Mr. Arnold's Garden

I’m grading papers one evening when my father calls me to say, “Peter Arnold is dead.” He doesn’t say how, or why. He might as well have said, “I killed him and I’m not sorry for it.” My forty-eighth birthday is today and the last place I’m expecting a call from is Oregon. My San Pedro apartment, which overlooks the red and aquamarine cranes and silent monstrosity of the Los Angeles port, has no desire to look upon the rest of the insignificant world, least of all, Oregon. Never mind that the two states face a common ocean. California, especially its southern half, wields a psychological (if not commercial) monopoly over this edge of land we call the West Coast, and towns like Bandon, Oregon, have no choice but to either wither in the backwoods of the popular imagination or submit to labels like “hick town” from their sun-kissed neighbors down south.

“Americans love their yards more than they love their own children,” my stepmother once told me.

I grew up in Bandon during the seventies and eighties; we were the town’s only non-White family. But our neighbors were too quaint to be racist in the outright sense—after all, in a town where it’s culturally normal to crowd your front yard with hundreds of kinds of seashells, multitudes of pinwheels that awaken with every sea breeze, and armies of gnomes, wood carvings, and deer antlers, and then call that a garden, how could anyone be racist? At least, that was how my childish mind constructed it. Yes, they were suspicious of us, but we were also suspicious of them. Most of the time, I played with my younger brother; our father and stepmother forbade us at an early age from ever setting foot in a neighbor’s house, worst of all into a neighbor’s yard or garden (“Americans love their yards more than they love their own children,” my stepmother once told me.).

We were allowed to have friends over, but that wasn’t necessary because we didn’t have friends. It was not until I had reached middle school when, at last, a White child was brave enough to knock on our door. In spite of her closely cropped red hair, baseball cap, and stained overalls that would look dirty no matter many times you washed them, I could tell she was a girl—her face and voice were undoubtedly feminine.

“My name’s Andrew,” she said. “Wanna play?”

Courtesy:  Li Hui

Courtesy: Li Hui

After making several requests for her to repeat her name, I begrudgingly accepted the fact that I was standing in front of a girl who not only dressed like a boy but had a boy’s name to top it off. Not that I couldn’t handle it. I’d been living in Bandon for four years now—I’d seen neighbors who talk to trees, walk around in loincloths, adopt every animal on the street, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A girl named Andrew was something I could handle. But I guess I just wanted a more “normal” friend after feeling like an alien for so many years.

Since then, Andrew came to my house almost every afternoon. She even stayed over for dinner sometimes. Whenever my parents offered her a second helping, she would say, “Yes, please,” and “No, thank you,” and this enchanted them to no end. In their eyes, Andrew’s good manners no doubt served as a shocking counterpoint to her messy appearance.

We were both tomboys, so we got along just fine. She said her real name was Shaina, so I asked her why she changed her name to Andrew.

“If everyone thinks I’m a boy, they’ll treat me like a boy. It’s better than being treated like a freak of nature.”

“Did your parents let you do that?”

“I only have one. My dad.”

“My mom’s not around either,” I said, to veil my embarrassment. “I live with my dad and stepmom.”

“My parents had me when they were really young. So my mom got scared and ran away. What happened to yours?”

“I haven’t seen her in years. She’s done some terrible things.”

Still, my brother and I were not allowed to enter our neighbors houses, not even Andrew’s.

I was telling the truth, as far as I knew. After my parents’ separation when I was four, my brother and I lived with our mother for four years until her boyfriend moved in. What happened afterwards hasn’t been reconciled in my mind since then. If I had to tell the story as best as I knew it, I would say that one day when the boyfriend was giving my brother and me a bath, he reached down and stuck his finger between my legs. I told my mother. All I remember after that is the boyfriend disappearing one morning and my father coming to our house and breaking everything in sight, demanding to know where the boyfriend was and saying my mother was worse than the devil for letting him get away with it. Soon after that, my brother and I moved in with our father. I never saw my mother again, and I didn’t really want to, because according to my father, she didn’t report the boyfriend because she didn’t care about me.

