MJ is destroying geranium in the cellar because she is anxious about the war. She insists that this makes perfect sense. Her plants have been over-wintering in plastic pots on the cold cement floor. MJ has always had a special place in her heart for the tough old-fashioned flower. For ten years now, the plants have survived from November until May with little water and scant light from a casement window. With only a few weeks left until they can be set in the warm ground outdoors, MJ bends at the waist, wrenches the flowers from their containers, and tosses the leggy remains into a big black garbage bag. She wants to sleep in the cellar in case of chemical, biological, or nuclear attack. There's not room for the geranium, and the water, the canned goods, the battery operated radio. Her girlfriend, Bonnie leans against the cinder-block wall of the basement and watches.
MJ is a round-bodied woman. Unless provoked, she has a pleasant no-nonsense demeanor. When provoked she is not pleasant. She has set up her computer to keep her abreast of local, national, and international news. Every time she checks her email, which is five sometimes ten times a day, the headlines pop up and she becomes more provoked.
When she is composed, MJ's looks and manner put her friends in mind of Barbara Bush during her glory days with George the First. But unlike Barbara, MJ has no big money men to prop her up or rein her in. Her cotton candy hair hasn't seen scissors since 1982. Her overalls are paint-splattered, but freshly laundered. She is clean, and, in her flamboyant way, tidy. Her look is not unkempt, just untamed. Next to MJ, Mrs. Bush looks like a bon-bon fresh from a Tupperware container. Still, the resemblance between the ex -president's wife and the old dyke from small town Massachusetts can't be denied.
Because MJ’s girlfriend Bonnie is small, friends joke that she is Nancy Reagan to MJ's Barbara Bush. The couple socializes with a crowd who likes to imagine the elderly wives of retired statesmen curled up in the same bed. Except for size, Bonnie looks nothing like Mrs. Reagan. She's a freckled redhead with a braid half way down her back and furrows around her lips and eyes from years of sun and smiling. Her pink baseball cap matches her Keds. Someone who spends a day with Bonnie and MJ might come away believing that MJ rules the roost. But Bonnie's resemblance to Nancy is strongest in that Bonnie is a femme top who is happy on the sidelines staunchly loving her mate and, when necessary, calling the shots.
MJ straightens up for a moment to capture her great shock of hair in a bandana, which she ties at the nape of her neck. "I don't need your help."
"You won't get my help," Bonnie answers calmly. "This bomb shelter you plan to build down here is insane. You know this."
"Stop calling it a bomb shelter. I'm moving the bedroom." MJ says mechanically. The argument has been going for days. It's all been said before.
MJ is a scrapper with a passion for words, for ideas, for being right. Nothing in all their years together has prepared Bonnie for this kind of anxiety in her lover. She was less worried when MJ was spending half her waking hours haranguing politicians and throwing the Sunday Republican across the kitchen. Bonnie has tried everything she can think of to get MJ to calm down. She has tried gentle persuasion, valerian tea, shoulder massage, and Michael Moore videos, which she realized too late were a big mistake.
She tries again. "I don't want to sleep upstairs without you. I won't sleep in the cellar with you. I want you and a bathroom near me all night. I want to climb the stairs to our warm room on the second floor for another twenty-seven years. We have more than most people could ever hope for. You're willing to reduce yourself to voluntarily sleeping in a cold damp place. You, MJ? You, the feisty old lady who shook her fists on the steps of City Hall and proclaimed, ‘If we accept an unelected president the terrorists really have won.’" She shakes her head and frowns. MJ has already turned back to the geranium, so this effort is wasted.
Bonnie says with real sincerely, "It's an insult to people who have to hide underground." This last bit gets to MJ. She kicks a bag of sprouting potatoes, bought in bulk and forgotten months ago. Three wrinkled potatoes spill on the floor. She kicks one at Bonnie and returns to the geranium, sputtering something unintelligible. The potato lands at Bonnie's feet.
Now we're making progress, Bonnie thinks. She contemplates MJ's ass, which is back in the air, as MJ bends over the plants. MJ is sixty. Before they started to get old Bonnie did not imagine a person could move like that at sixty. Bonnie is sixty-two. She looks frail, but she is not, she is just size six. She can carry grocery bags and rake the lawn. More strenuous exercise has never interested her. But she's always admired her girlfriend's strength. If the panic behind MJ's behavior wasn't so disturbing to Bonnie, she could happily watch her move by the hour. She particularly enjoys the way MJ's overalls stretch across her ample bottom every time she bends at the waist. Just the way her overalls are straining now. Bonnie is put in mind of other times MJ has taken this position: making love, moving the coffee table, caring for her mother when she broke her hip.
