All he needed was a little more light. The house was always dark, even on the sunniest days. It was not a house of his own choosing.
After the first marriage, he swore that he would never find himself in another situation that was not of his own choosing. He would never find himself stuck in the middle of a life which he did not really want. Yet, here he was in a dark house with small windows that were shaded in the front by a deep porch and on all other sides by trees. Trees that were large and messy and dropped things on the house all year long.
“It’s really dark in here,” he said. He and Gerry were watching a DVD.
Gerry was not Mary. There was, of course, the disturbing coincidence of their rhyming names and the confusion this caused the kids. Tommy asked his kindergarten teacher how she could be a mother when her name did not sound like Gerry or Mary. And, well, yes, sometimes it was confusing even for him. He had called her Mary once. Maybe twice. The two names sounded so much alike, what could you really expect?
But Gerry was different. There was no doubt about that. They ended up in her house and not his, but that was because he didn’t have a house anymore. He let Mary keep the house.
“Oh, is it?” Gerry said. He loved the way she sat, even when they were in their pajamas watching TV. Her legs crossed just so, her hands resting on her knee, her posture perfect. He wondered if maybe she’d been to finishing school or some place where they still taught women these things. When he asked her, she laughed.
The house he and Mary bought together had beautiful lighting. Natural lighting. It was an old country house in the middle of subdivisions. The windows were tall and faced south. Mary never put up shades or curtains. She bought wood shutters that covered the lower part of the window where people could see in at night. The rest of the time, the windows were uncovered and the light came in. It was something he never noticed until he’d been in Gerry’s house for almost a month.
“Yeah, don’t you think so?” He couldn’t focus on whatever it was they were watching, some HBO show that wanted to be as good as The Soprano’s, but wasn’t. He pointed that out to her several times when they’d sat down to watch. “This is okay, but not as good as The Soprano’s”
She pushed a piece of hair behind her ear. “Mmmm, it is dark. But it’s night and it’s cloudy out.” She re-crossed her legs. “And we have the lights off.”
He fondled the buttons on the remote control. He knew even in the dark which button was which, and he moved his thumb back and forth between pause and play. Pause and play. “But it’s always kind of dark in here, don’t you think?”
She turned towards him and smiled. “I guess it is,” she said and turned back to the TV.
“Yeah, it’s definitely dark. Maybe we should take the curtains down.” His finger caressed the pause button, moving it back and forth without quite pushing it down.
She stared at the screen like she was really into the show. Like maybe she hadn’t heard him because she was so absorbed in what was happening. He nodded to himself in the dark. They would take the curtains down.
“What’s this check for $150 to DCGA?” he asked one night as he bent over Gerry’s indecipherable handwriting in the checkbook. It was still light outside, but so dark inside the house he had to turn on one of the lamps.
She was engrossed in a reality TV show she recorded and watched every night after the kids were all in bed. He had to ask her twice, and then bring the checkbook over and put it right in front of her face to get an answer.
“Oh, Dunhill Community Garden Group. It’s for the community garden.”
Gerry glanced over at him and then began to search for the pause button on the remote control. She always had to look for the buttons, but was still annoyed when he tried to show her where they were. “It’s right there–.”
“I’ve got it.” She paused the show, the actor’s face froze on the screen in a grimace. “The community garden. We’ve been doing it since Sophie was little. It’s down Laurel Rd. Surely you’ve passed it before?”
“No,” he said.
He was developing the creeping sense that things were out of control. There was no refuge. This check was just the latest example.
He watched too many nature shows on PBS and even now, he could hear the calm voice that spoke over every beautiful image of the ocean or the rain forest to remind you how they would all be gone in fifty years. After one particularly poignant show about how the grizzly bears were being driven north by the warming temperatures into polar bear territory and all the bear chaos that ensues, Lily looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. “I don’t want the world to be all messed up when I’m grown,” she said.
“What do you mean?” He ran his fingers over the remote control buttons and realized he’d raised his voice. “Nothing’s going to be messed up.” Lily nodded and snuggled up against his arm, her grip tight enough to make him wince.
Then the stupid hippie couple down the street let Gerry’s ten-year-old watch that disaster movie where the earth froze overnight. It was PG-13, but they let her watch it anyway. “And then there were wolves in the streets of New York City, and everyone had to hide in the museum. And almost everyone was dead, and the dad was trying to get back to find his daughter.” The kid went on and on and on about it. Out of the blue, they’d be sitting at dinner, and he’d be telling Gerry a really funny story from work, and boom, the girl would launch into yet another endless recitation of the plot line, getting many of the details wrong. He knew because he’d seen it himself; there were no freaking wolves in that movie.
“Is she going to stop talking about that?” he asked Gerry.
