My wife of twenty years has a new habit. She insists on painting only in the garden. My lovely wife, who for the better part of our lengthy marriage considered cultivating new habits on par with getting the plague. I may be exaggerating a tad, but the fact remains she’s not one for shaking things up, especially when it comes to the life we made with each other.
Since my wife took to her easel out in the garden, sometimes I go out there to check on her. I do this mostly on the weekends, because during the week I am either at work or I am dead tired from work, in which case I prefer to keep an eye on her from the comforts of the living room couch. Our terrific couch, which we bought twenty years ago, when we moved into this house in the middle of this quiet cul-de-sac at the edge of town. We splurged on this one item of furniture, I must admit. All the cushions are filled with Hungarian goose down, the very best, I was told at the time. Even after all these years of use, this couch is as perfect for plopping down as it was when we first got it. And it still sports its original upholstery. The fabric might be a little worse for wear in spots, having suffered for some years the attention of the claws of the tabby that turned up in our garden nearly starved, with its fur matted over crusted scars. My wife was set to take it to the Humane Society, but I told her we should keep it, seeing how it chose to turn up as if just for us and just at the right time.
And so we kept the cat. Even though my wife had gotten out of the hospital only the week before and still kept talking about having a proper burial for closure, as she put it. Someplace to mark her grief, I suppose. I tried to plead with her then, pointing out that there never was a life there to be remembered. It tore me up to hear her talk about the baby. It never was a baby, I kept saying. It never could have been a baby. A stillbirth is no birth; it’s the delivery of an unviable fetus, just dead tissues.
But, when that cat turned up and I saw it, I knew my wife would come to love it too. That the cat let me pick her up, mewling and spitting as she was, I thought it a miracle. My wife was adamant about not wanting that filthy thing in the house, but then she relented, just as I though she would. And just as I hoped, my wife ended up feeding the cat morning and night, on the clock.
But this new habit of hers to paint only in the garden, well, this one is peculiar. She had set up shop under the oak tree at the edge of the lawn, or what was once our proper lawn. When we first moved here, the lawn was lush. I can’t recall exactly when the grass turned sparse and brown, and then dotted up with thick tufts of crabgrass. Had to be around the time my wife told me the sprinkling system broke. I told her I’d fix it, but then there were those busy weeks at work. I’d come home late only to fall into bed in a half dream practically, then up and at it at work again the next morning, after downing a couple of cups of hot coffee the way I liked it back then, slowly dripped and piping hot, which is how my wife had it waiting for me with the sun’s arrival on the horizon still hours away. Bless her heart, because she is not a morning person. Then again, love will do strange things to people.
Where my wife sits at her easel now, she receives some shade from the oak tree, which was a sapling back in the day we moved here. Otherwise, the sun beats down on the lawn and the garden pretty much all day. Whenever I go out to check on her, I have to squint, because I always seem to forget my sunglasses and I am very sensitive to light. You could say that at times I get blinded by the brightness of it all. It’s a good thing my neighbor’s lawn, which is visible in its fully tended glory across the fence, is deeply green, giving my eyes a welcome anchor as I walk toward my wife under the oak tree. I try to make my steps heavy, grinding the gravel on the footpath, because I want to warn her that I am coming. Somehow, though, I always reach the spot under the oak where she sits sooner than I expect.
Every time I come upon her, even with all the gravel crunching underfoot, I find her the same way: sitting at her easel, brush in hand, hand and brush moving across the canvas back and forth, determined, almost furiously. It’s the same scenario today too.
“Are you coming in?”
“I am starving. Don’t you want to eat something?”
“Don’t worry about me,” she says, not even glancing my way, hand still in motion across the canvas, the brush like a rapier, glinting with viscous red paint.
