Monday, November 12, 2018


The call for submissions came from SDSU's Pacific Review for their annual print anthology: “States of La Frontera” refers to the literal and figurative borderlands of space and identity: the physical, geographical, emotional, spiritual, and temporal boundaries and possibilities of being.

Author note: Borders don't exist for Olivia. Her possibilities of being are endless until she's done.

         I had a stroke in the garden while cursing the squirrels for nibbling my tomatoes. One tomato plant was crushed in my fall, a working part of my brain delighting in its fragrance even as I struggled to move. I dug the fingers of one hand into the rich earth and lay there wondering if Dave would think to look for me here. Probably not.
            A squirrel edged down the trellis for more tomato.
            “Fucker!” I said, only it came out Futh.
            He became a red blur in a towering mass of green. Scent was still with me. I struggled to remain alert. My name? It didn’t come to me. Brandon, my son. Dave, my husband. Olivia and Dave! Olivia. Still Olivia.
            Tired. I closed my eyes. My head throbbed. Wind rustled the trees making them sound like surf along the seashore. Dave and I had driven up the CA-1 on our first road trip up the coast to visit Brandon in Portland. We’d agreed to take our time and stay at hotels along the way, never driving more than five or six hours at a time. Dave did the research and chose the most gorgeous and romantic hotels available. He slowed down and relaxed. It was good for him. For us. We both wanted to recreate the connection we’d had and planned a return trip.
            All we’d managed was a mini road trip alongside the Columbia River. The water had curved with the road guiding us to our son in Eastern Oregon. We’d flown from Los Angeles into PDX and rented a car for the three-hour drive to Brandon’s new place. After graduating from law school he could have stayed in Portland. But he wanted a small town and accepted an offer from a four-person law firm in Pendleton. He’d rented a one-bedroom house and was hard at work planting his own garden.           
            Portland had been a fun place to visit, similar to LA but with more vegans. You could have backyard chickens and grow pot. On the upside of his move to Pendleton, our son now paid his own bills and was building a chicken coop. He’d bought used tools from a place called We Sell Stuff, including an ancient push lawnmower with rusted blades. Brandon was intent on sharpening them.  
            “Keep your cell nearby when you’re cutting or sharpening.” I didn’t like the idea of him using unreliable equipment. Amazon delivered a new saw and blade sharpener the next day.
            On the downside of his move, he had no social life whatsoever in Pendleton. He hated social media and rejected all our suggestions on ways to meet people. He gave up on the push lawnmower and bought a scythe. Thankfully, not a used one. He sent us a YouTube of three ancient Chinese guys demoing how to use it. They worked bare-chested. I had visions of Brandon severing toes, a foot, or the bottom half of his leg.
            “Wear sunblock when you scythe,” I said.
            Not sure what my husband was feeling on our drive, but I was filled with both anticipation and caution. Brandon had never been easy.

