The first year we were married, Richard and I made love in every state between New York and California. We thought our bodies would never wear out. We camped in national parks at night and in the daytime we toured famous gardens. We began with the Sonnenberg, near us in Canandaigua, and ended at the Golden Gate Conservatory. In St. Louis it was the Shaw; we spent two days wandering the eighty acres, coming home at night to Richard’s grandfather’s apartment.
It’s curious, but what I remember from that trip now is not the feat of geographical sex, or the wonders of highly manipulated landscapes, but something the old man told us. We were standing in the narrow hallway of his large and comfortable apartment, looking at a wall of photographs that showed him as a young man, and though he was still just as well-dressed and elegant, age had made him fragile. His body was stooped and starved-looking, but his brain was fine and his eyes were lively. “I can’t believe I’m eighty-seven,” he whispered. “How did it happen?” At that time the question seemed irrelevant. Richard’s pop-pop might have succumbed to eighty years, but I knew, at age twenty-three, that I would have the strength and better sense to avoid it.
This was not because I thought I would die young, or because my generally pessimistic view of international affairs accepted the probability of a devastating nuclear event; the fact is, I really did believe I would never be older than thirty-six, the age I had once chosen with a friend as the last outpost before the decrepitude neither of us would ever consent to experience.
The problem, now that I’m well past that outpost and others, meaning that I’m a post-puberty, post-fertility, post-pregnancy, post-childbirth, post-lactation, post-menopause woman, is: how does one go forward? What does the baby-making body do now? I remember the hallway. It was painted a soft canary yellow and the little man was so excited to see us. How did it happen, he asked. He knew and I do too. No one can escape time. For me, the question is still in the present tense: How does it happen?
What I mean, of course, is Hagar. My friend with the unfortunate name. I’ve never asked her about it. And the truth is, now that we like each other, I never think of her namesake at all.
When I step outside, I am just in time to see her little green station wagon leave my driveway to turn onto the road. She is furious. I can tell by the way she comes to only half a stop and then barrels onto the paved surface in a tall spume of dust. Less than an hour ago she had called to ask if we had internet, theirs was down, could she come by to get online?
I was glad for the company and had gone outside to wait for her. In October, there are always things to do. Weeds to pull, hoses to bring in, plants to mulch with the straw stored in the barn, so as I waited for her, I also accomplished things. What I’ve always told people who come to my gardening clinics is that what you do in the fall, that is, the way you put your gardens to bed for the winter, will, to a large extent, determine the success of your efforts the following spring. Trim, weed, mulch. It’s the October mantra, a gardener’s way of saying thank you and goodbye to the beds that have given so much food and pleasure. The mulch provides extra housing against the wind that will rage across our hilltop in November and the heavy snows that will follow. October is as busy for me as May, the month the gardens finally wake up from death.
Hagar is not interested in vegetables or flowers. And of course gardening is harder when you have an infant. My children seemed to have survived it, each established now in a different part of the country, but sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so ambitious. I wish I had slowed down and enjoyed their first years rather than stowing them away in the various places I had for stowing them, so I could get on with my business.
That’s how I thought of it. The gardens were my means of expression. I knew I shouldn’t let them go entirely, but I couldn’t even cut back. So every season but winter was frantic.
I don’t tell these things to Hagar. What young mother wants someone giving advice? Especially when you’re cramming your daughter’s first year with important other things. So I don’t mention my regrets, and instead I tell her about Richard, far from the internet, tucked away for ten months in a life of research, one of six international biologists mapping the life cycle of the African savannah, the place they believe was the home of humanity’s first progenitors. Because Hagar is a new friend, she has never met Richard. But she’s seen photographs, she’s heard parts of his letters, and she believes that marriages get better when husband and wife spend time apart. “Doing what they have to do,” is the way she puts it, giving it the uplifting tone of sacrifice.
I don’t tell her that loneliness makes me so desperate sometimes I am unable to go into my empty house, that I stay here, outside, all day with the plants. I walk through the rattling leaves of dying corn, past the frost-ruined basil. My eye travels out to the tamaracks in the field. Come November they will turn yellow and the needles will fall to the ground, but by then everyone will be asleep but the evergreens. What will I do? A long winter alone up here on the hill worries me. But that’s another thing I haven’t mentioned.
