I Dated Mother Nature
by Joshua Harding
I guess the ex I remember most is Mother Nature—or Gaia, as she prefers to be called. What more could a man want, really? She was fertility incarnate, a living Venus of Willendorf, a walking, talking cornucopia of procreation. Her hips were rolling hillocks, alive with the sound of music. Her auburn hair would whisk against her smooth shoulders with the hush of a Montana wheat field.
She was a jealous bitch, though. She’d flood my apartment with heavy rains or drop a tree in front of me if I so much as looked at another woman. Our relationship was, to use a cliché, a little stormy at times. But God, did she have great tits!
My older sister had dragged me to a party in the Jersey suburbs so I could meet some people and maybe find a job and maybe become more responsible. I’d just graduated from Colgate in the class of ’58 with a degree in literature (or “filth,” according to my mother), and I realized the moment the hostess took my coat that I didn’t fit in and never would. I was an artist—a poet—with a spine-cracked copy of A Coney Island of the Mind in my pocket. I had nothing in common with those workaday types. You could practically scrape their quiet desperation off the floor.
I happened to notice a book strategically placed on the coffee table: Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. Its title peeked out furtively from beneath the latest issue of Woman’s Day. The hostess, a childless suburban housewife and high school friend of my sister’s, was trying very hard to advertise that she was into banned books. Too bad no one at the party (including her) had actually read the thing and knew the saucy nuances contained inside.
I looked at the book and then at the room full of people all wearing their Chanel and Dior with the sable fur trim, and thought: These ladies think of themselves as worldly and scandalous. They wish they were having affairs (with Henry Miller in Paris) while their husbands are out playing golf. They need to get out more. And I wondered how many of the husbands were doing just that to their wives—screwing someone at the office or the trade show or the regional sales meeting.
You’d think it would be so sordid and shocking that they’re having these affairs, but it’s really just boring. Poems, stories, or films dealing with these interpersonal matters have never held my interest. I’ve had enough relationship drama in my own life; I don’t need to get more of it from my art. I’d rather read or write a piece that makes you think, makes you wonder, makes you say, “I’ve never read anything like that before!” Throw some robots or zombies in there.
It occurred to me that these suburban housewives and husbands were robots and zombies in their own right, going through their boring lives with their boring affairs at their boring party. And I realized I’d listened three times to the same story from this guy in a sweater vest about an ordeal of a hailstorm and his insurance company and his vinyl siding. I was ready to unzip my pants and start masturbating on the carpet just to change the subject when she whispered in my ear, “You got a cigarette?”
I guess next time around I’d like a real woman as opposed to a goddess. A woman who might not care that I once dated someone else years before I ever met her. It got to the point that if Gaia and I were walking somewhere and I happened to cast a sideways glance across the street, she’d think I was ogling another woman. Perhaps I would see a convenience store getting robbed or a circus elephant selling drugs to kids or a double-parked flying saucer.
Gaia would screech at me: “Who’s that!?”
“No one,” I’d respond.
“Tell me who’s over there!”
“No one!” I’d insist.
“Who are you fucking over there?!”
After we split up, I started to notice a lot of weird things. Dogs would growl and cats would spit and scratch at me as I passed. Not just my friends’ pets or strays, but puppies and kittens in pet stores. Birds would dive bomb my head. Raccoons and skunks and squirrels leapt out at me from garbage cans and telephone poles. Going to the zoo was out of the question. One day, it hailed in a torrent, but only on the spot where my car was parked. When the squall was over, all that was left was a pockmarked hulk surround by a pool of shattered glass and ice.
Here’s something to keep you up at night: Mother Nature is on a constant quest to kill you. From the moment you’re born, she’s got your number. We all have expiration dates, like eggs or cartons of milk. She’ll try and take you out with diseases, parasites, genetic anomalies, tornadoes, earthquakes, shark attacks. Even with foot fungus and jock itch, it’s like she’s trying to decompose you while you’re still alive.
Inevitably, she will kill everything and everyone. She must reap what she sows.
Mother Nature isn’t the benevolent, matronly earth goddess we’ve all come to know—she’s the Hindu Kali: a Darwinian, naturally selective creator and destroyer of billions.
