Antoinetta applied more than a handful of her famous resolve to stop herself from sneaking into the crematorium furnace and joining her dead husband Myrt. Molten lava had been roasting her insides ever since he had dropped dead on the Blue Bus of Santa Monica. As if that was not enough, that same week Aries had barged into the second circle of Scorpio, which practically beamed "terrible misfortune." Only the nut brownies she had left in the oven and the raised eyebrows her disappearance would cause at the funeral reception pulled her back toward the living.
"Gossip at a funeral speaks bad for the relatives and worse for the deceased," she thought. "A black cat should cross my path if I smear Myrt's memory with half-baked histrionics!"
As the post-funeral celebration rolled along on the front lawn, she could still feel the squeeze of Myrt's hand as his forehead had slid down the bus window, his lungs had emptied with the wheeze of a thousand regrets, and Antoinetta's world had returned to its old state of barren seclusion.
"All that is left now is the smell of that syrupy aftershave on the bed sheets and a few garden tools crusted with mud," she spoke out loud.
Apart from these doomsday thoughts, the post-funeral party was a resounding success. Myrt's legacy of loud talking and passion for plants was celebrated and exaggerated. It seemed that everyone who had ever laid eyes on him was in attendance. Guests spilled out of the front lawn and onto the lethargic Santa Monica street, where they marveled at the golden sky and filled their lungs with the salty ocean breeze. The neighbors couldn't remember this many cars blocking the curbs north of Wilshire Boulevard. Most of the vehicles received parking tickets because there were not enough permits to spread around but overall the organization of the event was impeccable. The jacaranda trees, as if in unison with the dignified somberness of the occasion, shedded their purple blossoms over the plates of the guests and gave them an appropriate taste of nostalgia. The dishes came out delicious and the guests helped themselves to seconds. They were particularly impressed with the brownies, which were sprinkled with colorful stars like those at a child's birthday party. It was the kind of girlish touch the sixty-year-old widow was often guilty of, one of the few ways Antoinetta knew how to express youthfulness. She spent the afternoon in the beach chair on the porch, chewing her nails in a hazy stupor from the valium someone had mixed in her Red Bull.
"Such a barrel of life," she skimmed through the memories of her dead husband. "A true Leo. Nothing could stand in his way, not even my rabbit heart."
Her stabbing pain eased as she remembered the desperate way Myrt had pursued her seventeen years before. How she had ached for passion at forty-three! But all the same she had driven him close to suicide with her haughtiness. By the time Myrt materialized, she had learned to dismiss love with suspicion, as if it would somehow raid and plunder her habit for loneliness. Myrt was a film color-timer at Technicolor and had run into her on occasion over the years. She had been a bizarre sight, a provocative, lustful hermit barricaded for months at a time in the windowless editing suites of various television shows and films, often without talking to anyone but her assistant. Myrt had begged, loved and cried his way through layer after layer of her maddening lack of resolve, her flaring doubts, her paranoid insults, until she had finally broken down on the day she had reached premature menapause. At their wedding, he had presented her with a fantastic display of fireworks that had illuminated the matrimonial night, and she had cried with joy because she had felt like a liberated nun. For the next seventeen years, she had idolized him, each bizarre character twist, each body imperfection, down to his dandruff, his golden molar and his juvenile passion for climbing trees.
"I didn't deserve him," Antoinetta concluded and took a sip of her drink.
In her filtered state, pragmatism took over her thoughts. The neighbor's yard was a major source of exasperation. It stood in plain view, brown with dry leaves and overgrown grass. The neighbor, Melissa, a blonde from Arkansas, Southern drawl and fried tomatoes, had invited herself over with condolences and a sour key-lime pie that sent electricity through the teeth of the mourners.
"Instead of poisoning the guests with that solidified vinegar, shave your palm trees and clean those fronds that have been stuck on your roof for a year," Antoinetta mumbled.
"Did you call me, Tony?" asked Tara, Antoinetta's best friend, who passed by with a wine bottle she was uncorking.
"It's a fire hazard, "Antoinetta pointed at her neighbor's roof. "One of these days we'll burn to dry dirt."
