The Winter Garden

Diane thought to herself that the winter garden in its truest form could only exist in New York City, in this century, where people are wealthy enough and indolent enough to enclose a giant plot of land, which could have been used for growing, oh say soybeans or wheat or something like that – something that would feed whole villages of starving children – probably corn, and enclose it in sheets of bulletproof glass (after all this is New York), just so people from the upper West side don’t have to wait a few months to see some roses. She took out a recently purchased pocket-sized deep forest colored leather-bound notebook with its own silver-plated pen, and seated herself on a black iron filigreed park bench (“It’s just like Central Park, but indoors!” the advertisement for the grand opening had announced in last Sunday’s Times) to write this down, just the first part, about how ‘the winter garden could only exist in New York City, in this century.’ If someone informed her that winter gardens have existed throughout many more centuries, in many other civilizations, their words would not embarrass her. Some people – and she is one of them – don’t mind making a mistake in the name of poetry and don’t allow facts to get in the way of a good aphorism.

She moved quickly through the roses to the camellias, because roses made her think of love and she didn’t like to. She suspected that the reason she was such a total failure with men was because she was such a total failure with people, could not bear their idle chatter about the games they found so interesting, with big balls and small balls, orange white and brown balls, balls and sticks, balls and sticks and skates. In life, she thought, there were triangle people and circle people and she was a triangle person. She looked at people’s noses before she looked at their eyes, and did origami in her spare time, because it allowed her to construct whole worlds of angled landscapes and creatures. Some of her colleagues at the University called themselves ‘popular’ intellectuals and taught courses like ‘The Sociology of Male Bonding in a Football Locker Room’ or ‘The Undercurrents of Misogyny in Contemporary American Film’, but she did neither, although she went to their parties, when she was invited, although she did not stoop so low as to enjoy them.

And children! How people went on about their children. Their children walked! Their children talked! But any turkey could walk, any convicted murderer could talk and walk, sometimes at the same time. But there had to be some way of attempting immortality available to everyone, everywhere, because otherwise how could they live? Diane wore sweaters in the summertime because the coldness of the grave was with her wherever she went, especially lately. There she was – at the roses again! She had often prided herself on having no sense of direction.

She looked at the few roses which had yet to bud. There they were, in the midst of an embarrassment of beauty, an unplucked bouquet, hundreds of flowers just like them, some even sharing their name and genetic heritage, perched smugly on the same stem, petals reaching unpityingly up to the closed fist of their unlucky sisters who had failed at unfolding, which should be to a rose what breathing was to a human being: effortless. She thought to herself (and prepared to jot down): to bloom is in the nature of a flower, what it was created for. Bloom, spread its seed, die. How terrible to fail at this.

And for the first time in a long time, she allowed herself to be taken over by something, some kind of spirit, of rage or bitterness or compassion, reaching out into the center of the nearest closed bud, wiggling it a little to push the petals outward, even gently unwrapping them, working her way clockwise, even after she heard, “Excuse me, ma’am. Ma’am? You’re not allowed to touch the flowers. Ma’am! If you don’t stop. . .” coming from behind her.

This is how Professor Diane Thompson became the first person to be kicked out of the new Evelyn P. Hoffman Winter Garden.

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The baby would not stop crying. This was how Irene thought of it – as the baby, rather than Dominic, a name she chose because it was on the front page of the newspaper the day he was born. Some secondary henchman in the Mafia had just been arrested. She had him up against her shoulder, the way she thought he liked her to hold him, but he still wouldn’t stop crying. When the Filipina nurse at the free clinic brought him in to her for the first time, Irene had asked how to hold him. The nurse told her kindly, “However you do it honey, that’s how he’ll like it.” But the gold cross she’d worn around her neck was so big that Irene thought she must be wearing it to prove some kind of point, maybe something about not wanting to give eighteen-year-old unwed mothers any more help than she had to.

Dominic’s snot and tears ran down her jacket, mixed with the dirt and wet she’d brought with her from the hours she’d spent outside. Irene rubbed his back, starting at the small and expanding outward in a circular motion, as if he were a snail and she were tracing his shell. He still didn’t stop. Sort of like a squeal.   A squealing piglet, rolling in the mud. Which made her the teat it got its milk from. She felt sure that the middle-aged matron nearby was staring at them rather than the snow which had begun to pelt against the window behind them in stuttering drifts, as if the spring inside the glass had the embryonic flakes confused, thinking they had the wrong time of year and that maybe they ought to go back where they came from, before things got too far out of hand.

The woman came closer, peering through her bifocals. Irene, mistaking a brooch on her chest for a nametag, imagined the matron wondering something to the effect of, “Who let them in here?” That was an equally unpleasant sentence no matter which word you chose to emphasize. “This garden is open to the public,” Irene imagined saying, except that she could not dispute that her child was actually causing a disturbance, howling like a snow alarm that someone had tripped, and she looked around to see if someone was coming to throw them out – she still didn’t know where to go, she couldn’t show up at her dormitory with a baby.

As she scurried past the woman, like a shoplifter afraid of detection who signals her guilt by the very way she attempts to evade suspicion, the woman said, “Excuse me, young lady, do you know when the garden closes? I want to make sure I have time to see all the roses.” Irene mumbled, “no,” past her, continuing on her way toward the small cluster of fruit trees at the most secluded corner of the garden. Just as she had nearly obtained a place where she could slip momentarily out of sight, she saw Professor Thompson, who taught her class on Romantic poets. Ridiculously, she pulled the right side of her jacket open and thrust the baby under it, hiding him like some kind of package she needed to keep dry. She hadn’t told anyone she was pregnant; at school, they thought she was in the hospital for pneumonia. Under the jacket, the baby howled more quietly, as though someone had turned its volume down. Perhaps it felt comfortable in the darkness, having so recently been ejected from inside Irene.

