She holds them in her lap in the backseat of the car, like a prize, hundreds of ladybugs crawling on top of each other’s shiny backs, needle-tip feet clinging to edges of the Tupperware, in and out of the brown hay strands. Her eyes follow the maze of their movement.
“Are these my bugs?” she asks me, again. Her hands like still claws, as she stares in a half-smile.
“Sure,” I tell her.
Through the rearview, I glance at the bugs: little black beads waterfalling beneath the plastic in all directions. Constant motion, rippling like an ocean’s edge. Believing they are getting somewhere, between my youngest daughter’s tiny fingers, circling and circling their translucent ground.
“They belong to just me?”
“They do,” I say. “Until we set them free.”
Our first Spring living in our new Bronx apartment, the Blackthorn tree bloomed outside our fence, white flowers opening and falling against the dark bark into our yard, turning to brown, crisp petals that crept with our footsteps through the back door. I swept them gladly, grateful for this mixture of city and space.
The package leaned diagonally against the coat closet for a week. That Saturday my husband knifed it open, lined up dozens of thin wooden panels one by one. “Might as well have sent a tree and an ax,” he said.
“You can do it,” I told him. “Build me my garden.” He shook his head, face breaking into a smirk.
So he did. When he finished, he lifted it above his head while I considered all the different places it could go. We pushed it into the same corner the last owner had used, cement chipped from where she’d built a bed of bricks. Fifteen bags of soil to fill. He pulled each bag from the car trunk, biceps tense as he tore the tops and dumped them in.
“This…” I said later, as we stared at the mulch-pile of promise, wine on our breath and dirt beneath our nails, “This is it.”
He didn’t answer, because he knew. We’d both been dreaming of this forever.
The fungus gnats come slowly but with a force, grazing the top layer of the garden, circling the sunflower roots and invading the stalks my daughters planted by the fistful. Yellowing the bottom leaves until I reach beneath the green and yank them, hold them lifeless in my palms before flinging them to the concrete.
At the farm, the worker hands me the ladybugs in a small container, sweat gathered on her lip beneath the thick greenhouse air.
Get rid of garden pests the natural way! The decal reads.
“Will it work for a garden box?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says.
“Like, a small one, that’s built?” What I mean: Like on a back patio. In the Bronx.
“Just let them out at night,” the girl replies, a blank nametag crooked on her apron. “They’ll be tired, and they won’t fly.” I watch the bugs sprint in calculated circles behind the plastic walls. “Your plants will be the first place they find,” she continues. “They’ll think it’s home.”
Home, I think, picturing the darkened dirt and crooked stalks. The scent of mulch and lingering skunks. A window nearby, ceiling fan whirring, chopping up bits of apartment air. Two little girls in a back bedroom with kicked-off covers, pink walls and parallel beds, fists uncurled against their sheets.
The garden bed stacks three tiers high, leans up against the chain-link fence separating our patio from our neighbors. Betty and Earl. Their loafers and beat-up new-balances sit laces open on the doormat in the hall. Most nights I can hear their crackling voices muffling through the drywall. How could you be so stupid? She screams. And then his comeback, both burly and bored: Would you just leave… me… alone…?.
In their yard, a small grill stands across from a weathered plastic bench missing cushions that they keep inside in case of rain. Whether midmorning or dinner time, Betty swings open the iron grate from her back door in a night-gown, a white button-front placket turned to faded pastel floral that hangs just above her ankles. I speak to her slowly, and clearly, checking her ears for the hearing-aid wires.
“It’s my first-year planting anything,” I tell her, picturing the dead dracaenas and sword ferns that used to line my windowsill, when she asks through the fence if my thumb has always been this green.
“Impressive,” she says. “It’s my 40th year in this patio, but I know better.” She gives me a glossy grin. “I can’t keep anything alive.”
The gate unlatches from behind. My daughter looks up, as she walks out into the pathway.
“The old owners had a lock on that,” Betty tells me. “To keep their little ones in.” My girl kicks her bare feet behind her as she runs down the path. She stops at the other side of the fence, sticks her fingers through. Betty steadies herself on the fence. “I love seeing them run and play,” she says. “But you just never know.”
That night, the ladybugs scurry through my dreams. Over and over I’d step out into the darkness, peel off the top, shake them out like pellets onto the sunflower’s dying bottom leaves. I’d spread them caviar-style into the moistness of the soil, some strays crawling up the skin of my arms, circling my neck. I’d flick them off into the dusk. Then, like a ghost, Betty would appear, slow approach, silhouetted, her nightgown puffing above the patio stones, scowling as she swats the escaped bugs from her eyes.
