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A HOUSEPLANT, UPDATED: FICTION BY EMILY DONOVAN

DOPPLER EFFECT BY GAY DEGANI
May 28, 2019
THIS IS HOW I MAKE MY ESCAPE: FICTION BY NICHOLAS GRIDER
May 30, 2019

A Houseplant, Updated

 

What I remember first about my nursery is the splinters in the air. My cousins and I sat in the end cap of the lumber section during the days. Men in orange aprons used to joke that one day a project manager might want us as site mascots. We didn’t really mind the neighborhood, snuggling into our 2-inch pots and watching strangers ask for directions to their tree bones of choice. From my clay perch on the second-to-bottom shelf, I would steal glances at the underskirts of my extended family, and their dry, orange-brown terra cotta containers made me extra proud of my teal clay pot with hand-painted blue diamonds and squares. Wary 23-year-olds read our informational signs word by word before carrying off the cheapest among us, leaving me and my more expensive siblings to our stretches.

In the evenings, the aprons pushed our cart out of the automated doors to rest with the other families. We talked to some in between their mistings, hearing of their indirect sunlight care routines and the soilware that made the difference between flimsiness and the kind of petals that would get them picked and potted. We feared for them in their gossamer plastic trays and wished them the best terra cotta in the world, or at least a wood bed outside a small business.

One morning, I was placed at the front of our shelf. I was partway through asking aloud whether my brother Haruto had finally given up on his leadership position when I remembered he had been carried off the day before. Another echeveria hakuhou, this one in a red pot, stood behind me, claiming to be my distant sister Akari. She prattled of our many other kid siblings and how she hoped each had found a place to belong, and it dawned on me that all my old friends had left our stand. Even my cousin Joshua – a stocky, lopsided crested cactus whose growth pattern made him look like a white-furred green turd squeezed out of a tube to top his pot to the brim and who swore like a scorcher  – and a few of his brothers had been carried off by the end of the previous week. New family members cycled in and out of my life, barely finishing piecing together how we fell on the same genus or at least same order before being taken away. It was me and my smooth, sturdy pot at the eye of a cyclone.

Who needs them, I decided. My pot and the sun’s warmth granted me reverie and it was my temper to rest alone in it, at least until the next hateful relocation between posts. I bore the comings and goings of extended family members with ease, but yearned for one home for me and my pot, for unqualified permanence.

It was a small woman with nearly concave shoulders who finally picked me up. She wore neon sunshine as a shirt, sunsets as eyeglasses, and the pre-dawn sky on her nails. I was a newborn green dipped in orange sherbert that month. She looked into me, inhaled and bloomed into smiles, and looked away. She carried me in her arms to the self-checkout and let me ride beside her in the front of her human cart. She was quiet and, unlike most of the people who browsed around us, had kept her eyes down to avoid the aprons, but now that we were alone, the music and I drew her out and she sang along by most of the choruses and cast her smiles at me in glances. I gasped as she drove into and out of the sunlight that poured through her windshields at me, but I reassured myself that wherever we went at least would be free of plywood and dust.

I loved Asia, as I later learned she was named, in a way that made sense of and corrected my previous world, like tasting rainfall after a drought. From the moment we arrived at her and her girlfriend’s apartment and I saw she had prepared a placemat to serve as an altar, I felt myself returning her devotion. She took great care to center the placemat on the entryway table and then me and my pot on it, and I stretched for her in the extended care her vision imparted. She left a mister bottle as sacrament near me but patted my soil every few days to inquire if I desired a spray. We passed lifetimes in mutual silent appreciation of one another, sometimes to a soundtrack of her television rambling as ambiance for our kinship.

Weekly, she allowed a chorus into her home. Each member admired me, asking for my name. Unwilling to limit my possibilities to a single definition, Asia gave me a new name for each week, which I wore until the next meeting of the chorus. The women would sit with Asia to compare notes on whatever book they had been working their way through. I never read them, though Asia’s special enthusiasm for the plights and victories in the weeks I was Alfred, Ginger, and Jaquon tempted interest. I’ve never been much of a talker anyway. I like to listen and bask.

Asia’s girlfriend I never liked as much. She is, if possible, a poorer peacock than the perennials. She walked right by without greeting me in any way the first time I saw her. She was trailing after Asia, asking her something about why it can’t “just be no big deal” if she checked Asia’s “phone” from time to time. “I wasn’t worried before,” the girlfriend was saying as she passed me, “but now you not wanting me to see it makes me uncomfortable.” The soft yellow entryway only made my sherbert tips stand out more against my green and teal body and pot, so there’s no way she should have missed me.

She made a show of not commenting on me for the first several weeks of our cohabitation. She checked her wrist reflection or her reflection on her “phone” as she walked by me. She chose to rehearse a presentation on quarterly earnings to an empty television rather than to me. I worried she could only see through bleak, shimmering surfaces. She only ever wore blacks, whites, or grays, so I knew she must be sick. Every time I looked at her I thought of the black fluid my cousin Rosa oozed from a lesion before she announced she was a goner and the aprons took her away. She must have truly had an issue with color, as one evening as they walked in past me she asked Asia if she wore the magenta dress just because she wanted others to hit on her and for the first time since I moved in Asia yelled – something about “Amber” was just trying to be nice.

