by Royee Zvi Atedgi
Looking after the greenhouses that summer with Leann. I thought it was what we both needed. What she needed, especially. But three weeks in, on a humid and rainy morning, we got real drunk on some bottles of wine we found in the dumpster behind the winery down the road. I licked some out of her navel. She lapped some out of my hand. We drew a bath and listened to the rain hammering down. And in the afternoon, after napping a bit, Leann went to the greenhouse to check the thermometers. She said she’d be right back to try and sleep some more, but after she didn’t show for almost twenty minutes, I went to check on her. That’s when I saw the long green hose strung up to the rafters and Leann trying to hang herself with it. I say trying because when she finally got her head through the loop in the hose and shoved off from the table she was standing on, her head slipped right out and she landed on her back, into a table of succulents.
“What the hell are you doing?” I rushed over.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she said, crying and wincing in pain. “Laura called.”
“Laura called when?”
“Yesterday, in the morning. You were out pulling weeds.” She looked disgusted with herself and sweaty. She wouldn’t look at me. Laura was an old lover of hers. One of them.
“And you want to kill yourself over her?” I kneeled down to where she sitting with her palms pressed into the ground. Shattered pots and plants were in among the spilled soil. I rubbed her back. “I thought you had put all that behind you.”
“It’s not all because of her really, it’s because I don’t know what became of my life, and when I hear her voice, it takes me back to when I thought I knew what I wanted. I had everything planned out.”
“What became of your life?” I repeated, shocked to hear that. Seeing as I more or less was involved with what became of it.
After she didn’t answer I said, “So what’d she have to say this time?”
I said this angry and upset. It was the wrong time and place for it; she had just tried to kill herself. It was just that I couldn’t see how this person could have so much power over Leann still, reaching her opportunistic arm into the present as though we didn’t all make our beds with our decisions. Or how Leann could really say what she said, given how happy we were these last few months. Really, when we were scrambling to find something for the summer and this job at the greenhouses presented itself, she was thrilled.
“All the same things as last time mostly. That she misses me, wishes things had worked out. But there was news. She’s with someone now, someone serious, and I think that’s what did me in. My imagination did me in.”
I knew they’d come calling sooner or later, these people of her past, and then everything would fall into disrepair. And sure enough it did. Why they all came calling in the span of those three months, I’ll never know. But that’s typically how it is, I guess. One after the other. The snowballing prevalent as a rule of physics.
The season started innocently enough. These old people, they had a vacation home in Florida, and needed someone to run the business while they were gone. I heard it through a friend of a friend. That in exchange for running the place, we could live in their trailer rent-free. A small bridge over a creek separated the trailer from the huge greenhouses. I thought about how many plants someone would have had to sell in order to buy a vacation home in Florida. That’s a lot of peonies and zinnias and hanging baskets of begonias. The greenhouse was right across from the Brandywine Battlefield on Route 1. Mostly, the business came from local customers––retirees or hobbyists, and the occasional parks and rec department looking to spruce up a new playground––but seeing as the battlefield is a historic site for Revolutionary War buffs, sometimes tourists would march down the hill after the guided tour with their wives behind them, and the wives would spot our greenhouse from the hilltop and want a plant or a flower to take home, some souvenir other than history. So they stopped.
After the first couple exes called Leann up to ask how she was and where she had gotten off to, we had some fights.
She was sentimental to the extreme. She hoarded sentiment. Kept every little thing anyone of intimate importance ever gave her. Even from people who had really hurt her. I thought the past should stay in the past. I was one of those people who thought you learned what you learned from the people you let into your life and when they fell out of it, that was that. They’re out forever. Besides, she chose me in the end.
“You run toward bad ideas like it’s your job,” I was saying. “You’d be great at chasing tornadoes, like on TV. You’d head right for it, just to be close to the danger, not knowing it’ll kill you if you get too close. Not knowing how close is too close. That’s you.”
We were standing in the kitchen. The cowboy from way out in Flagstaff had just called, telling Leann he had bought a farm for retired horses and wouldn’t she like to come pay a visit? The last time she saw him, he got violent and broke her nose. A few days before he called, the photographer living in Staten Island called and asked to use her photo for his gallery show. Kept reminiscing on the good old days of their creative love, conveniently leaving out that he had drugged Leann once.
“These people meant something to me! Don’t you get it?!” she screamed. “I deserve to feel the way I feel and keep in touch with them.”
And what they meant to her boiled down to more or less one particular, memorable event. This one being the time where her and the photographer made love after he took pictures of her touching herself. With the cowboy it was the time they slept under the stars in the desert. With Laura it was more. They had grown up in the same neighborhood together. They were like sisters. And they suffered a shared trauma. Their stepfathers. That was the connection point that amplified things when it came to Laura. It was healing for them both to be together. I understood. And why when Laura called with her news, Leann headed for the exit. Because they were so alike, her and Laura, that it was almost as if Leann’s life was over when Laura announced that she had seemingly moved on with hers.
“I don’t,” I said. “I really don’t. I don’t trust these people.”
“You’re jealous,” she said, jabbing a finger in my direction. “You’ve always been jealous.”
“I’ve always been right.” I moved a little to the left, as though her finger were a gun. “I was right about these people all along. They take advantage of the fact that you won’t just sever ties.”