What struck me first were her eyes: one blue and one brown, like a husky’s. And she was dressed, well, unusually for cocktail party. A loose pyramid dress in a loud paisley pattern clung to her breasts and hips with an anxious quiver. She wore enormous bronze hoop earrings shrouded by the mahogany waterfall of her hair. Shiny bangles flashed at her wrists and a long strand of beads with tiny birds and flowers hung about her ivory throat. She was petite and curvaceous, unlike the rigid sticks of the other women at the party. Her legs were strong and muscular and, I noticed with a start, weren’t shaved. She was also barefoot.
Her lips—miniature, rose-colored pillows—parted slowly again. “I said, ‘You got a cigarette?’”
I was mute. I fumbled in my coat and produced a rumpled pack I’d been nursing for a few days and offered her one.
“Thanks,” she said. “Join me outside for a smoke?”
I looked around the living room, where at least eight other people were puffing away. The hostess waved a Virginia Slim at the end of a long, black holder and her husband chewed on a briar pipe, trying desperately to look the part of the wizened lord of the manor. Besides, it was mid-May; the trees were still naked and the high earlier in the day hadn’t been much above 50 degrees.
“Outside?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied with a smile. Her teeth flashed a brilliant white, and her canines were slightly longer than the surrounding incisors. “Why not?”
In the backyard, she sat down on a clump of moss just within the bower of the forest that bordered the subdivision. “Mmm, Sphagnum flexuosum,” she said as she wriggled her butt into the green carpet. She patted the ground for me to join her.
“Are you a botanist?” I asked. Gingerly, I lowered my ass down to the ground beside her knowing I’d look like I’d shit myself later and would need to visit the dry cleaner. The moss was cushiony and soft but also damp and freezing.
“Yes, and a zoologist, and an ornithologist, ichthyologist, and geologist—you name it.”
“You’re teasing,” I replied. I realized I hadn’t introduced myself and reached out my hand as the moisture soaked my trousers. “I’m Aaron. Aaron Sutherland.”
“And I’m Mother Nature,” she said, shaking my hand. Her palms were rough like a kitten’s tongue and her grip was as firm as a cowboy’s. “But you can call me Gaia.”
Then she kissed me.
Before I could object, she’d mashed her lips against mine hungrily. I had a lungful of smoke I hadn’t exhaled. Her tongue wormed its way between my lips and teeth, and she sucked the smoke out of my throat. Her arms were around my neck and her right leg swung over my hips. She released the kiss and let me get some air while she fixed me with her malamute eyes.
She smelled great—not flowery or powdery with dashes of French perfume, but musky and sweaty, full of pheromones and promise. She flipped a main circuit in me unlike any coed ever had back at Colgate. She grasped at my belt and started undoing my trousers.
“Are we crazy?!” I whispered.
It was the best I ever had.
She made me feel like Adonis, like I had the body of a Greek god and my erect cock was a lightning rod through which all good things were possible. Her body moved with my body like a symphony: first adagio and slow, then allegro and rapid. It was every metaphor in the universe: earth-shattering, toe-curling, angel-weeping. I felt like I could do anything or be anything in the world. I looked up and noticed leaves on the trees above us that weren’t there before.
“What did you say your name was?” I asked when we were done.
“I told you,” she said, sliding off my hips, “I’m Gaia. I’m also Isis, Ishtar, Mama Pacha, and Ibu Pertiwi. I’m Mother Nature.”
I guess I was feeling gregarious and cocksure and elated at the time. Completely high on post-coital bliss, I probably would’ve believed anything.
Just then, a doe glided from out of the bushes nearby. She was completely silent. Her ear flicked as Gaia held out her hand. The deer stepped toward us so close I could see the coin-slot pupils of her chocolate-colored eyes. She nuzzled Gaia’s hand and folded her slender legs and knelt down beside us.
“Hello, Odocoileus virginianus,” she said. I’d never seen one so close before, only dead at the side of the highway or mounted above a fireplace. Then she laid her velvet head in my lap.
I no longer felt cold. Fireflies illuminated the air around us. Squirrels gathered in the branches. An owl hooted somewhere in the forest. It was like a scene from a cartoon where the young princess cleans the house or gets ready for the ball with all the little animals as her attendants. They gathered close to us and nestled in the moss as if they were stable animals kneeling before a holy crèche.
Gaia twirled her fingers above the ground and a dozen wildflowers sprouted before my eyes. They shook and elongated like a time-lapse film until the whole bower was blooming and lush.
The back door of the house creaked open and my sister poked her head out.
