Exiting (excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds)
Purslane stood barefoot in the front yard. The grass was soft, fragrant from just being cut and left a pale green stain on the soles of her feet. Purslane felt a stream of sweat run between her breasts. She looked down at the garden bed with its freshly turned soil and just planted annuals and smiled. Her two cold beers on the back deck would be especially enjoyable today. A rich scent came to Purslane on a delicate breeze and she looked to the front of her house where a wisteria was in full bloom. Its tendrils wound up an old pine tree and hung heavily scented grape bunches like ornaments. For 16 years Purslane had cut the wisteria back, pruned it beyond recognition and tried to keep it from attaching itself to the gutters. Once she even cut it back to nothing but a nub of wood, a stump in the soil and she was sure she’d killed it, but it sprouted and grew with a greater fury than she’d ever thought possible. Its base was now as wide as the body of an anaconda. It flourished, tendrils swaying in the wind and grasping, climbing. The damn thing was beautiful! The neighbors admired it and pointed at it from across the street. Purslane smiled and laughed when she noticed a fresh green bit of tendril uncurling itself at the edge of the roof, just under an overhanging tile.
“This is it, Purslane thought over and over, “our last summer here….” In the evenings after she and Reggie put away the garden equipment, rolled the lawn mower into the garage and closed the big blue table umbrella, and when Mariposa was out with friends, they’d look at each other and their eyes would search the other’s for answers, for consolation. “We can do it, Purslane, Reggie said, “room by room we’ll move, just room by room.”
Purslane could not get the dirt from under her nails. Nearly five hours of pulling weeds, shoveling soil and planting annuals had left her exhausted. Purslane scrubbed hard at her cuticles and knuckles but could not get her fingers clean. She turned off the water at the kitchen sink and followed Reggie into the den. Purslane’s chest rose rapidly and her hands, raw and freshly scrubbed clenched at her side as she fought to find her voice, “I should have asked more of you.” Purslane nodded rapidly, “I should have expected more, demanded more.” Reggie sat in his favorite chair, TV remote in hand waiting for his wife’s emotional storm to clear. The TV screen remained black and Purslane stood blocking Reggie’s view. He looked at his wife and waited. Purslane laughed. But not one of those comfortable, come here let me hug you laughs. It was bitter and edgy and seething from a pit deep inside his wife’s heart. He could see her eyes grow glassy from tears. If she’d start to cry it would be all over, Reggie thought. They’d embrace and he could watch the history channel. Purslane’s turmoil grew but the tears would not fall.
“If I hadn’t been satisfied with so little—we’d have so much more!, Food Reggie. It all began with food—remember?” Purslane looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “Our first date. You took me to the race track and gave me $20 to place a bet. I bet two dollars and kept $18. I thought of buying hamburger and bread. When you moved in with me I didn’t even have a telephone—or a sofa—remember? I was living on the bottom rung. Surviving Reggie!”
Purslane seemed to waffle between anger at herself and anger at Reggie but she could not find balance, an island to stand on and be neutral. “Reggie I didn’t have a car. Every penny I earned went to take care of me and my mother. Do you know on pay day my big treat was a new bottle of nail polish? And not anything nice either—I’d buy Wet ‘n Wild for 99cents.”
Reggie had begun to stare at a picture on the wall but he turned his attention back to his wife’s face when she started that crazy laugh again. “Oh God, I didn’t know! I didn’t know what I was doing. Being appreciative of so little must have been like a big break for you, huh? Purslane backed up and started to leave the room but turned suddenly and continued, “Your first wife, with her Stanford education and her influential wealthy parents…boy that must have been something. High standards I bet. You had to be on guard all the time. Don’t mess up Reggie or big daddy will start breathing down your neck—right? But with me, poor, poor Purslane, it was easy wasn’t it? Just pay the mortgage and buy groceries and do whatever else you want—right? Purslane doesn’t a real wedding ring or a decent vacation where actual air travel is involved, right? And she sure doesn’t need money in the bank or a fucking new roof and new windows to keep out the cold air so that the butter in the butter dish stays hard when it’s supposed to be soft. Right!? Right?”
Purslane began to collapse. Reggie could see it and new it was his turn to speak and act. He watched his wife swallow hard as the tears finally fell. Her shoulders relaxed and her lips twitched. A drop of snot ran to her mouth and Purslane wiped it across her cheek the way a child would. Purslane tried to look away from Reggie but he held her face in his hands and said, “I made a lot of mistakes. I know that.” Purslane nodded, “you sure as hell did Reggie, you’ve been slumming with me for the past 20 years! Letting it all slide-“
“Don’t you disregard this life Purslane—don’t do it.” Reggie’s voice took on a steely assuredness. “We have a good life. We never did have much money but we did ok.”
