Watch Love Grow

We laughed at the wedding invitation when it arrived. It wasn’t for the wedding of anyone I knew—a cousin of Sam’s, a boy he’d played with at a few family picnics when they were both twelve and mean, one of those swift, short affairs of childhood, when what is kindred changes quickly. It was a pre-invitation actually, a save-the-date notice, just one page, a pretty font on that mulchy recycled paper. Watch Love Grow! it commanded. A pink ribbon secured two paper hearts to the card. The hearts were extra mulchy, like paper-mache, and flecked with what looked like bits of potpourri. In smaller font were instructions for how to plant the hearts. Supposedly, the potpourri would spawn wildflowers.
“Kind of risky, don’t you think?” I asked Sam. “I mean, cute, but what percentage of their wedding guests can keep houseplants alive?” My perception of the general population’s ability to do this is skewed by my own incompetence. “Even if everyone plants these hearts, which is unlikely, how many will survive long enough to watch love grow more than a few inches? Do you think the results will suggest anything beyond the usual 50% marriage success rate?”

“Obviously, we have to plant it,” said Sam, “so that at the wedding we can let them know their odds of survival.”

The next day, I lugged a bag of soil home from the store in my reusable grocery bag with all our yogurt and sliced turkey. I know this was only a couple potted scraps of paper, but even on the walk home it felt like a mistake. I had enough things that needed to be perpetually redone, like laundry, groceries, and cleaning the bathroom. The only thing I did over and over again that didn’t feel like spinning my wheels in death’s direction was Sam. Planting something new to tend seemed dumb. 

But planting love was easy. I am good at following instructions. “You’ve got a secret green thumb!” Sam said over the phone while I washed the dirt off my hands. Sam also likes to think of my cooking ability as an innate gift, like my being able to paint his likeness on a canvas—a fantasy in both cases, not that I mind. That might have been the first complement he’d given me since the affair. 

It being summer, I figured the plant had a shot. I stuck the pot on the southern facing windowsill in our bedroom, behind the curtain we never open because the window is next to the closet, where I frequently dress, and because it looks directly out onto our downstairs neighbors’ back yard, where our neighbors frequently drink beer among their rusted auto parts and patio furniture, and get into shouting matches.

Then I forgot about it. Every day I stood next to the drawn curtain of that window, naked, contemplating my closet and sighing. It’s so easy to forget about things you don’t see, things you don’t trip over on the way to the bathroom. A week or so later I went looking for sponges under the kitchen sink and saw the bag of leftover soil, and a bolt of guilt struck me, sending me behind the bedroom window curtain. Nothing had sprouted, and the soil looked shrunken and dry. I couldn’t even sink my finger into it.

“So much for watching love grow,” I said to Sam, who was at work. Over the past few months we’d gotten back into the habit of a midday conversation. Through the phone I could hear him slurping the yogurt/apple/cereal mixture he eats for lunch every day. “Apparently I don’t have enough of a green thumb to watch love sprout.”

Sam shifted the phone and cleared his throat. “Well, who do they think they are anyway—Watch Love Grow? They make it seem like a passive activity: just sit and look on while the plant does its thing.” He burped. “More like, ‘try not to kill love before it has a chance to reach maturity.’” I snorted. “Kind of like ‘having kids’; as if all you do is just have them, like you have a bathmat, or a cold.”

I kept filling our bathroom rinse cup and emptying it into the pot, as much to procrastinate cleaning the pot than in any hope that love might yet grow.

But then it did. First a tentative green thread nudged up, as if to survey the land. Then, less tentative. I guess the land looked safe enough. Though I can’t say it thrived, exactly. I’d forget about it for a week or two, until something jogged the fact of its existence free from the crags of my peripheral consciousness.  I’d run to the bedroom, pull aside the curtain, and there the plant would be: an inch or two taller and on the cusp of death, its soil ashen and desiccated. I’d empty the rinse cup into the pot and promptly forget about it again. In this way it grew nearly a foot tall—a spindly, neglected plant—lovely in the way of ruined children.

It was at least a month before I noticed the bud. Was it a bud? The invitation had predicted wildflowers would grow. It was just a green nubble when I first noticed it—no bigger than a raisin. Ten days later I could see its shape.

