When Alexandra arrived home from work the first evening, she walked the flagstone path to the door and stopped when she saw Rose through the window, sitting at the kitchen table, chin in hand. She followed her wife’s gaze to the spindly rose bush planted in the flower bed along the walk. A single, mature blossom held its head high on the tallest stalk, the fiery copper and yellow hues echoing the back-lit clouds of early autumn sunset.
Alex closed her eyes. She filled her lungs and let the breath escape slowly through pursed lips.
She unlocked and opened the door to a tail-thumping, tongue-lolling welcome from Kali, the big German Shepherd rescue, whose smile and flattened ears and liquid brown eyes Alex could not leave unrequited. Some number of slobbery kisses and neck-scratchings later, Alex ordered the big dog to her bed under the kitchen table. She hung her sweater and bag in the hall and again exhaled quietly, to leave all unease behind, before she crossed the threshold into the kitchen.
She stepped behind Rose’s chair, embraced her shoulders, and kissed the top of her head. “Hello, beautiful,” she whispered, “Isn’t that a pretty sunset? How’s my love tonight?”
Rose did not stir. Chin in her left hand, her right on the mug of cold, untouched tea, her eyes on the rose bush in the yard, she mumbled, “I’m okay.”
“Yes, I can tell. You’re the okayest I’ve ever seen you.” With the waning sunlight the women caught their reflections in the window. Rose saw her wife’s wry smile. She smiled in return.
“Stop teasing and kiss me,” she said. Alex did.
“That’s better,” said Alex, “Any of that tea left?”
“Yeah, the pot’s on the counter. But it’s cold.”
“No worries.” Alex took a mug from the cabinet. “We are women of the future, with all the latest appliances.” The mug half-filled, she placed it in the microwave and set the timer. As the machine hummed, she struck a spokesmodel pose, gesturing gracefully to the oven. “Watch as the miracle of electromagnetic radiation is harnessed to reheat a simple cup of tea!”
Rose laughed. The laugh lost vigor and faded. As Alex added honey to her tea, Rose went back to staring through the window, her chin again in her palm, her mouth drooping.
“Want me to heat yours?”
Alex sat at the table and sipped her tea, watching Rose’s face. She turned to the sunset in the window, the golden bands blending, Monet-like, with ocean tides of saffron and salmon, announcing twilight’s approach.
“I wish she’d never named me Rose.”
“She said for the hundredth time.”
Rose turned and stuck out her tongue.
“And, for the hundredth time, you know you can change it. Anytime you want. Legally.”
“I know, but what a hassle.”
“Just pick something to try. I’ll use it and we’ll ask our friends to use it. Don’t like it, try another. Maybe in time you’ll find something you like, and it’ll be worth the hassle.”
Alex took another sip and set the mug down.
“Before, your excuse was you didn’t want to do it while she was alive.”
“It wasn’t an excuse.” Rose kept her gaze on the tea, tapping the side of the mug with her fingernail, the glistening reflections of the kitchen light rippling in waves on the dark surface. “I didn’t want to make her hate me more than she already did.”
“She didn’t hate you.”
“She didn’t love me.”
“That, I’ll grant you.” Alex sipped her tea and watched the campfire on the horizon fade and wither with every second.
Rose lifted her cold cup, sipped, and winced against the bitterness in her mouth. Alex saw Rose’s mother in the expression, the face she wore the day they met, the day Rose announced their engagement, the day before she died.
“I really thought she’d come around. At the end. God, at least then, right? Right?”
“I thought so too,” Alex lied.
Night signaled victory with a final slash of blood red on the horizon. Armies of lavender and cobalt claimed the edge of the world. Alex stood and closed the blind. “I think we need something stronger. You go pop a cork. I’ll feed Kali, then make us some dinner. Good?”
“Very good,” said Rose.
Alex found Rose again staring through the window the second night. She took a moment with her hand on the doorknob before using the key.
The welcoming committee called Kali announced her arrival, tail playing bass drum against the walls, then herded Alex into the kitchen. She whined as she ducked under the table. Rose’s shoulders rose and fell in time with her quiet, breathy sobs. A pile of soggy tissues lay crumpled by her elbow and a box of fresh ones stood ready. Alex hurried to hang her sweater and satchel and sat at the table, leaning in see Rose’s face. Rose kept her reddened eyes on the bush outside as tears followed each other down her cheeks and dripped from her chin.