"Oh, Tony!" Tara gave her friend a hug. "You worry too much! Let others worry for a day."
The guests had been gone for hours when Antoinetta poured Myrt's ashes over the soil by the border with the neighbor's yard. It was his wish to be buried in his beloved garden, by his flowers and lemon trees. She would have rather kept him in an urn by her bed to facilitate his reincarnation, just as her astrology teacher had instructed, but a husband is a stubborn creature and Myrt had insisted on getting sprinkled over dirt. As she took him out of the urn, Antoinetta thanked him for the weekday walks along the ocean, the long days of fishing from the Hermosa Beach pier, the fresh fruits and vegetables that grew in the garden all year round, the seventeen years of peace.
Before going to bed, she stripped her clothes and stood in front of the big mirror by the front door, assessing her body with the merciless indifference of a house cat. Even though she felt ancient and the glances of men had been nauseating her for years, her appearance was far from repulsive. Her vanity had never suffered from the scorn she felt for herself. Her posture was tall and erect, supported by the perpetual assistance of high heels. Her skin, once pink, had acquired the color of tea and was covered by a film of freckles. She enhanced the ash in her blond hair with dyes and wore tops that hugged her body, pronouncing her significant breasts, her leathery cleavage and her protruding tummy of an aging Californian amazon.
"He wanted me the morning he died," she remembered. "I should have let him."
As Antoinetta reviewed herself, Melissa, the neighbor, could be heard through the open window, arguing passionately with her mother over the phone.
"It's scary when young people get violent like this!" Antoinetta said to Tara, who was spending the night for moral support. "Once I knew a boy who killed his parents over a burned toast, and it started with an argument just like this one."
"They are only talking," Tara laughed. "You and your melodrama!"
"You are just like Myrt." Antoinetta said. "Don't think I don't know why he was such a knight in shining armor, defending our precious neighbor!"
A year before, she had caught Myrt peeking through a toy-telescope at Melissa and her boyfriend.
"Her friendliness is prepackaged like a TV dinner," Antoinetta said. "Take one look at those chimes on her porch and you'll recognize the trailer trash that she is."
She waited for Tara to go to bed, then put on ear-plugs to silence the shouting of the neighbors and masturbated in the guest bathroom.
On the following morning, she woke up with the overwhelming urge to replace every sheet in the house. She ate a lemon from a tree in the garden and woke up Tara. Before they headed to Beverly Hills, Antoinetta glanced back at her home.
"How brittle the house looks," she wandered. "As if it is made of cookies."
While the sales woman in the linen department at Neiman Marcus was explaining the merchandise, Antoinetta began to read an astrological chart. Constellations were converging, forming shapes and alliances that for the first time in many years meant nothing to her; the inability to understand was unnerving, it made her feel empty and ignorant. Once, she had tried to explain her reliance on astrology to Tara.
"You can listen to lies day and night, but the movement of the stars never leaves a shade of doubt about the meaning of the future."
In her confused state she picked up an entire set of opulent Egyptian-thread cotton, and on the way home they stopped by a French bakery to pick up three slices of Myrt's favorite chocolate mousse cake. After Tara had left, Antoinetta left one at Myrt's resting place and met a puzzling sight: the stem of a rose bush protruded from the brown dirt over the spot where Myrt's ashes had been scattered. It was thin, brown and knotty, with dull thorns like the moles on a man's face; it was not more than a foot tall but already boasted a cluster of miniature red blossoms.
Antoinetta felt the taste of salt on her tongue and an eerie awareness of Myrt's presence. There had to be an explanation for it all: Myrt was a Leo, and even children know that nothing random ever happens to a Leo. Antoinetta went to unpack the new sheets and forgot all about the bush - until Wednesday of the following week. She had just returned from the farmers market and the back of her Mustang was loaded with bags of peaches, figs, dates, and an entire basket of heirloom tomatoes. As soon as she pulled into the driveway she knew that something had changed. A bee flew leisurely around her head and a sweet scent filled her nostrils. A rustic buzzing floated over from Myrt's resting place and when she went to inspect she was confronted by a fascinating discovery: the rose bush, a mere shrub only a few days before, had flourished into a miniature jungle. It cascaded in a lush wave of green and red over the fence that separated her yard from Melissa's. Antoinetta's heart drummed with fear and excitement, and her head started to spin.