“Aaron?” she called. “Aaron, where’ve you gone? I have someone I want you to meet.” Gaia grasped my hand and we scampered off into the forest like Adam and Eve escaping the searching eyes of God.
Back at my apartment in Soho, we fucked until sometime after four in the morning. My cat watched us patiently from the fire escape. Again and again, we locked together in our sacred love ritual. When I finally lost count, I collapsed onto my pillow, exhausted.
“What’s the matter?” Gaia asked from the dark next to me. “Can’t keep up?”
I was asleep before I could answer.
In the morning, I found her staring out the window at the street six floors below. She seemed distant and withdrawn. I kissed her hair.
“Morning. You tired?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “Just … too citified. Domesticated.” I followed her gaze to the one tree on the sidewalk. It was stunted and stretched feebly from the concrete where it was rooted up to the few shafts of pale sunlight that broke over the canyon walls of the buildings.
“Let’s go get breakfast.” I said. “I’m starving.”
Gaia brightened. “Me too!” she smiled. “And after, let’s go to Central Park.”
We went to a diner on Sixth Avenue. I had coffee and a croissant; she had steak and eggs.
“What about unicorns?” I asked.
“What?” she said, licking steak sauce from her fingers.
“Unicorns. You told me what happened to the dinosaurs. What happened to the unicorns?”
“I had to get rid of them because they were always poking each other’s eyes out.” She tore a bit of gristle off the bone and winked at me.
“Well then, what about mermaids?” I sipped my coffee and glanced across the street.
“Never you mind about them,” she replied.
On the opposite sidewalk, an old man shambled by with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He was wearing a VFW cap studded with pins.
“What are you looking at?” Gaia asked. There was more interrogation in her voice than I liked.
“Just an old veteran on the sidewalk,” I replied. She followed my gaze to the old man. While she stared, he suddenly clutched at his left arm. He staggered and braced himself on a tenement’s stair rail. I looked back at Gaia. Her eyes seemed to widen like a cat’s do when it’s stalking prey. The old man crumpled to the sidewalk. His newspaper fluttered away down the street as a passing sailor and his date scurried to his side and waved for help.
“Did … did you just do that?” I asked, losing my appetite.
“Of course I did.” She picked at her teeth with a fork. “I had to make room.”
“Make room? That’s rather cold-hearted!”
She fixed me with her bicolor eyes. “Are you kidding? I just created a baby in the couple at the next table. They made love this morning and I just made them conceive. That’s what I do: make love and make room.”
We took the subway from Bleeker Street to Lexington and 63rd. She seemed to know everyone—ticket takers, conductors, street musicians, bums with their hats out—it was like old home days at every stop. We hopped of at Grand Central so I could buy more cigarettes, and she spotted a scrawny Puerto Rican who was playing a tenor sax and sitting on a metal bucket. Gaia greeted him with a double-breasted embrace.
“Tito!” she cried as if seeing a long-lost loved one. The man rose and allowed her to fold him into her arms. He was short and scraggy. A weed patch of stubble peppered his mocha-colored chin. He was wearing a porkpie hat and a three-piece suit that was too big for him and shiny with filth. I thought I smelled urine.
They chatted about his music and his kids while I stood aside and tried to look interested in an ad for mouthwash. When they were done, Tito nodded toward his saxophone’s case where a few coins and rumpled bills lay about. Gaia reached into her coat and withdrew not money, but a bottle of cabernet and an ounce of marijuana.
Inside the park, Gaia headed straight for the Ramble. The sounds of the city muffled and died away as we entered the enclosing trees and bushes. The gray branches were just starting to bud and birds flitted about on the slender branches. Squirrels chirruped as we passed.
“Hello, Sciurus carolinensis!” Gaia said, then she stripped naked faster than Tarzan returning to Africa.
“Hey!” I hissed. “You’re going to get arrested.” I looked over my shoulder down the path from where we’d come.
“And what’s so bad about that?” she asked.
“I don’t have bail money for you.”
“Relax. You need to get out more.”
I immediately spotted another couple, both men. They hadn’t noticed us. Gaia approached them with no regard for her nakedness.
“Ted! Gary!” she called. The men turned with a start and dread in their eyes. Their fear melted when they saw her.
“Oh, it’s you, Gaia,” said the first. He was tall and dark-haired and wore a black turtleneck under his tweed. I noticed the other—a shorter man with curly blond hair—was surreptitiously buttoning his trousers. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“How’ve you two been?” Gaia asked. She kissed each one on the cheek.