            In my garden, I tried moving again. Only my right hand seemed to work. When I got anxious worrying about my son it clenched the soil, but with happy thoughts it patted down the lumps. The river was a happy memory. It rushed headlong into its future.
            An hour into our drive to Pendleton, I turned to my husband, and said, “The Columbia is gorgeous.” Dave insisted on driving. Sitting in the passenger seat nauseated him, especially on a curvy road with me at the wheel.
            “Hmm,” Dave said. He changed the radio station. “Need to check the scores.”
            I stared across his chest to the water. “The river meanders in some places and surges in others.”
            He made no comment. I’m not even sure he heard me.
            Some women would have become disheartened with this lack of attention from a loved one. Not me. My self-esteem didn’t depend on him. Early in our marriage, I’d taken his behavior personally. Finally, I realized that though brilliant in many ways, he was clueless in others.
            He moved his visor to the window partially blocking my view.
            “I can still see the water.” Sarcasm kept me entertained.
            He turned off the radio.
            “I like the rocks, too. They’re solid. Unemotional.”
            No response.
            His ability to focus exclusively on driving and the baseball scores might make him seem insensitive, but we always had great sex. Long practice and determination lay at the heart of our carnal triumphs. Dave had researched female sexuality long before we met. He insisted I be the first to orgasm, at least once. I was experienced enough to appreciate his dedication.
            We were two independent and solitary people who loved each other. That didn’t mean he’d look for me out here. Not yet sunset. Hazy light surrounded me, like the mist rising off the river in Oregon. Brandon’s garden and his new life awaited us.  
            We checked into the Best Western that our son had recommended. Once we’d settled in, I called him at work.
             “We’re here!”
            “Great. Just have to finish up a memo and I’ll meet you at the house.” He sounded excited and pleased.
            We proceeded at an unhurried Pendleton pace to his place. Dave gripped the wheel, his knuckles turning white. He yelled at the slowpoke drivers,  “C’mon the speed limit is twenty five. At least go that fast.”
            “Relax, honey. Go with the flow.”                
            At a four-way stop, every driver waved the other on. “No, you go first,” they seemed to be saying.
            “The population is 17,000,” I said. “They probably all know one another.”
            “They need more people and to move faster.”
            “Breathe deeply, please.”
            He worried me. It was as if he sought stress no matter what the circumstances. I studied his careworn profile. Dave often repeated the mantra that the men in his family die young. Then, he’d remind me that Brandon and I would be financially secure. I once asked him if he knew what the ultimate irony would be in our marriage. He looked perplexed.
            “C’mon you were an English lit major,” I said. “Irony. Think about it.”
            He shook his head.
            “If I died first.”
            “That’s unlikely. The statistics are against it.” No smile, not even a lip twitch.
            He hadn’t always been like this. We frolicked in the beginning, chased each other naked around my condo, tackling each other onto the mattress, our wrestling seguing into caresses. There were lots of laughs, as well as a variety of sexual positions. Building his law practice drained the frolic right out of him.
            Brandon’s house sat on a corner lot with a big yard. “The house tilts to the left,” I whispered at the front door.
            The door swung open and our son gave us both big hugs. It wasn’t bad inside: big combo kitchen and dining area. He didn’t have a table yet. There were laundry hook-ups in a space with louvered doors.
            “I don’t want a washing machine, mom.” He must have seen the excitement in my eyes.
            “How many days in a row do you wear the same shirt,” Dave asked. “Don’t answer. More than once is too much.”
            Brandon laughed. Dave and I joined him, for the moment releasing parental tension.
            There was a screened in porch off the kitchen where he could store tools. His bedroom was large. One bathroom. The only heat in the house was from a gas appliance in the living room designed to look like a fireplace. Brandon hadn’t figured out how to adjust it. Pendleton gets cold in the winter.
            Dave discovered its secrets. Next, he went over and checked the smoke detector. “Get a new one.” He glanced back at the heater. “And a carbon monoxide alarm.”
            This is the other reason I love my husband.
            We walked into town. Brandon is a vegetarian so we had dinner at an Indian restaurant. “There’s a hot yoga place across the street,” I said. “You should try it.” He groaned.
            He and his dad talked about his law practice while I people-watched. When there was a lull, I asked about his co-workers. There were only four other attorneys and assorted staff.
            “They’re nice. Everyone’s real busy.” He looked away.
            We walked around downtown Pendleton, where a few people were on the streets. One or two bars seemed to be thriving. Outside one of them, a man in his 40s, muscles melting into heft, looked up from his phone and stared at Brandon. We stopped in front of a statue dedicated to Madam Stella, a brothel owner for almost 40 years. A sign next to it gave us some local history. Pendleton’s population never maxed its present size, but in the 19th century it had been jammed with bordellos, gambling halls and hard-working Chinese who lived and worked in the underground.
            Our son showed us his office, a converted house just off the main drag. A prominent sign to the left of the door announced that smoking was prohibited. Brandon was trying to quit.
            On the walk back to his place, we passed a museum with a posted schedule of events, speakers, art shows, and various classes, all things I would have signed up for. Brandon was noncommittal.
            Warm goodbyes and hugs at the door. We made plans to go on the underground tour the next day.
            Dave and I were solemn on the drive back to the hotel. Each of us worried in our own way about Brandon. I pointed to a well-lit sports bar. “Pull over.”
            Inside were TVs up high and down low, high-topped tables lining one wall, and empty seats at the bar. A pretty blond big-girl tended it. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Cheyenne.
            She recommended a Huckleberry martini. Sounded good to me. Cheyenne shook my drink. Her upper arms were round and firm.
            “Is your name spelled like the tribe or with an A?” I asked.  
            “Like the tribe,” she said.
            “Do you have Native American blood?”
            “I wish.” She put the martini in front of me. A sugarcoated rim circled a frosty pink drink. I sipped. Sipped again.

