The Gnashing Garden

By M. Jane Letty

Drawing back the curtain from a long-neglected window, the weight of the fabric felt heavy and vulnerable. I hesitated to open it, the way one might just before ripping off a bandage. Except, this time, finding the wound was worse than the removal of its covering. Much worse. How long had it been festering, I wondered. My personal Winter was a long, solitary confinement, and for a moment, I felt it thawing. Welcoming this, I walked into the kitchen cupboard, pulled a bandana from the linen drawer, and secured it around my hair. Filling a bucket with warm water and soap to wash the windows, starting with this one. I justified my mission: if this was the only window I washed, it was some small measure toward tracing back to where we’d left off, hoping it might shed some light on where we lost hold of one another.

Our new neighbors had cut down the tall oak trees that once diffused the sunlight that was now screaming in, once I opened the curtain. Even this made me feel angry and ashamed. Our old neighbors were a retired quiet, except when their grandchildren would come over for a swim. Nothing ever changed, it was quiet, and I liked it that way. In retrospect, that quiet only delayed the inevitable—this impulse to dismantle this wall of resentment I’d built around us.

*****

Along the windowsill, everything was as I’d left it just as it was before furiously snapping closed the curtains a few years ago. That’s the insidious nature of anger. It breaks the harmonic balance of time without stopping the pendulum swing.  Clinging to a thin, faded red silk ribbon, the hand-painted bird ornament we’d bought at the gift shop to remember our visit to Longwood Gardens for our twentieth wedding anniversary, and the miniature alabaster urn containing a small amount of the ashes of my first born’s first born—the baby who courageously fought, hoping against hope, to win the battle for life, but lost to a fifteen-minute war. Laying upon the ledge, a glass suncatcher from my son, must’ve fallen. It was broken, prophetically, in half where it read, “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today. ~John Wooden”.

The accumulation of dust floating and sparkling through the air seemed to dance around, gleefully at their release. I was more determined than enthused by this task. I was still angry—at everything and everyone. Cradling the hanging ornament in my hands, I recalled how happy we were to have made it. We’d beat the odds others stacked against us…and there were some very odd odds. Proof of my neglect left behind after removing the urn made me scowl. The thickness of the dust, I imagined, was mocking me for the time it had been waiting for me to get over myself. And, I wished I had been as careful to live the message than I was at removing the broken glass tchotchke. I missed being happy, trusting, and naïve. This anger crept in without my realizing. Some of the things seemed so petty, like the noises or sunlight. Other things, justifiable by any reasonable standard. Surely, under all this gripping conflict was my peace.

I’m not sure how long I made circles with the soapy sponge on the window, but it was enough to work up quite a lather. Dropping the rinsing cloth into the water and back to the window, my second challenge appeared. Apparently, anger and sorrow grow from the ground up, choking out the sunlight and feeding off the rain; restricting the movement of air and stunting growth of new, well-meaning attempts by my husband to join him in our backyard. The realization that I’d closed the curtain on more than just this window, the evidence was a crushing scene. The grape and ivy leaves that had taken over the patio camouflaged the teeth of gripping vines. I wondered as they gnashed on my apprehension, could they also see me? In my state of determination to once and for all dethatch my garden of grief and rage, the late summer breeze that made the leaves sway confused me.  Were they laughing at the audacity of my attempt or applauding my approach to pardon them?  Did they know I was coming for them after I finished washing this window? Ready to tear them from the hold they had on the structure of the pavilion where so many fond memories of our peace and tranquility; our laughter and tears and easy, long conversations over coffee or wine; romantic dinners for two…or three if you include our canine chaperone; the pleasant company of friends had become dormant. From where I stood, I could see there was much more work to be done than I was prepared to take on. But, if I didn’t go through with my mission, surely the vines would see it as a victory. Pulling out a chair, I sat there to procrastinate while sizing up my opponent—my crippling, punishing anger. In that confrontation, confusion of why my husband would let both my anger and our sanctuary get so overgrown? My thawing heart answered, lonesomeness.