Anyhow, that was how Andrew and I became best friends. My father and stepmother adored her (to them, Andrew was the reformed savage, White but well-bred), which opened the doors for all manner of White children to play with us at our house or in the streets. Still, my brother and I were not allowed to enter our neighbors houses, not even Andrew’s.

I wouldn’t see my mother again until I was sixteen years old, when I got into a car accident on the 101 while driving my father’s car without permission. I was getting tired of my parents’ overprotective bitterness; I wanted to get away from Bandon for a spell, perhaps foray into California. The result of the collision was gruesome­—several tiny shards of glass were imbedded in my abdomen. I was rushed to the hospital to receive a blood transfusion and undergo surgery, but fortunately my vitals weren’t punctured.

My father, stepmother, brother, and Andrew were waiting for me after the operation was over, but I didn’t expect to see another figure, tall and slumped and familiar, hovering outside the door. In the hospital room where I lay, my stepmother reached over and placed her hand on mine.

Reevaluating my mother’s innocence was like opening up a scar and analyzing how the wound had happened, living it all over again.

“Your mother’s here to see you,” she said.

I ought to mention here that my stepmother was utterly convinced of my mother’s innocence, if nobody else was. Whenever my father went on and on with his usual rants, in which he defamed my mother with all kinds of curse words, my stepmother would always say something like, “But we can’t expect CeCe to just believe you on faith. She’s never heard her mother’s side of the story.” I never really paid attention when she said that. Reevaluating my mother’s innocence was like opening up a scar and analyzing how the wound had happened, living it all over again.

I looked at my father, who was gritting his teeth. “You have every right to say no,” he said.

“She came here all the way from Redding,” my stepmother. “She wants to see if you’re okay.”

“Sure, why not?” My own answer shocked me. Perhaps it was the anesthesia wearing off.

As if summoned, the figure shuffled towards me. Her hair was dyed in that same toasty light-brown color, but it was clear that she had put on some weight. Her makeup was heavier too; her eyes, reddened from fatigue and ringed in black eyeliner, were frightening to see. When she reached my bedside I could smell her breath which wasn’t bad but had a strange, chemically artificial scent. I’d been feeling nauseous already but the smell made it worse.

She reached her hand towards me. I flinched. She withdrew it. My stepmother ushered Andrew and my brother out into the hallway.

“CeCe,” my mother said in a hushed tone, imploring me with her eyes. I tried to ignore the nausea, tried to be nice, tried to tell myself that my stepmother might have been right all along. I took deep breaths.

“Can’t you see she doesn’t want you here?” my father hissed.

She reached out her hand again and this time, I let her place it on my shoulder. I felt her pinky on my collarbone. Her hand felt like a clammy paw. I thought about the inconvenience of it all, being trapped in a hospital bed with stitches in my belly, wanting to throw up at any moment, needle-like pains coursing through me whenever I thought about the glass splinters entering my skin. And to top it off, here was this unsightly specter from the past, demanding my attention. It was all too much.

I shrieked.

“Get out!” my father ordered. My mother grabbed her purse and ran out the room. I closed my eyes and tried to ease myself into a semblance of relief. I should be relieved. After all, I had succeeded in keeping my wounds closed.

There were clusters of white flowers nestled among the grass near my feet, and as my eyes moved upward, they fell upon a row of small banyan trees, their roots reaching down the hill.

A month after the surgery, I was able to walk around the house a little, though still bedridden most of the time. One day, when nobody was home, I felt brave and decided to step outside in my pajamas. When I breathed the familiar salty air for the first time in a long time, I put on my running shoes to go for a walk on the cracked pavement. It was nice not having to say hi to anyone; it was the early afternoon and everyone was either working or at school. I passed Andrew’s house and wondered if I would ever see inside of it. I passed by the familiar wooden houses with their front-facing garages and metal green roofs, and I thought of heading over to the beach.

