was a narrow strip of unfenced land between our two yards, an unmowed area that seemed to belong to neither house, a pass-through between the fences used by neighborhood cats. It had been this way since I’d moved here a decade before, and had always struck me as stupid, probably the result of some bad blood between neighbors. To get into her backyard I had to exit my gate and then immediately enter hers.
“No-man’s land,” she said, of the cat pass. I recognized this as a military metaphor, so I put my hands in the air.
“Don’t shoot,” I said.
She gave a short bark of a laugh, and it was so surprising in its genuineness that my heart did an unfamiliar thing and I had to briefly steady myself on the gate post as I stepped into her yard.
In addition to my librarian duties at the high school, where I handled 20,000 books and 2,000 students, I was the faculty advisor for the LGBTQ group, a position bestowed upon me by the principal many years before because I was gay but not gay-gay. (This distinction —apparently determined by my long hair and skirt-wearing—was explained to me by an anonymous source, who was at the meeting where new club leaders were assigned.) I met twice weekly with my kids for lunch in the library, and one Saturday a month we did an out-of-school activity, sometimes volunteer work, sometimes purely recreational. There were only about fifteen kids active in the group, so I knew that for every one of them there must have been at least ten kids not in the group who were glad the group existed. They didn’t ever roller skate with us, but just knowing we were out there on a Saturday night doing clumsy laps under the disco lights surely gave them some comfort while they were elsewhere wrestling with their desires.
The kids in my group hated summer. So, while I was counting the minutes like most everyone else, they spent the last week of classes in tears. Every May, this broke me. The kids changed, but the tears were always the same, the prospect of day after day, week after week at home, with nosy or disapproving or angry parents. At school they could be openly gay or trans with their circle of friends, express themselves almost freely; the school was suburban and the faculty largely progressive, and any students who bullied my kids would be swiftly punished. Alas, no one would punish their parents.
At 5:30 on the last day of school, students long departed for pool parties, teachers finishing clearing out their classrooms, a sophomore named Nate sat in a carrel by himself in the corner of my library, pretending to read a book, eking out the last bit of safety from his safe space, hoping, maybe, to store it up.
“Nate,” I said, standing by the door with my keys. “It’s time.”
“I know, I know, I know,” he said, his feet tapping under the desk, his eyes fixed on the book. “One more minute. Thirty seconds.”
“Kiddo,” I said. “You’ll be okay.”
He looked up from his pretend reading. “How do you know?”
“Experience,” I said.
By the middle of the next week, I had heard all about Audrey’s hostas and her daffodils, her tulips and her echinacea, her Queen Anne’s lace, her rudbeckia. (“Aren’t those black-eyed Susans?” I’d asked. “Sure,” she said, “if you want to call them that.”) I nodded along to the material dutifully, making all the appropriate noises of understanding, far less interested in the plants than in the fact that she adored them, which isn’t it how it always is? I’d done it with my first partner, who had described her daily workouts to me in excruciating detail, as if I had one inkling of interest in the intricacies of her hamstrings. And I’d done it with three-years-gone Julie, a graphic artist, who talked of pens as if nothing in the world had ever been as fascinating as the distinction between a point-whatever tip and a point-whatever-else tip.
“What happened with you guys?” Audrey asked. There were two identical chairs on her patio now—the second had appeared as if by magic—with a small square glass table in between, on which she set what became our early morning routine, a tall silver kettle that reflected the sunlight and two perfect green and white china cups that looked like they’d come from an antique shop in a country I couldn’t spell.
I shrugged. “Oh, you know. Old story. We wanted different things.”
“It’s not old to me,” she said, musically drawing out the long e and lightly touching my wrist. She touched me like she touched her plants when she was thinking, running her fingers along anything within her reach instinctively, thoughtlessly, like if you’d asked she might not have realized she was touching you. “What did she want?”
“Kids, mostly,” I said.
“And what did you want?”
“Nothing, mostly,” I said.
We laughed, and she looked at me like a therapist I’d seen a single time in college, at the counseling center, whom I caught looking directly at my internal organs as I spoke to him. It spooked me so utterly that I never went back.
