AND THE NINE PLANTS OF DESIRE
(an excerpt from the novel)
Native of South Africa, member of the banana family,
prized for its tall, highly colored structures. This plant is not for the easily disappointed, impatient or bossy, as it can take seven years to produce a single bloom. Perfect for the person who gives and gives without getting anything in return. You know who you are.
I inadvertently became interested in tropical plants because that’s what the man at the Union Square Green Market sold me.
I used to believe that sentence but now I know better. Now I know that it was meant to be.
Here’s how it happened.
I had just moved to 14th Street and Union Square into a small, newly renovated studio with absolutely no character. It was a square-shaped box with parquet floors, no moulding, no details, white paint, and low ceilings. It was exactly the kind of apartment I wanted. Its newness meant that there were no memories trapped in the walls or the floorboards. No arguments or harrowing scenes of unrequited love staring at me from the bathroom mirror. It was brand new. Just like I wanted my life to be.
I thought a bit of foliage might spruce the place up, no pun intended, and add some much needed color, so I walked across the street to the Union Square Green Market to make my purchase.
The man at the plant stand was a throwback. He had streaky blonde hair and a dirt-colored tan that came from being outside all the time. In his worn-out flannel shirt and beat-up Timberlands, worn for work, not fashion, he stood out in stark contrast to the manicured metro-sexuals perusing the market, wicker baskets in one hand, Gucci sunglasses in the other. This man was different. He was a rugged country-sexual.
He asked me to describe my apartment not in terms of the square footage or the make of the stove and the fridge, but by the amount of light, temperature, and humidity.
I told him that I had floor-to-ceiling windows, which was mostly true, although they were more ceiling-to-heating-unit than ceiling-to-floor.
I told him that I had an unobstructed south-facing view, hard to find in New York City, and that as long as the sun was shining it was hot and sunny all day long, even in the winter.
I hadn’t lived in my apartment through a winter so I’m not sure why I said that, but I guess it sounded good to me and also to him since he bent down amongst his plants, head covered with purple flowers, butt in the air, and emerged with a big smile and a two-foot-high bunch of leaves.
I was disappointed.
“What is it?”
“A bird-of-paradise,” he said, holding it up toward the sky and twirling the pot around with his fingertips.
“A tropical plant?” I asked, zipping my coat against the late March wind and picturing its imminent death.
“Hawaiian, to be exact. Strelitzia reginae. A member of the banana family. She needs lots of sunlight, not too direct, and let the soil dry out between watering. She’s tough to raise and she won’t flower for five or six or maybe seven years, depending on the weather. And the love,” he added with a wink.
I unzipped my jacket.
“Six or seven years? My marriage didn’t last that long. Do you have anything that flowers sooner, like in a week or two?”
“This is the plant for you,” he said. “She’s a beauty.”
“Thirty dollars, and I’ll throw in a brochure on rare tropicals so you know how to care for her.
“Three zero? I could go to the deli on the corner and get a dozen roses for ten dollars that have great, big, sweet-smelling flowers on them right now.”
“You could, but they’ll be dead in a week. You’ll have to buy new ones every Saturday. If you do the math, I’m a bargain. And besides, this bird is tropical. Think balmy ocean breezes, swaying palm trees, cabana boys, and pina coladas on white sand beaches near warm, light blue water.”
I don’t know whether it was the pina coladas, the cabana boys, or the sky blue of his eyes but as a person who worked in advertising, I had to respect a good sales pitch. I paid him and he handed me the plant, the brochure on rare tropicals, and his card, which said David Exley, Plant Man.
“Sounds like a superhero,” I said, looking at the card.
“Well I do have a little something special with the flora and fauna, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.
“Come back if her leaves start turning yellow around the edges. I’m here every Wednesday and Saturday from six in the morning till ten at night.”
“They better not,” I said over my shoulder. “For thirty dollars they better stay bright, freakin’ green.”