It looked like an animal, a green guppyish fetus, huddled against the plant’s stalk underneath a leaf. I could have sworn a tiny vertebral ridge divided its back, ending in what looked like the twin globes of a miniscule green buttocks. Was I creating an optical illusion, like those illustrations that could be something, or could be nothing depending on when you looked at it—you know, is it a wineglass, or two faces in profile? Is it a sailboat, or just a mush of pixilated color? Passion, or recklessness? A good idea, or a terrible one? From a yard away it just looked like a green bud. Up close, it looked like a bumpy bud. But once I saw the sense of its bumps, I couldn’t avoid connecting them into a human shape.

“Look at this!”

Sam wandered over in boxers, brushing his teeth.

“Luff ruf ruf?” he said, his mouth full of toothpaste.

“What?”

“Ruf?”

“This!” I pointed at the plant.

He leaned forward and nodded appreciatively, drooling toothpaste foam down his chin.

“No,” I said, “closer!” I pointed right at the bud.

Sam leaned in closer. He stood up and shrugged.

“It looks like a person!” I said, in case it really was like one of those optical illusions and he needed to look at it differently, squint or something.

Sam walked away from me. When he came back, he had lost the toothbrush but still had a little white on his chin.

“Nature mimics itself,” he said. “You say that all the time, ‘everything is analogous’ and whatever.”

“This is not analogous to a human shape; it is one,” I said.

“Well maybe it’s not an analogy, but sure ain’t got anatomy!” He guffawed.

“Good one, Dad,” I said, but couldn’t help smiling. I pointed again. “Look! It has a butt, Sam. A butt.”

He didn’t look again. “Come on babe, all God’s creatures are just variations on the same plan. You always say that lilies freak you out because they smell so human. The only difference between looking and smelling is the sense that you perceive it with.” He nodded at me encouragingly. “You don’t go around convinced that every lily you see is a little, funky smelling person.”

It was true about the lilies. Although lured at the florist by their meaty petals and deep throats, I am always relieved when they die, despite the guilty pangs as I break their necks into the garbage can. Birds of paradise are worse, less ambiguous, so I’m not fooled into buying them—their sticky petals oozing like an infected eye, a gummy mouth that might scream if you trimmed the fat stem. Though I wanted to give in to the comfort of his logic, I knew the plant on our windowsill was different from lilies or birds of paradise. It didn’t offend me, but it did have a spine, and a few days later what looked like tiny feet. 

I stopped forgetting about it. It only got bigger and more human as time passed, although it retained that optical illusion quality. Sometimes when I glanced at it—which I did compulsively now, like worrying a scab, half hoping it would disappear, half fearing it might—I couldn’t see its human shape; for a moment it would look like a lumpy bud again, just a husk filled with young petals waiting to emerge. I didn’t mention it to Sam again, which felt weirdly secretive, because I started to actually fear his looking at it. I wanted him to forget about it. Was I afraid he would see how much more human it had become, or that he wouldn’t see it at all?

I touched it once. I’d started giving it special plant food that I had to add to the water in the rinse cup with an eyedropper. Watching the enriched water sink into the soil one day, I noticed a blemish on the bud’s back. It was small, but pointed, like a pimple, or maybe a thorn struggling to break through the skin. Cautiously, I reached out my finger and brushed it as lightly as I could. The bud clenched like a little fist, contracting under its leaf. Its tiny shoulders shifted, knees drawing tighter in against its chest. Its vertebrae wriggled and I swear I could see the miniature rungs of its ribs. I snatched my hand back, shamed by the sudden awareness of my power to hurt it, the extreme self-centeredness of heeding impulse.

Soon after that, I noticed Muzzy noticing the plant. Muzzy is our cat. Sam named him after a green cartoon monster featured in language learning videos that Sam’s mother used to force upon him as a child. In the videos, Muzzy the monster would always be lumbering around, popping up from behind things to spout French grammar. Muzzy the cat is also lumbering, and shares that surprising agility when it comes to appearing out of nowhere with a wild-eyed look, dropping onto the back of the couch from somewhere above and staring intensely at us. He is not a graceful cat, both fat and muscular, with a nervous, masculine face. Sam does an impression of the cartoon Muzzy’s voice when Muzzy the cat appears in this manner, intoning with a kind of fey, maniacal tone: “Je NE sais PAS, Mama! Je prends LE fromage! VouLEZ vous couchEZ avec moi?”

