Fiction finalist | My Garden

Features Summer Writing Contest
Graphic by Emily Fagan, Editor-in-Chief

All the women in my family have a garden. Gigantic things you could get lost in. There would be big vines that snaked up the sides of houses, bushes full to bursting with flowers, top-heavy flowers that hung over you with their scent as they watched you pass them by, and trees that blossomed every spring. You name it; someone in our family had it.

My grandma had a sunflower grove for the grandkids with a little table in the middle for tea parties or pirate adventures. I spent hours in the middle of those sunflowers; book in my lap as I watched their big bright faces follow the path of sun, the shells of their seeds scattered around me.

Mom’s garden had a fig tree right in the middle. It was her pride and joy. She obsessed over it. She spent more time tending to it than she ever spent with my siblings and I. It’s not that she didn’t love us. She just loved the tree more.

So, mommy issues aside, our family has this tradition. Every girl takes a plant from their mother’s garden when they move out to start their own garden. My sister and I were raised on this story. Ever since we kids, we would spend hours navigating the backyard, trying to find what we would take with us.

When I was seven, the irises were black that year. Honestly, it was more likely they were dark blue, but I always remember that they were black as night. I thought that if looked close enough, I could see the stars tucked into those petals. I had never seen black irises before. I decided, right then and there, that when I left I would take an iris with me. Not when they were yellow, white, orange, blue, pink or any other colour. I would leave with a black iris.

When I graduated high school, the irises were yellow.

I wasn’t looking for excuses then. I genuinely had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Absolutely none. I decided to take a gap year to figure it out. Work, save some money, and then maybe I would know what to do.

My older sister knew what she wanted to do straight from day one. Not many kids want to be dentists, but she sure did. She’s practical like that. Her plant was a cactus. Something unkillable, easy to keep, didn’t require a lot of attention or care. She’s not an unloving person. But she’s not a multitasker. Give her a task, she’ll stick with it until it’s done and perfect, everything else be damned. 

One time, our parents were out of town for a wedding. My sister discovered origami. She sat in her room the entire weekend trying to fold paper into animals. She would’ve forgotten to eat if my brother and I didn’t bring her some KD.

Anyway, because of this, her garden has only cactuses. They were pruned, perfectly kept things, arranged by colour and size. She has one corner where the cactuses make a picture of a tree. Whenever she isn’t working, she’s in the garden, making sure everything is perfect. Not one thing out of place.

My brother was like me, initially. He didn’t know what to do. But instead of taking a gap year, he went to the local college to take some courses to test the waters. He tried being practical, like our sister, and chose a teaching program. But after a year, it was obvious that his heart wasn’t in it. So he dropped out and decided to focus on becoming an artist.

He’d always been the creative one in the family. Our parents were supportive, but did stress the practicality of our childhood dreams. So my brother gave the practical day job route a shot. When it didn’t work out, he enrolled in an arts program across the country and didn’t look back. He had a passion for it; the fire needed to keep standing up after getting knocked down over and over again. He made it work.

When he moved, he took a bonsai clipping with him. “It’s symbolic and shit,” he told me late at night, with both of us sitting underneath the fig tree. “It’s not fair that you two get to take them and I don’t.”

He turned into a real bonsai collector. They were his pride and joy, carefully looked after across his apartment. I crashed at his place a few times when I needed to get away from everything. “They help me relax,” he explained. “Gets me away from my computer for a while. Clears my head.” He loves them so much. While not officially a garden, they are his.

But, “One day, if I ever get a backyard, I’d like to have a whole garden.” 

“Just bonsai?” I’d ask.

He’d smile at me. “Just bonsai.”

And then there’s me.

The gap year turned into two, three, four, and five. I worked multiple part time jobs through the year, mostly sticking to waitressing. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Throughout those five years, the black irises didn’t bloom. So I stayed. My parents never pushed, but they were worried about me. I wasn’t practical like my sister, or passionate like my brother. I was just somewhere in between. 

The only thing I really liked to do was road trips. Just put some gas in the tank and just go. In between all the birthdays and holidays and work, I’d save up for some time off, two weeks all to myself, and just drive. One year, I kept running into this one biker in fast food joints. Fourth time this happened, we said hello. Fifth time, we shared a table, sharing stories of life on the road. He ended up recommending me some cool places to check out, as well as some cheap hotels that were considerably less shady than the others. He’s a cool dude. We run into each other from time to time on the road.