I might have forgotten the way, which was odd, since I hadn’t been in the hospital for that long. I ended up getting lost and tried to find my way back by using Andrew’s house as a landmark. I remembered walking downhill at some point, so when I saw a grassy hill on my left with houses on top, I decided to climb it and walk along the ridge until I found my house. So I walked along the bottom of the hill, looking for an incline that wasn’t as steep as the rest—I didn’t want to exert myself too much. It was getting chilly. I got a headache when I realized that I’d never walked through this area before. As a self-conscious Asian kid, I found it unnecessary to go out of the house and show my face to the world unless I absolutely had to.

After about a quarter of a mile, I saw the back of a house that resembled Andrew’s in hue and size. It was the last house on this side of the hill, and covered in shadow. I walked towards the house and as I neared the corner, I saw the most beautiful garden; in fact, the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. There were clusters of white flowers nestled among the grass near my feet, and as my eyes moved upward, they fell upon a row of small banyan trees, their roots reaching down the hill. Growing between the roots were those same white flowers which I’d never seen before in Bandon, ever. On top of the banyan roots was constructed a walkway that led from the back of Andrew’s house (and it really was Andrew’s house—I’d only seen its façade from far away but never the land behind it!), past the banyans, and into a grassy patch, around which grew other plants and bushes.

Courtesy:  Li Hui

Courtesy: Li Hui

I felt the irresistible need to climb this hill. I got down on my hands and knees like a baby or a dog and grasped the tough roots, not minding the dirt and sod that got on my navy blue pajamas.

I’m sure there was an easier way to get up the hill. For example, I could’ve rounded the corner and walked up the grassy patch, which gently sloped downward. But I felt the need to grasp those roots and those flowers as if they could answer everything I wanted to know about this place, and about my life.

I sat down at the base of one of the banyans and drank the water, while he stood over me and watched curiously.

Still on all fours, I was very close to reaching the top (and by this point my body felt unbearably sore and I felt like giving up) when I heard a gruff voice say, from the direction of Andrew’s house, “What are you doing in my garden?”

I looked up, half expecting to see an ogre, but instead I saw a dark-looking man with weather-beaten features; he wore khakis and stood with his arms crossed. I gawked and said nothing.

“Keep climbing! What, you expect me to push you off the hill?”

So I kept climbing, trying not to grimace whenever I felt the iron grip on my abdomen. When I reached the top and nearly collapsed onto the walkway, I saw him coming out of the house with a glass of water. I hadn’t even noticed that he’d gone back in.

“You look like you’re about to faint,” he said.

I sat down at the base of one of the banyans and drank the water, while he stood over me and watched curiously.

“You’re Andrew’s friend, aren’t you? She used to play at your house every day.” Of course. How could he not recognize the only other Asian kid in town? “I remember the last time I saw you, you were so little.” His eyes softened. I looked at him and recognized some of Andrew’s traits, like the freckles on his nose, and I tried to remember if I’d ever seen him around, perhaps waiting in front of our house to pick her up. But Andrew was notoriously independent and came and went as she pleased. I may have seen him around. I may not have. Bandon wasn’t very diverse, but White people come in different colors. Ever since I’d moved here at the age of eight, I’d seen quite a few people who looked like him, with tan skin and light eyes.

“I heard about your accident. What on earth made you want to climb this hill…in that state?”

“I saw your garden,” I huffed (I still hadn’t caught my breath). “I couldn’t take my eyes off…I wish it were mine.” I continued huffing. I couldn’t think of anything better to say that could express my love.

He laughed, but with a frown on his face.

“I inherited the garden from my parents,” he said, taking the glass from me. “Andrew and I moved here after they died. They were Portuguese Jews, but they changed their last names when they came to America.” I surmised that Andrew’s mother was Scottish or something, which would explain Andrew’s red hair. “I try to take care of it on my days off. I want Andrew to have a place to be herself. I want her to be comfortable in nature.”

“That’s crazy,” I said, which I immediately regretted saying.

He gestured towards the wooden gate that led out into the street. As I walked away, I made a ludicrous offer: “If you ever need help with that garden…I’m very good at that kind of stuff.”

That was an outrageous lie. But as I walked home, I thought of excuses to tell my parents so that I could sneak off to Mr. Arnold’s garden whenever I could.