            “Were your parents in a hippie phase?”
            She laughed. Dave even kinda smiled. “Far from it. They were very conservative. Never had a chance to ask them before they passed.”
            “I’m sorry,” Dave said.
            “I lucked out with my foster parents.”
            “Cheyenne is a very pretty name,” I said. “Unique, like you.”
            “I like your name. Olivia, Olivia, Olivia.” My name rolled off her tongue as if she could taste it. “Twelfth Night, right? I read it in high school.”
            Dave answered. “I’ve always loved it, too.” He laid his hand over mine. Cheyenne’s eyes floated down to them.
            The conversation proceeded from there. Cheyenne was almost finished with nursing school, she’d broken up with her boyfriend, and Trivia Night at the bar was tomorrow.
            “You should check it out. Bring your son.”
            Yes, we had told her about Brandon.


            Brandon and Cheyenne dated and then she moved in with him. The chicken coop was finished but unused: Pendleton was not Portland—the city had an ordinance against keeping chickens within the city limits. Pygmy goats were okay, but not chickens. I encouraged my son to find out who on City Council had brokered that deal and invite him or her out for coffee. Networking might pay off in the long run.  
            Cheyenne posted happy photos of the two of them on Facebook. She and I stayed in touch, texting and speaking on the phone often. She sent me pictures of what they’d done with his place. “Olivia, what do you think of the couch over here?” she’d write in an email with a picture attached. I noticed there were air filters in every room. “Brandon is trying really hard to quit smoking,” she said.
            It was like having a daughter-in-law, or what I imagined a daughter-in-law would be like. We talked about everything. There were a number of different avenues in the health care field from which she could choose: she was interested in management. I’d been in business at one time, so she was eager to get my input.
            “It’s okay to change direction,” I said. “If you want management, don’t be afraid of leading others, of drawing them to you.”
            Brandon and I also talked about a variety of subjects, but he never asked for career advice. He was more interested in getting my input on growing asparagus.
            Cheyenne had never been to California so I was excited when they flew down for Christmas. They looked dour and tired when I picked them up at LAX. She’d put on a bit of weight.
            Dinner was cold and Cheyenne and I were on our third martini by the time Dave got home from the office. Brandon sipped a beer. He jumped up to give his dad a big hug. Dave bent down to peck Cheyenne’s cheek at the same time she rose unsteadily to greet him. She tripped over her own feet and he had to catch her.
            “Sorry,” she said.
            Dave laughed, probably for the first time in weeks. “That’s okay. I’ve got you covered.” Brandon didn’t look at her.
            “I’m sorry I’m so late,” Dave said. “Emergency at the office.” He tapped Brandon on the shoulder. “You know what that’s like.”
            “He grew up knowing what it’s like,” I said, annoyed. Every case was a crisis for Dave.  “Let’s eat. I’ll shove everything through the microwave.”
            Dave pointed up. “Just have to run upstairs and freshen up.”
            “He means he’s gonna brush his teeth before dinner,” I said.
            “Does it help you eat less?” Cheyenne asked.
            “No.” Dave laughed. Again. “But don’t worry, a few more curves never hurt anyone.” He looked at Brandon who tried to smile.
            Finally seated at the dinner table, I raised my glass. “Congratulations to Cheyenne on completing nursing school!”
            Dave clicked her glass. “What are the job opportunities like in Pendleton?”
            Cheyenne and Brandon exchanged a look. “Zero. I got a great offer in Salem. Or, I can commute to Hermiston.”
            We looked from Cheyenne to Brandon. “I think she should go for Salem,” he said. “It’s a career opportunity.” Almost as an afterthought, he reached a tentative hand across the table to her. “I wouldn’t mind visiting Salem.”
