We lived in a cathedral-like apartment a family was murdered in right outside of Chinatown. I hoped it’d be cheaper than other apartments, but the landlord reasoned, “The painters we brought in are very talented, baroque style, no blood stains anywhere.”
“What is baroque?” my roommate asked.
“I don’t know. Naked people?” he said.
“Why would we want nudes on our kitchen walls?” I said.
“I would,” he said, offering no discounted price. Instead, the landlord provided cans of air freshener, offering a complimentary pamplemousse candle as well, one he purchased the night before from the adult store across the street.
“Why don’t you just call pamplemousse what it is, a grapefruit?” I snapped, frustrated he would not lower the rent.
“Come on, it’s Manhattan. Do you want the pamplemousse candle or not?” he retorted. I grabbed the candle from him.
The candle felt like a truce—to live amongst ivory angels on walls and, in its grandeur, Westernized life. When Ren and I first signed the lease, I assumed she was older, shocked that we were only a month apart; the girl acted thirty-five years old at twenty. We both emigrated from a city sheltered between mountains, known for its ice sculptures and beer gardens. That’s all I knew about her before we lived together: that we lived on neighboring streets back in Japan. She dabbled with men in their thirties, donning corporate clothing to grocery stores and tucking foliage around the apartment as if she and I were a married couple on HGTV. The vegetation masked the sewage odor, and she swore by this.
She was a painter at the time, while I studied chemistry at the university. Everyone in my family was gone, even the professor who orchestrated my scholarship. I expected to resign myself to vagrancy after graduation and return to my hometown, but as an undertow pulls someone beneath a wave, Ren brought me back ashore to where I saw a future for myself as a doctor. I wish I could say this to her, how she chose my path in life. The week we moved in, Ren sprained her ankle and made me promise to never call an ambulance.
“The hospital is only a block away. Will you help me down the stairs?” Proximity to the hospital didn’t seem reasonable enough to deter an ambulance, but I conceded.
“Don’t lean on your leg like that,” I said. We hobbled down the stairs.
“I remember you telling me you wanted to be a doctor, no?”
“I don’t recall saying that—”
“You know caring for plants ages you.” She spoke as if she were addressing a fifth-grade classroom, “Ripens you into maturation. You should try it. It’s great practice for nurturing people, and you can work up towards a bonsai.”
“Yes, a miniature tree. I can help you care for it, too,” She winked at me.
Ren started me off with fake ones, cradling and caressing them between her hands.
“Water the leaves as if they breathed,” she said.
So there I was, slapping the pitcher at them, onto the dirt—sloshing—unable to get it to stop splashing on the counter. I smiled at Ren, who nodded back and said, “Technique could use some work, but nice.”
Not long after, I nurtured lithops, called ‘living stones.’ One, Ren jested, looked like a freshly-shaved asshole. Not the aesthetic I was going for, so I left them out in the living room, where for a month each day I came home to water them until one night work kept me late. They all wrinkled and died.
Ren’s painting class ended soon and the subway took her thirty minutes to return home, leaving me shy of an hour to fix this. I paged through the newspapers in search of a replacement to find a Venus flytrap on sale, advertised for ‘Women adopters only’ by a man who lived across Tompkins Square Park. I sprinted over.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone,” the lanky, red-haired man admitted. “But I understand. Jupiter is quite the catch,” he added. He invited me in and sat me on the couch to exchange pots.
I shook his hand and ran back home to find Ren wiping her shoes on the mat. Before we entered the door, she eyed Jupiter and said, “How does one kill a rock? I need to visit my mother this weekend. Can you not kill the other plants while I’m gone?”
She prepared Castella cakes before her train ride, along with a bouquet of white lilies wrapped in ribbon. Ren told me how she and her mother were very close. They took care of each other, especially after Ren’s sister left for university when Ren turned nine. Her mother couldn’t speak English well. Diffident and soft spoken, she asked Ren to help with doctor visits and taxes. They used to make days out of it. Ren would skip school, her mother would take her to this one greenhouse with wild shrubs and drooping trees encased in a giant dome, and then they’d go to the appointment. Her mother always worried they’d run out of money. She worried constantly about money. Ren only told me about her mother’s pendulum of moods once.
“Is everything O.K. at home?” I asked.
“I wasn’t finished talking. Don’t enter a stranger’s home ever, and just because the lithops were slanted at birth doesn’t mean they were dead. They probably only needed sunlight.”
