The Back Garden

garden_illustration_2
Photo by Maria Haras.

Three weeks after she arrived, Ana and I decided to build a fire in the stone-circled pit behind the house. We arranged twigs and logs while I told her about George Washington’s views on love. “Washington is mostly well known for other stuff, but I read a book once that quoted him talking about his wife, and he said basically, even if the whole world were at war, he would be happy just to be by her side.”

“I never really thought of him as a great lover,” she said, pulling dried husks off the decorative corn neck- laces Mom had hung along the porch. “How long does it take you to build this kind of fire when you’re by yourself?” I grew up on the farm, and I’d been building fires since I was little; at sixteen, I’d probably made hundreds. I used to make a game out of it, and time it with my Dad’s atomic level stopwatch. On my fastest day it took me four minutes and thirty-seven seconds to get a flame. Ana bent her head to examine the pile of pockmarked wood.

“It’s faster with you,” I told her. She struck a match against the Stowe Restaurant matchbox but it only made a staticky tchhh sound and didn’t light. My mom showed me how to light a match against your zipper, so that it flares up right away, but I didn’t want to teach Ana because she liked the process of trying.

She came to the farm on a Thursday at the beginning of June. Her dad and my mom went to college together, but then her dad moved to Anchorage and my mom moved to a mountaintop in the middle of Vermont. She had just graduated high school and was staying with us until she figured out what to do next. She called her dad every Sunday night and told him about any new ideas for her future. Last week she was thinking about being a swim coach.

While we talked, she stacked the dead matches in a pile by her elbow. “Did you know that Madison was our shortest president?” I asked her.

She grinned. “Tell me another one.” She was wearing dark khaki work pants that were too big and a wide white t-shirt covered in dirt from the day’s work. Her long brown hair was tied in a ponytail down her back and it swung from side to side when she struck the matches against the box.

“I don’t have another,” I said, though I did, but I wanted to save it for later.

“I’ll tell you one, then,” and she leaned forward conspiratorially. “Alaska is two times the size of Tex- as.” I already knew that because I read three books about Alaska before Ana arrived, just to be ready.

“Oh,” I said, trying to look surprised. “That is so, so weird.”

“These don’t work at all,” she said, handing me the matchbox. I took two large logs out of the pit, rearranged the smaller twigs, lit a match and started the fire. She put her hands in her oversized pockets. “Cool, Ben,” she said, and I couldn’t tell if she was pleased or angry. The last day of her first month, Ana decided to make pierogi. She hated kitchens, with their confined spac- es and cookbook directions, but she claimed she’d been craving pierogi all month. After she finished twisting the dough, she set out a white tablecloth and glass bowls and glass cups, and called my mom and dad ceremoniously to the table.

“Tonight we’re going to eat like Polish kings,” she said, and put four pierogi on each of our plates, lumped in sticking piles. “Bon Appétit!”

“Did you know there was once a hairless Polish King?” I said. “He became incredibly famous because he just couldn’t grow hair.” Ana asked why that was so remarkable.

“Well he started out with hair and then it suddenly went away,” I told her. “They thought it was some kind of sign he shouldn’t be king anymore.”

“My mom’s bald, too,” she said, and laughed. “Maybe I should tell her she’s following in the tradition of the Polish kings.”

I stopped laughing and cut into the mass of pierogi. My mom and dad were quiet and chewing.

“You probably shouldn’t tell her that,” I said, and put a whole pierogi in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to say anything else.

My mom liked boys better than girls, generally speaking, but she loved Ana. A week after the pierogi, I came home late at night and found them sitting together at the kitchen table, drinking tea and talking about Ana’s ex-boyfriend.

“He was nice,” she said, “but a little too narcissistic for me. He used to show me his journal, pages and pages about what he did every day.” My mom laughed and sipped her tea. “And he didn’t understand how punctuation worked, honestly.”

“That’s not so bad,” my mom said. “As boyfriends go. I used to have a boyfriend who worked in a fish factory. He stank of fish so badly that I had to wash my clothes after I saw him.” Ana stacked one cracker on top of another.

“Was it hard when you broke up? Even though he smelled so bad?”

“It was a relief. Except for a year every time I ate salmon I did miss him a little.” My mom took her empty mug to the sink and started to wash it. “Have you seen that little golden rooster I keep by the sink?” She picked up a dishtowel and, finding nothing underneath, put it down again. “Oh, Ana. You’ll find someone good. I only met Ben’s father when I was twenty-nine, and I was sure I was alone for life.” My mom leaned her back against the sink and shook her head. “We met at a party in New York. I don’t want you to get any ideas, but we were both so drunk that when we met up for coffee the next day he thought I was going to be blonde.”

