Chewing Gardens by Mary Lide

Names have been changed.

Greenhouse and kew gardens in london

 

I chew the collars of my shirts until they’re ragged as my fingernails. This drives my mother crazier than when I used to chew my hair, which tasted like peppermint despite the fact that I did not use peppermint shampoo.

I chew collars because I am just so hungry all the time. When I tell my parents this, they say that I am growing, and I am growing, a little taller and a little fuller and a little hairier all over. I am growing, and my feet are so big that my dad calls them “gunboats,” and I stumble over myself when I walk, and I am afraid of everything, even though I am the oldest of a gang of eight children who stay, dirty and happy, in a small guest house of my aunt’s big, old house across the street from Kew Gardens. When I was a toddler still learning words, I thought it was called Chew Gardens. I still call it Chew Gardens in my head, sometimes.

We stay in the guest house because the big, old house is being renovated, and my family always visits my aunt’s family in the summer, and my mother and her sister, Anna, are two of thirteen children, and see no problem with staying—one family to a room—in what we all call the Coach House. We sleep bunched up like grapes, all fourteen of us, and convene in a tiny kitchen and a tiny sitting room with stone floors and ragged couches. We eat, and fight, and laugh, and watch cartoons at night on a tiny television set. We watch one where a character almost gets beheaded on a guillotine, and I stop sleeping on my back, afraid that a blade will fall from the ceiling and chop off my head.

In every picture of me as a child, my head is big and round on my little body. I have river-merchant’s wife bangs, blunt across my forehead. Every haircut that I get is pretty unfortunate. It’s now in the growing-out stages, and looks like it’s sprouting—like my head is springtime. I brush it with a Mason-Pearson hairbrush, which my mom and her sisters call the Magic Brush.

My family’s room has a tiny fireplace. I like to curl into it and read Judy Blume books about growing up. I don’t understand half the things that the characters are saying, Margaret and Stephanie and Rachel and Allison, but I like reading about dancing with friends, and dramatic fights, and what happens when you get older—periods and boys with wet tongues and wandering hands.

 

I’m eight, and my two older cousins, Jessica and Nicole, are thirteen-almost-fourteen, and they are all braces and elbows, and I am all chewed collars and elbows. They are also visiting from the States, grown-up and flying in on their own. They are years away from the rest of us, me and my two siblings and my aunt’s five children, a group of Mary-Andrew-Greg-Sarah-Emma-Daniel-Eileen-Laura, all eight-and-under, all content to play in an overgrown garden with thorns and ragged grass. Andrew is my age. Greg and Sarah are a year younger. Emma is two years younger than them. Daniel is a toddler, and so is Eileen. Laura is the baby.

It’s the year of the Olympics, and I like to take a hula-hoop out and pretend I’m a rhythmic gymnast, tossing it as high as I can, higher than any of those girls in their leotards. I pretend that I am as lithe and graceful, as beautiful and athletic, as I throw and catch, throw and catch, calling out scores in my head.

But I don’t have a leotard, and I am nowhere near graceful, so I pull my shirts with my ragged collars over my head and shuffle around in Birkenstocks for most of the two weeks that we are in London. When I go barefoot, I stub my toes on everything. My mother had grown tired of me crying over my toes, so she makes me wear the sandals everywhere—even in the house.

I don’t watch where I’m going, not really. I bump into tables and walk sideways sometimes, running into whomever is walking next to me. I get lost in my head, in narrating my life, in imagining that an audience is watching my every move. Look at Mary, that sweet, misunderstood girl. She’s like a street urchin, with her messy hair and torn clothes. When I’m at the beach, I wander into the surf and get tangled in seaweed, imagining that I am a creature of the ocean, a mermaid who sleeps buried under the black and green and red. I once lost a rubber mermaid figurine in the ocean, and found it the next day, pale and covered in fish bites. My father had already bought me a new one, moved by my tiny tears. He maintains, to this day, that he dropped the new mermaid into the ocean and pretended that it was the old one, but I still feel myself holding both figures, looking at the difference between them—one waterlogged, one not.

