It was a summer romance, born of heat, dust, and sweat. Watered by tears, some happy-sweet, and some salty with regret. Naturally, it all began in a garden.
Ammu’s backyard felt more like a graveyard to her. Wild and weedy, overgrown and dry, looking a tad forlorn and neglected… Just like her, she thought. Spring would come, and buds would flower. But she wasn’t sure the garden would really change all that much, come spring or summer. It felt lacking in a theme, or purpose. Like her? She was forty, and she wondered, when will this theme descend? What form will it take? A man, a job… a new garden? Some days, she would step out into the dawn and gaze at the inky blue sky, marveling at its beauty and depth. There was a nameless feeling, a sensation she felt in her breath, her mind… a sense of quiet that felt purposeful, not accidental. Yes, that quietness was absolutely the purpose. But what did a garden have to do with it? Sure, she could pull out the weeds, prune the fig and pomegranate trees, plant milkweed and pray for the monarch butterflies to descend, and so on. Perhaps she would plant peonies this time. If the garden was the outer manifestation of her inner space, she had just one word for it: undesirable. Ok, two words: undesirable, unattractive.
She glanced over at her neighbor’s backyard. It looked tidy, well looked after. But it was an easy backyard. It was mostly flat, a gentle undulation at places. There was ample shade from two pecan trees, and not a weed in sight. Her neighbor was Irfan, and she hardly saw him in the backyard. Maybe he had a gardener, or at least someone to pull out the weeds. Silly, she chided herself. Most people employ a lawn service for their yard. To keep the grass pretty and green, to destroy the weeds, and to keep things generally non-controversial.
I am tired, she decided.
Irfan had no desire to maintain a backyard garden or grow flowers. Life was hard enough to get through. Why take on an additional burden? Flowers are high-maintenance, vegetables need to be inspected for bugs and worms. He liked to keep things neat. So what if this piece of land lay useless, simply drinking weed killer and grass fertilizer? It was a good reflection of everything inside, he sometimes thought. His home was basic, his life he tried to keep basic, and his garden simply toed the line. Some days, he wished he had planted more fruit trees. They demanded little, grew tall and strong. And he liked the feeling of warm comfort they exuded. They had a solidity that his life lacked. And he tried to bask in their radiant stability as best as he could.
He saw Ammu from the corner of his eye, and wondered how she managed her large backyard. It was a piece of art, junk art. Instantly he felt guilty. Who was he to go judging others’ homes and backyards? At least, she was invested in her “garden.” At least, she had weeds. It showed that there was an intention there, some semblance of design, even if it had gone nowhere. There was expression, a level of authenticity that he sometimes envied. It had character, wild and weary. Like her, he wondered.
They sometimes ran into each other while stepping out to get the mail. She had a warm, comfortable, and comforting look about her. Her hair was a profusion of grey but her face always looked young, curious. It was an odd mix, he thought. He wondered how old she was. He had a vague idea about her work. He knew that it involved books, research… maybe a librarian? Is that a real job, he wondered? Guilty again.
One day, he caught her looking despondently at her garden. He wondered if he should offer help. Maybe he could pass her his lawn service’s information.
But she didn’t want any of that, he realized. She wanted a real garden, one with bees and butterflies and birds and bugs. She wanted to harvest figs in late spring and pomegranates in fall. She had dreams of eating strawberries off the vine. She wanted to plant a pair of blueberry bushes, because as any self-respecting gardener knows, they go in pairs. Else, no berries.
Ammu wondered what caused Irfan to come to his side of the fence and speak with her. She was happy to talk, in any case. He let slip that his job had gotten busy over the last month or so. What do you do, she asked. I am a Tai Chi instructor, he said. She couldn’t have been more surprised. He smiled at her face. What did you think, he asked. I have no idea… maybe a consultant, a tax accountant? He was amused. It meant nothing. It wasn’t a good or a bad thing. It was just the idea she had about him and his work. So, what’s behind the busy schedule, she asked. He said that he’d started teaching Tai Chi to veterans, and it was turning out to be an exhausting process. He came home more tired than usual. He understood that it wasn’t only about the additional work but also about the energy in the room. People hold pain in all sorts of places, he added. She nodded. It was an affirmation of empathy, understanding. I know what you mean, she silently said.