*****

My husband had this adorable habit of planting small shrubs and trees without realizing how big they would grow. The backyard was once a lush garden, an oasis if you will, of every green on the spectrum with delightful pops of hot pink, daring red coral, and playful blue flower orchestras. Our favorite—the dinner plate-sized Dahlias! The white ones were enormous, more like charger plates, and the bumblebees resting upon them would get drunk on pollen-laced mead, then sleep off their buzz. Our tomato garden, the vines so very pregnant with juicy, deep orange fruit that I would spend entire Sundays turning into red gravy from an old family recipe. Or, the one’s my husband would excitedly slice open with a paring knife, shower with too-much salt and devour over the kitchen sink. He would sink his teeth into it and slurp at the juice that didn’t pool into the palm of his hand or drip through his fingers, which he would lick clean and with abandon. Watching him made me blush and, curiously jealous of…a tomato. He never saw the want in my eyes, only disapproval of having used too much salt to hide my embarrassment for what I was thinking.

What was I thinking? Initially, intimacy with him was a challenge for me. I was so sure I could unleash a tiger in the bedroom. Maybe, I considered, the women before me didn’t enjoy sex or felt as comfortable in their own skin as I did? Maybe he thought passionate, playful sex was…dirty? Nope! That wasn’t it. This proved to become a disappointment for me. Many times, I would make small, polite attempts to resolve our distances. My impassioned pleas of some, any, playful tension throughout the day or a little more kissing or petting, was always met with a rejection that only made matters worse—for me. After a while, a few short years into our marriage, I’d resigned myself to the sad truth that maybe good love and great sex aren’t as symbiotic as the experts claim. Eventually, I convinced myself I needed good love more than great sex. I couldn’t reconcile why my desire to lovingly express and a willingness to show him how to please me was received as a strike against him, especially the matter of the time I would take, never quite being able to reach confirmation of his success. That gave way to illusory praise and eventually, avoidance altogether. After a few years, I simply stopped trying and shut down. Somehow that seemed to make it easier for us both—with me, no longer trying and him, no longer feeling threatened. He didn’t seem bothered that I no longer meticulously did my hair or make up the way I once did or notice that I’d stopped wearing pretty slips or nightgowns to bed. Although, once, I did wake up one morning to find him looking at me, caressing one of my breasts that was peeking out from the unbuttoned flannel pajama top. My startled reaction didn’t help. And, I wish I hadn’t asked him what he was doing, and instead took his hand in mine and pressed it against me and wrapping myself around him to draw him closer. But, by then, I’d already tamped down my fires and my fields of desire had become a wasteland. I was numb…and angry. It’s not that he wasn’t, or isn’t, loving. In fact, quite the opposite. He’s very sweet, attentive, gentle, and…exasperatingly platonic.

Occasionally, when the urge was too strong, and with enough wine, I began to feel so long as I was accommodating and responsive, it would get better or I would adjust, or that he would hold me and kiss me the way he did—once. It was exactly one time. And, I’ve ached for him to pull me into his arms and pour into me that way, again…and ever since. Instead, each time, in what should’ve been the afterglow, I would make up some excuse to slip out of bed, sometimes unnoticed, to go downstairs to cry, for us both. I loved him as much, then, as I do now.  I was angry and crying at the destructiveness this hollowness in an otherwise abundance of happiness had created. When my anger set in, my frustration fit neatly within that hollow. It seemed so cruel, to be angry at him for not meeting my expectations. But it also seemed only fair, since he stubbornly, or reflexively denied them…even those abated in kind.

Recalling that one-time he kissed me like he was going to lose me, he already had. It was on the eve I’d asked for and was granted, a separation—the last time we sat under the pavilion in the backyard. Even that, he did with love. He begged me not to leave him, but by then I was long gone. It truly was, a seven-year-itch. It’s not that that kiss didn’t give me pause. It did. But I was starving for affection, broken by a betrayal that he seemed to let beat me, psychologically, and…I was angry. I was angry at everything and everyone. And, fair or not, I was furious with him for denying me the joy of intimacy and stripping from me a womanliness that was my identity. Even I didn’t recognize myself and the numbness was driving me mad. At that point, I honestly believed the life I’d always wanted; a good man, a happy home, raising a family, the charmed life of the mundane, was killing me.