“So I should get drunk and go to a party?” My mom laughed and looked up at me, waiting in the hallway. Her cheeks were red like Ana’s and she was smiling.

“All right you two,” she said, “I should probably get to bed.” She kissed Ana on the head and me on the cheek and went upstairs.

It was summer and things were blooming. Every July we made cans and cans of jam, so Ana and I went to pick blackberries from the bushes that stretched out in long hidden lines behind our house. Ana liked the farm work. She told me it was the concreteness that got her. “Back home, I just sat around a lot, watching TV or something. But here, you can put your hand into dirt.”

“Lots of things are concrete, though.” I tried to think of something useful I’d read but in my mind I could only see stacks and stacks of cartoon books with nothing inside. Ana was a little breathless. She tugged at her ponytail, which she’d tied in a bandanna for the day. I remembered something I’d read the week before.

“Did you know last year twenty-seven percent of Americans didn’t read a single book?”

“Have you ever stolen anything?” Ana asked me. I shook my head no. “One time I stole something from a supermarket.” She leaned down to tie the laces on one of her work boots. “It was a notebook, I think. I don’t even remember it. I just remember feeling the hardback cover in my hands and not wanting to put it down.” I looked at her, surprised. “Anyway,” she said. “I like the farm because you can put a seed in the ground and you know what’s going to happen.”

“Not always,” I said. “Sometimes crazy things hap- pen here.” She smiled a little and ducked behind one of the bushes. I’d wanted to ask her how long her mom had been sick and why Ana was living on a farm on the East Coast while her mother was bald in Alaska, but instead I just focused on the thorny branches in front of me. After our buckets were each half full we lay on the ground in front of the bushes and sucked on the ripest berries.

“Ben,” she said, pulling up grass with one hand and covering her eyes with the other, “it’s been kind of fun getting to know you.”

Throughout the summer, Ana was trying to read the first “Harry Potter” book in Spanish, but she said reading another language was too difficult to do alone. Sometimes after my parents went to bed, she read aloud to me in her halting, delighted accent. One night I brought her one of my old Spanish workbooks. I had taught myself Spanish two years earlier.

“We could start with pronunciation,” I told her. “You should work on your pronunciation.” She brought her book down and gave me a long, curious look.

“I don’t want to just learn grammar and mechanics. Grammar is boring. If I learn too much grammar I won’t be able to think anything except subject-verb- object.”

“OK,” I said. “That’s actually dumb, though.” She started to read again, this time to herself. “I mean, grammar and mechanics, or whatever you said, is really important.” She kept reading. “Did you know Spanish is one of the world’s most phonetic languages? Usually if you see a word spelled you’ll know how to pronounce it.” Ana put her book down and looked into my eyes as if making up her mind. “Have you ever even kissed a girl?”

I had kissed one girl twice, first in a game of Truth or Dare and the other time outside of the school bath- room. I didn’t say anything.

“I mean like really kissed,” she said, and pulled her knees up onto the armchair.

“Why are you acting so weird?” I asked. “You’re missing your boyfriend from back home or something?” She frowned.

“Not really,” she said then, thoughtfully, “I don’t re- ally miss anything from home.” She paused. “Except for my cat. My cat loves mice, but in a friendly way. She brings me mice who are alive, like they’ve been hanging out or something.” She started to laugh so I started to laugh, too. I didn’t know if we were done talking about kissing or done talking about home or still talking about both. I looked up at her from below; saw the shadow her nose made and the length of her eyelashes.

“You guys are like my family now, anyway,” she said, and went back to reading aloud.

The next day, my mom and dad left the house early carrying weedcutters and left a note saying they wouldn’t be back until later. I decided to make omelets for Ana and me; when they were done, I put them on yellow painted plates to carry up to her room.

Maybe I should have told Ana that I had dated one girl, but three years ago, in seventh grade. She lived in town and I lived on the farm so we only saw each other the three days a week I went to school. Her name was Margaret. After we kissed during Truth or Dare, everyone told us we should start dating, so we did. She was obsessed with dinosaurs, and I was reading a history of the paleontological Bone Wars, so I wrote her notes about it during math class. Just got to the part where he puts the bones together all wrong! I wrote, and she wrote back, Maybe there are bones beneath our school!!!! After we had been going out for two weeks we stayed after school together. We sat in a back corner of the library and ate a bag of pretzels. I told her my dad grew up on a farm and my mom fell in love with the idea of planting.