I am not a mermaid. I’m clumsy and don’t trust myself to hold anything fragile—like a teacup or a porcelain doll. Earlier in the summer, my dad’s mom tried to teach me embroidery—stitching my initials on a little handkerchief—but my stitches were uneven and clumsy, my fingers swallowing the needle. She was patient in an impatient way. I am not sure I will ever be able to sew. I’m not sure if I will ever be a lady, even with all the flowery tea sets that my grandmother says I will inherit one day.

My mother made me wear an undershirt during the previous school year, as sort of a precursor to a bra, but I don’t have to in the freedom of summer. My tiny breasts hurt sometimes, and even though my mom says it’s normal, it can be a hassle to hug people.

My family does lot of hugging, and holding, with a baby and toddlers and gap-toothed kids running around. I hug Sarah and Emma when I catch them during tag, and they yelp with disgust at the feel of my wet, freshly-chewed collar. But when my aunt presses a pound into each of our grimy palms—she calls it our pocket money—they forget my quirk, and we link arms to walk to the corner shop and buy marshmallow gummies and crunchy chocolate bars to chew on.

 

Anna’s house is old—built the year Dickens died, it has fallen into disrepair. Teams of men work every day on it: wiring, knocking down, preserving, painting. Our parents allow us to explore certain areas, on the caveat that we stay away from anything even remotely dangerous. Because I am the most nervous of the bunch, I take it upon myself to decree the danger of every room—but the other kids usually ignore me.

The house is full of treasure—old appliances lie everywhere. We spend many of our days collecting hunks of metal: old stove tops and doors, and faucets, and servants’ bells, and things that we just call things. They are all dirty, and leave our hands black as forgetting. I love them as if they are my children, these old things, glinting even in the weak English sun. We put our finds in the garden, lined up neat as graves. My favorite is an entire old stove we found, sitting in a corner as if it had been waiting for us. We lugged it, piece by piece, outside. It gleams bronze and blue and orange and yellow and green and almost every color, and it is so beautiful that I just want to sit near it forever. I wish that I could bring it home to Rockville, to live in our backyard. I have to placate myself by sitting next to our treasures, guarding them, chewing my collar and running my finger along the metal. It’s so smooth that I can’t stop touching it.

I do love any kind of thing, so much so that I save rocks in my pockets and pick up discarded bits of twine. In my cot, I like to create a nest of things I have found, bottle caps and small knobs and flyers collected from the Tube station. On walks, I hold everyone up, lingering just behind, eyes on the ground for anything new.

When we go to Hamley’s, that famous London toy store, my mother lets me pick out one toy, and I choose a playset of a small family of badgers who are on a camping adventure—with a little bundle of sticks, and a little tent, and a little camping stove. I set them up in the fireplace where I usually like to read, using my dirty hands and stubby fingers to move them around, this sweet, small family on their camping trip. I especially love the baby badgers, and I keep one in my pocket, to clutch whenever I want to. I will keep it until I am grown.

Eileen gets into the playset, the one I leave set up in the fireplace, and scatters it everywhere. I am angry with her even though I know she’s just a toddler, and toddlers like to take things apart. Still, I gather what I can find and hold the pieces in my hands. I put them into my suitcase, underneath my underwear and socks, to keep them safe.

 

Anna, Jessica, and Nicole take me shopping one day in Oxford Circus, and we get to take the Tube. I insist on keeping the orange one-day pass with me, promising that I won’t lose it, tucking it carefully in a little black wallet in a mini denim backpack that sits snug on my shoulders. I feel impossibly grown-up, brushing past elbows and shoulders in the crowds, though I cling to Anna’s hand when we change trains because I don’t want to get lost. Getting lost is the thing I fear most, besides death. But when I am older, I will realize that death is just another way of getting lost. For now, though, I hold all the hands I can.