"Myrt, if you have something to do with this, you better give me a sign!" she said.
But the world remained quiet except for the joyful drone of the bees. The rose blossoms glistened with the red of old blood. They were all identical, except for one that was washed in pure gold and sat on top of the bush as if bestriding a throne. The entire bush bore out of a single stem, as fat as a table leg. The size and the speed at which it had grown, the extravagance of its blossoms – it all laughed at the possibility of a coincidence. No, it was obvious: Myrt had re-emerged in the world he had just departed, in the shape of a fragrant bush. Even the golden blossom, nothing less than Myrt's golden molar, denied any argument. Still, the concept was too grandiose and bizarre even for a woman whose mind was used to roaming through the stars.
"Myrt Albrecht," Antoinetta said to the bush, "I've known you as a responsible husband and a conservative man. You remember how startled I was when you bought that monstrous car in the driveway. So now you expect me to smell your blossoms and accept this shenanigan without a twitch of surprise? Well, that's fine with me! Just don't ask me to be blowing all these bees off! You know I am terrified of stings!"
Myrt's sudden reappearance could not have happened at a more opportune moment. His reincarnation returned the legitimacy to Antoinetta's life at the very moment when old doubts had started to sneak back into her thoughts. Living and feeling earned importance once again. Seventeen years of marriage had not been a mere diversion in an otherwise barren existence; they were only the first stage, the justification of something bigger, transcendent, a posthumous sign so beautiful that even the marital union it followed faded in comparison.
Antoinetta took care of the bush with the devotion and the desire to please of a young bride. She watered its petals when dawns were dry, picked the ants crawling on its stem and trimmed the branches growing away from its cascading crown. She talked to the bush daily and didn't mind when it did not respond. She waited for the moments when it was in a good mood and listened carefully to every rustle of its leaves. In the process, she fell in love with Myrt all over again. Her adoration penetrated deeper and stronger than during the time when Myrt had still existed as a human being. Fate had stripped her of her husband, her one true possession; he had slipped through her fingers, gone forever, puff! And then, just like that, she had gotten him back.
"Our old friend Fate was trying to make me appreciate what I had," Antoinetta told the bush, "so that I learn how to love you properly. That's right, Myrt, you can say it. I was selfish, only wanted what was good for me. But things have changed. I'll die before I let you leave my life again!"
The power of her feelings made her blush. At no point did she entertain a single doubt about the true nature of the plant. The six weeks since Myrt's death became the happiest in her life, and there was nothing to prevent them from multiplying. She never noticed the face of Melissa, peeking from behind the wooden blinds of her house. The neighbor followed the constant pampering, stroking and cajoling that Antoinetta gave the rose bush, disturbed and amused as if she was witnessing something indecent.
One morning, when the pears had replaced the cherries at the Farmers Market, Antoinetta came back from her weekly bike ride and discovered a whiskey-colored goat urinating against Myrt's branches. The animal had short legs and a stocky body, and its face was decorated by a long, thin beard that gave it the expression of a communist revolutionary. Antoinetta threw her bike helmet at the beast, missed it, and instead knocked over one of the roses.
"Get out of there, you dim-witted monster!" she screamed.
"Well, hello there, Annie!" Melissa spoke from nearby.
"Do you know where this sheep came from?" Antoinetta asked.
"It's not a sheep, it's a goat! Why, it's mine! I open the front door the other day and it's just sitting there. I mean, a goat in Santa Monica?! Scared the Bejesus out of me – but I've decided to keep it. Isn't it adorable? I named him Willie. He's so smart!"
"He was pissing on my rose bush!"
The goat ran over to Melissa and she scratched its ears.
"You won't believe this, but I think I caught him spying on me when I was…" she rolled her eyes conspiratorially and lowered her voice. "You know… taking a shower."
Antoinetta scrunched her face as if the mental picture gave her gas.
