I think what bothered me most was the dishes. You always made a point to wash them, dry them, and put them away in the cabinets. You made sure our glasses were spotless. But that was the only housework you did. It was like your mother had warned you that girls don’t like it when guys won’t even do their own dishes, and so you resolved to always do your dishes, and sometimes mine too. But cleaning the bathroom, the stove, the tile floor, doing the laundry, vacuuming even just once in a while—all of that seemed beneath you. You left it all to me, along with watering the houseplants and cleaning out Cindy’s cage.
Actually, maybe what bothered me most was the Gatorade bottles—how you insisted on buying Gatorade in bulk, all those plastic bottles shrink-wrapped together, and then later I would find the empty bottles in the trash, two feet away from the recycling shelf I had made. I had taken the old wire shelf my grandpa had given me in college, and spray painted it black. Then I bought wire boxes, labeled them, and put one on each shelf. Glass, paper, aluminum, steel cans, three different kinds of plastic. Cardboard went in the hall closet, I told you, but I still found empty Amazon boxes shoved into the trash along with the Gatorade bottles. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a big deal. Just because I refused to buy anything single-serve in plastic, didn’t mean you also had to scour the grocery store aisles for ice tea and kombucha in glass bottles.
So maybe it wasn’t the dishes or the Gatorade bottles that bothered me most. Maybe it was the way you teased me about how long it took me to shower, or the way you always acted surprised when I made plans with my friends. Maybe it was your attitude toward the hamster.
It’s just kind of weird, you’d said, having a hamster when you’re almost thirty. Like, isn’t that the kind of thing little kids have?
That doesn’t mean adults can’t have hamsters too, I’d told you. They’re adorable.
It seems weird. Though I guess sometimes old, retired people have hamsters, too. But it’s mostly little kids, right? Little girls?
I don’t know, Patrick.
It was worse when your friends came over. Once, when we’d first moved in and you were giving a few of them a house tour, you told them not to bother going into our bedroom, because it smelled too much like hamster. And I get it, okay? Sometimes she smells. Sometimes she runs on her wheel in the middle of the night. I always wished you weren’t such a light sleeper, that you wouldn’t wake up to her wheel squeaking and roll over in bed with a sigh big enough that then I’d wake up too.
I haven’t been sleeping better since you’ve been gone, though. I keep waking up during the night, sometimes three or four times before morning. Last night, I woke up at four in the morning, panicked, checked my phone, and then went back to sleep for another hour. Then I woke up at five—slept for another hour—woke up at six—and then I gave up and scrolled on social media for one more hour before crawling out of bed. I keep watching videos by this glass-blowing studio on the south side, Second Chance Glass. They take in donations of used bottles and turn them into new things, like glasses, plates, vases, Christmas ornaments. It’s mesmerizing, how they heat up the old bottles and paddle them into new shapes. A pink plate made from an old wine bottle. A soap dish from a whiskey bottle. A clear bowl from a jar of pasta sauce.
You left your body wash and shampoo in the shower, by the way. I haven’t moved them yet, though I did throw your wash cloth in the laundry, before throwing it in the box of stuff that I’m planning on giving you once I have the stomach for it. Also in the box: your water bottle, your pile of books on productivity and work ethic, the toiletries you left behind, your ukulele that you only ever played when you were tipsy, and the last few Gatorade bottles you had left in the fridge. I’ve decided their single-use plastic isn’t my responsibility. I haven’t touched the clothes you left in the closet, or any of your snacks in the cabinet. It’s strange, you know—part of me can’t stand these reminders of you, and part of me can’t bear the thought of them going away.
I didn’t realize how many of the houseplants you’d bought me. A cactus as an apology —a purple-petaled orchid to celebrate my promotion—a lucky bamboo plant just to let me know you were thinking of me. I didn’t realize, really, how many houseplants I have in total. This morning, I found the living room overflowing with leaves and spikes. Overnight, all the plants had tripled in size. Maybe quadrupled. The prickly pear that’s been lounging in the kitchen window for the past two years is now reaching to the top of the glass, pressing its prickers against the cold pane. The bamboo burst out of its red pot, and the aloe vera on the coffee table has spilled its dirt-caked roots over the coasters and junk mail. The spider plant’s launched its runners halfway across the room, and the long row of succulents in the living room window are all suddenly sprawling and blooming and crashing into one another with their velvet-furred leaves.
I hear my mother’s voice in my head, from the last time she came to the apartment. Honey, I know you like plants, but isn’t this—well, isn’t this excessive? Or obsessive? How much money—
Then I hear your voice, defending me. Okay, I have to confess; I bought half the plants in this room, at least.
I remember my mother stiffening, a flush of color in her cheeks. She stammered a response before stroking the heart-shaped leaf of the elephant ear plant by the front door. It made me smile, because I’m always petting those giant leaves, too. They’re irresistible—bigger than my face, so green and speckly, all variegated.
The elephant ear is the biggest plant we—I—have. Now its plastic pot is cracked, with soil splashed out on the carpet. Its stems, already enormous before today, now brush against the ceiling. The leaves hang up there like green birthday balloons, too far away for me to pet them. I move the broken pot from its wooden stand to the floor, giving the leaves at least a little room to breathe.