“Didn’t recognize her, Ted?” asked the second. “If she’d had clothes on, then I could understand not recognizing her. How’ve you been, love?”
The three caught up on Ted’s work at the firm and Gary’s ailing mother. As they chatted, I noticed the two men were holding hands.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Gaia all at once, “Ted, Gary, this is Aaron.”
The two men shook my hand warmly. “Pleased to meet you,” they said in unison.
“Likewise,” I replied, withdrawing my hand.
After Ted and Gary left, I turned to Gaia. “How can you be so familiar with them?”
“What?” she asked.
“You call yourself Mother Nature and what they’re doing is so … unnatural.”
Gaia responded with a frown, “Don’t tell me what’s unnatural. Love is natural. Affection is natural. It doesn’t matter what goes where.” She grabbed my tie and pulled me closer to her satin skin (God, was she beautiful!). I could feel myself straining at my zipper. “The fact that you’re still wearing that button-down straightjacket while I’m here, in front of you, naked and all-access—that’s unnatural!”
A week later, I took her to a poetry reading down in Greenwich. The club was deep within the tenement canyons of Sullivan and Houston, not a blade of grass or leaf or tree to be seen for blocks. Gaia was already in a sour mood when we arrived. The place was crowded and nicotine-fogged. There were goatees and black turtlenecks everywhere you looked. A sax played plaintively and forlornly from a corner.
My poem was third in the lineup.
I took the stage and grasped the microphone, releasing a squeal of feedback. A sea of sunglasses turned toward me and the sax player paused, waiting to hear the tempo of my piece so he could match it. I took a deep breath and read:
were perhaps a woman
forged of cold ice
and iron deception
I would deceive her
kiss her cold lips
My lips would stick
for just a second
as I betrayed her
The crowd erupted in a snapping of fingers and the sax finished with a honking flourish as I stepped down, elated.
I saw Gaia and knew immediately there would be consequences.
“What’d you think?” I asked as I kissed her cheek.
“That was about me, wasn’t it?” Her arms were crossed over her enormous breasts.
“No,” I replied. “I wrote that ages ago.”
She blew a lock of hair away from her brow and squinted her husky eyes at me. “Well, I won’t criticize the poem … or the poet. Nothing is as sacred as creation, no matter who your muse might be.”
I turned and found Tina Mitchell, an old girlfriend from high school, making her way toward us through the crowd. She was brunette and ivory-skinned and wore a frock coat and silk scarf—a sophisticated princess among the bohemian crowd. As she drew near, she clasped my hand and kissed me on the cheek.
“That was a beautiful piece, Aaron,” she said. “How have you been?”
“Wonderful,” I said. “How is Smith these days?”
“Dreadful.” She turned to Gaia, “Hello, I’m Tina. Aaron and I are old friends.” She reached out a slender hand to shake hands.
Gaia was as frigid as the poem made her out to be, but at least she returned the gesture.
“So sorry,” I said. “Tina, this is Gaia; we met through my sister. Tina and I went to high school together, Gaia.”
“Don’t let his dark poetry fool you, Gaia. Underneath Aaron’s brooding exterior lies a true gentleman.”
“Oh, really?” asked Gaia turning to me. I noticed she held onto Tina’s hand for a moment longer than normal.
“Oh, yes,” said Tina finally withdrawing her hand from Gaia’s grasp. “He’s been known to rescue kittens from trees.” Someone called Tina’s name from across the room. “Well, I must be off. Take care of yourself, Aaron. Gaia, very nice to meet you.”
“The same,” said Gaia. She smiled, but there was no joy in it.
Tina squeezed back through the crowd and over to a knot of friends.
“You still have feelings for her, don’t you?” Gaia asked. I could feel a chill on my neck as she uttered the question.
“No,” I said. “But I don’t have any ill will toward her.”
“You’re still sleeping with her, aren’t you?”
I was completely flummoxed. “How could I?” I asked, sounding more defensive than I would’ve liked. “I’ve been with you every moment for the past week.” Gaia followed Tina’s retreating back through the crowd. Her eyes widened and her pupils dilated until they looked like onyx pennies.
I grasped her forearm. “You’re not going to kill her, are you?”
