Ruby thought her husband looked ridiculously like an oversized praying mantis. He stood in front of the mirror shaving, his gaunt frame arched over the sink toward his reflection. His bloodless shoulder blades extended like wings, a green towel wrapped around his waist and his skinny, pallid legs disappeared into narrow brown socks.
His eyes shifted. He caught her staring at him and blinked his eyelids irritably.
“Ruby, get dressed. We don’t have much time, and I want us to look nice tonight.”
She knew he had not used the correct pronoun, he didn’t mean us, he meant her. She sat on the bed gazing at him, her mouth hanging open, the humidity frizzing her red hair into a fiery halo.
“What would you like me to do,” she responded, barely above a whisper, “undergo a complete, spontaneous metamorphosis? Lose 20 pounds…dye my hair…implant silicone?”
He was silent, not even gracing her with a glance. If she were a female mantis, she could bite off his head and slowly devour his body, limb by limb. She would start with his head and wipe that insouciant leer from his face.
He directed his attention back to the mirror. The razor glided along his cheek until it nicked the massive, black mole above his upper lip. The mole had been sliced off several times, only to grow back with a vengeance. Cursing, he blotted the blood with a shred of toilet paper.
She smiled and wandered over to her closet. Tonight there was an important awards banquet, and it was rumored that one of the San Francisco skyscrapers he designed, colossal replicas of his own physical stature, would be honored.
He was insanely proud of his work. She knew he was proud of everything in his life, except her. He viewed her as a plan that had gone awry, a blueprint drawn by an unskilled architect.
When she first met him, she had spent hours absorbing his philosophies. She had believed in him wholeheartedly. Later, when she questioned his beliefs and thoughts, she rejected everything she had once grasped so eagerly. She became sullen and reticent and it seemed her life was like a storm waiting to break. Clouds gathered, humidity increased, the sky darkened, but nothing ever happened. She just waited.
Ruby peered into her closet and reached into its depths to select one of her most unbecoming outfits, an ill-fitting, orange dress from several seasons ago.
As she struggled to button her dress, she was pleased to see him watching her with a pained expression. Lately he had been oblivious of her. She walked to her vanity and chose a shade of pink lipstick that clashed with her dress. She smiled as she applied the off-color to her lips.
“You look wonderful…a real beauty,” he murmured to her back when he turned out the lights and locked the front door.
At the banquet she felt dowdy and mismatched and glad. She hoped he wouldn’t be honored tonight, but he was. When he was on stage, she felt a flicker of the admiration she had when they were first married, but when he returned, and she looked into his eyes, she felt nothing.
It rained on the way home, a furious summer rain that beat on the ground and contradicted her life. She hated it.
In the morning she slept late and awoke to the sound of door chimes. She opened the door to the new gardener, a dark, stocky man from Mexico.
“Buenos dias, my name is Xavier Armando Ornealas Chavez. You like flowers for your house?”
He spoke with an accent rolling his R’s and hissing his S’s. His white teeth contrasted with his brown skin, the green garden and the vibrant flowers. His eyes were calm while he waited for her reply, but she was so transfixed by the crisp colors, she couldn’t respond.
Finally, she replied so softly that her words trailed away into the brilliance of the day.
She stepped outside to watch him cut the slender gladiola stalks. The sharp snap of his garden shears cut through the air. He wore a heavy poncho with tassels sewn along the edges that swayed when he moved. He was not a tall man, some of the gladiola buds grazed his chin, but his body was strong and close to the ground as if it were part of the garden.
The garden looked different. The rain had transformed it, rinsing the dust from the leaves and flowers, leaving a stinging brightness. Several of the bearded irises had bloomed late, their royal purple blossoms towering above the pert daisies. A breeze lifted the scent radiating from the rose bed. The garden shimmered. Everything had its own fresh color.
She turned to go into the house, but stopped because it seemed so oppressive and dark. She contemplated the great height of the house her husband had designed. She realized she had never liked the house because it resembled everything else he built, angular, utilitarian and completely tiring.
Later, as she stood sorting through the mail, she heard a thump on the window. Looking out the window she saw the gardener stooped over a small, inert bird. He delicately picked it up and using one of his wide, stumped fingers, he felt under its neck for a pulse. He smoothed its feathers, walked over to the flower bed and placed it on the moist earth.
Fetching a trowel he dug a hole, put the bird inside, filled the hole with dirt and rocks, and fastened two sticks together with a twig forming a cross. He stood up, looked towards the sky and walked away.
She let out her breath, realizing she had been holding it for a long time.
She began to work in the garden. Often, she worked late into the evening long after the bats came out, weaving uneven trails through the tenebrous night. Sometimes she worked with Xavier and sometimes alone. He always noticed her work in the garden. He never commented directly on it, yet she could tell he was pleased.
