by Jacqueline Doyle

I crouch in the desiccated garden at the side of our house, my knees stiff. The withered tomato plants still have a few small orange orbs clinging to them, but the rest of last year’s plants are stubbly and brown. I’ve finally gotten around to pulling out the tomato cages to return to the shed, and now I wonder whether I’ll plant tomatoes again this spring. Newspaper headlines herald more drought in California. Salmon may not spawn this year. Riverbeds are parched and cracked. We talk about water use and precipitation levels and runoff from the Sierras. We check the weather predictions, hope each day for rain. Unsettled, I survey my dormant garden and hunger for something I can feel but not name.

I remember riding a bike in the rain in northern New Jersey, many years ago, when I was a teenager. I was miles from home, pedaling with great effort up a long, steep hill, soaked and chilled by the sudden deluge, happy. Trees lined the road, intensely green, their trunks wet and dark. Sheets of water cascaded from the heavens and rushed in turbulent rivers down the stone-lined gutters at the sides of the road. Lightning flashed in the darkening sky. I exulted in every straining muscle as I pushed on the pedals, laboring to make the ascent. When I reached the top, I stood, hands on the handlebars supporting my upper body, feet on the pedals engaging the foot brakes. For a long moment I took in the freezing rain, the gusts of wind that buffeted the tops of the trees, the freshness of the air, the far off rumble of thunder, the flashes of light in the sky. Then I coasted down the long hill, still standing, triumphant, alone.

Mine wasn’t a carefree adolescence. At home my parents were always fighting. Angry and authoritarian, my father ran the household with grim efficiency, while my mother spent her days in bed, complaining of allergies and fatigue and myriad ailments. At school the popular girls reigned, cheerleaders with bangle bracelets and coordinating Villager outfits who scorned outsiders like me. I was bookish, uncomfortable in my skin, socially awkward, unbearably restless. I wore black turtlenecks from the thrift store, listened to the Doors for hours in my room, read Hermann Hesse and Jack Kerouac and Mao Tse-tung. I made solitary trips into Manhattan, where I roamed the streets of Soho and the Village, lingering in bookstores and cafés. I thought my life would never begin. In the late 1960s the world was in ferment, and I wanted to be anywhere but a New Jersey suburb.

In late middle age, I’m a far happier person than that girl was. My life is not without anxieties. I fear the drought of old age, illness, declining creative powers. I also feel joy as the first buds appear on the fruit trees in February and then burst into bloom in the California sun. I contemplate another vegetable garden, next year if not this one. My husband and grown son and I share oranges from the tree in our backyard after dinner, sitting under the halo of light at our kitchen table. I lick the juice off my fingers, sticky and sweet, as the room fills with their fragrance.

I wouldn’t want to be that girl on the bicycle again. But I remember her fierce ecstasy. The sheets of rain pelting her upturned face. The shocking cold. The brilliant flashes of light. Her utter solitude.

Never again would I be so alone, so ravenous, so filled with rapture.

Jacqueline-DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her flash prose has appeared in Sweet, elimae, Monkeybicycle, Vestal Review, The Rumpus, Literary Orphans, Café Irreal, Corium, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

Image credit: Unsplash


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