The Naked GardenerbyWatchingCloud©
Van sighed as his two year old yellow lab took off into the woods behind his house. His constant companion was usually obedient, but with all the wonderful sights and smells surrounding their new home in the country, Earl had become a challenge the last couple weeks. He wanted to believe the dog would eventually find his own way back home, but that nagging doubt led him to tromp off into the woods after him.
In the thick brush, he soon lost sight of the dog, but by pausing every minute or so he could usually hear the tell tale sound of Earl crashing heedless through the woods. He called every so often, each time less confident that the dog would hear and come back. Van also had to take care to keep his bearings so he wouldn't end up lost in the acreage of his own back yard.
A brief woof from up ahead got him back on track and Van soon found himself arriving at a clearing -- apparently one of his neighbor's backyards. The house beyond was a modest, elegant structure, enhanced by a gorgeous in-ground pool and surrounded by a well manicured yard. Much of the yard not taken up by the pool was dominated by a large vegetable garden, clearly well loved and already producing a variety of healthy looking produce.
It was next to the garden where he finally spotted his wayward dog, who was soaking up the affection of a nearly nude woman. Van was startled by the sight, skidding to a halt before coming out of the woods. The woman, perhaps in her thirties like himself, appeared to be on the tall side with freckled bronze skin. She was wearing only sandals, work gloves, and a wide-brimmed straw hat that, along with sunglasses, conspired to hide her face.
Van admired her rugged beauty and the way the sun glistened off her full, sweat dappled breasts. At the same time, though, he was struck with the awkwardness of the situation. He needed to get his dog back, but he couldn't do so without intruding upon this woman's privacy. Given that she was gardening naked in a very rural neighborhood where privacy was the norm, he wouldn't be surprised if she was very pissed.
He considered sneaking back away some distance and then calling out for his dog again, giving her an opportunity to "hear him coming" well before he made a public appearance. Before he could put this plan into action, however, the woman looked up his direction and spotted him from where he was just inside the tree line. She waved at him, thereby bringing the awkward circumstance to a head.
"Earl!" he said as he stepped out of the woods. "Bad dog!"
"Seems like a good dog to me," the woman said, standing fully upright after having been scratching the dog behind the ears.
"Oh, he is, when he's not running off into other people's yards. I'm really, really sorry about that. Totally didn't mean to intrude on you."
"It's nothing," she said with a smile. She took off her sunglasses, revealing warm, brown eyes, and then peeled her gloves off to offer him a handshake. "Liz."
"Van," he said, taking her hand. More than anything, he was astounded by how utterly unselfconscious she was standing in front of him unclothed.
"Nice to meet you, Van," she said. "And you, too, Earl."
"We, uh, just moved in a couple weeks ago," he said, pointing vaguely toward the woods behind him. "Somewhere back there a bit."
Liz chuckled. "Guess that makes us neighbors, then. I'm sure you'll like the area. Since moving here a few years ago, I can't imagine ever living anywhere else."
"Yeah, I'm really liking it so far," he said. "The woods, the wildlife, the peace and quiet. And, apparently, lovely neighbors."
"You're too kind," she said, shaking her head. "Sorry about my appearance, I wasn't expecting visitors."
"No, no, I'm sorry. I'm the one intruding. It's your yard, whatever makes you happy."
Liz gave him a wry smile. "I meant that I was sorry about being sweaty and dirty. Didn't say I was apologizing for being naked."
Van flushed in embarrassment and was about to stammer yet another apology when Liz burst out laughing. He loved the sound of her laugh, even if it was at his expense.
"Just messing with you," she said. "Trust me, I have a very good reason for dressing like this. Or not dressing, as it were. Just giving you fair warning for the next time you're out this way."
Van wondered what sort of "very good reason" she might have. Nudist? Lost a bet? Laundry day? He was tempted to ask, but chickened out at the last moment and decided to try to move the conversation to something a bit safer.
"Your garden looks incredible," he said, grateful to take his gaze away from her tantalizing body and toward the garden.
"Thanks," she said. "It's my pride and joy these days."
"Was thinking about starting one, now that I have some space, but I'm sure it's too late in the season to start this year. Well, that and I'm pretty clueless when it comes to that sort of thing."
