Sunday, January 25, 2004

Garden Romance

Finally. The first warm day of spring. And, it was a Saturday. I was eager to work the garden
Barbara and I had planted and tended together. My work would be a labor of love, preparing the
flower beds for planting. The smells of the rich earth, the feel of the dirt in my hands, the warmth
of the sun on my back, were healing and reinvigorating.

Barbara was thirty-one and I was twenty-three when we married. My friends thought I was crazy
for marrying an older woman. Barbara's eleven-year-old daughter, Vicki, was additional
evidence of my insanity as far as my friends could see. But I could see much farther. I saw in
Barbara what I hoped for in a wife.

I lost Barbara to a drunk driver. I retreated to our garden to maintain my sanity. The beauty, the
order, of the plants were stabilizing. The new growth gave me hope my life could again be filled
with beauty.

As I lugged the tools from my storeroom, I thought of Barbara. As I carried the sacks of mulch
from the car, my eyes teared. Barbara would have been appalled by those tears. She was
probably sitting on the white cloud hovering over me, watching as I leaned on the handle of my
spade in disconsolation. I could see her head gently shaking back and forth in a silent 'tsk tsk'.

"Jack," she would say, a hand lifting my chin to make me look at her. "Life goes on. You need
to live each day to the fullest, to relish its beauty and uniqueness. No pity parties. No gloomy
Guses. Come on, Jack. Get on with your living."

Yes, Barbara would say that. She faced more than one loss with grace and serenity I envied.
Barbara would be right. It had been seventeen months since she died. It was time to stop
grieving and get on with living.

Saying it is a lot easier than doing it. I had told myself a hundred times to start anew, but my
own advice fell on sterile soil. Maybe it was the passage of time. Or, maybe it was the spring
season when life is renewed. I knew now was the time to start. I shoved the spade into the heavy
soil, driving the blade deep with my foot. I turned the first shovel full. I began.

By two thirty, the sun was high overhead. The temperature had soared. My muscles moved
easily in the hot sun beating down. Sweat poured from me, its residue prickling my skin. By
evening, those muscles would be sore. In spite of jogging and gym time, some muscles always
ached from the hard toil of spring.

Dirt streaked my sweat covered body. Dressed only in shorts and sneakers, I was on my hands
and knees. The earth felt good. I was lost in the reverie of the gardener, communing with nature
a handful of soil at a time.

A shadow passed over me. Ten pink toes sticking from the thongs of sandals came into view. I
fought to still a quiver as I sat back on my haunches, hands on my thighs. My eyes slowly
traveled over the shapely calves to long, muscular thighs. Perhaps for too long, my eyes
hesitated where thighs widened into hips covered by brown shorts. Continuing past the narrow
waist, I lingered on the swelling under her bright green halter. I finished my visual journey
staring into twinkling, big, brown eyes over a grin bordered by dimples.

"Hello, Jack."

"Hi, Beth. Join me. Please."

Gracefully, she knelt and leaned forward to be kissed. She always did that, offering a cheek to
me in greeting. The angle was askew: our lips touched. We each looked away, but not before our
eyes had met for an instant.

"It's good to see you," she said, a small catch in her voice.

"I've missed you," escaped from me. I looked away quickly. "Vicki's not here. She went to the

"I knew she'd be gone. She told me you were starting on your garden. I came to help."

"All the way from college to spend spring break working like a Turk. It doesn't sound very

What did she not say? What was the look she gave me? That look evaporated like my sweat on
this hot day, leaving a residue which prickled my imagination. She was grinning when she

"Hey! Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm a good worker."

"Well, put on some work gloves and let's get after it," I replied, my own smile matching hers.

Beth was my step-daughter's best friend and college roommate. She was fifteen six years ago
when she arrived at our house for a party. Even that first time, I noticed her. Those big, brown,
eyes and warm, quick, smile drew my attention. Beth had an easy way about her, as though
being happy and positive was so embedded in the core of her personality, no other emotion was

As the girls grew, Beth was a frequent visitor to our home, spending almost as much time there
as Vicki. Barbara welcomed Beth with open arms. I, too, developed a caring relationship with
Beth. I told myself we were like father and daughter. I resisted the thought of a different
relationship, which sometimes required conscious effort.

As we worked and talked, my mind's eye suffered from double vision. Beth and the present
overlaid memories of the past which flowed like a disjunctive home movie. A party Barbara and
I chaperoned when the girls were sophomores in high school. Trips to the beach. Quiet evenings
in winter by the fire, all of us bundled for warmth.

There were sad memories, too. Memories of life after Barbara. Without being asked, Beth
moved into the house, occupying the guest bedroom. What needed to be done, she did with a
quiet and loving competence. She listened and consoled. After living with us for four months,
she left as unobtrusively as she came.