The garden grew. Climbing roses wove higher and higher, their tips an explosion of fuchsia. Calla lilies multiplied until the lush green leaves unfurled their conical flowers. Whiffs of perfume floated through the garden, sweet peas mingling with jasmine.
When the marigolds bloomed, Xavier knelt reverently in front of them.
“These are very important flowers in Mexico; the flower of the dead. We scatter the petals across graves and around altars.” He shook his head. “Here…they’re just another flower.”
She knelt next to him and touched the golden flowers.
“Tell me about Mexico.”
“Very different. A freer land, life is simple. Here, there are so many things, it is confusing…hard to think.”
“A simple life, my life here is so simple that sometimes I think I’ll just nod off to sleep for the rest of my life.”
“Mexico is simple, si, pero nunca aburriendo, never boring.”
She sighed. “Tell me about your flowers in Mexico.”
“Ahh…In my garden, giant hibiscus, big as your hand, they close up to a tiny bud at night and then are reborn every morning. Calla lilies grow wild…everywhere. The bougainvillea…son como arboles, like trees. Trees of every color…even the poorest homes are decorated with them. And the wedding roses, they look nothing like your roses here, but the smell…the smell is dulce, espléndido.” He inhaled deeply, as if he smelled the wedding roses all the way from Mexico.
The next morning she saw he had left his poncho hanging from the thorns of a rosebush. Above it hung a filigree spiderweb laden with dew drops. Picking up the poncho, she was surprised at its dense weight. She slipped it over her head and smelled moist dirt mixed with the faraway scent of wet wool. She considered keeping the poncho and hiding it away.
She draped the poncho over a bench in the sunlight to dry. Reaching up to the spiderweb, she touched it lightly, sending a shower of silvery drops onto her face. She imagined the garden of Xavier Armando Ornealas Chavez, laden with exotic plants and she dreamt of lying down next to him on the redolent soil, breathing in the aromas.
Her husband worked longer hours. She registered for a Spanish class and hired a tutor. She longed to talk to Xavier about the garden in Spanish.
In the evenings she often relaxed in the garden, her legs draped over the edge of the bench, her head resting on the armrest. She could see her husband through a lit window. He sat bent over his drafting table, his forehead creased into valleys of concentration, making precise movements with his pencil.
He never noticed the garden. During the rare occasions he spent time with her, she found she couldn’t stand the look of his blanched face. She continually compared it to the rich, cocoa-brown skin of Xavier.
One day, as Xavier was leaving, his bicycle broke. The axle holding the tire in place snapped and the tire rolled down the driveway, colliding with the mailbox. Standing on the porch Ruby laughed with a touch of hysteria, partly because he looked so ridiculous astride a bike with one wheel and partly because she knew she was going to take him home.
“Come with me. I’ll drive you home, I have an errand in town.”
She skipped down the steps, her new sundress dissolving into the blaze of the garden. She felt the garden was changing her, she was going through a metamorphosis and she had no control over the outcome. The humidity brought out a light layer of dew on her skin, and she radiated. She traipsed to the truck.
“You’ll have to bring the bike up front with us, the back is full of important blueprints that we mustn’t crush.”
He slid over the hot seat until he was next to her, pulling the bike and tire in after him. She started the truck and they rode cautiously, taking care not to touch.
“It is near the cemetery and next to…”
He gave her directions without looking at her. She drove smoothly, humming under her breath, weaving across town. She looked at the gardens they passed comparing them to her own, but none was as resplendent.
“There, on the right.” He said suddenly.
She slowed down, searching and drove by a house that couldn’t possibly be his.
“You passed it.”
She backed up until she was in front of the house. They got out of the truck and he unloaded the bicycle while she stood staring. It was a whimsical, peeling house that leaned to one side. The bright red front door cheerfully contrasted the sky blue walls, but the garden–the garden was an aberration. An eyesore.
“This is your home?”
He kicked an empty bleach container over to the steps. “I’m sorry.”
A stubble of grass grew around the edges of the yard, like a scraggly moustache. Clusters of weeds partially obscured mounds of dirt that looked like an omnipotent gopher had been burrowing and digging. Several oil cans lay on their sides near the driveway, puddles forming at their mouths.
“Es mi casa, not my home,” he said. “This can never be my home; Mexico is my home.”
Flies buzzed around an old rag; cigarette butts lay scattered. Ruby couldn’t look any longer. She turned, got back into her still-running truck and drove past the cemetery, through the town. She stopped in front of her house, staring through the truck window at her garden. The clipped roses and winding brick walkways seemed falsely immaculate, contrived.
She pulled back onto the road, found the highway and drove south with the window open, smelling the air, searching for the scent of the wedding roses.