Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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As soon as the snow cleared in March, I layered a few square meters of the front lawn with dried leaves, then flat cardboard boxes, then a blue tarp, and finally some stones to hold it all down. I was killing the grass because a yard that did nothing besides look cute ran counter to the feminist principles I was trying to instill in my eleven-year-old daughter, Lia. And it wasn’t even that cute: just three dried-out box shrubs and some lilacs that bloomed for a couple of weeks then receded back into boring. In place of grass I imagined abundance: sugar snap peas springing to the sky, beets purpling the ground, Swiss chard waving its painted leaves. Come August I’d be giving away summer squash and making weekly batches of basil pesto. “Pick some greens for dinner,” I’d say to Lia, who would offer up lettuce still flecked with dirt.
Also it was the spring of 2020, and feeding my child had begun to feel primal. I ordered an indulgent variety of seeds and sprouted sweet potatoes on a windowsill, an activity that might have passed for a home-schooling project if I were that type of parent. Then I canceled a trip to New York City, and we hunkered down in a house that had been ours for nine months — a full gestation. Each night before bed we prayed for the sick. We didn’t know to whom we prayed, but we anointed ourselves with aromatic oils a witchy friend of mine had mixed. We also held hands. In the morning I would rise early and breathe with the Australian-accented mindfulness app on my phone, my most steady adult companion.
During this time working outside felt good. So, as the grass in front was dying, I busied myself out back, trimming the branches that were choking the yard while standing on a ladder held by a girl I was raising by myself. Then I upped the ante and gave her an ax. We felled a tree with a trunk the width of a frisbee and dragged it to the curb like Vikings, making room for apple saplings that would not bear fruit for three years yet.
In three years, I thought, Lia’s chin would reach my crown. Or my crown would touch her chin? At some point the height order reverses itself, and then they leave you. Or you are overtaken by someone’s respiratory droplets in the produce section and you leave first. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was Lebanese, and one way she said I love you was “May you bury me,” a common expression of devotion in Arabic. May you bury me, I thought to my daughter in English. But not until you turn eighteen.
I arranged for a friend to take Lia if I should catch COVID, be hospitalized, die.
I was lucky that getting groceries was our only risk. And I was lucky to have this child, who, as I cleared debris, wrapped herself in my yellow raincoat and curled up in the wheelbarrow to read. No, lucky isn’t the right word. Privileged works better for that first sentence, and blessed for the second. But I do like the repetition of lucky, which was the name of the rescue dog we almost adopted that spring. I decided against it after hearing she would yelp when people left the room, which reminded me of Lia’s nightly waking, and the thought of negotiating yet another creature’s separation anxiety drove me to my bed. Still, the decision unleashed in me a grief that felt hormonal in its intensity. Postpartum almost. It is likely too late now, but I have always wanted more children. I used to like to buckle my daughter and her friends into the backseat, take them to the trampoline park, and turn them loose, all flying braids and raspberry slushies. Maybe we could do that again one day.
Sometime that month, as I was adjusting the blue tarp in front, a neighbor stopped by to chat. I was pleasantly surprised. Midwestern reticence often feels to me like people pretending not to see you. Back before the pandemic I used to sidle a smidge too close to strangers at the local coffee shop, just to see if I still existed. Proof positive was when they stepped farther away. I understand this everyday aloofness is part of the local culture and bear my fellow Wisconsin residents no ill will.
But one neighbor did speak: “Isn’t it nice you can do what you want with your lawn?” she said.
I agreed. The grass was still stubbornly green, so I had doubled up on the cardboard and resecured everything with rocks to prevent it from blowing into the street.
“Some neighborhoods wouldn’t allow something like that,” she added.
Yes, I was lucky.
Lucky the dog, I have heard, now lives with two parents, two kids, and two other dogs. Recently I heard her howling in my dreams. Sometimes I regret my decision and wish she were ours.
Four years ago this spring, long before we had this house, my daughter’s father gave us two weeks’ notice that he was leaving the country for good. Soon after that, he dropped three trash bags at the doorstep of my apartment. So many uses for trash bags: in place of PPE during a pandemic, for example, or to hold the dad half of a child’s life — a Hello Kitty alarm clock, a matching comforter, a book about princesses. “It smells like his house,” Lia said. He also left me with a hundred thousand dollars in shared debt and a forwarding address in Austria, then Madrid, then later Barcelona — but despite the best efforts of Dane County Child Support he could not be reached.
Around that time I went on a second date with a nice man who made part of his living teaching others to massage kale. When he learned I now had full custody, I was “ghosted” — a term I had only recently learned. Seven months later I ran into him at the local pussy-hat march of 2017, me and Lia with our tambourine and claves.