“You already had your kids,” she said. “The ones at your school, in your library.”
“Exactly,” I said. “That was just enough. Not too much. I liked things as they were.”
“That’s fascinating to me,” she said. “I can’t imagine what that would feel like.”
“My number one strength is contentment,” I said. “Also my number one weakness, according to people who don’t like me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I like things to stay the same. I like trivia at the Hamilton on Wednesday nights. I like the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. I like pizza Tuesdays and high-five Fridays and the mail in the mailbox when I get home from school. I like to get up in the morning and know what’s going to happen to me.”
“You’d make a terrible military wife,” she said.
“I am certain that is true.”
“I’ve never lived in the same place for more than three years in my adult life. Half the time I didn’t know what continent I’ll be living in come fall.”
“The thought of that literally makes my hands clammy.”
“It does,” I said. I turned my hand over for her to inspect and she touched my palm.
“I wouldn’t call it clammy,” she said.
“Okay it makes my brain clammy,” I said.
“I love that life,” she said. “So does Craig. We’ve lived all over the world. I wanted to go someplace new again—I was looking at the Netherlands—but his mother lives here, in a retirement home—he grew up here—and he wanted to be close by for a couple years. I could agree to that—a couple years. He was planning to retire from active duty so we bought this house and then surprise he gets a phone call and decides he’s going to do another tour and would I mind playing bridge and eating dinner with his mother a few times a week? And you know, honestly, I don’t.”
“That’s who the food’s for,” I said.
I was embarrassed to have said it, to admit I’d been watching, curious, but it didn’t seem to phase her.
“I make enough for the whole bridge club,” she said. “I’m their fourth, the adopted daughter. They love everything I make.”
“So will you stay here?”
“God no,” she said. “I’m already pricing houses in Rotterdam. My colocasia have lived in seven gardens. Rotterdam will be number eight. After that, a nine, a ten, an eleven…”
“They’re your pets,” I said.
“They are not my pets,” she said. “Pets have names. Pets are needy. Plants don’t need us. As evidenced by the fact that 99.99% of the plants in the world are doing just fine without any help from people.”
“I never thought of it that way,” I said.
“Well, now you know.” She grinned and laid her hand on top of mine and gave my knuckles a little rub.
“You’re not clammy at all,” she said. “Just a little cool.”
And that was how June passed. I would wake up with the sun, in the middle of my bed, prop my phone against the nightstand no one used, and watch the animals—South Africa was six hours ahead of me, so I could usually catch them at high noon, at their thirstiest— and then when Audrey’s screen door clacked shut around 7:00 or 7:15, instead of watching her like a creeper through the bathroom window, I would walk over there in my sweats and my sandals and we would tell each other our stories. She would talk to me about the places she and Craig had lived, her gardens in different countries—city gardens, suburban gardens, rural gardens, gardens on base and off, gardens in climates cool and boiling, dry and rainy. She’d go plant by plant and I’d listen, liking the sound of her voice, its unexpected deepness, the way it went down instead of up when she was especially excited about something. In turn I told her about my students and their struggles, about how I once ran every day until being permanently hobbled by a badly broken ankle, about three-years-gone Julie. I told her about my parents in their retirement village in Sarasota, about my twin little brothers across the state in Philly, six kids between them, my meathead brothers who once beat up a lacrosse teammate who called me a nasty dyke. I told her about my friends, the high school teachers I played trivia with on Wednesday nights, how they were all partnered (how I’d been, too, when we began hanging out together), how they pretended it wasn’t weird that I was now the only single person in the group while simultaneously desperately trying to fix me up with absolutely any gay woman they heard about, whether I had anything in common with her or not.