I could see Hagar at the end of our lane, just beginning the long, uphill climb, her tires churning the gritty dust on a loose road bed that will be plowed this winter not by Richard but by Bud, the neighbor between us. I waved once, in case she happened to be looking towards the gladiola circle, and then bent down to continue digging them up.
But Hagar was in a rush. The car was going too fast; I could hear stones hurled against its undersides. In a flash she was parked, and then Lily was already unbuckled and in her arms. Heaps of unruly brown hair tumbled over her shoulders, curtaining the child who was used to being veiled by those strands. I embraced it all: hair, child, woman.
Colors do not clash, she once told me, and it’s a belief she adheres to. Today she was wearing orange pants and a loose red blouse. Hagar’s skin is as smooth and creamy as the petals on the little magnolia I planted in a wind-protected corner of our property and now am mulching heavily because it’s really not supposed to survive our climate. Her face has the same slight blush of pink and her eyes light up when she looks at me, though she dispenses with greetings always. There’s no hello or smile, no initiating comment about the weather, but a look full of intention, as though we were in the middle of an ongoing conversation. I find it thrilling. Hagar pulled away, thrusting the child towards me—“Hold Lily, will you? I have to get online”—and ran into my house.
I have always felt that when friendships achieve this level of informality they’re secure, but ours, I must say, reached it almost immediately because Hagar is a person who assumes the other is perfectly willing to respond to her many requirements. I tucked Lily against my body and chattered to her as we walked among my beds. At four months, she fit my arms perfectly. When she was still. But when she got fidgety, which she was starting to do as she realized that the person who held her lacked the reassuring odor of breast milk, she became awkward. I shifted her to an upright position so I could pat her back and we continued our stroll. As I showed her the leeks and collards that were still growing in the garden, I was talking all the time, telling her how sweet the greens became after frost and that I’d cut some so her mother could cook them for dinner; but she would not be consoled. I tried thumping her back. That often works. The theory is to distract her from hunger by providing her with another sensation that’s just as strong. I kissed the sun-warmed top of her head and cupped my hand around her firm little skull. My hand fit her head perfectly and she rode in the chair that my hips made, her arm stretching across my breast for security. I noticed, not for the first time, how beautifully we are designed for this portage. Mothers when we’re young, grandmothers when we’re older.
My daughters live on the other side of the continent. I see them twice a year. There was a time when Richard and I talked about moving closer, but we couldn’t leave our gardens. “Oh Lily,” I say, “let me show you the winter squash.” I take her into the shed and show her the rows of vegetables and I can feel her respond to the excitement of my voice. “It’s called delicata.” I point to a funny striped one and she coos.
Hagar found us with the carrots. They were laid out to dry in the garage, and this year they were so big and thick they looked obscene. Hagar saw it too. “Why, Nancy—vegetable dildos?”
Lily was ecstatic. She bumped up and down and lifted her arms as she called out, in pre-language sounds, the noises that would bring the goddess of milk to our side.
“I know what you want.” Hagar took her daughter and walked to the patio where the summer furniture was still set out. She asked for a glass of water, which I brought happily, and then I sat down too. Hagar nursed without prudishness, the rounded white top of her breast exposed so her daughter’s hand could grasp it, the hair falling over them both, and the long and interesting messages flashing in the depths of her dark eyes as she talked. This woman with the Old Testament name is a fiber artist. That means that though she knits and crochets and weaves things on looms, she makes absolutely nothing that’s useful. Her email today was with the curator of a museum in a small Midwestern city that wants to exhibit, in two years time, her rooms. Hagar knits rooms. Or has knit at least one room and apparently is planning to knit more. I saw it. It was enormous. Blood red walls of yarn with a floor of yarn and a sofa and two chairs of yarn big enough to sit on. It was all one piece—an environment I guess you would call it—that hung from the ceiling in a large gallery and which, if you took off your shoes, you could walk into. I did that and the experience was, well, it was grand. That’s the word I used to describe it to Hagar when she asked, but privately I thought it too gynecological. The red stringy softness made me think of female things. Earthy and organic are qualities I obviously like, but this felt like a visit to the uterus. Which is discomfiting, making you feel as though you were peeping up close on a couple in the midst of . . . or hearing a couple in the midst of . . . I wanted abstraction. And maybe that’s the direction she’ll go in. Maybe the rooms will lose the realism of blood and furniture and take in the wider sweep: fear, mortality, homeland. Who knows?
