“Those aren’t going to make it,” Mr. Eckhardt said over the fence, startling me. “The fruit will start turning black before turning red.”
“How do you know that?” I knelt next to the plants as if to shield them from Mr. Eckhardt’s insults.
He gestured toward his backyard. “Have you taken a look at my lawn? I’m an expert.”
“An expert on growing grass is hardly an expert in growing vegetables,” I said haughtily, wondering if that was actually true.
Instead of getting angry, Mr. Eckhardt looked thoughtful. “I used to grow vegetables, years ago,” he said.
“Why don’t you now? You’ve got plenty of space.”
He went silent for a moment, and before he could respond, Mykia returned.
“What’s going on here?” she asked warily.
Mr. Eckhardt’s look of chronic disdain returned. “I was just telling Paige that those plants are going to die.”
Mykia began to spray the plants, from the ground up. “Why would you say that? Do you like being mean?”
“Pointing out reality is hardly mean-spirited,” he said. “It’s necessary at times. Do you prefer to live in a fantasy world?”
“I prefer to live in a hopeful world,” she responded. It was a nice sentiment, but her words were tinged with a fierce anger that seemed almost an overreaction.
Mr. Eckhardt’s eyes narrowed. “That’s simply naïveté.” He focused his attention on me. “If those tomatoes start rotting on the vine, you will need to remove the entire plant from the ground.”
“Not gonna happen,” Mykia said.
He turned to me. “Foolish behavior is not going to bring him back.”
“I’m trying to bring me back,” I said, realizing at that moment that it was true.
Mr. Eckhardt shook his head sadly. “That person you were? She’s dead, too. The quicker you realize that, the better off you’ll be. I’m just trying to help.”
That person—that loving, devoted, oblivious person—was someone I definitely wanted back. She was caught in a quicksand of grief, and I had to figure out how to help her escape. “Your help was not requested,” I said, and Mr. Eckhardt’s eyes widened with surprise at my vehemence. “I don’t need it.”
“You’re going to be sore tomorrow,” Mykia said as we stretched out on my living room sofas. Jesse and I could never agree on which kind to get—he liked leather; I preferred fabric—so we got both and shoved them against each other, armrest to armrest. When Trey was smaller, he liked to run back and forth between us until we all erupted in fits of giggles. It was one of those family things, not quite a joke but funny nonetheless, and one that didn’t make sense to others, so I didn’t mention it to Mykia. She was lost in a postdinner haze, stirring her rapidly cooling coffee with her index finger. We’d weeded the garden, mowed and edged the front lawn, hauled mulch, and baked in the sun all afternoon. The hot day had turned into a gorgeously mild summer evening, the cicadas softly humming, fireflies popping intermittently into the view afforded by my front bay window, and I tried to remember the last time Jesse and I had enjoyed a night like this. Unfortunately, memories tended to blur when they were no longer shared.
“Your neighbor has a fence post stuck up his ass,” Mykia said, drawing me back to the conversation.
“You can’t let him get to you,” I responded after a beat. “He’s a miserable old man. I’m not sure what happened to him, but something must have turned him into something so sour.”
“Do you really think that’s what happens? You didn’t go sour.” She paused a moment. “I didn’t.”
I didn’t want to be impolite and ask what she was referring to. Then I gave it a second thought. How did people become friends? They shared parts of their pasts, bit by bit, until the other person had something solid to hold on to. “What are you referring to?”
She poked at her coffee and stared into its depths for a moment before saying, “When my mom died, I was only nineteen. I got a little crazy.”
She shrugged. “You know.”
“I don’t. I wish I did sometimes, but I don’t.” I smiled at her to show her I wasn’t judging. “Jesse and I were so focused on not becoming our parents that we followed every rule. We even made up some rules so we could follow them.” And I’d been trying so hard to continue living by them, but why? It wouldn’t bring him back.
She laughed, but it was hollow. “Following the rules was probably the better choice. I hung out with some unsavory people. I made mistakes. I slept with a lot of guys—”
“There is nothing wrong with that,” I stated with fervor. I meant it. I did not abide by slut-shaming.
“I know,” she said. “What was wrong was my reasons for it. I had no self-esteem. I wasn’t taking my own pleasure, I was giving it to other people so they might like me. When the universe took my mom, I thought it was telling me I wasn’t worthy of being loved.”
“But you had your dad,” I said quickly, thinking of Trey. The thought of one parent not being enough kept me up at night.
“He checked out of this world for a while when she passed.” Her voice had grown soft. I knew what that was, when grief memories threatened to take over. It was work to stay calm, but fulfilling work, to learn to accept without letting them destroy you.
“I understand what you did,” I said.
“Maybe you do,” she said. “But you didn’t use circumstance as an excuse to self-destruct.”
“Don’t you think you’re being hard on yourself?”
She smiled wryly. “Do you know anyone worth her salt who isn’t hard on herself?”
“Good question.” I thought about the women in my life—Jackie, Glynnis, Rhiannon, Mykia. They could all give themselves a good pounding. The question was did it help or hurt? And how was it shaping my son’s perspective? “Your dad,” I said. “When did you reconnect with him?”
“This is going to sound like psychobabble, but I found my dad when I reconnected with myself. I put my mind into my schoolwork and found I had a love for science. Once my dad realized this, once he recognized I’d discovered a passion for something that wasn’t tearing me up inside, he came back to me.”
“You brought him back,” I said. “That was you, not him.”
She went quiet for a moment, and then said, “Maybe. And maybe Mr. Eckhardt had no one to bring him back.”
A certain sadness fell over me. Sadness for Mr. Eckhardt, but also sadness for myself. Who would bring me back? Trey? No, I couldn’t put that on him—he had to work on finding himself. On exploring what he had to offer. Maybe Colin had a point.
“That garden is doing it for you,” Mykia said as if reading my mind. “Even if Mr. Eckhardt is right and every one of those plants dies on the vine, you tried it. You had to find the energy to give it a go. And the passion.”
I thought about the garden and what it had come to mean to me. “They won’t all die,” I promised her. “I won’t let them.”
“Then maybe it’s already brought you back,” Mykia said. “Sometimes the brain takes a while to catch up with the heart.”