TO MAKE A garden from a parking lot, first pick-axe the soil and discard clods of oily asphalt. Double dig trenches. Fork the bottom soil. Amend the clay with coir, compost, and top soil one-third to one-third to one-third. Your aim is to create deep aeration and drainage, thus offering vigor to root systems and creating strong, healthy plants.
Buy amendments. Buy knee guards. Buy gardening gloves. Buy rubber boots. Buy hoses. Buy shovels. Buy hoes. Buy plants. Buy seeds. Buy bulbs. Buy arbors. Buy fertilizers. Buy soaker hoses. Buy a water feature. Buy buy buy buy buy buy. Fill the beds. The bulbs, the bulbs, the bulbs. Your favorites are two-toned muscari in blues. Grow up, up, up, on your small lot, clematis and roses and hydrangeas and grapes. Soon you will crave unusual varietals, rare plants. Now you want clumping bamboo, palm trees, a dracunculus vulgaris, a certain kind of reticulated lily, a green daylily, a monocarpic poppy from the Himalayas. Now you want to lasso the moon and grab it for your girl.
Your hands, her hands, your hands, her hands. Your hands, her hands, your hands, her hands.
Her hands on your hands. Her hands, twisting.
You find history in the garden dirt. Cats mummified in Safeway bags. Disarticulated cat skeletons, the skulls small as stones. Nine cm long by six cm wide and five cm high, with rangy eye sockets. A tin camping cup. A twisted spoon. An orange hair clip.
After two decades, your wife announces to bluing air that she isn’t in love with you. She is having what she says is “friendship plus” with another woman. She tells you they’ve danced together. Of all the details, this is one that wrings you out, because this has been your thing together. Back when you still could. Your wife would appreciate it if you would vaporize now, please. This is what she used to say about her ex-husband, with such passion you could feel her trying to break physics.
“Dear?” you asked her, once. “You wanted him to die?”
She shrugged, admitting it. You should have realized you’d be next.
Now your wife introduces you to new friends as her “roommate.” She identifies your mutual children as “my roommate’s” children. She identifies your mutual nieces as “my nieces.”
You and the kids she adopted have become her recycling.
The garden is more forgiving than you expected. Your clematises spring back from wilt. Your roses crumble to black spot until your wife moves through the garden with a collection bag on her tool belt, clipping, dipping secateurs in a bleach solution, clipping, pulling marred leaves by hand. In this way, Ilse Krohn is saved. The rambling Albertine is saved.
There are two times when your wife is ravishing to you: in a suit, and sloppy in kneepads.
Eat, Pray, Love, man. All her straight friends are doing it.
The first apartment you flee to is high up. The light changes, creeps upward, falls downward, puddles color across the sky. The casino in the distance lights neon purple then pink. Mountains disappear into fog, into cloud, into forest fire smoke. There’s nowhere to go, though, to change the view: no basement, no attic, no garden. When the power goes out in Vancouver, your car, the sole means of disabled transportation, becomes prisoner in the garage while you are prisoner above it with no elevator. For months, you spiral. Where is everything? Where is ground? Where is Earth underfoot?
Now there is just sit in the chair. Sit in the chair. Sit in the chair. Watch the light. Examine your metaphorical heart’s poor function. Examine your flesh heart’s poor function, which, with the surprise and stress of being left, declines into heart failure, cardiac asthma, and up-ticked arrhythmias.
Sit in the chair. Wait for surgery. Have surgery for blockages. Surgery fails. Wait for surgery for blockages. More surgery fails. Repeat. Sit in the chair.
The way your physical heart aches. The way your metaphysical heart floods.
Disenfranchised grief, a response to loss. Losses? Your home, photography studio, best friend, lover, wife, income, security, belongings, cats.
Every morning you wake praying to be glad you got out in time.
Lie in the bed. Lie in the bed. Lie in the bed. Sit in the chair, the chair, the chair. Sit in the light, the light, the light, while the bugs of loss corkscrew under your skin like chiggers.
Watch the move Gaslight. Oh, but it seems mere child’s play, mere toddler daycare after what you went through.
Once you bought a blooming Chinese wisteria with purple racemes. The next spring, it romped perfectly along your north trellis, but bloomed white.
Your personal rabbit hole was poppies. The Orientals: Beauty of Livermere. Patty’s Plum. Burning Heart. The so-called “lettuce-leaf” poppies. Shirleys. You grew fried egg poppies, Matillijas, against a hot wall you painted indigo. You grew Icelandics. How can it hurt so much to lose them? They’re just flowers. Flowers. Only flowers.