"Listen, Melissa, I have a big favor to ask you. This rose bush is very important to me! It is a rare species that Myrt obtained, from the Straight of the Dardanelles. He dreamed of making it grow in Santa Monica. I don't want anything to hurt it."
"Are you sure it's a rose bush? It looks more like a carnation weed to me."
Antoinetta bit her lips and squeezed her fists until her nails drew blood. That night, she spent twenty minutes brushing her teeth. Thoughts raced before her eyes and the pickled artichokes she had eaten for dinner gave her heartburn.
"I am ashamed of the truth." she said to herself, spitting white foam all over the bathroom mirror. "And why? What do I have to be ashamed of? Loving my own husband? Protecting his grave? That's your issue, Antoinetta! Always wondering what other people think, forever bowing to the whims of strangers!"
She slept on needles and woke up in a foul mood. The Egyptian cotton had been an indulgence; besides, in clear daylight it appeared more mother-of-pearl than white snow and was yet to make her feel like Cleopatra. Those sales whores would pitch their own virginity for the right commission. She returned the sheets, looking for a fight, but the transaction went smooth and that was even more grating. On the way home she fussed over the lack of traffic: the city looked abandoned as if in the face of some mortal threat.
As she pulled up in the driveway, the bush appeared in her front windshield, resplendent in red blossoms and green leaves. Easily noticeable through the greenery, Willie the Goat had inserted himself into the thick of Myrt's branches, chewing on the leaves and making the entire bush shake and bounce like a woman's breast. Beside herself, Antoinetta pelted the freaked-out creature with gravel. The goat threw her a disgusting look, whimpered and dashed to safety through her skirts. Practically unconscious with fear, Antoinetta fell on her knees and broke into tears.
"If your beast touches my bush again, I'll make him wail till Jesus comes back!" she threatened Melissa after collecting her wits.
"Gee, Annie, it's a slow-witted grass-muncher! It doesn't separate a rose bush from lunch."
"So give him pizza!"
"I'll give him whatever he likes!" Melissa snapped. "He is my best friend and the only creature that understands me at the current time in my life! Instead of taking your pain on a defenseless animal, you should cut that jungle that's growing over into my property! I can help you."
"Now, Melissa, calm down!" Antoinetta retreated. "All I'm saying is, keep Willie away from my bush. Please!"
She spent hours cleaning the chewed up leaves. Her thoughts bounced against the walls of her head and gave her a migraine. "I am a coward, Myrt! I don't deserve you!" she repeated again and again. She wanted to hear that she was imagining things, that she was doing everything just right, but Myrt only rustled his leaves. Something was wayward, some momentous mission that fate had prepared for her was about to expire, and she would never figure out what was asked of her. It was infuriating and, as impulse often demands, she attacked her closest and most trusted person.
"And why do I have to run around and start fights, defending you every waking hour of the day?" she snapped at Myrt. "Why does it have to be my obligation? You know I detest confrontation! Can't you release some smelly juice or grow bigger pricks and defend yourself like a man? It's just like when we were married, always waiting for me to do everything. Did you ever clean the bathroom, even once? Just tell me!"
Even as she felt a sudden rush of disdain for Myrt and the stress he was putting her through, she did not stop worrying about him. She turned to her best friends, the stars, who revealed that the future would arrive in a straight line, like a desert highway.
"Just what kind of pointless prediction is that?" Antoinetta fretted.
In the middle of night, she dug with a flashlight through the tool shack for a ball of barbed wire. Pricking herself twice in the dark, she managed to wrap the wire around the rose bush. She scanned the sloppy job and tried to close some of the gaping holes that offered easy access to Myrt's branches.
"Say, Annie!" a voice came from the dark and nearly gave her a heart attack. Melissa materialized from the shadows. "Have you seen Willie? He disappeared. I am terribly worried!"
"Where can a goat go in the middle of Santa Monica?"
"You never know. There's an Indian restaurant a few blocks down. They serve goat meat, don't they? With the yoghurts and the nuts?"
"Are you saying The Electric Lotus stole your goat so they can cook it?"
