We clink through the glass mason jars on the shadowy shelf in the cellar, squinting to read the Sharpie labels in the dark, and select an intriguing pint of pickles, prepared and preserved from last summer’s cucumbers we weren’t here to witness being grown. The stems of dill wriggle in the dusky brine like jellyfish tentacles. We carry the jar upstairs to the kitchen counter, plopping it next to the sink that’s spilled with sunlight from the wide, square window above it, and crack the metal lid with a knife, then take turns dipping our fingers inside to fish for soft, slimy spears of pimpled green.
While we munch slowly — your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn — we whisper a deliciously clandestine conversation, craning our necks towards the outskirts of the window view to watch for anyone who might be coming, pausing when we hear a sound that turns out just to be the dog in the other room. In minutes, we’ve managed to finish the full jar without meaning to. We laugh, shake the piquant secrets and pickle juice from our wrists, leave tiny pools of it behind when we return to work. The salt, or at least the memory of its brief and bizarre delight, lingers on our tongues.
Later that day, we stand on opposite sides of fruit trees in the orchard, plucking off the leaves that have been hit with a fungal disease. The disorienting thing is that the blighted leaves look beautiful. Their edges contort to ruffles as they turn to surreal shades of magenta and maroon, shiny and lovely and alien, like they’re covered with strawberry candies.
As we make our way down one row after the next, dropping stems in buckets with dull thuds as we go, we talk about our own past afflictions: the heartbreaks, the traumas, the terrible things that happened by way of other people before we, here, knew each other. Each event, now permanently stained into each one of us, can only be imagined by the opposite like a watery and two-dimensional film scene rippling across a screen.
This exchange of storytelling is the giddy initiation of intimacy. It’s a process of recalibration to fresh relationship.
To explain oneself to others is to reexplain oneself to oneself. To discuss a past emotional experience is to soften it, helping to fade it from its original bluster down to something gentler, something smoother, to the scar or scent left behind by it. To say “here’s what I’ve been through” is to remember, “I’ve survived, I’ve survived, I’ve survived,” all while knowing that this new person, too, might cause hurt.
This is always the risk and the source of excitement — choosing trust like cliff-diving while blindfolded, throwing one’s body deeper, deeper, deeper into the muddy waters of human connection.
The six of us share a home and a spacious greenhouse across the highway (always rushing with an echoing river of cars) from the farm fields where we grow the majority of our organic vegetables, fruits, flowers, and grains and produce our honey. We share everything. We share food, coffee, and cases of beer; clothing, books, and cars. We pay for communal purchases without ever asking to be paid back. We settle into the groove of a shared sense of humor, comprised of running jokes that would make sense nowhere else. (The dog’s name is Peaches, but we call her Peachy-Pochy — why? Why do we enact that strange accent with the word “couple,” which we use often when we mean we want three or four or so of something instead of two?)
We live on a literal island — Long Island, New York. It is also a metaphor. We are distanced from the outside world where leaves and soil and shovels are the stuff of sloppy child’s play instead of work, where lettuce comes only from the grocery store in plastic bags requiring being ripped apart with scissors or teeth, where overalls or cargo pants and rubber boots or Crocs could never serve as professional clothing, let alone bare feet in the grass and mud. Ladybugs and chickens count as coworkers here. The weather is the truest boss, and she’s a capricious one.
Some days, we are sweat-drenched with blistered palms and sore arms and sun-pink shoulders; other days, it rains, so we call quits on the morning and return to our couches in the living room, where we curl up like fiddled ferns in haphazard tangles and read books aloud or rest in silence, our heads on each other’s laps or shoulders, our hands on each other’s heads. Someone voices a craving for bagels, and suddenly everyone is desperate for them, so a caravan takes a trip to the store and returns with a lumpy paper bagful. The poppy seeds remain scattered when the sun reemerges from its clouds and we return outside.
I miss bits of current events that other friends and family seem to catch, and I often press “delete” on my New York Times email dispatches (though guiltily) without reading them. I neglect text messages for days. Those things are so far away, and I feel so anchored here in what I’m sometimes certain is an alternate reality. Other times, I’m sure this is what real life is supposed to look like, and everybody else is stuck in the fake.