We shop and my cousins swoon over some faux-alligator skin shoes, black leather with a heel. Anna buys three pairs, and we find out that my cousins and I wear almost exactly the same size. We also find gauzy black skirts, and boat-necked white shirts, and at the makeup counter at Harrod’s, a woman puts some dark red lipstick on my lips. I walk a little taller as we make our way back to the Tube, wearing my new clothes, carrying my overalls and torn-up shirt in fancy shopping bags.

I wear them when Jessica, Nicole, and I walk into Richmond the next day, tasked with picking up some bread to go with dinner. They put some makeup on my face and we all look alike in our black and white and black, and as we pass an old church being renovated into flats, I sweep my arm toward it and announce, “I will live here one day. I will live here and my mom and dad and Greg and Eileen will live here, too.”

My cousins laugh and tell me that the flats will probably cost a million dollars each, and that not even God Himself could buy one.

We walk past the church flats, my cousins still giggling, and we hear a low whistle, followed by a louder one. I turn around, but Nicole and Jessica take my arm and keep walking. But there are men, construction workers, leering at us with dirty teeth and dirty shirts, and my stomach flips.

“Ignore them, Mary,” says Jessica.

“Ignore them, Mary,” says Nicole.

But oh, how hard it is to ignore their eyes and whistles, and I turn my head every few steps, even after the men forget about us and start up their hammering again. My cousins mutter something about creeps, but I am exhilarated, me, the gawky young thing, with no trace of womanhood save for the makeup on my face and little heels on my feet. There’s something growing inside of me, low and growling. I don’t try to hush it, this barest lick of delight.

We take a long way around on the way back, so we won’t have to pass those sticky, grimy men, and I hold a loaf of bread in my arms like I’m cuddling a child, the brown wrapper pressing against my tender chest.

 

No one knows quite what happened, but a stranger stands in Anna’s doorway, holding my sister.

“She was wandering into Kew Road,” says the woman, clutching Eileen. “She was going right into traffic, so I ran from the sidewalk and grabbed her.”

My mother gasps and reaches for Eileen. The rest of us stare.

“And in nothing but a nappy. I saw that she came out of your driveway. You should be ashamed.”

My mother bursts into tears, holding Eileen so close to her that they are almost one person. Anna thanks the woman, shakes her hand, leads her back to the road. My brother and cousins and I are all silent as we crowd around my mother. I touch Eileen’s head, her smooth toddler head, and try to picture what happened: this one-and-a-half-year-old toddling out of the open door of the house, out of the open gate, trying to mosey across Kew Road. Where did she want to go, wearing only her diaper?

We all start talking at once, asking who left the door open, who left the gate open. One by one, my cousins and I deny doing it, and I secretly think that Greg left it open, but I stay quiet, like the time we were playing basketball outside and he broke a neighbor’s window.

My mother still cries, ashamed and afraid, her hands shaking, her face crumpled. Eileen looks bewildered at all the attention. When my father walks in the door, fresh from a walk, he surveys the scene and stays in the doorway as if wondering if he should even come in at all. I run upstairs to my cot, lying straight down like a corpse, putting a pillow shaped like a sunflower over my face, breathing it in, breathing it out. I can hear my parents talking downstairs, can hear the other kids start to scatter. I sit up and examine my feet, stained by the mulberries that fall in the back garden. Who left the door open? Where was she going? Why didn’t anyone see?

When I have babies, I decide, I will never lose them. They will grow in me, and then come out, and I will keep them oh, so safe. They will live in me and around me.

When I come back downstairs, Eileen is eating an ice lolly and sharing it with baby Laura, who laughs a fat laugh every time Eileen pushes the treat in her face. I pull my collar up to my mouth and start chewing.