Lia was eight then and still believed in universal human decency. She had come to the polls with me when I’d voted in the 2016 presidential election. The morning after, as the headlines proclaiming the winner glared from the computer, she used some vocabulary she had heard on the news: “Maybe people just didn’t know he sexually assaulted women?” Her curls were still tangled from sleep, and I kissed the top of her head. How could I tell her that everyone knew?
It’s important for children to be able to name their experiences, so I taught her the word misogyny. But I was not so heartless as to articulate the connection between that word and the Hello Kitty comforter in a trash bag on our doorstep.
Despite the chanting, the march felt like a funeral procession. Midwestern order sometimes made me nervous. But at least everyone’s bodies were next to each other, our blood and muscles and organs and breath gathered with some common purpose. Lia turned to the woman beside us, who wore a fleece jacket against the cold. “Maybe next time a girl will be president,” Lia said, at which the woman’s face crumpled, and she began to cry.
I think the kale massager saw us before I saw him. He waved, and inexplicably I waved back — cheerfully, even. The other women kept marching and chanting and crying.
It’s not that I didn’t date after that. When I bought this house in 2019, I was seeing a kind man, M., who spoke two languages close enough to mine and seemed to know how everything worked. He accompanied me to house showings, where he tapped knowingly on walls and located hidden knob-and-tube wiring.
The house I bought was overpriced for two bedrooms with an outdated kitchen, a leaking fridge, and a garage that flooded, but M. pronounced the structure solid, and, more importantly, Lia needed a home base. A year earlier we had been living in Colombia on my Fulbright scholarship, and before that, of course, her father had abandoned her. So when she started to have panic attacks — hours of panting and trembling that I thought would stop either her heart or mine — I house-shopped in areas where she could attend school with kids she had known since kindergarten. We moved in, and, sure enough, Lia took one long breath and then another, no hitches, which is what all parents want for their children.
Together M. and I sledgehammered the kitchen walls and gutted my bedroom down to the studs, wearing N95 masks before they were scarce. I act like it was my idea to kill the grass and plant a garden, but he was the one who taught me about compost, companion planting, and self-pollinating cherry trees. After we broke up, I thought about teaching myself to hang drywall, but then I would begin to feel tired, would wish he would come over, maskless, and dance one last kitchen bachata with me, slow and close.
In April, as the grass continued its slow demise, Lia’s father began to give her daily art lessons via video chat — the most contact they’d had in the four years since he’d left the country. His vowels, open and intimate, haunted me from the kitchen. So I bought a stud finder, a drill, and a level, and I built a floating desk in the laundry room, where I proceeded to attend a million Zoom meetings. “Every single woman needs a stud finder,” my therapist said during one of those meetings, which I realized later was a joke. Upstairs my daughter drew pictures of puppies, girls with watery eyes, and me in overalls, hands on my hips. At the bottom of my portrait she wrote in cursive, “Hello, Gorgeous. You are in charge of your life” — words from a postcard I’d picked up in the women’s bathroom of a martini bar in central Illinois after learning of her father’s affairs. It had been pinned to the mirror above my dresser for most of her life.
Back in the laundry room, the dryer broke and two days later so did the washer, like the stories you hear about old couples who die within weeks of one another. I found my appliances’ commitment to each other vaguely romantic, until the floor flooded with foul-smelling water, causing Lia to pretend to retch in the doorway. So much for YouTube repair tutorials. I taught her to wash her T-shirts by hand, and we hung a clothesline across the side yard.
I was always trying to do everything right and had followed her father to Wisconsin after the divorce so she could be near him. My own father’s family has origins in the Azorean Islands, in the middle of the Atlantic, and sometimes I feel ridiculous to have ended up somewhere so dry. Because in the beginning didn’t I think that marrying Lia’s father would somehow bring me back to my original watery landscape? Could I really have believed something like that? I think I did. I thought he would deliver me home. Instead I was the one who delivered him home: pancakes from scratch, floors swept, child taken care of. I gave him everything I thought I had always wanted. In the end I grew wan and ghostly with the effort.
There is a kind of bachata I’ve seen other couples do that moves from the inside. An observer sees barely any movement until a twitch of the hips suggests the whole story. In truth it’s not my favorite kind of dance. I don’t feel the music that way in my body. But I do like to linger there at a respectful distance, looking on. I like to imagine that one day I might be close with someone like that, that we might spend our days sculpting the space between us.
By mid-May the grass was withering. I removed the tarp, tilled the soil, mixed in compost, built a box to surround it, and tilled again. Boot, shovel, dirt. It was almost time to plant. Inside the house the roots of our egg-carton seedlings were making intricate mazes through their soil. I called my best friend in Colombia, who said that before planting I should ask permission of Madre Tierra. And so I did.