“She didn’t even come to our wedding.”
Alex slumped her shoulders and sighed. A wound that bled five years, still unmended. “No, she didn’t.”
“I can’t forgive her.”
“Maybe not, but you have to let it go, one way or the other. Forgive her, or don’t forgive her. She didn’t come, and it can’t be fixed. You can’t go on letting it…”
“It’s not that easy!” Rose covered her face with her hands.
Alex bottled her next words. “No. It’s not easy. I know.”
Rose slapped her hands on the table, eyes flashing. “You don’t know! Your mother came! She accepted you. She loved you! No matter what!” She tore a tissue from the box and pressed it to her eyes.
Care for the heart battered and bruised by a lifetime of rejection passed to Alex with their vows. She worried again she was not strong enough to carry it to safety. A calm settled, silence save for sniffles. Rose reached out across the table. Alex took her hand and kissed it.
“I’m sorry,” Rose sighed.
“Don’t be. It’s all right, honey. Everything will be all right.” She kissed Rose’s hand again.
The two women turned to look through the kitchen window, Alex at the darkening skyline, Rose at the blossom.
“I’ve sometimes wondered,” Rose said, “why she gave us that bush. I mean, a housewarming present? From her? For us? What was that about?”
Alex dropped her eyes.
“Are… are you okay?”
Alex breathed, let go of Rose’s hands and clasped her own together on the table. Rose frowned, reached out, then folded her hands in her lap.
“I know,” Alex said, “I know why.”
“It’s from her garden.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Her prize-winning rose garden.”
“You told me of the all the time she spent, across the years, how much she worked and fretted, worrying over every frost or heavy rain.”
Rose nodded, feeling her wife’s heat rising.
“Yes. Her. Claiming a place here, in our yard, our home.”
Rose turned back to the window. The blossom again dared the sinking sun to paint the more brilliant color. “I don’t… “
“You said she loved her garden.”
“Put her attention, her work, her care, herself, into each of those bushes, every flower.”
“And what did she put into you?”
Alex shrank from Rose’s mask of shock. The light of understanding and the dark of sadness formed fast-moving clouds in her eyes, her lips growing taut as anchor line against the storm.
“That’s her out there, Rose. That’s her, planted there in your life, in our life, even in death. After all the pain she caused you, all the rejection, she wants to be forever here, standing at our door. A reminder, every year when it blooms, how much she despised you and me for what we are. You for disappointing her. Me for taking you away.”
“Oh, God.” Rose again stared at the blossom, brighter than the sunset backdrop. “But, no, I…”
“Do you know what it’s called? The variety?”
The third night, seeing Rose again in the lighted kitchen window, Alex breathed her frustration to the darkening sky.
Walking the stones to the door, she stopped at the deep hole and mountain of soil where the rose bush had flourished that morning. She turned back to the window, her wife’s face in shadow. Alex hurried to the door and fumbled with the key, then pushed it open with a curse.
Kali rushed Alex at the doorway. She yipped and barked and whined, jumping on Alex against all training, keeping her from reaching the kitchen. Alex ordered her under the table. Instead, the shepherd ran headlong through the dog door into the back yard, ran to the fence and shouted her excitement to the trees.
Alex threw her things on the floor and sat at the table. She reached out and took both her wife’s hands in hers. No longer tossed by winds and waves, Rose’s face was a moored ship in harbor. Squeezing her hands and gazing down, Alex saw the blood and gasped silently. Scratches and punctures tattooed Rose’s arms. The wounds bled and dripped, forming dark, dry rivulets on her skin. Rose smiled at the sunset.
“Rose? Honey? You okay?”
The Remember Me blossom of coppery reds, orange and yellow, sat with its deep green and thorny stem in a delicate bud vase of water. Alex stared at it for a heartbeat, then turned back to her wife’s smile.
Rose met her eyes. “Hi, baby. Glad you’re home. Do me a favor?”
“Call me Tara.”
© Craig Allen Heath 2019