We are more cognizant of time and seasonality, knowing summer is largely to thank for this sticky-sweet sort of group intimacy we’ve sunk into (like it is for that unique kind fostered at summer camp), because it’s why we’re here, and only temporarily. (Are we consciously aware of the temporariness? Not yet. That always happens later, halfway through a season like this, when the wave has reached its peak and you realize it will soon crash downward.) We watch our personal and interpersonal progressions mirrored by the plants — the stems of tomatoes that started scrawny and have now climbed their way upwards towards the greenhouse ceiling, the once-imminent nasturtium blooms that have burst bright red like fireworks, the melons and squashes we started from seed now transferred outside and opening leaves like hands to the sun, the toddler stalks of corn we could swear doubled in size overnight. We sense our energetic shifts more seismically, our moods and motivations swelling up and sinking down in accordance with the day’s demanded tasks, mirroring Mother Nature’s own ebbs and flows back to Her. And we’re more gross and weird and honest at work than most jobs allow, because where we work is also where we play is also where we eat is also where we shit is also where we sleep. And this feels good. It feels like being oneself consistently, instead of swapping in and out of disguises for different environments and scenarios. Or, at least it feels like being human consistently. Carnal. Connected.
“What are you afraid of?” I ask, because I can sense the resistance to releasing a tight-held truth.
“I don’t know, I guess I’m guarded, I’ve been hurt before, you know, I’ve been hurt before, that’s all.”
To be guarded is to don a disguise, to raise a shield, to build a wall, to duck for cover, to protect oneself against an assumed threat that may never arrive but seems always to be approaching. The hurt always does arrive, I guess, but not when or how it’s expected, not in the form we’ve prepared for.
“Everyone has been hurt before. Literally everyone has. Literally everyone.” Tell me more, I mean. Just tell me your full truth, including the gloppy bits. I want to understand.
Okay. So we are still swapping in and out of disguises, whether we realize it or not. This is what it is to be human: to be made up of gloppy bits — slimy, slurpy, salty, sour-sweet — contained necessarily in a permeable but solid facade.
I understand other people. Owing to both nature and nurture by way of a pair of therapists for parents, I can pick up on people’s psychology like a sixth sense. I see actions and predilections for the emotions behind them; I sympathize easily with the inability to be one’s best self, because I comprehend the sensitive reasons for resistance in a sort of objective way.
This does not mean that people are always — or ever — willing or ready to accept whatever advice I know to offer next. And I am a person, too. I am also resistant to changing my ways. I can also convince myself I’m being entirely open when there are still secret traumas and correlated insecurities I’m holding back behind my walls.
Like: when this sixth sense fails — when I can’t put my finger on the motives beneath the surface of another person’s behavior, which happens particularly when my own wishes are involved — I get nervous. If I can’t figure you out, you might abandon me before I’ve had a warning or a chance to understand why. I am afraid of being unwanted and abandoned without understanding why.
No, that’s not right. That’s not my full truth. I’m afraid I’ll understand why, and I’ll know the reason from the start, but I’ll move towards the cliff dive anyway, like a lemming so biologically wired to follow other lemmings that it walks the plank to its own drowning.
Every morning, we ride two golf carts across the street from the house to the field. At lunch time, we ride the golf carts back across the street from the field to the house, toss our muddy boots off in piles by the door, and enter the kitchen like a dust storm, throwing slices of bread and butter knives and plates and torn kale leaves between bowls and coffee mugs still left from breakfast, with the various utensils of metal and porcelain dinging ditties to each other. We eat and then sit for a few moments in the living room, savoring the luxury of the couch cushions, sometimes hashing out to-dos for the afternoon and sometimes shutting our eyes briefly.
One day, I stretch out on the rug on the floor with a pillow under my head and fall asleep so deeply that when I wake up, there is nobody there. I’m disoriented, startled, unsure what time it is. Silence, except for that echoing river of car traffic and a sporadic bird chirp. I check my phone, which tells me 2:12pm. No messages.
Quickly, I put shoes on and stumble outside, where I see that there’s one golf cart left behind for me, so I drive it across the street alone and find everyone there already. I was out so hard, they wanted to let me be, they explain. While I was snoozing, they have managed to catch a rogue swarm of bees that had arrived in the field, and tens of tiny wings still swirl in dizzy spirals overhead, searching for the rest of their crew, like the remnants of whatever dreams I have already forgotten.
“I was so confused. I feel so bad for being late! You guys could have woken me,” I say too many times with too much odd frustration in my voice. I am afraid of being abandoned without understanding why, remember?