She turned to me. From her eyes I gaped the depths of the deepest ocean, the darkest fissure in the earth. “No,” she responded, “not now. Cervical cancer will get her in ten years.” I looked at her, horrified. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said, taking my hand. “She’ll have two kids before then. Her genes will make it into the next generation.”
We lasted until the height of summer. The trees were lush and full in their emerald beauty. We kept the windows open around the clock and let the breezes cool our bodies in the steaming afternoons and velvet nights. Gaia seemed to come into a heavy presence as if the fruitfulness of the season resonated in her every pore.
We were in New Jersey at my sister’s place. She and her husband were in Connecticut on a friend’s boat, so we had the house to ourselves. We lounged in the backyard, smoking, drinking Riesling, and sunbathing. Next door, a little boy—no more than six or seven—swam in a large, turquoise pool. He splashed and giggled and wore a giant, white Styrofoam egg strapped around his chest. From the house, I heard his mother say, “Peter, I have to make a phone call. You stay in the shallow end.”
The screen door slammed and the little boy continued to splash about.
Gaia finished her wine with a gulp, took a deep drag on her cigarette, and looked toward the side of the house. I thought she was watching a buzzard wheel over the freeway to the west when I saw her bicolored eyes widen just like they did with the old man outside the diner. Her pupils spread inky and wide like camera shutters and I realized I hadn’t heard the kid splash for several moments.
I shot up in my lawn chair and craned my neck over the fence. He was facedown in the water. The Styrofoam float had slid down to his waist, raising his hips and pushing his head deeper under the surface. He wasn’t moving. I dropped my cigarette, vaulted the fence and plunged into the pool.
In my arms, the boy seemed so small and limp. I hauled him onto the pool deck as all my Boy Scout First Aid training flooded back into my brain. I was slapping his back as he coughed and wheezed and his mother came flying out of the screen door toward us.
Gaia was furious. “What do you think you’re doing?” she shrieked at me when I came back into my sister’s yard. “You’re messing with the balance!”
“What?” I snapped back, “The balance of making room? Look, Gaia, it’s one thing when it’s a hawk eating a mouse or a deer struck down by a car, or even an old man who’s lived a long life. But this is a kid!”
“You wouldn’t get between a cougar and her prey, would you?”
“Looks as if I just did.”
“Maybe I should just take you in the boy’s place.”
“Gaia,” I said, toweling myself off roughly, “We’re through.” She looked at me, perplexed, as if no one had ever uttered these words to her before. “I’m catching a cab back to the city. You can find your own way home to wherever you live.” (We’d never spent a night at her place, come to think of it.) “Hitch a ride from some random stranger; you seem to know them all.”
I’ve been single for almost six weeks now. Well, as single as anyone can be with Mother Nature surrounding him every day and every night.
I don’t miss her. Don’t get me wrong, the sex was great—if I’m never with another woman for the rest of my days, I’ll be all right—but I don’t miss her. I miss my cat. I found her when I got back to Manhattan after that fateful day. She’d been run over by a taxi outside of my apartment.
Single is fine, though. I’m writing more poetry and getting stuff done around the apartment. I’ve found I’m most at peace in the places where nothing natural can get in: elevators, parking garages, walk-in freezers. I don’t eat at restaurants much anymore, though, not since that Chinese place where my fortune cookie told me to watch my back.
Seeing my parents in Connecticut has been problematic, too. Sophie, their Cavalier King Charles spaniel, flies into a rage and goes for my throat each time I visit. I haven’t seen my sister in over a month, either. She’d complained she was tired the last I’d spoken with her on the phone. Heart disease runs in our family, so I started grilling her about shortness of breath, chest pains, numbness or weakness in her arms.
“When did you become such a medico?” she asked.
“No reason,” I said as I thumbed through a copy of Folk Medicine. “Can’t a guy worry about his sister’s health?” I pulled the surgical mask tighter over my ears.
“You’re sweet, but it’s nothing,” she said.
I changed the subject. “I heard the weather forecast for tonight; supposed to be thunderstorms. Make sure you stay clear of the windows and unplug the television.”
“Aaron, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I replied.
“Well, take care of yourself and don’t be such a shut-in. You need to get out more.”
I do take care of myself, I thought as we said our goodbyes. I’ll take care of me and you, and mom and dad—everyone. I have to. I have to, knowing my ex is out there, somewhere, waiting to kill us all.
Copyright © 2015 Joshua Harding