The way this author chose plant life to shroud the passing of a dearly missed friend was remarkably well done. The structure of the story became like the scraggly yard that needed tending: overgrown, barren in places, scored with thorns and weeds. Different varieties of loss sit neatly inside of each other in this work, like nesting dolls that the author skillfully reveals one at a time. The work here is queer and intimate, showcasing how vulnerable grief makes people. How we close up at the end of a season, as though dead, yet miraculously alive – still managing to green and bloom once spring comes around again. Conversational and deeply tender, this was a story that tapped at my heart. — Kristen Arnett, Guest Judge.
Jackson died in November and for a few months I barely saw Alicia at all. I helped out with the memorial service, obviously, and we texted a little afterward, especially through the holidays. We even made plans to see a movie at The Charles one weekend, though those fell through at the last minute after the dog ate a bag of chocolate chips and had to have her stomach pumped. For the most part, though, we didn’t see each other.
I felt bad about it. Jackson had asked me to look out for her, willed her to me in a dozen quiet moments. “She’s going to be so angry,” he said, one morning in the hospital when Alicia had gone to move the car, “and then she’s going to be so sad. I don’t want to think about her all alone with those feelings.” This was right before the colectomy, when it still seemed like things might be okay.
“Stop talking like you’re about to die,” I told him. I was always telling him that, long after I knew it wasn’t true: “We don’t need to discuss this, because you’re not going to die.”
“Listen anyway,” he’d tell me. And I did, because I loved him.
I loved Alicia too, in a way. I’d known her for almost a decade by then, had eaten her mother’s fish stew and held her sister’s baby. At her and Jackson’s wedding, I’d fixed the loose hem of her dress with duct tape while she stood on the toilet lid to give me a better angle. She was pragmatic and clear-headed, a good ballast for Jackson’s arrogance and sentimentality, and he had said to the very end that she was the best thing that ever happened to him. Of course I loved her. Once Jackson was gone, though, it was hard to be around her.
But then spring came. The interminable freezing darkness of winter faded to a light and lovely gray, threaded through with sunshine, and Alicia texted to say she could use some help with the garden. She sent me a photo of the weedy fence and another of her own face, double-chinned from the angle, shading her eyes with one dirt-streaked arm.
I had been gardening with Jackson since we were sixteen. The year he and Alicia moved into their house on Homestead Street, I’d spent every weekend in that sunny hellhole of a yard, pulling up weeds and turning compost, dislodging the empty shells of Bic lighters and discolored bottles of Jim Beam from the waterlogged soil. I’d traveled hundreds of miles in the passenger seat of Jackson’s filthy Prius, helping him haul pine planks and giant bags of mulch. The idea of working in his garden without him made me feel like I was being garrotted. But I said I’d come over and take a look around. I thought it was probably the right thing to do.
* * *
When I got to the house, Alicia was sitting on the porch in one of Jackson’s old t-shirts. Pink Floyd. A hundred washes had faded the design to almost nothing and there was a hole in the shoulder where the seam had unraveled, but I remembered its days of crispy black newness, how his mother had given it to him wrapped in soft internet plastic. “That’s rock and roll,” he told me when I gave him a hard time about it. “John Lennon loved his mom, too.” He wore a stupid leather cord around his neck in those days, let his curly hair grow until it flopped at his shoulders in a bad impression of Jim Morrison. I kept mine crew-cut short, wore halter tops and big, cheap earrings that left black marks on my lobes. We thought we were badasses.
The shirt looked good on Alicia, who always had a kind of easy coolness about her. She’d tucked it into a pair of jeans that hung loosely off her narrow hips. There was wear around the knees and seat, and a hole below the crotch where her thighs rubbed together when she walked; I could see it easily because she sat with her legs set wide, leaning back in her cheap plastic chair with her face turned up to the new spring sun. Her hug, when she pushed herself up to greet me, was light and fleeting, delivered on the tips of her toes. Her arms were so slim and narrow that I could have wrapped my fingers all the way around her bicep, the way girls in school used to do with their wrists to prove how skinny they were.