I go back to the house and wait for her. It’s well past noon. She doesn’t come in. Long after I make some scrambled eggs, I can see her from the kitchen window as I pile the dishes in the sink, which is quite full already with yesterday’s dishes. Were it not for her hands moving back and forth, she’d look like a statue. An overgrown gnome, what with her hair loosely coiled and piled high on top of her head. Maybe I’ll go out and check on her again, but then, I decide to lie down on the couch for a few minutes. Maybe she’ll get hungry herself and come in.
I must have dozed off, because when I open my eyes, the light has shifted in the room. From the room, I should say, since the setting sun has left only a square on the wall above the fireplace, like a gilded mirror dulled with dust or age. I hear the birds out there, finches, tiny tinny sounds, which are thinning out. I hear the neighbor’s hose and his voice, and that of his wife’s too. It’s like a little concert out there, an odd harmony of water gurgling and words drifting up and around. “Be done in a jiffy, sugar plum,” swoosh, drip, swoosh, “Lamb chops nearly cooked now,” swoosh…laughter, some puckering, more swoosh, “A drink, sweetie?” Something indecipherable, then a click. No more water gushing and then a screen door slams. After that, quiet. Even the birds gave up. I wonder if I cock my ears, could I possibly hear my wife’s brush scratching her canvas out there.
I heave myself off the couch. My outline stays dented in the cushions long after I walk behind the couch and rifle through the sketches she left strewn about in the space. Squares and circles. Bright colors. Then, more sketches. Squares and circles no longer distinct, colors that bleed into each other, no longer bright, but not exactly muddied up either. She was an art student when I met her, back in the city, before my job took us out here to the suburbs. In the early days of courting I used to pick her up from the studio she shared with six other students. It was a bad part of town, where even the buses passed through with as few stops as possible in the maze of poorly lit streets, where drunks and crazies lurked in the considerable shadows, staying out of the small pools of light. My wife said she had no choice, because that’s all they could afford and she needed the big space. She was painting large those days, canvases the size of billboards and walls. I remember the times I had to wait for her in that studio, the music a little too loud from a small portable radio the six of them shared and me sitting in a paint-splattered chair, feeling dwarfed by the arcs of lines on her stretched canvas in front of me.
The lines in these sketches my wife left behind the couch in the living room don’t arc here and there. The circles and squares, except for the ones that wash into each other, are what they are. Still, for some reason I feel restless looking at them. I get restless lately, a lot. Perhaps I should go check on her again. I go looking for my shoes, which are by the kitchen door where I left them. My socks have holes and I know my big toe will rub against the leather of the shoe. It’s a familiar irritation and I would sorely miss it if I could no longer get to feel it.
Once, my wife disposed of all my socks and underwear with holes, but luckily, I found them all in the trash. She didn’t know I check the trash every Tuesday night, when I put the big garbage can out to the curb, in case we might have thrown out something by mistake. After I found my socks and underwear, I told my wife I would be doing my own laundry from then on.
By the time I tie my shoe laces and head out to the backyard, the sun has slipped over the ridge of the hills that border our town. The neighbor’s lawn is in complete shade now, but where my wife sits, by the oak tree, there is still some meager light to be had. There she is, brush in hand, painting, I suppose.
“Why don’t you stop for the day?”
“I will, soon.”
But she doesn’t. Her hand keeps on moving, back and forth across the canvas, pausing at times to dip the brush into globs of paint on the tray attached to her easel.
Once I thought about leaving her. I was away on business, a rare occurrence in my career, and the thought occurred to me to stay away to see if she’d miss me. A three-day conference in a picturesque city, with snow-capped mountains looming above the skyline, looking exactly as advertised in brochures. The first night of the conference, after I spent the most of 40 interminable minutes at the social hour in one of the cavernous and elaborately chandaliered banquet halls in the hotel, I went up to my room to call my wife. I was going to tell her I missed her. My mouth was still sour from the cheap red wine they poured liberally to lubricate the conversation between all the sales reps and us. My wife, had she been with me, would no doubt have had some choice remarks about the whores of sales quotas and fast deals for slow researchers or something along those lines. I called my wife twice, but both times I got only our answering machine.