When a bee colony is large and strong enough, half of the group splits away in a swarm. The roving gang of wings and stings searches for someplace safe and warm where they can start building fresh honeycomb and raising a new brood, communicating by way of specific bodily movements imperceptible to the untrained human eye.
A beekeeper delights in finding a wild swarm temporarily settled somewhere together — on a tree branch, or beneath a bench, or in our farm team’s case the other day, in the triangular space beneath the wheels and belly of a wheelbarrow — before constructing their new nest. The worker bees cluster around their queen, dangling from each other’s limbs, laced and linked from leg to leg like one giant body. In this state, which is called “festooning,” the insects tend to be fairly peaceable and can be gently lowered, scraped, or shaken into the beekeeper’s box, bag, or vessel to be relocated into a manmade hive. These cleverly designed wooden boxes are stacked inside with trays for comb-building, egg-laying, nectar-noshing, and honey production and storage. Bees, like us, live and work and eat and nurture in one space, in one intimate crew, and we can watch ours — the just-caught swarm and eight other hives — swirling in and out of the boxed homes we’ve given them and scouring our blossoms for pollen in the collaborative creation of honey.
Occasionally, during quick trips to town, I hear shreds of spoken Spanish, and I am suddenly uprooted by the memory of Mexico and by the melancholy of missing it. At a coffeeshop, I listen to one customer converse with the cashier completely in Spanish, just the way I ordered my coffee for months with hard-won linguistic familiarity; and then, the white woman behind him in line makes her complicated request and snaps at the same cashier for not getting it immediately, while a white man complains to the barista that his latte is lukewarm but says, “Whatever, I’ll take it anyway, but you guys are really off the mark today.” And I want to shrink. Or, I want to stand up on a table and raise my arms wildly and renounce myself from this country that was always home and return immediately to the one just south of it.
On a bike ride, I pass a barbecue in a stranger’s front yard. There’s smoke billowing around the boom of Latin music, and everyone’s roaming the lawn with beers and plates of half-chewed food. The scene is so reminiscent of Oaxaca, I am startled into an almost-sob.
There was this person I dated in Oaxaca, starting just a couple of months before I had to go. I didn’t realize I cared until I realized I cared, which happened when I explained that I was going to be leaving soon because I’d accepted this summer job on a farm in New York. I watched the cheeks fall, the eyes sink, the whole face succumb to sadness quickly dismissed with the polite offer to go get me another drink. And then the sadness hit me, too.
Later, I decide to be the one to admit this. “I feel sad,” I said in my rough Spanish.
“I feel sad because I am going to leave. I do not want to leave you.”
“That is the reason why I try not feel bad things anymore.” The switch to English was a kindness.
“Because sad feelings do not help me to be better.” A pause. A strange smile. “I will miss you.”
The next day, the texts slowed, until they gradually stopped coming. There was a part of me that believed it was because I’d prodded at a bit of vulnerability that this tough-skinned human did not want to feel or release — because the caring was too much to bear. There was another part of me that believed anything — everything — else: I am ugly, I am dumb, I am boring, I was never wanted or cared for in the first place. I had been abandoned. I was abandoned before I could ever do the abandoning; it was ruined weeks before I left, and I still don’t fully understand it, or don’t want to. Which is it? I left it behind either way. There’s still the salt of it on the tongue, sometimes — the moments when it felt good, when I couldn’t tell if our subtle intimacy was a more poignant reality or an alternate universe, like a dream.
Years ago, before farming was even an idea in my mind, before this job and home and life could have seemed plausible, there was the punch delivered to my ribs:
“I don’t ever want to talk about it, and I’m not going to dwell on it here. I hope you understand that I’m a completely different person right now, that I’m happy that I’m different, and that I’m trying to move on.”
It was a thoroughly unordinary breakup (though all breakups seem unordinary as they happen, I know) with the first girlfriend I ever dated, and secretly, because neither of us had admitted our queerness to others, and so the wound had to be a secret, too. Wounds scar sharper when you can’t (don’t) enlist other people to help heal them through tender care and conversation. I told only one close friend about it, and that friend abandoned me, too, just a few years later, spontaneously and sans explanation. That was another gash gone to a scar.I forget these scars all the time, but I know that my unconscious doesn’t, in the invisible and buried spots, inside where I’m murky. They are among the collection of scars I carry around and continue to build, the way we all do.