            “Would you excuse me,” she said. “I drank too much.”
            The three of us remained at the table. Brandon told us he’d settled a few cases and got to know a couple of judges. “Except for the no chicken rule, I love Pendleton.”
            “And you don’t work an eighty hour week.” I tilted my head toward Dave. “Or, claim you’re working eighty hours.”
            “I put in more than fifty, easy,” Brandon said. “Some weeks are worse than others, but I’m learning a lot.”
            “Are you and Cheyenne able to have dinner together?” I asked.
            He shrugged. “No. It’s a problem for her, but I didn’t grow up with nightly family dinners. I don’t mind eating alone.”
            “Brandon?” Cheyenne called from the hallway. He went to her.
            I finished my martini and stared at my husband. “Why were you so late?”
            Dave stood and downed his drink. “My mother called.”
            “Was it an emergency?”
            He left the room without answering and turned on the TV in the den. Furious, I followed him and grabbed the remote switching off the TV.
            “I don’t even have words for how rude you are.”
            “She just wanted to talk, okay? After a hard day it’s relaxing to speak with her. My mom is very supportive.”
            I was about to give him the finger and yell, “Support this!” when we heard Brandon and Cheyenne shouting.
            “I can’t go on like this,” she said. “Nothing makes sense.”
            “Stop it,” Brandon said.
            Then Cheyenne, “You have to tell them.”     
            I tossed the remote to Dave and sat down. For once, he didn’t turn on the TV. He looked startled. Footsteps down the hall.
            Brandon went outside to smoke. He came back in and pulled a chair over to face us. “We’re having some problems.” He clenched his jaw, reminding me of his father. “I’m queer and so is Cheyenne.”
            Dave cleared his throat. “You guys are gay?”
            “We go both ways, Dad.”
            “You’re bisexual,” I said, relieved. I’d rejoiced when he went to a college whose motto was Atheism, Communism, Free Love.
            Brandon smirked. “We reject that categorization. We’re non-normative, or at least I am.”
            “So what’s the problem?”
            “She wants to get married and be heteronormative.”
            He went on and on speaking in non-binary terms until my brain felt like it was going to explode. Even though his terminology was annoying, Brandon knew we’d never desert him. That night, we expressed our love and support for him and each other, embracing before saying goodnight. Dave and I both grabbed our laptops to look up all the terms Brandon had tossed out. Of course we did it in separate rooms. At 1 a.m., I shut down my computer, my questions answered for the time being.
            The next day was Christmas. We had a fine brunch, with our usual discussions of books, movies, and politics. The conversation was colorful, tinted with affectionate sarcasm and laughter. Cheyenne and Brandon spent the next two days exploring LA and then they flew back to Pendleton.
            They broke up within a week of their return.
            Cheyenne accepted the job in Salem, but she stayed in touch with me. I advised her to stay in touch with the hospitals and medical centers in Oregon, and especially in Pendleton.
            A couple of months later, Brandon started dating Oscar, a chef. Their Facebook posts were charming. They bought a house together and Brandon quit smoking. He and Oscar called us often on Sundays, laughing and teasing each other. Brandon seemed genuinely happy and in love with Oscar. Cheyenne had a series of lovers, all male. Brandon and Oscar visited her in Salem.  A year had passed when she called me to say St. Anthony’s hospital in Pendleton had offered her a promotion.
            “I went after what I wanted,” she said. “Just like you said to.”
            I smiled, staring out at my garden while we talked, feeling warmth and affection for her.
            She moved back to Pendleton.