Sometime around noon I would stand and stretch and leave Audrey’s patio to go about my day, and leave her to go about hers, though in fact I had no day to go about, and would often just return home and lie on the couch and read for a while and then fall asleep for part of the afternoon, then go out and get groceries or wander around a bookstore. Once or twice a week I opened up my “library” at the Starbucks inside the Barnes&Noble; I’d text my student group and whoever was free could come and hang out and I’d buy them mocha frappuccinos and listen to their joys and their grievances and tell them that yes, despite how it seemed, the summer would eventually end, that they would not have to live in their parents’ house for the rest of their lives, that maybe the best thing about life was that nothing lasted forever. And then Nate would say, what about cockroaches? and Colby would say, what about truth? and Sierra would say, what about death?
In July, Audrey gave me a haircut. I mentioned one morning that I was going to go get one later in the day. I told her I was going to Supercuts and she exclaimed “You’re not!” and then disappeared inside and returned with a roll up kit of scissors and razors and clips and combs.
“Military special,” she said, unfurling the kit on the glass table. “Craig doesn’t trust his hair to anyone but me. I think the thing he misses most about me is that he’s got no one else to give him a perfect trim.”
She stepped behind me and pushed her fingers into my hair, like she owned the place, then leaned over me, her chest pressed against my shoulders, and picked up her comb.
“Is that really the thing he misses most?” I asked.
“Well I might have a few other tricks,” she said.
I was contemplating whether or not to ask what her other tricks were, weighing if we were good enough friends for a question like that, but her mind was elsewhere.
“My mother cut my hair until I was sixteen,” she said, drawing the comb through my hair, the teeth biting into the back of my neck, giving me goosebumps on my forearms which I turned over to obscure. “My mother, I know I told you, was the most efficient person on earth. Hated wasting time. Anything she thought she could do faster than someone else, she did it herself. We never went out to eat because she got so impatient. How long does it take to make a damn hamburger?”
“Was she really busy?”
“No. It was just the principle of the thing. She was always in a rush, even if we had nowhere else to be—I’d hang behind reading every birthday card to find the right one for a friend, or finish the french fries in my happy meal, or go down the slide one more time. Typical kid things. And she’d tell me it was time to go, and I’d keep doing whatever I was doing. And she’d say, “Bye, Audrey!” and just start walking away.”
She reached over me again, set down her comb, picked up the scissors. Her weight on my back when she bent over me made my breath catch in my chest. You don’t realize, being alone, the ways in which you aren’t touched. Of course the sexual ways—those are obvious. But the familiar weight of another person reaching over you, a body pressed against yours. Hugs were different. Hugs with friends and students and siblings – that was contact. This was weight.
“Bye, Audrey! Bye, Audrey!” She laughed, started snipping. “And it wasn’t a fake out. She didn’t walk five feet and stop and wait for me to run to her, like you always see people do at Target. I’d look up and she’d be twenty steps away. I’d have to bolt to catch her. Once she was backing out of a parking place when I got to the car. I pulled on the door handle and the car kept moving.”
“Yikes,” I said. “How old were you?”
She didn’t have to think about it. “Ten.”
“That’s a little harsh,” I said. “I mean, to do to a little kid.”
“Well…” she said, in the way you say well when you’ve thought something to yourself a thousand times, reconciled it, unreconciled it, reconciled it again. “It wasn’t that she didn’t love me. She was just always ready to go. And now I am too, I guess. Like mother like daughter.”
“But you get to be the leaver now,” I said. “And not the left behind.”
“There’s no one to leave behind anyway,” she said airily. “I didn’t make the mistake of having children I didn’t want.”
“Craig didn’t want kids either?”
It was hard for me to say his name. It came out garbled, like my mouth was full of cake, like if I couldn’t enunciate all the consonants he was less real. What a stupid name, anyway. The ultimate straight white guy name. Had there ever been a truly outstanding Craig?
“I told you, he’s like me. We travel light.”
“Just the plants,” I said.
“Just the plants,” she said.
I thought of Craig, sitting in a bunker somewhere on the flip side of the planet, polishing his rifle. I didn’t know enough about war or the military or Afghanistan for that matter to be able to imagine it realistically, so in my mind Craig’s bunker looked like a movie set, with a bunch of people wearing headphones and sitting in director’s chairs off to the side.
She came around the front of me, put her hands on either side of my face, held the ends of my hair to make sure they were even.
