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Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls
The nursery contracted Kirk Garland, the tree architect, as a consultant in 1986, and a phase of his work took place on site at the nursery over a period of four months in 1989, which was early in my second year working there full-time. So I had no part in the process that formulated the plan to have Kirk create a new cherry tree, one that didn’t require a frost and could produce in Southern California. But when he came to work on site with some of his saplings, I was there and I’d recently launched the newsletter, The Nursery News. I asked him if I could include a short interview with him, or an announcement of his arrival with a bio — without revealing the nature of his mission, because it was being kept under wraps until the tree was proven. His first answer, a smile with ruddy sun-toughened creases around his eyes, I admit, did me in. He was tall, a little over six feet, with blondish, brownish, grayish hair, maybe the color of maple hardwood flooring, impossible to tell where the sun had blanched it and where age was depleting it. Over his whitened jeans, he always wore a leather tool belt, not with hammers and pliers, but pruners, a tree saw, sheers and twine, a spade, a small lopper. On his upper body, he usually wore a T-shirt with some faded image on the front, never tucked in, occasionally a long-sleeved faded blue corduroy shirt over it, on chilly mornings before the fog lifted. He often left the corduroy shirt out in the greenhouse, or in the growing field where his saplings had been put in, wherever the sun had come out and he’d gotten too warm. Some afternoons, looking for him, I would find the shirt first, and bring it to him. Or maybe I was just venturing out to find the shirt, to give me a reason to go to him. I became a bloodhound who could track that shirt.
He had his own little office in the back of the greenhouse that he was given exclusive use of. An office only because it was a small room with electricity, but he had them bring the phone line out there, installed a fax, a phone with answering machine, and his computer.
When I asked for the interview — when he stopped in the outbuilding where my office is behind the landscape client consultation room — and after he smiled in response, he suggested we do it over coffee in Rancho Santa Fe, which isn’t all that far from the nursery in distance, but is one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country. It also isn’t all that far from the little tract suburb where my house is, and after we had coffee and scones on the sidewalk in the village square of Rancho Santa Fe, he wanted me to show him my gardens. He was driving, and I directed him through the still-undeveloped terrain toward Encinitas. It was midday, but I had no supervisor at work, why would I need one? I’d just told one of the other women who take care of the retail nursery stock that I had some errands, and I didn’t get back to the nursery until after dark — just to pick up my car.
At my house, after he’d told me my tangerine tree, hazed in orange from the load of fruit it was carrying, was in need of pruning — and he offered to do it for me — and after I showed him my strawberries, my blazing red-and-orange gazania groundcover, my hanging fuchsias, my Shasta daisies, Russian sage and fragrant salvia, then my Oriental poppies and clusters of blue-and-yellow pansies and violas, we went inside to finish the interview, which I hadn’t completed at the café.
By that time, as we went in single-file through my back door, his hand was between my shoulder blades. We sat on the couch and I took no notes, but I did ask him about his regular work, his own greenhouses where he created hybrids, his trips all over the world to view orchards and gather cuttings. While he talked, his hand stayed on the back of my neck, running up into my hair and back down, sometimes down my arm and back to my shoulder. I’m sure I knew about his wife. His occasional references to her were by name, never “my wife,” and very casual. As though saying “When we go on a hike, Nancy always manages to find the poison oak and stinging nettles,” while rubbing another woman’s neck is conventional sophisticated behavior.
Maybe because we both knew he would only be on site for four months. Maybe it was the way being temporarily away from home loosens inhibitions. Or maybe just because he was able to construct an alternate life, an alternate self who could live out real-life fantasies, the same way he created alternate varieties of trees — whatever it was that gave him the verve to act so boldly, it was somewhat infectious, and at the same time, for me, medicinal. Before we went back to the nursery for my car, we spent several hours on my living room rug, a tape of Mozart he’d pulled from his knapsack long finished and just air breathing through my speakers, still fully clothed but pressed front to back, his hands exploring the terrain of my body, his voice whispering “thank you for letting me get turned on,” in my ear.
What he didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that for me, it was like coming out of my lifelong pupa stage, and it had been cramped, oppressive and severe in the chrysalis that long. No, I didn’t think of you at the time, didn’t think of what my life might have been if you had kindled my metamorphosis ten years earlier. After all, since knowing you, I’d been married, had finally lost my literal virginity during the courtship — even believed the ungainly and stridently painful first time meant I was set free — then settled into getting-no-better obligatory sex once a week for several months, dwindling to once a month, to twice a year. After a solid year of marital celibacy, I’d writhed in a sex therapist’s office trying to explain that I wasn’t afraid, not any longer, except that it still just about always hurt, and maybe I was afraid of that, which, I realized, made the likelihood that it would hurt almost a certainty, and worrying about it hurting made it not spontaneous, not fun, and it wasn’t fun for him either, and he often hadn’t maintained his erection, knowing that I was only anticipating pain, that I wasn’t stimulated, just gritting my teeth and telling myself I had to do it, had to get over this, had to, had to, which, of course, made it hurt, et cetera, an endless tape-loop.
