Mama's Desert Rose
Ellie CooperYou first met him at that new Family Dental Center that opened next to your favorite Chinese fast-food restaurant. He was offering a $99 smile special. You thought of him as something spiritual in all his whiteness--white lab coat, white walls and teeth a perfect A-1 white. He ground your cracks and crevices and filled them with porcelain epoxy. He’d made you whole again, you thought.
He proposed to you that day in the Cretaceous Gardens where he used to play with his three girls from two prior marriages. He’d gotten down on one knee between the ferns, horsetails and liverworts and a nearby life-sized Ornithomimus. His children are grown and live in different cities; so, you are his sweetness now, he says.
After he leaves for work most mornings, you stare out into the garden where your perfectly planted daylilies grow between clumps of purple grass. You think of him as you drink dark roast from a chipped cup you inherited after Mama passed. The pattern is called Desert Rose. Afterwards, you sail through the day with a Tim McGraw or Darius Rucker song stuck in your head while you load-up the dishwasher or pick-up his socks from the floor. You count your lucky stars that at your age, you’ve found a good man, even if he is a workaholic; and, you secretly suspect but would never mention, he may covet your shoes. But no one among us is perfect as people say at the AA meeting you sporadically attend.
After a while, you paint the walls of his down-sized garden home that sage green that’s popular now in the ladies’ magazines, because it matches the color of his shirt he wore that day in the Dinosaur Park. You want to wrap yourself in him, you tell him, when he’s gone. In reality, you want to make your mark like a dog pissing her territory on all that whiteness.
In your rearranging, an heirloom portrait of some forgotten ancestor falls from the wall, and a corner crumples. You know you have struck a nerve when he gets home. He breathes your oxygen, and you crash—sixty to zero--like someone swatting a fly. You know you’ll come up for air, again. But in that moment--it’s lights out--and you’re that fly. It hurts but then it stops.
“Ah,” what relief you sigh.
After a few months or years, you notice those walls are not that pretty sage green but have morphed into an earthy brown and smell musty like mildew. You try and spot clean with Seventh Generation sustainable dish detergent, and then try something stronger, but that leaves a smell like Lysol from your Mama’s nursing home. You notice other things like the brown bumps on the tops of his hairy hands. He says they’ve always been there. Everyone has warts, your therapist tells you. So, you examine yourself naked in the full-length bedroom mirror. You don’t have warts—just the disappointing butt and breasts that sag, and childhood freckles and brown spots from not using sunscreen. You start using retinol cream at night and make an appointment with a dermatologist. You secretly read a book on Chinese horoscopes: he is ‘boar’ and you are ‘rooster’—an unsuitable match.
On the Internet, you search for divorce stats and find a pie chart. You think of a giant yellow Pacman—its small sliver of a mouth waiting to devour your marriage. Still you are determined. His sheets are white, and you don’t dare replace them. Besides, they are 1,000 count, and they brush against your skin like the warm ocean foam in Panama where you honeymooned. You turn to face him. The whiteness of the sheets also reminds you of the bleached conch shell you once found there. His tan body is like a Brahmin priest in all this whiteness.
“You know,” he says.
“Umm?” You are still in Panama.
Your fingers graze his chest hair that is mostly brown but is turning to white like his hair and beard. Soon he will be all white, you think. You are reminded of the Mexican feathergrass in your garden that changes color with the seasons. It is Sunday morning early, and your hand could travel down the familiar terrain, the slight hill of a belly where his button like a small lake fills with dust or lint.
“If only there had been time like this before—” he says.
“But with work and the kids and all—”
He turns to you, but his eyes are closed; his mouth slightly open. You can just see his spongy, pink tongue. Sixty to zero. The bed is crowded.
You lie back on your pillow. You should be done with this, you know. You and he are not new. You could do something: tickle him, hit him, bring him back to you. But if you look into his soul, you’ll see his past lives, past wives and children that aren’t yours. You lie immobile.
“Is something wrong?”
You try to think of Panama again. But now it is just a little thread of a country that holds the Americas together. You try to think of the Garden of Eden where there is only two. You envy Eve. But you wonder if Adam had his own warts. When you get older, you think about things like this. All those little knocks and bruises you get along the way like chips in Mama’s Desert Rose. You get up and search the cabinet, but you can’t find one single dish whole.
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