When she left, I was surprised how much I missed her. There had been nothing sexual between
us, but our relationship had deepened. Since that time I talked to her often. I must admit I
sometimes called Vicki at school hoping Beth would answer. With each call, each visit when the
girls came home, our relationship ripened.

I had been blinded by grief to the loving woman near me. The sunlight of that bright spring day
pushed away the shadows letting me see clearly, maybe for the first time.

She was on her knees, legs spread for leverage. Her brown hair was piled on her head, secured
by a blue and white bandana. She was valiantly pulling on the stump of a dead bush to extricate
it from the soil. Holding it with both hands, she was wisely using her legs and shoulders to pull.
I could see her muscles flexing under sweat-sheened skin. Her muscles stopped and she was
looking at me.

"Are you going to watch me or help me?" she asked.


I was shaken back into the present. Beth had a soft, gentle expression as she stared at me over
her shoulder. Perhaps it would have been easier for her to turn her body. My view was certainly
better with her turning the way she did.

"Well, Jack?" she said.

A wise gardener would have used a shovel to cut the bush's roots below the surface, making the
task much easier and quicker. A wise man would have knelt in the soil to be next to Beth. I
knelt. Dirt covered her calves. Her thighs were streaked with the same brown color. There was a
smudge on her cheek where she wiped sweat away with her dirty glove.

A rivulet of sweat slid down her throat, caressing the mound of her breast before disappearing
into the halter. Beth watched me watching her.

Kneeling now, facing her, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer feminine attractiveness of
this woman. As I leaned toward her, she moved to meet me. I saw her lips part and her eyelids
flutter. Our lips touched in a soft and gentle kiss so electrifying I twitched all over. When my
eyes opened again, she was still leaning forward, her eyes closed, a sensual expression on her
face. Her eyes opened dreamily.

"Maybe I should get the sharpshooter to cut the roots," I said.

"Maybe," she replied in a low, husky tone. "Or, maybe we can dig it out with our hands."

Working in the dirt around the dead and forlorn shrub, we used our hands to scoop away the soil,
to pull out the roots. No speech was necessary. Four hands worked as one to slowly free the
bush from its death trap. We sometimes touched, bumping into each other: a thigh against a
thigh, a hip against a side, an arm touching a back.

I could smell her. She smelled of light perfume and natural womanly odor heightened by her
sweat. Her sweat was sweet, unlike my own. It was fragrance spewed by a flower: alluring,
appealing. I could hear her ragged breath when she struggled: a little grunt, sometimes a
"humph," as she worked the soil. Heat radiated from her. Not just physical heat or reflection of
the day's glorious sun, it was energy, a magnetic field drawing me to her.

"Okay. It's loose enough. Let's pull it out," I said.

Shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, we each took a handhold on the dead bush. Moving as one,
we pulled, our muscles straining. The roots gave with a pop. Beth squealed as we fell back
together. She landed on her back. I fell over her. I gazed into her face, seeing a twinkle and the
tip of a pink tongue snake between her lips. I bent to kiss her. Her arms went around me,
holding me to her.

We kissed, slowly, deeply, powerfully. Her breasts were against my chest. Her hands stroked
my back. Again, I brought my lips toward hers.

"Am I interrupting anything?" Vicki's sharp voice rang out.

I jumped, landing a yard away, feeling like a child caught in the candy jar. Beth quickly sat up,
trying to straighten her appearance. She hoped her blush would disappear before it was seen, but
that was not to be.

Vicki laughed. It was not a girlish giggle. She guffawed. Beth twittered, covering her mouth
with her dirty gloves, smearing her face with a brown hue. I had to laugh, too. We stood and
began brushing the dirt from our bodies. It was a lost cause.

"Here. You need this for more than one reason," Vicki said.

"No, Vicki!" Beth screamed as the stream of water hit her full force.

Using her thumb to create a biting blast, Vicki relentlessly sprayed Beth who danced and twisted
under the stinging water. Beth's halter and shorts were quickly saturated. Magically, the cotton
molded to her shape, treating me to a delicious sight. I was watching Beth when Vicki decided it
was my turn. The water was icicles hitting my overheated skin. In spite of the distractions, I saw
Beth watching me. She had a sensuous gleam in her eyes.

With a tackle an All-American would be proud of, Beth drove Vicki into the mound of dirt piled
by the beds. Except the pile was not dirt. It was mulch mixed with composted sheep droppings.
Or, as Vicki shouted, "Beth, this is shit."

Laughing and teasing, the girls struggled to stand in the loose pile. Without pretense (can one be
dignified when covered in manure?), they hosed each other off. Arm in arm, they went into the
house to shower. They needed it. They neither looked nor smelled like ladies at that moment.

