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Through the Rose Garden

A short story by Sally Berneathy

            Allison blinked, set her cup of coffee on the polished mahogany table and looked again out the kitchen window.

            Nothing there except her beautiful but quite prosaic rose garden.

            What had she thought she'd seen?  A gleaming spiral horn dipping into the goldfish pond, a flash of silvery white like a reflection of the morning sun on the water.

            That's all it had been.  A reflection from the unusually clear water of the goldfish pond.  It sparkled as if it had been touched by magic rather than the same sunshine that touched it every day.  As if a unicorn horn with its legendary cleansing powers had indeed dipped there for an instant.

            Allison frowned at her fanciful thoughts.  Just because her life wasn't a fairy tale was no reason for her to retreat into one.

            She turned from the window, lifted her coffee to her lips and resolved to dismiss from her mind the images she couldn't catalogue.  There were plenty of familiar, reality-based things she needed to consider--what colors to use in redecorating her daughter's room now that Megan was married and gone; whether she could call her husband's latest indiscretion an infidelity when there remained so little to be faithful to; how to amuse herself today and tomorrow and the day after that; whether the roses still smelled as sweet as when she used to tend them...

            Allison slid her chair back from the table, tightened the sash of her white satin robe and headed for the door into the rose garden.

            The heady, pink scent washed over her, enveloping her in a world that seemed far away from the house she'd just left.  She touched a flower, bending to study each velvet petal.  The early morning dew sat in trembling, rainbow droplets.

            "Allison, what on earth are you doing?  You'll prick your finger on the thorns."  The voice was resonant, authoritative, trained to carry well across a courtroom.

            She lifted her gaze toward the sound and forced herself to smile up into a familiar face that suddenly seemed unfamiliar and far away.

            He looked the same as he always had, still handsome although his face was lined from years of scowling.  His gray temples set off the rest of his dark hair and his stern expression to perfection.  Allison had always felt if his hair hadn't grayed at the right time and in the right places, he would have had his barber do the job correctly.

            "Aren't the roses gorgeous?" she finally managed to say, pulling herself regretfully from the warm, scented other-world.  "I'd forgotten we had so many colors.  Remember when we put the garden in, how much trouble we took to make sure every variety was coordinated with the one next to it?"

            Jerald gave no indication he heard her.  He turned and stepped over to the goldfish pond.  "Did Washington come yesterday?  I thought he came on Thursdays.  Good job on the pond, cleanest I've ever seen that water."  He returned to Allison's side.  "I've got to run.  We're closing Steve's corporate buyout at 10:00, and I have a new client coming in this afternoon.  Don't expect me for dinner."

            He bent and pecked her lips.  She pecked back, but her reaction was slightly off.  Jerald was already gone.

            She strolled into the house again, disoriented, as if she were just returning from a long journey.

            Okay, she thought, giving herself a mental shake, roses and fantasy are nice, but reality is that your husband is going to be out with his latest interest tonight.  Reality is that your daughter is gone and you're alone.  Reality is a tennis match with Marcia this morning.

            Reality wasn't warm or scented or colorful...or white and glistening.

            *                                  *                                  *

            Sweating, exhilarated with the way her body still responded, Allison followed Marcia off the tennis courts.

            "Got time for a drink, Allie?"

            Allison laughed.  "Time.  Yes, I'd say I have time."

            "I suppose you do now that Megan's wedding is over.  What a hassle that must have been!"

            "Not really.  I kind of enjoyed the hectic pace for a change.  I do miss her, though.  When you hold a tiny baby and worry about her and she's completely dependent on you, it's hard to realize that she'll grow into a separate person who'll leave you one day."

            The women sat down at a table on the clubhouse veranda.

            "Why, Allie, you sound positively emotional!  A vodka martini, please," Marcia instructed the waiter.  "And a white wine spritzer?"  Allison nodded.

            "So, Marcy, dare I ask what's new in your life?"

            Marcia giggled, and Allison felt a small thrill that it was possible for a woman over forty and graying at the roots to giggle.  In spite of the usual wrinkles from too many tanning booths and too many years, Marcia's pert face, surrounded by the soft, dark curls, didn't look ridiculous when she giggled.