 

One rainy day, mother takes us to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is the latest Disney movie. She tows Greg, Andrew, Eileen, Emma, and me along, borrowing my aunt’s car and driving us to the nearest cinema. I am not quite used to her driving on the wrong side of the road because my father usually drives in England, but she is a steady, smooth driver, and she doesn’t panic if she gets lost.

We go to Tesco’s beforehand to buy candy, hiding it in our pockets and Mom’s purse. I love the marshmallows that look like little fried eggs, with a gummy yolk in the center. I also love the little gummy cola bottles—they don’t quite taste like cola, but they are still fun to suck on. No one else likes them, so I don’t have to share.

The movie is a lot darker than any of us expected. I read the book last year (an abridged version), but I don’t remember much about it. When the townspeople all tease Quasimodo, and throw things at him, my cousins, Greg, and I all burst into tears. We hurt so much for this poor little hunchback, who only wants to fit in. All of us try to climb into my mother’s lap at once, reaching over each other in our attempt to be comforted. She tries to touch each of us, making hushed, soothing noises.

“I know,” she murmurs. “The poor thing.”

Everyone hates the movie except me. I don’t want to watch it again, at least not anytime soon because I hate being sad. But I like Quasimodo, who is so nice and trusting, who has inner beauty—which is something my teachers always talking about at school.

I like to think that I have some sort of inner beauty, too. Not outer beauty, at least not with my big glasses and dirty feet. My soul is sweet, though, and I think that Quasimodo and I would get along, the two of us, maybe ringing the bells together.

 

The gardeners tell us it smells like nothing we’ve ever smelled before. That it smells like death, and garbage, and filth. That we will simply want to retch when we smell it, but that we must still smell it, because it blooms so seldom.

My father points to the plant, the flower, in the Kew Gardens brochure. The Titan Arum. I feel the weight of something dreadful on my shoulders, and in my stomach and throat. I don’t want to smell anything disgusting. I don’t even like smelling strangers. If a stranger walks past me, I always hold my breath so that nothing unfamiliar can enter my nose.

Andrew and Greg crow with delight. They can’t wait to smell. Andrew thinks it will smell like a corpse. Greg thinks it will smell like a terrible diaper. Nicole and Jessica look bored. My dad looks excited. I shake my head.

“Dad, I don’t want to smell it.”

“Well, you’ll have to wait outside of the greenhouse, then.”

I hate greenhouses and their hot-towel air, but I don’t want to be alone. I never want to be alone.

“Can’t someone stay with me?” I ask, digging my toe into the damp earth off the path. “Can’t you stay with me?”

“I’m going to see the plant,” he says.

Jessica and Nicole offer to stay with me, and I reluctantly agree to wait with them. I want to hold my dad’s hand and go with him, but I don’t want to be disgusted, and I don’t want to throw up, and I don’t want to have the scent of that stupid flower stick with me for the rest of my life.

So my older cousins and I sit on a bench, surrounded by roses. Jessica and Nicole sigh over how romantic the roses are, how lovely.

“These are what every boyfriend should give his girlfriend on special occasions,” says Jessica, and Nicole agrees. I nod along, relaxing my face into a knowing look, even though I know nothing about the kind of occasions and love and boyfriends that they are talking about.

I hop off the bench and pull a handful of grass from the ground. Separating the blades, I start to braid them like hair. Like long, beautiful hair. I touch my own short, unbrushed hair, touch my glasses, touch my torn-up collar, touch the brass buttons on my old overalls. I stretch my legs in front of me and look at my long toes, sticking out of the brown leather of my sandals.

    I start to chew on my collar, then my fingernails. If I could, I’d chew on every part of my body, just to feel what it’s like. Just to feel.

Mary Lide is a 2015 graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA in creative writing program. Her work has been published in The Delmarva Review and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Doug Wheller

  4 comments for “Chewing Gardens by Mary Lide

  1. Young Mary is so real, I felt like I was part of the bunch if grapes. I agree with Clara. I want to spend more time with this child and her family.

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