Sunday, October 12, 2008

Love in Wood and Wax

The words that made my heart leap, not to mention my adrenaline surge, weren’t “I love you.” They were something more along the lines of “Watch it, she’s coming down!”

I loosened the tension on the nylon rope I’d been pulling on, and made it a priority to get out of the way of the forty foot dead tree falling into the front yard. The man who inhabits a lot of acreage in my heart had just notched the tree with his chain saw, and after a few more hours of hard and dirty work (mostly his but I kept up my end by dragging shards and broken branches to the “burn pile”) it would be turned into firewood to keep me warm the next winter.

My heart glowed…and not just because I was standing next to a bonfire.

I laugh these days at how my definition of romance has changed since I was in my twenties, and what meets the test for a token of affection.

Back in the day long ago when I knew much less about what I didn’t know, the language of love followed a standard script, and the symbols were equally standard issue. Flowers, of course. Candy, of course. Jewelry was always appreciated. Perfume…well that was more an individual choice, but it was the thought that counted. Oh, and don’t forget dinner and a movie. The fancier and more expensive the restaurant, the bigger the thrill.

That was quite a while ago. Going off script has been so liberating!

The man in my life and I tally three ex-spouses and five kids between us, along with a cat and a dog (both mine), and three small fish that live in a tiny aquarium on his kitchen stove island. There are jobs, and bills, and responsibilities, and run-of-the-mill irritations, and heartaches we could have never imagined when we were walking out the high school door in our caps and gowns.

But along the way, we learned to see ordinary things with new eyes, and feel much the richer for it.

That lesson hit me with the force of a hammer one day last summer. My new subcompact car was still as shiny as a new penny when I was informed by my love that according to the manly code of car maintenance, it needed to be properly polished and waxed. I arched one eyebrow, but picked up a wet sponge and started slinging suds without demur. This is a man who owns not only his own buffer, he owns two.

Hours later, as midnight approached, he ruefully concluded that we’d bitten off more than we could properly chew for the evening, and handed me the keys to his F-150 for the drive to work the next day. He’d have the job finished by next evening, he thought.

When I drove back to his place a couple of days later, he was just finishing up. Even from a distance he looked exhausted. My approach was masked by the whirr of the shop vac as he whisked the last infinitesimal bits of dust from the car’s interior. I stared at the car, absolutely stunned. It gleamed like a sapphire in the sun, and I could see the knife-edged reflection of overhanging branches and the subtle shading of clouds above in its mirror finish. The car hadn’t looked nearly this good when I drove it away from the showroom. I could put makeup on in its reflection.

I couldn’t have been more moved if he’d surprised me with a truckload of orchids and a pair of tickets to Hawaii. And therein was an awakening.

We don’t feel compelled to follow much of the old script anymore. Dinner and a movie is often chicken breast or pork tenderloin perfectly grilled over charcoal in his back yard or mine, followed by a movie on DVD. Sometimes we go lowbrow, sometimes we shoot for an Oscar winner, and half the time we just fall asleep on the sofa halfway through the movie, too tired from the rest of the week to keep our eyes open past eleven.

I watch a lot more fireflies in the evening. Viewed from the edge of the woods as twilight comes, they twinkle and gleam like sparkling gems on a dark sea, and there’s a sense of mystery and surprise with every tiny light.

I get flowers often, cut from his garden, and they always make me smile. But even more, every day I step out into rose gardens flanking my front door that he planted and mulched last year when we were first starting to date. And as I walk along an Arizona sandstone footpath leading me through coneflowers and delphiniums and coreopsis and daylilies that replaced a field of crushed rock and plastic, remembering a shared experience of dirt and sweat and shredded cedar and a lot of digging, I think every day, “this is the garden that love built.”

This year, I don’t know if I’ll be getting a box of fancy chocolate for Sweetest Day.

But I’m pretty sure that either in my fireplace or in a bonfire in the yard, we’ll be burning some of that firewood, watching the flames dance and the sparks float upwards in the dark. And somehow that seems so much sweeter.

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