Friday, January 31, 2014

Less "Better Homes and Gardens," More “Little Shop of Horrors:” Yard Maintenance and the First-Time Home Owner

Before buying our house, neither JT nor I had ever been responsible for a yard. My parents are avid gardeners and, after moving to Pittsburgh, JT went from one urban apartment to another before shacking up with me in the farmhouse we rented. That yard was so huge, our landlords cut it with their riding mower. So, lawn care was never really on either of our radars. Until we bought a house on the most-traveled street in Pleasantville, USA, that is.

Fortunately, my besties who we bought our house from, Jason and Becca, are hardcore yard maintenance enthusiasts. They had created a lovely set-up, complete with big boulders creating a natural fence that surrounds an assortment of bushes and trees. All I had to do was maintain it, they explained. Take a pair of scissors to the impossibly perfect little oval-shaped bushes near the doors. Cut back the plants when their leaves started to overshadow the mulch. That was it! So, so easy, they assured me.

And yet, it took exactly two weeks before I had managed to turn that lovely scene into a depressing wasteland full of limp limbs, brittle bushes and disappointment.

The first warm day after we moved in, I headed out into the yard, full of purpose and hope. Things were just beginning to bloom with tiny buds forming on branches and leaves unfurling in the early spring sunshine. But poking up between all the pretty were a bunch of prickly, pointy weeds. Clearly, that wouldn't do. My friend's had gained a reputation for their pristine yard and I intended to maintain that, dammit. These weeds needed to die.

One K-Mart run later, I had procured my weapon of choice, a big ol' bottle of Ortho “Weed B Gon.” It was the kind that you hook to your garden hose. I decided I could forgo reading the directions on how to hook it up. I mean, this isn't rocket science, people.

I can only imagine the impression I made on my new neighbors as they watched me wrestling with the bottle and the hose, dousing myself again and again. The damn nozzle refused to latch onto the bottle and every failed attempt ended in a geyser of hose water smacking me directly in the face. I would laugh and wipe the water out of my eyes, acting like I was merely having some kind of weird one-sided water battle with myself. Finally, I admitted defeat and peeled the soaked directions packet from the side of the bottle. Scanning it for literally one second revealed there was a latch on the bottle that I had to flip in order to get two to become one. I flipped it, and the hose slid perfectly into place. So the moral of this story is: when buying weed killer, also buy a poncho.

Anyway, once I had that bottle locked in place, I took one look at the weeds all over the yard, and in my soaked, rage-filled state, decided to just hit it all. I did a pass over the yard, swept down to the landscaping, then figured the yard could probably use another layer. Then I did it all over again.

By the next day, the front yard went from needing some light maintenance to needing a resurrection. Everything was dead. The grass's former froggy green had faded into a burnt hay hue. Previously perky plants sagged in droopy desperation. Any remaining buds shriveled on their branches. I swear, as I stood there and took it all in, a tumbleweed that had formerly been a cluster of lilies cartwheeled past me. I gaped at the scene, dread washing over me. Not only had I ruined the yard, I'd also solidified our budding reputation as the Neighborhood Idiots.

I figured I would pretend like I didn't notice it, then if someone mentioned it, I could say, “Right? Crazy weather this year! Sooooo dry! I've tried watering it. Just ask the neighbors!” But when my step-dad Kip stopped by one afternoon, I couldn't ignore his furrowed brow.

“You sprayed everything?” he asked incredulous.

I nodded.

“Wha....How....Why?” he asked.

“You weren't there! You don't understand!” I shouted. “The hose wouldn't latch and there were geysers, and...and...”

Kip just shook his head and chuckled.

“I'm learning!” I wailed.

Dammit. OK, now I had to salvage something in this godforsaken yard, if only to prove to Kip that I wasn't a total moron.

I know! I thought, eying one of the planter boxes carved into the backyard's hill. I'll grow veggies in that planter box! Lots of them! Then, when I visit my parents with the spoils of my harvest, they'll know I'm not a complete nincompoop!

I went to Home Depot, and loaded my cart with fledgling plants of green and red peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and onion. I smugly wheeled my cart up to the cashier. As he scanned my plants, I pulled up the collar on my peacoat. A frigid blast had swept in through the automatic doors. Brrr, I thought, and noticed the cashier shivering as well.