“Maybe you should become a traveling salesman or something,” my brother suggested one day. “Maybe a trucker.”

“Maybe,” I answered, not discounting the option. “I don’t know. I kind of like the aimless travelling sometimes, you know?”

He called me a hippie. It was warranted.

Anyway, you start to pick up on who’s on a long trip and who isn’t. There are the bikers, the truckers, the long family vacationers, the couples, and the loners. People who need to stretch their legs, grab something to eat and relax for just a bit. You start recognizing each other and end up sharing stories and recommendations for good food, somewhere to sleep for the night, places and people to avoid, and secret roads to escape to. There are assholes, of course. You learn pretty quickly who to trust and who to avoid.

Occasionally, my car would break down despite my best efforts, always outside of cell service because of course. I’m too nervous to abandon my stuff and car to go find a bar of service, so I sit around with some leftover snacks and wait. If it’s a highway, I wait for a family. Never a guy, or a gang of them. If they stop, I lie and say I’m just taking a break. Yes, yes, I know, not all men, but y’all haven’t known the fear of realizing how vulnerable you are all at once. Once I got stranded near a reservation on a back road in the Prairies. A father and son found me on their way back home from a hunting trip. Good people. He did give me hell about not having any jumper cables with me. Well deserved, honestly. As soon as I found civilization, they were the first things I got.

I didn’t tell my parents about my trips for years. I’d tell them the broad strokes, but the trips are mine and mine alone. Selfish? Probably. But it was mine. Hell, I was so protective about them I didn’t have a blog or an Instagram account or anything to record my road trips. It was my time away from everything. 

During the year away from the road, I’d get antsy. To see something new and to hear new stories that only the road could provide. I’d take pictures of the people (with their permission) and the places I run into. Only after I came home I would upload the pictures to my Instagram to all three of my followers with some flavour text.

But my best trip was the one that I never took a picture of. I was on some highway in B.C., somewhere between the Kootenays and Nelson, I can’t remember where exactly, but it was late at night. Not another car in sight. I glanced out the window for a second and I nearly ran off the road. 

It was a perfectly clear night.

I’d never seen so many stars before. Have any of you seen the Milky Way before? From Earth? With your own two eyes? I’d never imagined so many colours hanging up in the night sky. And so, so many stars all crowding up there.

So I pulled off the road and sat on the hood of my car for hours. And I just stared. The thought of taking a picture never even crossed my mind. 

So when they started to fade in the morning light, I got in my car and drove until I found a motel. I’ve never forgotten that.

Now, tangents aside, I suppose I should get back to my original point. I didn’t have any come to Jesus in regards to my career. It wasn’t a whim either, the path that I chose. I had come home from a trip and I told my parents about the night sky I saw that night. I had them on the edge of their seat. And I remember feeling guilty when the story was done, about my selfishness in regards to those stories I never told them. So I made a shitty PowerPoint and made a night out of it, complete with popcorn and wine. My sister was there too. They were horrified when I mentioned how many times my car broke down. We laugh about it now.

Now, I didn’t immediately realize this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life after this night. I thought it was just a good time. While on the road, I really got podcasts and radio shows, but if never occurred to me that I could give that a shot. But, I did start looking more into programs and universities and colleges. I stumbled across a decent school with a decent communications program and a decent radio station. I more or less figured, why not give radio a shot?

I was watering the garden with my mom on the summer of my final year living at home. And when I wandered over to the irises, they were all black. “Well,” I thought. “Guess I’m moving out this year.”

The rest of the story is pretty boring if you ask me. I moved, left my hometown, went to university and took the irises with me. I didn’t have my own place for years, so they stayed inside pots near my windowsill. Not to say it was easy — it wasn’t. But it was something I wanted to work on. After keeping all those stories to myself for so long, it was cathartic in a way to finally share them. I still don’t blog about it though. I prefer rambling into the void to words and pictures.

Took a lot of work, but here we are: my own late night talk show. Speaking of, it looks up we’re done for the night. As always, thank you all for joining me tonight.

Oh, before I forget,

I have a greenhouse now. 

Drive safe out there.