"I'd be happy to get you started. But, yeah, probably next year. You're more than welcome to help yourself to anything in my garden, though. God knows it produces ten times more food than I could possibly eat. Can't give it away fast enough once it really gets going."
"Sounds good. Might have to take you up on that sometime."
"I was planning on making spaghetti sauce from scratch tonight, mostly using just stuff straight out of the garden."
"Wow, that sounds good."
"You should come over for dinner. I'll have way more than enough food and it'd be nice to chat when I'm not so self-conscious over being sweaty and grimy."
Self-conscious? Van wanted to say yes, since he was finding the woman to be friendly, engaging, and unassuming. The naked thing, however, was making him just a little bit reluctant, as if it hinted at a quirky side to her that he wouldn't find as appealing.
"I'll even put some clothes on," she said teasingly, as if suspecting his hesitation.
"Yeah, sure," he finally said. "That sounds great. Should I bring anything?"
"Just yourself. Unless you're married, or have a girlfriend or something."
"Nope, just me. And Earl."
"Six o'clock good?"
"Six. Looking forward to it. And nice to meet you."
Van took Earl by the collar and started walking him back to the woods. He looked back once to wave goodbye and take one last look at Liz. There was something about her nakedness mixed with the sweat and dirt of hard work that was incredibly attractive to him. In some sense, it seemed to fit with the rugged individuality he'd sought in moving this far from the city. It might not have been quite how he'd envisioned it, but he certainly wasn't about to complain.
* * * * *
Van regretted not asking Liz for her address earlier. Or a phone number. It was only later in the afternoon that he realized he probably wouldn't be able to figure out which house was hers from the street, leaving him with retracing his route through the woods on foot as his only option on the way to dinner. The early evening summer heat was leaving him sweaty and he'd already managed to scratch his legs a couple times on the thick brush. If this was going to be a regular thing, hiking to her house, he would have to consider cutting a proper trail.
Finally, he reached her backyard. Many of the thoughts that had pervaded his mind all afternoon returned as the moment of truth was imminent. He had no idea if she was married. For that matter, she might have even have kids. Aside from a penchant for gardening in the buff, he really knew very little about her. He'd convinced himself to avoid getting his hopes too high that there could be a little potential for a relationship here.
Van contemplated walking all the way around to her front door, but decided that she didn't seem like the sort who would hold him to such formality. Instead, he walked up to the back patio door and tapped on the glass. He didn't have to wait long as Liz appeared moments later to open the door for him.
"Heya," she said, stepping aside to let him in. "Glad you could make it."
"Thanks again for the invite," he said, stepping in and offering her a bottle of wine he'd brought along so as not to be entirely empty handed. "Figured I should bring at least a little something."
"Great, thanks," she said, taking the bottle and carrying it to the kitchen which was adjacent to the living room into which the porch door had opened.
As promised and to his relief, Liz was dressed, though hardly dressed up. She wore black, spandex shorts and a snug athletic tank top. It looked like she was ready to go to the gym. Without her hat on, he finally got his first good look at her hair -- chestnut brown, short, and wavy almost to the point of being messy, though it worked on her.
"Did you walk?"
"Yeah," he said, looking around at the tasteful, country casual decor of the room. "Wasn't sure I'd be able to recognize the place from the front."
"Oh, yeah, should've given you my address. Oops."
"No worries. It's not too bad a hike."
"Iced tea? Looks like you could use one. We can save the wine for dinner."
Van stood in the kitchen doorway and watched as she poured two glasses from a pitcher. Like the living room, the kitchen was tasteful and clean. Copper pots hung from hooks and baskets full of fresh vegetables sat on the red granite counter tops. Liv's environment only served to reinforce his impression of her as some sort of modern frontier woman.
"Thanks," he said as he took the offered glass and drained half of it in one pull.
"So, dinner's gonna be a while yet," she said. "Hope you don't mind. The sauce needs to simmer down some more before I can start the noodles."
"No, that's fine. Smells great, by the way."
"Thanks. So, you want the nickle tour of the house while we wait?"
"Yeah. What little I've already seen is gorgeous."
"It's more or less my dream house. Put a lot of myself in here, but still working on it. You've already seen the kitchen, which is of course the most important room in any home."
"I'm going to guess that you love cooking."
