©Cherie Chávez, 2010

“Looks great,” I said, satisfied with an encouraging but not ingratiating tone.  Daniel inserted the last sprightly marigold in the hole he’d scooped out with the hand shovel.  He said nothing, which was disconcerting once again, but which I’d been trying to ignore for two weeks now.

I leaned against the door frame, kneading the arch of my foot on the first step leading down to the yard, using the rough edge of the brick to relieve the itch.  Dressed in my Saturday jeans and peasant blouse, I soaked up the delicious air on a day that should be perfect.  Peering over each side of the steps, the blue and yellow petals of a bird’s beak nestled on a thick stem of the newly planted Bird of Paradise, orange petal flaring like a quail’s plume and nodding yes, yes in the breeze.  I pulled my hair back and caught it with a rubber band while I rubbed my foot, watched, and waited.

Kneeling at the edge of small flawless stones that marked off the earth, plastic six packs of blooming marigolds at his side, Daniel patted the dirt around the seedling.  He had planted a row of lacy lime-green foliage with each upright stem showing off its yellow petals brushed with streaks of crimson.  Two weeks ago when we were still talking, Daniel had said that in the Middle Ages herbalists thought looking at the marigold was certain to lighten a melancholy mood and improve weak vision.  Now each flower seemed to gaze at the sun waiting for a signal to release delight into the air I thought, full of fanciful wishes.

Instead I slipped my sandal back onto my foot, thinking I never would have guessed just how much Daniel loved gardens when we first met.  My political friends introduced us at a meeting when everyone I knew was trying to get Ronald Reagan out of the governor’s office.  I pictured the mentally ill who filled the food center where I worked when Reagan cut funds to mental health centers.  I was finishing a degree in therapy and the smiling governor made me so angry.  Daniel, furious over education cuts, came to the meeting as a delegate from his graduate school program.  His frown was endearing.  And that was it, he caught my eye.

A few dates later I took in how he slowed down in every neighborhood to scrutinize the yards and how he always wanted to spend part of a weekend at a park, any park–open space preserve in the Santa Monica mountains, ice plant garden near the beach, footpaths in Griffith Park.  Not only was he a graphic designer, but he graduated with a minor in Botany.  I went along, certainly willing to learn something new.

“The sky’s so blue today I can see to the top of the hills, and the air, it’s-it’s seductive, isn’t it?” I said, glad that the usual L.A. silvery overcast, covering the crumpled brown canyons with an oppressive translucent sheen, had drifted away.

Daniel nodded and pushed a small round stone to fit back in its place.  He’d been so precise that every stone matched in size and color.  I loved that quality in him, caring for each small part of the design.  And here’s another, he was smart, if more earnest than me, a good talker, thank God not a self-absorbed lecturer, and we enjoyed each other, passionate as well as romantic which, for sure, delighted me.

I sighed and thought back to when we’d married and bought the small fixer-upper at the bottom edge of the Santa Monica mountains, not quite Beverly Hills, but not West L.A. either.  I was surprised at how quickly he’d designed our first garden plot for the tiny back yard.  When the plan was finished, his surfer boy face lit up, and he called himself Candide in his garden.

Today, shirtless, just shorts and Birkenstocks, Daniel bent over, back tanning in the sun.  He listened to a Dodgers game while dripping water into the dirt around the seedlings.  The plants were so brilliantly colored in the sunshine under the clear sky that my worries seemed insignificant.

A scene from the best of all possible worlds I thought, until he stood up, combed his dirt-filled hands through his bleached hair, looked at me and looked away again.  I shrugged, prepared for nothing but the ordinary, never harsh, words to get through the day and evening.  Then he’d go to bed, turn away, and fall asleep.

And I, the new therapist, stood on the step, watched the marigolds, and frowned, at a loss why he was so distant.  He looked sad, but denied it vehemently when I’d asked.  So I’d backed off.  I didn’t think I’d done anything different in the past two weeks.  Except for this fourteen day worry, I was happy.  Why had he changed?

“I’m off to spend the afternoon with my girl group,” I said.

Daniel nodded again and walked over to the small gardening table to rummage through the six packs, lifting the container of violets.  He smoothed tiny motes of dirt off each flower.

“These go over in the shady spot.  Where they spread easily,” he said.  Not a word about their fabled qualities, though at the nursery I’d read that long ago violet petals were mixed with lavender for a love sachet, the heart-shaped leaves thought to absorb ill will.

Then, “See you,” he said, voice flat.  No kiss on the cheek, no “drive carefully,” no anything.

Purse over my shoulder, I walked slowly down the side path, reached over to unlock the gate, and bent down to the garage door handle.