I walked through the market with my bird-of-paradise held out in front of me like an offering. It felt good to be carrying around a piece of the earth. I thought it made me look like one of those women who cooked satisfying meals on a nightly basis for their Steiner School children while wearing Birkenstocks and reading from the Cabala, instead of the single, childless, plantless, divorced, 32 year-old-woman that I was.
Back in my apartment, I set the bird-of-paradise down on the window ledge. The base of the pot was too wide and it teetered. I caught my thirty-dollar tropical right before it crashed to the floor. Not five minutes with me, and its life was already in danger. No surprises there.
The bird-of-paradise was the first living thing I shared space with since my divorce. No pets, no plants, no people, no problems had been my motto for the past nine months.
I met my ex-husband at work. He was cute and smart and successful and he was a huge mistake. He was a man who drank like a fish and wanted lots of babies. I was a woman who didn’t want lots of babies and drank like a human being. I know that most marriages are complex and multilayered, but ours was not. Our four-year marriage went something like this:
The producer at the advertising agency, aka the woman who brought him coffee and made his plane reservations. What a cliché. At the time I wondered how something that sounded so much like a made-for-TV movie could hurt so badly.
But in truth it wasn’t the drinking or the producer. The problem with our marriage was genetic.
My husband came from a big Irish Catholic family where everyone got married and had kids unless they were gay or terminally ill. I came from a family were no one ever got married unless they had kids first, and usually by accident.
My parents, who I love madly, divorced when I was young. Post divorce they both dated furiously, like teenagers, without ever remarrying. My sister and brother, both older, had children but no spouses.
A lot of people get married to keep with tradition. I was a rebel. I married to break with it.
The strange thing was, against all odds, I loved being married. I adored the little rituals. The cute nicknames. “Honeybear” for him. “Wild Rose” for me. I loved shopping at Whole Foods, cooking beef stews and chicken soups in huge pots with lots of vegetables. I loved washing the dishes while listening to Curtis Mayfield. I liked washing, drying and folding the clothes. For Christ-sake I even loved the vacuuming. I think it’s fair to say that during the years of my marriage I became the single most boring person in the entire world, and I totally loved it.
Turned out, my ex, who by all external appearances and family history was the solid, marrying kind, absolutely hated it. He was a space freak. He grew up in a tiny house with lots of siblings and he couldn’t stand the proximity to another person. He kept dragging me around to buy bigger beds and move into larger spaces. In the end we were sleeping on a mattress so wide we could lay spread eagle and our fingertips wouldn’t touch, and we were living in a loft the size of an airplane hangar.
Just to make sure I wasn’t crazy I took a survey on the bed. My friend Oliver who was a well-known interior designer said it was the largest piece of furniture he’d ever seen in a Manhattan apartment. My friend Lisa said it made her feel tiny, like a baby who’d crawled into her parent’s bed. My mother offered to have special sheets made for it. And my co-worker and good friend Kodiak Starr, who was a surfer, said that with its blue-green comforter it reminded him of the ocean. It was official. My bed was as big as the Atlantic. I was sleeping in London and my husband was all the way on the other side of the mattress in New York.
My big Honeybear, my rock, turned out to be a piece of pumice stone. Flaky and crumbly under pressure and unable to talk about or even know what he was feeling. In our giant apartment with the giant bed he moved further and further away until one day he simply never came home at all. No kidding. Just like that.
Turned out my real rock was my flaky co-worker Kodiak Starr. Kody was a bit of a philosopher/crunchy surfer for someone with such a glamorous name and he was more beautiful than most of the women I knew. He used annoying words like “cool” and “dude,” and he was into things like transcendental meditation and lucid dreaming. He would probably be considered New Age if he hadn’t been born in 1984, eight years after me.
Because we shared an office, Kody did most of the day-to-day heavy lifting when it came to hearing about my ex. We were supposed to be working on a new commercial for PUMA sneakers, but mostly we worked on the much more pressing questions of my marriage. When I asked him why my husband left without ever trying to work it out, he answered in lilting, rolling, easy-to-digest surfing metaphors. He brushed his silky blonde hair behind his ears, put his flip-flop-clad feet up on the desk, and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck.