“She’s nervous,” Gerry said. “She talks about things that make her nervous. It’s how she processes things.”
“She’s making me nervous,” he said.
Between the disaster movie and the polar bear show, he felt the house was moving around him in ways he didn’t understand. It was five months out from the wedding, and after almost a year of having to date around custody schedules, he had anticipated that “the merge” would solve all their problems. One household instead of two meant more money and more sex. Now the extra money disappeared and the sex dried up. He would be happy just not to hear about the wolves one more time.
“Well, you pay a fee and get a plot and plant whatever you want,” Gerry explained. Her finger hovered over the pause button on the remote. “We do it every year. It’s great. The kids get to play in the dirt, and you get to raise some vegetables. You’ll love it.”
“Will I love it?” he said. “Will I?” He gave her a full blast of sarcasm in that “will” and it felt good. It felt familiar.
“Yes, you will,” Gerry said. She turned back to the TV and released the actor on the screen from his extended frown.
The next day he tried to think it all through more rationally. It wasn’t the money. A hundred and fifty dollars was not that much money. It was that decisions were being made without him. Maybe Gerry and her kids had always done the community garden with the ex. But she was with him now. Wasn’t the slate wiped clean? Wasn’t there a reset button that had been hit somewhere?
Jim had said that. Jim had called him up and asked him out for beers a few weeks after he left Mary. He didn’t call him back at first. It was hard to tell on whose side Jim would fall.
At the bar, he told Jim how much better Gerry was. What a great mother. How unlike Mary, she wasn’t an academic. She wasn’t all ivory tower. “Gerry works to pay the bills, you know. That’s it. It’s a job. Mary’s job was like her whole life, you know?”
Jim had nodded. He wondered if Jim was thinking about what it would be like to ditch his own wife and start all over again. Then Jim drained the last of his beer, turned to him and said, “You know there’s no reset button in life.” He signed his credit card slip and stood up from his stool. “And you probably wouldn’t like it as much as you think even if there were.”
He’d chuckled. “What, like Adam Sandler in that movie?” But Jim hadn’t seen that movie.
Of course, there was no reset button, but you could start again. And he had. Why hadn’t Gerry?
“How much do you think an average family spends on fruits and vegetables every year?” he asked his receptionist, Lorraine, when he got to the office.
Lorraine didn’t look up from her computer, though he noticed she wasn’t typing. She had angled the screen in a way so that any attempt on his part to look at it would be obvious; he had to resort to inconspicuous glances out of the corner of his eye.
“I can’t say I know.” She had a soft, country accent. When he interviewed her for the job, he thought she’d be the kind of receptionist who would tell him down-home, country stories about her uncles and make biscuits she’d bring in to share. She was not that kind of receptionist.
“Can you look it up for me?” He picked up the day’s mail and shuffled through it.
“Sure,” she said.
“It’s for some investment research.”
“Sure.” He had one last glimpse of the computer screen before he closed his office door.
The amount an average family spends every year was, in fact, $550. Lorraine prepared a folder with a detailed yet concise report on the fruit and vegetable eating habits of Americans, including the annual increase in the number of farmer’s markets and CSAs, the annual profit of an average small fruit and vegetable farmer, and an item-by-item comparison of some basic fruits and vegetables purchased in a grocery store, a farmer’s market or grown in your own garden.
At lunch, he sat looking at the neat little file folder and thinking there was something passive-aggressive about the amount of detail Lorraine put into her report. Still, it was useful to have all the information before making an informed decision. This was what he was always telling his clients. The world had grown far too complicated for the average person with a job, a house and two kids to negotiate.
From an investment standpoint, community gardens were a booming business. The cost/benefit analysis made perfect sense. But he found himself thinking not about the bottom line of the community garden, but about the polar bears and grizzly bears, two species that had only ever caught whiff of each other in a zoo. Now here they were wandering around the same forest, inter-breeding, even. There were polar bears now with dark, grizzly-like fur. Bear mutants, so to speak.
He called Gerry at home. “Hey, babe. Been doing some research.” He waited but heard only silence on the other end of the line. “How much do you think the average family spends on fresh fruit and vegetables every year?”
“I can’t say.” Exactly what Lorraine said.
“$550. $550 a year for the average family.”
“So, $150 for a plot looks pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?” There was another silence. What was she doing? She was always doing something else while she talked to him.
“I guess it does.” There was a pause while he waited for her to say something else. “But it doesn’t include the labor.”
“The average family might spend $550 on fruits and vegetables a month, but they also don’t have to do anything to raise them. If you spend $150 on a community garden plot, you have to work to raise the vegetables. Shouldn’t you include the cost of labor?”
He frowned down at the report on his desk and shuffled some of the papers around. “The labor’s free,” he said.
