Fiction Kaye Miller Literature

Grafting Techniques

The first time Lenny does her wash at your house, she comes with a bottle of gin in her laundry basket, folded into a cardigan. You’re standing out back watering the lettuces when she calls your name over the fence.

“Ginger?” She holds up her laundry basket. “This a good time?”

“Of course!” You let her in the front door, show her through to the mudroom. You tap the tops of the washer, dryer, stain-remover, bleach, and detergent, and leave her to do her thing.

You sit out in your yard, avoiding any awkwardness that would come from being alone in the quiet house with her. You don’t want to be weird. Don’t want her to get your gay all over her, in case she doesn’t want you to. Your pursuit of Not Being Weird, you’ve noticed, often results in more perceived weirdness.

Lenny lives in the complex on the corner and doesn’t have in-building laundry. You’d noticed her walking past every week, and finally steeled up to invite her over. You’re being a good neighbour, you rationalize. But really, you’d noticed her because she’s pretty. You try not to feel bad about that. You haven’t had a crush in a long time—haven’t been with a girl in a long time. Your aunt often tells you you’re a bad lesbian. It’s worse than she even knows.

You pull a few weeds from your planters while Lenny loads up the machine. The tomato plants are leaning. Their flowers are just beginning to set—unripened cherry tomatoes hang in pale stands like pearls. The heirloom beefsteaks are now just the size of hummingbird eggs. Their stalks bend treacherously towards the sun; you’ll need to stake them before the fruit gets any heavier.

The screech of the screen door startles you. Lenny stands in the frame and studies your backyard. You stand and wipe a streak of dirt onto your jeans.

“Is this your garden?” she asks. “It isn’t very pretty.”

You say, “It’s not meant to be pretty.”

But she’s right. The lawn is more mud than grass, and there is more than one crushed beer can strewn in the yard, radiating out from the ground-level deck. From here, you see a rusty shovel leaning against the house; a soup can of sand with the label half-melted away, pressed with roaches. The deck itself is more splinters and chipped paint than board.

The garden itself isn’t pretty either. You mulched with cardboard, and you keep your weeds and trimmings in a rotting pile in the corner. The carrot tops are flattened from where you watered them this morning, and the zucchini leaves are beginning to silver with powdery mildew. Cabbage moths have started to bore holes into your brassicas. And the crab-apple tree hunches shamefully in the corner. You’ve never been a proponent of beauty for beauty’s sake, but you are a little embarrassed to see your yard through her eyes.

“If I had a garden,” says Lenny, leaning against the doorframe thoughtfully, “I’d put a bird bath in it.”

“They get full of gunk—leaves and pollen. Plus, they breed mosquitos.”

She shrugs. “But then songbirds would visit me every day.”

You look to the crab apple tree. There are no songbirds in your yard. Just cabbage moths and ants, and wasps chewing away your rotting fence.

In the silence, you pick at the bubbles of paint on the siding. Your landlord tried to spruce the house up by giving it a fresh coat of blue paint, but the humidity has sunk through it, and it easily tears away to reveal the old dingey grey. A long strip of paint peels off easily. You toss it to the dirt.

Lenny reaches into her empty laundry basket to reveal the bottle of Bombay Sapphire. “You want a drink?”

◊ ◊ ◊

July’s hook-up is with a forklift driver. He has a photo with a Labrador puppy as the focal point of his profile—the attention-getter. The puppy is licking his face. According to his bio, the dog’s name is Cooper and don’t worry, I’m a better kisser than him, (winky-face).

His opening line is Ginger! Your profile made me stop in my tracks! (Heart-eyes). Other than the blatant dishonesty, isn’t the worst you’ve seen—the absence of spice-related puns is refreshing.

Your profile is two photos. The first is over three years old now, of you at a barbeque, beer bottle in hand. The lighting is perfect, and you’re laughing. You weren’t really happy back then either, but at least you looked it. The second, a mirror selfie showing a bit of cleavage—you know your audience. Your bio is nothing serious.

It has worked out well enough for you, when you re-activate it once a month. You track your cycle down to the day and have pinpointed the best moment to boot up your account, and just how many swipes it takes for a date.

You always let your hookups take you for dinner or drinks first, before inviting them back to your place. You figure if they’re nice enough over Thai food, they’re less likely to murder you. The forklift guy pays for your khao phat, so you figure that, aside from the forklift stories, he’s fine, and you take him home.

You turn on music—you always have to have music—and he lays you back in bed, going for the buttons on your blouse. He tells you you’re sexy, you don’t care if he’s lying.

“I’m on the pill,” you tell him. You aren’t.

“I’ll call you,” you say afterwards. You don’t.

You wipe his semen off your thighs after he leaves, then light a candle and toss your sheets in the wash. Once your room is clean, smelling of patchouli, you lay on your couch with the lights off, and try to feel something happening inside you.

You haven’t yet. Instead, you have a collection of negative pregnancy tests in a shoebox under your sink. You think maybe you’ll make a mosaic out of them at some point, sell it to some rich woman with terrible taste in art.