“Dude,” he said, “only world-class, long-board surfers have the discipline to ride all kinds of waves, big or small, in all kinds of conditions. Your husband was a short-board amateur.
“But why me?” I asked for the hundredth time. Why do I have to go through this?”
“Because wiping out is like breathing,” he said. “Everybody does it.”
After the death of my marriage I was hell-bent on keeping the bird-of-paradise alive. I would take it slowly. Plants first. And if everything went well, then I’d move on to people.
In the mornings before work I stroked its stems with my fingertips because they were slightly fuzzy and felt nice to the touch, and occasionally I washed its big banana-plant leaves with a damp sponge when they got too dusty from city living.
I treated that bird like a houseguest except I gave it water instead of wine and I tried not to blow cigarette smoke in its direction. I kept the blinds open all day even when it was so sunny I couldn’t read my computer screen. I catered to what I imagined to be its every whim, and, much to my surprise, it flourished. New shoots grew out of its stems. I coaxed them along with hand-wrung drops of water and sweet talk. They unfurled into giant, shiny, pale-green translucent leaves with delicate visible veins.
I wanted to go back to the green market to thank David Exley and brag about my progress (aka see him again and flirt mercilessly) but I was afraid. When it came to men I was skittish and out of practice. So instead I called Kody.
He answered the phone at the beach and screamed over the surf.
“You gotta get out there, Lila. You gotta get out there and catch some waves. Don’t come back till you have cramps in your calves from squatting in the curl. Free as a bird, girl. Free as a bird.”
I hung up the phone and headed to the green market, squatting in the curl.
“My bird is growing beautifully,” I said.
David Exley, Plant Man, pointed his thumb behind him.
“There’s a lot more where that came from.”
“I’m not shopping, I’m just browsing.”
“Fine by me, browse away. But if you have a minute I can take you into my tent and show you how to make that bird grow wings.”
“I have some time,” I said. “Show me how to make her fly.”
He dropped his voice and moved in closer.
“Before I give away the special secrets of my tropical trade I need to know who I’m talking to.”
“Lila, that’s nice. Lila what?”
“A middle name Lila Nova?”
“Lila Grace Nova. The New Lila Grace.”
He took my elbow and led me into the indoor part of his plant stand. It was a humid, dripping green tent the size of a small city apartment, and packed with plants. It was at least fifteen degrees warmer than the air outside and it smelled like damp earth and rain and things that are green.
On one wooden picnic table he had five tall birds-of-paradise. Their leaves were firm and pointing toward the sky.
“Give me your hand, Lila Grace Nova.”
He took my hand and ran my fingertips over a large leaf.
“Not wet. Misty. Can you feel the difference?”
“How do you keep them like this? Misty, I mean. Without them turning into just plain wet?”
He let go of my hand. It was covered with dirt from his gardening glove, as if he were still holding it.
“Buy yourself a couple of extra-large humidifiers. Don’t put em’ too close to the bird, you don’t want to soak the leaves, but not too far away either, you don’t want them to dry out. Just close enough to keep them coated with a fine, delicate mist. She’ll love it. She’ll grow you right out of your apartment. Take my word for it, you’ll have to move to a new place just to keep up with that bird.”
“I hate moving.”
“That’s because you’re rooted. The sign of a true plant person.”
I liked the sound of that. A true plant person. It sounded so much more alive, and warmer, and more female than a true advertising person.
I looked at Exley. His eyes were the color of a faded blue work-shirt with wrinkles spread out in a fan design around the outer corners, probably from squinting into the sun all day. He made me feel like I wasn’t in Manhattan, and I liked the feeling. This man is a true professional, I thought. A real flower-selling flirt.
“What kind of work do you do?” he asked.
“I’m in advertising.”
“Glamorous business, huh?”
I gave it all I had. If he was going to play rugged country boy, I was going to play sexy city woman.
“Yes,” I said brushing my wavy blonde hair off of my shoulder with both hands and shaking my head from side to side, “it’s a very glamorous business.”
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