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In September

On a humid night in mid-July, Emily can't sleep. Her hand keeps sliding into the cool open space on the far side of the mattress. She slips out of bed and pads down the hall into the kitchen. The breakfast barstool screeches when she pulls it out, but there's no one in the house to wake. The wall calendar from the bank has a picture of some lake up north for this month; Emily flips ahead to August's verdant farm, to September's antique schoolhouse. She counts the days from here to there, as she has a hundred times before.
It's early August when Emily stands in the middle of the cul-de-sac two streets over, holding a half-empty Solo cup of warm beer. All the other neighbors have been sure to greet her but no one knows what to say beyond: how about this weather, have you been to the farmer's market yet this summer, how's your garden doing? The garden was Sam's and most of Emily's meals these days are eaten out of a Stouffer's tray.
"Oh God, didn't you hear?" the retired nurse who lives over on Elm is saying to Mrs. Gutierrez. The words aren't meant for Emily's ears but she hears anyway. "He's in September, now. That poor girl. At least there aren't any children, thank goodness."
Mrs. Gutierrez sniffs. "Could be worse, yeah? My sister, you know, so pious, she's in Holy Week all the time now."
Emily pours her beer out into the gutter and turns toward home.
On August 12th she impulsively grabs a basil plant from its pallet on her way into the supermarket. By the time she gets home, her momentum has bled away. She manages to get it planted in one of the raised beds, in amongst a tangle of dandelions and purslane.
She spends the whole last weekend in August drinking all the beer that's left in the fridge until she's drunk enough to put the DVD of their wedding movie in. EMILY AND SAM--SEPTEMBER 16 says the overlay, in the overwrought floral font her sister picked out when she edited the footage together. Emily misses the last dance and their departure in Sam's tin-can-and-boot-festooned Chevy in order to heave a stomachful of beer and bile into the toilet. When she comes back she tears the DVD out of its slot and snaps it in half.
She should feel guilty, she should feel relieved. But the whole thing is backed up on her computer anyway.
The night of August 31st she lies awake in bed for hours. Sleep spools her in so slowly that she doesn't notice. Not until she snaps awake and gropes for the other side of the bed. Still cold, still empty. She pulls on a pair of shorts and runs downstairs.
Sam's standing in front of the garden, where the basil towers over the huddled weeds, with his hands on his hips. He looks over his shoulder when the screen door bangs shut behind her. "What happened?"
We used to do it together, all the planting and weeding and the harvest too. It was too hard to pick out tomato seeds from a catalog with your name on the mailing address. It wasn't fair for you to leave me. It wasn't fair of you to ask me to stay. A fresh pain blots out these dull old wounds. "'Hi, honey' would be a nice place to start."
"Hi? Oh." The deep furrows in Sam's brow smooth, then push upward instead of down. "Oh, Em. For me it was just yesterday. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
"It's okay," Emily says. It's not. "Look. I put in some basil, at least. We can make pesto."
They make dinner. They make love. When it's over, Emily goes into the bathroom and sits on the toilet and muffles her tears in a towel that smells like him.
A floorboard creaks. Sam's in the doorway, jaw taut with worry. "Emily?"
"I can't do it anymore." She twists the towel on her lap. "Say goodbye, for a year at a time. I've been thinking about staying--"
"Oh, my God." He's on his knees in front of her, his hands on her white knuckles. "I was hoping--I didn't want to push you. September is just--the apples and peaches and corn in season, and the first-week-of-school joy, and the air starting to turn. Our anniversary. It's perfect."
"In May. I was thinking about staying in May."
September passes quietly. They go to work, they eat together with quiet conversation about new movies they want to see, about old favorite restaurants, about their current library books. Sam's latest read is a history of misconceptions in science; Emily's is a historical romance. They both make interested noises about adding the other's current favorite reads to their list of books on hold, but neither of them ever does. They let their anniversary pass unmarked. Many of their evenings are spent apart: him curled up on the couch with a magazine, her talking long runs in the crispening air.
But sometimes, at home those nights, one reaches for the other, and neither ever turns the other away. There is a gentle relief underneath the motion of Emily's hands, the roll of her hips.
At the end of September they go to the farmer's market and buy everything they need for a big feast. A pair of ribeye steaks, tomatoes the size of Sam's fist, emerald-green zucchini. They open a bottle of wine from the basement, one they were saving for a special occasion, and they stuff themselves stupid and laugh deep into the night.
Emily falls asleep on the couch, with Sam's heartbeat under her ear. When sunlight from the window spills onto her face, she rises with a start, heart pounding. It takes her a moment to figure out what, where, when. Who.
She exhales, trembling. She pushes a smile onto her face, and goes to clean up last night's mess in the kitchen.
May dawns cool and cloudy, but as the days pass the earth grows dark and warm. Emily turns her face toward the sun. She sells the queen bed, which takes up too much space in the bedroom anyway, and downsizes to a full. She signs up to run the Memorial Day half-marathon, which she's missed the past three years.
At the farmer's market one Saturday, she pauses beside one stall, then ducks beneath the tent. When she comes out her arms are overfull with paper-bagged pepper and tomato and zucchini and watermelon plants, and yes, one little basil too. She spends the afternoon giving them back to the soil, until finally she can stand back and stretch her weary arms, beam a sunlight-bright smile on the lovely little rows of green.
She finishes the half-marathon, several minutes slower than her personal best, but she finishes. The rest of the long weekend is spent babying her aching muscles and promising herself to train better, the next time around. Which is this time around. She smiles at the calendar, where the first week of June is printed in a ghostly gray at the tail end of May's page.
She awakes into another beautiful first day of May, stretching her arms and legs to the full length of the bed. She rises, dresses, puts on the coffee before work. She puts on her shoes, picks up her briefcase, turns toward the garage.
Instead an unknown impulse draws her the opposite way, out into the backyard, where the grass is dew-kissed in the tender pink sunlight. The garden is still there, but a new roll of chicken wire has been unspooled down the middle, so that half is bare mulch, waiting for a gardener's hands.
The other side has transformed into a strawberry patch, and the pale faces of the new berries nod in greeting.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 8th, 2019
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