“Pittsburgh in March, eh?” he asked, still scanning away. “Sure is unpredictable. One weekend, it's 60, the next it's 30!”

“Yeah,” I muttered. Didn't matter. I had my smug to keep me warm. 

“You planting your first garden?” he asked.

“Yes!” I perked up.

“You know you can't plant these for at least, like, two months, right?” his eyebrow arched in an ever-so cocky manner I found incredibly irritating.

“Yeah, um, totally,” I said. Phssssh. It was spring(ish). Planting time!

“No, really,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You have to keep them inside near a window so they get sun and water them everyday. I hope you've got a sun room.”

I thought of the limited counter space in my kitchen. DAMMIT.

“Um, you know, I think I might just hold off,” I said, grabbing plants from his hands and tossing them back into the cart. “This weather really is throwing me. I'm from out of town, you see.” It wasn't a total lie. I had just moved from ten minutes away. My old house had an entirely different ZIP code and everything. “I'll just take those.” I pointed to the pepper plants he'd already scanned.

The scanner levitated above the next plant. His brows pulled together. “You sure?” he asked.

“Oh yeah. I'm sure,” I attempted to be nonchalant as though I totally meant to only buy peppers.

Six weeks later, my teeny pepper plants were still alive and, dare I say, thriving from their perch on my kitchen windowsill. One May afternoon, I stepped outside and decided it was time to plant. I had lovingly prepared the front corner of the planters box for their arrival, upending the existing dry dirt and adding a few layers of Miracle Grow soil special for veggie growing.

 Moments after I scooped them up and headed outside, the phone rang. It was Kip. My parents had taken their annual trip to their favorite nursery and had picked me up a lilac bush. They wanted to come drop it off.
I would love to say my first thought was, “Oh, what sweet parents ! What a loving gesture!”


“Finally, Kip will see!" I thought. "He will witness the fruits of my labor and realize that I am a yard master and worthy of all the praise!”

I had, after all, done way more than simply prep a planters box in the previous weeks. I had spent every weekend out there dealing with still-existent weeds (ironically the only thing to survive my yard apocalypse) until it was pristine. In addition, JT and I had taken turns attacking it all with our antique, engine-less push mower and electric weedwacker. It wasn't perfect, but it was enough to keep the “Lazy Assholes Who Don't Maintain Their Lawn” label at bay.

So when Kip showed up, I was half proud to show off our work. I even scouted out an ideal spot to plant the lilac bush. I breathed in the flowery spring air. It smelled like vindication.

I pointed to the spot I'd predetermined for the bush's planting.

“See there?” I gestured with my brand new trowel. “It can go right there. Right above where I planted my peppers. See, right there. Just past the patch of grass I planted. To the left of the garden area I weeded. Just there. That'll do.”

Kip took one look at the spot and shook his head.

“You can't plant it there! There's no light! It's blocked by that tree,” he pointed to the nearby maple, its towering branches blocking out any semblance of sunshine.

“And those?” he used the bush to point to my freshly earthed pepper plants. “Those won't get any light either. They'll be dead in a week.”

I blanched. No no no! This was supposed to be my smug moment! But it didn't stop there. Kip picked up one of the discarded weeds from a pile I hadn't yet tossed over the hillside.

“Did you pull these?” he asked incredulous.

“Yes,” I said, sheepishly.

“You know these are perfectly good lilies?” he asked before losing it and laughing like a lunatic.


Kip continued to shake his head as he found a better spot for the lilac and used my shovel to dig a spot for it (“What, did you buy this a week ago?” BAHAHAHAHA). I hung my head in disgrace the entire time. All of my hard work was for nothing. This sucked. I sucked.
And that was the exact moment that I decided yard work blows and I will not be concerning myself with it any more. Now I mow solely to stave off any fines we might otherwise incur from the local zoning board. But other than that, I just didn't give a damn.