In the six months I was free, I’d discovered my world was small, but it was mine and the gardens I once lovingly tended, was struggling to survive. The gripping vines of anger and resentment and the seductive tendrils of my selfish desires, I imagined, were choking them out, so I returned. I was still very, very angry but, several pounds lighter, much wiser than before, and no worse for the wear. And, whatever my fix offered, it was an amatory madness, which only left me hollower…and angrier. We’ve never spoken about my time away, and he’s never made any attempt to explore what left me so empty. We agreed to meet the greater good, the children. Once the brittleness of our reunion softened, we returned to the exact place we were, except my anger was quiet. And, there it is…the epicenter of my anger, but not my rage. I can see, now, the stalk on this one is at the core of everything and sure to be thick and deeply rooted and will likely leave a hole the size of my fist behind. Now that I’ve discovered it, it would be pulled—first. It’s very pretty, but poisonous. Yet, the only regret I have is that my actions harmed others, emotionally. Returning did prove to be the right thing to do, everyone seemed…happy. I was atoning for having hurt them for something that was beyond their control, but not happy. I don’t regret what I learned about myself or how humbling it is to love and be loved beyond sex. To appreciate those sweet, but ordinary moments. The weightlessness of the gravity of belonging to someone. Many times, it would feel like a beautiful heart shaped locket…other times, a millstone.

*****

It was no secret, but an inside joke, that I was a myth-like creature, a Medusa when it came to anything requiring water. My husband still teases me whenever we visit a garden center. At the risk of a swift, playful kick, he would corral me with his arms to walk behind him so the plants, hoping to be adopted, wouldn’t see me tagging along. Once, he said he thought he heard them shrieking as we approached the display. It’s true! I’ve been known to kill a plant sitting next to a sink. But he has the green thumb and I, his ardent admirer.

Shortly after learning we were expecting our son, I tried to grow a tomato garden just to prove I wasn’t entirely awful, and I loved doing something with him that he seemed to love doing. And, to be near him in some way. After spending the entire day turning the earth upside down, mounding the soil and planting the seeds, I was eager to show him what I’d done. When he pulled into the driveway, I excitedly walked toward him, took his thickly calloused hand, and guided him over to see. Smiling, he praised me for my efforts and told me to wait there. He returned with a camera and took a picture. I needed him to hook up the hose, which he did, and together we watered the garden. A week of watching and waiting and watering later, on a Sunday, I was so happy to see the plants spring up—overnight! He was in the garage, so I tapped on the window and excitedly waved him to come to see. That’s when he told me, just so I wouldn’t sound silly telling others of this impressive, overnight growth. While I was making dinner, the night before, he planted tomato seedlings so I wouldn’t be discouraged because I was so excited but naïve. I’d planted the seeds too late in the season. It was the sweetest thing, I thought. Come to think of it, how many other times has he done something similar, just to make me happy…that I missed while being so angry?

I wondered back to the beginning, hoping to find the exact moment, trying to untangle those vines that seemed to have choked out the sunlight. Over frothy coffee, for hours we would sit on the porch of my duplex apartment about a mile away from our future life-nest, and dream about all the plans we had to make our house a home. Once, we even walked from my side of town to the other just to look at it, to feel a little closer to the life we were eager to build—together.  All he and I wanted was what any young couple in love wants—to make a life together. A happy life. But, no, the miserable can’t allow that. They won’t allow it. When you marry someone, don’t make the mistake of marrying their family. Easier said than done. Just like the invasive, burrowing vines of the ivy, with those deceptively wispy-teeth that sink into the mortar of what we’d built—by hand, with love—any attempt to remove them is risky. I took that risk, not knowing it would cause the whole damn thing to tumble! That we would never be the same, again. I blame myself, mostly. I’m angry at him, too. Angry that he’s not as angry as I am—about everything lost in the rubble. Could it be that what was recovered, the foundation, was good enough for him? That, somehow, if the foundation survived then we, too, survived? As for me, naïve or not, I wanted every brick accounted for and restored to their original standing. In vain, I searched for that lightness, that sanctuary between a husband and wife. Finding, instead, the shelter of my anger and resentment a strange comfort. But, why? What is it about being so angry, makes it comfortable for me? And, what is it about not being angry, so important to him?

