Boy meets Girl.
At a farmers’ market, where he sells tomatoes as large as his heart. Girl is pale, tender, and smells of spring. Of those first crocuses that poke their stubborn heads through a scarf of snow. Boy can’t say that to Girl, can’t compare her to flowers growing in his yard. A college student, she seems smarter, older, with her red hair twisted in a choppy bun and her dragonfly glasses perched high on her nose. In her hands, a Virginia Woolf novel Girl describes as a maze of characters linked through imaginary tunnels. All Boy knows is the earth; he can grow anything from just a tiny seed.
Their first kiss is sloppy. It reminds Boy of the way slugs attach themselves to one another on the walls of a garden shed. He doesn’t say that, of course, but lets Girl slip her tongue inside his mouth, her hands deeper inside his shorts. Her fingers are strong cool vines crawling up and down his penis. Boy wishes he could keep them there always, but Girl laughs, warns him about the messy nature of such interludes. By then, she’s on her knees, and it seems to Boy that her tongue is that of a lizard unfurling with great speed. Boy is in Eden, where he and Girl disobey all earthly rules.
By late fall, Boy plants an apple orchard, and Girl moves into his house. She brings her cat, Septimus, and fits Woolf’s novels next to Boy’s gardening books. Girl studies arts, which one day she’ll master. All of them: literature, painting, music, dance. There’s so much to do! Planet Art is amazing, isn’t it? Boy shrugs, “Planet Life is too.” While Girl takes classes, Boy tends to the farm. He feeds chickens, spreads fertilizer, digs up potatoes, chops firewood. Girl calls Boy, not without tenderness, Mr. Tin Man. “Yes,” he murmurs, glancing at the book on her nightstand, “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Two things are of crucial importance to Girl: buying flowers and educating Boy. In winter, she makes him read all the literary novels she studies in college. Woolf, Duras, Atwood, Morrison, de Beauvoir. What is Boy to do with all those names? All those women—in his house and his bed? The novels are living things, Girl insists. They evolve with time, grow deeper, like trees through the earth. It is as though one were to walk into the future without having to live through the present. The feeling of ordained triumph one can only experience at eighteen. A waft of sharp ocean air. A slap of a wave.
Boy desires Girl.
That’s all he thinks about when she’s around, shaking her copper mane in his face. He imagines Girl’s tan slim body coated in beach sand he’ll lick off her grain by grain. Off her nipples, off her vagina, off her asshole. Her coarse pubic hairs.
It has been three years already. A few apple trees are in bloom. Boy plucks off the blossoms. Too much growth can exhaust the roots. He and Girl talk about marriage the way they talk about anything else, morning coffee or afternoon rain. They ought to enjoy it. They ought to send out invitations, reserve a venue, order a cake, plan a honeymoon. To one of those faraway lands Girl dreams about. They ought to think about a baby.
Girl refuses Boy.
She has no intention of getting fat, of sharing her body with some unknown reptile; she’s terrified of pain, epidurals, needles in spines. She wants no scars on her belly or inside her beautiful vagina, no engorged leaking breasts, sweatshirts crusted in vomit or stained with pee. "No, no, I’m not Mrs. Ramsay,” she cries. Boy wants what Girl wants, so he says, “Of course not. You’re smarter than her. You’re that other woman, the one who paints. Lily?”
To stay with Boy means to sacrifice her art for his bed and his kitchen. Not that Girl cooks. But every time he does, she feels insecure, as if she’s supposed to reciprocate by presenting him with a new poem or a drawing. She has to justify her art, her creative search, which Boy supports but can’t possibly understand. Somehow, his tenderness makes her feel guilty, even in bed, even when he sweeps his tongue between her thighs. Even when he calls her names, those ridiculous vulgarities that used to fuel her desire. Girl stops giving head. She finds it demeaning even though it makes Boy so vulnerable, so weak, at the mercy of her mouth. Even though she loves to watch him come, his eyes glassy, as though pooling with tears.