“My saving grace,” Alicia said. I was surprised by the warm pleasure in her voice. I had forgotten the mole on her cheek, just below her eye. It was dark and scabbed-looking, the most significant flaw in her pretty face.
Just inside the screen door, Gracie was dozing in a patch of sun, her belly fat puddled beneath her. I bent at the knees to scratch the white fluff of her cheek. Without opening her eyes, she tilted her face to show me her delicate chin. “I’ve missed you, sweet girl,” I told her.
A kettle was whining in the next room and Alicia hustled over to silence it. The kitchen, when I followed her through the low, stocky doorway, smelled familiar: anise and cat food and fancy tea tree cleaning spray. The table was littered with junk mail and old newspapers in their translucent blue skins, a filmy plastic bag still packed with Fancy Feast and bottles of shampoo.
“I thought about tidying up for you,” Alicia said, gesturing at the mess as she flicked off the burner. “But then I thought, What the hell? Mel has seen worse in this house.”
She fished two sachets of Earl Gray from the jar beside the stove and tore them open with one swift gesture, discarding the paper husks on the counter. I took down mugs, the one with the gingko leaves and the one with the faces of famous poets. The fridge, when I went to grab the milk, was sparse: low-fat yogurt and a bunch of limp-looking kale, the crooked hemisphere of a lemon with a dry, cracked skin stretched across the top.
Alicia offered me the gingko mug, wiping away a pearl of stray milk with her thumb. She let her hand rest on the back of a chair as she took a first slow sip from her own brimming mug. I watched her gaze travel over the crowded table and for three terrible seconds, it seemed like she might invite me to sit. This was the thing I’d been dreading since the moment I had agreed to see her—the idea that she might want to sit and talk. Every conversation I could imagine seemed either dishonest or unbearably painful. In the garden, at least, we could discuss soil compaction and leopard slugs. There would be robins on the fence, cars passing in the alley, the rusty creak of pruning shears—a world of noise to fill the silence where Jackson had been and still was.
Maybe she saw it on my face, that spark of anxiety. Maybe she was feeling the same way. Whatever the reason, Alicia spared me. The angle of her body seemed to shift just slightly and she tucked the chair in deeper against the lip of the table. “I guess we’d better get to it,” she said. I tried to disguise the relief on my face, but I didn’t need to worry. She’d already turned her back to me, moving toward the sticky back door with her overfull mug balanced in her hand.
* * *
Four days after a tumor punched a hole in Jackson’s colon, flooding his intestinal cavity with the bacteria that would finally kill him, a writer named Rachel Walcott died in Los Angeles. I read about it on Twitter. I spent a lot of time on Twitter in those first few days of stupid grief, scrolling back and back until the words blurred together into meaningless lumps.
The tweet came from a queer lady memoirist whose book Jackson had once given me. “The world has lost a brilliant mind and beautiful spirit,” she said, then linked to an obituary she’d written for a high-brow magazine. Just above her byline, there was a photo of Rachel Walcott smiling in late-90s technicolor. She looked youthful and healthy: broad forehead, deep-set eyes, a thick rope of braid falling over her shoulder.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that I idolized Rachel,” the queer lady memoirist wrote, recalling the early days of their friendship. “By far the most talented writer I’d ever known, blessed with an easy confidence unencumbered by arrogance or pretension, she was the picture of the grown-up artist I so badly wanted to be.” She had died of ALS—forty-eight years old, suffocating under lungs too weak to fill themselves with air.
When we were teenagers and death seemed laughably abstract, I used to imagine what I might say in Jackson’s eulogy. I filed away little images in my head, stories that might capture the kind of person he was. There was the time he pushed me through the halls of our high school in one of those big rolling trash cans, swerving around corners until we toppled over in a cacophony of squealing wheels; the way he memorized poems by writing them over and over in the margins of his homework papers; the day I told him I was gay, when he’d knuckled me into a tight hug and kissed me hard on the top of my head and told me, “You deserve to be happy.”