My mother always told me I wasn’t good with boundaries. “You don’t always have the best judgement,” she’d say, when I told my Physics teacher he seemed ‘unhappy,’ or sent the garage door growling up at 5am after falling asleep in a boyfriend’s twin bed.
The diagnosis enraged me. I understood boundaries, I just chose to cross them. To connect the dots, then squiggle through the lines they made.
“No one minds ladybugs, Emily,” she tells me over the phone, my cheek-sweat gathering on its glass. I pull the scooters into a row against the fence. “Just do it,” she says. “Let them go.”
Her name was Rubi. When we looked at the apartment, her picture hung large and framed by the bedroom door. A standing lamp, abandoned wardrobe, bare parquet floors…and her. Feathered brown eighties hair, blurred and beautiful, as the owner—her mother—brought us into each room, flicked on and off the lights, waited as we stared at windows and walls. My oldest daughter ran in and out the back screen door. A door! She squealed. That I can open and close by myself! We’d never had a yard.
“My daughter and I, we used to plant out back.” The owner told me. “Tomatoes. And mint! Mint really takes over. A life of its own.”
What I didn’t know then: Rubi had been a sophomore at Berkeley, driving to a concert in Vegas. Her boyfriend didn’t want her to make the trip. It was a tractor-trailer, I’m sure the kind that—when passing–always makes me hold my breath. After the accident, the police mailed her things to her mother in a package. What I didn’t know then: that image would haunt me most. A box, the same address scrawled atop its cardboard that would one day be ours. Inside it– no clothes, but a smashed, blood-stained watch.
“They will love it here,” she told me, leaning up against a dishwasher that still had the tag. I could hear the screen door behind me, opening, closing, opening again. “It’s the perfect place for raising kids.”
“Sometimes lady bugs are mean to each other?” My youngest asks from the counter stool at the kitchen island. I’m wiping hidden crumbs from the granite into my palm. She tilts the container towards her, then away. “This ladybug push the other ladybug,” she tells me, “makes it fall.”
“Maybe they don’t have enough space,” I tell her.
When I see her playing with the sides of the plastic top, chin down and eyes checking for me, I warn her: “Allie, do not let those bugs free.”
“What?” She replies, the skin beneath her eyes flushed, and I recognize the way I am mother— invading my children’s thoughts. “I’m not,” she says. “I wasn’t.”
For days, she carries them around the house, placing them down wherever she pleases. I let them stand on the counter next to my bowl of cherries, on my night-table as I lay down to watch some evening TV. I watch them sprint around the plastic, so much life, trapped and concentrated. Then, the bewilderment in my child’s eyes. The way we hold things, and we watch them, afraid to let them go. Believing we’ll do it soon, later, in to time at all. We see their tiny feet tiptoe along the edges, convince ourselves that someday, we’ll let them scatter, we’ll set them free.
We find the shoebox in the air conditioning sleeve. Inside, careless photographs, stuck together, edges misaligned. I peel them apart, leaving white paper blotches along their surface. Two little girls with freckles in Wonder-Woman shirts and underpants. The same window screen behind them, a brown plush carpet I’ve never seen. The same age as my own two girls, but blurred and yellowed from years of an earth spinning.
I get her number from the realtor. I want to tell her: I think it’s Rubi, and you should see the way she’s smiling. I want to tell her: I’m here, barefoot on your stone pavers, living your life–the first part of it– and hoping to never repeat the second. I want to say I’m sorry. And that sometimes I hear the shower door open by itself, and I hope it’s her. I want to tell her: your neighbors are now my neighbors, and they are watching me raise my daughters after watching you lose yours. As I try to protect them, or maybe don’t protect them at all. They are watching me reach for my little girls’ tiny hands as we plow through that back gate pretending that all of this ours to hold.
“Your things,” I say. “I found them.”
“I’ll come tomorrow,” she says. “Please keep them safe.”
“Mommy,” my oldest tells me. “She left them in the sun.”
The little one takes the container, tilts it back and forth inside her hands. Holds it above her chin, stares up through the bottom. “They are dead?” she asks. “All of my bugs, they are dead?”
“It looks like they are,” I tell her, watching them slide along the bottom, some sticking to the strands of hay.
“All of them?”
“It looks that way.”
She plants her feet out back beneath the dark green garden umbrella and shakes them like a rattle. Black dots heavy and lifeless, drumming the walls with the flick of her wrist.
She hands them to me. “Here Mommy,” she says, and I hold this stack of so much that’s turned to nothing, as she runs off towards the gate, kicking gravel towards the yellow sky.
Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. Her recent work can be found in Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, the Atticus Review, The Rumpus, X-Ray Lit, JMWW Journal, among others. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers’ Magazine. You can find her online at www.emilysarahjames.com and tweet her @missg3rd.