Color, scent, and sound were Wonderland drugs.
The sound of bamboo tossing in the wind. The blowsy cream petals on Ilse Krohn rose scattering like summer snow, cool to the touch. The clack of the Trachycarpus fortunei fronds. The stench of the gorgeous dracunculus, exactly like rotting meat, like loving a woman who hates you.
Garden of solace, exercise, respite from the cranky, hyped city. It was where, as a couple, you learned how to take the hard and horrible — the wasted, compacted, dying soil — and transform it into life-giving beauty.
When you profess continued love, one afternoon six months after the split, she spits derision. “That’s just attachment.”
But it’s not. It’s decades of unconditional love. It’s forgiveness and believing the good version of her is the real version, even after she paralyzes your arm and reality prickles bitter across your tongue. It is all the whispered confidences of decades. It’s the adoption. It’s a Charter challenge for same-sex marriage won and a world changed. It’s the garden that rings your house as beautifully as any wedding band.
It’s angina and wheelchairs and mastectomies and chemo and heart failure. It’s world travel. It’s the times you hurt each other and apologized, times you couldn’t stay mad and grinned at her, and it’s what you call your “meetings” where you both spoke frankly and practiced listening. It’s the times you cuddled dying cats in your arms. It’s when children graduated. It’s when a child burned with fever and you ran a cool cloth at the back of their neck. It’s a child refusing to eat anything but Kraft Dinner. It’s following through on grounding threats. It’s eating a bite from a grilled cheese sandwich made for your kid. It’s anniversaries. It’s inside jokes. It’s killing yourselves laughing. It’s swing dancing in the kitchen. It’s fucking. It’s movers saying, Geez, you have a lot of stuff for two girls. It’s toes touching, fingertips grazing while watching TV. It’s plucking out gray hairs. It’s her rages and beaten furniture, her thrown things. It’s word play. It’s foot rubs. It’s orgasms. It’s out-laws then in-laws. It’s hope. It’s wonder. It’s funerals. It’s grief. It’s an idiosyncratic queer wedding with dragmaids. It’s friends gained and lost. It’s cooking, vacuuming, and laundry. It’s taxes and doctors and deaths. It’s grieving. It’s renovations, poems read aloud, stories read aloud, novels read aloud. It’s 6,570 nights in the same bed with her delicate snore.
The garden tied you to the land. It needed. The two of you stopped taking weekend trips. The teenagers ranged through the house yelling and slamming doors, so you two stayed outside when you could, deadheading, cleaning, weeding, fertilizing, edging, grass cutting, watering. People came from around the city to see your garden bloom. People came from Connecticut to photograph it. Look at this: Your love for each other created a park inside a city.
But now you need to barter with lawyers to be allowed home to pick one flower bouquet per week. Your ex wants to pre-pick your flowers, but the lawyers roll their eyes. The bouquets don’t come cheap; each stem must cost $100 by the time the lawyers are paid, but you know you’re not fighting for flowers. You’re fighting for beauty.
In the sky-rise apartment where birds don’t fly, the powder blue paint deepens with grief. Every day, the walls darken and darken, until they are the color of your bruises.
It’s been six months. She drops the cat with you, parking in front of your high-rise. She asks what’s been happening in your life. You tell her you need to know if there’s any chance for reconciliation — will she go to anger management? You want to be sure it’s over before you kiss someone else.
She seethes across the car. She doesn’t want you, but nobody else is allowed to have you either.
You sigh and tell her to stop fighting your settlement. The stress is killing you. You need open heart surgery because your stents keep failing.
She raises her voice. “But you said you wouldn’t!”
“What?” you ask, perplexed.
“You promised not to have open heart surgery.”
True, you always maintained you wouldn’t get it. It scared you. You thought you’d rather be dead. But now that you will be dead, it’s different. Bewildered, you say, “But I’m dying.”
She sets her jaw, furious. She tells you to get out of the car, or else. You are familiar with this or else. Sometimes she kidnaps you, mad, and drives erratically. Your arteries constrict. Still, you say, “But I’m dying now.”
She punches the wheel. “You promised me!”
Even though she said in couples’ therapy that she had been waiting and waiting for you to die, it takes six months after this interaction to decode that she didn’t want you to have surgery because she was desperate for you to die.
