His name was definitely Frank. Hers, I can’t say. But the roses—those, I will never forget. Waxy, fluorescent hybrids so extreme they tipped over from the burden of their outsized heads. Some might have called them garish but not me. I was dumbstruck by their loveliness—perhaps even suspicious. I wanted to touch them, eat their petals, prove their reality. So thick were the roses that they nearly obscured the chain-link fence they lined, which inexplicably cordoned off a small patch of the already small backyard, itself squared in by yet another chain-link fence. In the center of the rose-lined inner fence was a concrete slab on which sat two 1970s-style lawn chairs. Presumably, this is where Frank and his wife relaxed on summer nights—maybe with sweat blooming in the folds of their necks, maybe with pain shining like spurs in their knees and hips—to admire their rose progeny.
“Prune them once a year and they’ll go great guns all summer, every summer,” Frank’s wife said.
“That’s right!” Frank slapped his palms against his thighs. “Prune ’em back and watch ’em go. There’s nothing to it! Nothing at all.”
Frank and his wife were like their roses, listed over and tilting into the tail end of this life thing, for which Joe and I had barely arrived at the threshold. Old and thick now, these two were selling off the house where they’d raised up five kids—plus all those roses—and moving to somewhere more manageable, perhaps a first-floor apartment with walk-in closets, no stairs, and full-service lawn maintenance. Inside, the house smelled of cabbage. Outside, it smelled of toasted oats—specifically, Cheerios, which was manufactured twenty-four hours a day at the General Mills factory around the corner, where Jackson Street dead-ended against Broadway, the busiest urban drag in this semi-industrial section of Northeast Minneapolis.
Joe and I moved into the house in August, dragging our few dozen boxes and our one piece of furniture, a gray couch I’d gotten from Salvation Army and re-covered myself with remnant fabric I sewed by hand. Our wedding would be performed in an evening ceremony on September 29. Joe was Catholic, but neither of us knew that this day marked the Feast of St. Michael, also known as Michaelmas. Michael was an archangel, who, according to the Book of Revelations, slew the dragon of evil: “Now war arose in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But they were not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. That ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
It was an epic battle.
THE HOUSE WAS a two-story clapboard farmhouse with pretty leaded windows and an open porch. A slatted wooden swing hung from the porch ceiling by two thick metal chains. Although shabby, our new house had the best bones of any on the block. It was overall good stock for Northeast, a working-class neighborhood settled mostly by Eastern European immigrants and known for having both a church and a bar on every corner. Northeast streets are named for U.S. presidents in the order in which they held office. “Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States,” Joe told me. “Dirt poor and orphaned during the Revolutionary War, a kid with no education from a backwater cabin in the Carolinas, and he makes it to the Oval Office. How do you like them apples?” Joe was twenty-five and a social studies teacher. He knew things. He also knew this neighborhood, having grown up a few blocks away on Madison Street. The middle school where he taught was nearby as well. Joe liked things to stay the same.
I was twenty-one and had grown up in two states, several cities, and more than a dozen houses and apartments, including two recent foster homes due to Mom’s latest breakdown. I wanted to believe in things staying the same. To prepare for the wedding, I dropped out of the college classes I had been attending on Pell grants and took a full-time job selling ads in the smoky, classified department of our city newsweekly. Working felt more secure. Not to mention that our being broke had put Joe in a bad temper that seemed to improve in direct proportion to my paychecks. Besides, the wedding required a dress and flowers and a reception with food and alcohol and, apparently, linens, which were supposed to match what salespeople referred to as the “bride’s colors.” Working made sense. I hated ad sales, though, despite having an uncanny knack for it. I hoped to one day be a writer instead. But my advertising job paid more than Joe’s teaching salary—and here we now were, homebuyers.
Once settled on Jackson Street, I would often stand alone in our cabbagy little kitchen staring out the back door into the layers of chain link. I would look through fences and past them, like old glass, to the distortions beyond: my childhood in Duluth, that tough, cold city on the cliffs above Lake Superior, where I was born when my mother was twenty. Two years later, Mom divorced. I remember this: nighttime by the front door, the painted yellow banister, my dad’s legs and brown shoes, a hard-sided suitcase, a pat on the head. Then Mom’s new husband. Thick fingers, secret tickling, secret, secret, secret. I am four. Then the apartment above the Eighth Street Market, where I lick the aluminum screen door on a snowy day and get stuck there, tongue frozen to metal, mouth sharp with blood. Broken furniture, fists, hair. More tickling, more fists, squealing tires. Mom says never again. Again. Another divorce. Then a loud crack, something deep, an axle maybe, or a bone, or a lung, your iron lung.
