At nineteen you published your first book—Rosa’s Garden—and took much care in choosing the title. The garden was not literal. Rather, it was representative of your main character’s life, and the things that colored it. At the time, it had seemed clever. But when you were twenty, standing before a small crowd for a book reading, you suddenly realized that roses grew in gardens, and that your carefully-chosen, symbolic title now sounded kitschy and false. And you were forced to regain your composure, smile a little self-consciously around at the crowd, and continue reading. It was only later that evening that you studied the cover of your book again, this time with the critical eye of someone who knew nothing of its contents.
Rosa’s Garden, you thought. What a stupid name.
At nineteen you published your first book, and no one has left you alone about it since.
First your friends and family only talked of how proud they were. That was nice. That was okay. But now that you are twenty-one and Rosa’s Garden is two years behind you, they have begun asking What are you working on now?
“I have an outline for a new book,” you say.
Truthfully, you have written nothing since the publication of Rosa’s Garden.
The book was not spun from your imagination like you always tell people it was. It was almost entirely autobiographical, especially the romantic relationship between the two main characters, Rosa and Carl.
Nobody guessed as much, because your name is not Rosa and you don’t know any Carl.
In fact, Carl is really Norah. And Norah is your girlfriend.
You felt clever for that too, for pulling such a simple yet successful ruse; you and Norah have dated secretly since you were both eighteen, leaving the Rosas and Carls of the world happily oblivious.
More than a few times you’ve wanted to tell your family. But Norah has always stopped you.
“They won’t react well,” she’ll say, “they don’t want to hear their cousin or niece or sister or daughter is dating another girl.”
And—though the secret weighs very heavily on you nowadays—you suspect she’s right.
When you were twenty, Norah introduced to you a young man from her job, a plucky sort of person who laughed just a bit too loud; he was not uncommon, he was nice enough, and he was to play the role of Norah’s boyfriend.
“I don’t know about this,” you told her when he left. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable with it.”
“Why?” Norah often didn’t—doesn’t—understand these things. She has had no trouble keeping your relationship a secret, whereas you’ve struggled.
“I don’t know if I want you telling people you have a boyfriend, Norah.”
“Why?” she repeated with a shrug. “It’ll make it easier, don’t you think? I won’t have to keep making up excuses for not dating anyone whenever my parents ask.”
“We lie about being friends all the time. So what’s the difference?”
You lapsed into silence then, partly because arguing with Norah has always been futile, and partly because she was right.
Her boyfriend’s name is Ben.
You liked him, really, but you didn’t want to be around him. Each time Norah said his name you visibly winced. You still do, even as Norah and Ben approach their one-year anniversary.
She is not a very observant girl.
Tonight, like most nights, Norah is touring Main Street with Ben at her side.
“Can I be invited?” you asked once, shyly, hoping that she would say yes.
“But that would ruin the whole farce!”
“I could just be”—you chewed on the inside of your cheek—“your friend. That’s normal. A boyfriend and girlfriend hanging out with their friend.”
Norah shook her head. “No, no, I think people are getting suspicious anyway. Remember we were holding hands on Fourth Street and Kenny saw us?”
You did not remember, but that didn’t mean it never happened. “Well, I guess you’re right,” you said submissively, with a slight nod of your head. A writer’s memory is known to be unreliable, after all.
She left about an hour ago.
“Text me when you get there safe,” you said as you kissed goodbye.
(You’ve checked your phone three times, and there is still no text.)
Probably she’s just having fun. And forgot.
That’s just Norah, you think wistfully, mostly to calm your own anxious mind.
There’s nothing good on TV. You try calling Norah, but all that you get is several rings followed by her cheery voicemail.
“Norah, Norah, Norah,” you mutter, pacing the length of the living room, suddenly restless.
You like Ben. You don’t like Ben the boyfriend, though, don’t like the way he sometimes touches her wrist or lays his palm on the crest of her knee.
It’s all very necessary, though, you assure yourself. It’s very necessary to derail anyone’s suspicions.
You grab your copy of Rosa’s Garden—as you tend to do in moments of agitation—and read a few pages. It’s an embarrassing effort, really, written in the graceless and clunky style of the college freshman you had been.
And that title.
No matter how many fake outlines and manuscripts you tell your family about, you know that you will never write again.
It’s not that you aren’t passionate about writing. It’s that you are so humiliated by Rosa’s Garden. It’s that you cannot imagine original characters and scenarios for the life of you.
You expect you will become one of those strange cases—a bright teenage prodigy who quietly slips into obscurity, never to publish anything again. Rosa’s Garden will be your one disappointing legacy.
When you call Norah again (your hands are clammy, and you have no explanation as to why) she answers by the fifth ring.
“Hello?” she says a little impatiently. “We’re at a restaurant.”
“Are you with Ben?” Stupid question. You already know that, of course.
“I told you I was going on a date with him tonight.”
Date. Usually, for your benefit, Norah will put air quotations around the word. But she says it very plainly over the phone, and the absence of her air quotations ignites a sharp pain within your chest. Date. Yes, Ben and Norah are on a date. You know this.
So why does it feel like you are learning it for the first time?
“Okay,” you say, and your voice sounds strange even to your own ears. “Are you having fun?”
“A lot of fun.” There is a pause. “Why’re you calling, though? Our food’s about to get here.”
“Just checking in, I guess.” You draw in a trembling breath. “That’s all.”
“Oh. Well. I’ll see you when I get home. Will you still be awake?”
“Well, bye,” she says at last, and you hang up without offering a response; your voice is liable to wobble and break if you try to talk.
You set the phone aside. And, with shaky hands, set about the overdue task of yanking pages from Rosa’s Garden, crumpling them into the trash.
Norah arrives just past two a.m., and by then you have fallen into a miserable, headache-induced sleep across your bed. She finds you there, curled protectively into a ball, and doesn’t disturb you. Instead, in speculative silence, she clears the makeup from her face and changes into a pair of oversized pajamas.
On her way from the bathroom, she spies Rosa’s Garden lying on the nightstand; with a toothbrush still dangling from her mouth, Norah curiously picks it up.
It is not a book at all.
Every page has been viciously torn from within, leaving behind only a flimsy paperback cover. She examines said cover almost ominously; it has been so long since you have left Rosa’s Garden lying around. So long since either of you have even given Rosa’s Garden a thought.
Or so she thinks.
The title has been scratched out by the hard, desperate press of a ballpoint pen. Something new has been written underneath.
Me & Norah’s Garden.