Rosy must have been in the sunroom because the succulents were on the ground.
“Uh-oh!” she yelled when the stand fell. At times, her voice sounded as if it were surfacing from underwater. Carol and Dorothy found the plants on the floor in the screened-in sunroom, where a breeze could come and go as easily as they could.
“Rosy did it!” they smiled and laughed while they set back up the hen and chicks, the aloe, and the cacti. “Rosy, get in here and clean this!” Carol called, although her words carried the smile on her face through the small house. Dorothy came in with the broom and swept up the dirt. A stiff wind blew again and rattled the stand and the house remained empty of children.
Only a few of their friends knew about Rosy, Carol and Dorothy’s ageless, imaginary daughter. It began as a joke. Their girl was a brunette like they were. She had green eyes and learned to talk at a late age. When they discovered she had a cognitive disability, they sat down and had a talk with Rosy about starting school and making friends. They were not concerned. Rosy had shown immense compassion towards everyone she met. In the neighborhood, Rosy was admired by the younger children and very respectful of adults, which boosted her self-confidence to an unwavering status. She was never smug, deceitful, or mean, and even if this was partially due to her disability, she was the most wonderful person her mothers had ever known.
Carol hugged Rosy tight and told her she would be just fine at school.
Rosy squirmed. “Mom, don’t worry about me,” she said in her sweet, heavy voice. “I’m going to make lots of friends.” Dorothy believed it too, but that night as they lay in bed with their thirteen year old Chihuahua, Booger, Dorothy had her doubts.
“What if she doesn’t make friends in school? Can we home school her?” Carol twisted toward her wife and propped her head on her hand.
“She’s going to be just fine.” Dorothy was comforted by the shape of Carol’s hips and chest forming two mountains around the valley of her waist. They went to sleep and dreamt of Rosy, their lovely daughter, and in the dreams she was real.
After a few beers, Dorothy told some friends about Rosy. “We pretend she is real and she has an entire life. Sometimes she is a teenager, and sometimes she is young, about to start school. She has a cognitive handicap, a boyfriend, and an active social life. We’re teaching her to survive in the wild.” The glasses on the bar were wet from the humid air. Her friends were shocked.
“You created an imaginary daughter…and you gave her a mental disability?” they asked in disbelief.
“No, she was born that way. It doesn’t matter though. It’s not the most important thing about her.” Dorothy felt herself shrinking, slowly disappearing in the distance. Her voice got smaller. She pushed away her beer. “I know she’s not real, but sometimes I think she keeps us together.” The expressions on her friend’s faces grew more repulsed. They sucked the last of the gin through their straws and waved the bartender back over. “I think I should go home to Carol now,” Dorothy murmured, but her friends were harassing the bartender. Rosy was asleep in their bed when she got home. Old Booger snored beside her, his fragile grey head close to the scent on the pillows. Carol had her feet on the coffee table and a book in her lap. They did not talk about Rosy while they sat on the couch and flipped through TV channels and when they retreated to bed she was gone. Booger had moved to the foot of the bed. Carol sighed when she finally lay down. “Let’s move to Colorado. We’ll sell the house, quit our jobs, and camp year round together. It’ll be the start of our own civilization, and nobody will tell us what to do with our lives.” Dorothy imagined the two of them, imagined Booger as a young pup, imagined the hair in their armpits fragrant with the outdoors and the shelters they would erect out of love. They would see every sunrise, every wild vapor in the air would travel into the space of their lungs, every evening they would bathe in the pure streams and dry out on the clean boulders. Her heart ached for beauty, for her wife in a state of bliss. Carol held Dorothy close to her and they slept with their little wild shelters nestled in their hearts.
There were days when they felt so old and comfortable together. Those were the days Rosy was older too, when she wore a smirk on her face and rolled her eyes but could still smile in a way that broke her mothers’ hearts. She was dating Alfie, a punk rock singer who dressed in tight black pants and ripped t-shirts. He bleached his hair pure white and drew on knuckle tattoos to match different occasions. Dorothy and Carol liked Alfie, because he was polite and treated Rosy like a rare gem. She experimented with her hair, chopping it up to her chin and leaving it unwashed for weeks. Or she combed it all in front of her face until you couldn’t see her eyes, but she could see you through those lovely brown curtains. Despite her rebellious stage, she was still the most compassionate person they knew. Even when Alfie dumped her for an anorexic girl with real black tattoos, Rosy didn’t cry. She said to Carol while they stood in the kitchen together, “I think he will figure out how to be happy someday.” She was stunned by her daughter’s maturity, understanding, and loving nature. Carol leaned against the sink to fight away the tears. Dorothy walked in the kitchen and asked, “Is something wrong? Are you ok?” Carol could not explain the interaction with their daughter to her wife, because their daughter was not really there, neither was Alfie, neither was the anorexic girl with black tattoos. She simply held her wife, who smelled of their vegetable garden after a day of sunlight, and cried.
Rosy couldn’t come to family events. Carol’s father, the retired General Dawl, would not approve of their imaginative nonsense. He always showed up to functions in uniform, and as he aged he began adding medals to his jacket that weren’t even from the army. His most recent badge was a small gold medal on a white ribbon for “First Chair Clarinet” from the Longfellow Middle School band. Carol’s mother didn’t know where he was finding these. Her purple sundress was printed with bumblebees floating around blue flowers. She hovered over her daughter like the bees on her gown.