There’d been no eulogies in the end, though. Jackson had insisted that he didn’t want a funeral. Instead, there’d been a party at a barbecue place with dozens of people I’d never met: English teachers and amateur musicians, old guys from the Baltimore Tree Trust, a couple of his former students who’d driven down from Pennsylvania to be there. Alicia had insisted on taking shots of something called Widow Jane, which smelled like my grandfather’s desk, and the rest of us followed her lead, chasing the burn in our throats with Natty Boh until we were blurry around the edges. Jackson must have believed he was doing us a favor, sparing us all the pageantry, but I just felt cheated. Instead of crying in a church pew like a normal person, I cried in the bathroom with my fist in my mouth to block the sound. The morning after, Alicia took her kayak off the coast of Assateague and dumped Jackson’s ashes into the Atlantic all by herself.
I had tried to write something for social media, a little public act of mourning, but I ended up feeling guilty and fraudulent, as though the part of my brain that anticipated this moment had somehow willed it into existence. It seemed sick to want my sadness seen so badly, and the stories I’d collected so tenderly grew sour inside me, evidence of some unspeakable selfishness.
Rachel Walcott’s obituary linked to four of her essays. I read them all, one after the other, forgetting the bowl of plain pasta I’d made in a listless attempt to feed myself. There was one about standing in line at the grocery store, how she opened her wallet to discover that her fingers could no longer manage the fine work of extracting a credit card. Her son had to fish it out for her. He’ll remember this moment, she wrote. When he can’t remember my pancakes or the way my voice sounded before my tongue went to shit, he’ll remember how he had to take care of me.
It reminded me of something Jackson had said once, a few weeks before Alicia’s thirtieth birthday. He’d been in treatment almost a year at that point, and he was tired all the time, but he asked me to help him plan a whole big thing for her, with booze and music and a million people. It was a headache and I tried to make him let it go, do something quiet and easy instead, but he was adamant. “I want her to remember things about this year that have nothing to do with cancer,” he told me. He was right, I guess. It turned out to be a perfect night, one of the last we’d ever get with him. Alicia’s sister flew in from California, bringing boxes of alfajores. People got tipsy and stood on chairs to make toasts. The piano had gone a little out of tune, but Jackson convinced Alicia to play “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He sat beside her on the bench, one hand on the small of her back and the other keeping brisk time against his knee—fresher than usual or faking it beautifully—and when she sang, he sang too.
I found it strangely comforting to imagine Jackson and Rachel together in the afterlife, standing in the same long line of some celestial hotel ballroom while they waited to check in for orientation. I pictured them at a cocktail party, mingling with all the other members of their little death cohort, him in shined shoes and her in jewel tones. They’d understand each other, I thought. They would talk about their wives and friends and favorite books, whether they planned to watch their own cremations. They would say how strange it was to move with ease after years of leaden effort; how beautiful it felt to be free, at last, from pain.
* * *
I love a garden in early spring: the ground growing softer as the days lengthen, dried skeletons of perennials shedding their dead leaves to make way for new growth. I love the warmth inside a new bag of soil conditioner, the first blister from a shovel on my softened palm. Alicia steered me around the raised beds, their wood bloated from rain and snow, reciting names I could tell she had worked hard to remember. Bleeding Heart. Tiarella. False Indigo. Cardinal Flower. The garden had never really been her thing but now, she laid into each word like it was sweet on her tongue.
The gaura needed cutting back. Last year’s skinny fronds had grown so long that they had flopped over onto themselves, forming a thick carpet that rotted in the wet ground. A dense band of coneflowers stood against the fence, coarse dried stems ending in blunt, sharply furred onion domes. The birds had ransacked them for leftover seed; within a few weeks, there would be baby coneflowers volunteers sprouting up everywhere. They would be waist-high by midsummer, full purple and dense with monarchs on their way to Mexico.
Along the side of the house, a row of squat green shoots had pressed through the soil, the first real growth of the new season. I knelt down to admire them, milky tea sloshing over the edge of my mug to grow cold on my hand. Tulips.
“That was Jackson’s idea,” Alicia said. She crouched down next to me and fussed with the soil at the base of one shoot, like she was tucking it in tighter. It was gorgeous soil, even after months of cold: black and crumbly and deep-smelling. “Last summer, he bought—Jesus, I don’t know—four hundred bulbs? More. A few weeks before he died, he sat on the patio and watched me while I planted them. He said, whatever else happened, he was glad to know there would be flowers in the spring.”