            "Well, his name is Dave, and he's teaching me golf.  He's tall and blond and tan and very well built, if you know what I mean."

            Allison laughed.  "How is it that all your lovers just happen to fall into the porno-movie-proportions category?"

            Marcia was unabashed.  Her dark eyes opened wide, innocent, and her mouth quirked at the corners.  "You should try these young ones some time.  I can't imagine that Jerald is any more amorous at home than my husband."  Marcia accepted her martini, ordering another one before the waiter could leave.  "To put it bluntly, it's hard to imagine Jerald getting a hard-on without an ironclad, notarized agreement stipulating all the possible problems that might arise and the remedies therefor and, of course, a disclaimer. In the even this hard-on fails to do the specified task, the party of the first part shall not be held responsible."

            Allison's laughter bubbled out, unexpected, as a picture of Jerald obtaining such agreements from his various mistresses flashed through her mind.  "Marcy, you talk too much, you drink too much, you have too many lovers, you never heard of euphemisms, and I love you."

            "And you're too repressed, you don't talk enough, you don't drink enough, and you're going to wither up and turn into an old lady from a deficiency of sex."

            "Well, it's too late.  You've already taken all the well-endowed ones.  What's left for me?"

            "Now, Allison--" Marcia accepted her second martini and ordered a third-- "I'm being serious.  I know what your life is like, and I also know what it used to be like years ago, back when we were young.  You used to enjoy life.  Hell, you loved life!"

            "Marcy, there is nothing wrong with my life," Allison protested.

            "Well, there's nothing right with it, either.  Jerald is a jerk."  She paused to smile.  "I like that.  Jerald the Jerk."

            "Jerald is never unkind to me."

            "He's never anything to you.  Look at you!  You're still gorgeous, disgustingly so.  A little thin, maybe, or maybe I'm just jealous.  And your hair is so light, you don't even have to hide the gray."  She squinted, trying to focus through myopia and alcohol.  "You have hardly any wrinkles.  But maybe that's because you never smile.  You always look serene and aloof, but you're not fooling me."

            Allison frowned.  "I look serene and aloof and hardly ever smile?"  The waiter approached with Marcia's third martini.  "Please don't order another drink."

            "Why not?  What have we got to do for the rest of the day?"  Marcia ducked her head and gazed up through lush false eyelashes.  "Golf isn't until tomorrow--unless you should happen to know of a new tennis instructor here?  I seem to have used up all the old ones."  She allowed the waiter to leave without a fourth order.

            Allison sipped her spritzer and gazed at the rose in the crystal vase on their table.  "Well, I'll tell you what I don't want to do for the rest of the day.  I don't want to join another committee or plan another benefit or attend another luncheon."  She stroked the rose petals.  "Why don't we go horseback riding?  How long has hit been since we did that?"

            "Hey," Marcia exclaimed, "riding instructors!  Great idea!"

            Allison ignored the comment.  "Remember how we'd catch the horses in your uncle's pasture and ride bareback through the woods?  Remember how the horse would smooth into a run and all you could feel were his muscles rippling and the wind streaming past?  We were always going to gallop off into the sun, over the rainbow, leave school and homework far behind!"

            "Yeah.  Remember how Jerald the Jerk nearly had a heart attack when he caught you doing that just before he graduated from law school?  We're talking major no wife of mine temper tantrum.  I knew right then he was going to be a successful attorney.  He has intimidation down to a science.  Look how he pushed you into marrying him."

            Allison picked up a menu.  "Let's order some lunch."

            *                                  *                                  *

            Twilight settled around her as Allison pulled into her driveway for the second time that day.  After the events of the afternoon, she ought to feel something...and she would as soon as she could figure out what she should feel.

            She turned the key in her front door, went to the bar and poured blood-red burgundy into a crystal wine glass.  Taking her drink to the table by the window, Allison thought back over the afternoon, trying to decide if she was reacting in a normal way.  She didn't think so, though she wasn't exactly sure what normal would be.