One evening, just before I was ready to plant, I noticed the crab-apple tree next to my future garden had grown a shimmering crown of leaves. On the other side of the garden was an oak, its foliage also expanding, broad and green. Spring, I thought. Life. In my head I started an imaginary conversation with the voice on my meditation app, so sexy in his nonattachment. We mused together about hemispheres, magnetic poles, and the earth’s rotation until, all talked out, we settled into a companionable silence. The leaves rustled then stilled. Beyond the oak, the setting sun melted into a pink glow.
Which reminded me of where was east and where was west. Which reminded me of an expression I happen to know in Russian: Stupid as an oak. I sat down inside my box garden and thought about the perfection of this expression for a good long while. Aside from a couple of hours around noon, when the sun was directly overhead, the trees with their new hairdos would leave my garden in the shade.
“Mom!” Lia called from inside the house. “What about dinner?”
“Mom?” This time louder, her voice inflected with panic, as if I might have been swallowed up by all that earth.
That was my name, and most days I liked it.
The two of us used to travel the world with plastic carry-ons. Mine was pink tiger stripes, and hers was blue leopard spots. She vomited on buses careening through the Colombian Andes, laid her head on my lap in the back of Ubers along the Brazilian coast, and gripped my swaying trunk on subways in Chile. On a tram ride in Latvia she asked, “What was the Soviet Union? But what was it?” just so she could hear me explain again how seemingly stable governing entities sometimes disbanded and how it was usually for the best. The travel was for my work, but with Lia it always felt uniquely ours. We gazed together at a hundred artistically rendered penises at galleries in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and I carried her on my shoulders across a swamp in Florida to reach a pristine beach. Once, because the hotel for a conference I was attending was full, we spent three nights on a boat docked in a bay.
Now that we were grounded, we held pretend wrestling matches on the pull-out couch in the basement, took long baths with our noses buried in books, learned to make bubble tea. We were happy, the two of us, but it would be dishonest to say her father didn’t cast a shadow; to imply that the first draft of this sentence didn’t start with Despite him, because it did, even if that’s not how it ended up. It’s just hard to shake the hurt. Eventually he would get bored of the art lessons. And then what?
Lia joined me out front, and we ate peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches in the dark. A couple walked by with two terriers and didn’t say hello, because that’s the local culture. I finished off Lia’s crusts.
It seemed I had two options: I could leave the garden in the shade and maybe eke out some carrots. Or I could destroy a different patch of lawn and start over where tomatoes would have a chance to ripen in full sun. Perhaps I could plant next to the driveway, where we had played soccer that first month of quarantine. Our favorite defensive tactic was to slap each other’s asses. “It jiggles,” Lia would scream, helpless with laughter, about mine. She would be twelve soon and was into asses. Sometimes, when I asked her to clear the dishes, she would simply look at me and twerk.
I decided to move the garden to full sun.
Later I would learn that what I’d thought was an oak was actually an ash, which shows exactly how much I understood about my own front yard.
It was almost June, too late in the season for the tarp method. So over the next four days I dug up the sod in our soccer field and wheelbarrowed it away. I rebuilt the garden box with a handsaw that gave me blisters. I lost screws in the endless spring mud. My neighbor sent me a photo of a garden she had helped a friend make, its corners neat and clean. She offered to help me, too, but my interpersonal compass was scrambled: Was her offer a rebuke? Did she want to be my friend? Would she wear a mask? I politely declined and filled the box with soil myself. My daughter was charged with finding worms to drop wriggling into the mix.
One day during this process M. stopped by to pick up his things, which included a table saw and a sweater that smelled like the coconut oil he always wore. From six feet away he looked me all the way up and all the way down. I was reminded of my past self, the previous summer’s nighttime swims, how quick I’d been to please. One time, the owner of a Central American restaurant we liked had congratulated us on Lia’s beautiful Spanish — as if M. were her father, as if we were a family.
But it wasn’t like that with us anymore. I had recently learned that the wall we’d partially demolished almost a full year earlier was load-bearing, and its removal was causing my ceiling to bow. I was livid at my carelessness. Of his belongings I kept a pair of his sweatpants to wear for housework, a sentimentality I excused on the principle that they had pockets deep enough for tools, and there were things in my house that needed repair. Though the truth was they were nubby and worn, and putting them on made me feel less alone.
I’ll admit that I enjoyed how M. looked me up and down — until, with a starkness called forth from the chaos of structural instability, I decided that I didn’t. That it just wasn’t safe.