“I’m happier when he’s gone,” she said, still holding on.
She had never said anything like this before, and the surprise must have shown in my face.
“I know,” she said. “It sounds terrible.”
“No,” I said. “It’s just… honest.”
“Right now,” she said, “I feel exactly, perfectly like myself. And I can’t figure out why we’re still married twenty-six years later, if I can go months without him and not just miss him desperately. But then I’m always excited when he comes back. I’m like, oh yes, this. When he’s gone, I swear to god I go whole days without thinking of him, but when he comes back, it’s like I can’t get enough of him.”
“Hmmmm,” I said. For weeks, I’d fought to keep the fact that she had sex with him out of my brain. Every time it occurred to me, usually in an abrupt, horrible, pornographic rush, I sought to immediately trounce it. I whacked at their sex like a piñata. But no matter how hard I swung, how true my aim, I couldn’t destroy it, and so there it was intact in my head – tongues and sweat and moans. Her fingers were in my hair and he was in a movie bunker ten thousand miles away and yet somehow I could hear the rhythmic squeak of the bed springs in the house behind me.
“How old are you?” she asked. “Did you tell me? I forget.”
“Did you know that forty-six is a woman’s sexual peak?”
There was no way to keep from blushing, particularly because I felt like she’d just read my mind a little bit. “I did not know that.”
She lifted my chin with her finger and stepped back, assessed my hair, smiled. “You need to find yourself a girl, girl,” she said.
“How old are you?” I asked.
Seemingly satisfied with her work, she set her scissors down on the table. “Forty-eight,” she said.
“So how was it?”
I made myself say it. “Your sexual peak.”
She brushed some hair from my shoulder. “We were in Japan,” she said.
“Is that where you got this?” I touched the hem of her green kimono.
“No, I got this at Epcot Center,” she said, sitting down in her chair.
“Really?” I asked.
She laughed. “You’re so gullible,” she said. “Do you really think I’d buy a kimono in Orlando?”
By early August, an amazing thing was happening which took me several days to notice: I’d stopped waking up early. Instead of rolling over at 5:30 and lying on my side and watching the animals at the Tau, I’d wake up to the clack of her screen door. I’d pop out of bed and brush my teeth and be in my designated chair on her patio in under five minutes from my waking time, and in this way it was almost as if we were waking up together, greeting the day as a couple. We hadn’t missed a morning in over a month. When I left her patio at noon I pretended I was simply going to another room in a home we shared; the proximity was such that I could make this work in my mind, allow myself to believe she was in one part of our house doing her thing while I was in another part of our house doing mine. When she left in the late afternoon to see her mother-in-law, I’d hear her car door shut out front, and sometimes, quietly, I’d say, “Safe trip.” When the smell of her dinner passed from her kitchen window to mine, sometimes I’d say, quietly, “Whatever you’re cooking, I can’t wait.”
In late August I went back to school. I’d had a feverish moment or ten where I thought of quitting my job, just so I’d be able to keep going next door for coffee every morning. I knew this was ridiculous—my kids were waiting for me, and I missed them—but the knowledge that the clock was ticking, that Craig would be home by Christmas, filled me with anxiety.
“Come over before you leave for school,” Audrey suggested.
“Do you know what time high school starts?”
“I’ll get up for you,” she said, grinning her secret grin.
And so our time together on weekdays began at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 6:45. I waited for her to invite me for dinner on a day she did not go to her bridge game, but she never did, and I didn’t want to risk the routine by suggesting it myself. I had my students, I reminded myself, and I had my 45 minutes. Just enough. Just enough and not too much.
But on the second Tuesday of September, five minutes after I got home from school, she knocked on my front door. In three months, she had never knocked on my door before; I had only and always been summoned with the clack. I actually looked through the peephole, because the only people who ever came to my house were Republicans and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who always left quickly, realizing their mistake. When I saw Audrey standing on the porch, I had a crazy bolt of a thought that Craig was dead, that a man had come to her door, a man in uniform, and now in turn she was coming to mine.
“It’s time,” she said.
“Time for what?”
