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Fiction issue: The Plants

May 1, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Andrea stood at the kitchen counter carefully mincing garlic and sautéing a pepper. The sizzle of the skillet sounded loud in her small sterile apartment.

“There’s no point in pouting, Steve,” she said as she chopped. Steve said nothing. She glared at him over her glasses. “And I’d appreciate it if you stopped turning yellow around the edges.”

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Steve said nothing. Steve never said anything, not that she expected him to. He was the first and the last of her plants. A tall and stately marginata that she had originally mistaken for a sickly palm tree, Steve was the beginning of the greenhouse.

There had never really been a greenhouse; they were too poor and too young, too full of brilliant ideas that could never be manufactured into concrete reality. But Steve, and then later the bamboo, the lemon tree, the peace plant, the insipid orchids (that stopped blooming immediately and never resurrected themselves) stood as hopeful sentinels for a dreamed-up future. As they over took the apartment they shared, Andrea saw how a person could love plants with a strange geeky meticulousness that was maddening and endearing. He had loved the plants.

And now Steve was all that remained.

At the start, or rather right after, Andrea had demanded that all the plants remain together. It made no difference that Andrea had always neglected the plants; now that they were her sole responsibility, she felt obligated to them. Even the dormant hyacinth and the pathetic poinsettia clinging to life. In August, none of them would be given away or composted.

No one said anything when she packed up all the plants in the U-Haul, next to her bed and one bookshelf. It was clear that she wasn’t in a place to listen to practicality. So her sister, who’d once been a florist, gave her careful instructions about the care of several of the plants. How not to over-water them, sunlight guidelines and tips on soil aeration. For the first time, Andrea listened diligently. She took notes.

But the 1,500 miles in a U-Haul was hard on the plants, and several did not weather the journey. Andrea cried miserably when the plant expert at Home Depot said that there was nothing to be done for the lemon tree. It was worse when the bamboo got yellow and sickly; she cut it back, she gave it a new pot, but whatever rot had gotten into it would not be dislodged. She buried the bamboo in a local park; she’d brought the other living plants with her so they could pay their respects. She suspected Steve thought the whole thing rather macabre. But Steve said nothing.

In the six months since the move, the plants had dwindled in number. Andrea couldn’t fathom their apparent suicide pact. She watered them with the blue plant food, she monitored their sun intake, and she was wary of bacteria and plant-killing fungi and left her shoes in the hall away from the plants. Yet still, one by one, they perished.

When their numbers had become small enough, she began to set them on the couch with her in the evenings. Together she and Steve and the others would watch reruns of her favorite shows. She’d cry at the same tired lines over and over again, the blue light highlighting the shadows beneath her eyes. She thought Steve might be worried about her. Sometimes she felt his concern as a tangible thing, and so she’d put on a brave face.

More of the plants died.

It had been a year almost to the day, and now in the kitchen it was just Andrea, Steve and the dormant hyacinth that’d made a brilliant display of life several months ago and promptly went back into hibernation. Steve was not looking his best.

Andrea took a stern tone, “You’re being ridiculous,” she said. “And frankly, after everything I’ve done for you, I find this extremely ungrateful.” She sighed. “You’re better than this, Steve.”

Steve, of course, said nothing. Andrea got down on her knees in front of the plant, his long leaves shown in the fluorescent light. She touched them reverently. Carefully, she began the slow process of pruning his dead and dying leaves. As the pile grew, Andrea felt her eyes water.

“Just stop it, Steve. Just stop doing this.” She took a long, shuddering breath. The pile of leaves on the floor was equal to the remaining leaves on Steve. He looked shorn, bereft. He’d lost a lot of weight.

“You can do better,” she said. “He’d want you to do better. Don’t you see that, Steve? You’re screwing this up.” Andrea bit her lip to stave off the tears. “Don’t you understand? We got you together. You were his favorite — I didn’t even want you! So you’ve got to stop doing this. It isn’t fair. He fought so hard for you.”

Andrea sucked in a shaky breath.

“You know he’s never coming back. It’s just me, and that sucks … I know. That’s why I took you all when we buried the bamboo. I need you to understand that there is no farm upstate, there is no vacation, there is simply nothing. There is no coming back. Get it? It’s just you and me, Steve.”

Andrea stared at the marginata for a long time, as though willing it to thrive. She’d sat like this once before, not on the kitchen floor of a faceless apartment, but in an uncomfortable chair in a faceless hospital. Now, as then, she felt the helplessness of imposing her will on a beloved being.

There was nothing more to be done. But she sat there staring, hoping and willing. Steve said nothing, but Andrea imagined him bending to her desperate need. She’d been strong and let Thomas go, for there was no pruning or soil aeration to bring him back. But she could do that for Steve. She needed to do that for both of them.

And Steve knew that.

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