Not Everything In Life Has Meaning

by Jennifer Donnell

Madeline liked to garden. It started when she was eight years old and found a caterpillar crawling on a neighbor's tomato plant. She plucked it off, found a shoebox and poked holes in the top- making it her pet. However, it was something about the plant's green leaves that she liked most of all. From then on, she saved her allowance and bought seeds. That first year, she planted onions, honeydew melons, and carrots. When she left for college, she planted a cactus... knowing her family wouldn't water. Four years later, when she graduated and moved home while applying for jobs in the city, she planted an apricot tree.

Lately, she'd given up on anything but berries; blackberries, strawberries, raspberries. They were what she wanted her life to be; small, tasty, manageable. Life is complicated, but gardening shouldn't be, she reminded herself, fending off the guilt former prolific gardeners feel. She'd spent most of her early twenties with mud stained hands. Boyfriends always complained, contrasting her soil sodden fingers with the lanky look of her more glamorous female counterparts. Jim, or Jimbo- as his friends called him, which always annoyed her- had left her for a woman who had long fake nails. She was sure that her green thumb was part of his decision. That, or the way she never lifted her leg at the knee when they kissed. Nor had she felt as if she was floating on a fluffy pink cloud. The difference was, she was willing to stick through it. A cactus has as much right to grow as a flower, she whispered at night, when the tears came. She wasn't crying over Jim- God, no. Rather, it was the thought of that kiss, the pink floaty cloud kind of kiss. What if that never happened to her? What if it was already too late and the man she was meant to kiss that way had married his college sweetheart and moved to Aruba? 

Though berries are hardy, by and large, growing them still had its challenges. She made the mistake of entertaining the neighborhood children in her garden. Since then, she'd often find green, hard berries picked and thrown on the ground- stolen by curious, small hands. She considered putting up metal wire fencing, but worried this would appear hostile. Mrs. Kovanda, across the way, went that route... and her house was always the first one toilet-papered or egged on Hallow's Eve. 

Without her incessant gardening, which she now suspected was a crutch to avoid the bigger questions, she had a lot of time on her hands. Though she'd thrown in the towel on her own garden, she loved to see what others grew. It was in this spirit of this curiosity, that she headed to the community gardens off Park and Main. She left her car in the small parking lot, the gravel sheeting it with dust. She began to smile. as she walked. How free the people with these plots of land must feel. To grow something is an odd sort of power. 

Walking down the winding, man-made path, she was struck by the diversity of each community plot. Some were filled with vegetables. Others had flowers or wild, native grass. Her pulse bloomed when she saw a man out the corner of her eye. He was about her age, maybe a few years older. He had nondescript brown hair and a hat she would have found foolish-looking, if they hadn't been outdoors. What made her pulse quicken, was that she recognized him from the local nursery. About a year ago (right before Jim cancelled their cruise and ran off with Miranda), she saw him at the nursery, buying a sheet of forget-me-nots. He was ahead of her, in line, and she remembered wanting to crack a joke about the flower's name- as her brother had teased her whenever she planted it. Instead, she'd stayed mute, aware that her main motivation for wanting to talk to him was that she found him handsome. 

She reminded herself of Jim. Sweet Jim adored her and was taking her on a cruise! He'd probably ask her to marry him while they floated across the Pacific Ocean. (Little did she know, that at that exact moment, Jim was feeling Miranda 'up' at his office, as she straddled him in his computer chair.)

Though she'd smartly squelched her timid forget-me-knot joke, they found one another again outside the front of the store. He helped her carry her hibiscus plant and, soon, one thing led to another... and she invited him over to see her garden. She trembled as he drove the three miles to her house, following her in his small grey car. At one point, she absentmindedly went through the light right before it turned red, but he caught up with her anyway. She gave him a tour, first of her newly remodeled kitchen- all the time hating being so enthused about a kitchen, how silly he must think her! Last, she showed him around the garden. He said all the right things, the things she always wanted someone to say. He seemed to parrot what she thought about plants, and complimented her selection and variety. He stroked the leaves on her hanging plants and told her which he thought needed more water.