“To dig up the colocasia bulbs. I was going to try to wait until Saturday so I could show you how it’s done. But I don’t think it can wait until Saturday.”
I was pretty sure she’d been drinking. This surprised me, because I had never seen her drink anything but coffee before, and then I realized that of course I’d never seen her after 1 pm. Also, she was holding the biggest shears I’d ever seen, with blades that were maybe a foot long – they looked like something a cartoon villain would use to cut a phone line, which seemed a risky choice given the wine on her breath.
“I’m in,” I said. “Want me to hold those?”
“No,” she said.
I followed her around the house and through the gate into her backyard and straight to the colocasia, their giant leaves flapping in the breeze. I honestly had no idea what she was going to do with the clippers until SHWICK she abruptly chopped off one of the massive, tropical leaves, a murder so swift I made a little noise of protest.
“What?” she said, tossing the leaf aside.
“You kill it?” I ask. “I thought you were saving it.”
“These leaves’ll be dead in a few days,” she said. “This is how it works. Cut off the leaves and cut off the roots and you just have the bulbs left. Put the bulbs in a box in the basement, then take them with you.”
“I thought you were taking the plant,” I said.
“You don’t take the plant,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The plant dies. You just need the bulb. Then, next year, there’s a new plant.” Another SHWICK. “Do you not understand anything about gardening?”
“Apparently not,” I said.
After the leaves were dispatched she dug up the bulbs and clipped the roots away with less frightening hand shears; the roots fell, caked in soil, to the ground. By the time she was done, what had been these giant marvelous plants were just a half dozen ugly clumps.
“They’re not clumps,” she said. “They’re corms.”
“They’re clumps,” I said.
“I’ll leave them in the kitchen to dry out completely,” she said. “Have some wine with me?”
We went into the kitchen. I had never been into her house before, though it was much as I expected, which is to say it wasn’t much: sparsely furnished, a small kitchen table with two unmolested cloth napkins in napkin rings, two squat candles, two chairs. The magnets on the refrigerator were all from local businesses. She opened the fridge and I saw over her shoulder that there were five or six bottles of wine in the tall section of the refrigerator where most people kept cartons of milk and orange juice. We had a glass of wine, standing on opposite sides of the kitchen island, the colocasia clumps in a box between us.
“Next year,” she said, “Wherever I am, I’ll send you a picture of my elephant ears.”
She nodded toward the clumps. “That’s their common name.”
“Interesting,” I said. “Did you know I’m kind of an elephant expert?”
“Is that right?” she asked. “Tell me why.”
“I watch them on my phone,” I said. “When I wake up in the morning. At least I did until recently. I’ve been doing it for ages. Elephants and lions and zebras. Birds. You name it.”
I explained the water hole to her. As I was talking, her fingers crawled across the island and did that thing, brushing the tips of my fingers. I brushed back.
“It’s probably old hat to you,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve seen those animals up close.”
“No,” she said. “We’ve never lived in Africa. I’d love to, though.”
“One time,” I said, “one of the baby elephants wandered off from the herd and this old elephant came lumbering over and stood over the baby elephant and started walking back to the herd with the baby under him.” Without moving my hands I tried to imitate the old elephant’s swaying shoulders and she laughed.
“I love that you love that,” she said. She looked at me in the way that she’d looked at me in June, when we’d first met, the way that made me feel split open like a wound. “And I know why you love it,” she said. “You love those babies of yours who wander off. You go after them and walk them back. You protect them.”
“Eh, maybe,” I said.
“No maybe about it,” she said. “You know what I think? I think it’s a good thing I’m not gay. Otherwise I might have a little crush on you.”
“Whew,” I said, swallowing the bloody heart in my throat. “Dodged that bullet.”
“You want to know the truth?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
“Sometimes I want someone to pin me down.”
Me, I thought. I can do that. I can pin anything down. An-y-thing.
“Someone to make me want to stay in one place,” she said. “Sometimes I think the reason he and I keep moving around is because I don’t want to be still with him. If we’re still, I might see him a little too clearly. Or me a little too clearly.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“I like being still with you, though,” she said. “Isn’t that something?”