“I hate this thing.  When will we get a garage opener, for God’s sake,” I said to no one, not really concerned about the heavy garage door as I lifted, but grimacing in pique at the puzzle of Daniel.

Car keys in hand, I stopped at the driver’s side, leaned down to pull a bit of lacy leaf out of my sandal, and an entire paragraph I’d been ignoring on the therapy check list flashed on and off before my eyes.  “Men can be distant when they’re having an affair and can’t admit it or don’t want to or are afraid to.  Maybe the affair is over, but they’re still in the throes and can’t believe it.”

Daniel, you’ve caught the seven year itch, and it’s only a year and a half.  The marigold leaf in my hand glistened, the veins oozed oiliness, the fragrance filled the air, and I felt certain my vision had been restored.

I slid into the driver’s seat, backed carefully down the driveway, and pulled into the narrow street, attending to every motion so I didn’t have to think about the revelation.  I inched out onto Doheny so a traffic light was at hand when I turned left to drive down Sunset Boulevard, busy with cars and shoppers.  Soon the stores disappeared and manicured grass and well-tended oleander took over along the street.  No manzanita here, too bushy at the top, too spindly at the bottom.  Hardly any saguaro or other cactus, too prickly and messy.

Orange and magenta bougainvillea flashed by all the way to Hilgard near UCLA where I turned left toward the university crowd of shops and people.  Another turn onto a side street and I watched for my friend Hannah’s bungalow where the girl group met.  I pulled  into a spot right in front of the little wood house and gazed at the lantana under the two front windows and the narrow swath of strawberries cozying up to the concrete paving stones that led to the front door landing.  Pretty.  Peaceful.

I sat in the car and took a breath, trying to imagine the bungalow’s backyard filled with Lily of the Nile and rosemary, plants I’d learned to appreciate, to love.  Instead, I thought Daniel was only twenty-eight, couldn’t be mid-age crisis.  That didn’t fit.

My mind flipped to the night I’d ignored my mother’s advice that I was only twenty-four and didn’t need to complicate my life.  Lying in bed, facing each other, feeling each other’s body warmth, I’d asked if it was time to think about a family.

With no hesitation at all Daniel had grinned and said, “Ah, yes, let’s cultivate our garden.”

We had great sex that night and even later when we realized it was more difficult than the fifth grade booklets had said.  It seemed our hearts were set though a new life didn’t begin immediately.

Not too long after, the aloofness crept into our lives.  I felt my heart swell in my chest.  My neck burned.  My eyes blinked away tears.  I jerked when Gail of the dark curly hair, frizzing out around her face like a halo, knocked on the car window.

“Jane.  What are you doing?  Aren’t you going in?”

I waved my hand in front of my face, massaged my chest, and swallowed the anger into my stomach before I climbed out and we walked up to Hannah’s house.  Gail was Hannah’s college roommate, so I knew her from college days, but she had only recently moved back to L.A. and joined the group of ten or so school friends.  Once inside, group talk took over and I joined the gab and gossip, relieved, really, that personal problems would be pushed from my mind for the afternoon.  Gail was a petite athletic woman, not like tall skinny me with plain brown hair, and she always caught my attention with her uncommon ideas.  Today we began to dissect the old Bergman film, “Wild Strawberries,” playing at the Vogue until Hannah tapped on her glass-topped coffee table and we sat down on molded plastic chairs, ready to take on the world.

We thought of ourselves as west coast feminists, holding out against conservative Reagan voodoo.  Gail waved a copy of Up from under that she had brought from New York, very feminist, published cooperatively.  I was impressed, in love with any kind of cooperative idea, and one time had tried to talk the group into buying cheese and fruit in bulk because it was cheaper, to be divided up at our meetings.  But we weren’t that radical, I suppose, since everyone had an excuse, living alone, no kids, no time.

Gail riffled through pages to the article about the Equal Rights Amendment, our favored topic of discussion now that Roe vs. Wade had been decided to our satisfaction.  She read the part about the magazine cooperative’s opposition to the amendment’s ratification.

That statement set off a buzz.  It said better laws protecting all worker’s rights must be legislated by Congress before the magazine editors would support the amendment.  Right now, equal rights meant that a man’s poor working conditions would be endured by women too.  For God’s sake, we were only thinking about who should do the laundry or who had the final say about spending money or the last say about having a child.

“Oh shit, now we’re really going to have to do some serious thinking about union labor laws,” said Hannah.

And we, all far from factory jobs, sat in silence with deep creases between our smart college graduate eyebrows, sorting out the old ideas and the new ones in our brains.