As soon I’d get back home I’d press them in the gardening books that Mr. Arnold lent me (there were no other books in the house to do that with). My small crimes wouldn’t be discovered until much later.

I went to Andrew’s house every Monday after school, which was Mr. Arnold’s day off (he was a car mechanic). I hardly ever saw her anymore. She changed her name back to Shaina and stayed after school for volleyball practice. And she was hardly a tomboy now. I would walk to the back of the house and enter through the gate, interrupting Mr. Arnold and the two gardeners he’d hired, if they happened to be there that day. Mr. Arnold would stand up from his work, hand me a pair of gloves and perhaps a shovel or a weeder, and tell me what to do. As far as my parents knew, I was at band practice.

I found out that the white flowers were called bouvardia, and that Mr. Arnold’s first name was Peter (I heard the gardeners calling him that). Most of what I had to do involved weeding, transporting plants between differently shaded parts of the garden, emptying the slug traps, etc. When nobody was looking, I’d pick some of the bouvardia and stuff them into my pockets. As soon I’d get back home I’d press them in the gardening books that Mr. Arnold lent me (there were no other books in the house to do that with). My small crimes wouldn’t be discovered until much later.

Sometimes, on weeknights when both of my parents were out working, I’d sit in the rocking chair in the Arnolds’ living room, listening to Mr. Arnold talk about trees, about Andrew, about his dreams of sustainable food production. He’d sit at the dining table while Andrew lay on the couch, half asleep and watching TV. Once, I told him about how I’d shrieked at my mother in the hospital, how my father hated her, and how I believed everything he said about her because it was convenient.

“When it comes to your mother, you only know what you know,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. The same goes for Andrew.”

“Should I do something about it?”

I sat still, waiting for him to give me a gardening metaphor, something about waiting for a shoot to be ready before you uproot it. Something like that.

“You don’t have to do anything unless you can’t resist the need to do it,” he said at last.

Andrew and I barely talked these days. Mr. Arnold was my only friend in Bandon.

Courtesy:  Li Hui

Courtesy: Li Hui

About six months after I started gardening with Mr. Arnold, shortly before my seventeenth birthday, he told me that he didn’t need my help anymore. I was crestfallen, especially because I’d looked forward to spring with all kinds of new ideas for what to plant. My parents noticed that I was depressed, so I had to tell them everything. Apparently my parents had known for a while that I’d been gardening at Andrew’s but hadn’t said a word about it after seeing how happy it made me. I guess they felt sorry for me after that incident with my mother. But they were just as eager to keep me away from the garden. “Perhaps he doesn’t need you help anymore,” my father said. “Don’t be a burden. Just find something else, something that won’t involve going into people’s houses.”

I felt as though Mr. Arnold had betrayed me; in my resentment I avoided even looking at his house on my way to school. When I remembered the stack of gardening books lying on the floor of my closet, my mind alternated between annoyance and eagerness. I didn’t want to go to his house and remind myself of my banishment, but I ached for a chance to see him and his garden again.

It was dark and I couldn’t see much but when I lay on the grass, I smelled the dogwood blossoms and felt my eyes getting wet.

That night, I took the books to his front door and rang the doorbell. He looked grumpy, more similar to how he’d looked on the first day I’d met him than on the last day we spoke. He took the books from me. I half expected him to slam the door in my face when he asked, “Do you want to take a look at the garden? We’re growing wedding flowers now, dogwoods, for sale.” With his thumb, he gestured towards the back of the house, where the back door lay open.

I pushed past him, almost forgetting to take my shoes off (Mr. Arnold had a strict no-shoes policy in the house, like my parents did), almost slipping on the hardwood floor. I heard some classical music playing on a record player and I still heard a bit of it as I walked past the old banyans. It was dark and I couldn’t see much but when I lay on the grass, I smelled the dogwood blossoms and felt my eyes getting wet. I lay there until I felt goosebumps on my arms and legs.

When I got back to the house, the music was still playing but it was a different piece (many years later, I heard it somewhere else and found out that it was Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Movement II: Adagio). I saw Mr. Arnold sitting on the floor, looking through one of the gardening books I’d returned, as if trying to refamiliarize himself with it. I asked him where Andrew was.

