Your love for Jessalyn is extractive, like a monarch nose in marigolds. You drink her dry, and still she arrives the next day, just as you are mashing bananas in your hair and your mother is careening through the house forgetting and finding essentials. Jessalyn has picked marigolds from the garden and put them in mason jars all around the house. Your mother says “at least something is thriving.” Jessalyn tells her not to worry, she will have dinner ready for them and it will be great. Your mother and father each bring a travel mug and computer bag into separate cars and leave for work.
You would like to tell Jessalyn that although marigolds are common you find them charming. But a few things prevent you, most pertinently that your spoken vocabulary is limited to a few one- and two-syllable words. Instead, in your best monster voice, you growl “flower.” Jessalyn laughs and tickles your nose with the marigold.
The metaphors in your mind, though, are flickering hummingbirds or elaborate, elongated interviews in NPR Weekend Edition, which you listen to with mama over bagels with coffee (her) and milk (you). Jessalyn puts disco on the device. You raise your hands and say “boogie” and Jessalyn boogies. Jessalyn is small and wiry, with long dark hair she keeps in a ponytail that sweeps her shoulders as she points one arm then another toward the sky.
The daily salutary walk arrives. You indicate the sun in your eyes, and Jessalyn lowers the carriage canopy. Golf carts and pick-up trucks buzz the carriage as she pushes it up to the Turn, a looping side road where she allows you to get out and walk with her. Wild turkeys move through an open field.
“How many turkeys are there, Carter?”
“One, two, two, two,” you say.
“One, two, three, four,” she repeats. “Do you want water?”
“You want water,” you repeat.
“Yes, I want water,” Jessica says, pointing to herself. “Do you want water?” she says pointing to you.
“Yes! You want water!” you say, and Jessica sighs. She gives you the unspillable canteen, and you take a long drink.
The homes here are immense, nearly twice the size of yours. When you walk by with your parents on the weekend, each drive is filled with two cars, and by Monday, with Jessalyn, most are gone. Your mother and father discuss the jumble of architectural styles. One is a giant cottage with windows and doors featuring ornate carved flowers and hearts. Another is a lighthouse tower. Most are metastasized log cabins, with porches on stilts high above the car fleet. Your parents note the out-of-state license plates: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut. Yesterday, Mama pointed to a Jeep and a Tahoe in the drive and said under her breath, gas-guzzling finance bros. You agreed: “bros!”
“A finance bro, Carter,” mama said, “is someone who makes a personal style out of late-stage capitalism.”
Jessalyn points to the cut-out hearts and stars in the cottage shutters and says, “Look, Carter, emojis!” She shows you a series of cartoonish hearts and stars on her phone and repeats “emojis!” You echo her to delight her: emojis! She loves this house, she says, because it looks like it’s out of a fairy tale.
With Jessalyn, you stop and look at the empty drive, through which you can see a white gate around what appears to be a body of water. She picks you a tall dry grass from the side of the porch and gives it to you. An empty porch swing and rocking chairs move slightly in the breeze. It’s so hot your hair is sticking to your neck. Jessalyn says, “Let’s go sit for a minute.”
The swing does look inviting. You acknowledge this with a series of high-pitched grunts meant to convey enthusiasm. Jessalyn pulls pieces of grass out of your mouth and brings you next to her. You put your head on her shoulder, and she strokes your wet curls. Together, you look out across the valley: rolling green hills, a horse across a field slapping flies with its tail, purple wildflowers at the edge of the road, wild turkeys moving across the meadow.
Jessalyn picks you up and you peer in a window. Inside, everything is tan and white: couches, chenille throws, cabinets. There are large books on a glass table in front of an imposing stone fireplace. A painting of nothing hangs over the fireplace–just swaths of yellow and orange across a canvas. You feel this is an esthetic you could achieve. You like looking at the painting nestled against Jessalyn.
You fill the space between her shoulder and hip. She smells like crushed marigolds, like liquid hand soap from the grocery store bathroom. “Would you like to live in a place like this, Carter?” Jessalyn asks you. You clap your hands in affirmation.
“Yeah,” she says, “me too.” She turns the doorknob with her free left hand and, to your surprise, the door opens.
Jessalyn hesitates for a moment at the threshold. You shake your head back and forth, and she laughs as if it’s encouragement. She walks into the open-plan kitchen and heads to the refrigerator. There are two bottles of white wine and a bottle of Perrier, along with an elaborate array of mustards. She explores a cabinet above the smooth marble countertop. Inside is a world of crackers and salts: water crackers, flatbread crackers, rosemary crackers; pink salt, black salt, gray salt, flower salt. Behind the Himalayan sea salt is a jar with what look to be taffies except they are decorated with skulls. She takes one and puts it in her pocket.
She sits you on the coach with you beside her and you look at the slasher painting. When you get excited, sometimes you salivate excessively, which happens now. The drool starts to pool on your chin, then rolls toward the white couch and white rug. Jessalyn retrieves a soft hand towel from the kitchen and wipes your face. She leaves the towel, marked with banana and saliva, on the couch and takes you out the door.
You are relieved to sit quietly on the porch swing and regard the trees and the field again. “We get to look at this all the time,” says Jessalyn. “I’m exhausted just thinking about their weekend commute.”
You mean to say, I agree, humans create structures that limit the fulfillment of true desires in order to affirm status. For two years running, you have heard Scott Simon on Weekend Edition discuss the happiest countries ratings: tiny Bhutan and the dark, cold Scandinavian countries come out on top. Scott Simon talked about hygge, winter markets, and work-life balance. The cold will arrive soon here as well, and then you and Jessalyn will walk in a navy blue snowsuit (you) and plaid-lined jacket over wool sweater (her). You remember bright curling marigolded leaves, visible breath from your mouths, rabbit footprints in the snow. You want to ask Jessalyn to make sure you will not grow to leave home every day with an insulated coffee mug and computer bag and return late hungry and tired, yearning for drinks, until you are old and again eager most for naps and walks. Instead, you shake your head back and forth over and over again and growl like a monster.
A writer and teacher in New Jersey, Carly Berwick has contributed fiction to Milk Candy Review, The Airgonaut, Subnivean, and Bowery Gothic, among other places. She was also a finalist in the 2021 Sewanee Review fiction contest. Find her work at carlyberwick.com.