I wondered why Ren’s mood shifted so suddenly. Then I grew distracted and spent the night researching what Jupiter should eat. Why did I give up so easily on the rocks, and is a rock like a toddler? Thankfully, Jupiter could feed himself; all I had to do was throw some water onto the soil every now and then.
But also, I could be wrong.
Not even a week passed by before the chomping heads twisted off their stems, and as I watched the leaves shrivel, I thought back to the stones. I distractedly tripped over the Venus flytrap, and the pot cracked. Visiting every forum on every plant website I could find, I met a kind man from Mushroom Association of Mequon who responded to my queries.
“Things like these happen. Just glue the shards back together. Most importantly, when was the last time your Venus Flytrap was fed?” He asked.
I hurried to the dumpster behind my apartment and herded flies into a mason jar. Spoon-feeding Jupiter, I gathered a surge of confidence and purchased the book, Bonsái, which I left on the kitchen counter for Ren to take notice.
She did not notice.
I yawned and tossed the book onto the living room table next to Ren’s legs. “You’re not ready yet,” she said, without lifting her gaze. She did not mention her visit home, and so I refrained from mentioning the phone call I received from her sister that morning. Ren never mentioned that her mother resided in a hospital for some time, and I didn’t find it appropriate to tell her I knew.
Once the snow fell, the superintendent placed an insulated shroud over the windows that made my bare room a womb and prison. Trapped between papery skin walls, I lived at Clark’s apartment more often than mine, except for one morning, when I realized I had forgotten to blow out the candles on my bedside table.
I slipped back into the sweltering air to find my room adorned in petals, succulents and cacti ascending my pale desk—a ladder with heavy rungs as bookshelves. Paintings of dark figures in deserts hung on the walls. I thought I understood why Ren would perform such a deed, why she would decorate my room with desolate silhouettes, but I didn’t know how to mollify her. I returned to my bed again to keep her company.
The space was suffused with life when we both were home. I would bake crisp apples and taro crepes while jazz resonated through the rooms, and Ren would light the candles and waft sage and incense through the air. The baroque disappeared beneath the foliage. She laid out plants everywhere: in the cabinets, above the toilet, along the window sills. One day she knelt down, nudging a plant below the sink, to discover a fat, tender rat squirming underneath the pipes. The landlord tried to convince us it was just a chubby mouse, but when Ren ordered he remove it himself, he agreed the creature was too vicious to be a mouse.
Ren stayed up the entire night studying the contract, and she leveraged a lawsuit over the rat ordeal, convincing the landlord to install a third window panel. Her persistence didn’t surprise me. An enormous glass wall replaced the exposed brick—the rest of the bare angels too—transforming the apartment into a lush greenhouse.
Amidst the renovations, rent was still demanded of us, and money ran dry. I spent my hours drudging at the library in anticipation for my anatomy exam. Ren took initiative and aggressively painted, and together, we harnessed more imaginative jobs. We hosted tea ceremonies, meditative practices—her sister taught us breathing techniques. As we cleaned the teapot, preparing loose-leaf, we shared our delusional ambitions, ambitions we never spoke about with others, ones that pervaded the fragile lining of our rationale. We saw in them glimpses of a future worth living for. Then it happened. Ren conjured the business that paid our rent.
“Explain the job to me one more time,” I said.
“It’s like a dog kennel but for stationary plants.”
Not everything needs labels, Ren argued, but I called it ‘plant sitting.’ I flipped over one of the engraved name tags she splayed out on the kitchen table. The job felt too niche to attract any clients, but we agreed to try it.
Surprisingly, the business collected more rent money than any of our others had. Everything ran smoothly until a couple with a critically injured bonsai returned from their spiritual journey a month earlier than the given date. They planned a two-month vacation to Salt Lake City.
Ren and I were roaming through the narrow streets until we squatted on a bench to rest our legs. She spotted the couple walking their child on a leash through the park. When they locked eyes with her, they stopped mid-stroll, tugging on the child to halt. Ren was irate. The couple offered her a tripled pay, a tossed-in bonus even for intentionally leaving the bonsai with her while in town so she’d revive it. Hours she dedicated to spraying the leaves, pruning every night and day, and delicately wrapping aluminum around the branches, she felt taken advantage of. She mumbled about caring for her mother. Chucking the tree onto the ground, from then on, her moods swung wild.