“It’s… something,” I agreed.
Later, in bed, the wine still on my lips and her voice not yet past but present, her words still aloft in the night air between our houses, I rolled from the middle of my bed to the side, preparing a space, planting her there, pinning her down.
The following Saturday the screen clacked shut and I hopped out of bed, brushed my teeth, slid on my sandals, went out my back door, went through my gate, went through her gate. Three steps into the yard I realized Audrey wasn’t there. Instead, there was a tall man sitting in my chair. I knew immediately who it was, even though I’d never even seen a picture of him.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, imagining how it must look to him, me just strolling in.
“Let me guess,” he said, smiling. “The friend.”
I smiled, too, despite myself. At least he knew me. “Craig?”
He extended his hand and I shook it.
“We sometimes have coffee in the mornings,” I said, trying to explain my entrance.
“I figured,” he said. “And I guess I’m in your chair.”
“Oh it’s fine,” I said. “I’m not staying.”
“Hiiiii,” Audrey said, coming out with the coffee.
“Hey,” I said. “Wow, this is so exciting.”
“Babe,” she gestured to Craig, “go get a kitchen chair.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” I said. “I’m not staying.”
“Sure you are,” Craig said. He grabbed at the belt of Audrey’s red kimono. “How about the friend sits in your chair and you sit with me?” He pulled her down onto his lap and now I had no choice but to sit down, horribly, in her chair, beside them.
“Wow,” I said again. “I thought you were coming home in December.”
“Change of plans,” he said.
“He showed up two hours ago,” Audrey said. “Just how he likes it. No advance warning. I came downstairs and he’s sitting at the kitchen table like he owns the place.”
“I do own the place,” he said.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Like you own the place.”
“I’m kidding,” he said, smiling broadly. He turned his attention to me “What’s your story, the friend?”
“No story,” I said. “Just, you know, we drink coffee.”
“Audrey always finds someone to drink coffee with,” Craig said. “No matter where we go, middle of the desert, whatever, she finds someone. Has to tell someone about her plants. Yadda yadda hassta.”
“Stop,” Audrey said playfully.
“You’re like a sailor,” he said to her. “Girl in every port. Soon as I saw her, I thought, yep, that must be the new girl.”
“Craig, really, stop,” Audrey said.
She looked over at me and rolled her eyes, shook her head. Their hands on each other were so familiar they might as well have been one body.
I lay there all night long, discontented. A man was making love to my girlfriend in an extension of my house. Twice I hovered over the toilet but couldn’t throw up. Sweat stung my eyes. I wanted to drive to a hotel, to diminish the proximity between my bed and theirs, but I was afraid if I got in my car I might accidentally on purpose drive off the road. I couldn’t be trusted. I imagined the students learning of my death. I made myself picture their faces, Nate and Sierra and Colby and the rest of them, being told I’d driven into a tree, the hope that it was an accident, the rumor that it was not, the things they would think, those fragile children. I thought of the lessons I had taught them. One morning you will wake up and you won’t feel this way anymore. Will it be tomorrow? It could be. Power through. Find ways to save your sanity. Find ways to save your life.
An idea struck me. Yes, I would save my own life. I would go to South Africa. I would actually do it. I would go to the Tau Game Lodge. I would take a leave of absence, empty out my savings, fly across the ocean. I would lie in the middle of my bed in the most expensive room with the best view, lie on my side and instead of peering at the phone screen I would watch the animals out my enormous window—the elephants and giraffes and zebras and black-winged stilts—their joy, their sudden caution, their pleasure in water, their knowledge that their hours were numbered. I would wake up with the sun and the chirping of the spoonbills, content in knowing the day ahead, a schedule slipped under my door overnight, lie there through the morning, watching, and then I would get dressed and eat lunch in the dining room and go exploring in the jeep with the ranger and the other guests and have a swim and a spa treatment and eat dinner and listen to the men play the drums and have a few drinks so that, on any given night, by the time he was making love to her in Pittsburgh, six hours behind me, I would be long asleep.
You Might Also Like