THE FIRST BIG surprise was the pregnancy. It started sometime in November with my sinus cold. I took an antihistamine to dry it up. But I was also practicing, or trying to, a natural birth control method that relied on me being aware of my so-called fertile mucous. Natural birth control was my idea, not Joe’s, despite that he was the Catholic. What I said then was that I didn’t like the pill—it made me bloated and quick to cry, an effect that combined badly with Joe’s temper. But there was something else, too, a prickling under my skin, like a phantom limb waking up. To track your fertile mucous, you have to feel things. Of course, I had no idea about the whole-body effects of antihistamines, how they dry you out everywhere, not just your nose. In any case, the baby would come in August, and until then, it would live, astonishingly, inside of me.
I devoured every possible good thing: broccoli and whole-wheat spaghetti, horse-pill vitamins, voluminous tomes on natural birth and breastfeeding. I foreswore coffee, diet soda, sugar. Anything, it turned out, could hurt the baby, directly or indirectly. Like that thing they say about chaos theory, how the oblivious flapping of a monarch butterfly on a summer afternoon can manifest weeks later as a hurricane on a distant shore. Luckily, a promotion at the newsweekly got me out of the smoky office and into my own, where the air was clean—but, still, I was an outlier in a sea of salesmen whose passions were booze and cigars. This spiked my stress, which I feared would hurt the baby, which further spiked my stress, and so on. While I tromped back and forth from work (and most of the rest of the time, too), I obsessed. It wasn’t just the bad things I might do, warned the experts—it was also the bad things I’d already done. Those ignorant wing flaps I couldn’t take back were already building velocity offshore. Meanwhile, more immediate threats lurked everywhere: car exhaust, mold, tuna. Plastic, pesticides, tight seatbelts. Doctors, for their potential mistakes. Water, in a glass or the tub. Loud noises. Ignorant relatives.
Cabbage. Cheerios. Fear.
ONE CHILLY NOVEMBER evening not long after the pregnancy test came the second surprise. Christopher, the kid from down the street, showed up at our door. “She’s living under your porch,” he said, holding a scrawny black kitten up to the screen. He pulled the kitten close to his cheek and made kissing sounds. I opened the door. “See how scared she is?” Christopher said, thrusting his prize at me. “Isn’t she little?” She was very little. Her tiny bones vibrated in my hands.
“What is that smell?” I said.
“That’s just her farts. From eating garbage.”
We took the little cat in, and I accidentally named her Baby Girl due to the way I cradled her in my arms day and night. I was practicing. I practiced at Thanksgiving, too, cooking a thirty-pound turkey for Joe’s big family. We were celebrating the holiday, yes, and also our being married in a new house with a baby coming. It was mostly good until the kitchen sink backed up before dinner, which was then served late, sending Joe’s father into a temper made worse by the cranberry walnut stuffing we had concocted with thick hard slices of whole wheat bread instead of breadcrumbs from a bag. “Whatever this is, it is not stuffing,” Joe’s father said.
The next things that happened were expected. The sugar maple in the front yard dropped the last of its leaves and the grass turned brown and the wind turned hateful. “Better prune those roses,” Joe said. Joe was quick to do what needed doing. He hauled a hacksaw up from the basement and marched out to the concrete slab and knelt down and, one by one, sawed off the tops of the rose bushes.
I watched from the back steps with Baby Girl purring in the crook of my arm. “Are you sure that’s how you do it?” I said.
“Of course I’m sure,” he said. “You hack them to the ground and they come back bigger and better in the spring, just like Frank said. There’s nothing to it.”
