The old man and the old woman have been married for many years. Scattered around their small house are indications of the time that has passed; a doll the husband brought back from Japan, in a paper-thin kimono that would crumble to dust if touched; a wall that still bears traces of the crayon flowers the eldest daughter drew when she was four; photographs of the children with husbands and wives, holding their own children. Many years ago the wife hung the husband’s Ph.D. on the wall above the bed; two weeks ago the husband hung beside it a certificate of appreciation from the local library for the wife’s ten years of dedicated service.
They spend much of their time out of the house, even now. The wife has her position at the library, her bridge parties; the husband has his walks in the hills, his meetings with the war buddies who are still alive. They each tend a small plot in the backyard; hers is herbs, thyme, rosemary, basil, lavender, which she dries in small pouches to perfume the house; his is one glorious tomato plant, whose fruits he offers to the neighbors every summer.
They have been together so long that the days pass mostly in silence. The stories they used to tell in the darkened bedroom or by the fire have lost their elasticity; even storytellers can grow tired of their own words. Now they pass bowls wordlessly at dinner, can tell with a few glances whether the other has had a good day or a bad one; and on the rare occasions when desire still wells up late at night, they need only a few brushes of fingers across thighs to be ready for love.
One spring day on his walk in the hills the husband smells jasmine. He has not smelled this smell for forty years, since he moved out of the South with his young wife, and he stops in his tracks, and he feels his knees begin to tremble, and he cannot speak. That evening the two of them are standing at the counter preparing the night’s dinner. The husband slices sun-warm tomatoes for a salad, the wife rubs a chicken breast with butter and rosemary. Suddenly she hears a strange exhalation from her husband, and she looks up to his face, and he stands bewildered, holding half a tomato, juice dripping onto the floor, and says, “Kiss me.”
That night they eat the chicken with bare glistening hands, feed it to each other and bite each other’s fingers, and repeat their names again and again.
The newlyweds were well into their second straight day of moving in when her husband left to run errands and came back with an apricot tree. At the time she had been too preoccupied wondering what they were going to do with two sets of china, and had vaguely acquiesced, but now that they are all moved in, and the husband is working on his third attempt at planting it, she has had ample time to reconsider. Now instead of slicing open the first of four boxes marked “napkins and dishcloths” she stands at the window and watches her husband wrestle with the earth. Her main problem with the tree, she thinks, is that it is such an obvious metaphor. She is embarrassed by it; she cannot help but picture the tree’s appearances in a film version of their marriage: the tree growing taller and stronger as the newlyweds make the house a home, perhaps flashes of fall foliage and winter snow burdening the young branches to show the passing of time. She thinks of how the leaves will crinkle with laughter in spring sunlight as she and her husband share a private joke on the front porch (the house does not yet have a porch, but she imagines it as one of the many improvements they will make). Even — would it go this far? —the tree in late summer, laden with small, perfect orange fruit, as she whispers, “Darling, I’m pregnant.”
She shudders. When her husband comes back in, dirty and sweaty and proud at having finally put the tree into the earth, she pretends to agree that it is a wonderful idea.
As it turns out, none of these images ever comes to pass, because only a few months after the last boxes are emptied onto shelves and into closets the tree sickens and dies. Insects have eaten it from the inside out. The day the crew comes to remove it she stands at the window watching them rip the roots out of the earth. When her husband comes up behind her and touches her shoulder she jumps, and has a momentary urge to jerk away. He sighs, and she looks at him, searching his face for an inkling of comprehension. She wonders if this is how it begins, the first small doubts, the long slow decline.
“It’s the wrong climate for apricot anyway,” he says. “What do you think about a row of jasmine bushes along the fence?”
She stares at him, this man she has married. And into her mind come simultaneously the question — how could she have chosen this man, someone whose mind does not immediately leap from blighted apricot trees to Greek tragedy, someone who actually laughed out loud when he saw that she had packed a whole box full of her college papers on Byron’s narrative “I,” someone whose solution for every one of her dark moods is to lie down on the bed and pull her on top of him — and the answer.