"It is all very strange, that's all. You haven't seen anything?"
"Let's strike a deal, Melissa. You take care of your goat, I take care of my bush."
After she was left alone, she glared at the bush with a look that spelled trouble. She cocked her chin and marched inside the house. For the next few days, she refused to speak to it. If that plant thought she would turn into his slave, tending to his every whim and rustle, he had it figured out wrong. And since she could not talk to Myrt, she did not feel like talking to anyone. Tara's phone calls went unanswered until Tara herself showed up and Antoinetta had to invent lies to avoid sounding preposterous. A terrible despair to communicate with Myrt overtook her but she found herself pinned into a corner by her own antagonism, which she blamed on him as well. She composed and rehearsed a thousand versions of a monologue she would recite to him. How could she trust him when he not only didn't console her in her widowhood but actually forced her into conflict with the neighbors!
The words went unspoken, the thoughts never recorded. Before long, a week flew by, and then a month. Tara came to visit often and Antoinetta felt tempted to share her troubles but always thought better of it. The marital standoff became the norm, the woman and the bush learned how to live together by ignoring each other in the example of an everyday couple. The three-month mark since Myrt's cremation was a Friday that felt like a Monday. A parching wave of dry heat invited swarms of fireflies and made noses bleed. It felt as if the entire Pacific Ocean had suddenly dried out. Breathing became impossible inside the house, so Antoinetta allowed herself to go out on the town, to a rowdy Brittish pub near the Promenade. She raced through shot after shot of bourbon and finished the night locking tongues with a Romanian film producer. She drove home drunk and horny, ready to embrace life and yearning to bury the hatchet with Myrt.
As she arrived, horror overtook her when she sniffed the stale air that had replaced the fragrance of the roses. Myrt's blossoms lay strewn about, brown and gray in the moonlight. The munching could be heard before its source became visible. Willie The Goat gazed over with its shining, watery eyes, rose petals dripping from its open mouth and down its pointy beard. It had snuck without much effort through the folds in the barbed wire. When it saw Antoinetta, the goat gagged and vomited a ball of regurgitated flowers. Antoinetta's throat dried out and became sore, her head throbbed, her neck stiffened with a dull pain. The alcohol evaporated from her body, it was the last ally to flee. The bush faced her, destroyed and gnarled, the cruel evidence of the treasure she had lost.
Swaying about and ready to faint Antoinetta stumbled inside the house, found the way to the kitchen, grabbed the sashimi knife she had received as a useless wedding gift, marched back outside and, with a sure hand and clear eyes, stabbed the goat in the heart. The animal shook on its legs, gave out a wheeze that sounded like a sneeze, and fell dead in a puddle of blood. Antoinetta observed with inert curiosity. Thick blood dripped from the tip of her knife; as she wiped it against her skirt her hand shook. Far away, her neighbor Melissa was bolting out of her house, raising hell to high heavens.
"What have you done!" she was screaming. "Murderer!"
But Antoinetta heard none of it. The world had faded away and all she could look at was the dead goat in her feet, spread on its side, its head cocked over its shoulder like a folded sleeve, its mouth wide open, its gums obscenely exposed. A few feet away, the bush stood small and insignificant. What once had appeared to her as a cascading wave of greenery and blossoms now surprised her with its shaggy, wild tentacles. The flowers that still held to its branches had long ago dried up. They looked nothing like roses. In fact she found them to be quite unappealing. Even the spot where its stem emerged was not the site where she had scattered Myrt's ashes but a patch of dirt several feet to the left.
"There! I've done it again with my theatrics!" she thought and a tear escaped her eye. As neighbors converged from all directions, Antoinetta turned up to the sky. The Milky Way crossed the entire cosmos and shooting stars flashed through the thick black sky. She marveled on with dreamy eyes, oblivious to the commotion around her.
"How still the universe is when you stop to look," she smiled. And she suddenly became aware that it was the first time since she had been a little girl when she could see the stars not for their magical powers of revealing complicated crossings of human paths and futures but for what they really were: a billion of bright dots decorating the night until the inevitable arrival of dawn.