“My gawd our first house was a dump,” I said from the floor as Mikhail passed by on his way out back.
He paused and knelt to look over my shoulder, fingertips caressing my neck and slipping under my neckline to brush over the swell of my breast. Cheeky monkey.
“Good memories there for sure,” he agreed, his tone playful.
I smirked up at him, a flash of passion igniting between us. Wrinkles and all, we still had it.
“Indeed. If those walls could talk. Or the floor. Or the counter tops…”
My fingers gripped the shiny pages of one of the photo albums I was searching through and a picture had caught my attention. It was an unflattering shot of a dingy beige one bedroom house with falling apart rain gutters, cobb-webby, over grown hedges, a broken up walk way and a dirt driveway half laid with brick. One window had been broken, probably by some stupid kids on a dare, and there was a sizable hole in the roof right in the living room.
It was dirt cheap, a bank foreclosure on the market for years and marked down to practically nothing. There was so much wrong with it that the work needed to make it livable would have cost about as much as buying a newer home. It was in the middle of a spread out cul du sac, the ugly pimple of a house on a street of roughly polished jewels. The neighborhood had probably come up around that little shack of a house it looked so old and outdated.
I wanted it immediately, much to the chagrin of my husband.
“You’re crazy Jen! We can’t live there. Not even the Munsters would live there.”
It was everything we weren’t looking for. Small, one bedroom, next to people on the city outskirts and a massive fixer-upper. We couldn’t even move into it immediately because it needed to be re-roofed and fumigated first. What sold me though was that it was on an acre of land. Uncultivated weed and rock strewn potential with a chain link fence property line. I stood there and my mind soared with possibilities. Bonus was that it was near to the university Mik wanted to work at.
When I went into the realtor and placed my bid on the decrepit property, I could see the surprise and the relief on the agent’s face. One less ugly duckling to try to foist off on people. As soon as I’d gotten the call that the house was ours, I drove myself over to the bank and had gotten a line of credit to start making improvements immediately. And then my life was consumed with Auto Cad, tape measures, floor plans, building materials, phone calls and negotiations with contractors while trying to decide what to unpack at the rental, living out of boxes and settling my husband into his new job and learning a new town.
I flipped through the detailed photographs of the interior, the before and after photos and I paused to admire our handy work. Mik and I, we were good together. We had similar taste profiles when it came to decorating and color schemes. We loved the idea of trying to bring the outdoors in so we had a lot of natural tones inside with pops of bright color to break up the monotony. Forest green with orange, butter yellow with lily pink, celestial purple and chocolate bronzy brown.
“Remember this Mik? This was our first argument ever I think.” I pointed to a painting that took pride of place above our couch.
“The Pesky Flower Painting. I remember that day. Belligerent red-head.”
I’d bid on it an an auction that we happened upon one day while furniture shopping. We barely had any walls up at the time so shopping for decor was pointless but I liked to look anyway to get inspiration and ideas. The piece had been done in oil paints and it was two feet tall by three feet wide. It was impressionistic in style with florals but had deep bold colors and large round flowers. It was so very unlike the Monet copy cats I’d seen everywhere with their chinzy sweet pea vines and pastel lotus blossoms floating on blue-green ponds.
It was still generic, I admit. Something even I could have painted with a little effort and time. And it didn’t really suit our breezy au natural decor. But, like the house, I had to have it. It had been done by a local artist who apparently had a fan base in town. I got into a bidding war with another woman over it. Mik had attempted to reason with me about it, trying to focus my attention back to the task at hand and let it go. The amount of money this stupid painting was getting from me was ridiculous and something my budget really couldn’t afford.
But I always got what I wanted, be it husband, house or painting.
“It’s for a good cause Mik,” I snapped, when he tried to tug my numbered paddle away playfully. “We’re supporting our community.”
“Seriously Jen. You don’t need it. Let it go.”
My sparky green eyes met his stubborn brown and I resolutely held my paddle up for the next bid increment: $375. When his lips pursed and his thick brows came down, I knew I’d irked him. He walked out of the hall and I stayed to watch the artist sign the painting in front of me, not really hearing what she was saying. I glanced at the other woman bidder and she stuck her nose up in the air at me.
Well okay. No one was going to be happy with me that day apparently.
