By Megan Burbank
We left melon rinds in the soil off the front porch, orange slips on dull gray-green, dusted over with brown and white pearls of dirt. Teeth marks on fruit skin. A melon is like a human head, I said. I asked if you ever smacked their outsides when you were a kid, if you ever knocked on them to see if they were hollow. You shook your head. All up and down the street, purple bean pods had begun to fall onto the sidewalk. They seemed so useless, the tiny dried-up seeds inside. Unfit for human consumption. Even so, the whole time we were splitting open the pods, throwing the seeds into the dirt, we were planting new trees. We just didn’t know it. The way a tumbleweed tumbles to germinate the soil, to perpetuate itself. Sex is everywhere, you said. I pulled a melon seed from between my teeth, a gesture that supported your assessment.
In the kitchen every day that summer, you painted boards. Boards we salvaged from other people’s yards, and once from the Home Depot parking lot. I asked a question about growing succulents, and a nice lady in a smock caressed the plants’ green, puffed-up fingers, dirt under her nails a neat brown line, while you hauled away a strip of lumber, later cut it into rectangles with a bandsaw we borrowed from the landlord. You painted boards, and I painted walls. Turquoise, purple, salmon pink. We hardly cooked, instead slicing summer fruits onto plates, peaches and nectarines, tomatoes and cucumbers, drinking cold glasses of white wine, watching the ice cubes melt away.
One night we woke to screaming in the street. You went back to sleep but I went to the window. I couldn’t see anything. I stood a long minute before admitting defeat. Under the streetlights, I could see it starting to rain. Under the blankets, I watched lightening spider-leg bright crack across the sky. I tried to go back to sleep, to mirror your deep, sleeping breaths, the clicking of the ceiling fan, but I kept thinking of the person who had been screaming, alone somewhere, scared.
Walking home with groceries, plastic rubbing my palms red, watching the crows assemble on the telephone wires, a man outside the liquor store called out to me. Why aren’t you smiling? he asked. Who wants to know? I said. He chuckled defensively. I do, baby. Fuck off, I said. But really I was worried. Because maybe I don’t smile enough. Maybe my default is furrowed brow and stuck in thought. I worry, sometimes, that if you don’t pull me out of my thoughts I might just stay there, and then who would remind me of our bean pod house, the paint on the kitchen island? When I told you I was afraid of this, you said, I dunno. I see you smile pretty often. You have a kind face. Maybe you worry too much. I looked down at the succulents on the windowsill -- I really did buy them, I like having something to care for -- and thought it must be easier to be a plant.
I thought of Daphne, the Greek girl who turned into a tree. Of the music that sang through the reeds after she disappeared into a coat of bark, arms becoming branches. Have we always wanted to be trees? I told you about Daphne that night. From the roof of the garage we watched fireworks pop across the city and over the lake. I was relieved you didn’t want to go to the park, where we would be surrounded by American flag-striped lawn chairs and crying babies and drunk parents and little kids shooting off Roman candles. I preferred the blacktop of the garage, the old tablecloth we spread out like we were a leisurely rich couple in a park, like I might take your arm so we could take a turn among the poplars.
The fireworks leave gashes of smoke across the sky. They sound like bombs. I’ve never understood why we celebrate with explosions, with fire. It’s the one time we have a warlike display, you said. It’s the one day a year people can be drunk and celebrate violence. Oh come on, I said. We’re in a war. It just isn’t here. Exactly, you said.
When the solstice came, we went to a bonfire in someone’s backyard. We were each told to bring something to burn. A piece of paper with a name written on it belonging to someone we wanted to forget, a letter that had carried bad news, wedding rings rendered irrelevant by divorce or death. Someone brought a tiny vial of tears. It wasn’t really our thing. They were your friends from work, the ones who spent money on ear candling and were convinced local honey could cure their allergies. I thought about what I might want to burn. All I could think of were the melon rinds and the seedpods from our summer, buried in the dirt. I remembered the scream I’d heard that night. Why aren’t you smiling? The war between fear and anger that bubbled up from my stomach. Fear usually won but the feeling was still there, unattended to. The effort to get back to sleep, to calm the crazed animal in my chest, to slow the reptilian call to run, the thing that makes boys throw punches and girls learn to walk faster. Red-orange sparks threaded the air.
From the car I watched the bonfire dimming in the dark. Smoke had sunk into my t-shirt. Our entire bodies smelled like charcoal. As we pulled away from the curb, the bonfire was all we could see of the extinguished city block. It illuminated the faces around it and shot smoke into the air in a thin gray line, white-hot flames like ghostly hands cradling its blue core, a beating heart that would be ash at sunrise.
Megan Burbank lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is arts editor at the Portland Mercury. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Notes on Lee Miller (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), co-editrix of the literary journal Projecttile, and holder of an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her essays, criticism, and reporting can be found at the Mercury,The Stranger, the Toast, and the Billfold, among other publications.