What about your garden?
Ahh, it is making me sad. I have to do something about it.
Can I help?
And so it began. It was a shared project, a collaboration. She wondered if she had been a little too eager, or seemed a bit too happy with his offer to help. She hated for him, or anyone else, to think her needy or helpless. She appreciated the help, she absolutely did. She had a bunch of dreams for the garden. At least, they were far clearer than the dreams she had for her life.
It felt audacious, almost stupid to have lofty dreams for her life. She had enthusiasm but lacked the drive. She felt energetic but not energized. Sometimes she wondered if he could see through her emptiness. She hoped she wasn’t that transparent. And he seemed to have a bit of a knowing look these days. She wondered what that was about. Maybe she’d dare ask. She felt curious about him, his back story, his family. He lived alone but he had friends who came over on weekends. Some Saturday mornings, she’d see cars parked in his driveway. Busy and popular, good for you, she often thought. Back then, she didn’t even know his entire name. Now she did. It was good having him in the garden, in her garden. They worked hard and consulted gardening plans. She wondered if she should offer to help him in his garden. But he seemed to be content pouring his energy and ideas into hers. And she didn’t want to appear overenthusiastic. She didn’t want to scare him off.
The garden took beautiful shape and form. As summer progressed, the days grew in length and heat and humidity. Everything was big, bright and shiny, bugs included. She had taken to eating salads for lunch and dinner. The thought of turning the gas on and cooking an actual meal was intolerable. She also began experimenting with herb lemonades. One day, she’d add a sprig of rosemary, a couple of pinches of crushed lavender another day. She took to steeping lime and citrus slices in carafes of cool water, bringing them out at the end of a gardening session. He even joined her for a salad lunch one day. He’d brought over an old patio set and set it up for her. They lunched to the buzzing of bees and summer insect orchestras. She chopped an avocado and a cucumber, two ripe tomatoes and a head of romaine lettuce. Threw in some dried olives, basil, and a lime and olive oil dressing. It felt light yet substantial. And there was always lemonade.
An easy comfort descended on them. There wasn’t much to say or discuss. She decided that she liked the silence. He decided that he preferred to hear her speak. She asked questions about Tai Chi. She’d been wanting to take a class for a while. He was right about her job. She was a librarian but she also had a research project going on at the university. He imagined that she must spend her days discussing and arguing ideas and concepts and theories and so on. Perhaps that’s why working in the garden felt so comforting. Perhaps the simplicity was what soothed her, the daily rhythms of the sun and rain, the bee and bug orchestra, the planting and watering and mulching and monitoring.
One day, she was stung by a vicious weed. She hated it so intensely at that moment; it surprised her. It was stupid, so stupid. She should have worn gloves. She should have cut it off. She had no business grasping it. Such a naive, stupid gardener. The tears sprang up so quick that she was embarrassed. I have zero tolerance to pain. I am a grown woman who cannot handle a weed. Suddenly she thought she’d burst into tears. He came close and picked tiny thorns off her arm.
It’s okay, Ammu. We will use gloves. Let me do it.
She sniffed, realizing that he already knew. She was crying big tears, and he saw it. He smiled gently.
A garden is a bit of a miracle. Sure, you can plant and water and fertilize. And yes, fruits show up. Many are expected, some are wholly unexpected. Ammu’s garden gave birth to summer sweetness, ripe and luscious fruits for the birds, pale pink milkweed for the butterflies. Aphids feasted on orange marigolds while a persistent squash vine borer ate into the zucchini plants. But friendship and love followed right after. Verdant salads and tart lemonade were food and drink for two souls who had been searching for a while. It was sweet and tender, it was difficult to describe, and it needed no name. It was the perfect summer fruit, bursting with juice and sweetness. It attracted bugs and bees, even a doe with her two little fawns. It got the fireflies abuzz as the bedroom lights flickered off late night. Coffee and tea grounds went into the burgeoning compost bin. The grass grew rapidly, yellow flowers burst forth into radiant bloom. The long days of summer melted into warm and glowing nights of light and humming cicadas. It was hot and humid. The sheets were cotton, linen, light grey and comfortable. She discarded the quilts and the duvet. Everything felt unnecessary, superfluous.
I have no need, I am so full, I am so huge and big, she thought. I have no words.