So I started to give head, and was good at it. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t make me inadequate. He didn’t expect me to rise into sexual ecstasy giving head, and so I didn’t have to worry about frigidity, that word no one but me had said to myself, but knew it was there, waiting to be said — what else could it be?
Yes, that’s the marriage I entered into, a year and a half after leaving Mt Marcos High School. None of it was his fault, and one of these days, one of these weeks or months, I’ll figure out how to contact him, so I can tell him it wasn’t his fault. When I went back to visit you, that one time, soon after I’d met him, right after you’d remarried and were already carrying an extra 20 pounds of contentment, I’d told you I’d made it, had emerged, had found him, the one who did it for me (my exact words), and everything was going to be okay. I believed it, so it wasn’t a lie. It just wasn’t true.
So that day with Kirk—having intuitively at some point slipped off the sofa to sprawl on the floor, having instinctively pushed backwards, my butt into the worn denim front of his jeans, having heard myself moan and felt my back arch when his hands dug under my clothes to sculpt my breasts—believe me, I was only thinking, a miracle.
And that’s how it started. He might have spent as much time making a new variety of me as he did on those new frostless cherry hybrids. No, I can’t explain what activated or permitted my transformation. Very bad dramatic action, claiming it was a phenomenon, deus ex machina. Even if he was the machina, or he was the deus.
I think the important ingredient could be that even if I had told him of my dysfunctional sexual history, Kirk would have never considered that I might not respond to him, that I might be afraid, that I might recoil — particular qualms that did hamper my husband, the classic 80’s New Man, prized for and proud of (and ultimately knocked down by) his sensitivity. It doesn’t seem fair, but there it is. The “pig,” the man who unabashedly took hold of what he wanted, who just assumed any woman he chose would dissolve into delirium, was rewarded with exactly that, while the sensitive man only knew her rigid phobia. This is why I now have the unorthodox assumption that you could’ve easily been what Kirk was, could’ve done what he did, ten years earlier, and without the grief I encountered after he left.
I suppose I knew my allocation of this kind of sensuality was to be four months. Into those four months I packed ten years. Or it seemed so, the way we consumed each other, daily, sometimes forgoing work, more often relinquishing sleep, anywhere we happened to find ourselves—tool sheds, cars, his little office during a workday, mine after the nursery was closed, even out among his baby trees, between mounds of sweet-smelling pine mulch.
Was it because he was the archetypal stranger who came to town, or was it that leather tool belt and whitened jeans, his woodgrain hair or his sun toughened skin? It seemed every woman who worked at the nursery was somehow enthralled with him, on some level, and I’m sure looked at me and thought, Why her?
His answer, although not a response to that or any other question, again pointed to what he wanted, which he craved with such assurance that it was usually exactly what he got: “I always wanted to fuck one of those cool, patient, taut bird-watcher women, and do it out in a field with her boots still on,” he breathed in my ear one day, after we’d accomplished something like that. “I always knew there’d be molten sexuality inside.”
So why the fallout? Was it that this time I did allow myself to imagine a him-and-me future, a full blown relationship? All the while knowing that after four months, his plans were to return to his home, his greenhouses, his scheduled trips abroad, and his wife — never referred to as such, but was what she was, almost stereotypically so, including her aversion to giving head, masking her repulsion by claiming it was demeaning to a woman to be asked to do it. “You never asked,” I pointed out to him.
I am just now starting to see similarities to my circumstances with you, except that beyond your references to your wife, there was the time you and I sat at a kitchen table with her, smoking pot, and she spoke of things like a potluck at her work and what she should bring, and you answered, in your husband role, that everyone always liked her tamale pie casserole, and I was there as audience. Although it’s possible you didn’t know that she would be home that day when we arrived, perhaps it was okay that she was, because for whatever reason, I did not ever imagine being at your side in any partnership after whatever we were heading toward was arrived at and consummated.