I could picture him so easily, full of opinions, a sweatshirt hanging off his skinny frame. A small part of me wondered why he hadn’t just called me to plant the bulbs. I knew, of course, that planting had never been the point. It would have been a miracle if Jackson had lived to see the tulips bloom. He’d wanted to be here with Alicia, to gift her those tiny shoots and that fall afternoon. Watching her dig, he might have closed his eyes to soak in the cold sunshine, maybe thank God that he was here, at least, for this one second. Still, I wished I’d thought to offer.
“I’ll cut some for you when they bloom,” Alicia promised. There was such softness in her dark eyes, around the edges of her thin lips. For a second, I almost wanted to take her hand. But at the back of my throat, I felt that hard knot of sadness that I’d come to think of as my own little tumor. I swallowed it and didn’t speak.
Weeds had already begun to grow rough in all the raised beds. We’d have to clear them before we could turn the soil, before we could spread the compost and plant okra and butter beans and those magnificent Maryland tomatoes. Alicia probably hadn’t thought to start seeds indoors, but it wasn’t too late. Jackson probably had some pots still in the basement. I nested the mug of tea into a tangled patch of grass and knelt on the ground. The remnants of the morning dew soaked through the knees of my jeans; later, I’d find twin stains that faded in the wash but never really disappeared. Gesturing to Alicia to follow me, I wedged my fingers under a knot of crabgrass and pulled.
* * *
Jackson’s obsession with gardening had seemed to come out of nowhere. It was one of those whims that sometimes carried him off, like when he’d started biking halfway across town to school, refusing a ride even when the weather sucked and his fingers turned blue on the handlebars. We were reading the Transcendentalists in English, and he’d gotten into the idea of living deliberately—becoming one with nature and all of that. He was always looking for ways to feel big feelings.
One Saturday morning, he called early and told me to pick him up. He didn’t have all that many details worked out, but I went along with it. Even before his parents split up and his mom died, I always went along with whatever Jackson wanted. I resented it sometimes—once, when we were fighting, I accused him of treating me like a supporting character in his life—but there was no denying that I was happiest tagging along behind him. I was so anxious all the time, even then, so worried that I would step out of line and piss off my mom. Jackson moved through the world as though nothing could hurt him. I felt sheltered by his easy sense of entitlement, the apparent simplicity of his pleasures and joys.
At Ace Hardware, he read off a list of supplies that he’d copied into his cheap speckled notebook. He walked the aisles like a soothsayer, examining the wares and leaving me to lift heavy bags of peat moss and in-ground soil into our cart. Shovel, rake, and trowel. Two pairs of gloves with rubber-coated palms. He didn’t check prices; he had his father’s credit card in his pocket. Standing in front of the rack of seeds, he put his arm around my shoulder. “What do you want to grow?”
His family had a house in Hampden with a weedy scrap of yard in the back. The ground was all clay, inhospitable and—we learned later—full of lead. There was an unimpressive chain-link fence choked with English ivy, which sounds beautiful but was really drab and vulgar and faintly spotted, like a lime on the cusp of going bad.
The garden was fifty square feet on a good day, but all through that spring and summer and deep into the fall, we packed it to the gills with everything that grew: kale and kohlrabi and jalapenos, tomatoes in delicate cages and potatoes in plastic barrels, zinnias and poppies and weeping stalks of amaranth whose tiny, pearled seeds we tried valiantly to cook into a porridge. Our sunflowers grew twelve feet tall, awkward as teenagers, their lightly frilled heads bowed with seed. My hands blistered with the effort of pulling up dead things by their roots, of turning the hard-packed earth with a shovel until it became soft and crumbly and hospitable to new life.
Not everything we grew turned out. The rosemary plant wouldn’t root, and the cucumber vines got tangled together and strangled themselves. We got three perfect snap peas, sweet and crunchy off the vine, before the tendrils withered in the first July scorch. We’d planted them too late, it turned out, and they’d needed something better to climb than a half-assed lattice fashioned from plastic stakes and kitchen string.
