Route 80

David Leavitt

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

B Movie

Josh and I are leaving each other. These last few weeks we've spent together, at "our" house, trying to see what, if anything, we could salvage from five sometimes good years. At first things went badly; then we started gardening. Josh has always been an avid gardener, while I couldn't tell a lily from a rose. How roughly my vacant acknowledgments of his work rubbed up against all the effort he put in, all those springs and summers of labor and delicacy! And did my not caring about the garden mean that I didn't care about him? After he left, naturally, the flowers turned to weeds.

The therapists in our heads told us that this was something we could do together, a way beyond talking (which meant, for us, fighting), like the trip my mother and father took to watch the sea elephants mate. Kneeling in the dirt, holding the querulous little buds in their nursery six-packs, there was another language for us to speak with each other, as virgin as the leafy basil plants we patted into the soil. Our old, gnarled, tortuous relations were rude and hideous weeds we ripped out by the roots.

I made up dramas as I planted, horticultural B movies in which I was the hero defending the valiant rose from the villainous weed. Or I was the valiant rose, and Josh the villainous weed, and the hero was someone I was hoping to meet someday. Or I was the villainous weed.

Digging, I came upon little plastic stakes from past seasons, buried deep, unbiodegraded, bearing photographs and descriptions of annuals Josh had planted in more innocent, if not happier times, and which had long since passed into compost.

There is the top of a wedding cake in our freezer. It is frosted white, and covered with white, orange, and peach-colored frosting roses. It was left there by the young newlyweds who sublet the house when Josh and I, unable to decide who should go, both went. Jenny and Brian are saving this wedding cake to eat on their first anniversary, which is apparently a tradition for good luck. When I came back, they moved into an apartment where the freezer was too small; the cake stayed behind.

There is a road, too. I don't like roads, the way they run through everywhere on the way to somewhere else. The road is where we lose dogs and children, the way we take when we leave each other.

This road, in my mind at least, is Route 80. Josh and I used to say that our lives and destinies were strung out along Route 80, which runs from New York, where we lived for years, through New Jersey, where he grew up, through the town where he went to school and on to San Francisco, where I grew up. Even though our house is nowhere near Route 80—and perhaps this was the first mistake—it is Route 80 I imagine when I imagine the wedding cake, like a pie in the face, being thrown.

I was driving down the highway, this long and painfully lovely July day, when I saw the orange lilies bursting from their green sheaths. Until two weeks ago, when I finally asked and Josh told me, I wouldn't have noticed them, and I certainly wouldn't have known they were lilies. Now I know not only lily, but fuchsia, alyssum, nicotiana, dahlia, marigold. Basil needs sun, impatiens loves shade. At night I read tulip catalogues, color by color, easing gradually toward the blackest of them all, Queen of the Night.

All of this I have finally let Josh teach me—but (of course, of course) too late.

The lilies shut their petals, at dusk, over the road. And don't they become frosting flowers, freezer annuals, with their sly, false promise of good luck? I can feel them smearing under the wheels, sugar and butter, a white streak like guano where a bridegroom is racing away from his bride.

With my parents, going to watch the sea elephants became a tradition. Josh and I joined them once. The huge males shimmied along the rocks toward their waiting harems, and the hands of my parents, in spite of all that had passed between them, reached toward each other like flowers reaching toward the sun. My parents' hands were brown; there was dirt under their nails.

Who can claim that our love does not endure, less like flowers than like the little stakes with the photographs of flowers, stubborn beneath the soil?


Full Disclosure (A Decade Later)

Mark told me this story:

Years ago, he loved a cellist whom we shall call Gary. Gary loved Mark a lot, but his cello more. This was because Gary's mother had sold her own mother's wedding ring to buy him the cello. Not that she had to; she and her husband were affluent, and could easily have afforded it. No, she wanted the gift to connote sacrifice. She wanted Gary, every time he touched his bow to the strings, to know that for his sake his mother had given up something that she loved.

I understand this woman.

"Fostering dependency," the therapists call what she did, and according to them it is a real no-no. Yet it is exactly what I, too, have done. And at the heart of the matter is the fear of being alone, which makes Gary's mother the scariest person I know. So, a reasonable voice inquires, why shouldn't a child want to get away from someone so scary?

I remember another story, about my ex-boyfriend, whose name really was Gary. The ingredients in this story were: a wedding cake in the middle of the road (required by National Public Radio, which had asked a lot of writers to write stories on this theme); some elephant seals; and the little stakes with photographs of flowers on them that turn up each spring when, with shovel or spade, one reopens the soil. In that story, I called Gary Josh.

Here is the coincidence: the real Gary, the cellist, is named Josh.

So this is not a story at all, but a tableau vivant: a garden party, a cocktail party, at which the guests are me, Mark, Gary, Josh, the mother, and all of our fictive equivalents. Oh, and the cellist hired to provide the entertainment. Her face is shrouded. We shall call her Need. And the little air she plays, the little phrase, if we could translate music into words, would enter our ears as "Never leave me,  never leave me,  never leave me."

Taken from the collection, "The Marble Quilt," (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001) this story is used here by permission of the author.