Through December and January and February, I toted Baby Girl around the house and worried. I made kissing noises in her ear, as Christopher had done. I whispered into her fur, now glossy and smooth: I love you and I’m so scared. Soon I had a high shelf of belly for Baby Girl to sling her small body across, but I couldn’t feel the real baby inside me. “That’s normal,” the obstetrician said, “because it’s your first.” I said nothing. Meanwhile, my breasts swelled up like planets and my narrow face became moon-shaped, so that when I looked in the mirror I shocked myself. I found a crib and a dresser and a square blue rug at a discount store. Instead of a wallpaper border, I wanted a narrow shelf just under the ceiling, where I could line up old-fashioned toys and dainty knick-knacks for the baby to look at. Joe got out some tools and hung the shelf. We went to childbirth class where the teacher said to practice breathing and counting each breath going in and out while imagining my cervix opening up like a rose blooming, petal by petal by petal.
March brought the thaw, and something else, too. It happened suddenly when I was alone one evening, driving home from work so that at first I was unsure, but then it came again: a flutter under my belly button, which made me laugh and then cry out loud because of the glory that rose up and filled the car, spilling out through the wheel wells and the heater vents and the tiny fissures between the windows their casement. There is a reason this moment was once called the quickening. Soon after this, as the last dirty mounds of snow ran down the gutters under the hard March sun, I began watching for the roses. Having never had roses or, for that matter, any kind of garden, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When should the bushes come back to life? April brought my twenty-second birthday. May came in chilly. I hoped this was why the rose canes looked just as they had after their November shearing. By June, the sun was soft and warm, the grass thick and green. The world slid gently into summer. The roses, however, remained as they were: dry brown sticks. Clearly, they had died. What I felt was guilt.
Poor Frank! Poor Frank’s wife!
In July, I sat heavy and hot on the cement stairs. Baby Girl rolled in the dust at my feet. Joe stomped into the backyard with a shovel to dig out the rose remains. Pruning, it turns out, is a specific art we should have considered far more carefully. Shirtless and sweaty, Joe finished his anti-pruning, after which there lay a great pile of rose carcasses on the grass amid clumps of disturbed soil. A row of evenly spaced black holes gaped beneath the chain link, which no longer showcased the heart of the yard, but instead, encircled nothing. Joe hurried past me toward the basement stairs. He re-emerged swinging a sledgehammer and whistling. First, he went after the fence, then the slab.
Demolition is like that. It sucks you in. It swallows.
SOME THINGS I didn’t know that year on Jackson Street, like how to prune roses, the legend of St. Michael, and that Joe didn’t know everything either. (For example, Andrew Jackson made his fortune as a slave trader and then amassed more wealth on the backs of Native Americans. He bore the nicknames “Indian Killer” and “Sharp Knife.”) What I did know, though, was that symbols are real, people pay for what they do, and dead roses are not a good omen. Please, I prayed. Let the baby be okay. I’ll do anything. Please, please, please.
I prayed despite not having set foot in a church since the wedding. It had been held in Joe’s boyhood parish with Father Ernie, a flamboyant priest who’d been there since Joe’s Catholic school days. My mom had gone to Catholic school, too, but she was later ex-communicated for divorce and, after that, held a grudge. So after a brief stint in the Lutheran church, which had donuts, we tumbled out of the fold. As a result, I never knew when to cross myself or genuflect or sit or kneel or stand. I knew neither prayers nor hymns by heart.
The whole of my marriage to Joe was a little like church: my ignorance juxtaposed against things he already knew. Take sex. I lacked experience and didn’t enjoy it, though I insisted that I did, because I felt this was the reasonable thing to do. Joe, in contrast, had been with many lovers and liked sex fine, as long as it took place with little fanfare and never if I was bleeding. All of this I found preferable to the only lovers I’d known before: Mark, Bill, and Daniel. Daniel was first, but also last, so it’s easier to start with Mark.
MARK WAS THIRTY-ONE and driving a city bus when I met him. His route included my foster home. I was seventeen. He was sad due to having multiple sclerosis and a wife who had left him and a little son and daughter whom he saw only on weekends. He lived in a townhouse where he cleaned the bathroom with the “two-square method,” meaning you wipe the sink and counters with two squares of toilet paper. He preferred the couch to the bed. Mark picked me up at my foster home in his car sometimes when my boyfriend, Daniel, was with other girls. On my eighteenth birthday, I walked out the foster home and never rode Mark’s bus again.
MY MANAGER, BILL, was twenty-nine when I worked as a door-to-door canvasser for clean water. It was the summer before I started college. Daniel and I were in one of our break-ups. Bill had a blunt mustache and liked to sleep with as many team members as possible. He chain-smoked joints and cigarettes. Once, he gave me a surprisingly tender gift—a threadbare stuffed camel from his childhood. The canvassing job ended in the fall, and I didn’t see Bill again. I gave the camel to the Goodwill.
DANIEL WAS EIGHTEEN and studying to be a cop when we started going out. I was seventeen and still living in the foster home, trying to finish high school. Daniel was half Ojibwa and he wore his long black hair parted in the middle with a red or blue bandana around his forehead, tied at the back of his head, plus black jeans and a leather vest and motorcycle boots. He drove a vintage hearse, which tended to upset older people. For a hobby, Daniel played Dungeons and Dragons, for which he painted tiny figurines. Years later, Daniel would go to prison. Something about guns. But my biggest worry back then, as Daniel’s girlfriend, was that he already had a girlfriend named Kumi. “I will always love Kumi best,” Daniel told me. But Kumi lived in Japan, so it was okay for Daniel to be with me until she came back. It was also apparently okay for him to sleep with other girls while loving Kumi best and dating me, although this eventually became a sticking point. Daniel lived with his mother, Terry, who was kind and exhausted. Terry sat on the couch every evening watching comedy on cable TV and drinking white wine. “Once,” she told me from her spot on the couch, “I nodded off here eating a tuna sandwich. When I woke up, the cat was eating the sandwich out of my mouth.”
During the third year of this arrangement with Daniel and his mother and Kumi and the others, I missed my period. I was nineteen and had just started taking college classes—Latin and linguistics and poetry. I lived in a cinderblock apartment near campus and worked at an ice cream place that also served burgers and fries and beer cheese soup. It was February and my breasts were on fire. Daniel drove me to the clinic. I stared at the ceiling and tried not to see my stepfather’s face, but there he was anyway, like always. When it was over, I went back to my apartment and collapsed on my twin bed. When I got up again, everything was exactly the same except for the cracking, which, again, was deep.
Breaking up with Daniel took time, mainly because he noticed I was changed and tried briefly to keep us taped together. He cut his hair short and bought new pants and shiny dress shoes—but it didn’t work. In May, I met Joe working at the university fundraising center. Joe was finished with his degree and looking for a teaching job. He was also engaged to someone else, but he called that off and even got back the ring. “Someday,” he said, “I might give this to you.”
JOE AND I took long drives to see his parents, who had moved from Madison Street to a lake house in the country. His mother was cool toward me due to the whole canceled wedding and such, but I loved her anyway for how she moved about the kitchen and placed checked cloths on the long table in the screen porch for lunch, which she herself prepared for everyone, including Joe’s older brothers and sisters and all their little children, who were especially fond of me.
Little by little, I told Joe about Daniel and Mark and Bill and the foster homes and my mother and my stepfather and the afternoon at the clinic. He shared secrets, too, like how he’d once eaten too many fish sandwiches on Good Friday, resulting in constipation so severe that his mother had dragged him to the doctor. And how his father had a temper so that sometimes when he got going, one of the older siblings would set off the fire alarm in the house and they would all tear around screaming, Dad alert! Dad alert! And how his older siblings had started him drinking gin in the basement when he was twelve. And how his fiancé, too, had had missed her period, and how afterward, they had agreed to stop having sex until their wedding, which now would never happen.
Joe kept a small sailboat at his parents’ house, and we’d go out on the lake and float. He taught me the difference between the boom and the rudder and the mast, and how to come about when the wind changed. Sometimes, his friends came with us and we drank spiked punch on the pontoon and Joe made honey-bourbon chicken for dinner and served it with more spiked punch, which on the first few occasions made me sick because I wasn’t used to drinking.
“I love you,” I whispered to Joe one night, after I had finished throwing up and rinsing my mouth. We were lying together in a twin bed in his mother’s basement.
“Thank you,” Joe said.
Outside, the cricket sounds swelled. Then the furnace kicked in. All around us, the silence roared.
“I’m just making a point,” Joe said finally.
“About saying ‘I love you.’ It isn’t like fishing. You don’t say it just to hear it back.”