The painting had started a love of hand made art in us as a couple though, after Mik had gotten over the exorbitant amount I’d spent on it. Whenever we traveled I sought out pieces to add to our collection; pieces somewhat more interesting and unique than the “Pesky Flower Painting” as we’d come to call it.
It had started another tradition between us as well and I smiled as I turned to a page that had nothing on it but a single photograph, a dried pressed flower and a rectangle of white card stock with my loopy cursive written on it. The photograph showed nothing but a freshly churned acre of smelly manure filled dirt at the back of the house and a large white basket sitting on a broken chair with balloons tied to it.
I felt bad about the painting. I get crazy obsessed some times and there’s no stopping me. Mik tries to tame the beast sometimes and sometimes I even listen. I didn’t commit a grievous sin this time but I still wanted to make up for it. Plus the stress of juggling a new job, unpacking, contractors and family had us both fraying around the edges. We needed something for us, to reconnect.
So I spent more money.
But this was money I had set aside in the budget already that my dear patient husband didn’t know about. It was a surprise I had intended to spring on him when the house was more finished but after seeing how much he was taking on, I thought I’d move the time line up a bit. All I had to do was have him to be gone for a weekend and that didn’t take too much convincing on my part. He was very close-knit with his family.
I had to fit the newly hired contractors around the plumbers and the carpenters but lucky for me, chain link fences were easy to mow down and the workers didn’t really impede with each other all that much. I talked with a man in a polo shirt and jeans and showed him a few drawings I’d cobbled together from my conversations with Mik. For $30 an hour he gave me his professional opinion and a list of trustworthy resources that would give me good prices if I dropped his name. When I told him I needed it done in a weekend, he paused only for a moment and then immediately got on his cell.
“Hey, Paul, I got a client who needs a quick job done for the week-end…”
I ordered sub sandwiches and ice-cold lemonade for the workers and watched from my newly roofed house as my brand new fence was installed. I did some work on my lap top while dump trucks hauled off dirt and then brought more dirt in, along with a healthy pile of manure which had me seeking the relaxing environment of a coffee house near by for a good portion of one day. I spent another half a day scowling at google maps as it led me on wild goose chases through towns that didn’t even have a dot on the map and huge cities I got hopeless lost in.
I barely heard the navigator over my stream of cussing and horn honking.
But I did not come back home in vain. I did have my white basket and my balloons and it had been filled with colorful goodies and ugly dingy lumps in plastic bags and glossy packets fanned out artistically over tools with my cheesy note on top of it all. I set it on a broken chair that morning and watched as the last of my $1500 budget rolled away and the final piece of fence was put into place.
I took one picture and waited for Mik to come home, spending the time picking out a cute but sexy sun dress and arranging my hair back from my face. The better to kiss him with, my dear. I had a picnic lunch ready for us to eat on a makeshift table (home-made pizza, of course) and floor pillows in what was going to be our living room.
He knew something was up when he pulled into the drive way and I was waiting for him by the front door, all smiles and sexiness. Or it could have been the heavy manure smell. I didn’t let him question me. I can’t lie worth a damn. I stood on tip toe and pulled one of his tie around his eyes, blocking his view.
“Really Jen? There are workers all around still you know. I’m sure their noise would mask yours but–”
“Hey you pudd I’m not a horn dog ALL the time!”
He smiled and my heart pooled into a gooey puddle in my rib cage. That gap-toothed grin made me fall in love with him all over and over again. I slid my arm around his waist and led him carefully through the studs that were framing our walls, nudging tools away from his big feet.
“I smell pizza,” he said upon entering the living room.
“Really? THAT was the first thing you smelled?”
“Well no.” He swiveled and ducked his head down to breathe in the scent of my hair. “The first thing I smelled was my lovely wife and she has the best smell in the world after a long trip away from home.”
Guh. So much love for this man.
“Pizza is a close second though.”
“Don’t worry. I told Pizza you loved it and you’d come home soon. It didn’t miss you too badly.” I pulled him to stand in front of the sliding glass door leading to the back yard (soon to be replaced with a glass pane door) and I pressed myself against his back, relishing the feel of him in my arms.
