“How is everything at Breakdown Academy?”
I looked up from the dirt newly emptied of the last of the beets. I was about to plant one hundred garlic cloves (and ten daffodils that I couldn’t resist at my last dalliance with the siren, Home Depot.) Nick bounded in through the open gate with a comb in his hands and enough product in his densely adolescent black hair to blow up a prom with the strike of a match. He rolled his eyes and wailed, “It’s Breakthrough!”
“Right.” We have had this schtick ongoing since the day in midsummer when a mournful Nick dragged his feet into the garden and said, “Mr. Tony, can we talk?”
“Of course.” I gestured to his favorite chair, the green one. Before he sat down, he positioned my favorite, the blue one, opposite him.
“My parents are sending me to a magnet school. I don’t want to go. I want to go to the Middle School with all my friends. I’m going to burn it down.”
“Nicholas, let’s have no talk of violence even if I know you don’t mean it. A magnet school! My goodness, doesn’t that sound…attractive. Is it like that school in Fame where Irene Cara danced her way to Broadway without ever learning geometry?”
“No. It’s Breakthrough Academy and I have to take a bus to get there. I don’t know anyone there. I hate it.”
“A bus? How thrilling. Think of the alluring strangers and the raw emotion. Think of Inge’s Bus Stop. Or that song by the Hollies. And think of all the magnetic new friends you’ll have at Outbreak Academy.”
“Right. Is it magnetized to attract a certain type of student?”
“It’s for social skills.”
“Oh I see. And you’ll be there as a shining beacon to your classmates? A dazzling example of winning comportment? A totem of aspiration for clumsy local children who need the luminous template of your polished persona?”
“No, and I won’t go.”
“Yes you will go. I assume this is your parents’ doing?”
“Well they know best, and you will obey. When I was your age, my parents forced me to take a bus to a Catholic school. I hated it, but I went. Have you ever heard of Governor Grasso?”
“Well let’s hope she’s included in the Breakup curriculum.”
“Right. Ella Grasso was the first woman governor elected in her own right. She was governor of our own grand Connecticut. There had been a woman governor down south named Lurleen, but she was just filling in for her dead husband. Can you imagine a governor named Lurleen? Anyway, Ella Grasso supposedly said, ‘Bloom where you are planted.’ This makes a lot of sense, and it is exactly what you, Nicholas, will do at Breakneck. You won’t just try to make friends, you will be the star of that academy. You are going to burst through those doors every morning with a brilliant smile and a firm handshake and a way of making everyone in the classroom appreciate you. Everyone will be drawn to you because of how they just feel better when you’re around. You are going to be the star of Breaking Bad Academy.”
Nick had stopped listening. He looked about ready to skulk away wondering why he had even thought to share all this with me.
“Nick, let me tell you a brief story. I was forced to go to a college that I did not like, but I went, and I did well, and eventually, I got to go where I wanted to go.”
I kept the details unspoken, but I was referring to the fact that when I had completed six years in the “minor seminary” – high school plus the first two years of college – the bishop assigned me to Our Lady of Angels Seminary near Albany, New York. He assigned all of my friends to St. John’s Seminary in Boston. I was wretchedly unhappy about this. I put up with it, and two years later, that same bishop asked me to go to Rome for four years of postgraduate studies. This, to me, defined revenge. It made me sure that I was the Scarlett O’Hara of the clergy.
“Nick, when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. Have you ever heard that saying before?”
“No.” He was sullen.
“Well now you have, so I want you to go home, and tell your parents that you are ready to make the lemonade, okay?”
Two months had passed since that conversation. Nick, as I suspected, adjusted to The Breakers with ease. As always happens, he fell in with the wrong crowd on day one and was relieved of a twenty dollar bill given to him by his father in case of emergency. Toward the end of our summer, Nick began taking huge delight in the fact that he is now taller than me, repeatedly demanding that we stand up face-to-face. Every time we did, I’d swear he had acquired another half inch. Racing down the street on his bike, his voice cracked as he hollered to his friends. By this time next year, I ‘m sure he’ll have no desire to talk to someone as uncool as me. This is how it all and always goes. People come into our lives at a moment that can only be described as right for reasons unknown to any of us who are handed our scripts, and then the tide takes that moment out and washes out the colors of this garden, this season, the strictness of spires and the calling of bells. Everything changes. You can’t hold on. Pulled out into the future, you look back at the shore and the sun is too bright to remember.
For the moment Nick stands before me with an announcement.
“I have a girlfriend. No, I have two girlfriends.”
“Two? This can only end badly.”
“Well one of them is only my girlfriend because she is popular. I really like the other one.”
“Do they each know about the other?”
“Yes! The one I like said she knows I only like the other one because she is popular and she is okay with that.”
“She sounds like a doormat. I think the three of you should sit down and watch “A Place In The Sun.” She won’t be so understanding when she sees what happened to Shelley Winters.”
“Mr. Tony, are you married?”
“Who are you married to?”
“Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.”
“My dad says it’s rude to talk about myself and that I should get others to talk about themselves.”
“Your dad is right, except in this instance. Ask him what you asked me and see what he says.”
Nick turned to leave the garden and find his father. As is always his way, whenever I suggest he ask his parents something, he runs to do it immediately, leaving me regretful about the suggestion.
“Nick, before you go, I want to show you one thing. Look at this. Do you know what it is?”
“That’s a lilac.”
“Right. Remember when it bloomed? Remember the scent? Well these little nubbins at the end of each branch are going to be the flowers that come out next summer. Once it is done blooming, the lilac sets buds. Now, a zillion bad things can happen to those buds which would mean no flowers next summer. A gardener with lesser skills might prune them off, for instance. Something bad in the dirt might poison the plant and keep it from flowering. That is what drugs do to kids, right? Maybe there won’t be enough rain, and the buds will dry up and fall off. That would be like you not getting love from your parents and friendship from your cohorts at BreakItUp. Maybe a deep freeze and a snow avalanche will break off the branches. Who knows? Bad things can happen. I go south for the winter soon, and I will come back just in time to see this lilac bloom. When I come back, I want to find all these buds intact and swelling, and I want to find that you have weathered your first year at Breakfast Academy with no permanent disasters. You are going to have to take care of yourself, Nick. Don’t be too silly. Don’t listen too much to what your friends say. They know nothing. Treat those girlfriends very well. With respect. Don’t be in a hurry to do anything. You have so much time.”
He glazed over, as I knew he would. As I knew I would have at that age. As I knew the lilac does. The universe does not listen to anything. We just do. We are lucky or we crash into things like asteroids. We can’t keep a young fellow from what will befall him even though we want it more than anything else in the world.
My husband never says so, but I know that when he comes home from work and I tell him about the planting I did, he will know that it means I intend another year. No one who flees throws seed.
Everything is set and ready for the winter. I just need to let go now. I can’t control what will happen to my lilacs, to my garlic, to Nick, to my husband and to myself. I have done what I could and it is enough.