Jill Kolongowski

The Cactus Is a Very Independent Plant

We can’t seem to stop buying plants. We’re both 25, suddenly adults, and the plants feel like we’re doing it right. Well, Charlie is the one who takes care of the plants and I do nothing but try to stay away. But the living green leaves and Charlie’s daily waterings make me feel capable by proxy.

He grew up wearing his brother’s hand-me-down jeans. His father poked extra holes in his little belts because the pants were five sizes too big. When the junk mail comes, he doesn’t throw it away but instead reads all the circulars and cuts coupons for ground turkey and frozen waffles. He is not a worrier like I am but he still stockpiles nonperishable food like he’s preparing for the worst. We’ve been together for eleven years and he still cooks my eggs over easy every Saturday morning. He gets upset when the yolk breaks. He’s terrified of having children. If he were a plant he’d be a pine tree—steadfast in all kinds of weather and smelling great.

I grew up in a house in the woods so I usually prefer silence to people. I like to eat breakfast for dinner because I like beginnings better than endings. I keep a box full of all the cards I’ve received for the past 13 years. I think throwing them away would be like giving up. I feel bad for my least-used pens because they might feel neglected. Kids like me even though I’m never sure how to talk to them. Lately I can’t talk about having kids without crying. Not because I want them badly. I am so unsure about children that it makes me feel like a terrible person. A good mother would definitely know. If I were a plant, well—I wouldn’t be. I have a bad habit of killing plants.

One winter, while moving from Michigan to Boston, I left my aloe plant in the car overnight. In the morning I remembered it, brought the plant inside, and wrapped the stalks in warm towels. I stood guard and shooed away the cat. But the stalks had frozen, and it was never the same after that. Before, I used to cut off the plant’s stalks and spread the aloe gel on my skin when I burned myself on the oven, then marveled at the way the stalks always grew back, like the arms of a starfish. The aloe plant was a cutting from my dead great-grandmother’s plant. Even though the plant was done, I could not throw it away.

One day when my mother came to visit, while I was away at work, my mother threw the sagging aloe plant away and replaced it with a cactus. I felt betrayed, but my mother was better at knowing when to get rid of things. Soon I started to feel affection for the squat, ugly cactus anyway.

“The cactus is a very independent plant,” my mother said, “Like you.” Really she meant It will be hard for you to kill a cactus.

But sooner or later I will spill the cactus’s dirt, and it will rot and start to turn black. Each day, a line of black will creep farther up the cactus’s sides like it’s drowning in itself. Soon the cactus will be completely black and start to lose its thickness, like a deflating balloon, like lungs slowing and stopping. I left it on the counter to punish myself. I worried that I was toxic. Cacti were supposed to be impossible to kill and yet somehow I’d managed it.

“I think this is dead,” Charlie said to me, pointing at the blackened, shriveled cactus. I agreed to throw it away. He held the trash bag open while I tipped the pot inside. The cactus thumped to the bottom in a heap next to eggshells, coffee grounds, expired coupons. He put a hand on my back while I tied the bag shut.

Later Charlie decides he wants to try growing some fruits and vegetables because it will save us money and he thinks it will be fun. We go to the nursery at Home Depot and I watch while he holds two lettuce plants up to the light. I try not to let it bother me. What makes him think he can do better than I can? He has never even been a babysitter. I tell him not to buy any plants that are discounted.

While he compares chocolate mint and peppermint plants, I go to look at the succulents. I fall in love with the tiny desert gardens in pots no bigger than teacups. The neon-flowered cacti are the size of shot glasses; the aloe plant’s stalks are shorter than my pinkie finger. He comes over to me, cradling boxes of strawberry plants.

“Why don’t you pick out an herb?” he asks me. I feel a miniature heartbreak leaving the miniature gardens, but I know they’re safer without me.

In the end we buy a cilantro plant, germinated soybeans, a cutting from a lemon tree, a cucumber vine, a strawberry plant, a pepper plant, and a houseplant with small teardrop-shaped leaves, for good measure. I am concerned about how we will fit a lemon tree in our living room. I’m concerned none of the plants will get enough sunlight. I am concerned that he’s not worried about these things.