But what did grow was magical. The day we pulled our first carrot from the ground, we called Jackson’s little brother to take a photo. I raised it over my head, clutched in my fist, and gave a whoop of triumph as the shutter snapped. We scrubbed it hard under the hose spigot and ate it without a peeler or knife, passing it back and forth between bites so that the ragged edges of our teeth cut crisscross patterns in the sweet, sturdy flesh. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.
* * *
Alicia played music while we worked, on a speaker hooked up to her phone. We talked a little, mostly about plants. The sun felt sweet on the backs of my arms and my exposed neck. I let myself hum along to the songs I knew.
I hadn’t done much in my own garden yet. Rust had formed on the hedge clippers I’d left out way too long and my rain barrel had developed a scummy, algal smell. I was good about cleaning up at the end of the growing season, fastidious to the point of being obsessive, but I’d let so many things go last fall. Even my houseplants had suffered. I left the big jade on the porch deep into the coldest part of the year, though it was only a few steps to the warmth and safety of the house. By the time I mustered up the will to carry it inside, the morning after the first snowfall, the plump green leaves had turned limp and black, and the thick-veined branches had grown so soft that they came apart in my hands when I touched them.
While I worked, I thought of Rachel Walcott. I had fallen asleep the night before with her last book open on my chest. It was billed as a book about death, which sounded good to me since death was all I thought about anymore, but it turned out to be mostly about her family. It was big and passionate and sad, full of tender indignities. Her hands were the first thing to go once ALS began to run its course—she’d spent her last years writing on an eye-gaze computer, staring at the letters until they appeared on the screen through the sheer force of her will—and it became her son’s job to help her pet the cat, wrapping his fingers around her wrist and guiding her hand gently across its back. The weakening of her tongue made eating impossible by the end, but her wife continued to feed her tiny mouthfuls of bourbon with a plastic pipette dropper she kept in her purse.
On our third date, Rachel wrote, she nestled between the handlebars of my bicycle and I pedaled us both through the blue-and-purple park. I think about this when she wipes my ass, lifts my arms to shave my pits. She insists I’m still the woman she fell in love with, but that laughing girl feels like a drowned twin sister—a number I dial because I can’t quite believe she’s gone.
Cancer had left Jackson incapacitated in ways he didn’t like to admit. He wore bulky sweatshirts to disguise the lump from his chemo port. When his stoma bled, he’d ignore it until Alicia forced him to respond. There was one time, maybe two months after the liver resection that mostly didn’t work, when we all went out to the movies and he refused, point blank, to bring his walker. Alicia had to help him with every step he took that night, her tiny frame always ready to catch his long, lanky one, her eyes filled with anxiety as she scanned for things that might cause him to fall. I tried to tell him off for making her worry like that, but he just got pissed and yelled at me in the parking lot. “You can’t imagine how much this sucks,” he said. “Just let me have my stupid ego.”
A dandelion root broke off in the middle, leaving a stump as thick and sickly-white as a tapeworm in the soil. I clawed into the earth with the blunt edges of my fingers, searched blindly for the place where the sturdy taproot thinned and weakened.
During the worst months of winter, when I felt the emptiness in my house most acutely, I read Rachel’s books one after the other. I missed my ex-girlfriend, Maya. It felt sort of dumb, but I still got sad about her. Most nights, I fell asleep with a book in my hand and a half-finished beer on the coffee table, curled under a quilt on the mustard yellow couch I hadn’t stopped thinking of as hers. She’d haunted estate sales for months to find one just like it and, on the day she bought it, we carried it for a mile and a half through city streets to get it home. At one point, we dropped it right in the middle of the sidewalk and flopped down to rest. Maya put her head on my chest, the sweat-and-rosemary smell of her hair thick in the heat of the day. I tried to make her take the damn thing when she moved out, but she refused. She didn’t want to carry the past around.
Alicia sat back on her heels. She’d gathered a pile of scraggly weeds: African violets that would have been pretty if they didn’t strangle everything else and a few dry stalks of milkweed, which, last year, had taken up residence in every corner of the garden, its seeds borne on the wind in tufts of white fluff.
“I’ve been reading about beans,” she said. “Planting bean rows. Have you ever done it?”