"Good guess," she said, smiling.
Liz led him quickly through the rest of the house, which struck him almost more as a show home than a place where real people lived. Every room was tasteful appointed, neat and clean. It was pretty modest in size, with two bedrooms, an office, a couple bathrooms, and a den outside the rooms he'd seen on entry. Everything along the way pointed to her living alone.
The tour concluded a few minutes later out in front of her house, looking at her flowering landscaping. It left him admiring her for the passion she clearly had for the house. And, at the same time, he felt guilty for having stalled out in the unpacking process of his own new home.
"It's gorgeous," he finally said. "You said it was your dream house? Did you build it?"
"Bought it, but did a lot of remodeling before I moved in. Was my first big retirement project, I guess you could say."
Liz looked a little sheepish. "Yeah, sorta. I did pretty good for myself as an investor on Wall Street for about ten years, until I just couldn't take it any longer. Decided to cash out and get back to living a real life."
"Wow, can't say I'm not a little jealous," he said. He had trouble stretching his imagination enough to envision her in a business suit, sitting in posh conference rooms in the heart of the financial world.
"Well, I'm hoping that it was worth the loss of ten years of my life," she said, not without a little bitterness. "So far, so good."
"So, investing didn't sit that well with you?"
"The work was fine. I like numbers and the business side of things. Unfortunately, a lot of the other people in that industry are pretty shallow and uninteresting. Still can't believe I married one of them."
"You're married?" Her tone had suggested it was probably no longer the case, but he thought he'd ask.
"Went from first date to marriage to divorce in just under two years," she said with a rueful smile. "Thought I was doing the smart thing, following the life path of a professional. Marry, buy a nice house in an upscale neighborhood, kids, and so on. Turned out I wasn't being very true to myself. Kinda the same way he wasn't being very faithful to me."
"Don't be. I think I needed to go through that to get to where I am today."
"Then I take back feeling sorry for you. That's great."
"So, what about you? What brings you out into the sticks?"
"Some of the same, I suppose. Felt like I was burning out trying to keep up with all my friends and associates and contacts. So, moved out here to have a good excuse to get some more time to myself. Unfortunately, I'm not retired."
"Not many our age are. What do you do?"
"I'm a writer. Mostly work freelance, writing articles for web-based news or interest sites. Some travel, some local interest, some news. I'm kinda all over the map, really."
"Sounds interesting. You enjoy it?"
"Yeah, actually, I do. The income could stand to be a little more consistent or better, but I'm doing well enough. And, luckily, I can do most of my work from here."
A clopping sound coming up the driveway interrupted their conversation. Van was a little surprised when he saw that it was an old man, replete with cowboy hat, jeans, and faded shirt, riding on horseback and waving at them. It was a sight he'd never have seen living in the city and he filed it in the back of his mind for a possible future story.
Liv waved back. "Hey Clancy!"
"Miss Liv," the older gentleman said before dismounting with practiced ease.
"Van, this is Clancy. He and his wife live about a mile up the road. Clancy, this is Van. He's my new neighbor."
Clancy shook Van's hand with a firm grip. Van already liked the man, simply from his easy smile and friendly demeanor.
"Pleasure to meet you," Clancy said.
"Was just over to deliver the young lady's eggs," Clancy said, retrieving a plastic bag from his saddle bag and handing it gingerly over to Liz.
"Clancy's got chickens and keeps me well stocked with fresh eggs and even the occasional bird," Liz said. "And in return, I get to pawn off some of my spare produce. Speaking of which, I'll be right back with it."
Liz went inside, leaving the two men alone in the front yard.
"She's something else, isn't she?" Clancy said with a sly wink.
"Just met this afternoon, but yeah, seems like a heck of a woman."
"Just met, eh? Well, I'm sure you'll find she's full of surprises."
"Already came across a couple of those." Van chuckled and Clancy nodded knowingly.
Liz returned moments later, carrying two bags bulging with produce which Clancy struggled to pack away in his saddle bags.
"I keep telling you that the wife and I can't possibly eat this much food," he said.
"Share it, then," Liz said.
"Well, you two have a pleasant evening," Clancy said, mounting back up. "Nice to meet you, Van."