“Ah,” she said, and he could hear a smile in her voice. “We’ll see about that.”
“What does that mean?” he thought, but he didn’t ask. To ask would be some kind of surrender. He drummed his fingers across the folder.
“Right,” he said. “So, let’s do the community garden, then.”
“Okay.” He could tell she wanted to get off the phone now. She was done.
“It’s quiet here this morning,” he said. He wanted to ask her if she thought Lorraine hated him, but she’d only met Lorraine once. “Quiet.”
“Hmm.” She wasn’t even listening.
“Lorraine says hello.”
“Oh, well tell her hello,” she said.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you tonight, then.”
“Love you, honey,” she said. “Miss you.”
He fought the urge to keep her on longer. To keep her talking. To make her listen. As he thought of what he might say next, she hung up.
“Nice report,” he said to Lorraine as he walked out for lunch.
“Thanks,” she said, her computer screen still carefully angled away.
The community garden had a kick-off event every year. There was a picnic, with vegetables provided by the early planters. “We could’ve already planted?” he whispered to Gerry. He didn’t know a lot about gardening and now he was already behind.
It had been unseasonably cold all week, so cold that he said at least three times to Gerry, “If it’s cold on Saturday, we’re not going up there.” She nodded. He had seen early on in their relationship that she was not an arguer. She did not disagree with him and he wasn’t sure what this meant.
“Sunny and high in the 70s,” Gerry announced when he came trudging down the stairs.
“Alright, then,” he said. The kids were excited, even the ten-year-old, who was increasingly incapable of being excited about anything.
Standing in the bright light of the sun, surrounded by green grass and trees, he had to concede that the community garden did seem like a good thing. There was so much space. There was space in their backyard, too, but the kids never seemed to want to go out there.
Now, they ran around in ever-widening circles away from he and Gerry. “Born, free,” he leaned over and sang in Gerry’s ear, and she laughed. She told him that was one of the things she liked about him when they first started dating. She made him laugh. The ex never made her laugh.
They signed up at a small table for a time to tour their plot and to hear all the rules. He worried about the kids wandering around the sprawling territory of the old farm that had been turned into the garden; weren’t these kinds of places dangerous? He pictured rusty farm machinery, sharp metal protruding around every corner. “They’re fine,” Gerry said. They did seem happy as they formed a roving pack of wild children. It finally looked like what childhood should be, what childhood was before scary movies about wolves and environmental disaster.
Their tour had just started, the bright and hippy-like young woman explaining to him and Gerry the concept of a buffer between plots. “Good fences make good neighbors, even in the garden!” she was saying, when he heard the shrill, high-pitched voice of a small child squealing, “Mommy!” It sounded like Lily, but they all sounded like Lily. It was only when he felt Gerry tug his hand that he turned to see her staring in the direction of the old farmhouse.
There he saw Lily, in the last few steps of a clumsy five-year-old run towards a woman dressed in stylish jeans and pumps, with a perfectly tailored jacket over a fitted blouse. She hadn’t dressed like that when they’d first married; she was frumpy Midwestern in the beginning. At first he liked the change, but then it came to signal something–the way she gradually became someone different.
“Mary?” he asked. “Mary’s here.”
He stuck his hand in his jacket pocket and felt around. Sometimes he found the remote control tucked inside there with his car keys and his cell phone. It was funny at first, when someone would sit down to turn on the TV and find the remote gone. “Have you got the remote in your pocket again?” Gerry would say, and they would laugh. But she didn’t laugh about it anymore. She frowned and shook her head as she gently took the remote from his outstretched hand.
He wasn’t doing it on purpose, he wanted to explain. He had no idea how the remote came to be in his pocket; it was a surprise to him every time. He was only forty years old and already doing things he couldn’t remember. Sometimes he lay in bed at night and wondered what was next.
But his pocket was empty. This time he’d left the remote control at home.
The wind picked up and blew the white petals off a tree that was planted beside the garden. It looked like snow, and it was late in the spring for that, but anything was possible. He thought of the polar bears and grizzly bears. He imagined the two of them meeting on a barren mountaintop somewhere. They would reach out to sniff each other’s noses, tentative like dogs. He drew in a quick breath of air and it was sticky sweet with the smell of the blooms.
He was frozen to the spot, watching Mary cross the space towards him and Gerry. An elderly couple brushed by, following the hippie tour guide. “The garden is a micro-climate,” the guide was saying. “If you save your seeds, the plants adapt over time.”
The elderly man pointed to the patch of dirt below the blossom-covered tree. “Don’t pick that spot,” he heard him whisper to his wife. “It’s in the shade. The plants won’t get enough light.”
She leaned in close to him and whispered back, their wrinkled hands clasped together at their sides. “I don’t think we’ll have a choice.”