i am a bad plant mom
I am a bad plant mom.
I have been barred from my local nursery, even from looking at the cute little succulents that are supposed to require less maintenance. I had to create multiple fake Reddit usernames to post pictures of withering plants and find out what ailed them so no intrepid internet sleuth could pin the mass genocide of local fauna on one person.
But I’m determined to do right this time.
I found him on the floor at Home Depot, blocking the automatic doors from closing. I was all up in the business of an orange-aproned and personality-less Calvin, explaining how I had dragged a bookshelf out of the living room because it cast an unsettling shadow during the day that made me think it was haunted, scratching the wood floor the whole way to the bedroom, unbeknownst to me, because I’m not clueless, not when it comes to not-plants at least, and I couldn’t afford the toll that would take on my safety deposit, when a loud buzzer sounded at the entrance. After repeated attempts to close, the automatic doors gave up and just decided to make noise until someone fixed the blockage, which I get, and that someone was supposed to be Calvin, who used the annoyance as an attempt to swim his way out of my predicament with floor waxes and buffers and the like, but to his surprise I followed, unsatisfied with his suggestions and wanting to mine his expertise. When we arrived at the sliding doors in question, there he was, this little fella, this little philodendron, in his little shattered beige-brown nursery pot, his lifeline of dirt oozing out, with a footprint already planted in the remains. Calvin bent over and picked him up, manhandling his one big leaf like it was a piece of trash, and I yelped on the inside, because I’m not socially inept, but muttered on the outside, suddenly, “can I have him?”
They gave me him free of charge and I left in a hurry, forgetting the scraped floor and the complaints I had written freeform in my head to give to Calvin’s manager.
I put him in the pot of one of my previous failures, a fiddle-leaf fig who lasted a record eight days and whose container I left untouched in the corner of my studio apartment like a gravestone. I water him once every five days, as recommended, and lug him over to the window looking into my apartment complex’s courtyard for three to five every afternoon to catch the afternoon light.
But his one big injured leaf starts to lose its satiny feel, and goes from shiny green to that lifeless, pallid green that always reminds me of dead frogs, and now on the eighth day, the same day as my beloved fiddle-leaf fig left this earthly realm, his big leaf seems to be drooping down to say goodnight, and I can’t accept that.
I look up every last ditch effort to save a plant, but I’ve opened these tabs before. It’s two in the morning and I can’t sleep because I’ve let this broken gentleman, the one I was supposed to save, die a worse and slower death than Calvin would’ve given him. I reach up and am surprised and not surprised that I’m crying over this one failure in a series of perpetual failures and consider that maybe tears of all things could be the nectar this plant needs to survive, but no, Google says, no, don’t put your salty tears into the soil, you weird fuckup.
So I decide to say goodbye to him properly. I tell him all the wishes I had for him. I tell him how I felt when I first saw him on the floor of that Home Depot and how I feel something about the man or woman who dropped him there and left him there, probably kicked him over to the side like they were doing him a favor. I tell him I’m sorry. I tell him he’s the last plant I will ever bring home.
The next morning, I wake up on the floor next to him. I remember wanting to be with him through the end. But I look up at him and – he’s radiant, he stands taller, his broken leaf on the mend, and I recall all the stories in an instant about how talking to a plant can have real benefits and even though the internet and science and all of those unreliable sources said to the contrary, here he was, living proof that it could work.
So I talk to him more. I talk to him while I’m eating breakfast, telling him how food tastes and the general mouthfeel of things since he wouldn’t possibly understand that otherwise. I recount in painstaking detail my day teaching second grade and how the two Gracies and three – three – Jaspers have formed a sort of tiny person gang and are terrorizing the rest of the kids. I talk and talk until I need to order some honey-flavored lozenges to keep on talking.
But he stops growing. He starts to fade again. And I’m crushed.