But turns out, others did. Because one weekend when JT and I were out of town, Bec and Jason rallied a group of our friends to "yard bomb" us. We came home to not only a perfectly manicured, re-mulched yard but also a freshly painted deck. So apparently giving up pays! Kidding - that was seriously one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for us. But after the big reveal, as we were thanking our friends in our driveway, an across-the-street neighbor came out of his house and eyed up our yard.

"Haha! Guess it took the old owners coming back to get some work done around here!" said the man who still, to this day, has never so much as introduced himself.

I fumed. That guy is on my list. He better watch out or some of my "Weed B Gon" might just end up on his yard next year. I  mean, that stuff gets EVERYWHERE.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

 International Eric

As the sun shone bright overhead, I sighed and turned another page in the trashy crime novel resting on my bent knees. It was Day 3 of our Aruba honeymoon and basking poolside with a book and a pina colada had become my mid-day ritual. JT was waist-deep in the water, chatting up one of the several vacation friends we'd made over the last few days.

It struck me as strangely wonderful how routine things had become for us in such a short time on the island. Mornings were spent on chaises outside our room, the gentle waves rolling ashore a few feet away. After lunch, we'd end up at the pool where the relaxation-fest continued until either the sun or our pruny skin became too much. Then it was back to the room for a nap, dinner, drinks, and whatever entertainment our resort had planned for that evening.

Living such a predictable life among others doing exactly the same thing meant we got to know everyone at our resort fairly quickly. You can only bump into the same guy at the breakfast buffet then again later at the bar then again at bingo so many times without saying hello. We had arrived on a Monday and by Wednesday I was interrogating JT, the far more social and nebby of us, if I saw someone I didn't immediately recognize.

"Oh, that's Dana from Texas," he'd say. "She's here with some guy she's been dating, Todd, but I don't think she really likes him. She said he's boring, but he wanted to take her on vacation and hey, free trip!"

Damn, detective, did you get her mother's maiden name and the last four digits of her social security number while you were at it?

So imagine my surprise when, during the aforementioned poolside sitting session, JT asked for my help in identifying a fellow guest.

"Babe, check out this guy. Who is that?"

I looked up, even though I knew darn well there was no way I could have beat him to meeting this Mystery Man.

Without hesitation, I said, "That's my brother."

There was no doubt in my mind the man walking across the pool area was my younger sibling, Eric.  He stood a tall 6-foot-4, arms dangling down to his knees, stride longer than the average giraffe's. An over-sized hat blocked most of his hair, but I could tell from the sides it was shaved super short. And he carried a drink in one hand a cigarette in the other. Eric's signature accessories!

I watched as the man sauntered over to the bar, pulled up a chair and chatted with the bartender.  Signature facial scruff? Check. Squinty eyes when smiling? Check. Baggy shorts that would come down to the floor on most men but hit him just past the knee? Check! It was him.

I was beginning to think it was really odd that my brother, the best man in my wedding and one of JT's closest friends, didn't bother to tell us he was taking a trip, let alone the exact same one we'd planned. Just then, a busty brunette in a low-cut bikini top and denim scraps for shorts saddled up next to Eric. He leaned over and planted a kiss on her overly-lined lips. The fuck?! Eric had his own busty brunette, but this wasn't her! My sis-in-law Nik was nowhere to be seen.

That's it. I stood and began to march over to the bar. I didn't know what my brother was doing here, but I was for damn sure going to make certain it had nothing to do with this little "Mob Wives" wannabe. I stormed across the pool deck, and reached up to slap Eric upside his head. I almost toppled over as I stopped short. It wasn't him. This man was clearly a smidge older than my brother. His face was just a tiny bit rounder. And he had a tattoo on his leg of the flag of Argentina.

I turned on my heel and sprinted back to my chair.

"What the heck happened?" JT asked, as I leap-frogged a row of sunbathers.

"It's not my brother!" I scream-whispered. "It's his doppelganger! It's International Eric!"

And for the next three days, I did what any normal person would do who saw a person who resembled someone they knew but wasn't him. I stalked the shit out of him.

I was so intrigued by this person - who was he? Where was he from? Who was the brunette? Did he know how much he looked like my brother? I had to know. Any time he was within my sight, I'd watch his every move.