As happened for many during this period, my dreams intensified. Mine involved crowds of people — in lecture halls, on planes, in the streets with fists raised to the sun. I floated among them: sisters, students, guides, friends. One night I found myself sweating on a tile dance floor in a cavernous room, dim and smoky. My arms were on a man’s shoulders, his at my waist, the brassy music pulsing between us. I wasn’t sure who he was, but I also knew him deeper than names. We were on the brink of shared movement — I could feel it coming — the kind that says what you didn’t yet know you needed to say. That’s when I realized with a slow-dawning terror that we were too close, and I fought my way gasping from sleep.
Lia lay there, warm and twitching beside me in the dark. I slowed my breath to match hers and made of my body a temporary shelter.
The next day I seeded the space where I had initially tried to kill the grass. I left a strip of bare earth for native flowers that I hoped knew how to bloom there.
As my plants grew that summer, I considered many messages I believed they were speaking. I started out with Destruction begets creation and Death begets new life, but, not feeling especially hopeful during those months, I ultimately rejected these as naive. I toyed with Reaping what has been sown, but it had a judgmental energy that I didn’t want in my yard.
So I listened closer. Over a period of days, weeks, months, I observed how the plants rooted wherever they happened to be, then wound along the earth or stretched into the air or hooked themselves, tendril by tendril, to a trellis; how they choreographed their distinct paths toward the sun. I lined the garden with netting to keep out the rabbits, hung aluminum foil and an old CD to scare away the birds, and sprinkled red-pepper flakes to ward off squirrels, all the while whispering sweet nothings to that vegetable life, willing what I had come to think of as my babies toward their full expressive potential. By which I mean each fat, misshapen carrot was gorgeously its own.
How, then, did my garden grow? With an integrity that I envied. With a belief in its own inviolable abundance.
There were radishes, jalapeños, butternut squash, honeybaby squash, summer squash, sugar snap peas, pole beans, Swiss chard, lemongrass, lavender, basil, dill, arugula, chives, sweet potatoes, carrots, chamomile, cucumbers, three varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of lettuce, which Lia ate rolled up like a burrito, and three varieties of kale, which I massaged myself.
The parsley never rooted, the rabbits ate the beet greens, the strawberries withered before they bloomed, the garlic disappeared under the earth, and the eggplant never bore fruit. But the tomato plants grew so crazed with heat and sun that they became entangled, the weight of their fruit nearly pulling them over by early August, at which point I had to thin the suckers and secure their cages with yarn to keep them upright and aware of their boundaries and therefore productive. Codependency is a hard nut to crack.
Interdependency, however, is just a fact of life. By the time I disentangled the tomato vines, 180,000 people in the U.S. had died from the virus, many alone, including my last Arabic-speaking great-aunt, may she be at peace. By then white-supremacist vigilantes were harassing protesters in Wisconsin who demanded an end to the murder of Black people by police. Missing the point but not his marks, one such vigilante would shoot to kill. By then large swaths of the country were burning, and others were drowning, and lines of people continued to wait their turn at food banks. By then the iPad issued to me by my university had become my sole form of childcare, and tasks that used to take me a few hours now took days or did not get done at all. In the evenings I stared stupidly at the sun, which glowed orange with haze from fires half a continent away.
As fall approached, Lia prepared to enter seventh grade online and began to talk about college. She wanted to go to art school.
“OK, as long as I can come, too,” I joked, mentally calculating the piss-poor job I was doing saving for her education and how much I had spent that spring on organic compost.
She fist-bumped me. “Roommates forever,” she said.
When Lia’s hand was smaller, its entirety would fit inside my palm. When it was smaller still, she would knead my breast, making tiny paw prints in my flesh. For a moment I could feel her toddler weight, a phantom sensation on my hip. For a moment I could smell her soft, new curls. Then I remembered I actually could not feel or smell these things. They were gone, irretrievable.
I wanted a do-over, this time minus the betrayal, the debt, the fear; minus all that deep-rooted disappointment. This time, please, minus the desperation that had plagued my last decade.
I shouldn’t use the word plague.
The fact was we were healthy now, blessed now, lucky now. Our garden was offering itself up. And Lia had not yet buried me, though one day, God willing, she would.
As the days shortened, I raked the leaves that fell from the ash and the crab apple and piled them into the garden to rot for the next spring’s planting.
A line in Kate Vieira’s essay “May You Bury Me” [August 2021] stopped me mid-bite of my marionberry pie: “Standing on a ladder held by a girl I was raising by myself.” I, too, am raising a daughter after separating from her father just days before COVID lockdown began, and I am humbled and grateful for the ways in which my four-year-old holds the ladder for me.
I fear sometimes that my love for my daughter is too much, like an overloaded late-summer tomato plant, and I appreciate how Vieira wisely highlights the interdependency of life, even as we seek to move beyond codependency. I look forward to reading her memoir and wish her many more beautiful seasons with her daughter.