I’d grown beans a few times, though I preferred trellises to bean rows, and I told her so. I liked scarlet runners for the way they burst into brilliant flower right before bearing fruit and pole beans for their gangliness, the satisfying snap they made coming off the vine.
She’d gotten the idea from one of Jackson’s old notebooks, she told me—those flimsy speckled composition books you get for eighty cents. I knew it well. I’d seen a hundred different versions of that very same notebook sticking out of Jackson’s backpack over the years, had watched him scribble notes to himself and looked over his shoulder while he drew diagrams of things he couldn’t find the words to explain. He swore it was the only way he could keep his head quiet. There were probably dozens of those notebooks somewhere in the house, packed into boxes or stacked on the floor of a closet.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much time I’ve spent reading about plants these last few months,” Alicia went on. “I’ve checked every book out of the library. It’s like the garden is this big legacy Jackson’s left me. I’m trying so hard to make it work, but I’m afraid I’ll screw it up and it’ll be like—”
She stopped, shaking her head. She didn’t have to finish the sentence; I could think of a dozen different endings. It’ll be like I’ve let him down. It’ll be like he’s died all over again.
Looking back, I see that there are things I could have said in that moment that would have been both comforting and true: that I would be there to help with whatever she needed; that it didn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful; that I had faith in her. I could have told her that plants were hardy, resilient, determined to thrive, and that she would be amazed at what could flourish under even the clumsiest care. I wanted to believe those things, the same way I wanted to believe that Alicia and I still belonged to each other—had ever, actually, belonged to each other.
But I was thinking about the beans, about those notebooks full of ideas Jackson would never be able to test and details he’d never need to remember. There was the tumor in my throat again, except what I felt wasn’t sadness but dumb, meaningless anger. So I said something bland and insincere and deeply unhelpful, something like, “Yeah.”
Alicia cleared a knot of phlegm from her throat, a hard little sound. Rocking up into a squat, she gathered up the weeds piled beside her. When she stood up, her arms brimming, she looked like a country milkmaid who’d been out gathering wildflowers.
I had to pee, or maybe I just needed out of that moment. I wiped my hands on my jeans and pushed myself up. As ease settled between my vertebrae, I realized muscles in my lower back had been burning. I offered a cursory word to Alicia and took up the mostly-empty mugs to bring inside with me, looping my fingers through both handles at once. They knocked gently against one another as I walked toward the back door.
In the early days after Jackson died, I’d felt his presence all over the house. His jacket hung on a peg beside the stairs and his copy of The Brothers Karamazov sat on the coffee table, bookmarked with a grocery receipt. There was all the awful machinery of his illness: the walker he’d hated so much, the plastic seat in the shower, the pastes and powders and sticky adhesive barriers that kept his ostomy bag in place. It was like he’d gone out somewhere and would be back in a few hours. But today I noticed how that imprint had faded in the months since he’d been gone, replaced by potent evidence of his absence. The book had been shelved, the millions of bottles of pills thrown out. On the red hutch in the living room, photographs I’d never seen before were lined up in cheap frames: Jackson paddling a kayak with his nephew, sardined in a sagging hammock between his brothers, asleep in the rocking chair with Gracie on his lap. His jacket still hung on the peg—Alicia had taken to wearing it herself—but somehow that made him seem even more dead.
I envied Alicia for the visibility of her grief and the righteousness of it, for these little altars all through her house, the widow’s prerogative. I never knew how to talk about Jackson, about how much I missed him. The other people who’d loved him—his brothers, his dad and stepmother, Alicia—all seemed to have a better claim on him than I did. People who hadn’t known him looked at me askance when I mentioned my dead friend, like my grief was somehow embarrassing them. Right after he died, I tried to take a few days off work—I was tired all the time, I couldn’t focus, I wanted to lay in bed and cry when I felt like it—but my boss denied the request. I had used all my paid time off during those last terrible days, and I wasn’t eligible for bereavement leave because Jackson wasn’t technically my family.
