There are days when practically all I can think about is the garden and the way it once was. I close my eyes and imagine my fingers trailing over the forest of ivy climbing the cedar fence while I tiptoe between the wildflowers bursting up in their chaotic flurry of color. I can almost smell the honeysuckle, almost hear the bee that speeds past my ear on the way to the bud of a rosebush bleeding red with petals. Almost.
I know I will never see that garden again and the thing is, it’s all my fault that I won’t. I’ve asked myself, over the years, just how long you should have to pay penance for a deed done in your youth. Forever comes the answer. You pay forever.
Ty, the sweet man who met me after the storm and chose to love me in the face of my truth, tells me enough time has gone by, but I don’t think so. I think I will be living in this tiny town, serving this sentence, until the day I die.
It all happened on the kind of June day that draws out moms with their kids into the playgrounds and men in suits to fountained courtyards on their lunch breaks. It was warm, but not too warm, the air breezy and light and loaded with the scents from my garden.
I remember taking my tea outside so that I could sit in my adirondack chair among the flowers before heading to work. It had been a rough week...no, month. Okay, year. My boss had been piling both work and criticism so high on my desk that I expected it might break right in two any day now. Maybe when it did, it would break one of my legs and I could take a vacation. But I knew I wasn’t that lucky.
Our little company specialized in social media marketing. I was considered a SM Specialist, which seems ironic in hindsight. In the early days, things had been so exciting. A trending hashtag here, a viral video there. It was easy to separate success from failure, and the highs far outnumbered the lows. But as more and more clients jumped on board, the stakes rose and the expectations left the realm of reality. The boss I had once liked, if not quite loved, now looked vaguely like someone who might employ Anne Hathaway and toss handbags at people on the way to their glassed-in office.
As I sat there sipping green tea from a china cup in the morning light of my garden, I thought back to the night before. I had sat in my boss’s office while she lectured me on my need to “stay current”.
“You’re falling behind on the trends, Mel,” she had said. “Don’t tell me I have to go shopping for a younger model who is more in touch with the kids.”
A younger model? In touch with the kids? What other thirty-something had subscriptions to Teen People and Seventeen? I knew more about the latest famous guys than the girls who taped their faces into their lockers did. I could barely converse with another adult at this point, but put me in a room with a junior in high school and I would shine. And here my boss was suggesting she might trade me in, as if I was one of those Plymouth Voyagers with the wood panels going down the sliding doors.
Snagging the only two weeds that I could spot sprouting out of the rich, brown dirt of my garden, I walked back inside. I ditched my tea cup in the sink, tossed the weeds in the trash, and grabbed my purse.
As always, I was five minutes early when I arrived at my desk. And like most days in recent memory, the boss was already clicking her pen rapidly, up and down, up and down, as if she had been waiting for me for hours. I had never heard anyone click a pen as loud as she could.
That morning, as I drew in a deep breath and opened her office door, I wondered if there were contests for people like her. Pen clicking contests. I also noted that I had never seen her actually use the pen. She said writing made you look old and insisted on typing every living thing she produced. Funny that she didn’t think her gray hair aged her, but writing on paper did. Only the geniuses get the big jobs, I had thought as I settled into the horribly uncomfortable chair she provided for her guests.
There was nothing terribly interesting about our conversation. To be honest, I don’t even remember what was said. It was just general “me bashing” followed by a list of demands for the day and an encouraging sign-off of inspiration that involved her telling me she was sure I wouldn’t get everything done anyway.
You know when you walk past a tulip and it’s totally closed, so much so that you can’t even tell what color it will be when it blooms, and then the next day, that same flower is wide open, bright yellow and drinking in the sun? Well, that morning, I had a tulip moment. Only it wasn’t pretty. At all.
By the time I closed the distance between her office and my desk, all the accumulated garbage of the last year had suddenly begun to stink so violently to me that I could bare it no longer. I plopped down into my chair, pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and slammed it onto the laminated white top of my desk. I stared at it for a second, and a kind of blind fury began to build inside me. It took me three tries to unlock the screen, two taps to open the Twitter app, and surprisingly, pretty much zero seconds for me to type out a 140 character dressing down of my boss.