"Leave. Him. Alone. You giant creeper," JT said one morning, as I leaned forward to watch intently as International Eric spatulaed a helping of hash browns onto his plate.

"I can't," I admitted. "I have to talk to him."

"So go talk to him!" JT said. (Is it weird that my new husband was encouraging me to chat up another man on our honeymoon? I'm going to go with: less weird, more supportive!)

"I can't! He probably thinks I'm a nut case for charging up to him like that then fleeing without so much as a word!"

"Well, he'd be right."

But THEN, things got interesting. And it wasn't long until JT was joining in on my paparazzi impersonation. Because it soon became clear that International Eric was a big deal, and quite possibly, dangerous.


In addition to the flag on his calf, International Eric, much like my own brother, had several other tattoos. Some gothic letters on his forearm, a date stenciled across the nape of his neck. One day, he brushed past me as I sat by the pool and I looked up in time to inspect the large image spanning from ankle to calf on one leg. Guns. Lots of them.

"He's a gunrunner!" I told JT, who at first dismissed me. But then, it occurred to us that International Eric was rarely ever without an entourage much larger than the couple pairings most common to this haven for the newly-married.   

Brunette was always nearby, her outfits growing skimpier by the day. But they were also accompanied by another young woman, a petite blonde with hair down to her waist and a wardrobe similar to that of her darker haired friend. At times, International Eric would casually drape his arms arms around both of them as they sat at the bar, sipping drinks and keeping mostly to themselves.

This cozy group occasionally was joined by a burly older man, maybe in his 50s, who wore tight muscle Tees and kept his chiseled jaw clenched at all times. Much like a bouncer. Or a body guard. An attractive tall woman was always at his side.

So International Eric had a harem, incriminating body art and a possible hired goon. JT started to think I  might be on to something.

For the rest of the week, we created an entire back story. He "worked" in arms trafficking and was blowing off some steam before heading south to follow a shipment. But he had bad blood in nearby Venezuela, so protection was a must, even if no one would ever think to look for him in a tourist-trappy type couples resort. At least he could relax with his ladies for a few days before having to make the drop, collect his cash and kill God knows how many two-faced confidants in the process. So basically, he was every villain in every American action movie ever ever.

By this point, I had scared myself out of actually talking to him, despite JT's constant insistence. The clock was ticking, and soon, we'd be leaving Aruba and all of International Eric's secrets behind.

The last day of our trip, as we posted up at our usual pool spot, we watched International Eric and his harem saddle up at the bar. JT looked at me, I looked at him. We knew what we had to do.

We marched over to the two empty seats at International Eric's left. It was time.

"Hey," JT said, giving International Eric a bro-nod.

"Hey," he said back, in a non-"leave me the fuck alone" kind of way. We were in.

"We're here on our honeymoon," JT started cautiously. "You?"

International Eric exchanged a glance with his ladies. The slightest silence lingered, just long enough for me to accept the fact that JT and I would be offed before the pelicans stopped fishing for their lunch.

Then, he turned to us and grinned.

"Congratulations!!!!" he exclaimed in a thick New York accent and reached over to shake JT's hand.


And by the next round, we had the whole story. International Eric was actually Paul, a Long Island native on a family vacation. The brunette was his girlfriend, a sweet medical office receptionist. The blonde was his sister. The burly guy? His dad, enjoying the trip with his girlfriend, the beautiful tall woman.

Paul worked in heating and air conditioning.

Paul congratulated us on our nuptials a dozen times.

Paul's response when I told him he looked exactly like my brother? "You know, I get that a lot!"

Paul found us the next day, as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport, and shook JT's hand  again, telling us how nice it was to meet us and wishing us all the luck in the world.

Paul made JT and I look like complete douchebags.

I did not get a picture with Paul. I was too embarrassed.

"Well," JT said, as we rode the bumpy route to the airport. "I guess we can't call him International Eric anymore."

"Like hell we can't!" I said. "That's what he was to us. That's what he will always be!"

And I'm not entirely convinced that's not who he really is. I mean, who goes to a couples all-inclusive with their "sister?"

Gunrunners, that's who. I mean, who else would make up a story that ridiculous?

Writers on vacation, that's who.