“Honey, go talk your father out of the “Excellent at Home-Ec” medal on his pocket. I don’t want him to be embarrassed.” Dorothy was left standing with her wife’s mother while Carol guided her father to the side of the room. Dorothy looked into her drink and asked Mrs. Dawl about Carol’s early pursuits, including Spanish and horseback riding. Her mother sighed as if she hadn’t heard a thing. “Do you think we should visit more often? I do believe she is lonely sometimes.” Mrs. Dawl often forgot her daughter and Dorothy we’re more than roommates. Dorothy looked at her phone and excused herself. She dipped into the bathroom and texted Carol. “This party blows. Let’s go out for tacos 🙂 ”. She returned to the main room, where the Dawls and their extended kin gathered in awkward circles, and waited until Carol and her father returned. Carol, ever cool and composed, made an excuse to leave, just as she had done for many years. She was an old pro at escape. Her mother sighed and held her daughter. “I’m here as your mother, but I’m also your friend.” Dorothy could feel Carol’s eyes roll the extent of her sockets. General Dawl was standing at the snack table with a stern look on his face, stuffing chips down his ironed pockets.
Dorothy and Carol made out in the car. It was a heavy session of lip biting and hair pulling and when they drew away they laughed. Carol’s face became serious. “Dorothy, I have something for you. You are the love of my life, and I want you to have this.” Dorothy waited and Carol drew from her pocket a little gold medallion with a white ribbon and “First Chair Clarinet” in raised letters on the face. She pinned it to her collar and the two of them nearly peed their pants in a long fit of laughter. In the small taco restaurant, a little boy misbehaved. He ran around shouting “No estoy cansado!” and turned over an empty chair. A woman from the small kitchen shouted back “I don’t care! Que se vaya en la cama!” Carol and Dorothy ate carnitas and watched a game show in Spanish on the small television angled towards them from the ceiling. Carol translated for Dorothy when she wanted to follow along. The little boy ran over to them and shouted in Spanish, but he was back in the kitchen with his scolding mother just as quickly as he had come. Dorothy asked Carol to translate the boy’s words. “He said, ‘my mother hates me!’” Dorothy thought that was sweet but Carol shook her head. “Let’s never have any kids,” she winked at Dorothy.
“You mean, any more kids.”
Rosy came and went from their daily lives. Sometimes she brought home a new friend, or a lover, and her mothers showed unconditional support. She had formed a club in college for people with disabilities pursuing academic careers and achieved some success. Ever compassionate, Rosy took great care to treat her guests with the love and support she knew from years of growing up in the house with her moms. She made sure her guests had everything, and Dorothy and Carol let her prepare the house for entertainment. When Dorothy and Carol had company over, usually the neighbors came to discuss local gossip and the inevitability of the state’s adoption of the same-sex marriage bill, Rosy disappeared. Even if she was in the middle of entertaining her friends, as soon as the door opened and the neighbors poked their heads in, Rosy and her selected company evaporated. Their neighbors, the Cains, were elderly liberals with a communist flare. Carol and Dorothy enjoyed the way they talked about social politics, the way they weren’t afraid to mix patterns in their wardrobe, and the way they seemed to always be on each other’s mind. Poor old Booger, nearly blind from age, wandered into the living room and waited at Mrs. Cains feet until she brought him into her lap. If there were a world where Rosy could be as real to the Cains as she was to her mothers, they would have adored her.
At night, as Carol and Dorothy lay in bed with Booger snoring between them, Dorothy asked Carol if they could take a vacation. “I have some days saved up at work. Why don’t we finally take our camping gear to Colorado?” Carol thought about it for a moment. She brushed the sheet away from her chest and scratched her ribcage.
“I think I could get away from work for a week.” The two made plans and talked about who would water the plants and take care of Booger, who was much too old to travel.
“Rosy could do it,” Dorothy joked. But Carol was solemn. She did not match her enthusiasm for their long running joke. She took a deep breath and sat up a little in bed. Booger shifted with her movement but didn’t wake up.
“Don’t you think it’s time to move on from Rosy?” Carol’s eyes were sad, Dorothy could see the seriousness in her face and had to agree she was right.
“We can’t just abandon her,” she replied in earnest. Rosy was their daughter, and however imagined she was to them, the love she brought into their lives was more real than anything else in the world. They were always closer when Rosy was around, and Carol’s sudden desire to remove her from their lives indicated a much bigger problem in their relationship. Dorothy searched in her wife’s eyes for the source of her disquiet. She imagined Carol’s happiness in a dry garden, something she hadn’t watered in a while. If their future together was one step away from getting rid of Rosy, then she would do anything to achieve it.
They finally decided how it would be done: Rosy went with a group of friends on a weekend trip to see a lecture at the graduate school she was about to apply to. During the long drive home, the driver fell asleep—only for a few seconds—and drove the car into a ditch. The driver and most of the passengers escaped, but they failed to notice Rosy slip quietly into an unconscious state that would soon be fatal. Her death was quick and her funeral well attended. Carol and Dorothy built a shrine in their yard for their lovely daughter, who only served to make the world a better place to live and to love, to be loved, and to grow. Carol clipped marigolds from the garden and lay them beside her first blanket, her favorite books, and pots of swollen succulents. Dorothy checked each room to make sure nothing was left behind—a paper map, water bottles—and phoned the neighbors. When the car was packed and the sun was in perfect view for their long trip ahead, Dorothy and Carol waved at the Cains on their porch. Mrs. Cain picked up old Booger and held him in the crook of one arm and continued waving. Booger blinked with confusion and closed his cataract eyes, giving into the comfort of Mrs. Cain’s cushioned breast. Dorothy and Carol pulled away from their house and set out to find the happiness that was promised by the full extent of their love.
(For Courtney and Meg)