“Wow!” she said, full of enthusiasm. “What was it like to grow up on a farm?” I couldn’t really think of a way to explain it.

“It was cool,” I told her.

“Yeah, that sounds really cool!” We ate more pretzels.

When it was time to get picked up, she took my hand and we went to the water fountain outside of the girl’s bathroom. She stood in front of me and looked at me without saying anything until I leaned in and kissed her. She snapped her eyes shut and tilted her chin up like girls do on TV. Her tongue darted into my mouth and darted back out. Then she pulled away.

“I think it’s best if we’re just friends,” she said, in a very professional tone. “Not because I don’t like you but because I don’t think it will work if we’re dating.”

“OK,” I said, though it didn’t seem like the best re- action to get after kissing a girl.

“I’ll see you on Monday then, right?” She picked up her green backpack and headed outside, as if she were leaving a very productive business meeting.

I had no interest in telling Ana this, because she was two years older than me and had enough experience with a narcissistic boyfriend to confide in my mom about it. I was hoping that over eggs, Ana might talk about her family and her ex-boyfriend and her whole life. If she started crying, she could rest her head on my shoulder. Her hair was very long and straight and I wanted to know what it felt like, up against my skin.

I picked up the two plates of eggs and went to find her. At the top of the stairs I saw her, through the door of my parents’ bedroom. She was at the dresser, looking at photos of my mom and dad on their wedding day. I stood at the side of the stairs, and watched her face as she moved one frame aside to look at another. Then she went over to the jewelry box on the night- stand and opened it. She took out the pearl necklace my mom wore on Christmas and put it in the back pocket of her jeans. I pressed my lips together until they hurt. She was humming as she shut the box and continued to wander around the room. She stopped to read the back cover of the book on the shelf, and look inside the closet. My breath sounded too loud. I turned around and walked down the stairs as quickly as possible.

In the kitchen, I ate my eggs. Ana came down a few minutes later, but I focused on the metal tines of my fork against the yolk.

“I just read a book review I think you would like,” she said, sliding into the chair next to me. “Did you make these for me?” She picked up a fork and surveyed the omelet set out before her. “That was really nice. Thanks.”

We sat together in silence while she poured ketch- up on her plate and cut her eggs into pieces.

“I wish it was raining,” she said. “Storms are so fun here.”

“Yeah,” I said.

After we ate she went upstairs to take a shower. I washed the dishes and sat at the table, trying to read an article on the phenomenon of lightning. After reading the same sentence four times, I put the magazine down and went to Ana’s room. I waited outside for a minute, listening for the shower; the water was still running upstairs. I had never snooped before, but now I felt desperate for facts, and somehow I thought her room would provide them. Her comforter was rumpled on the floor and a pile of books sat disorganized on the nightstand. She had taped a picture of the four of us above her bed. I swallowed and stood still in the center of it all, trying to breathe deeply. Underneath her bed, I saw the edge of a red suitcase; I pulled it out. The top was unzipped and the inside was half filled with dirty clothes — sweaters, leggings, a blackberry stained shirt. The other half, though, was filled with things I recognized. The little golden rooster my mom kept near the sink, a pair of headphones, a rusty shovel from the garden. I looked at all the objects she’d taken from us. Then I shut the suitcase and, feeling the prickling of sweat under my arms, pushed it back under the bed.

Ana came out to the garden after I was already weeding. She liked to weed without gloves. Her hair was loose and hung down to the middle of her back.

“Everything okay?” she asked, looking up at me as she dug a thorny bush out of the dirt.

“Everything’s good,” I said.

She was quiet, then, “Sorry I acted weird last night. I didn’t mean to freak you out.” She was biting her lip. “The kissing thing was obviously inappropriate.”

“It’s not a big deal,” I said, adding a flowery weed to the pile at our feet. “I was only wondering because it’s actually fun to hang out with you.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that. Thanks for the omelet.” She stopped talking and went back to weeding. I looked at her, kneeling in our garden in her ripped jeans and stained shirt. She had a smudge of sun lotion under her right eye and she was pushing hard on her shovel. Her hair almost touched my knee; it smelled like soap and grass.

“Ana,“ I said. “I saw —” she looked up at me and then we were looking at each other under the bright white sun. We sat for a little while.

“Maybe, I could kiss you, now,” I said, very quietly, and I thought she might ask me to repeat it, but she just put her hands on the top of her legs.

“OK,” she said. We kissed then, and there was no darting of her tongue like there had been with Margaret. Her body was warm and sturdy against mine, so we kissed and then, afterwards, we kept weeding.

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