It wasn't until he was about to leave, that she let her lips graze his like stalks of corn touching, as if to multiply. It was delicious, almost pink cloud worthy- but she kept both legs firmly on the ground, afraid she sensed a desire to lift her left leg. She probably would have, if she'd known Jim was washing himself off in the men's room at his office, sticky with Miranda's petals.

Until today, she hadn't seen him since that kiss. Sometimes, in the lonely blackness of night she wondered if it was merely a fluke, how their tongues circled like dancers trained to do just that. Other times, she guilted herself for never having asked his name or why he had a band on his left hand, ring finger. 

Now, walking along... parallel to him... though at a distance, she thought of calling out. What would she say? "Hey, remember me? We kissed once." sounded frightfully immature. So did mentioning how she'd wanted to life her leg at the knee. Men don't think like that, she chided herself, relying on sexism to soothe her. Meanwhile, Nameless Man disappeared into a large garden shed. She imagined following him inside, stealthily winding around him like a beanstalk, finding herself in his arms, as her leg would lift up the hemline of his pants, her lips nuzzling his neck. It was so tempting, the fantasy, but reality might be far different. People don't do things like that. Perhaps he'd scream, or push her away. Maybe he'd be taken aback. 

Still, they were alone, at the very least she should say something. That would be friendly, right?

"Hi, how are you doing?" she ventured, benignly, in greeting. He didn't reply. He was bending over, picking up some pots but she knew he'd seen her. For a second, she wondered if he was simply going to ignore her. She tried again, "Hello? How are you... doing?"

He answered, but kept his eyes on what he was doing. She watched him stack pot after pot, then kick the pile upright when it fell over. It struck her awareness, that he was afraid to look at her and willing himself not to. What was it he didn't want to see, or have her see in him? It was reminiscent of when her brother was on a diet and his nutritionist told him not to look at any type of junk food for more than three seconds- on television, in a magazine, the fridge, anywhere. Maybe she was a big cherry topped sundae. He glanced her way, one second, two- then looked down.

Yet this sounded rather conceited. She wasn't anyone's cherry sundae, she was just hoping he'd be nice. 

She tried again. "What have you been growing? Think you'll have a good turnout this year?" He kept his eyes pinned to the ground, but told her that he thought it would be okay, though the soil wasn't very nutritious. 

"Growing any type of fruit?" she continued, not wanting to say good-bye just yet. She saw a banana tree in the distance, but it seemed too phallic to ask if it was his. "I used to grow apples and pears, but I prefer berries now. They're just more... juicy and you get to be more hands on, since it's more like a bush than a tree." she continued, somewhat nervously. His lips lifted at the corners, for the first time since they'd begun talking and she regretted her rambling. Hand's on? You don't tell a guy you kissed that you prefer hands on, she complained to her internalized orator. They spoke about a few more things, all dull and commonplace in conversation. She bid him adieu, but he was already turning his back, as if he might turn into stone should he turn and actually face her.

She imagined herself stepping on a shovel and the handle smacking her in the forehead. That's how she felt, like a cartoon character who had just acted her way through a one dimensional scene. Odd, wasn't it, how they both morphed into artificial characters- as if that kiss in the garden had never happened. What good actors they both were, she thought, wondering if even kissing is half dramatics. It was almost as if they'd rehearsed in advance, role playing the dynamics of an awkward encounter- their shallow words doing the same synchronized dance their tongues had done. She wound her way through the remainder of the walkway, wrapping back toward her car. And, there he was again... lifting up the hood of his trunk. 

"Twice in one day, what fun!" she called out, sarcastically- finally trying for humor, more spirited than when they'd spoke ten minutes prior. He didn't respond, seeming to willfully ignore her again, or (perhaps) suffering the effects of too much loud music. 

She winked, stubbornly repeating herself, "Twice in one day!" she called out, a bit louder, raising her fingers. She tried to illustrate the number two, but it looked more like a peace sign. He smiled and nodded, seeming more relaxed when at a distance- their tongues too faraway to reach. 

Glancing down, she saw a penny on the ground and picked it up. She checked the year, 1996. What was happening in 1996? Nothing she could particularly recall. She placed it in her pocket and reminded herself that not everything in life has to have meaning.