Swept by memory and love, Bonnie takes a deep breath and says, "You're becoming a coward." She picks up the potato. "Burying your beautiful self in fear."
"Fuck you," MJ says.
"Such a mouth on an old lady." Bonnie, still fondling the potato, removes a bag of old clothes from an unmade bed. The bed has been in the cellar since they converted to queen sized a decade ago. The mattress sags when she sits down. Her knees almost bump into MJ's butt. "The springs are shot in this thing. It's going to kill your back," she says bouncing. "Remember that wooden cutout of a woman, the garden ornament, that used to live in the Reeses' flowerbed?" The Reeses are their next door neighbors. "That's what you remind me of, bent at the waist like that."
MJ, looking over her butt, cuts her eyes at Bonnie. "You claimed to hate that thing. All butt and bowed legs, no head, no arms, no upper torso. All our friends agreed – demeaning - objectification. Remember the fight I had with Mary Reese? 'Why does her ass have to blossom in full view of our bay window?' God, I said that to our neighbor."
“Yes, you did.” Bonnie grins. "I have a secret." She leans on her elbows. "You want to hear my secret?"
"No," MJ says. "You're trying to distract me from my work. You think I'm crazy, in need of distraction, because I happen to think we're safer in the cellar."
"That's right." Bonnie agrees. "Tell me again, so you can hear how crazy you sound, why exactly are you killing the tender perennials?"
"You hate scented geranium." MJ wielding a plant, walks to where Bonnie is sprawled on the bed. The naked root dangles an inch from Bonnie's nose. Bonnie slaps it away and the roots spit little black bb's of soil onto her sweatshirt.
Bonnie screws up her face and picks a heart shaped leaf out of her hair. "They do smell like something that used to be pleasant. Like garlic on the breath the day after a good meal."
MJ says, "Nothing's all that pleasant if you get close enough. You are the coward. We aren't secure. Face it."
Bonnie studies the sprouted potato that's still in her hand. "We're going to die sooner than later no matter what. A bad night's rest isn't going to buy us one minute. Nothing's secure. Never has been." She tosses the potato in the air and catches it. "This thing is still edible." She takes a bite.
"Jesus." MJ grimaces. "There's dirt on those old things. They're raw."
"Gritty, but not bad." Bonnie concentrates and swallows. Her eyes widen. She starts to spit and cough.
"Stop it," MJ snaps. "You can eat the whole bag. I'm going upstairs to get some linen." Bonnie continues to hack and gag and MJ makes no move to help.
Bonnie's eyes water. She exhales a squeaky wheeze and points to her throat.
"Damn fool." MJ whacks her on the back. A piece of raw potato flies out of Bonnie's mouth. She sucks in a lung full of air and continues coughing.
MJ leads her upstairs, sits her on a kitchen chair, and feeds her a spoon of honey. She puts the kettle on to boil. They sip their tea in silence. Bonnie cries a little. MJ watches the birds outside the window and pretends she doesn't care that her girlfriend is crying, but there tears on her cheeks, too. "What was that, potato therapy?" MJ Turns to face Bonnie.
"That's all I've got," Bonnie says. "I quit. If you want to go crazy, you're on your own."
MJ nods. "I'm not used to feeling helpless. I needed something to do." She pat Bonnie's wrist. "That wooden woman had a polka dot skirt and frill underpants, remember?"
"Pink panties and bowed legs," Bonnie grins. "She didn't care what the neighbors thought. She was hot."
"Remember what happened to her?" MJ lets out a big sigh.
"You backed into her with the Toyota." Bonnie's grin broadens." "You were hot, too."
MJ's eyes narrow. "I know your secret. You've always been kinky in unexpected ways. You actually liked that big wooden butt staring at you from the neighbor's lawn. She didn't seem your type, but she turned you on. I owe you an apology." MJ doesn't sound apologetic. She sounds cocky. "I should have taken your feelings into consideration before I mowed that bitch down."
Bonnie says, "If you smile and stop killing geranium I will accept your apology."
MJ smiles. "Remember when politics was less scary and more sexy?"
"No," Bonnie says. "I remember when we were less scared."