            It had begun with the telephone call shortly after she returned home from lunch with Marcia.  The voice was young, female, uncertain but determined.  The caller insisted on a face-to-face meeting, then volunteered that her name was Heather, as though that explained everything.

            Allison was apologetic, reluctant to hurt the girl's feelings.  "Certainly I'll be happy to talk with you in person, Heather, but I must confess, I can't quite place you."

            "Jerald and I are in love."

            "Oh.  Well.  Of course."  She realized then her feelings were out of synch.  Shouldn't that have provoked something-- anger, disappointment--something?  Where had her emotions gone?  When had they left?

            She and Heather met in a bar of the girl's choosing.  The place was large and empty, though the smell of stale cigarette smoke gave silent testimony that it was only resting between its nightly crowds of revelers.

            In a plastic booth in the corner Allison sipped her wine and studied the girl.  Her long straight hair hung limply down her back, and she wore no makeup.  She was pretty though not beautiful, but her youth, vitality, innocence--yes, she would be Jerald's type.

            She wore a loose, cotton shirt and long muslin skirt, and Allison in her linen suit felt sleek, sophisticated and old.

            Heather took a long drink of her beer, then leaned across the table, forehead creased, blue eyes slitted, intense.  "Jerald told me you found out about us and threatened to ruin his career if he didn't stop seeing me."

            Allison stared in fascination at the girl, at the sparks in her eyes, at one small, tanned hand wrapped around her glass of beer, the other clutching the side of the table as if for support.

            Had she ever possessed so much passion?  Where could it have gone?

            "I'm sorry," Allison finally said.  "There must be some mistake."

            Heather's face contorted, the features writhing; Allison wasn't sure whether the girl was going to cry or rage.  Her face finally settled into an expression of agony as she spread her hands on the table top, palms up, pleading.  "Don't you know what it's like to be in love?  How can you be happy at the expense of others?  How can you be happy with a man who doesn't want you?  Let him go!"

            Detached, Allison studied the dramatics.  Effective, she thought.  With all the absurd clichés, vocal and visual, it ought to be funny, campy, but this was real.  Laughter would be inappropriate.

            She jumped as Heather leaned across the Formica tabletop and grabbed her hand.  "He loves me!" the girl insisted.  "We've been apart for three weeks and four days, and we can't stand it any longer.  He told me he only wants his law practice, he offered you the house and the money.  Take it!  It's all you have anyway.  You don't have him!"

            Allison reclaimed her hand and wiped it on a cocktail napkin, concealing the movement in her lap.  "Three weeks?  I see."  For a moment she toyed with the idea of telling the girl the truth about Jerald's sudden defection, about the new woman in his life.

            Instead, she reached for her handbag.  "Well, Heather, I must go.  It's been a pleasure meeting you."  Rising from the table, she started to offer her hand, restrained herself, realizing the inappropriateness of the appropriate, laid money for both drinks on the table and turned to leave.

            "I'm having his baby!" the girl blurted.

            Allison paused but didn't turn.  "Jerald had a vasectomy twenty years ago," she said quietly.  "I'm sorry."  She left the restaurant hurriedly, wondering at her impulse to return and comfort the girl.

            Shouldn't I feel outrage or anger or something besides pity? Allison asked herself as she lifted her glass to the window, wishing for sunshine so the crystal would refract.  She could use a rainbow.

            When she and Jerald had first married, she hung crystals in all the windows of their small, rented home.  Crystals were magic, she told him; you could look all the way through them and never see the rainbows that were hidden inside until the sun came along and freed them.

            The crystals and rainbows disappeared the first time she and Jerald entertained the senior partner from the law firm where Jerald was a beginning associate. They were unprofessional, he had explained.

            In the garden a firefly flickered, lighting brief rainbows on a glistening white spiral almost hidden in the bushes.  Allison set down her wine glass and walked out.

            *                                  *                                  *

            She was sitting in the garden, singing softly, her linen skirt pulled up past her knees, dangling her feet in the goldfish pond when Jerald came in that night.