I cleaned up the mess we made and put away the tools. It had been a long day of work. But it
had been a delightful day. I realized how much I enjoyed being with Beth. I was thinking of her
in a way I had never allowed myself before this spring day. To say my thoughts were salacious
would be an understatement.

After my shower, I slipped into shorts and a pull over shirt. When I went downstairs, Vicki and
Beth were talking on the couch. They stopped when I entered, following me with their eyes.

Vicki was wearing a blouse and skirt, I think. Beth was wearing one of Vicki's cotton sleep
shirts, the kind which hangs to the knees. It was the blue one with the red piping. She was to
Vicki's left, legs tucked under her. Her hair, still damp, lay on her shoulders. Her eyes were soft,
like twinkling stars. Her smile held a secret.

"Well, Jack, you wore out poor Beth. If you don't mind, she wants to stay here while I hit the
hot spots."

"Mind? No. Are you sure, Beth?" I asked, looking at her.

"Yes. I'm sure," she replied.

Her voice was soft was a hint of a promise. Her smile was loving, her eyes hot. Our eyes met
and held. A tingle went down my shoulder, racing to my fingertips. They were twitching when
Vicki cleared her throat.

"Well, I see neither of you'll mind if I leave now," she said sardonically.

"No. Go ahead," Beth and I replied in unison before laughing self-consciously at our eager
anticipation of Vicki's departure.

"Dad, can I talk to you?" Vicki said with a faux lightness as she headed toward the door.

I followed her. Calling me "Dad" meant she had something important to discuss. Normally, she
called me by my name. On the front steps, she took my hands in hers. I felt her nail points dig
into my palms.

"She loves you. She loves you very much. And...."

The serious expression gave way to a mischievous twinkle.

"If something happens, you have my blessing. You would have Mom's, too, I know."

"Nothing will happen," I assured her.

She snickered.

"Oh, Jack, you're going to get laid tonight."

A quick laugh, a peck on the cheek and she was gone, leaving me in the quiet of a spring
evening. The air was crisp and clean. The stars were particularly brilliant in the calmness. I was
euphoric, every nerve poised, every sense alert.

When I returned to the house, Beth was in the kitchen. The bread was in the toaster. The smell
of ham came from the frying pan. She was humming to herself as she cracked eggs into a small
bowl by the sink.

As I watched her, I realized how I had missed having a loving woman in my home. More than
that, I realized how much I had missed Beth with her dancing eyes and smiling face and, most
importantly, kind and loving heart.

"Do you like watching me?" she asked softly, her back toward me.

She was still, poised for my answer. Balanced on one foot with the toes of the other pressed into
the floor, she turned her head slightly to better hear me.


It was all I needed to say. I saw the corner of her lips turn up in a smile. She turned back to
dinner, her humming just a little louder. Dinner was a lively affair. We gorged, replenishing our
bodies after a hard day. We laughed and talked. We shared. We finished with a glass of wine as
I did the dishes.

"What will you plant where we dug out that dead bush?" she asked as she stood sipping the wine.

"I've always wanted a rose bush, a Queen Elizabeth rose. It's beautiful, with a large, pink
blossom. The scent is mild, but definitely rose. Besides, I like the name."

"That sounds nice. Can I help you plant her?"

"That sounds very nice," I replied.

Somewhere in the very special time between Vicki's departure and that moment, apprehensions
had left me. Beth sensed it. She set the wine glass on the table. She offered her hand. When I
took it, she winced. Then, I saw the blisters her hard work had raised.

"Labors of love cause pain sometimes," she said softly. "I don't mind. Love is worth it."

I kissed her, a soft, loving kiss. An anticipatory grin crossed her face. Without a word, she led
me up the stairs. At the entrance to the bedroom, she stopped abruptly. I bumped into her.

"Second thoughts?" I asked, my heart in my throat. She turned in my arms.

"Never!" she whispered.

She kissed me then, hot, hard, demanding, her body crushed into mine. She stepped away,
holding my hands.

"Come on, Jack. I've waited long enough."

Brightness and heat. Ferocity and gentleness. Lost in passions, we began that deepest of all
relationships until we lay spent, our bodies entwined, her head on my chest.

"Jack," she whispered. "When it's time, I want to bloom from your seed."

"That sounds wonderful," I replied before I kissed her again.

We had drifted to sleep when I heard the front door closing. Beth stirred against me. We listened
to the footsteps coming up the stairs and down the hall. They stopped outside my bedroom door.

"Goodnight, Vicki," I said.

"Goodnight, Jack," was the soft reply from the hall.


"Goodnight, Beth," Vicki sang out.

We heard her chortling as she went down the hall to her room.