You wonder if it’s maybe your own fault—if your body won’t let you get pregnant by a man, as a self-defence mechanism. No one else in your family has fertility issues—you have more aunts and uncles and cousins on every side than you can count. It’s only through an abundance of effort that you are your parents’ only child. It seems that your body knows better than anyone that you’re gay as a daffodil.

Still, it’s a small price to pay—three hours, once a month. Even fewer, if you’re particularly efficient. It only has to work out once, then you’ll never have to do it again. It’s that idea that keeps you on the dating apps.

You can’t afford repeat cycles of IUI, and you don’t bother to try to adopt. You know what their answer would be; nothing about you screams mother.

But you know what you want—you want that soon-to-be-mom glow and candy-coloured maternity overalls. You want the warmth of a baby, asleep on your chest. And you want to raise a kid—that kind of kid who does disturbingly dark drawings in their sketchbook; who will mouth off to teachers; who brings home box dye for you to help them colour their hair with. You want to take them out of school on a Wednesday to get junk food and drive to the beach. You want them to yell at you until you both laugh.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lenny’s younger than you, which you only really notice when she talks about her friends. You don’t have friends like a young adult does—you haven’t seen them for months and it matters very little.

But her friends sound exciting. She talks more about them than she does about herself. She’s one of those people, you’ve noticed, who doesn’t like to talk about herself.

A few things you have surmised: Lenny’s an artist, but that’s not her job. She’s not a natural blonde, but she acts it. She’s been functionally depressed since returning from a year abroad in Germany. She borrows her politics from German punk rock. She owns innumerable pairs of kitschy statement socks.

You think she’s happiest when she’s drunk, and some days, you wonder if she’s just using you for your laundry machine.

Although it’s not like you tell her about the boys.

No, the girl who does her laundry at your house every weekend is not your lover, any more than the men you entice into sleeping with you during your ovulation period every month.

Her use of your laundering facilities spreads out to take up your Sundays, and expands into your backyard—one weekend, she brings over a pack of clothespins and a spool of cord to string between the house and the crabapple tree.

You’re in your garden clogs, which she calls your potato shoes, so you step around the mud and bend around the low branches to tie the cord off on your end. Lenny, in her strappy sandals, drives a nail into your siding. She secures the makeshift line by winding the cord around the nail and steps back to admire the damage.

“My mom had a laundry line,” you recall. “I used it as a badminton net. I’d get all my birdies stuck on the roof, then throw a tantrum until she’d get them down for me.”

“Sounds like you were a problem child.”

“Good god, I was a brat! Gave my mother ulcers. Don’t know how she put up with me.”

“I can believe it,” she teases. She twangs the line like a guitar string. “God, I never want kids.”

“Really? I do.”

“Oh, well, you’d be a great mom,” she amends.

When she goes to toss her wash in the machine, you look over the garden—your bounty, your one fertility. They call an empty garden barren—so too an empty womb.

At the tone of the washer’s cycle-end, Lenny brings her delicates out and clips them onto the line—a lime green sundress, bras without underwire, underwear in progressively smaller cuts.

You need a drink. You make two tall London Lemonades and lay side-by-side on the deck to watch her underwear flutter with the breeze. Stilling your breath to keep it from wobbling, you balance your glass on your stomach. You trace a flower into the condensation on it. Lenny taps her nails against hers. It sounds like rain.

“Is your name really Ginger?” she asks. You frown.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?” Her shoulders brush the porch with a shrug. You add a stem and leaves to your flower drawing. “Is your name really Lenny?”

She’s quiet for a moment, then says, “No.”

“Wait, really?” You turn your head, pressing your cheek into the porch’s flaking paint.

She shrugs again. Taps with her nails. “My real one doesn’t suit me.”

You want to ask her what it is, but decide not to. The rest of the afternoon, you’ll spend imagining what it might be, but nothing else feels right. She couldn’t be anyone else if she wanted to—she’s such a Lenny.

◊ ◊ ◊

In August, you match with a drummer from a local indie band. He takes you for tapas and sherry and gets energetic in the bedroom.

He has a lion tattooed on his arm. Something’s off about its eyes, which you stare into as he fucks you. You try to relax into it, untense your stiff muscles, loosen your fists where they grip the sheets. It’s hard to say if it’s genuinely bad, or just not to your tastes—not that any of this would be to your tastes. He doesn’t seem to notice, and if he does, he doesn’t care. He probably can tell when you fake it, just to get him to leave faster.

When he finally goes, you’re so sore, you don’t bother to change the sheets or take off your makeup. You curl up to sleep right there, in the creases he left on your bedsheets. You think, it will all be worth it. You think, maybe this time.

◊ ◊ ◊

The elephant garlic is blooming. The bulbs were a gift from your aunt, who retired to her ex-husband’s homestead to grow gigantic produce—onions the size of your head, carrots as long as your arm, pumpkins to make Charley Brown blush. The garlic’s pungent flowers are these stellated purple globes, one per plant, bobbing on stiff green stalks.