But regardless of Kirk’s propensity to nonchalantly refer to his wife — and not always negatively, except heard as such by me: how she liked to go antiquing on weekends, how she was waiting outside Nordstrom’s when it opened 20 miles from their house, how she’d been going to the same aerobics class since aerobic dance was pioneered, none of which I could see as striking, or even endearing qualities — I was still the proverbially stunned, bereaved lover when he said goodbye and returned to his real life on the day he always said he would go. I had assured him I would be okay, that I’d known the parameters from the beginning, that I could continue to value a friendship with him and let our tryst reside in a shared secret place that neither of us would try to access. This is why I’ve viewed myself as a failed lover, not because I failed to love, but because I failed to truly embrace the whole secret-lover system, its philosophy, its
assumptions, its prescribed truths and attitudes.
I remained a walking zombie through 1990, even into 91. Woke every morning and told myself, you’ll never feel that way again. Was sometimes difficult to answer that reality with actually getting out of bed. For a year, The Nursery News didn’t come out regularly, and shrunk to one page. I postponed plans to take an evening landscaping course at a community college. Dug my entire garden under and left the dirt fallow for months. Then when I did replant, I included nothing glutted with pungent colors. I could tolerate only whites. Replaced most of my clothes with loose used jeans and light blue work shirts from the Salvation Army. Gradually, without a plan, abridged my diet to eliminate spices, hot colors, and blood.
Something Wrong With Her
Interlude: Get Over It
Dear Mark, May 2009
I’ve been told it was “common” for boys to learn to express sexual need without embarrassment or awkwardness with a girl who doesn’t “matter.” And “common” meaning, if not “get over it,” at least “why didn’t you get over it?”
So they also say you should’ve just been one of those high-school fiascos everyone has, part of a “coming of age” story no one wants to read anymore. But why, and in how many inexplicable ways, did I not “just get over” you?
Maybe because, with you, I was the girl who mattered. And that still didn’t prevent me from recoiling – partially from not knowing if you wanted me, or just it. Assuming – from past experience I also hadn’t been able to “get over” before you – there was a boundary where I ended and just it began. And unfortunately I didn’t know until afterwards that I did, for you, matter beyond the electric moment. But even when I did realize it, for some reason I was still afraid. And as afraid of my panicked rebuff, marking my status as an 18-year-old on her way to becoming a frigid (or just frightened) girl unable to be a woman.
Is there a literary method to manipulate memory so I can make a new ending for us? Or should the question be: have we even found our ending? Did it actually never happen, so what we have now, in addition to our past, is actually a future?
Certainly what I can’t turn around is the ending of one night in January 1980. Bulls-eyed in the middle of a twenty-four month span that started with our carpool into our (supposed) futures, and ended with your wretched observation of my rebound marriage. The 2 years on either side of our night, January 26, 1980, include: my passage through a failed career preparation coupled with sexual circling with that career mentor, uncertain if I was prey or predator, adult bookstores and XXX video booths; a religious crisis when my naïve need for love was named the unworthy and worldly sin that had to be resisted; a longer mentorship with another man that controlled too much of my unrealized identity leading to continued over-reliance on the mentor for too-much counsel and even flawed protection until he then betrayed me; and the rebound man I met then married in January 1981 who, on retrospect, was as close to being you as a man could have been.
You, always there – even after I’d watched you move into your future looking backwards. At first I resisted bringing you along in these pages, you seeming to have nothing to do with the developing sexual harassment laws which I once assumed would be my primary lens for viewing my past. I should have known, it’s never that easy: Because elements other than the [lack of] sexual harassment laws, and other than my disappointment over not being able to blame sexual harassment for my sexual problems, have affected me, admittedly too much, ultimately forming the novelist but preventing the woman from ever evolving.
Swing: ‘feel that shit all up in your body’
Oh Mark what am I going to do when I finish this book? It’s the only life I’m living. How does a person who only lives while she writes, when she writes, in what she writes, write a memoir? It turns into a book that’s happening while she writes it. A life that ends when she stops?
I wrote the paragraph above on January 1, 2010, when I began what was to be the final chapter, before the events that became the actual last chapter occurred. And now, January 31, 2010, that “new” last chapter is completed as well. A good time, then, to compose the instructions for reading a book that needs to be read while it’s being written.
Every time you ask a question, I think about the same stuff in a new way, looking around a different corner or with an altered light-source. Every time I think it through, I add to what I can hope to understand. Which I need to, or I wouldn’t be doing this. As you now know, this book has an underground river running beneath the story about the “older men” who influenced me. Running beneath, or perhaps above, or a new flood in a dry riverbed. A drip became a trickle became a rivulet became a brook became a creek became a river became a deluge became “a gray, deep, baleful, magnificent sea.” The current is the still evolving story of us …
The writing of this book is the story. The story is the book being written.