My mood, already light, then dark, then light, began to sink down again into a deep brown dirt hole until my eye caught the smart-aleck article on fashion manias which everyone knew about first hand and which started a riot of laughter about white lipstick and false eyelashes.  I felt everyone relax and then Hannah took the cover off her candy dish and pulled out some big fat joints.

“Great stuff,” she promised.  “Perfumey smell.  I just love it.  Want some?”

I knew everyone would say yes, even those of us who had stopped smoking cigarettes.  Why not?  I, at least, thought it was time for us California feminists to enjoy a little private party.  Leaning forward over the coffee table, the camaraderie gained hold as we passed a joint and listened to each pull in her breath and then release the sweet smoke in the air.  The last I remembered was heads nodding.

The next I remembered was the group, all with bodies pressed against the sofa back, unmoving, unable to speak, but sharing easy, calm faces.  Gail turned and issued a beautiful dimpled grin.

Finally Hannah said, “Told you.  Great stuff.”

It took awhile for all of us to regain the ability to think.

“Wow, I feel great.”  “So relaxed I can cope, I think.”  “I’ve got to go, I guess.”

Gail said, “I don’t live too far from here.  Want to come over?”

The afternoon sun was dazzling and Gail was fun to talk to and I didn’t want to go home, so I followed in my car to her building off chaotic Sepulveda Blvd.  The side street had typical West L.A. hard-to-ruin bushes and crab grass that had long taken over the front yards.  No wonder Daniel was gripped with the desire to fill our space with a beautiful landscape.  But the thought of Daniel set off the blues, so I shook my head, hopped out of the car, and hurried behind Gail up the stairs to her second floor apartment.

Gail showed me around, eyes shining, dimple deepening as she described the young artists she’d discovered.  I was impressed with her sharp eye for fantasy landscapes, especially a print called ‘Xanadu,’ a horse drinking from a river surrounded by flowering trees and bushes all in fantastic colors, practically a hallucination.  Who knew what was going on in the artist’s head.

We looked through her large collection of film books, no question why she knew so much about “Wild Strawberries.”  I wondered how Gail had the money for all these treasures, but she said she’d worked for a film company in New York and the books were one of the perks.

I patted the Bergman book, stared at the wild dizzying flowers in the Xanadu print, and found myself telling about my job far from films and art, counseling a family in crisis or an individual dissolving in anxiety.  Then, my thoughts turned and from my mouth came a list of my own confused angry feelings.

I stopped and turned to Gail.  “Sorry.  Do you mind?”

“Of course not.  I sympathize,” said Gail, falling onto her enormous bed, covered with a design hand-painted on the duvet, almost too lovely to be on a bed.  Functional art she called it.

She patted the bed and said, “Lie here.  You’ll feel better.”

I flopped down on my stomach and cried on the bed of someone I hardly knew.

Gail comforted me, saying it would be all right.  Don’t worry.  You’ll see.  And I spilled out my private thoughts.  I didn’t think I was the jealous type and I’d wondered if my husband would have an affair someday.  It was bound to happen.  All right as long as it didn’t interfere with our time together, but now it did get in the way.  Why was I afraid to say something?  Then I felt Gail’s small, smooth hand caressing the back of my leg.

“OK.  It’s OK,” murmured Gail.  “You’re right, it’s happened to lots of people, even that old apple-cheeked Reagan, I bet.”

I turned over and Gail leaned before me, hair floating around her sweet face.  My hand smoothed her cheek and Gail pulled me so our bodies touched, stomach to stomach, face to face, and we kissed.  Such an unanticipated emotion welled up and this woman seemed desirable and willing, so suddenly, frantically, we were holding onto each other, covering each other’s neck and face with kisses.  I turned onto my back and Gail leaned over, holding and kissing my breasts until the sensation was more than I could bear.  I pushed Gail back and caressed her torso, massaging and kissing.  I couldn’t believe my feelings.  Then Gail kissed and rubbed my body until I felt the soft hissing breath of pleasure come from between my teeth.

Finally we both lay back, breathing heavily, wiping the perspiration off with Kleenex.

“I can’t believe I did that.”

“I know,” said Gail.  “But it felt wonderful, didn’t it?”

I lay still feeling the buzz that soothes me after a scene of passion, when Gail began to defend herself it seemed, saying how she loved everyone and admitting that she still hadn’t met the right one, male or female.  She was only sure she’d know when it happened.

I was overwhelmed by what I’d done and barely listened to Gail’s words, carrying on about how she had just broken off with a man she’d met at an art store.  She’d been browsing and talking to the clerk about books that explain how to analyze and compare paintings when she ran into this guy who was buying new pens and art pencils.  He picked up on the conversation and mentioned a book that analyzed the design influences in paintings.  He’d walked with her to the book store and then they’d had coffee and next thing Gail had invited him to see her collection.  He was impressed with ‘Xanadu’ and named all the flowers in the silk screen print, explaining the magical qualities of the flowers and colors the artist chose.