*****

The Real Estate agent’s eagerness to sell us the house was no match for our enthusiasm to buy. This haunts us, still. It was a fixer-upper, we knew that going in. It was on the desirable side of town—better elementary school, more space between neighbors, and quiet. We were eager to landscape and garden, but first, we had to tear out the over-growth of trees and the heirloom Azalea bushes given as Mother’s Day gifts by the previous owner’s children and grandchildren. He wanted to pull the ivy by the tubers, but I insisted they stay because I thought it offered a romantic charm along the brick chimney and the wall near the patio. Moments after pleading my case for its clemency, I was startled by a tendril that he’d let go of moments earlier. It sprung free of the tangle he’d made and whipped at the back of my neck. As it swung up and down, as if waving at me to come closer. So, I did. I reached in and wrapped my hand around its base and gently pulled along its length, that’s when I felt its teeth and, as I pulled, something scraped the top of my left hand, like a paper cut, only deeper. I thought that was a strange way of thanking me for saving it. I still bear the scar and, once in a while…it itches, but I ignore it and it goes away. That summer, while at the shore, I reread a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that was on the bookshelf of the house we rented. I thought nothing more of it…until now.  

Recalling how we would sit for hours, scouring through seed and plant catalogs, clipping the images and pasting them to the poster board with the to-scale plan we’d drawn up, was a comfort as I sit here letting fond memories ease the pain of having missed out on so much. The fun we had finding gardening books and the scouring the stacks of too many magazines and, of course, Farmer’s Almanac. We’d spent weekends, endless weekends, thatching the lawn from straw to fresh blades, turning soil, seeding, watering, laying licorice mulch and stacking slate. For our first wedding anniversary, I bought a dwarf Japanese Maple and paid our paperboy $20 to carry it from my trunk to the house.  We had no idea, years later, we would find ourselves taking down a one-hundred-year-old Elm tree—all shade lost—as well as our shade-loving landscape.

It was Memorial Day weekend when we moved in and the mornings were still cool and pleasant with spring lingering on, offering new and sweetly scented breezes on its way toward resigning itself to the task of introducing summer. Our constant movement from the truck to the house, then room to room, up the stairs, down the stairs and unpacking, the heat and humidity was creeping in and we both agreed we had too much stuff. Boxes full of dishes and what my dad called tchotchkes being hastily unpacked, and furniture arranged and rearranged until we fell into bed. A bed, only hours earlier, we’d wrestled up the stairs, after getting stuck for two hours.

Our first Sunday in our new home was delightful! My husband is to this day, an early riser. I am not. But that morning I couldn’t help but wake to the melodies sung by new birds, the sheer curtains dancing to it with the soft wind, the sunlight was a brilliant yellow blending with the green of the grass and trees. Not the icy blue white of the winter glare or the orange autumn hue. It was such a beautiful morning to be in love. Reaching for him, I found his absence an obvious invitation to join him on our new porch. Sliding to the edge of the bed, I stretched my arms upward, with my hands in my long brown hair. As it tumbled down on my back and shoulders, I loved the sensation of it licking my bare back just before wrapping it and piling it on top of my head.  I walked to the closet to slip into my black silk robe and headed down the stairs. With each step down, the red dragon design on the back was trailing behind.

The aroma of bacon and toast filled the air. He had set the table for breakfast and in a little blue glass vase, were some daffodils that had popped up. I watched him from this very window, pulling weeds while licking orange marmalade I wiped off the edge of the butter knife with my finger. Pouring into two mugs, to bring with me to join him outside, I noticed the coffee smelled better, too. Maybe it was because it wasn’t that frothy coffee, we’d somehow convinced ourselves wasn’t so bad? Fools! Freshly ground, percolated coffee beans in the morning is far superior to the microwaved water and freeze-dried dreck we still love to indulge ourselves with occasionally. Especially when we reminisce about our old somedays, that have graduated to remember when’s.  

I returned the ornaments and urn, the glue was still drying on the glass suncatcher, I tossed the heavy room-darkening curtain into the trash can. Tempted to cancel my plans to rip down the vines, I stood over the sink and began to cry while pouring my dirty tears down the drain. Fighting the urge to resign myself of not having the courage to step out back and reclaim what we’d earned. Surely what it had become wasn’t what we deserved. If not now, it was going to be never—and I knew it. Opening the back door, I stepped out on the deck and noticed a row of a dozen five-gallon arborvitae that hadn’t been there, before, but had been asking for over the years. Then, movement in the tangled vines I’d been staring at for the last couple of hours, frightened me at first. Before I could turn around and go back inside, a figure emerged. A tall, broad-shouldered, familiar figure with a friendly smile and twinkling blue eyes, the only contrast among the green, was standing amid the wiry mess of vines he’d already downed, with his boot on their necks.  Holding trimming sheers in one hand and handing me a pair of gardening gloves in the other, which he would later tell me over a cup of frothy coffee and a box of tissues, he’d been saving for me, for us, hoping I’d come around…someday.