Nobody here knows these stories yet or could imagine them, because why would they? The closer you get to other people, the more you realize how much you still don’t know, how much remains mere glint and twist beneath the surface.
“Colony collapse” happens when the vast majority of a colony’s worker bees abandon their home, their honey, their queen and just a handful of immature lingerers. Humans don’t know exactly why this occurs, but a few potential causes may be at play: pesticide poisoning, starvation, attack by outside pests like mites, and odd weather patterns sparked by climate change, for example, could be the threats to incite the untimely disbandment.
One week, we harvest a giant bucketful of honey from a hive that has left it behind. We use an electric hot knife to shave the waxy caps off of the hexagon-shaped cells packed with the amber nectar, and then place the trays in what is essentially a giant salad spinner, whose centrifugal force expels every drip from tray to tub. There is sticky-sweetness everywhere, between our fingers, on our pants, in our hair, both delightful and uncomfortable at the same time. And the whole world, for these several hours, smells like pastry and goodness.
We transfer it into jars, dripping sloppy drops to the floor where the ants find them and watching the way it pours from spout to glass — all the viscous murk of ocean, thick and soft. Each taste is cloying, but addictive. Why do we call cloying a bad thing? Are we sometimes afraid of how sweetness might slice through our tough shells, just as much as pain?
I keep thinking about the bees the whole time we are doing it. What a glorious mess they made and left behind.
“It’s a lucid dreaming herb. You can make a little sachet of it and put it under your pillow.”
We’re talking about mugwort, which is one of the most dominant invasive plants in the field right now. It’s conveniently medicinal, sometimes incorporated in teas and salves, but overly pervasive and difficult to rip from the soil once it’s grown tall. There’s a day we spend hours weeding a row of blueberry bushes that is jam-packed with mugwort, and by the end of it, my palms are sore and shredded from the stems, and the tangy scent seems seeped into my skin.
“It’s too bad we don’t have any of it around here,” I joke. “I wonder where we could possibly find some.” We chuckle subtly.
“I mean, if there’s one messenger that nature is trying to send us right now, it’s gotta be through the mugwort.” I reflect on this for a moment: the invitation from the earth to muddle the intuitive fluid of dreams and with the astringent awareness of daily life, to make molten the boundaries between fantasy and reality, to turn wooly moments to lucidity together.
“I kind of can’t even stand the smell of it anymore,” I say. “It’s so potent.”
“Oh, I love it, I love it.”
“I mean, I love it, but I also kind of hate it, because there’s just so much of it. I love-hate it. Or I hate-love it.”
A snorted half-chuckle again. “That’s always what happens eventually when you spend too much time with something or someone. You start to hate it.”
I smile coyly. “Is it? We’ll see.”
We often laugh so hard that we curl over like our garlic scapes, folding in on ourselves in hysterics.
That’s a thing I didn’t do so much of in Mexico: laugh like my cheeks might split in two. It’s hard to joke in a dialect that isn’t your own, because jokes sprout from the subterranean foundations of a shared language, poking at unspoken truths through twists and turns of precise words (like the meaningful air-danced swirls of the bee colonies). Jokes are how we sidestep the sink of what’s sappy and how we dodge the sharp edges of what hurts. In a joke, it’s what’s not said that matters, and I think this is comforting — to remember that intimacy doesn’t always require careful, conscious intention. That it’s built into the human experience.
And that it doesn’t always always feel like dark depth. It can be light.
I keep thinking about that morning with the pickles. I keep wondering about the bees that went away. There is so much that hasn’t happened yet, and I keep trying to stop myself from trying to imagine it, from trying to picture what we’ll abandon when this seasonal job ends. But until then, everything is salt and sugar, glop and brine, an odd deliciousness. It is difficult to describe and define to anyone not also living on our small island. Perhaps it’s all a lucid dream.
…P.S. An editor’s note — June is Gay Pride month around the world, which served as a crucial bit of inspiration for this essay. With one exception where it was relevant to the story, I’ve intentionally excluded explicit gender markers from the piece to prove a point: regardless of where anyone might fit within the spectrums of gender and sexuality, we all share a common language of intimacy. To be human is to crave connection, and belonging ought to be a birthright.
David Pellegrini says
What a wonderful, evocative, and thought-provoking essay! So many images will stick with me.