“I can’t go on like this,” she wailed. “With you berating me for who and how I love.”
“Someone’s got to be the bad guy. Lord knows you don’t have any self-control,” I said, pouring another glass of wine. We shouldn’t have been drinking during these kinds of conversations, but otherwise we never had them. “If I don’t say anything, if I keep out of it and let these people weasel their way back into your life, there’s a fifty-fifty shot that the excitement and the drama will just wear off on you and you won’t do anything about it or forget it. If I encourage you to do it, go out of my way to be super supportive, which I won’t do because I shouldn’t be encouraging something I think will be terrible for your mental state, you won’t do it. Because I’ve spoiled the thrill of it. I’ve koshered it for you, and then the thrill is gone. I un-taboo the taboo by getting too jolly about the prospect of you going to see these people. But if I urge you not to do it, plead with you to reconsider, that it’s not a good idea, that you’ll ruin all the progress you’ve made, well then you’ll jump at the chance. You’ll go all the way. You love to be told what not to do just so you have proof that someone cares enough to try to talk you out of it, only for you to work against your own interest and do it anyway. The spiral out of control. Hooked on it. I’ve never met someone so eager to see the bottom. Go. I’ll manage things here. See if I care this time. See if I throw you the life raft, dig you out of the quicksand. We came here to work, remember? We came here to work and live carefree for a few months.”
“I am working,” she sobbed. “I do love it here. I love you, too. Nothing changes that.” She looked at me. In her pitiful face, I could sense my own fear––that maybe I was wrong about everything.
After the incident with the hose, we just quit working. Too depressed and tired and hungover. It felt like we were way out in the middle of nowhere with our signs crossed and no map. Leann pouted and kept to the bedroom mostly. When she walked into the kitchen for something to eat, all I could hear were the frip frip frip of her feet on the linoleum. I expected that at any time, in the middle of the night maybe, that she would just up and leave.
There were days that we just sat inside and watched as people came to steal plants away, seeing as the stand and the register we were supposed to be manning was empty. High school kids broke into the greenhouses to smoke pot at night. One by one, the beautiful hand-painted signs that designated things for the customers went missing. We forgot to turn on the irrigation system in the furthest greenhouse, the one with the delicate flowers, and realized it in time to save maybe a third of the really resilient ones. The rest were curled and brown and just broke in your fingers. The obstinate weeds we hacked away when we first got there in June were now climbing over everything. A strong storm brought a tree down on top of the bridge, shutting us off from the sad ruin of the greenhouses. The letters in the roadside marquee were falling out or otherwise crooked, so that it read: EX T C FL WE S & PL NTS. DAIL SP C LS. Wasps made nests in there. It wasn’t good for business. People could see the neglect from the highway, and soon the sound of a car turning onto the gravel became a rare event.
Then the cat came into our lives.
“Did you hear that?” Leann rolled over on the couch.
“Hear what?” I said. These were the first words we had spoken to each other in weeks and by now it was August.
“That mewing sound, it sounds like a kitten. You don’t hear that?” She got up, stepping over dirty clothes, takeout containers, amorphous stains. She stood up too fast and had to steady herself on the kitchen counter. She walked out the screen door, and in a few minutes she appeared with this wet, shriveled animal––at first glance you wouldn’t have called it a kitten. You couldn’t have distinguished it from a rat.
“I found it, it was under the porch,” she said smiling, cradling it in her arms and bobbing it softly while it cried out.
I regarded the thing again. It was in bad shape. There was pus on its little eye-slits and it was soaked and shivering. Its nose was speckled with something like mold and there were a few patches of ringworm on its body. The ugly tail that dangled there resembled a pine leaf after you had run your fingers down and broke away most of the needles.
We spent the week taking turns nursing the little thing, which we named Finch. We bought some eye drops at the pharmacy and some ointment for the ringworm. We gave it a bath in the sink and dipped our fingers in milk for it to lick off with its tiny sandpaper tongue. Day by day, little Finch was hitting it better on all the marks, purring with enthusiasm and even cautiously walking around some and pawing the furniture, though it was clear it was still scared and traumatized, especially when more rain passed through.
I sat with Leann on the couch one night and we watched Finch sleeping. Its visible spine lifting then sinking back down with its breaths. The phone rang constantly but Leann never picked up, just ignored them. I turned to see the blue of the television wash over her. I could feel something changing.
A week later we were up late and a program about farms was on. She turned to me and said, “I always dreamed of running a farm.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s in my blood. My family owned farms for generations. They made jams mostly, they were known for their jams, and sold them on a table out by the mailbox. Folks would come by and things were run on the honor system, meaning if no one was there, you could just write down what you bought on the ledger and leave the money in the jar. That’s what I would really want. Make all kinds of jams and trust people.”
I thought to myself that if we could hardly manage a greenhouse, how could we manage a whole farm? Just idle talk probably. Something to get through this night and this night only. The next day would bring new fantasies. She was always doing that, imagining ways out of our transient life, only now anything seemed possible.
“Some place to put down roots,” I said and looked at her. I held her gaze.
At the end of August, the owners came back. But we had already hightailed it out to Amish country, where Leann had her relatives. I got some furious voicemails from the husband, threats to sue. We drank and listened to the voicemails and laughed. Sue us for what? We possessed nothing.