Polly Bresnick is the author of FEAR OF THE SURFACE (2009), a chapbook of short shorts and prose poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Weave Magazine, The Six Sentence Review, &Review, DEEP LEAP, and Purple. She teaches creative writing to women inmates at Valhalla Correctional Facility in Valhalla, NY and is the co-founder of a small journal called PONY & MIDGE. She is currently studying fiction at Sarah Lawrence College in the graduate writing program.
We take the subway to the Botanical Garden.
We took it last Spring, too, on what must have been a Monday. It was one of those perfect, bright days that always makes my dad say, “This is the most beautiful day in the history of the universe.” One of those days, that, if you’re in the wrong mood, can make your wrongness feel all the more dark and dull against the brilliance of everything else—the way the magenta of rhododendron blossoms is even more florescent on gray days than it is on sunny days.
Well, since it was a Monday, we discovered upon arrival that the Brooklyn Botanical Garden was not open.
My dad and I sat, slump-shouldered on the low wall just outside the entrance gate. A bright blond couple bounded up to the locked gates and seemed confused. They approached us and, the tall man, pushing his sunglasses up his nose, asked us, “Is the garden open today?” He had a European accent that I couldn’t identify, which further proved how clueless I was about the world. My dad shook his head, and looking up at the man’s eager face, said, “No, it’s closed. The garden is closed today. We’re totally bummed,” to which the tourist man replied, “Vee don’t care!” And he looked at his wife: “Vee are heppy!” And, with that, the couple bounced away into the sunshine on their white sneakers.
But on this particular day, the garden is open.
We talk about when he was my age. We talk about when I’ll be his age. And there comes to surround us, or to walk silently beside us, the strange sort of sad that comes along when time is swiftly bundled into words. When it becomes something to gently cup in one’s hand. I feel nostalgia for my father’s past, which is, actually my present; while my father perhaps feels inverted nostalgia for my future—a forward glance, heavy with knowledge—his present. A mysterious urgency to cry at all this emerges from somewhere in me, but all potential tears are interrupted by the curiosities of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden—where a bed of scented geraniums is a surreal perfumery—and here we are, strolling, directionless and dry-eyed, along sunlit paths.
Apple, lemon, mint, cinnamon. We bow our heads to closely sniff the soft, broad leaves. It reminds me of those synesthetic markers that smelled of their individual colors, thick and damp, bleeding through to the other side of the thin paper in grammar school art class. And even as I am reminded away from the present, my father and I understand that this is already a memory. A time to remember. A moment. And it is always arresting—the way certain acute awarenesses are—when you notice yourself trying to remember something as you are doing it. I inhale again and again until my head pounds tenderly, botanically. We will never be here again, which makes us almost too sad to enjoy it.
I look up at my dad to try to get him to acknowledge this, but he is looking at something in the near distance. He is squinting at a woman of about his age who is walking on a path running parallel to ours about fifty feet away. She is with a man who, about my age, appears to be her son. I wonder what my dad is thinking and imagine it must have something to do with right and wrong and different paths, because that’s what I’m thinking.
I hear people say as we walk through: The cherry blossoms look like pink cotton candy. They look like the blushing clouds of heaven, fluffy pink cotton balls, a soft and fluffy sea of pink, crumpled Valentine’s Day tissue paper, a bedroom floor after a feathery pillow fight, soft and beautiful brains on sticks, flamingos, bubble-gum, bubble bath, baskets full of roses, pockets full of posies. I roll my eyes at the idiot masses, and say to my father, hoping to impress him,”They look like Degas’ tutus.” But really, they are just so pink and sweet and soft, we try to just see that. The blossoms, I think, are like my grandmother’s skin.
And then my father turns away from me and says, “We were too much alike, me and Sharon Schlanger.” I look over at the woman with her son on the other path, then back to my father, who is looking straight ahead. “I felt like a cliché even before I opened my mouth to tell her the obvious, even before I saw her big and sad lips and eyes close in response. It was over. It had to be. Of course I still loved her. Of course I still love her. She was my first love.” I clear my throat. There’s a sexual implication there that I try not to think about. “A mirror reflection of the version of myself I was desperately, at 25, trying to run for my life from. She was like my embarrassing secret standing next to me, for everyone to see. She reminded me of who I was, and I didn’t like who I was.” I look down at my feet walking on the path. “I wanted a life that was better, smarter, richer, hipper than the life that we would have together.”
“For a while, I was just mean to her. I judged her for being who she was, because she was the me I couldn’t stand. Instead of criticizing myself I could just let it out on her. She was a Brooklyn girl, with a Brooklyn accent, and a small, Brooklyn future. I let her know when she said something stupid, or something that sounded stupid, or something that sounded like it was coming from her heart. I thought I was pushing her, helping her conjure up some vague—but obligatory—ambition.” I look over at the woman on the other path, trying to imagine. Nodding, scratching my ear. An understanding of something old and new slips into me, only half perceived.
“Later, I even made fun of her name with you and Mom—the family I eventually created. I laughed outright when I heard she married a guy whose last name is Schlotzinger, because now she’s Sharon Schlanger-Schlotzinger.” I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I couldn’t help smiling. “I’ve made her into an inside joke with the ‘better’ family I have now, the family that helps with the upkeep of the version of myself that I chose way back then when— it was like I couldn’t breathe. It was like she was drowning me in myself.
“Now I know it must have really hurt her. It hurts me now just to think of it. She wasn’t a bad person. She didn’t deserve all that cruelty.” I am watching my feet again, but think I see, out of the corner of my eye, my father wipe at something behind his sunglasses.
I wish I could assure him that Sharon Schlanger-Schlotzinger is a funny name, but all I can do is stare at the woman with her son on the path that runs parallel to ours. They turn toward the exit and disappear.
Then space opens: wide and bright. And my father, who would like to sit, points to the wide ledge that borders a glassy lily pad pond. We look around, comfortably quiet with each other. And the pond is so still and calm that we let go of what we think we’re supposed to do and let the world absorb us. There is faint music, chimes and gongs, being piped in from somewhere; the breeze disturbs a wind-chime; we hear monks chanting behind a wall of bamboo and big-cheeked children giggling as they chase a butterfly. Large dragon flies buzz around, looking dangerous but also delicate.
We notice a small, old woman. Smiling sagely, she gathers the attentions of her scrambling grandchildren and kneels while they watch her. The grandmother points to a particular dragon fly and the children watch it. Beside the mirror-flat pond, the grandmother moves without moving, closer and closer to the vibrating dragon fly that lands, just now, beside my father’s thigh, on the ledge of the pond. She impossibly grasps the creature’s iridescent abdomen between her thumb and forefinger. My father and I shriek silently in unison. And then, though we don’t quite know it, we are suddenly and momentarily there.