WHAT I FEARED most during that year on Jackson Street was that I was too broken to be fixed. Maybe I had faked my way into a job and a wedding and a Baby Girl who was actually just a gassy stray cat, but, in the end, I was just a foster kid with a history of hearses and stuffed camels and real motherhood was a whole other level. Surely, God would have to intervene. I had thought—for one hovering moment in that slant of late September sun at the altar of Joe’s boyhood parish—that I had resolved my past, with its closed fists and thick fingers. But at twenty-one, I had not nearly grasped the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth, as the poet Adrienne Rich so poignantly describes.
I wish someone could have told me about the real surprise: how my daughter’s gray, wondering eyes, when she first looked up at me that August, would become like the beam of a lamp along that “something more permanent,” how her sweaty little head might point me toward the thing I had always been coming for. That would have been a comfort on those terror-stricken mornings I spent alone staring into the empty chain link. But I had to find it out for myself, when she finally arrived, my tiny featherless bird. The girl who breathed first under water, the girl who lived first inside the wreck of me. She would be bigger than me, bigger than all of us, but, somehow, the walls would not buckle and fall, the floor and ceiling would not blow out as she expanded everywhere, like sea, like sky. I will never forget how it felt to finally hold her, my firstborn daughter, still salty and oceanic.
I would name my baby girl Sophia, for the sheer beauty of it, and because it means wisdom. She would give her lifelong love to the first Baby Girl, stuffing that little cat into ruffled doll dresses and walking her on a leash and reading her stories and coaxing her to drink from teacups and eventually, seventeen years later, watching her die.
All along, I would love my daughter with a searing heat and an unimaginable lightness. In turn, she would flap her little baby wings, kick up her own currents of air and, in so doing, change everything. Maybe healing, when it happens, is the result of a grand quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand swelling winds. Maybe it comes when you give your daughter your own heart like another stuffed toy that she will drag with her everywhere: clenching it in her little baby fists whenever she screams in fear or sadness or pain, soaring through the air with it as she jumps from a swing at the highest possible point in the July sky, stuffing it into her backpack as she skulks off to high school on a bad day, locking herself away with it, broken, when her first love leaves her. All along, I would give Sophie the one single thing I had to offer other than my love—which was my words—all of them, filling her up as she nestled into the curve of my life. I would be awed when she grew up to be a writer, so that decades into the future, she would read my writing, and, with utmost precision, pick the words up, one here, one there, to test their shape and weight before skipping them back across the water, counting how many times each would bounce before slipping under.
WHEN THE BATTLE finally ensued between Joe and me—some ten years after Sophie arrived—it was epic, indeed. At the time, I thought it mattered that I hadn’t technically had an affair, but I know now that no one cares about technicalities and, more so, that there are worse things than affairs, like falling in love. So Joe and I cast ourselves out of our own rose patch, the one we had failed, despite our youthful promises, to grow. By then, though, I had learned something else about symbols and how we pay. Which is that we make our own meaning, and if we do pay at all, it is, as James Baldwin says, with the lives we lead as our only currency. Here’s the truth about brokenness: you can tear a thing apart and tape it back together, and it will still be torn and whole. There is no other way. Scars don’t lose their feeling. They become more tender to the touch.
Here’s something else I learned after that year of cabbage and oats and chain link—something about roses. Namely, that there are many kinds, including heirloom shrubs that produce graceful, delicate blossoms. These wild strains are resilient and hardy. They thrive through the harshest climates and endure neglect and even abuse with surprising tenacity. They are poisoned neither by lack of care nor by their own adaptations. They require no pruning, yet bloom abundantly summer into fall, year after year. They are something like strays. You can love them, but they know how to grow themselves.
These are my roses.
Still, even with wildest ones, there is “something to it.” But that something is unknowable. It is of us, but not us, like light from stars that no longer exist. Light that, when breathed into the darkness of a lung, seeps through the cracks, spills into the ribcage, fills it, and finally, finally, burnishes the heart.
Jeannine Ouellette is the author of several nonfiction books and the children’s picture book Mama Moon. Her work has appeared in many journals including Up the Staircase Quarterly, december magazine, Nowhere, The Rake, Utne, and On the Issues, as well as in the anthologies Feminist Parenting and Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. In 2015, her short story “Tumbleweeds” was selected by judge Joyce Carol Oates for a second-place Curt Johnson Prose Award, and her poem “Wingless Bodies” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Jeannine is founder and director of Elephant Rock, a creative writing program based in Minneapolis. She is working on her first novel.