“Reggie, you married down when you married me.”
“No I didn’t and nobody ever-“
“And you stayed down. Letting yourself enjoy the lack of pressure and I can’t really blame you. I’m easy. Easy to please and so, so , so very grateful for everything….everything as long as it’s cheap or second hand or easy to come by. Grateful for fucking scraps Reggie!”
Purslane’s capacity for self-pity led her on and on. A rampage that filled her husband’s ears with words of pain and regret and blame. Words that filled the space between what was real and imagined. Purslane saw her past as pieces of a puzzle. She mentally cut out time fragments and incidents and conversations. She fit these sections of her life together in a mental time line. In each year or period of her life she found evidence of a sacrifice beyond what should have been expected. Purslane went above and beyond and thought nothing of putting herself at the back of the line. And always the theme repeated itself; food and shelter needs met—check. Done. Where in the world did that voice come from? The one that told her she didn’t need anything else; and worse than that— the voice that kept her from even asking—even thinking—dreaming of comfort beyond the minimal—beyond what an animal needs to live. An animal!
“Is that really what you think of your life Purslane? Scraps?! Then I don’t know you. I thought we had it pretty sweet for a good long time”
Purslane sank heavily into a leather recliner and Reggie left through the front door. Her anger at their situation caused a great mental storm to unfold in her mind. Her heart grew heavy and seemed to pound out blood in angry pulses that fueled an emotional introspection and scrutiny. Purslane had to know why. Where did they go so wrong? They should not be losing their home! They should have money in the bank and their house should be more than halfway paid for. They should be able to replace the roof and install energy efficient windows and for god sakes how long had the gas heater in the garage been sounding like it was about to explode? The sad truth Purslane thought was that Reggie could not save money. He lacked discipline. And Purslane did not have the capacity to take charge herself. She had her head in the sand all those years. Together they took out loans, used credit cards and spent money. On new things, used things, things they needed and things they wanted but did not need. They purchased new and used cars and traded up every few years, never keeping a vehicle once they owned it outright. And Purslane was grateful for all that she got. But now as the waves of emotion left her weary heart, revealing a clearer landscape, she could see all the ways they had failed. The failure to save money, even a little bit for any sort of emergency. The failure to plan. Mariposa had been accepted to the University of Washington and while the news excited and thrilled them it also added to the burden, deepening their regret at how stupid, foolish and blinded they’d been. Purslane still felt that Reggie had let her down, gotten lazy with the situation and she truly believed that if her father had not been a poor dirt farmer in Tennessee and if her mother had not been a poor and crazy alcoholic, Reggie would have done more to create some kind of financial security for them—if he had someone to answer to—it there had been someone measuring his ability as a provider, someone looking out for Purslane. If only she had the kind of father that would say to a man, “Now don’t you hurt my little girl!”
They had a garage sale and practically gave away stuff worth thousands of dollars. All the camping gear, the tents, inflatable boats and beds, the lawn mower and shovels, the leaf blower,the wheelbarrow and a very expensive, nearly new power washer—all the remnants of their lives as suburban home owners. The outdoor lawn chairs and tables, umbrellas and large clay strawberry pots. They’d had several garage sales in their 18 year history of owning their home. The neighbors detected nothing unusual in this one. Reggie and Purslane were getting older and of course they no longer camped. And Reggie didn’t really need the power washer anyway. He’d always threatened to take it up on the roof and use it to get rid of the moss and every time he mentioned it or Purslane thought of it she’d nearly burst out laughing. She could just imagine the asphalt tiles raining down from above like a scene from a movie where a tornado is pummeling a house.