I was Pookie when I discovered that Amber was a book chorus member and not the yellow resin. Asia’s girlfriend came home from work early that night to find Asia wearing raspberries in her top and the chorus leaning back on the couch with hardcovers in their laps. One of the members broke the silence by slapping her copy closed and saying “Bye, Pookie” on her way out the door, and the others followed. Asia’s girlfriend said she didn’t like Asia having people over while she wasn’t home and Asia said “Is this about Amber?” and “I live here too.”

By the end of that week, Asia must have been infected with whatever her girlfriend had, because she started only wearing grays and blacks too. She used to stand in the frame and look back to me before leaving to greet the sun each morning, but now she hurried into His gaze without pause. Multiple days that week, she failed to raise the blinds in the morning and I sat in the gloom alone until they both joined me in it wordlessly for the evenings. The chorus came earlier for book club the next week, before the sun was down, and they double-checked what time Asia said they would have to leave by. One left the stained and hardened leaf she used to mark her page under a couch pillow and I watched Asia’s girlfriend stand up and pace after she found it.

The next week, the temperature dropped dramatically and, shivering, the book club disbanded even earlier. When Asia’s girlfriend came home, she claimed the “app” on her phone that controlled the air conditioning must have glitched. The ladies brought sweaters, some forest green, some earthy red, one mid-afternoon blue, the next week. One asked Asia if everything was OK and she said yes, but she must not have been because she forgot to announce that my name that week was Jason and that night we sat in silence with no TV ambiance. Asia’s girlfriend must have been worried about her too because I watched her come home from work in the middle of the day when they usually let me have the shelter to myself and install shimmering bugs to keep an eye on her. She waved into the one tucked behind a candle on the bookshelf and watched the results on her phone.

That night, Asia’s girlfriend came home with a wrapped box and a bouquet of cut flowers. They were no one I knew, but escaping grief didn’t save me from alarm and her victorious smile made the scene all the more gruesome. While her girlfriend set the flowers’ carcasses in a glass display, Asia in gray unwrapped the box. It seemed full of delighted warmth, but, to my horror, Asia placed the grass, berries, and maple-stained leaves in with her trash. She did not use to be someone to allow such blessed colors to go discarded.

I should have known then.

Out of the box came a contraption whose cold appearance previewed only an ounce of its atrocity: eight legs sprouting from an empty bed, all the color of ooze shimmering in a far desert distance. It could have been an ode to a spider, if its cephalothorax weren’t hollow and its abdomen and chelicera missing. Asia read the box out loud: “Houseplants, Updated.” With some effort, her girlfriend demonstrated in the air and then on a countertop how the legs could bend and, together, march.

For the first time since my dominion in the apartment, Asia’s girlfriend approached me but, to my dissatisfaction, she lifted me from my shrine and into the kitchen where, still innocent, I did not understand why the device had come with potting soil.

“It can sense when the plant needs water or sunlight and it’ll take it there,” Asia’s girlfriend said. Asia stood behind her girlfriend, where I could not read her once-lively and expressive face. Perhaps signalling their betrayal, her once-midnight blue, once-petal pink, once ethereal sparkling nails now naked and plain handed her girlfriend a scoop from a drawer. “And it’s bluetooth,” Asia’s girlfriend continued as she lay an inch of soil in the titanium not-beast. I wished I could withdraw into myself, returning closer to my beloved pot and return the infancy I took for granted in the lumberyard. For the final time, I peaked over the teal edge that had always calmed me as a constant cool in my field of vision.

That I survived the procedure once feels a cruelty and I cannot bear to relive it in retelling. As the semi-moistened bed dried, I did all I could to resist my fate. Others before me may have given up after a day, but I would not embrace such a trap so eagerly. I consumed first one and then both of my plumpest outer leaves, letting each crumple beside me after sustaining me as evidence of my discontent. My ancestors, in their solemnity and immobility, would feel disgrace to see the wretch I had become. Asia, once excellent friend and congregant, averted eyes. When I realized proper moisturization was being intentionally withheld, I resolved to starve to death. I wish I had. And yet, despite my will, my roots sent themselves in search of water again – down, into the belly of the not-beast. The sun rose and fell and I cursed Him for his indifference.

My recovery came at a cold cost: firm dependency on my godless host. I had become one with a battery-powered operation. My eyes were unfocused and my state agitated. I recovered enough to survey the afternoon and found, to great personal pain, that the cut flowers had taken my place at the altar.

“Pookie is back on,” Asia’s girlfriend told her.

With a wave of loneliness, it occurred to me that Asia did not update her or me on my name.

Asia’s girlfriend was already powering my vessel up and syncing it to her phone as she asked “Shall we give him a test run?”

The earth lurched and fell a few inches further below me. Slowly, the winds hissed their disapproval.

“Looks like it’s working,” Asia’s girlfriend said.