As Lily sucked, I could see the muscles working in her cheek. She turned her head to look at me from the safety of her mother’s arms, milk glistening on her chin, the wet, pointed nipple exposed. She turned back, slid it into her mouth, and the muscles in her cheek started again.
“It will require an extensive body of work,” Hagar was saying. “But how can I turn it down? So I said yes. Even though, God knows, our lives are really going to have to change, and for this little one I’m afraid we’ll have to find a sitter because I’ll need more than nights. I’ll need to be working on my days off too.”
She turned to me point-on and this time there was only one message and it was very clear. But babysitting was a question I couldn’t address just yet because as the warm autumn sun beamed on us I was filled with rage. It all fit, didn’t it? Befriend the lonely neighbor because one day she will be useful. Babysitting! How very lovely. And fast on the heels of babysitting, old age and boredom.
Hagar switched Lily to the new breast and the used one peeked at me, its peaceful face unmasked. Little did it know that the days of such beauty were numbered. The milk ducts would shrivel, the lift would drop, and the whole pillowy mass would cave in. As Lily’s lips latched onto the new nipple, I remembered that feeling. Nothing in this world fits us like those practiced gums. Richard’s mouth is good and nice and necessary, and I do miss it, but there is nothing that locks so securely, that has such clear prerogative as those hard toothless gums.
Suddenly, I could not sit there. I saw my hand opening the door, my foot entering the kitchen, and I knew exactly who I was. I would not do it. The answer was no. No to all of it. I would not be a part of her scheme. The word they use now is enableand I grabbed it greedily. Yes, I would not enable her. She was the one with the milky tits. Let her take care of her baby.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, coming back out as though I’d simply gone in for the bathroom. “I’m sure you’ll find someone. There are lots of people who would jump at the chance, I’m sure, and you can keep me in reserve for emergencies. But on a daily basis, I just have too much to do around here.” I looked out at my landscaping, but we both knew that come November everything would be under snow and my days would be free. “And, if I could be truthful, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say. If you don’t mind getting some advice. It’s just that, Lily’s going to grow up quickly, faster than you can imagine, and this wonderful time, this time when she’s so dependent, maybe it makes better sense to be with her now, when she needs you, and save the art for when she starts school. And maybe my job, as your friend, is not to enable you.”
Hagar was gathering her things. “Thank you for the internet.”
At the top of the hill I see the whole valley. The last of the sun is melting into the horizon and the fat orange face of a harvest moon is balanced ridiculously over the tops of the trees. It is leering at me. You idiot! Her battered green station wagon has already rounded the curve; she is out of sight.
I turn to go inside and that is when the yellow hallway appears to me. And there in the hallway is the playful look on his face, the thin, whiskery cheeks, the surprisingly full and fleshy lips. And the question, How did it happen? Why am I remembering this now? I can feel his smooth dry palm, his knobby fingers as he takes my silly youthful hand in his own. I feel it as unmistakably as though I were still there. And then I realize: he is not resisting this. He is eighty-seven and he is simply surprised.
When I call her she does not answer the phone. Why are women so complicated? I will have to get in the car and drive over. But I know she won’t come to the door. I will have to open it myself. Hagar! I will shout, stepping into her house, I have come down from the top of the hill to tell you something! The drama of that announcement will summon her. But her eyes will flash like heat lightning. She will not let it go. Please, I will say in a soft voice, Don’t be offended. I am in no position to give advice to anybody. I am old. That is all I want to tell her. The three short words will feel so new in my mouth I will have to say them again. I am old. And Hagar, I don’t know the first thing about it.