Barbara stares down at her wrists. The cuts are not deep, just beyond scratches, and the blood coagulates, hardening into a flaky streak within minutes.
“Damn,” she whispers, and bites her tongue. The sting is tolerable but the speckled dirt–millimeters from the cut–needs to be washed away or else she risks infection. She heads inside, breaking the momentum of her chore with the flower bed. She’d cut the dying heads off some roses, trimmed messy brush away from the orange tree. With a couple of hours left of daylight, there is much to be done, but it’s within reach. And not. Time enough to highlight those stems that were thriving, still at their peak of aliveness, not yet sliding down into drooping retirement, as Barbara once precipitately did. It’s an arduous task, staying on top of this acre-sized garden, but at least she’s not alone. Thank God she’s not alone, she muses as she runs her hands under cold water. Across the grass, Jim, her husband of forty eight years, bends over upturned soil, holding his spade like a cane. As he pauses he grimaces, revealing his fatigue, but masking the satisfaction borne of this back-damaging work. The moist soil is deep black and chunky. Inconvenienced worms slither unseen upon the surface, destined to be sliced by Jim’s next plunging dig.
Barbara gazes out towards him and maneuvers her lips into a thin smile. Affection. Gratitude. But above all–relief. It’s a good job she got out of bed today; a good thing the lethargy she’d felt for days, and the hollow sensation in her stomach, had finally subsided. There’s a point in these cycles that stirs horror in her: a protracted moment in which she thinks there’s no turning back. Her body, which has hardly let her down once in sixty eight years, seems poised to rebel in protest, claim time off for good behavior and call it a day. Jim says it’s all in her head, these neuroses, which doesn’t help matters. The insight, logically unassailable, doesn’t alter the feeling, the unprovable reality. Time is running out. Luck is running out. Life, stretching ahead for a couple of decades, if the luck of previous generations is anything to go by, offers years of pleasantly relaxing pastimes, opportunities for leisure and travel, twice per year visits with doting grandchildren; weekend conversations with successful, happy, if bewildered adult offspring.
Enough with the benzodiazepines, gripes an impatient son, Barbara’s eldest. Go for walks with your neighbor, says his younger sister, somewhat more cheerfully. Don’t worry about Dad, she offers in sorrowful contrast, hoping to soothe her mother. Stick to the garden, Barbara thinks, referring to the hobby that’s ahead of her and not the botany career that passed her by, the reasons long–well, not forgotten–just not talked about. Not anymore. There’s no point, others imply, changing the subject whenever she reminisces. Barbara knows it’s the manic bitterness that turns people off: the way the subject of teaching gets hijacked by a decades-old conflict with a head of department, the one that compelled her early resignation, her unwitting retirement. It would be too difficult fighting her way back, she routinely argues whenever the subject of a career revival arises. Time passed quickly, gathering speed as bodies, if not minds slowed down.
Jim steps back from the dirt patch upon which he’s been risking his lower back for the last hour. He sees Barbara at the window smiling at him and returns a tired, forced laugh. It’s no good, he’s saying with his slumping, seventy one year old body. He can’t last the day either. He passes over their refinished wooden deck, crosses over the threshold to their sunlit kitchen, and closes with some effort the double-glazed sliding door.
“Finished,” says Jim in an exhausted voice. Barbara, half-listening, thinks it’s a question.
“I don’t know,” she replies, frowning to accentuate her uncertainty.
Jim chuckles, mildly frustrated. He looks across at his daydreaming wife, now staring out the kitchen window, her wounded hand hanging limply under running water. She avoids the hard look of her husband’s still handsome face.
“You alright?” Jim asks half-heartedly.
Barbara dithers, her mouth downturned. “I don’t know,” she repeats, slightly turning, wanting to regard the immaculate home and garden that surrounds her. It’s not clean enough, she decides–not good enough. “Think I need to lie down.”