There was no one within the grove. The silence hummed between the trees so that it felt like she was underwater. The garden was beginning to empty out as people tried to beat the storm home. She felt charmed by the variety of fruit hanging from the trees; it reminded her of an aunt’s attic or a rummage sale, everything thrown together with no thought given to order –and yet she felt safe here, sure of sturdy construction and temperature control, a warm grove, a strong and stubborn roof.

Taking the baby out from her jacket, she unbuttoned her shirt and put him to her breast. No one had warned her about the pain. He drew blood when he fed, like a tiny vampire. But the procedure seemed to calm him. Soon, he had fallen asleep. While he was feeding, he had bitten his lip – milk and a bit of blood dribbled from its mouth, combining into a pink which was the exact shade of the rosebud her professor had been reaching for. If you could call a drink a Bloody Mary. . . But she was not here to name roses. He beamed beatifically, like a benevolent saint. As she bent her head to look at him more carefully, his hand reached up reflexively to fret at her forehead, as though he wanted to bestow a blessing upon her. How very lovely he was! She had always laughed at mothers who showed off their children, as if giving birth was more than a simple biological trick. Did an apple’s redness flatter a tree, she had imagined saying. But she felt now, for the moment, a sense of pride in the lovely flush of her son’s cheek.

She peered out of the grove, hoping no one had seen her, caught her out in the act of loving her child and found that most people were pretending not to watch as her English Professor was bustled out of the garden by security. She did not have time to speculate why; instead, she quickly opened the stroller, nestled the baby inside it, tucked his blanket around and under him – this had been her blanket as an infant, chewed at one corner, that had been her chewing. She would never see his teeth. She had not planned to kiss him good-bye, but as she put the note into his jacket pocket – she would call to make sure someone found him right away – she could not help kissing her fingers and rubbing the kiss onto his light-dappled cheek. “Good-bye,” she said, then headed quickly out of the garden.

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            The girl had not seen Linda watching her, even when she was looking to see if she was being watched, before she left the baby. Linda had been watching for a long time, since the girl first brought the baby into the garden. Linda knew how to look at mothers and their children without being caught at it. She had to learn, after she scared too many women off the subway and out of playgrounds. Thus Linda was the only person who did not watch as Professor Diane Thompson was thrown out of the rose garden; in fact, she didn’t even notice it happening at all, because she was busy watching the homeless girl in the fruit arbor decide whether or not to abandon her child.

Her first thought was to take it, but then she asked herself: what if the girl changes her mind, comes back, and finds the baby gone? And besides, Linda would have to lie to John about where the baby had come from; he wouldn’t want to take in just any baby – he would want to know who the mother had been. It would be so sudden – people would ask questions. They would have to say they hadn’t wanted to say anything, in case the adoption didn’t go through. They would need papers for the baby, a fake birth certificate; she tried to think of who she might know who would know anything about that kind of thing. Perhaps the woman who ran the battered women’s shelter Linda had once volunteered at? But she might not be sympathetic, that woman, to her stealing someone else’s baby; she might even turn Linda in – I can’t trust her, Linda thought, and she wasn’t sure she could trust her husband either; he already thought she was teetering on the edge of the mental health fence as things stood.

I’d have to leave him, she thought… but she still loved him. He was losing his hair, combing it over so that the few black hairs stood fruitlessly in the middle of his scalp, like that ancient Greek, was it? From that Yeats poem, she couldn’t remember what it was called, who stood on a long stretch of sand and tried to turn back the sea. But she liked his smell, and the way he snorted occasionally in his sleep, the way his shape against her own was warm and heavy, like that of a giant pet seal. Her nieces and nephews would sometimes say, “But Aunt Linda, he’s so dull!” but none of them were even dating, the younger generation was a little too picky, she’d often thought, and so she knew that she would not take the child, that she was a failure even at this, the very desperate act that should come most naturally to a desperate woman, she thought. Opportunity dangled before her eyes and she was too calmly practical, as always, to seize it. Long ago, John had once said to her, when they were having sex (and she had never let him forget it), “Linda, let yourself go a little.” But she never could.

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As Irene left the garden, the sun was setting, sending long streaks of shadow down the wide column that Irene had yet to learn to call an avenue instead of a street. Just ahead of her, Professor Thompson had stopped to tremble in a little alcove. Inside, Linda was looking for someone to tell about the baby. And then Irene looked back over her shoulder. And in this moment, I was reminded of that other garden, of how the woman had craned her neck to see around the angel, to take one last look at the vegetation, at the animals, at the fruit whose flavor she now knew to be sweet. And for a moment, I was tempted to change the rules, as I had been tempted then, as it was so often tempting to say that just this one time I could interfere. Instead, once again, I was left to watch and wait – as if caged, straining against my chains like a dammed-up sea.

Michalle Gould's first full-length collection of poetry, "Resurrection Party," was published by Silver Birch Press and a finalist for the Writers League of Texas Book Award in poetry.  Her work has appeared in Poetry, Slate, New England Review, The Texas Observer, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, The Awl, and others.  Her poem "How Not To Need Resurrection" was recently adapted into a short film for the Motionpoems webseries ( and other work has been set to music by the founder of the Washington Women in Jazz festival.  She currently lives in Hollywood, where she works as an academic librarian.  In her free time she is learning to play the accordion, collaborating on an opera, and writing a novel set in the north of England in the 1930s.  

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