They stop Lenny in her tracks when she passes through the back gate. “Oh! Flowers!”

You laugh, “It’s garlic.” But you’re endeared by her excitement.

“Oh, you’re so typical!”

Utilitarian, you would like to say. You shrug. “Well, you should taste it.”

You follow her to the mudroom as she tosses in her washing. Watch indifferently as she sprays a stream of stain-remover on a pair of underwear.

You wring your hands, pick some dirt from under your nail. You clear your throat. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”

“Dinner?” Lenny pauses as she measures a cup of laundry detergent. “Sure.”

Later, when she goes in to switch over her clothes, you cut her a bouquet of garlic flowers and set them in a mason jar on the table.

In the afternoon, Lenny picks carrots with you. You cut with your hori hori knife into the soil alongside a particularly stubborn root and delight in the little snap as it loosens from the soil. She uses the hose to wash the dirt from the vegetables, so orange they’re almost red.

While you cook, she watches from the table. You’ve poured her a bright red glass of her favourite wine, which she sips intermittently as you talk. The carrots sizzle in a pan of browned butter. You dress them with parsley and flakey salt. Roast chicken and potato wedges in oregano, thyme, and sage until they bubble and gold in the heat. And you thinly shave a clove of last year’s garlic into translucent rounds, to sprinkle over both plates of hot food, drizzled with olive oil.

Together, you tear into the tender white chicken, the crispy potato, the seared carrots so sweet and rich. You talk over the garlic flowers at one-another. She takes another glass of wine. You sip water.

“Are you not drinking?”

“No,” you say. Hold up a garlic shaving to the light. Set it on your tongue, let it sting your tastebuds. “I’m taking a break.”

“Huh. Good for you.”

“Good for me,” you agree.

She says, “Sobriety is very trendy,” and downs her glass.

Later in the night, she leans into you on the couch, and you meet her lips for a kiss. It surprises you. She runs her fingers through your hair, and it’s a bottomless joy when you remember what this is supposed to feel like. To touch and be touched in a way that doesn’t make you shrink.

Afterwards, you’re pleasantly surprised when she doesn’t leave. You lay in bed with the TV on quietly in the background and you laugh together. Later, she pulls a pair of pyjamas from her bin of clean laundry, and you loan her a toothbrush.

When she goes to brush her teeth, you watch your reflection in your vanity mirror, and try to still your wide smile to neutrality. But you can’t, because for this moment, you have everything you wanted.

And then Lenny emerges from the bathroom with a crease in her brow, a box in her hand. “Ginger, what’s this?”

You sit straight up, smile fallen. You swallow. “A pregnancy test. The box for it.”

She shakes her head. “I know that. I mean…. are you… sleeping with someone?” She doesn’t voice the else.

“It’s a long story,” you say, then shake your head, “But no, not anymore.”

She crosses her arms. “Is there anything I should know?”

Your hands shake as you wordlessly walk to the bathroom and pull your shoebox out from the cupboard. Then you sit down beside Lenny, and you tell her about the men. You pull the latest test from your underwear drawer and show it to her.

She stares down the double red lines. “Were you going to tell me?”

“Should I have?”

She pauses. “I don’t know.”

You’re quiet. You don’t know either. You don’t know what Lenny is to you yet.

But you do know what you want, what you’ve been wanting, so, so much. And you know if you were made to choose between a lover and your love for a child, you’d always choose this child, a thousand times over. But you want to have it all.

“Congrats,” Lenny says, after a while. She lays down on the opposite side of the bed, probably out of stubbornness. She stays the night, never turning her back from you. You don’t sleep.

In the morning, she forgets or leaves the garlic flowers on your table. No one wants garlic flowers, you remind yourself. That’s not what Lenny wants. Lenny wants songbirds and bouquets. She wants German punk-rock and socks printed with swear words.

You think, maybe you’ll never see her again. Maybe she’ll start washing her clothes in her sink. She’ll go the long way to the laundromat. She’ll find another lonely lesbian to lend her their laundry machine.

Or maybe, in a week, she’ll call your name over the fence. In her basket, there will be a jar of pink lemonade. You’ll lay in the sun on the porch and brainstorm baby names. You’ll say, Olive, Sage, Basil. She’ll say, Poppy, Rosemary, Lily. You’ll suggest Algernon and she’ll hold her sides laughing. She’ll stay the night, or she won’t.

Either way, you decide at the end of the summer, you’ll plant bulbs in your garden—tulips, irises, hyacinths. You think maybe you’ll ask Lenny what her favourite flowers are. It’s wishful thinking—always your great abundance. But at least, in the spring, you’ll look forward to those first blooms. It’ll be nice to have something to look forward to.

Kaye Miller grew up on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot, Îyâxe Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina nations in Calgary, Alberta. Their fiction can be found in Grain, Existere, Vagabond City Lit, and elsewhere. They are an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph.