Tully and Freda followed the couple on a sinuous walkway that led from one sprawling garden to another. It wasn’t exactly intentional, only in the way you decide someone else’s idea is better than yours so avail yourself of it. Without other intentions it was easy to find their way stepping into someone else’s scenario.
They–Tully and Freda–had gotten up arguing about the heat. She said the light sheet entangled her like a tenacious blanket all night and she may as well skip her shower, she was already drenched. Tully said they needed a big new fan, that’s all, but then he could hear her slamming the frig door closed, rankled by what was available for breakfast. He scrambled eggs for her, which helped only long enough for her to swallow the second bite, then she complained about the sunlight torching her legs and feet under the table.
“Summer! I’ve had enough. Bring back autumn’s rain!”
Tully put his hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off. “What are we to do with ourselves if you already find today so repugnant?”
“Away from heat-radiating concrete, into nature might help.”
“Despite offensive sunshine blaring away on everything?”
She slurped her orange juice. “Yes, despite. I love flowers, as you well know. Let’s go see what they have to offer.” She got up, left her dishes and climbed the narrow stairway to get dressed in as little as possible, this being short cut-offs and a worn black tank.
Tully felt his own mood dip as he wiped up bread crumbs, soaked the frying pan. Freda was usually far sweeter in the mornings. But things had changed overnight. Her job was deleted; she was suffering from deflated self-esteem. Plus, he wondered if she was having withdrawal from the air conditioning in her old office. He had been raised in the desert, usually wore a hat and long sleeves, and felt fine.
They had chosen gardens as their Saturday escape. Freda could mosey about and absorb floral fragrances. Tully could be happy moving in any manner, anywhere, to avoid congealing on the fake leather loveseat.
After a tranquil Japanese garden tour which left them with a smattering of higher thoughts and fewer snappish words, they spotted a striking couple strolling hand in hand. She wore a flowing red and white-flowered sundress, quite exquisite, they agreed, with her black hair flowing. He appeared attractive enough, displaying impressive shoulders. Then Freda heard the man correct the woman’s language usage–she was speaking uncertain English. The woman turned her head from him but he tugged her hand until she looked back.
“You hear that? He has the nerve to correct her. She’s probably trying her best.”
“Keep it down. Maybe he’s her tutor.”
“Awfully friendly for that. Likely her boyfriend or husband. He seems to believe she requires his expertise to communicate.”
“It would seem she could use his help, as I said,” Tully nodded.
“Can’t you be more generous with empathy?” Freda shot at him and hurried ahead.
“What? Apparently not…”
Tully let her gain a few feet ahead before he closed the gap. He kept his eyes on the lush landscaping, the treetops reveling in glowy breezes. He knew his wife was still reeling from being laid off almost three weeks prior, but felt she was overdoing moodiness. She just wasn’t any less expendable than the rest, but she took it personally. They had first argued after she said he had not thought of her feelings, only of her job prospects. He had plenty of thoughts, her feelings being one if not always the top pick. He cared for her, but he also knew Freda could get another position at a better company before the month came to a close. She had never been unemployed; she was a technology whiz. For now they could manage on his teacher’s pay.
The attractive strangers striding ahead of them took a turn, descended steep stone steps and entered the rose gardens. The woman moved as if she floated, torso erect, head high but not too high. Her partner walked heavy on his heels. He bent down close to speak to her.
“Shall we?” Freda pointed at them.
“You mean trail them? That’s your game. I’m all for smelling roses, though, that’s the point of being here.”
All Tully could see from where they stood deliberating was the glare of light skipping across people’s heads or hats and onto a few rose bushes. It all shone as if with celestial stage lighting. He had forgotten his sunglasses and squeezed his eyes shut a moment. Shade trees were sparse in this part.
Freda started down another set of steps.
“Let’s go in. We’ve not seen this garden blooming in a year.”
But the roses were thirsty and not so soft to nose or fingers. Most had passed their prime, a peak experience missed. Freda was disappointed but kept marching up and down rows of bushes, sniffing away, taking mobile pictures. At the end of a row of elegantly colored Peace roses, she turned to beckon Tully. He was examining a bee in the blossom next to her, keeping safe distance, thinking a tall glass of iced coffee would do them both good after this.
“Where are they now?”
“Over there, last I saw.”
He indicated with his head where the couple had gone. They had stopped under an arched trellis and seemed in deep discussion. Freda took ger husband’s arm and steered him toward that area.
“I really don’t feel like stalking people today, honey, maybe tomorrow,” he said, hoping to get a smile.
She blinked twice. “I’m not stalking, just observing. We can sit in a patch of shade near the summer concert stage. I just want to see if she’s okay. There’s something tough about him, don’t you think? I sure wonder what they’re about.”
As they made a wide sweep around the dark-haired couple, Tully thought she might have a point. It did seem as though they were arguing, though quietly. Well, beautiful people had issues, too. Not surprising these days, climate problems and warring and money shortages. People got mad sometimes, yet this was a sign of life in his opinion. He shook the thoughts off.
As Freda walked closer to the couple, he let a groan escape. She wanted to interfere, he could see that. He believed that people generally made right choices. And if not, were capable of mammoth change for the better when put to the test. She was far more skeptical.
Tully eyed the shady places to sit in the terraced hill above a semi-circle cement stage and wished there was music. He’d like to lean back, rest under a gentle dome of soothing sounds but he heard his wife’s bold whispering.
“That guy is insisting she stand still and listen to him. He’s practically pulling her into place, why is he doing that? She looks so passive, her face is showing nothing of what she must feel. No, no, she’s…scowling, or maybe smiling, trying to pacify him, yes. Well, he’s backing off now, he must have come to his senses. You can’t boss someone around like that, not in this public garden. Huh, she’s waiting for him to do something now.”
“Freda, sit with me.”
“What if she doesn’t want to be with him? What if she’s….made to be with him and can’t get away? We might need to help her!”
A passerby glanced her way and hurried on. He had heard the rise of agitation, too, anxiety trumping mere curiosity, her imagination running away from reason. She had been so up and down since she lost her job, she had nothing but worry to consume her and skew things. It made him nervous lately but didn’t show it. One of them had to be steady until they got over the hurdle.
“She’s fine, she’s standing there with him, not running off, she’s out for a nice afternoon with her man. Please come and sit down. It’s nothing to us, anyway.” He walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders. She resisted. “It’s weird, Freda, to keep such close watch on folks we don’t know. Come away, okay?”
She walked, feet dragging, to the hillside and took a spot beside him.
“I’m sorry. I’m so out of sorts. I let my imagination take over me, don’t I? Well, I do like to know what people are about.”
“I know you do. But why not let strangers keep to themselves and hope for the best? Or at least be more dsirceet about it.”
She pulled her knees up to her chin. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m more aggravated with life, less inclined to be generous with hope, lately.”
How to salvage this outing that had started so well? He put his hand on hers. “Look at all the people having a good time, sunbathing, even! Having picnics, Freda. We’ll have to do that again sometime, right? The air is so dry with no rain in three weeks but things sort of…sparkle, don’t you think? Colors are brilliant.”
“It makes things droop, get brown and prickly. I am not good in this weather, not one bit.”
She turned to better study the couple under the arch. The man was taking the woman’s hand in his, now she was shaking her head but not pulling back. Who was she? Was she family or friend? What was so important under the climbing roses? Were they maybe hiding from someone? Or just having more words, the JUly heat driving them mad? Freda did this when she was upset, made up things about strangers. Tully sometimes found it entertaining, sometimes tolerated it. It had started long before he came into her life, an odd coping mechanism. But other people’s lives sometimes seemed to hold more or better things than hers. She even tried to foresee their fate, pronounce it happier or safer or more exciting. She supposed many people did the same but didn’t admit it. Who could not help wondering about each other, social creatures that humans were? Or being nosey, at the worst. She didn’t want to end up like that, a misguided busybody.
“Freda. About your unemployment.”
She pulled at the grass and left bare spots of earth.
“It will work out. You got laid off, not fired: repeat this daily. You’re getting unemployment. Keep looking for a better job–someone will spot your value soon enough. You never liked your boss, anyway!”
Her head snapped up and she looked him in the eyes. “Dan? Of course I liked him…at least when he was on beam, doing his job. He was funny, that much I’ll give him, when he was happy with us.” She patted his hand, which she then removed. “It’s my friends I miss, not the job. Paycheck, too, naturally. Well, and the routine, of course. I suspect I’ll find work. I’m just not used to being tossed out like that, as if eight and a half years is nothing. It hurts.”
“It’s longer than many people remain at a job. You’re so good at what you do.”
“I was up for promotion! Now I have to start over.” She wiped at a tear that slipped out. “I know, I’m quite beside myself. I must get a firm grip.” She lay back on the grass. “I’ll call an office mate who got the boot, too. We’ll hash it out.”
This pleased Tully, her about-face. It was clear she had to move on after all the moping and grumbling, staying up half the night. She had made the decision to start anew and so she would, that was her style. He was chagrined about not having more faith in her. She was always a surprise.
But right now he wanted to shield her from the sun. Her skin was so smooth and fair. Hold her. Maybe recite a poem he had been re-working this summer. Cook tasty clams, whip up a chocolate tort. Just take her home, spread about peace, instill joy. It would be such a relief to get on with things.
Freda rolled over so she could frame the pretty couple under the rose-covered trellis with her flattened hands.
“Look. He’s taking pictures of her. Maybe she didn’t want to or maybe…wait, is she pregnant? That’s why she’s so voluptuous, maybe. If not, she’s still a young Venus, what genes.”
He raised his head and studied her, too. “That might be it. Maybe she was fussy about being photographed when pregnant or, well, something?”
“Not fussy,” Freda said propping chin in hands. “Just…sensitive. She looks wonderful, don’t you agree? Lush. Full of miraculous things! I have to be wrong about them. They seem alright, I guess. I just had a lapse, of imagination and, I admit, small-mindedness. What do I know?” She laughed her throaty laugh then was still a moent. “Gosh, what a lucky woman, look at her smile…”
He heard her but there was something more, a wistfulness, a desire. Was she…? No, couldn’t be. She wanted her career, too. They were responsible people despite harboring streaks of zaniness.
Smoldering warmth found its way into the grassy shade. They found each other’s fingers and laced them together, grew languorous at last in the July afternoon, on an edge of the garden of roses. They were together in this wonderful muddle of living. Tully thought how they had labored hard to get this far, had fallen through hidden trap doors and climbed back out, had secured a home at last that they loved, had made progress in fledgling careers. They had enough things and far more of love.
“No,” she said, “but I now see I might like to be.”
Tully touched the tip of her nose and her eyes opened, hazel irises encircled with gold, a smile taking over her lightly freckled face. His longish dark-blonde hair fell forward along with sweat, which slipped off him and onto her tank top and chest. He kissed her forehead, chin and then her lips, hoping this was answer enough, as he wasn’t up to talking, only dreaming, now. Greenery’s perfume mixed with an array of roses settled on them so that they fell under summer’s spell.
The photogenic couple under the trellis started up rows of nodding red and yellow and peach roses. They entered that haze of blood-deep heat, hands just grazing as they sauntered through the grass, up stone steps, then disappeared under a canopy of hickory trees.