I could have this all the time now. I didn’t have to wait months at a time to feel his warmth against me. I didn’t have to squeeze as much love and memories as I could into a weekend and then fly back to the reality of my life. Mik was mine now; my husband. My life mate. We were living together and only a few steps away from a cuddle or a kiss. Sometimes the thought was so overwhelming I cried.
“I love you Mikhail.”
His hands caressed my arms side to side, comforting and waiting for me to settle again.
“I love you too Jeniveve.”
I reluctantly let go and stood in front of him again, sliding my fingertips up his face and pulling his head down for a sweet soft kiss. Then I opened the doors, gagging on the shit smell, and carefully led him outside.
“Jen, what did you do?”
‘Welcome home, my beloved.”
I took the blind fold off and watched his face as he took it all in. The new fencing around the property, tall enough to keep prying eyes away. The mounds of fresh dirt, landscaped into pleasant rolling hills around the property, creating curve and depth and texture. The ground churned deeply and sown with fertilizer to accommodate whatever plants we were going to grown there.
“We can put our little tea gazebo there maybe,” I said, pointing to the far corner of the yard. “And a fountain there. Or there. Maybe a pond if you want. I have a little room for my herb garden here on the trellis by the kitchen window. See? Oh! And there’s a plot for the green house. I made it extra big for you.”
My husband wasn’t one given to exclamation point feelings. He didn’t burst out laughing or gasp with surprise as I did. He stood there, taking it all in and I could see the wheels turning in his head. I tried to be patient and let him absorb it all. I tired not to worry that I’d done it all wrong and it was terrible and nothing like how he wanted it. After all, my memory had a culmination of years of discussions regarding our first garden. Did I get it wrong? Had he changed his mind, seeing it all now?
I gestured to the basket and he glanced down at it. The balloons said “Congrats!” and “Welcome Home!” on them. Inside were a two pairs of gloves, his and hers, a set of trowels, dozens of seed packets and bags of bulbs, some which I had hoarded that year from the Breck’s catalog, taking note of which flowers he’d been mooning over, and some found at nurseries all over the county. There were tulip bulbs his mother had given me from back at his home and a cutting of the very first Coleus I’d ever grown from seed. There were tiny seedling succulents native to California where I was from and in the middle of it all a fat purple dahlia plant, the exact type and shade as the one in the Pesky Flower Painting. On this was my note, which read “Let’s plant roots together. The first of many.”
So cheesy, I know. But it’s us.
He wordlessly drew me into a hug and we stayed there for a long time, saying nothing. I don’t know if he cried. His face was pressed tightly against my head but his heart never faltered from its steady rhythm. The Pizza was stone cold by the time we’d roused ourselves. I almost missed when he whispered in my ear.
“Thank you for being my home Jeni.”
I smiled, a little teary, and replied, “Always. As long as we both shall live.”
See, the painting had been the start of one of MY dreams; to own my own home with my loving husband and fill it with our shared accomplishments. To have stories of our travels together and photo albums full of memories. To me the paintings represented the end of an era and the reward for our years of waiting and long distance traveling to see each other. We had things TOGETHER now. Granted we didn’t exactly buy the painting together but it was the first thing I hung in our first house and the first place we made love was on the couch underneath it.
But the garden for Mik was HIS dream realized. Other than me, of course. My dream was always on the inside. His was on the outside. He’d talked about planting gardens across America, leaving a legacy of greenery behind him. Not just him though. US. Planting seeds and sowing roots and watching patiently together as they grew. Getting our hands dirty in the soil side by side. Sharing the responsibility of watering and weeding and fertilizing. Watching as the flowers slowly bloomed, another reward for all the hard work and patience.
Gardening and Jeni, his two dreams coming together as one. A home with Mik, my dream realized at last. 15 years, 8 houses, 3 book shops, one tiny house trailer, and 10 different cities we’d lived together and we were still going strong.
I shut the photo album and lunged in to bite my husband’s neck, gently scraping my teeth over the sensitive skin.
“Hey there,” he murmured, settling next to me and sneaking his cool fingers underneath the hem of my shirt. The tips traced the edge of my pants and I gave a cheeky smile.
“Haven’t you sown enough seed for one day you ol’ Jack rabbit?”
“Never is enough with you. I don’t think the neighbors heard us the first time.”
“Damn. Gotta fix that then,” I said and invited him in for a deep kiss.