            "There you are!  What are you doing out here?  Why aren't you in bed?"

            Allison smiled up at him.  "Enjoying the evening.  I chased the fireflies until they went in."

             Jerald frowned; even his ears seemed to turn down.  Allison laughed.  The frown deepened.  "Oh, stop scowling.  I'll come inside now that you're home."  She moved up beside her husband and took his arm.  "Did you have a rough day, darling?  Such a long day.  You must be exhausted."

            Jerald hesitated, his eyes searching her face.  Finally he allowed her to lead him toward the house.  At the door she turned back to the garden.  "Good night."

            Jerald grabbed her shoulders, whirling her to face him.  Horizontal lines creased his forehead.  "Who are you talking to?" he demanded.  "Is somebody out there?"

            Allison's laughter tinkled into the night.  "The roses are out there, the goldfish, the fireflies...there's a whole world out there I've been ignoring."  Suddenly she felt the need to try one last time to reach him.  "I think I'll drag out our old lawn furniture and have my coffee in the rose garden in the morning like we used to.  Why don't you get up a few minutes early and join me?"

            He didn't answer.  Deep inside she hadn't really expected him to.

            *                                              *                                  *         

            Allison caught herself humming the next day as she dressed for lunch with Marcia.  Pulling a sky blue silk dress over her head, she luxuriated in the soft fabric sliding over smooth skin.  Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she leaned forward, pulled the chin-length pale hair away from her face and inspected the gray Marcia professed not to see.

            How, she wondered, did this eighteen year old person ever get into this forty-three year old body?  And, more importantly, how does this eighteen year old get out?

            As she entered the restaurant, Allison saw that Marcia already had an empty martini glass before her on the table.

             She looked up, a smile crinkling her pixie face.  "Why, Allie, you're absolutely glowing!  Do you have a lover?  I'll never breathe a word!"

            Allison laughed as she sank into the cushioned chair the waiter held for her and accepted the padded menu.  "No, Marcy, I don't have a lover.  You're as bad as Jerald.  You think I have a lover and he thinks I'm crazy."

            Marcia set her second martini, only half-consumed, on the white tablecloth.  "Why does Jerald think his perfect wife is crazy?  I knew something was going on.  You could never play poker, my dear Allie.  It's all over your face, like a hundred-watt light bulb.  You're in love.  That's the only explanation.  You must tell me all the details.  Don't I always tell you?"

            "I promise, I'm not in love--unless it's with my rose garden and the beautiful hummingbird I saw this morning.  Their wings move so fast, they're almost invisible.  Their little bodies just seem to float in midair, bright red and green, just like the roses."

            Marcia tossed down a substantial amount of her drink, seriously depleting the contents of the small glass.  "Waiter!  Allie, either you're not being completely truthful with your old friend here or Jerald is right.  If you really are beaming because you were out in the rose garden this morning, communing with the hummingbirds, you are ready for the loony bin.  But don't worry.  I'll come to see you and smuggle in roses and hummingbirds so you can keep glowing."

            "I'm afraid the whole, lurid story is even worse than that.  When Jerald came in last night, he caught me sitting with my feet in the goldfish pond, contemplating the moon.  I'd been chasing fireflies and--"  She looked up at the waiter who'd moved into position beside Marcia's elbow, silently demanding.

            "Marcy, by all means have another drink, and let's order food.  Lots of food.  I'm famished.  You know how we crazy people are.  We eat a lot."

            "I didn't know that."

            "You do now.  Let's have one item from every category on the menu and three items from the dessert tray."

            "Love," Marcia mumbled, reaching for her menu.

            *                                  *                                  *         

            Still pleasantly full from the voluptuous lunch, Allison danced naked in the rose garden that afternoon, luxuriating in the feel of the sun's heat and the cool spray from the sprinkler system on her bare skin.

            "Allison!"  Jerald bellowed.  He raised a navy blue-clad arm and pointed a large, square finger at her.  "Get in the house this minute!  I've tolerated your eccentric behavior as long as I can.  You've pushed me past my limits!"

            Allison turned to him, smiled and retrieved her yellow cotton dress from the edge of the goldfish pond.