Muzzy started stalking the plant. He had never spent much time in the bedroom before that—always preferring the arm of the couch, which was permanently furred with a coat of his hair, or the tops of the kitchen cabinets—so I noticed right away. He started lying on my pillow, his thick limbs spread, paws kneading away lustily as he stared through the break between the window curtain and the wall. The plant became so dignified in its vulnerability. But I was worried. I started shutting the bedroom door whenever I left the apartment.

“It gets so goddamn hot in here when you shut the door; there’s no crosswind,” said Sam.

“Sorry baby, I didn’t mean to.” But I kept not meaning to. I just knew that if I came home and the bud was gone, I would never feel the same toward Muzzy.

Meanwhile, the little bump grew. The area around it appeared tight and swollen. Just looking at it gave me the pangs of anxiety that thoughts of infection always do. I thought about dousing it with hydrogen peroxide, but it was a plant. Who knew if I’d end up killing necessary bacteria? The memory of its flinch was enough to keep me away. Its instructions had, after all, indicated that I was supposed to “watch” love grow. I told myself to stop anthropomorphizing the plant, but it wasn’t such an easy argument to make about something that had feet and a butt.

Then it sprouted. Sam was telling me about his lodging a complaint to Verizon about the logo on their headquarters building when I first noticed.

“I mean, I just wrote it on the phone bill before I sent it back with our payment. I didn’t mention the atrocity of how much that was,” he grumbled while unpacking clean t-shirts from a laundry bag.

I was sorting the clean socks and underwear into piles on the bed.

“I said, listen, I am fortunate enough to be able to ride the subway over the Manhattan Bridge twice a day, and have the opportunity to take in one of the most beautiful skylines in the world, and I’m sick of your goddamn corporate graffiti ruining my view!” I’d noticed an edge to his rants that didn’t used to be there, but still it made me happy, to see him being so himself again.

It was then that I glimpsed it through that crack in the curtain—a dab of white on the bud’s back.

Sam continued, “I mean, can I enjoy the beauty of river and sky and skyline, without having to look at the Verizon logo emblazoned on the horizon. You know?”

I had been peering through the crack in the window curtain with a pair of his boxer briefs in my hand, and having not heard from me, Sam turned around. “Are you listening to me? Do I just sound like a total jackass?”

“No. No! I agree, it’s totally toxic, a toxic symbol. It’s enough to have corporate branding coming at you from bus shelters and movie screens and the tops of cabs.”

“What are you looking at out there?” He bent his head to peer behind the curtain.

“Nothing! I mean, the only thing is, you know, who is going to really read that?” I was talking fast now, and moving toward him for distraction. “I mean, who really reads the billing statement you mail in?”

“Well obviously no one with any power,” Sam grinned. “But hopefully someone who it will get a chuckle out of it. Or maybe a rise to revolution.” He scooped the pile of his paired socks off the bed triumphantly and dropped them into his dresser drawer before skidding down the hallway into the kitchen.

I pulled back the window curtain to fully investigate the plant. There was indeed a white nub, like a tiny clenched flower, protruding from the bud’s back, having clearly emerged from the painful bump. I resisted touching it, an urge propelled by an excitement that sprouted in me as I looked at the bud on the bud. Who knew what might flower from this determined little nodule? As much as the secrecy of my obsession with the plant worried me, it also exhilarated. Having unknown parts can make you feel bigger, as if you’ve sprouted a sidecar, a trailer, a renovated basement that only you have access to.

So I kept watching, kept the bedroom door shut, kept fortifying the rinse-cup water with the eyedropper, kept thrilling to my bizarre secret, until something else bizarre happened. Sam’s cousin, just a few months before his wedding, died. He was killed by a vending machine. His cousin had delivered vending machines for a living, Sam informed me after he hung up the phone, looking shell-shocked. A faulty forklift had sent one tipping over right on top of him. A lawsuit was already in the works.

Death has strange effects on folks, and his cousin’s death affected Sam more than I would have expected. I mean, depressing enough to be packing to go to someone’s funeral instead of his wedding, but this cousin was exactly Sam’s age. Having only your personhood in common with the dead can be enough to send you reeling. Thank god I’d suppressed the impulse to laugh when he told me.

