Rose, Honey, or Strawberry Moon (June)
We dug up the bushes, moving gifts from my mother’s friends, transported them to our tiny backyard, planted them in rows, a fine garden. Suddenly they took over, bursting into frenzied blooms, the metal tags dangling, all hybrids, expensive, my mother’s friends were rich, we weren’t. Tropicana, Peace, Mister Lincoln — but over the next few years they all gave up the ghost, dwindled away to one or two sticks bearing black-spotted leaves, an occasional bud. My mother & stepfather forgot the roses, neglected them the way they neglected their and my mental health. Cases of beer and gallons of wine were lugged home instead. We sold the house when my mother & stepfather divorced, the new owners didn’t care for roses, I haven’t seen the backyard in decades. I used to swing there, under a Florida holly, on a splintery board, watching the roses in their sweet decline. Remnants of a more splendid time, not mine. My dog and cat were buried in that yard, my girlhood surrendered to a more ominous time, a time of sneaking out the bedroom window. I had a purple and blue room, painted furniture, a globe of the world, matching curtains & bedspread. I lost the room when I lost my cobbled-together family. But the absence of family was no great loss, not the same as losing the roses. It wasn’t my family anyway, though people were always telling me how much I looked like my “dad.” We hardly ever had the heart to tell them we weren’t related. For a while, he liked me, but not when I started showing signs of womanhood. Then he despised me, the way he despised my mother.
I was an ugly, awkward girl. My glasses hid my eyes, my hair hid my face, the only things revealed were arms & legs like jointed sticks, bare feet with black soles, a pair of bright yellow & white plaid shorts & a white cotton shirt. My hair bleached at the ends, stiff like straw from the sun & pool water. My smile was alarming, my sullen face more of a comfort. I met my “real” father that year. He was frightening, a reminder of myself yet a complete stranger. I suffered from vertigo in his presence, the room grew long and thin, the sounds bounced off the walls like rubber, and I was covered with cold sweat. I didn’t want to touch him. After he left, I went to swing next to the roses. That rope and board swing saved my mind over & over. I could carry on after that soothing motion.
The neighbor across the street decided to keep bees. The two hives were square wooden boxes, painted white, and he kept them in the side yard, past the driveway, against the chain link fence. They buzzed in and out all day, and I was always afraid of being stung. His orange blossom honey was sweet & bright & bland. I was desperately in love with his oldest son, and the man himself hated me. The mother was slightly less hostile. His son was tall & long-limbed & had chestnut hair & dark hazel eyes. His hands were beautifully shaped, the hands of a pianist, but he was not a musician, he was not an artist, not an intellectual. He should have been, he looked the part. Instead he was an athlete, always running or riding or throwing or hitting. I played basketball with him in the driveway, always humiliated, always losing, but it was the only way to be with him. I humbled myself, and years later when I became beautiful, he loved me back, but it was too late. He wouldn’t speak, and I couldn’t stand the silence. I foresaw years of painful silence broken only by my own shouting. I gave him up, my first love. And lived to regret it. I wonder if the silence would have endured. His nervous, awkward kisses were sweeter than his father’s honey. We lay together on my bed and necked for hours. He was so shy. I was willing to let him be that way. The first time we had real sex wasn’t as good as all the times spent in preparation. We were both too young to know what we had. Everything seems possible in June. Everything seems as though it will last forever. I still have a jar with a petrified sugar-crust, remnants of his daddy’s honey.
One year, my grandfather planted a field of strawberries behind his house, my little brother and I wandered up and down the rows, picking the ripe ones and eating them on the spot. We didn’t care that they weren’t washed. They were so warm & sweet & soft & our lips turned red, my brother’s face smeared pinkish, like a lover’s blush. I was madly in love with everyone that summer. I just wanted to be held. Men were foreign to me, I couldn’t understand them at all. My brother and I ate as many as we wanted, then picked buckets full for later. Washed & cut up, they weren’t the same, still good, but the wildness was off them. My grandfather’s hands as he cut them up were beautiful & careful & solid, I wanted to look at his hands forever. They were not delicate, but not rough — a man’s good hands, they looked loving & trustworthy, and even though he never really touched me, I could tell they could transmit all varieties of tenderness & passion. I loved my grandfather for being that kind of man — I wished I could have been a stranger, so that he could have loved me too. All summer long, I ate sweet strawberries & dreamed of love, a man to love me like a piece of perfect, ripe fruit. I was only 14, still gangly & shy, and no one came along for several years, yet still the dream carried me along like a fast ship, driven by a cool wind.