I drink my nightly half-bottle of Menage a Trois Decadence Cabernet, a name I despise, but its classy and affordable and only for me anyway. It turns into the full bottle until I recognize it’s a Friday night and I have an extra bottle so it turns into two.
I sidle up to my plant, graying like dogs do, from the edges in, betraying a soul I already knew he had. I’m all talked out, at this point, bankrupt of anecdotes to share and reality television to describe. The plant knows the housewives and the child chefs and doesn’t need to know more and maybe his rejection of that banal entertainment is what led him to die, like he willed his functions to fail to stop hearing my talking and talking and talking and yet I find myself saying this out loud in my hazy drunkenness because the filter between inner and outer monologue disappeared one and a half bottles deep. If my talking led him to suicide, I will push him over the edge with one final shove of jabbering, which I tell him, this being spoken, I will end you with my words, and it reminds me, I say, of how when I was six or seven, I’d had a penchant for incessant talking, for pushing people over the edge, and my older brother—only a year older, almost an Irish sibling, but we escaped that definition by a matter of weeks—would shout at me to stop, stop talking, and when I didn’t, he’d knee me right in the stomach and when I was down and making noise, pain noises, not talking, though I assume I said some words like hey, or wait, or ow, verbalizing the agony like a comic book character, he’d use that as an invitation to kick and claw and destroy. I made him do it, he’d say, by being so annoying. He did this often, though as we grew up, and he hit puberty and muscles started to form and he outgrew me in leaps and bounds, the sudden attacks left more bruises and scars and so he’d alter his strategy, because there was strategy, to focus the heavy crosses on my shoulders and ribs and thighs, which could be hidden with the right kind of clothes. My parents made sure I always had Neosporin and ice packs stocked away; they were helpful like that.
I talk to my plant like I was coaxing him into kneeing me in the stomach, bending his leaf-knee in such a way to maximize thrust, knocking me out, allowing me to be unconscious for his inevitable passing. I had never told anyone about any of this, save for a few friends in middle school who didn’t want to get involved and ghosted me in ways eighth grade girls perfected far before the term existed. My plant would do the same.
But – and full disclosure, I am drunk as fuck – as I detail the blows and the broken ribs and the emergency room visits, they were roughhousing, that’s all, I swear, my plant is listening, and leaning toward me, and nodding along, like a vertical breeze, first from the ceiling, then from the floor, volleying his leaf up and down. And with each nod, he grows an inch. He absorbs every detail and turns it into his fertilizer and within an hour, he’s like a small tree, and I am too wasted for this shit right now.
I sleep through the morning, apparently, and wake up to an oppressive wet heat. My eyes blink open to see my plant staring down at me, all five brand new feet of him, like a massive plant-dog looking over you while you slept, waiting for you to start the day. I crab-walk away, as one does in befuddled panic, until I’m at a fair enough distance to take it all in. And, though I should be questioning the sudden and miraculous growth spurt of my previously near-death plant, I understand totally.
I pull up my lone kitchen table chair and prop my feet up on the rim of his pot and close my eyes, like I’m back in therapy, but won’t quit this time around two sessions deep due to the therapist’s dismissive sighing. A surge of static-y buzz reaches my fingertips and the roof of my mouth, that nervous electric pulse that rings the bell inside you whenever you’re about to open yourself up and you’re unsure if it’s a good idea or not and mixes with the hangover dripping down my insides.
“So, hmm, the beginning would be a good place to start, naturally…” I mutter, knowing he’s listening, wanting. And I begin weaving a semi-coherent narrative of my life, as I didn’t know possible, linking together moments with other moments that explain the now. I made my way through my relationships, from sixth grade which consisted entirely of Neopets sharing with the ones we don’t talk about, to the eleventh grade makeout buddy who didn’t acknowledge my existence, to the one with Muppet features in college, my one time in college I thought relationships could be good, that I could form a distance from all the relationships that proved otherwise, until he asked me to hit him in bed, really sock him in the face, because he saw it in some porn, and so I did and I fucked him up and realized I wasn’t even punching him even though I was and I saw in his what the fuck is wrong with you? yelps the same look that must’ve been on my face in the past, but it felt somehow even worse, somehow even more guttural, to be the deliverer instead of the recipient. I have to go to work, so I tell him to put a pin in that, I’ll be back.