I didn’t set out to cheat on my wife. That was not my intention. It really wasn’t about her. When I went down to the hotel bar later that night I wasn’t looking for anything to happen, but then again, I wasn’t exactly not looking. To this day, every time I pick up a hint of jasmine in the air, the dominant tone in the girl’s perfume, all those other scents, our discordant sweat, the puffs of laundry bleach wafting from the tangled sheets, they all come rushing at my senses, almost tipping me over, as if they could. I recall paying the girl, pretty much all my cash, when she left. But for the life of me, I can’t recall that girl’s face. I must have had my eyes closed a lot during our thrashing around, perhaps imagining that when I would open them, there would be my wife, looking back at me, with a smile, that smile of hers so full of the promise of utter happiness, which is what made me fall in love with her in the first place so long ago.
An hour later I was walking on the pier jutting into the bay behind the hotel. Waves lapped around me, nibbling at the rocks shoring up the path. I watched the lights across the bay twinkle in a secret language of signals. The wind was sharp, burning my face raw. I was all alone on the pier, and though daybreak seemed still far away, night was losing its hold on the skies. That’s when it occurred to me that I might try leaving my wife.
But I didn’t. I went home, like I was supposed to. I was hoping that she would have missed me while I was away. I walked in through the front door, which was unlocked. It was already near sunset, but the air was still stifling hot with the first heat wave of summer. Though I closed the front door, I could still hear the neighbor’s hose swooshing water across his lawn and his wife chirping over it, “sweetie, come on in…”
My wife was not in the house. I called out to her repeatedly, but heard nothing back, except for the neighbor’s hose and his wife’s twittering. I walked out into our garden, and there was my wife, under the oak tree, her easel, which I haven’t seen in what seemed like decades, planted in the gravel. A brush in her hand, and her hand moving, back and forth, across the canvas on the easel. I had been gone three days, but the way she sat there, not even looking at me, even when she finally turned around, you would have thought I had died long ago.
Now summer is nearly over, and still she sits here at her easel, hands across the canvas.
Maybe she expects me to keep on coming out here chasing after her. It’s not as if I leave her alone, really. I am here for her, always. Well, except for that conference. I wasn’t here for three days, three whole days, dammit. But I am here, every day after work. So what keeps driving her out of the house? It can’t be the house. She has always loved the house. I have overheard her talk on the phone with her friends, and she has always gone on about how she thought this would be her forever house. It can’t be our marriage. Sure, we have our problems. What couples don’t? But I can say, and proudly too, we don’t waste time arguing. Besides, I also overheard her tell her friends on the phone that she can’t even imagine being happier.
So what can it be?
I stand by her side, but in the encroaching twilight, I can’t really make out what’s on her canvas. I should have put on my glasses.
“Why won’t you come in the house?” I ask her again.
“I will, soon.” She’s not looking at me, her head turned and her eyes likely fixed on the canvas. The last of the light is gathering speed as it goes rushing into night.
“But,” I say, “You must need a break. You’ve been at this all day.”
All over gardens at the back of houses in our little neighborhood, the crickets are stridulating, rubbing their forewings, but their tune is still one of invitation. No triumphant mating call to be discerned yet in this sundown symphony.
“What’s wrong? What is this about?” I ask her. Maybe I am annoyed now, but it’s not as if I don’t have a right to ask.
“Nothing. It’s about nothing.”
I am already halfway back to the house, when I hear her voice drift, as if from her hand, almost runny, like thinned paint.
“I like it out here. Really. That’s all.”
Like that explains it. I could turn around and maybe grab that brush from her hand. Make her look at me. Maybe she would like that. Or I could take a few more steps and go inside. Maybe even lock the door behind me. Maybe I will.
Maria M. Benet's poetry has appeared in various literary journals, Poetry and Prairie Fire among them. Her collection of poems, "Mapmaker of Absences," was published by Sixteen Rivers Press. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.