Charlie buys a trowel, gloves, fertilizer, and a special grow light for the soybeans. I remind him, gently, that we live in a one-bedroom apartment with no garden.

He says, “They will only grow as big as their pots.” I wonder if this is true for people. At our apartment, he sets up the soybeans and their special light in the storage unit, like eggs in an incubator. He lines the other pots in a neat row on the porch.

The lemon tree, the cilantro plant, and the soybeans die almost immediately. I think it’s a good thing we have plenty of cans of tuna and packages of Ritz crackers from buy-one-get-one-free sales. He shrugs and says, “That happens.” But he leaves the soybeans’ special light on, as if they might resurrect.

He reads articles on the internet, trowels, buys new fertilizer, trowels some more. I don’t help at all, other than to lift the weak leaves with my finger and check for fruit. I am afraid, so instead I do the dishes, standing far away from the plants and letting water run down the drain.
Outside on the porch, the cucumber vine bears one strangely prickly, L-shaped cucumber. It will be ready when the prickles go away, so we wait to pick it. It’s not big enough for a meal so I plan two tiny salads, three slices of cucumber on each. But the prickles never go away. The cucumber yellows and hangs dejected from its vine. Not even the squirrels will touch it.

Our favorite is the small bushy houseplant in a yellow pot. It had been sitting so long in Home Depot, buried by other plants, that its leaves were dusty. It dropped brown leaves at first, but we think this is just left over from the underwatering, the fluorescent lights. We think we are doing the plant a favor, reviving it with daily water. But still the brown leaves fall; there seem to be thousands of them.

One night I came home late after too much wine. I was trying to pretend I was not drunk, so I lay down to sleep on the couch. When I woke up to try and put myself to bed, I lost my balance and fell and my entire weight landed on the plant. I was so drunk I couldn’t think of the word branch for the thing I broke. In my head I called it a bough instead.

Soon green leaves start to fall too. After a week away on a trip, the plant starts to look sickly. “It really doesn’t look well,” I say, like it’s a dying relative. I try not to think it’s my fault. Charlie sits on the floor next to the plant and begins to prune. Even more of the plant was dead than I expected. When he’s done, the plant barely resembles a bush. It looks naked from the waist down. The remaining leaves are bright green but I do not feel hopeful. Charlie puts on fertilizer. I open the blinds at three o’clock, when the sun comes right in our apartment window. The leaves continue to fall.

I love to watch him water the plants. He goes out sleep-headed in the morning, wearing boxers. He knows the right amount of water for each plant. After the soybean seeds have been dead for weeks, he finally turns the special light off. The lemon tree has become only a dead twig with dried-up leaves, stuck upright in the dirt.

“I think this is dead,” I tell him.

“But it has roots,” he says. He tugs on the plant. “I can feel them.” He does not throw the lemon tree away. Meanwhile, the strawberry plant blooms one green strawberry, but does not flower again. I wonder if this is what having children will be like.

“Someday we’ll have a backyard for an avocado tree,” he says. He is optimistic. I try to figure out how many more plants can die in a whole backyard. Too many. I worry.

Somehow, the pepper plant survives. Over and over again its tiny white flowers turn into long green peppers. Charlie discovers that they turn red if you wait long enough. He picks each one carefully, so as not to disturb the others. He trims any dead stems back. I don’t really like peppers, but when he cooks tacos on Thursday nights and mixes pepper slices in with the meat, I tell him that it’s perfect every time.

 

Jill KolongowskiJill Kolongowski grew up and learned how to survive winter in Michigan. She teaches writing at a community college and is the managing editor at YesYes Books. Recently, Jill was a fellow at the Artist Artsmith residency in the San Juan Islands. Her essays have won Sundog Lit’s First Annual Contest series and the Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Creative Nonfiction at Lunch Ticket magazine. Other essays are published in Forklift, Ohio, Southern Indiana Review, Fugue, and elsewhere. Jill writes, kills plants, and watches Chopped marathons in a sunny apartment south of San Francisco.

 

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