And when I come back, I’m met with a display of floral majesty I did not know possible. The Plant – and that’s what I called him now, Plant, formal, like Robert or Nuclear – is overflowing from his pot, more like a prison at this point, and gushing out in all directions, a mop of hair, filled with bright greens and yellows and even a red somewhere in there. I hurried over with a where were we? wanting to give him more.
For the next several hours and whatever swaths of time around work I could manage, even running back for a lunch session, I divulged all of my secrets to the Plant. From that pit of shame in my stomach that despite all the blows I so badly wanted my older brother to like me, because that’s what you want when you’re a kid, and even now, that’s the worst part, that I never put up much of a fight, constantly trotting back into the lion’s den, hoping this time that the feral beast would somehow be gentled, and thus this is my fault and not his, maybe I did ask for it, to my parents, and wondering how they justified it all, what was their excuse? They don’t talk to me anymore, as if they know I’m something they fucked up so mightily that they may as well leave me be, out of sight and out of mind, but then again, I never confronted them, so maybe it is my fault too. I went deep into the vault, finding those secrets I didn’t know I had, these wells of shame that I buried even from myself. And through it all, the Plant grew and grew, outgrowing pot after pot (each a visit to Calvin, who somehow retained his job), until I decided to dismiss of the folly of a pot all together and let him live freely on the hardwood that I covered in dirt and fertilizer, allowing him the entire living room and eventually the kitchen as well. I moved out furniture and lugged it on the curb like I’ve seen other people do and wondered if they all did it because of their indoor gardening needs too. His growth and dirt conveniently covered up the scratches in the floor, which was very considerate of him.
He bears fruit, little kumquat-sized globules of blackness and maroon freckles, and I bite into them eagerly, only to discover they’re bitter in a sickening and vile way that felt familiar. But as I plucked a few more to study, I was reminded of picking blackberries with a stranger I met on a family trip to Idaho when I was eleven, she was eleven too, we discovered, and thus we were momentary soulmates. She snuck me away from my family and into a neighbor’s backyard where there was a bush filled with plump blackberries that dyed your hands black on first contact. I ate handfuls and so did she and that was it, that was the memory, and I shared it with the Plant, the divide between my thought and my dialogue erased for good. And I think he enjoyed the story, the snapshot of eleven-year-old me, because the next morning I notice another fruit, this one more grape-like and smooth, lower down on the Plant’s body in the kitchen, yellow like a lemon, and it’s sweet and fragrant and reminds me of contentment.
I share more pleasant memories after that. I’m surprised how many I have at my disposal.
I look forward to coming home at the end of a school day, my mind wandering into daydreams of how I will tend to the Plant, what stories I will replenish it with, what gifts I will discover – a storage cubby for my knickknacks fashioned out of knotted vines, a sectional, which is the perfect couch, formed out of the Plant’s soft moss outgrowth stacked on top of itself. I restructure lesson plans to focus on plant biology and biomes and spelling quizzes on fauna and the principal isn’t too happy, these concepts being above a second grader’s pay grade and all, but fuck him and his hands on the small of my back and fingers sliding south and his sideways hugs that feel like he’s planting a flag on my right tit and how he knows and laps up my discomfort like dessert, but now, now, I see that I actually own him, if I don’t cower, because I could end him, and I will teach photosynthesis and the like, thank you very much. The lectures and experiments divided the Gracies and the Jaspers, since the Gracies picked up on vacuole tonoplast’s role in breaking down food matter much more quickly and mocked the Jaspers’ inability to grasp such a basic concept, and thus their posse disintegrated. It’s an act I didn’t realize I wasn’t doing until I started doing it again, this looking forward, and it feels nice.