You would be surprised what you can fit into that tiny little box on the screen if you’re creative. Which I was. I managed to hit it all: her personality, her incompetence, and her appearance.
Her appearance. I don’t know what possessed me. I had never been a bully. I had never been a shamer. I had never sent a Tweet, Facebook post or Instagram picture that could be construed as even slightly controversial. Maybe that’s why I decided to delete the post a half hour later, when my blood had lowered from a boil to a simmer. I reminded myself that I was not that kind of person, clicked the Twitter tab on my desktop, and poised the mouse over the message in question.
But something had happened. It had been liked more times than anything I had ever posted, for myself or a client. More than that, it had been retweeted thousands of times. My heart stopped for just a second, as if it needed to recalibrate, than resumed at a brisk racing pace.
The tweet, in all its disgusting glory, had gone viral. It had released, in a millisecond, a version of myself that did not at all represent who I was. Or did it? I look back and wonder, if I was capable of writing it, did that make me the ugly person it suggested I was? I just don’t know.
What followed was a rapid fire series of events that would untangle the carefully woven threads of my existence and reweave them into something I couldn’t even recognize. My boss didn’t follow my private account, but of course, it was our job to follow trends, and suddenly, I was one. I never even got a full apology out to her. I was out on the sidewalk with my box of belongings before I finished a sentence.
Then came the calls and the messages online. I deleted my account that night, but I can easily call to mind some of the hate that got thrown my way from people I would never meet, people who only knew me from a stream of status updates about books and television shows and yes, my boss.
News programs wanted to talk to me. “News” being applied to these outlets in the loosest possible terms. Magazines wanted to interview me. And as much as the media sought me out, my friends pushed me away. I was a leper.
That day, and the ones that followed, showed me that my roots didn’t run as deep in that city as I thought they did. And since I was an only child and my parents were gone, I was really and truly alone.
The whole thing might have gone away if some up-and-coming correspondent for one of the mornings talks hadn’t stumbled upon a few new terms for the urban dictionary. “Mel-ing”, “Mel-ed it” and “Mel-y messages” became the way to describe anything that formerly would have been classified as cyber bullying.
These people didn’t know my boss, didn’t know the year of torture I had endured. They didn’t know that I was goofy and nice and actually a little shy. They just knew that I had basically fat-shamed a woman close to retirement age and done so in a catchy but not very nice way. I hadn’t even known I was capable of those words about her until they were on the screen. But regret is cheap in a world of no mercy.
Once I realized where I stood with the people I had once called friends, and once my first few attempts at getting a new job ended with the employer asking “You’re not THAT Melanie, are you?”, I decided it was time to relocate. I moved to the tiniest town in the midwest with the worst cell service I could find. I gave myself a new name and started a new life. The world may have have held court over my crime, but I had sat on the jury too. Life sentence.
It was here that I met Ty, the one silver lining in this very dark cloud. He can see when my mind goes back to that day, and that’s when he pulls me into his arms and whispers to me that it is time to let go. I never do. I can’t. Won’t. Whatever, whichever.
I got up the courage not too long ago to reach out to an old friend, the last one I thought might speak to me, now just barely hanging on under the classification of acquaintance, to ask if she could possibly go back to my garden and see how it was doing. Maybe take a picture or two. I never received a response, which I guess means the last person from my past is lost.
So I am left to imagine the garden on my own. Not like the moments when I dream of it in its glory. No, when I wonder of its present state, a different picture emerges. It is not gone, but that would have seemed a gift compared to what it is. The rosebushes are dried and dead, bloomless. In a ferocious battle of nature, weeds have overcome the flowers, and they are choking out the last of their lives in tiny pinpricks of color spied among masses of ugly leaves and vines. The ivy, beautiful when kept in control, now wanders so freely that it will soon overtake everything else.