            I patted the earth beneath me as if it were a cat. My head still hurt, but everything else was numb. The light was still with me. I could see it even with my eyes closed. I could see Dave clearly and all the colors on the CA-1 from our first drive up the coast.    
            Before we’d even booked one hotel for our second journey, I died in the garden.


            My will dictated cremation and my desire to be buried in my garden. Irony again. Brandon, Oscar and Cheyenne flew down for the party/memorial. My son put up the photos I’d taken on my one and only road trip to Oregon.
            The next day, they scattered my ashes in the garden and turned the soil. Dave saved some of me for my final journey. Oscar had to fly back for work, but my family, including Cheyenne, decided to scatter what was left of me along the CA-1.
            They told mom stories on the road.
            Cheyenne sat in the backseat with my ashes. A seatbelt secured my urn next to her. Dave drove, quiet and intense, as usual. Brandon looked across the front seat at his dad. “Remember when Mom took me on a road trip to Utah for a visit with her brother?”
            “Yeah. You had a good time?”
            “We stopped at a Dairy Queen.” Brandon began to laugh so hard, he had to stop and catch his breath. “Remember how obsessive Mom was about coupons? Well, she’d brought some along and they wouldn’t accept them. She asked for the manager, who also refused to honor them. She tore the coupons into tiny pieces and tossed them in the air.”
            “Uh oh,” Dave said. “You were only seven. Can’t believe you remember that.”
            “Everyone looked up. They floated down like snowflakes.”
            No one spoke for the next thirty miles. Dave pulled over at a rest stop and then the journey began again.
            “Your mom gave me career advice,” Cheyenne said from the backseat. She tapped Brandon’s shoulder. “You never told me about her business experience. She got me to accept the job in Salem and told me how to deal with the doctors and management. She knew about the job at St. Anthony’s before I did.”
            “Mom could network when she wanted to.”
            “She also gave me sex advice,” Cheyenne said.
            Dave groaned. “Probably more than you’d ever want to know.”
            “Olivia was funny,” Cheyenne continued. “Always willing to make fun of herself and the whole process. She was very complimentary of you, Dave.”
            Dave’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror.
            “When I was thirteen, she annotated every sex advice book we owned before handing them over to me,” Brandon said. “I paid her back by adding my comments to all her parental guidance books.”
            “I wondered whose writing that was,” Dave said.
            “You read parental guidance books, Dad?”
            Everyone laughed.
            “It wasn’t just sex,” Cheyenne said to Dave. “We talked about love. You used the word continuity when you guys were first discussing marriage. She said she learned the depth of that word from you.”
            Cheyenne stared at his reflection in the rearview mirror. Dave gripped the steering wheel, but didn’t look at her. “Olivia said not to expect love to solve everything: It's like a garden, and without nurture some weird shit will take over.”
            “Mom told me the same thing,” Brandon said.
            Cheyenne blew her nose. “She loved you guys so much.”
            Dave glanced at Brandon. “Your mom was smart and funny. She loved nature and life and you with all her heart.”
            “Mom loved you, too, Dad.” He reached across for his dad’s hand.
            “I loved her more than she knew.” Dave pulled the car over.
            He and Brandon got out and hugged and cried together. They talked and hugged more. Cheyenne remained in the car with me.    
            They drove on, stopping to scatter me when they recognized a place where I’d taken pictures on my first road trip.
            In Pendleton, Oscar waited for Brandon and the rest of us at their home. He’d prepared a delicious vegetarian dinner. At least I thought it was probably delicious. They’d left me in the car. I was just residue at this point, a light dust that remained on my family’s clothes and in their hair. Hugs and goodnights and plans for breakfast tomorrow. Then, Dave drove Cheyenne to her place.
            They spoke at the door. Dave covered his face with his hands. His shoulders rose and fell with strangled sobs. Cheyenne embraced him, patting his back and swaying the way you’d do with a baby. Dave quieted. He straightened up, reaching into his jacket for a Kleenex. He and Cheyenne stood quietly together, until he said goodnight and leaned forward for one last hug. She wrapped her arms around him, not letting go.
            She held his hand and drew him inside her apartment.
            My work here was done.



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