I left detailed plant-feeding instructions with the cat-sitter, and we spent the weekend in Boston, sleeping in a shitty motel in Medford. They held a wake on Saturday, the funeral on Sunday. I’ve known Sam’s mother for the eight years we’ve been together, but there was never an occasion to meet the extended family. Sam’s family’s smallness surprised me; most of the attendees were women, and I got the sense that the men in the family had a habit of dying first. Sam’s own father lives in California with the woman he married after Sam’s mother. In the cemetery, I stood between Sam and his mother, who quietly wept into her silk scarf. At the reception, while Sam was pulled from one teary aunt to another, I hovered near the food with one Uncle Herm. Uncle Herm didn’t seem so much sad as resigned, not only to the death of his nephew, but to everything.

“A real shame,” he said between deviled eggs, “a real sorry shame.”

I nodded and grimaced, my gaze following Sam across the room as he kissed cheek after cheek. Watching his suit jacket strain as he bent over to kiss someone’s baby, I felt the itch of unexpected tears, my own heart stretched around a sudden tenderness.

“More people are killed each year by vending machines than by sharks,” Uncle Herm informed me.

Between the two long days of Sam’s sadness, I dreamed wildly in our motel bed. I dreamed of plant-creatures with great peonies drooping from their backs, foreboding black-eyed Susans, genital orchids. I dreamed of plants with snapping teeth, buds that scurried under furniture and up walls on their little green feet. I dreamed that Muzzy sprouted a vine from his anus from which sour green berries grew, like those my sister and I spat at each other as children.

The night following the funeral, we drove for hours, swooping down Storrow Drive’s smooth curves, under the canopy of Memorial Drive, through the blue lights of the suspension bridge on Route 93, watching the giant Citco sign flash, the moon turn from yellow to white, the world unveiled sharper and more painfully infinite than usual.

Sam decided to stay for an extra day; his uncle had died of cancer the year before, and Sam’s mother said she needed a man around to help out with things, such as canceling the wedding arrangements. I felt proud that he was such a man, a man to be counted on for things. I said that of course I understood, though as we said our goodbyes my stomach fluttered with an irrational fear that I might never see him again, this man who could be counted on to cancel wedding arrangements, and to forgive.

As my train slid through Connecticut, I watched the backs of homes glide by, yards scattered with toys, tires, bicycles, and children deep in play. While that tenderness still hummed in the background, I was not thinking of Sam. I was thinking, of course, about my plant. When it had gone from the to my I don’t know. I couldn’t help looking forward to some time alone with it. Of course, I felt a little guilty in my excitement, being on my way home from a funeral, and speeding away from my grieving boyfriend. But I had shown up, hadn’t I? I had wanted to be there for him, to be really awake for his sadness, even though it was uncomfortable, the funeral awkward. But the plant didn’t require any of that, see; it made me feel awake just watching it. It proved that anything was possible.

Still. I couldn’t help worrying about where it all was going. Secrets don’t keep forever, especially the mysterious ones, the ones you don’t know why you’re keeping. Those are like plants themselves, whose strange fruit is something to be feared.

I practically jogged home from the subway, my suitcase wheels bouncing over every crack in the sidewalk. 

No need. Muzzy was waiting for me, yowling behind the door while I turned my key. As I walked in, dusky light washing the apartment in gray, he wobbled on the arm of the couch, staring at me, emanating that preternatural sense of something amiss. Maybe cats always emanate that, but in this case it was appropriate. I dropped my suitcase and ran into the bedroom, yanking aside the window curtain. It was gone. The plant remained, but the bud was gone. I moaned, and felt as I had as a child, turning off the television: as if suddenly all the vitality in the world had been sucked away, into the vacuum of that blankness. I reached out and pinched the leaf under which the bud had grown. Only a tiny thread of green remained, as if a new leaf had been torn off. The plant’s stalk swayed when I pulled my hand away. Then I noticed the flower resting in the dirt of the pot. An immaculate white, its many petals crowded in, obscuring any center, like a small, ruffled button. I carefully plucked it out of the dirt and held it in the palm of my hand.

I don’t know how long I stood there, looking at that little flower. At some point Muzzy came in and wound himself around my ankles. I didn’t kick him away. The darkness thickened, and I felt a breeze slip through the partially open window, splashing against my bare knees, smelling of autumn. The longer I stood there, the more it seemed everything would be all right. If I could just stand there, like a plant quietly growing in the dark, until Sam got home, everything would be fine. I finally did fall asleep, and woke the next morning atop the made bed, scattered in tiny white petals.

Contributor

Melissa Febos

MELISSA FEBOS is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Dissent, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers, and she is the recipient of fellowships from Bread Loaf, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. www.melissafebos.com

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