It was mid-November, an overcast Saturday, though not too cold. Eduardo and I were finishing up a job for a client, replacing a few beds of mums and late pansies with dwarf yews. It was easy, systematic work, spading up the clumps of flowers – personally I thought they’d been planted too shallowly, though now it only made my job easier – and pulling out the conical little evergreens from their flimsy plastic pots to dig in instead. My head remained restfully thoughtless as the pair of us bent and dug. Sweat ran down my neck into my t-shirt, pleasantly icy when the wind ran over it, and the mound of discarded flowers in the wheelbarrow behind us grew. The pansies were still blooming, though straggly; I thought I might rescue one to repot for Asher, along with a yew that wasn’t fit to be planted.
As we neared the end of the last bed, the client, Mrs. Petersen, came out on her front doorstep to watch. She was thin, blonde, in her late twenties, and slightly pregnant. I guess “a few months in” was the phrase for it. She had on an oversized hoodie – I wondered vaguely if it were her husband’s – and leggings. There were purplish shadows under her eyes, and the corners of her mouth seemed naturally downturning. She said nothing after an initial exchange of hellos, and as Eduardo and I continued, I became uncomfortably aware of the intensity of her gaze.
After spading mulch over the base of a freshly planted yew, I stood up and paused to look at her. She was definitely watching us, both of us. Eduardo was a couple years younger than me, a Guatemalan immigrant, compact, wiry, with very black hair and intensely angled eyebrows over a small, serious face. He didn’t talk much, in English or in Spanish, which was of course fine by me – but his wife had recently had twins, and lately he began and ended every job we had together by showing me pictures of them on his phone. Kids I didn’t really get; but seeing him so happy, thumbing through snapshot after snapshot of his plump, shyly smiling wife with the two brown-faced bundles, made me happy.
Both of us had warmed up enough to have stripped down to t-shirts. As I looked at Mrs. Petersen, she made no effort to hide the fact that she was looking us over methodically: arms, chests, the arch of Eduardo’s back as he dug his spade in. Briefly she made eye contact with me, then resumed gazing without a change of facial expression. I shook my head slightly and returned to my work.
Fifteen minutes later, as I was reaching for the bills she’d counted out for us, she paused to extend one hand and clasp it around mine. “Thank you,” she said with unnecessary fervor; her facial expression still hadn’t changed. I removed my hand without saying anything, and waited for the money.
Finally she looked slightly disappointed, turning her face down and to one side.
As I checked that I’d loaded everything into my pick-up’s bed – I was taking the spent flowers, plus the yew that I’d claimed for Asher – Eduardo made a rare unnecessary comment: “Es bonita. Pretty lady.” And then he laughed, shortly, at the look on my face.
“Here,” he said instead, and handed me his phone, with the latest round of baby photos. I accepted gratefully.
The interaction with Mrs. Petersen had made me uneasy, but it faded as I got on the road. On my way out, I’d texted Asher: “Are you home?”
“Yup!” came the answer, almost immediately. Elated, I stuffed my phone away into my pocket, where it buzzed a few more times; I didn’t bother to check, because my mind was already with him.
During the drive over, my mind flickered back a couple more times to Mrs. Petersen, but finally I had to shake my head again. Definitely not my problem. A few of the guys we worked with might have been game to try something, but with Eduardo and me she was barking up multiple wrong trees.
At Asher’s apartment, I hopped out, and then remembered to grab the yew, which had a distinctly S-shaped trunk; I thought it looked kind of nice, like a bonsai, but it would have been out of place in a uniform suburban bed. I brushed loose dirt off the sides of the pot, popped it under one arm, and then went to ring Asher’s doorbell, already rocking up onto my toes in anticipation.
Inside, I could hear a murmur of surprise, but didn’t have time to think about it before the door opened, showing me Asher, slightly open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Behind him, seated at the kitchen table were an older woman and man. Both had curling hair, near-black brown heavily mixed with grey. The woman was small, with large dark eyes, wispy grey upturned eyebrows, and large-framed glasses; she perched on the edge of her seat with a quizzical smile on her face. The man was tall, thin, and stooping, with long black brows and a long, finely chiseled nose.
Belatedly, I heard Asher’s voice in my head, from two days ago: And this weekend I’m having my parents over for lunch.
Slowly I settled square onto my feet. I let out a breath. I became very conscious of the fact that I was wearing a sweat-stained, colorless t-shirt, faded jeans with dirt and paint stains on the knees, and crusted boots. And I had a crooked potted tree under one arm.
“Hi Roy,” Asher said, his eyes anxiously tracking whatever was happening on my face, “these are my parents, Rebekah and Orr.”
I thought about the texts that Asher had sent me that I hadn’t bothered looking at before driving over.
I could feel my jaw and tongue, even my throat, locking up.
What I would really liked to have done then would have been to say, cheerfully, “Hi, it’s so nice to see you. I apologize for interrupting your lunch. Asher actually told me you’d be here, but I completely forgot. I’m really not presentable, so let me let you get on with your afternoon, but I’d love to really meet you another time.” And then I’d get into my truck and drive away.
Instead I just took a step back from the door, and said nothing. My heart pounded.
After a moment, Asher’s mother – Rebekah – said, “Roy! We’ve heard so much about you. Please, you’re not interrupting – we were only just getting started. Won’t you come in?” Her voice was so kind.
“Yes, come in!” Asher echoed desperately, but his face said he didn’t know if he didn’t wanted me to stay or go; I hoped it was for my sake.
I held up one finger, and then pointed at my filthy boots with the other hand. Asher nodded. “Oh, yes, thank you, sure,” he said, almost babbling.
Slowly I bent to set down the yew on the welcome mat, and then unlaced and pulled my heavy boots off as quickly as I could. I straightened up, wiped my hands on my jeans – achieving nothing – and then stepped in. Asher had rolled back into the kitchen to pull out the third chair for me; his legs were kicking restlessly, and I saw him wince and press down on one briefly.
I advanced, quickly put one hand on his shoulder; I didn’t know which of us I was trying to reassure more. And then I gave a sort of very slight bow and extended my hand first to Asher’s mother, then to Asher’s father. In silence we shook hands. I forced myself to meet their eyes: his mother looked brightly curious, her head cocked to the side slightly; his father just looked mild, patient. I realized that I had no idea what Asher had told them about me.
“Do you want to…?” Asher nodded his chin in the direction of the bathroom. I nodded quickly, gratefully, and darted away to wash my hands and face.