The smell of tilled earth is too sour in the fall. Girl moves to London, Milan, Paris, Barcelona. She’s received a grant and peregrinates like a bird in those foreign lands Boy can’t help but trace with a finger on a faded map. He counts days, weeks, months. He trades coats and cars, ventures to the movies. It’s a story of a pregnant teenager, who gives her child up for adoption. Because how could she raise him alone? Teach him anything meaningful? She needs to finish high school, go to college, enjoy life. There’s an alcoholic mother, an abusive stepfather, and three other siblings smoking pot and playing video games. No one tries to convince the heroine to keep her son. When he leaves the theater, way before the movie ends, Boy feels as though he’s been pushed inside a cave, the opening sealed off with a rock. He can’t see a thing, not even the tips of his fingers. Boy is small, outdated, a fossilized insect, a seashell. He imagines being found on a beach by Girl, who’ll bring him home in a pocket of her dress.
At the house, Septimus the cat is speaking in tongues: of hunger, weather, loneliness, the neighbor’s dog. Together they eat chicken in the dark.
Boy misses Girl.
He counts in garden seasons how long since he last saw her—five. How long since she last wrote—four. How many words—three.
Girl meets Man.
Boy gets a gun.
He shoots groundhogs digging tunnels through his orchard.
Another year goes by, maybe two. Septimus dies, and Boy buries him under an apple tree. He places a jagged stone on a hump of dirt.
Boy doesn’t tell Girl when she calls, her voice stretching halfway around the globe. Girl sounds too educated, worldly, unsentimental. For her, life is infinite and ineffable, like the ocean, one breathtaking wave after another. Nothing has the right to exist but Art. She refuses to get married. She thinks marriage is an impediment to personal growth. An artist has no responsibility but to her work, which can’t be ascribed or categorized. Otherwise, it has no meaning and no right to exist. Girl is happy as she’s never been. She can tell this to Boy because they too were happy once. Because he listens. Because he isn’t a writer, like Man, who turns her life into stories, where every woman is her. It is as if she lives in a room full of funhouse mirrors. Each part of her reflecting at odd incomprehensible angles on opposite walls. She doesn’t ask about the cat. She praises Italian wineries, French bakeries, and Spanish architecture, the guy named Antoni Gaudí, who, Girl insists, was visited by extraterrestrial beings. Otherwise, how could he have created such unfathomable structures? Those Martian galaxies? They too are living things; they have souls. Girl wishes Boy could see them, but he’s afraid of flying, of crossing the ocean, of getting lost. Besides, he can’t leave the farm: his coop, his garden, his orchard. His Empire apples, those succulent crisp red jewels of autumn.
Boy loses Girl.
In the following years, he spends nights reading Man’s stories on the internet. They burst with female characters who aren’t Girl. They’re grotesque imitations of other girls Boy has dated. Vain boisterous creatures with small breasts and big mouths, who talk about life as though it were a farmers’ market—everything is seasonal and everything is for sale. Man knows nothing about Girl, Boy concludes. Nothing that matters, nothing of great substance. He knows nothing about family or children either. He writes about them as though they were tomatoes rotting in his garden, of which he has limited experience. Boy is sure Man has never grown a plant from a seed, never fingered a seedling into warm tilled soil. Still, Boy is jealous of Man, of his proximity to Girl and his skill of erecting small heartless words into love-hate pyramids. Man is merciless. He disposes of characters the same way Boy slaughters chickens or groundhogs. Stoic determination above all sentiment.
Boy never cries. It’s rain lashing at the trees in the dark.
More winters drag into springs, more snow melts into the earth. Memories fold one into another. Boy’s hair sprouts gray; a hump of a belly under his shirt. He replaces Woolf’s novels with nursery rhymes. He grows tomatoes as small as a baby’s toes. Boy is a father and a husband, with two sweet girls, who climb him like garden vines, and a wife, who plants flowers and bakes pies. Together, they own a dog, two cars, more land. They never argue or refuse sex.
One summer, they spend a week at the beach, where the salty air is sticking to their skin. Waves heave and roll and smash ashore; gulls screech and dive low. A lighthouse blinks in the distance. Boy is thankful to Wife for all she’s given him: her hips, her hands, her heart. Those apples she churns into butter and songs she croons at night.
While the family builds a sandcastle, Boy fingers out small chipped shells. He remembers Girl calling them ocean tears. It’s been only a few days since her last message—about coming back, about Art being a heartache, a deception, about Gaudí dying before finishing Sagrada Familia, about Woolf killing herself, about poor old Septimus and all the things Girl left behind, Boy’s broken heart she still holds dearly, like a favorite novel.
Girl loves Boy.
Boy loves Girl.
But what are they to do about it now? Him hiding the shells in his pocket. Wife asking, “What is it? What?”