I bring a man over to the apartment, after connecting with him through an online service that burrowed into my mind through cloying billboards aimed at people for whom acronyms are the height of pithiness until suddenly there it was, on my phone, waiting to be clicked, with forms to be filled and my personality to be summarized in one profound and simple sentence. We exchanged pleasantries for weeks. I expected him to pull away, bored by the innocuous queries that I had for him, never promising anything beyond that line of questioning, but day after day, he crafted his responses like little essays, giving them the thought that he knew I required, until finally, my only remaining question was whether he would like to come over for a drink, resulting in his only short reply, yes. He shows up wearing the uniform of his kind, flannel and fitted jeans and Nikes that attempt a personality beyond the one he has. He waits outside the front door, a nonchalant fixed stare into nothingness that lets me know he knows I’m watching the fish-eyed version of him, searching for reasons to not open the door, to pretend I’m not home, to pretend I catfished him and led him to some stranger’s apartment for no reason other than my own perverse amusement. I find none.
When he steps inside, his eyes sweep through the lush greeneries that have overtaken every inch of the living room, kitchen, and, he gathers, the bathroom and bedroom as well. Vines sneak up behind his back. The entanglement of roots on the floor he clocks as a tripping hazard he’ll have to navigate with grace as to not embarrass himself. The musty scent is like being inside a moss womb that’s equally freeing, like being out in the forest fresh after a downpour, and claustrophobic, each breath thick with oxygen. I explain none of it. “Oh, yeah, this is the Plant,” I say, with a sweeping gesture. “Do you want any wine?”
We fuck on my mattress suspended in a pool of shrubbery, befitting an animated heroine, like this is where Sleeping Beauty rests in her off time, just for old times’ sake. He goes unimaginably still and announces that he’s cum and rolls off of me. It was pleasant enough, but he fidgets and glances around the room for his discarded clothing, devoured by the living nursery, looking for a clean exit, like the vomiting up of semen contained the last of his interest in me and his patience in this plant situation. His distaste for me seemed as tangible as the used condom that was slung on the floor, hanging on a low root jutting upwards. He turns and looks at me and says “I have to be up early tomorrow for work” and before he can finish the sentence a branch, a thick meaty one, falls from the ceiling and smacks him right in the throat.
“What the fuck,” he shouts.
“I think the Plant knows you’re lying,” I say playfully, ignoring the blood red mark on his throat. I give him a shove, for lying, but because he’s skinny and works in tech and sits around all day and probably has scoliosis, he slides right off the bed and into the gnarly, knotted roots that have formed there.
He says some pretty cruel things about me and the Plant and how it’s so fucking weird, but he can’t find his shirt and finally just gives up and says one more loud fuck like punctuation. He storms out and that’s okay. He was a liar anyway. And we don’t need liars around here.
As he leaves, I’m thankful to the Plant for protection, I say so out loud, but inside, I worry that this skinny marink, like my dad would’ve called him, had a point, that this was weird, that eating nothing but fruits from my apartment Plant is not a worthwhile diet and my rapid weight loss has not made me svelte but disfigured, that relying on the Plant to keep me safe from people like him and emotions like him and memories like him is not protection at all, but a form of confinement, the only place where safety can exist is under his canopy. But I can’t let those thoughts eek out. I refuse. I want this. I love my Plant. I know I’m giving in to his whims and his outbursts of violence, the branch finding the man’s throat not the first of his aversion to mistruths, and I know that he knows I’m giving in, by letting this man leave like that, his way of testing me, and I failed – or passed – and now he has the freedom to push and push and push and he does.