            The furrows in Jerald's forehead attained new depths.  "Suppose someone had seen you!  What is the matter with you?  I don't understand what's happened to you?"

            "Who could see me back here, and if they could, so what?  You should try it.  The sunshine oozes into your skin and the water cools little spots on the surface.  It's really wonderful.  The rose bushes and wild creatures--" she paused to pull a three foot long silver hair from a rose bush and twist it around her hands.  "They get to feel it every time the sprinkler comes on.  We're so deprived living in that sterile house."

            Jerald opened the door.  "Go upstairs and put on your clothes, then get back down here.  I demand an explanation."

            Unperturbed, Allison slipped her dress over her head and began buttoning the front.  "If you wish to discuss explanations, let's start with the reason for your presence here in the middle of the day."

            "Never mind my presence in my own home.  What were you doing in the garden, naked, cavorting like a savage?"

            Allison sank into a large, cushioned, beige chair and looked up at Jerald.  "I've already told you.  Experiencing the juxtaposition of sun and water on my skin.Very nice.Very sensuous.  Now, let's talk about your unexpected trip home in the middle of the day.  Could it have anything to do with Heather?  I was at lunch with Marcia when she came by today, but she left me a thick letter.  I haven't bothered to read it, but I assume it's a plea for your freedom so you can marry her.  We had a lengthy discussion on the subject yesterday."

            Jerald's eyes narrowed, and his teeth clenched.  "That bitch!"

            Intrigued but detached, Allison watched her husband's changing features as though she watched a stranger.  She shook her head slowly.  "She isn't a bitch.  She's young and hurt and misguided, but she'll survive in spite of you."

            The angry stranger leapt to his feet, reached Allison in one stride and leaned over her, putting large hands on both arms of her chair.  His eyes were cold, calculating; they had the look she'd seen when his client's case was going badly and he had to manipulate and intimidate the jury.  "So, what do you want?  A divorce?  Give up this house, your luncheons, your committees, yourtennis?  What would you do?  I'd see to it that you were left without a penny.  Don't forget, I go to lunch with judges."

            Allison looked into the face only inches from her own.  She knew she was supposed to be frightened, subdued.  This was Jerald's specialty, his best routine.  But there it was again, that failure to react, to feel any emotions.

            Jerald's temples pulsed blood and rage that filled out the furrows of his face, bulged his eyes.

            She studied the man bending over her, his perfectly grayed temples, the creases in his forehead, his navy blue summer wool suit, his monogrammed tie, but no where could she find her husband.

            "Actually, I think I want to go upstairs and have a nice bubble bath.  Will you excuse me?"  She pushed gently at his arms, then slid away when he stepped back.

            *                                  *                                  *         

            Jerald returned home from the country club a few minutes after midnight.  He didn't dare see Mallory again until he knew what Allison was up to, so he'd spent the evening with associates from his firm.

            As he entered his bedroom and saw the covers still smooth and undisturbed, his eyes narrowed.  "Bitch!" She was gone, out with some man.

             He stomped from room to room, bellowing threats, until he saw the open door to the garden.

            The damned woman had no respect for his property, leaving his house open for just anybody to walk into and carry off his expensive possessions.  He started to close it, then realized she might still be out there.

            Charging outside, he stalked past the still-sparkling goldfish pond, cursed as the sleeve of his raw silk suit snagged on a rosebush thorn.  He looked down at the damp earth and saw Allison's barefoot tracks.  Good God!  The woman had been dancing naked in the garden again!  He would have to get her into some kind of a rehab center.

            The tracks went in a straight line, as though she were walking.

            And stopped where some kind of animal tracks intersected hers, strange tracks like those of an animal the size and weight of a horse but with cloven hooves.

            The animal tracks continued out of the garden, but Allison's prints disappeared.

            Jerald stood, looking around him, suddenly sober and confused.  From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement, but it was only the moonlight dancing off the water in the goldfish pond.

            A breeze stirred past him bringing the scent of roses and the faint sound of wind chimes or laughter.   

 

 
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