There was a tiny office upstairs, across the hall from the bathroom. I stood at the door for a moment and surveyed the room: a table too big for the narrow space, an orchid whose leaves had turned yellow and begun to droop, a metal filing cabinet dotted with glossy refrigerator magnets. There was a stack of calculus tests on the desk, marked up in purple ink that sparkled a little in the afternoon sun. Alicia had just gone back to work, teaching at the private school where she and Jackson had met during new faculty orientation. She’d taken a leave of absence in the fall to be with Jackson while he died. Her administration had been really good about it, she said.
I tried to tell myself I wasn’t looking for the notebooks, but I was. And when I spotted one, beside a stack of old seed catalogs, my heart started to race. I nudged the cover open with the tips of my fingers. That’s probably a sign that I knew it wasn’t right: I didn’t want to just reach out and open it the way I would have with anything else.
Jackson’s handwriting was long and skinny and cramped. Seeing it felt like a small miracle. I had birthday cards he’d written me over the years, a few inscriptions in book covers, a postcard he’d sent from the visitor’s center at Grand Teton, but most of what he’d ever written to me had come in the form of emails and text messages. His handwriting seemed lively and recent, as though I’d slipped on that jacket and found it still warm from his skin.
I flipped slowly through the pages, relishing every one. This particular notebook must have been a few years old, because there was nothing cancery in its contents. There was a list of things they needed from the grocery store (tarragon, brown rice, pears) and a messy draft of a student’s college recommendation. There was an estimate for replacing the cracked kitchen window, a number for somebody named Jim Harkness. And there were the beans: dimensions for trenches and bamboo frames, ideas about companion planting, notes on a YouTube video that promised tips and tricks for higher yields.
Somewhere in the middle was a page of notes from a reading he’d gone to at Hopkins. I remembered the speaker, a visiting author who’d written a handful of decent books and one that was truly spectacular. I’d had to work late that night, but Jackson had brought my copy of the spectacular book and had the woman sign it. His notes were mostly pithy one-liners and quotes she’d lifted from other writers. Halfway down the page, a loose, feminine script punctuated Jackson’s angular print. An arrow indicated a line from Flaubert. Beside it, there was a comment: So badass. I love the French. It could only be Alicia.
The visiting author had been pregnant during her talk and some of the notes were about being an artist and a mother at the same time, how people took one look at her all knocked up and suddenly didn’t think her work was quite so serious. Maybe missing the point, Jackson had doodled a woman with intense square-framed glasses and a giant pregnant belly. Just to the left of the doodle, in smaller handwriting set apart from the rest of his notes, he’d written: We should have a baby. She’d have your eyes and hopefully your nose because otherwise, yikes.
Alicia had double-circled the word “yikes,” and written her reply right below. This talk is going to your head. Avert your eyes from the pregnant lady!
They went on, the handwriting bouncing back and forth, cutting diagonally across the page’s faint blue lines.
Doesn’t it sound good? We could give her a ridiculously long hyphenated last name. And a long first name, too, just to mess with people. Iphigenia? Anastasia?
Anastasia Hinojosa-Auerbach? Good idea.
Really, though! We’ll raise her to be cool and read her all the best books from when we were kids. You’d look great pregnant. Just think about it.
The exchange ended there, but I could imagine what had come next. I’d seen it before, the look that passed between people in love when they were sharing some secret understanding. A half smile. An amused little shake of the head. Eye contact held a second too long, punctuated with a raised eyebrow. I imagined Alicia pregnant, complaining merrily about her swollen feet. I imagined the living room cluttered with baby toys and breast pump bottles, the laundry basket full of miniscule pairs of socks that Jackson would have folded dutifully. He had never talked to me about wanting kids. Whatever plans he’d nurtured with Alicia had existed only in that space between the two of them, so quiet I used to forget it was there.
Maya and I had talked about babies. It would have been a huge mistake—I think we both knew that—but when I held her in bed and rested my palm against the base of her soft stomach, I couldn’t help wanting it. Things with my mom weren’t so good by then, and I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I wanted a family.
I must have missed the sound of footsteps on the stairs because when I looked up, Alicia was standing in the doorway, staring at me. “I wondered where you’d gone,” she said flatly.