He starts to grow again at an unprecedented rate until the floors crack beneath him and he falls and extends into the apartment below. I shouldn’t have taken the step to invite someone over, and he lets me know that. He crawls through windows and burrows under pavement and reaches 109A and 204C and the hallway and the stairwell. He wants to overwhelm, but I carry on nonetheless, as if this was normal. As if overnight, he became the roommate I couldn’t stand, those benign habits turning into infuriating pet peeves – putting the forks away tines down or leaving shavings in the sink – but instead of asking him to change, instead of putting my foot down, I simply went around it all and made him and the avoidance and acceptance of him a part of the routine, a part of me.
I learn to swing my way across the chasms he’s created in the concrete of the first floor that plunge into the parking garage below by grasping his loose vines and pulling them back and getting a running start. My forearms and shoulders and back expand and bulge and strengthen and my core is fucking phenomenal. I could snap a nut in half with my abs if the moment ever presented itself in a natural way, egged on at a party perhaps and done in a quick and embarrassed way that is both humble and terrifying. I barely need the running start at all in a couple weeks’ time and can swing from one vine to the next, Tarzaning my way about the complex he’s taken over, now two entire floors and then some. He thought he was testing my limits, he thought he could break me, but I showed him that I could adapt and he doesn’t like that, no, he does not, not one bit.
The Plant starts to scream. He makes this ungodly noise – it isn’t quite singing and it isn’t quite shrieking, but it has the melody of melancholy and pain sowed in its discordant and unpredictable sharp notes – all hours of the day. The few neighbors complain, but most have moved by now, the pavement on the sidewalk churned up by roots, the stench of rotting fibers in the sun, and now the wailing, destroying their property value and their sanity. The small coalition is powerless and gives up and joins the rest, moving in with relatives, leaving the country, using this story for their podcasts. The Plant slides under their vacant house and apartment doors and continues his march. The only one left is me.
My teeth clench and I stuff my ears with cotton swabs. I eat the souring fruit he provides until he produces no more. I stop telling him my stories. He grows from the memories, I think, my memories, the ones I fed him with. He can tell I’m hungry now, and fading, and I stop swinging from room to room and stay still. He closes off the entryways, his brown-green tendrils growing together like fumbling hands intertwining in the dark of a movie theater. His canopy bends together blocking out the light.
In the dark, I can feel him breathe in a way I couldn’t in the light. I saw him breathe before, lying in the Home Depot, the hint of life there, and somewhere deep inside, I know I should’ve curb stomped him out of existence then and there like Calvin probably would’ve done if I wasn’t around. I know I need to end him now. I need to find the remains of the stove in my old apartment, the only part of his ever-growing forest I can navigate in the dark, from memory alone, and turn the gas on high until one spark can—boom. He knows what I’m thinking, how could he not, he knows, and so he also knows that I can’t, I can’t kill him. I don’t want to. He’s too strong, and too beautiful, and too unique of a plant, and I raised him, unlike all the others before, I raised him until he thrived too much, until he was too much of a plant. Who could destroy nature like this?
And so I speak my first words in what must be – days? weeks? minutes? – a while, and they’re raspy from the lack of moisture in my throat and fuel in my body to operate the hundred and six muscles that operate the human voice. “I want to leave now.” And he considers. And he opens up a small portal. And I crawl and he scratches and claws at me the whole way, intentional or not it’s hard to tell, the thorns and jagged branches just a natural part of him, and a pinprick of light guides me and I lurch out into the street, a full block from my apartment. He had become a city block, the entirety of it.
It takes some time, to peel my blood-wet body off of the sidewalk, to regain my form, to find a job that allows for an eight-month gap in a resume explained away in half-truths and pleasant jokes enforced with the guttural undertone of don’t-dig-any-deeper-trust-me, to find an apartment for my financial and personal limitations, to find one that I can be on my own, but still have a view, from many floors up, to see several blocks away where a jungle grows in the middle of a city. No one lives there anymore, but those driving by it on either side rubberneck and observe and speculate how it came to be, sharing stories laced with fear, scared of it, entranced by it, breathing in its scents with their windows rolled down. I will watch it from afar and I will let it be.