Liz and Van bade him a good evening and watched as he rode his horse at a nice, easy gait back down her driveway toward the distant road. Van inwardly chuckled at the simple barter system between neighbors and wondered how common such things were around here. It made him look forward to meeting more of the neighbors, in spite of the challenge that could be given the distances between houses.
"Let's go see how dinner's coming along," Liz said and led the way back inside.
* * * * *
Dinner, Van proclaimed repeatedly, was one of the finest meals he'd had in months if not years. Aside from the freshly made sauce, Liz had also tossed a fresh salad (everything coming from her garden), baked a loaf of bread, and even had some locally grown peaches sliced up to serve over ice cream. He was stuffed and content.
Their conversation had been fun and engaging. Liz was smart, a little opinionated, and had a great sense of humor. She also had a wide range of interests, which meshed nicely with the breadth of his writing topics.
As they finished up the last of the bottle of wine, Van finally summoned the courage to ask the question that had been bugging him all afternoon.
"Okay, I may be stepping into dangerous territory here, but I have to ask a question," Van said.
Liz smiled and leaned back in her chair. "Ask away."
"Earlier, you said there was a good reason that you were, well, naked."
"And you want to know the reason?"
Judging by her expression, Van suspected that this wasn't a dangerous topic after all. Relaxing, he nodded.
"Fair enough. I have a neurological disorder that causes the nerves in my skin to tend to be a bit overly sensitive. It's kinda like having a permanent, painful sunburn."
"Ouch. I'm sorry."
Liz shrugged. "Not your fault. I've had it so long, that I'm pretty used to it. Not to say that it doesn't still annoy the hell out of me sometimes."
"So, I take it you're more comfortable without clothes?"
"Exactly. The pain is worse with light pressure or when things move across my skin, and clothes do both of those constantly. Steady or firm pressure isn't as bad, which is why I tend to wear spandex when I'm forced to be dressed."
"Wow. Now I feel bad. You're in pain, wearing clothes, just to ease my own discomfort."
"Don't feel bad. I have to wear clothes enough anyway. It's not like I was able to go to school or work naked. At least here, when I have to get dressed, I'm able to go with something that's less irritating."
"Still, I can't help feeling a little guilty."
"I could tell you were feeling a little awkward when we first met this afternoon. Frankly, if you hadn't, then I'd probably have been worried enough not to invite you to dinner. No, I wanted this to be comfortable for you so we could, you know, focus on actually getting acquainted. I'm not so idealistic as to think that would be easy if I was lounging around naked."
"True. Not that I would have complained or anything."
"Well, duh. I've got a great body, after all."
He couldn't help but laugh at how casually she could discuss the topic head on, and make light of the obvious challenges associated with it. She was making it easy to fall for her, though he had yet to determine if she was even remotely interested in that sort of a relationship.
"Yes, you do. Who wouldn't want to see you naked?"
"I could name a few," she said, her humor turning just a little sour.
"Some people a little less than appreciative?"
"Well, let's just say that some of my family and even a few friends haven't been quite as open-minded over the years. It's been a fine line to balance, and I've generally tried to keep from offending anyone."
"I can only imagine. Well, look, now that I know your story, I want you to know that I'm totally cool with you wearing as little around me as you want. Can't say I won't ogle a bit, but I'll do my best to make it a non-issue."
"Thanks. I really appreciate that. A lot of people say that, but don't always mean it. I have a good hunch about you, though."
"I'm glad. Now, unfortunately, I should probably get around to calling it a night. I'm meeting an editor tomorrow morning over breakfast, and it's a bit of a commute these days."
"No problem. Glad you could make it. It's always nice to cook for someone."
"Happy to share it with you. I do have a small favor to ask."
"It seems that we talked so long that it's gotten a bit dark, and I'm not sure I could find my way home through the woods. Think I could bum a ride?"
"Absolutely. And then I'll know where you live."
"Yup. And, since I work from home and always welcome a good distraction, feel free to drop by any time."
"I might just do that."
* * * * *
Van rapped his fingers on the desk as he stared at his blank computer screen. He knew he needed to get some writing done, but he was having a bit of writer's block. Or, if he wanted to be perfectly honest with himself, he was having trouble thinking of anything other than Liz. His mind kept wandering between images of her smiling at him across the dinner table and her standing naked, sweaty and dirty out in her garden.