Two weeks passed, and her anger did not dissipate. “How dare he tell me I’m afraid to commit,” Ren declared. “I can’t be his girlfriend. I don’t need another person’s feelings to consider right now,” she paced the hall.
I could hardly see her through the greenery.
“Maybe we could sell some of these plants, and you could use the time you’d spend nurturing the plants to consider his feelings instead—”
“How are you so willing to be with Clark?” She said. “Eager to be owned by someone else, is that it?”
I wanted to tell her how even the plants we tended to were transient and could never be owned by us, but I couldn’t find the words.
Later that night, Ren stumbled in swaying her arms around, heaving over the toilet. “I can hold my own hair,” she protested. I tied a loose ponytail and pivoted backwards, but she clasped onto my hand.
Her breathing seemed off.
Without letting go of my fingers, she whispered, “Some people aren’t meant to nurture.” At first I thought this was directed towards me, a bit hurt, but no alcohol fumes escaped her breath. I immediately nudged her face upward, slapping her cheek softly, “Ren, what did you take?”
Eleven minutes and thirty-seven seconds passed before the paramedics rushed in to pump her stomach out.
We spoke very little after that. Rusty, corroding walls no longer dominated the interior, only patches of wooden floor. She warned me to never call the ambulance again. Her sallow cheeks and bones appeared too heavy for her skin, heavier with each dying plant.
I imagined Ren as my sister and decided caring for a bonsai would make her forget how sad she was. I went and bought one with a sticker with 82 years pasted on it. “Goddamn,” I mumbled on the last flight of stairs under my breath, which I was nearly out of. The door cracked open, and I twisted the knob to find Ren gazing out the opened window.
“I never told you. When I went home, it was my mother’s gravestone I visited.”
I lowered the bag without realizing, and her attention drifted towards my hand. She asked what it contained. I hesitated because the timing felt off, but her face reddened, so I slowly presented the bonsai to her. She nearly fell back.
“Get it away from me!”
“Caring is intuitive. It gives you purpose.” She refused the gift. Her countenance expressionless, absent.
The following morning, I asked Ren’s older sister to meet for coffee. She told me how Ren washed her mother’s sheets, baked her Castella cakes, brushed her hair before bedtime after her hospitalization. Ren was only 11-years old when their mother died. It was ill timing. The ambulance came during rush hour. Ren found her dead.
The sister dabbed the corner of her mouth with a folded napkin. “Imagine an empty funeral parlor where the only ones there are your two children. I don’t hate her.” She paused for a moment, then continued, “I don’t hate my mother. She brought us to this country barely able to speak its tongue. She suppressed her own self-hatred, her humiliation to care for us for as long as she could. Should one be despised for that, for self-loathing?” She placed her hand on mine as she paid for the check. Before we parted ways, she said, “But her soul, beyond the control of the vessel in which it nestles, was not stripped of because that would imply its possession in the first place.” That was the last time I saw her.
I kept the bonsai, tending to its needs, its tendrils as hands, its leaved branches as lungs. I thought of the tree’s age as I watched it wither. Why didn’t possession of the vessel ensure survival of its soul? I grew angry with the sister’s comment before we gave our goodbyes. Perhaps I didn’t do enough.
I sat on the edge of my bed, enveloped in the desolate figures. Women adumbrated into tortured shapes, each writhing in her own way. The paintings weaved a vast desert, where one bled into the others, seeping through the frames. The largest one nailed to the wall’s center. A figure laid on her side away from the onlooker towards bountiful mounds of sand, and as I closed my eyes, I saw it happen. How Ren couldn’t pull the heavy couch out to reach her mother’s black bed of hair. How her finger forced still against the dark figure’s neck. How she smothered her flesh with wash cloths while rivulets bled through them, and how instead of the hospital rushing paramedics by foot, an ambulance drove over, arriving too late because traffic was too heavy.
I didn’t buy any more plants after that. I decided I’d rather care for people. The sewer smell was gone, no more pamplemousse candles. Volunteering at the hospital, I wheel chaired old ladies down hallways and delivered cards to patients. I rarely came home, leaving a toothbrush and pajamas and shorts at Clark’s. I still thought about Ren often. She and her boyfriend had the apartment to themselves, though they mostly stayed at his studio, everyone abandoning the plants altogether.
RACHEL JACOBSON will earn a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Creative Writing at New York University. Additionally to reading and writing, she relies on photography to keep sane. She is devoted to writing about minorities and interracial dynamics.