She dared to lift me again, and this time set me without decorum on the tile floor. Asia watched me as if wondering how the heavens may punish the unsanctity of my circumstances. Asia’s girlfriend tapped her phone.

The earth fell to an angle, yet I remained aloft and still. Confounded, perhaps realizing its error, the world paused. Suddenly, the angle was reversed and passed by me by an inch. Another followed suit then another until, nauseous, I was let to rest in one of the evening sunstreaks striping a room I had never entered before and could not make sense of from the floor. A maze of wooden poles menaced nearby, at any moment capable of being scooted out directly onto me.

“I guess he needed some sun,” Asia’s girlfriend said.

Asia followed behind her girlfriend, her expression undivinable, her dress all black.

I was to be tortured, helpless to end my trials, and furthermore the device would optimize my embarrassing circumstances to maximize the length of my misfortunes. At least my cut comrades’ lives had had the dignity to end before they were mutilated and bound together and their decay put on display. I discovered the hard way that a mere tap on Asia’s girlfriend’s phone at her leisure would subject me to a demoralizing rankling. However, Asia called the routine my host inflicted upon me a “dance” and “kind of cute,” and, as she too had not expressed much pleasure since the procedure, I could not bear to steal from her this one even at my own peril.

Perhaps the book chorus could sense the misery floating from me. As the device did not deem it fit to indulge their pleas for a demonstration, they quickly lost interest beyond a simple “Huh, interesting” and returned to their discussions. One dawdled as the others filed outed, busying herself straightening pillows. She paused when she and Asia were alone then, with levity, asked her what my name was that week.

“Astro,” Asia said. She did not ask for my input on this new name as had been her way before.

The other woman paused. “Are you OK, Asia?” she asked. “You just haven’t been acting like yourself lately.”

“And how do you want to tell me to act?” Asia asked too loudly. The noise startled my host, which awoke and started to haul me away through the hallway. I could not make out their words above the whirring around me, but I saw the woman touch Asia’s hand where they stood – Asia’s hands that had once cared for me, patting my soil and testing my leaves, but had long been withheld. The woman walked by me and exited the apartment shortly after.

Asia’s girlfriend re-entered the apartment with a series of bangs, throwing the door open and slamming it closed, allowing the cabinets and drawers to threaten an explosion on her behalf. My vessel carried me to the living room, letting me regain composure between the couches near Asia. Asia did not look up from her book, but I noticed neither was she turning the pages as I had seen her do before in order to read it. She waited for her girlfriend to join her in the living room, but, having calmed the storm of other inanimate threats, her girlfriend stood frowning at the empty chair instead of sitting in it. Asia looked up at her and waited for an explanation.

“I won’t sit where your other woman sat,” her girlfriend said.

Asia asked her to repeat herself and her girlfriend boomed.

“What other woman?” Asia asked.

“The book club,” her girlfriend said again too quietly.

“The book club?” Asia asked.

Her girlfriend swore about it when she repeated the term, then swore about it when she said the color amber out loud.

“How would you even know about the book club?” I heard Asia ask as my vessel fled the noise.

Asia was gone that night. She carried her clothes and bottles of fluids out in load after load as her girlfriend stood watching with crossed arms and dead eyes. I had never been in their room before – my altar from before was along the same wall as its entrance and the closed door prevented my hellscape from expanding to too many rooms – but it struck me how much color emerged from it in her arms. Asia had had a way of lighting up a room when I first came home to her, and I feared all saturation would leave the house with her. She looked twice at me in her final load, even reached to pick up my weighty contraption, and I stretched towards her, but her girlfriend spoke for the first time since their fight to ask “Are you going to pay for that?” and she turned with her full arms and left.

The sun rose in the morning. Asia’s girlfriend did not leave her bedroom. The sun set that evening.

The sun rose again. Asia’s girlfriend left. The sun set. The sun rose again. Asia’s girlfriend returned.

I was forced to roam the rooms. Everything was still and hallow. My contraption’s steps echoed.

I stopped having a reason to count the days. No one thought to rename me as the weeks passed. The cut flowers wilted, browned, and stank in their vase and still Asia’s girlfriend did not pay them mind. Asia returned one afternoon with a woman from book club in tow. They unplugged the television chords, wrapped up the wires, and carried it halfway out of the apartment. They let it rest on my old table for a moment and Asia bent down to find me below it in the shadows. She had bloomed back into color again, with sunflowers above her eyes and leaves on her body with purple and white daisies. Her nails matched the purple daisies. Customers at my old nursery often decorated themselves with our corpses menacingly, but on her, the floral pattern felt like a token of praise.

She smiled at me like a heat lamp and reached as if to pick me up, but swore when she recognized the same bug as the ones she had found throughout the apartment melded into my metallic pot.

Asia stood back up, removed a set of keys from her dress’s pocket, and threw them on the table, next to the vase where I and my pot used to belong. They carried the TV out and the door closed behind them. The woman did not ask what my name was that week and Asia did not announce it.

 


Emily Donovan is an MFA student in creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. She can be found on Twitter at @emdons.