Because of money? Because she doesn’t want you to live on to deserve some from her?
And right then you promise never — ever — to give money that much power again.
A garden is an ecosystem. There are aphids, nematodes, creatures turning the grass for grubs, inchworms, tent caterpillars, slugs, snails, fungus, viruses. Secrets on stems, on roots, on the underside of leaves. You plant the wrong things in the wrong amount of light. There are coyotes, raccoons, moles, voles, rats, mice. There are deer mice. Animals chew plants. Woodpeckers nail the top of the garden heater. Seedlings die from fungus. Bindweed crawls from under the neighbor’s fence. Buttercup invades. Bamboo shoots jump the oven you sunk in the ground to hold them in, heading toward the plumbing. Goutweed cracks its pots. Scilla smothers bulbs. Seedlings die off. The laurel hedge explodes. The cherry tree gets cankers. The rosebud tree gets a virus. You plant a wet-needing plant in a dry spot, a dry-seeking plant in a bog. You swim goldfish in your clawfoot water feature, flashes of deep light, but the raccoons eat them like crackers. The climbing hydrangea suckers to the neighbor’s garage wall. The wood on the Adirondack chairs rots. The curtains you hang between garden rooms mold.
Saving everything is impossible.
A rose-grower names a rose after your dead mothers. You plan to buy a plant for your ex-wife, for your daughter, for your other daughter, for yourself, for a total of four. You imagine leaving one on the porch at your old house to surprise your ex. You think she’ll be delighted. But when you reach the nursery, the grower informs you your ex-wife has bought out the stock.
Even at the start, you buy perennials in groups of three. Somehow you know it is important to plant in uneven numbers, even though you are troubled by uneven numbers, which seem to you uneven.
Move from the chair to the bed. Move from the chair to the bed. Pretend your aery is a window through which you can see your garden. Pretend you don’t see your garden, this green and juicy living entity, fall to its knees.
There are no birds up 10 floors except occasionally screaming seagulls. Your balcony view is actually of the cancer center where you took your wife again and again for chemo. Everything about it opens. Your daily scar.
You try so hard not to love her, but it is the cruelest requirement of divorce, worse than poverty, worse than loneliness, worse than suicidal ideation, this requirement to shatter healthy love.
You contract unstable angina waiting for open heart surgery. You have angina every night from seven to seven, long episodes that let up for only about 10 minutes in between 40-minute bouts. It won’t respond to nitro. You hang on the side of the bed unable to lie down. You can’t move — even an inch, an eyelash — or it explodes again. Your pain eclipses you. The only difference the night of the massive heart attack, when it comes, is the addition of left arm pain. In the ER, they say you’re 10 minutes from death. Your 90 percent blockage has blocked completely. You have an emergency stent, which will soon fail if you don’t get to open heart surgery.
Meantime, your wife fights you with dirty tricks in so-called collaborative divorce process. She tries and fails to prove you aren’t disabled. She says that splitting assets punishes her for staying in school and becoming a high-income earner. She finally agrees to split “her” retirement funds, then moves out of your house and bails on house payments, forcing you to flatten out your retirement funds to stop foreclosure. If she can’t have “her” money, she’ll be damned if you will. She has worked it out, you imagine, with her financial officer so the bankruptcy won’t affect her credit rating but will affect yours. So you save the house, paying your own rent and the money for the huge mortgage on the heritage house across town. You lose social benefits because your income supposedly rose from the retirement funds. Numbers are numbers.
Your ex corners you and your friends at an event. She is fake-friendly and your friends nod at her, impressed at her grace. You can almost hear them thinking, What a lovely woman! How could anyone have walked out on her? But the next morning, when the doorbell rings, it’s a subpoena from your wife.
The garden grows blurry and unformed at its edges, like a gauzy menstrual meadow.
It takes 10 months away from her to kill your love for her, but you do it, as is necessary. You move away from the blue saturated walls to an apartment where goldfinches play on your bird feeder. You get a parrot the color of a sky, filled with fledgling glee, who cheers you.
If you could say any three sentences to anyone, what would you say, and to whom? You would say, Why? to your ex-wife. You would say, You broke my heart. You would say, Jesus Christ, oh my god oh my god, why did you have to do it mean?
Eaton Hamilton is the author of nine books of cnf, fiction and poetry, including the 2016 novel Weekend.
Featured image: "Rosa Ilse Krohn Superior 2018-09-21 1274" by Salicyna is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.