Without fanfare, she lifted the notebook out of my hand. Dirt darkened the creases of her long fingers. I let her take it and watched her mouth twitch at the corner as her eyes wandered over the page. I wondered what she remembered about that night. Maybe nothing. Maybe there were thousands of notes like this, passed between them in thousands of unremarkable moments.
“This,” she tapped the book lightly with one round, smooth fingernail, “was the first thing he wanted to talk about after he got the diagnosis. We’d been thinking about it anyway, obviously. But it never felt like the right time. We had all these things we wanted to do together.”
She flipped to the back of the page and skimmed it, her expression impassive. A strand of dark hair, fallen from her ponytail, stuck to her cheek.
“We talked about going for it anyway. Trying to get me pregnant before he started chemo. He was all for it but I wasn’t sure. It felt like so much all at once—the idea of being a new mom and him being sick and then maybe having to take care of the baby all on my own. It wasn’t how I wanted things to go.”
When I think about it now, I can see that it makes sense. Alicia had known Jackson’s illness in ways I never would. I had tried my best to help, brought her coffee in hospital waiting rooms and picked up Jackson from radiation when she had parent-teacher conferences. But she was the one who filled the prescriptions and researched experimental treatments and helped him change that awful bag. I would have done those things for Jackson if he’d needed me to. But he hadn’t needed me. He’d had her.
She wakes up in the night to check that I’m still breathing, Rachel Walcott had written about her wife. When I’m dead, will she finally sleep well again?
But at that moment, I didn’t think about any of those things. The only thought I had, I said out loud: “That’s so fucking selfish.”
I meant it, at least for a second. It just felt so unfair. I would have given anything to know my best friend’s kid—the kid who might have inherited his big nose and hatred of cilantro, who might have called me Aunt Mel. Alicia had given up so much for Jackson. What gave her the right to quit at the eleventh hour, to refuse that last sacrifice that might, in some small way, have kept him alive?
She looked up from the page, slowly. A furrow formed between her eyebrows, cutting a familiar path in her face. There was an exhaustion behind her eyes, like she’d felt all the rage she was capable of feeling and had nothing left to offer me, no matter what I said to hurt her. “You know,” she said, “that’s why he didn’t want to tell you. We talked and talked about it, and I asked him, ‘What does Mel think about this baby stuff?’ And he said to me, ‘Mel has enough opinions. This is between us.’ He didn’t think you had the right to judge.”
Outside, a lawn mower groaned. Later, the air would be sweet with the smell of cut grass and gasoline, the sidewalk plumed with stray clippings.
“I guess I should feel sorry for you,” she went on. “You miss him too. We should be able to understand each other. But the thing is, you have no idea. I know he was your best friend. But he was my husband.”
With a gentle motion, she closed the notebook. She took a step toward me and for a moment, the geometry of our bodies in that cramped room made it seem like she was going to put her arms around me. But she just reached past me, setting the notebook on the desk beside the stack of graded tests.
“I can finish the weeding on my own,” she said.
She didn’t walk me downstairs. Gracie was still napping in the same patch of sun, which had wandered just a little so that she’d had to cover one eye with her paw to block out the light. My jacket was hanging on the peg beside Jackson’s. I brushed my fingers against the jagged teeth of the zipper and thought for one mad second about taking it with me, but I didn’t.
I let the screen door slam so Alicia would know I was gone. I was all the way home, standing under the hot stream of the shower, before I let myself cry.
* * *
After that, I didn’t see Alicia so much. I called her a few times and left apologetic voicemails, but she never responded and eventually I quit trying. Somebody we both knew threw a big party on Memorial Day, and we talked for a minute beside the potato salad. She told me she was going to California at the end of June, to see her sister and the babies. I offered to look in on Gracie while she was gone, but she never took me up on it, so I guess she found somebody else.
My garden was beautiful that year. The phlox bloomed deep purple and the milkweed was full of monarch caterpillars. The carrots came in better than they’d ever been, brilliant orange and asymmetrical, dense with sweetness. I rinsed them with sun-warmed water from a plastic bottle and ate them straight out of the ground, sitting alone on the back steps of the house.
Carlee Jensen is a lesbian fiction writer and proud fifth-grade teacher. Raised in Utah and California, she now lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her fiancée and cat.