“I hope I didn’t offend you,” he replied after a pause.
He held his watering can steady amidst the sunflowers and day lilies he cherishes.
“Oh no,” I said, watering my peas in my plot next to his, “you didn’t. I’m used to people assuming I’m straight. I know I look straight.”
Dusk pulled at the edges of the sky.
“I don’t know if there’s such a thing as looking straight,” he murmured. His eyes were on the plants, the density of their leaves, the blooms that needed dead-heading, the length they’d grown in the few hours since he’d last tended them.
I don’t know if he knows my name. He watered my plants tenderly while I was away last week. Amidst the heat, he filled watering cans with tepid water to “make sure the plants’ feet don’t get too cold.” He doused them with Miracle-Gro and regaled me with tales of how the lettuce shot up, the beans got their blossoms, in the week that I was gone.
He seems to be here amidst the plants always. G and I come running out at all hours, to weed or water or show off our plants to visitors. “We planted the arugula from seed!” G will exclaim to anyone who’ll listen. “But the beans are the BIGGEST plants that we started as seeds! The zinnias have THREE blossoms now! Look how big the cabbage are!” He’ll show you how to weed, if you let him.
G loves this neighbor-man in the garden. He follows around him, shouting his name, pointing out plants and asking what they are. The neighbor-man obliges.
Usually the neighbor-man is business-like in his knowledge. He wants all of the plants in our massive community garden to thrive. He doesn’t much care if the gardeners are happy or not. It’s the plants he watches.
Tonight the light was ebbing out of the garden. G had gone running across the grass, searching for bits of a broken pinwheel. The neighbor-man asked me how long I’d been together with my wife. I said we’d been together six and a half years, married for almost five. He told me that was a long time.
I listened to the water drops settling in around the cosmos.
“Sometimes it feels like a long time,” I said, “like we’ve been together forever. Sometimes it still feels like something new, like something fresh.”
He said he’d been married 29 years, it will be 30 in August.
“That’s so long,” I said, “Do you ever get tired of each other?” I wondered if he would take the question, or if he’d go back to lecturing me about the temperature of water I should be using on the plants’ sensitive feet.
“No,” he said, “never. You’ve got to enjoy talking with each other. You’ve got to marry someone who has different strengths than you do. Everyone has their shortcomings, but together it works out.”
He reached for the next watering can. “I forgive her for her shortcomings. I give forgiveness because I want it in return.”
Because I want it in return.
I want forgiveness. I rarely let myself say that. Instead, I focus on hating myself harder for my shortcomings than other people are likely to hate me. If I’m more disappointed in me than they are, their disappoint won’t hurt quite so much.
I want it in return.
I have sidled into churches in strange lands throughout my wandering life. In the quiet of a deserted sanctuary I let tears spill forth as I ask again and again for forgiveness. I never ask it from the real people in my life. I’d be too scared. I wouldn’t know the words to use. I tiptoe up the aisle, slide into a pew beside timber beams, let my eyes raise to the cross at the front of the sanctuary. I can feel the guilt slide down off of me. It sits quietly next to me, letting me breathe for a moment in hope.
In rare moments of clarity I can be present in a church and remember that I am not alone. Generation after generation before me turns to God asking him to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We imagine he is merciful. We imagine we can each be merciful.
I want it.
Light ebbed from the garden. The watering cans were empty. The neighbor-man began walking back to his house to refill his. “G!” I called, “It’s time to head in.” He ran to my arms, and I lifted him up to my hip, carrying him close to my heart. “He told me something important,” I told G.
“What did he say?” G asked.
“He said that we need to forgive others when they aren’t perfect. And that we need to forgive ourselves.”
I watched his forehead wrinkle. “Why is that something important?” G asked.
I looked at the dirt beneath his fingernails from weeding in the peas. I listened to his breath, steady now, that gets so excited when he learns the names of the plants from the neighbor-man. I felt his long legs kicking down around my knees, full of strength and confidence in tending his rows. Will he walk with the clarity of the neighbor-man someday?
“Because it is,” I said.