Tony in the Garden

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This coming Tuesday, October 7th, I’m hosting a special evening at the Ivy Bookshop. I’ve invited two delightful, brilliant women, Marian Fontana of Brooklyn, NY and Abigail Thomas of Woodstock, NY, to read and discuss with me our books on being widowed. 

Despite losing her firefighter husband on 9/11, the subject of A Widow’s Walk, Marian Fontana is one of the funniest people alive. And the writer and painter Abigail Thomas, author of NYT bestsellers Safekeeping and Three Dog Life, is as good as it gets in this genre.

Here’s an excerpt from my memoir on this topic, First Comes Love, the chapter titled “Tony in the Garden.” This is the only part of the book in third person — my attempt to incorporate Tony’s perspective into the narrative. We talk a lot in my classes at the University of Baltimore about self-implication, about how important it is to show one’s own part in one’s own difficulties. If nothing else, First Comes Love is an extravaganza of self-implication, and this is possibly the chapter where I am the hardest on myself. 

Tuesday at the Ivy, I think there will be lot of joking and laughing and maybe a bottle of wine or two. So if you like your sad mixed with a dose of funny, come on down. – MW

He spends the afternoon in the backyard, bent like a paper clip over the flower beds, watering his hibiscus, his dahlias, his elephant ear, the new Lord Baltimore, picking bugs off leaves and petals, checking the progress of shoots and blossoms. The flowers are beautiful and orderly; they respond to the care they are given in predictable ways. Not like his children, a few feet across the yard playing Throw All The Lawn Chairs Into The Swimming Pool. The children are also beautiful, but chaotic and contrary. And not like his wife, who can be beautiful or ugly and who is at present holed up in Oregon at some women’s writing workshop. 

What a person can expect from a relationship with a plant is very limited, but in general, those expectations are met. He does not believe this to be true with people, though he doesn’t often test the theory. It is best to rely on no one. Look, he relied on her, and she has betrayed him. 

Let us count the ways:

She has had an affair with a 23-year-old boy at work.

She has alluded to this affair in her stupid essays so everyone knows.

She has sent him to the supermarket then criticized his purchases.

She has turned stingy in general.

She has stopped trying to get along with his mother.

She has shared his needles and borne his children and despite all that infected blood and semen, she is not dying.

She will see his children grow up and he will not.

Her happiness is his sorrow and her sorrow is his sorrow and he is sorry, she is sorry, they are sorry all the time.

His life takes place in a circumscribed space, its borders marked as carefully as the school figures he used to trace in ice with the blade of his skate, morning after morning, month after month, all those years of his childhood. 

Inside this tiny world, there are certain comforts: the flowers, the blue swimming pool, the pills that make a warm space in his head. There are children, and there are coffee and cigarettes in the morning and videos and cigarettes at night, and a great many cigarettes between.

It is not enough, though, for a 36-year-old person whose time left may be measured in months. There has to be something else, one last escape. A trip to Greece, maybe.

Greece? she replied, astonished. Not now, honey. 

Not now? he shouted. When?

Something has been taken away from him, and he is not sure who took it. It’s not her fault, of course, nothing is her fault, so it must be his. The seeds were germinating in his blood when she met him, when she came along and took over his life ten years ago. Now everything is hers, and what is not yet hers will be when he is gone. Even the flowers, but she will surely let them die. 

Five pm, any day of the week:

The back gate swings open, and she comes into the yard on her bicycle in her cut-offs and sandals and tank top, her thick brown bob.

Hello, she calls, coasting down the hill. She parks her bike and drops her backpack. How are you?

Fine, he says, smiling but unenthusiastic. How was work? he asks, meaning did you go down and smoke a cigarette with your little friend today?

Boring, she says, meaning my job is not a romantic social occasion; it is the burden that I bear for you and the children. Are you sure you’re okay? she says. You don’t sound fine.

She is like this, very solicitous, always listening for signs of trouble.

I have a headache, he offers, to shut her up, give her her little codependent fix.

Did you take your pills?

Yes, I did.


But later he will be thick tongued and heavy lidded, and she will be angry because he took too many pills. It is hard to take exactly the right number of pills for her, and he does not even try. The pills, if nothing else, are his.

What about dinner? she asks.

I made beans and rice.

Great. Where are the boys?

Inside, watching Ninja Turtles.

She goes in to greet them, a happy little ritual. Mom-my! they cry in unison.

She has begged him, please. Let’s just have this time together. Let’s just be a family while we can. He would like to, no, would love to, but how is it possible with the fact of his death and her life slapping him in the face every minute? 

There was a time when he had more power in this relationship, and the power was sex. She wanted him so badly. 

She wore his clothes, she brought him drugs and bought him drinks, she filled sketch pads with drawings of him sleeping. She wrote down the stories he told her as if they were her own precious poems. She threatened to get a sex change. Finally she threw herself around his room like a pillowslip in a tornado and smashed two chairs to bits when she saw him kissing an old boyfriend in a bar.

But he had never wanted a woman’s body before, and hers was no different. What he wanted was her energy, her laughter, most of all, her love for him. Almost from the minute she walked into his life, she was like a radiant light source, an unflickering beam of approval and passion. Not just those first crazy months in New Orleans, it was years and years.

That’s what the twenty-three year old jerkoff took away from him, and made him want her as he never had in his life.  

The roses are not thriving, the ones he put in along the top of the blue-tiled retaining wall that runs along one side of the pool. He’d been worried about that wall — he could imagine the boys, a little older, catapulting disastrously from its four-foot height into the water, which is too shallow even at its deepest. He searched his nursery catalogs for the thorniest, low-lying rose bushes, and planted them at intervals along the ledge. They would fill in and form a thicket, he thought, that the boys would learn to avoid after a single scratchy encounter. He could picture the pale yellow flowers above the indigo tile.

It has not gone as planned. The roses bloomed only once this year, early in spring, then never again. Now the green is seeping out of the leaves; some branches are already bare. He can’t find the bugs, can’t identify the fungus. The bristling hedge he imagined is a half-dozen spindly plants, chinked by great gaps of air. 

Anyone could walk right over the edge.

Excerpted from First Comes Love, Marion Winik (Pantheon, 1996). Reprinted with permission of the author.


Marion Winik
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  1. My autographed copy of the book is still on my shelf, Marion. This passage reminds me of the first time I read it, and gives me chills all over again.

  2. I love, love, love this book–I call it my emotional Bible, and I reread it every few years. I first heard Marian read her essays on NPR in the late 1990s, and fell in love with her writing and her writer’s voice right then and there. Her story moved me profoundly, and I carry bits and pieces of it inside of me wherever I go.
    Just the other day, I happened to hear Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” and of course I immediately thought about Tony’s comment about not subjecting fine audio equipment to her music. It definitely made me smile! Wish I knew more about what music he loved.

  3. I was there when it happened and read it before but still felt bowled over and breathless after I read this. Miss you, Tony. Love you, Mar.

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