They began an earnest search for a new place to live. Quietly on the weekends they’d drive out to different locations and meet property managers of apartments or owners of small two bedroom houses. They’d walk into the cramped kitchens and open cupboards, and try to imagine their leather sofa set in the tiny, box like living rooms. Purslane really didn’t want to live in the same city where they’d owned a home for the past 18 years. She didn’t like the prospect of running into her neighbors at the store and having to explain. But that’s exactly what she and Reggie did—they rented a condo in the same city. Not in the same neighborhood though, they’d actually gone downhill, literally. They moved to the Valley, a more densely populated, urban and lower income demographic area. The condo was actually much nicer and more structurally sound than their house and it was in a gated community. But they were surrounded by apartments and trailer courts and busses that ran at all hours and trains that would roll by in the night and cry out in a long, lonely whistle. Purslane liked the trains though, and she liked the frogs that croaked at dusk from their hiding places in the wetlands and the birds that flew overhead in frequent V formation. She liked the granite counter tops, the millwork finishes and the loft at the top of the stairs. She loved having her own closet and a big shower with a built in place to sit. Purslane and Reggie loved the gas log fireplace and how warm their condo was—how warm it stayed. They could leave and be gone all day and upon opening the door a waft of warm air would greet them and they were truly content and grateful. The heating bill that first winter was half what is was in the house and Reggie and Purslane giggled like kids when they opened the utility bills that first year. Mariposa was less happy. She liked the condo but hated the new neighborhood. It was a harder adjustment for her but she got used to it and focused her energy on her studies at college. Purslane relaxed when she’d sometimes come home from work to find her daughter laughing with a friend on the phone, the fireplace on and the room near 80 degrees.
Reggie was quiet mostly. He’d make sure to run the vacuum across the floor every day and sometimes he’d cook dinner. They went to the same nursery to buy their Christmas tree that year but purchased a smaller Noble and were unable to fit all of the decorations on it. Summer came and the days grew long. Weekends that used to be for gardening and drinking beer on the back deck became simply hours to be filled. Purslane and Reggie took walks along the river trail and sat on the porch listening to music. Reggie would carry out his old guitar and strum a few chords and she’d feel relaxed and at peace. Purslane would sip at a cold beer, listen and take long deep breaths, sighing quietly and staring off at the tall tree tops across the street. She had hours to spend alone if Reggie were golfing or playing poker. She stuck plants in pots and sat looking at them in disappointment. She wondered if the wisteria at her house had bloomed and if it was as full and fragrant as the previous year and she cursed herself for not digging up and bringing the Bleeding Heart plant she loved, fearing the new owners probably mowed it down. Purslane thought of every nook and corner of her yard seeing the flowers and shrubs just as she left them. She knew the season for every plant in her garden, when it would bloom or turn gold, rust or die back. She imagined the three plant hooks hanging bare at her old house without the beloved wave petunias and fearlessly drilled a single hole under the porch of the condo and hung a giant fuschia (without asking the landlord for permission). Purslane tried and failed to feel any connection to the flower filled pots she tended. She missed her yard so terribly, that when a coworker explained about the Earths energy and why researchers believe people reap a benefit from being barefoot on living grass, Purslane burst into tears.
She still sometimes thought of her dreams, the three dreams that were, she felt certain, messages from some higher power. Of God or Garuda or Buddha she never quite figured it out and it didn’t really matter. The propst she thought at one point was Marcel Proust and Purslane smiled and shook her head at her own silliness when she remembered thinking that maybe she was Proust reincarnated!
In days that were no longer filled with gardening, Purslane sat for hours on the concrete stoop or walked for hours, trying without much success to feel a connectedness to her new neighborhood. She didn’t feel like writing. The story she’d wanted to tell had lost its appeal, the magic, the mystery or whatever it was, gone. Purslane was pensive and began to relax and this was from an acceptance of things. Things that had come to pass that were painful. Regret and mistakes and all that she had lost along the way. So much had been learned!
It was with a kinder heart that she loved Reggie– and herself –and it was this gentler heart that heard the call of poetry. In those left alone hours Purslane would sit near the front room window, staring out at a small nearby tree. She no longer had a flock of chickadees calling to her to fill the feeder with black oil sunflower seeds, but she had juncos and they’d flit and chirp and catch her attention. In deep contemplation words came to Purslane. Not titles or chapters or ideas for articles she wanted to write, but words. Words that strung themselves together like beads of a long, beautiful necklace. They came in short bursts like a sneeze that tickles the nose and can’t be stopped. Words that echoed sorrow or confusion. Words that fit the page and felt right. Words that came out so easily that Purslane had to be prepared for their sudden arrival at any time of day or night. She jotted them down in a notebook while riding the train to work. She awoke early sometimes at three AM and sat writing on her computer furiously until it was time to leave for work. On the train into Seattle she made quick notes on paper and sometimes had to scurry inside the restroom before clocking in so she could finish what she’d started before the inspiration left. She read her work to Reggie and he was delighted. “Promise me you’ll never stop writing Purslane, no matter what, ok?”
And she smiled big at Reggie and hugged him hard and kissed his lips but did not say out loud to him that she’d promise to not stop writing…only because Purslane already made that promise to herself.