*****

Several years have passed, content in the charmed life of the mundane, none the richer and no worse for the wear, politely chaste as before, and the backyard is once again, a lush garden…an oasis, if you will. Most of the small trees and shrubs have grown as much as they will or pruned to keep from becoming overgrown, again. The shades of every green and the pops of color, are still a delightful conversation starter. Except, we’re very careful around the topic of the ivy. He tends the gardens and is sure to keep it from returning by cutting away any new growth along the fence.

We’d been careful to keep the ground barren where the ivy once took over. Except for the honeysuckle vine that appeared out of nowhere, surviving the aggressive herbicidal treatments to the soil to keep anything from growing in a space of about the size of a shirt box. I’d first noticed it early-Spring, while washing windows. By summer, its glorious two-lipped blossoms and deep scarlet red trumpets dripping with sweet nectar, whose taste would linger in my mouth for hours after, was mine alone to keep. The scent would find me wherever I was, whether inside the house or out. Sometimes, its smoky cologne waking me in the morning or, throughout the day it would seek me out, compelling me to close my eyes and breathe in the nimble bliss it offered, making me giggle as though sharing a secret only we knew. My husband was preparing to destroy it when I stopped him. I told him I loved it and how the scent of it made me happy. He said it had no scent, but agreed to let me keep it, warning me to not let it take over—like the ivy—and that it might not survive winter. Although a hardy plant, I thought it was remarkable it survived at all in that soil, under the shadow of the bush. No matter. It was thriving, proof of it in its show of strong, but supple vines that seemed to and its mere presence inspired a sense of calm, inner peace, and I was no longer angry.

In fact, every day since, I feel restored, softer, and at times, giddy. No longer haunted by a loitering anger and, finally, free of the solitary confinement of past defeats. In this release from captivity, I’m as happy now, as I was once angry. Still quiet, though, if a bit light-footed to keep above it where the air is thin, but easy enough to breathe. But, no one seems to really notice, save for the occasional interest in what I’m smiling about or where I go when caught daydreaming. There is a caveat, but I’ve already considered the risk and learned how to care for my l. sempervirens, well, so it continues to curlicue just along the trellis or, occasionally, my pinky finger. For the gift it gave to me, my peace, I pledged each Spring, to peel away the Winter burlap to aerate its soil, and nourish its new growth with the blossoms that gently fell in its retreat to Autumn, which I stored in a music box on my nightstand. Patiently, I would wait for it to please my every sense with a color guard display in the Summer, as many as it was willing to offer, before nature, or if I could no longer nurture—whichever came first.

Semper means “always” and viren means “brave”.  For its courage to pull off me, a brutal and perpetual winter, I would see it through its own winters; vowing to keep it warm and nourished…and loved, in this life and the next. I hoped, even prayed, for the alluring mystique of honeysuckle to seek me again by scent before sight so that I might know this peace once more, but sooner. All this joy, came in a glance, at first…then, a tendril that gently curled around my finger, reviving sensations where I’d grown numb from when I reached down to pull it…it tugged back. 

###

Preamble

Essays about the creeping vine-like thoughts and clinging moments that sink their teeth into the mortar of my mind’s walls. Before the invasive roots of madness take over, here’s a record of the ascension to give it purpose, meaning, and an indelible haunt. They will be in no particular order, there won’t be any particular theme. Just random climbing expressions, arguments, some old college papers, (some political or related to study); current events opinions, (also, some political or related to interest); letters (sent and yet/never to be sent) that turned into essays, or markers along this journey for you to scale with me and, hopefully, be moved. If unapologetic, explicit topics of a literary bent, with some humor to balance those humbling experiences of life’s gains and losses through raw topics about courage of thought and intimacy of mind is your thing, great!

Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Enjoy! ~M. Jane Letty