“She’s at prom,” he said, without looking up.

I’d forgotten that it was prom night, since I was too depressed to pay attention to anything going on at school. I tried to think of a dignified way to say goodbye when he turned a page and several dried bouvardia stalks fell out. Before he could react, I fell to the ground and started grabbing at the fallen blossoms, saying, “I’ll throw these away, I swear!” I heard him mumble in protest as he tried to take them from me. And then I did the unthinkable. I kissed him on the mouth.

He returned the kiss with a more prolonged one, and unbuttoned my shirt. His fingers, calloused, lightly caressed the scars on my navel; after that, he was on top of me. I held on to his shoulder with one hand; at some point, my free hand accidentally snagged a cord and pulled it from the wall. It must’ve been connected to the lamp because we kept going in the dark. The concerto was still playing.

Afterwards, we were lying on the floor and his head was resting against my chest. I had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. We did talk for a bit but I don’t remember exactly what about. We may have talked about the usual things. When we heard voices and shuffling footsteps in the street, Mr. Arnold sat up with a start.

“It’s only nine, she can’t be home this soon.”

That made perfect sense, but something in me (providence, perhaps? or a childhood spent wondering and second-guessing?) made me grab my clothes and run to the bathroom, which for some reason was the first place I thought of. And sure enough, I heard the door open a minute later. The bathroom door was flimsy and didn’t close completely; I had to hold it shut while leaning against it while struggling to put my clothes back on. I heard a knock on the door.

“CeCe?” It was Andrew.

“Yeah? I’m here.”

“Just checking.”

When I came back out, Andrew was sprawled on the couch, not fully sober, while Mr. Arnold watered some plants outside, fully clothed, as if nothing in the world had changed. Even to this day I never found out if Andrew knew. But just in case, I never went near that house again. Which meant that there was no reason left for me to stay in Bandon.

The guilt could be based on my doubt as to whether I even deserve to tell my story, whether I’ve even suffered enough to be telling it.

During my first semester in college, my stepmother called to say that my father was in jail. He’d gone to Mr. Arnold’s house and beaten him to a pulp. “He would’ve died if the police hadn’t come sooner,” she said. She didn’t tell me why my father did it, but I knew. In his inscrutable knack for finding things out, he’d somehow discovered what had happened between me and Mr. Arnold.

When I’m not teaching at San Pedro High School (San Pedro? Saint Peter? Peter Arnold?), I spend my middle-aged years helping out at a women’s shelter. Many of the girls and women have been molested or abused at some point, and I tell them my story and we console one another. When I think about it, I wonder if I’m only there out of guilt. The guilt could be a result of all the scars inflicted on me by my mother, the accident, or Mr. Arnold. The guilt could be based on my doubt as to whether I even deserve to tell my story, whether I’ve even suffered enough to be telling it. Or it could be both. When I talk to therapists, they tell me that I’m forty-eight and unmarried because of all this mess.

“You don’t have to do anything unless you can’t resist it.” Am I sick for thinking about Mr. Arnold’s words right now? If I do something, I’m obeying him. If I do nothing, I’m obeying him. It’s a kind of double bind that I’m allowing myself to be bound by, for now. And by allowing myself, I perpetuate it. Peace comes at a price, just as salvation comes in many forms.

That’s been my response to just about everything these days: “I’ll figure something out.”

“Peter Arnold is dead,” my father tells me, over the phone.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I wouldn’t tell you about that scum unless I had to.”

He tells me that Mr. Arnold left his money and assets to Andrew, except for the house and the land—the garden. He left that to me.

“What are you going to do about it? CeCe?”

I consider selling it and giving the money to my parents. I consider turning it into a shelter, a school, a park. I even consider turning it into a farm, in accordance with what Mr. Arnold would’ve wanted.

“You can do with it as you please,” I tell my father. “If not, I’ll figure something out.”

That’s been my response to just about everything these days: “I’ll figure something out.” Is there no truer aim in life? For now?