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Testing Ground | By R.E. Faro

As Faro merges households with his lady love, the road gets rocky when it comes to sharing the garden.
The proposal was, to say the least, romantically challenged. “Two can live cheaper than one,” Flora said. We’ve been “dating” for almost two years, and it did cross my mind, though I didn’t mention it, that we might someday want to bump up the status into something less adolescent. As friend Phil pointed out, nobody “dates” for two years but if fate hadn’t pressed the issue—the house Flora was living in was sold—we might have set a dating record.
“ We’re shacking up.” I told Phil the news over holiday eggnog.
“ I hope you don’t blow it this time. You have issues around commitment.”
“ I don’t either.”
“ Yes you do, but not what you think. You do the opposite of most men. You always ask for a commitment. It’s a straitjacket. It scares people away. Don’t do it.”
I wouldn’t take the bait. I didn’t see why I should listen to advice from someone who hasn’t been in a relationship in decades, and who now (incredibly) professes not to want one.
“ How are you going to split up the garden?” he asked.
That had not crossed my mind. The garden is quintessentially mine, an autobiography with a foreword by Aunt Dot. A sampling of the blurbs reads: “Quirky yet lyrical evocation of an Eden just out of reach.” “A pulsating exploration of what it means to be a natural man.” “An epic, often chilling battle with the elements (advisory: contains strong language).” There may be more blurbs than content, together bound in tasteful, green covers.
“ You think Flora won’t want to garden?” Phil continued. “She’s a gardener. I always tell people who have an apartment to rent, rent to a gardener. You’ll get a garden for nothing.“
One hazy January day, two trucks arrived carrying Flora’s material estate, the contents of which were toted up the 23 front stairs into the house. What seemed like a simple thing took three days. Overall, I behaved. When her dining room table was placed alongside mine, it was obvious mine got the heave. When she suggested her shelves for the bathroom instead of the slapdashery I was used to, I did the substitution. Her cherrywood credenza was too spectacular not to go into the living room, even if two end tables that Aunt Dot bequeathed me had to go. That the rickety things went only as far as the basement wasn’t Flora’s preference, though she didn’t say so. She was being flexible, too. I held my ground when it mattered. The funky blue recliner? Stays. Ditto the Grateful Dead tapes. We would discuss the bedroom later.
The garden wasn’t mentioned, although one half of one load was filled with plants, tools, and gardening miscellany. The plants, ailing or not, were parked in the infirmary section of the upper garden near the compost pile. The remainder of her gardening stuff went into the garage. A light rain that began midmorning on the second moving day and then fell steadily the next two days made postponing any long-term decisions sensible.
February eventually crawled out of January’s cocoon and once again the derangement called spring was in the air: the daphne blossoming, the bulbs shooting skyward, camellias glistening after the night’s shower. As the days grew appreciably longer, I began to spend more time each day in the garden, weeding oxalis, gathering plum blossoms for indoor arrangements, guiding errant sweet peas onto support wires. I did these things as solitarily as ever. Flora was elsewhere, working in her clients’ gardens. I didn’t expect her to help me weed oxalis, but if she had offered . . . Even when I made a point of involving her she seemed unavailable. When one evening I enthusiastically pointed out the budding ‘Thalia’ narcissi, she just nodded.
Was she just tired? Was
it something else? We once laughed over a New Yorker cartoon, a Joe’s Gardening truck parked at a mountain vista, and Joe saying, “I would have done things differently.” Did she think my gardening skills left much to be desired? Something between us felt cramped and stingy, despite the seasonal exuberance.
“ I don’t thing we’re ready to work together in the garden,” she said finally. “Our styles are too different.”
I hesitantly agreed, confused about what she meant, where this was leading, or what I felt.
“ Here’s my idea,” she said. “I’ll take the front garden, you take the back.”
In hindsight, I see that sharing the house caused only a few psychic ripples, but sharing the garden? That was seismic, opening up all sorts of sulfuric cracks.
“ But the deer maraud through the front garden,” I answered, implying a concern about her expectations.
“ Sure I haven’t noticed. Yesterday I did a little tango with a buck on my way to my truck. I know what I’m in for. I want to do it. Deal?”
“ Give me a second to think.”
Something unexpected happened. I suddenly felt like I had taken a snort of nitrous oxide. What a coup! The back garden is fenced in, deer-free. It has the roses, the vegetables, the persimmon and apricot trees, the compost pile, and the raised beds. Except for the apple and pear trees, it has all the good stuff. The front garden has clipped boxwood, chewed agapanthus, a seasonal swamp, a privet hedge. It’s a truculent slab of clay, an ongoing mockery.