I sat up, still having a hard time concentrating, though by then I was wondering if it was the extraordinary event or the leftover effects from the joint.  Gail turned to her side, held her head up with her hand and bent elbow, brushed the damp curlicues of hair from her face.

“That was the start,” she said, voice drowsy.  “But I should have known.  He wore a ring and talked about how he loved his wife.  We were heavy for a couple of weeks, but I knew it wasn’t going anywhere, so I finally said no more.  Honestly, I don’t know why Daniel was upset.  You know about men and affairs.  Maybe his pride was hurt, my breaking it off and so on.  He would have given up the whole thing soon enough.  He was obsessed that his wife not find out.  He never ever spoke her name.  Maybe she was like you though, expecting some small affair.”

I stood up, zipped my jeans, and grabbed my purse off the floor, but before a word spilled from my mouth, Gail said, “After that affair, so short, it barely happened, I felt bad.  Why do I smile at everyone who looks at me?  Why do I do that?  I ought to make up my mind.”

She watched me smooth the wrinkles from my blouse and said, “Still this afternoon was great, wasn’t it?  Even if it’s a one time thing.”

“Yes,” I said and meant it despite the after story. “But I’ve got to go home now.  See you at Hannah’s.”

Once outside, the real world came back.  Bright blue sky.  I squinted in the light.  Warm air.  I stretched my arms over my head.  Now I knew what had happened, but I wasn’t angry.  Should I say anything or let it be?  A triangle of Birds of Paradise grew by the first step leading to an apartment building.  A boy pounded up the stairs and the bright orange petal on top of the blue and yellow beak bobbed in the passing draft, as if nodding to me.  There I was taking omens from flowers like I lived in the Middle Ages.

At home, I didn’t give Daniel a chance to say a word, not that I thought he would try.  I fixed supper while chattering about the Equal Rights Amendment and joints that entranced us. But to tell the truth, while I was tossing greens in the salad bowl, in my head thoughts were tumbling around in a lover’s muddle—my sad, surprising husband and that fabulous emotion I’d never expected.  The nodding Bird of Paradise didn’t have hold on me in the house, and I sat down, rubbing my palms along my thighs, willing those whirling thoughts to settle in place.

When we finished eating, Daniel wiped the table with a napkin and rearranged the salt and pepper shakers.  He described his entire afternoon’s work in the garden.

“So, let’s see, do you have any ideas for herbs to plant?” he asked.

I was astonished that he’d opened his mouth, since he hadn’t asked me for a single piece of advice in the past two weeks.  I flipped the pages of the gardening book on the counter until I came to the herbs.

“How about lavender and lemon verbena and rosemary?” I said, flippant, I knew.  “Love and tartness and remembrance.”

Actually laughing, he handed me a painted clay pot of violets from the garden.

“To go with the lavender,” he said, his frown dissolving into the first earnest gaze I’d witnessed in a long while.

Still, everything slowed down, hauling my feet to the bedroom, taking forever to change to my nightgown, while Daniel slid into bed and turned away.

I thought about desire and looked at Daniel’s body.  I didn’t care that he’d strayed and I’d never tell him how I knew, I wanted to feel that passion with the man I’d chosen.  I lay down and tapped his shoulder and who would guess, he turned and hugged me, hot torso against torso, eye to eye, kissing like we’d never felt such emotion before.  He mumbled in my ear how I was his only love and pulled himself over me murmuring into my neck why didn’t lovers always do what they were supposed to do.  My breath caught in my throat and I pulled him down onto me, smoothing his back and whispering I know I know I know.

When we’d made up with our bodies, I lay quietly, lost in my thoughts, my fingers combing out knots in my hair.  I smiled and wondered if Daniel was seeing clearly because of his afternoon with the marigolds.  Hand caressing my thigh, Daniel was looking up at the ceiling, breathing in until his stomach ballooned and expelling the air in a whoosh.

“Jane,” Daniel said, “I have to tell …” but I put my fingers over his lips, whispering “shhhh.”

©Claire Noonan, 2011

With a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MA from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, Claire taught elementary school and now writes.  Writing credentials include consulting for the Bay Area Writing Project and the San Jose Area Writing Project, participation at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference July 2009, contributions to the online magazine Digital Paper, and non-fiction posts to her education blog at takecareschools.com.

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2 Responses to “What Lovers are Supposed to Do by Claire Noonan”

  1. Steve Myrick Says:

    Claire,

    Did you ever attend UCSB?

  2. Steve Myrick Says:

    Claire,

    Did you ever attend UCSB?

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