“ We can give it a try,” I said camouflaging my eagerness. Beneath the elation I felt slightly wicked, as if I were pulling a fast one.
Oxen should have very small foreheads with white hair; their underbellies, the ends of their legs, and the tips of their tails should also be white.
from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
I heard, “neuroses.” What Flora actually asked is if I had gotten any “new roses.”
We are having an evening at home, a table for two, her table, we two in “our” house, a picture of a domesticity that feels anything but settled. Two candles are burning down to nubs.
“ No,” I could safely say either way. No new roses yet. This is the first spring for many that I haven’t had an urge to try a new one. Last year’s newbies, the hybrid tea ‘Outta the Blue’ and ‘Belle Story,’ a pink David Austin, are winners. I guess I don’t want to push my luck with any more new things this spring. As for neuroses, why change horses? The old ones still have plenty of pep.
The lull in conversation you hear is of ruffled feathers getting smoothed. The ruffling happened earlier today. I came home from work to find the boxwoods, formerly lining the front steps, mashed into the green bin. Looking at the front garden was like looking at the face of a man who shaves his beard after decades. Suddenly you see his pink, shameful little chin.
“ You didn’t tell me you were doing this,” I cried.
“ Do I have to vet all my decisions?” Flora countered. “I thought you meant it when you said I could take over the front garden.”
When we sat down to dinner we were both feeling tentative and cautious with each other, but the tension has dissipated.
“ I’m taking out the agapanthus, too,” Flora says, putting down her glass of red wine. “Just so you know. You have any objection to that?” She gives me a lopsided smile that has enough teasing to render it ticklish, but not lacerating.
“ You’re not taking out the apple and pear?”
“ You know I love having fruit trees as much as you. Look. I’m sorry about the boxwood, but you told me at least twice that you’ve been thinking of getting rid of it for years. I know you’d eventually get around to it but I’m not as patient as you. I’m a monkey. You’re an ox.”
Does your birth year actually have an effect on your personality? Our styles are indeed different. Lisa, Flora’s friend, born twelve years earlier than she, also in monkey year, is monkey-like. And truly I’m feeling more ox-like by the second, my belly bulging with risotto, wine, and chocolate torte. I’m about to start lowing, or whatever oxen do.
“ Let’s leave the dishes for now,” she says. “It’s warm out. Want to have your coffee on the deck? I’ll grab an old towel to wipe off the chairs.”
Some last petals drift down from the plum tree above the deck. It is already almost completely leafed out. It seems that I missed its blossoming. Before I know it I’ll be slipping on fallen plums. Why is life accelerating so? Maybe, relatively speaking, if I weren’t a lumbering ox, life wouldn’t appear to pass by so quickly.
“ Before I forget,” Flora says, “I’m having Ian come over and take out the cedar. Don’t worry about the cost. We’re doing an exchange.”
That seems fine, too. I’m in a relinquishing mood. Earlier, I was prepared to justify my snit by saying that I wanted to respect Aunt Dot’s legacy in the garden. But Aunt Dot would be the last person to make a mausoleum out of a garden. And she never liked the boxwood anyhow, which, I think, predated her. As for the cedar tree, it’s gotten far too tall and is shading the fruit trees. Would I have taken it out? Never. But it’s not a bad idea.
Woven into the smell of coffee is another smell, unfamiliar, perfumy. I suspect it might be coming from the ‘Thalias,’ which have opened completely, a galaxy of them beaming on the slopes on either side of the steps. I’m too lazy to walk over and get a sniff to know for sure. Maybe tomorrow. Last fall I planted all 100 of them back here. I doubted the deer would eat them but I didn’t want to risk it. And I wanted to have them near the house in case they were fragrant. Absorbing a little light from the kitchen window, they glow the purest white.
“ Quiz. Who is Thalia?” I ask.
“ A muse. But I forget of what.”
“ Comedy and pastoral verse. Perfect for a garden, don’t you think?”
“ I do,” Flora says, and ponders a moment. “Comedy especially, despite Eden and its unhappy-ever-after ending. You know that saying: All tragedies end with a death and all comedies end with a marriage?”
“ I think I do. Do you suppose it’s meant as a wisecrack, or just a general statement?”
“ General statement. Think of Shakespeare. The tragedies end in bloody messes, the comedies end with a marriage, or several.”
Marriage. A “marriage of true minds.” That’s Shakespeare, too, in a sonnet. What’s a true mind? My mind is the part of me that’s certifiably monkey-like, nattering, swinging from the trees, flitting from one thing to the next while fretting about stability. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” Things alter, that’s certain. Maybe what Phil was recommending is to let go of the desire to chain things down.
One step at a time. Take it, see what happens. That’s enough for now. ?

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