I look at the clock and wish I had more time. Before leaving for work, I move the apology cactus off the table in the entryway, so I don’t bump into its three-inch spears on my way back inside. I settle the bamboo in a salad bowl, and the aloe in the biggest mixing bowl I have.
Congrats, you’re going to be baked into a cake, I tell it, and my voice sounds hollow in the empty apartment. From the bedroom, Cindy’s wheel squeaks and then stops.
I open the blinds, but then close them, thinking maybe the plants will only grow bigger if they keep getting more light. Then I open the blinds again, because what if I leave them in the dark and they’re dead by the time I return? I leave, lock the door behind me, and drive to work. I’m crying by the time I reach the first stoplight.
When I get home in the evening, I warm up a microwave meal and eat it on the couch in the living room, with the plants looming around me. They seem to have grown since the morning. Their stems reach a little taller, their leaves stretch a little wider. I put down my food long enough to take pictures of them, so I can compare later on. Then I start Googling. Why do plants get big really fast? Overnight plant growth. Cactus grows three times its size. The internet has no answers for me. I finish the kale pasta in my bowl and go to feed Cindy. The window in the bedroom doesn’t let in enough light, so I’ve never kept any plants in there—not since I put a succulent and a jade pothos on the table under the window and they both ended up with shriveled, brown leaves. Cindy’s cage fills the space where they used to be. I feed her pellets, celery, and carrot sticks, and watch as she stuffs her little cheeks full of food. Her fur is light brown—blonde, I’d always called it.
She’s not really blonde, though, you’d said.
But that’s why I named her Cindy. Because she’s blonde, like that one—
That doesn’t even make sense.
I spend the rest of the night in the bedroom, trying not to think about the plants in the living room, trying just to focus on Cindy munching celery and the Netflix show on my laptop. When my mind drifts from the plot, I go back to watching glass-blowing videos on my phone. I watch as a kombucha bottle gets heated up, puffed full of air, and shaped into a new vase. I scroll and watch another transformation: a wine bottle turned into a blue-tinted light fixture.
I only wake up twice during the night—once at two, once at three. When my alarm goes off in the morning, I stay in bed and scroll through more glass-blowing videos before getting up and taking a shower. Your voice chides in my head again: You know, a lot of studies have said that looking at your phone first thing in the morning actually reduces— But I can’t remember the rest of what you said, and it doesn’t matter, anyway. I shower and leave the house on time to get to work, but then there’s traffic. So I’m late, but so is everyone else coming down from the north side. During my lunch break, I show my coworker Mia Second Chance Glass’ account, and she watches one video after another as she munches a ham and cheese sandwich.
It’s cool, right?
Yeah, she says, taking a sip of juice from a plastic bottle. You said this is in Indy?
On the south side.
Have you been there before?
I shake my head, and use my fork to push my fried rice around in its reusable container.
Why not, girl? Mia asks.
I don’t know.
Go. You’ll love it. Then tell me about it, and maybe I’ll go and buy Christmas presents for my parents there, if it’s not crazy expensive.
Come on, how far away is it?
I don’t know—
Hold on, I’m looking this up. We have to get you there.
Mia types “Second Chance Glass” into the map app on her phone, and a squiggly blue line pops up, showing the route from our office to the studio. Twenty-nine minutes. Mia gives me a look of triumph.
That’s like nothing, she says.
After work, I get home, and the elephant ear plant has definitely grown again. The tip of a leaf brushes against the ceiling, and I can see a fat, pale root poking through the crack in its gray pot. I wonder if Second Chance Glass makes anything I could use for a plant pot—though if the plants keep having growth spurts, the glass will break, and then where will that leave me? I look up the studio’s hours. They’re open Thursday to Sunday, nine to six. On Thursday, I leave the office a half hour earlier than usual, and drive the 29 minutes to the studio—or what would be 29 minutes, if it weren’t for rush-hour traffic.
The place looks fairly unassuming from the outside. It’s an old brick building, with a big window at the front and a paint-chipped garage door around the side. I go in, and a bell tinkles as the door closes—a bell made of rose-hued glass. The studio’s front room looks like any other artisan’s shop: shelves of glass wares, ranging from bowls and glasses to abstract artistic pieces. There’s a subdued chemical smell to the air, something sharp lurking beneath whatever vanilla air freshener they’re using. The man behind the counter gives me a nod, and I let myself wander from one display to another. I take a couple photos to show Mia. I pick out a short vase, to use for propagation. I keep coming back to this massive green bowl, flecked with red and pink so the whole thing seems to shimmer, and I can’t help thinking it’s just the right size to repot the elephant ear. But the price tag makes me wary, and I know I should wait to see if the plants are going to surge again, just in case.
I buy a set of whiskey glasses and the little vase, and head home through the traffic. By the time I get to my apartment complex in the suburbs, whatever energy I had has drained out of me. I wish I could walk inside and find you sitting on the couch, that I could collapse with my head in your lap and let you stroke my hair. But no one’s inside. I put the whiskey glasses in the kitchen cabinet, and set the vase on the counter. I bring Cindy out and let her sit on the bed. I give her a treat. Then I try to call my sister, but she doesn’t answer. I think of texting a friend from college, but then I don’t. I put on music, and try not to think about the way the dead silence still lingers underneath.
When you finally text to ask if you can come get the rest of your stuff, my heart flutters at the sight of your name on my phone screen. For that split second I’m rising up to the ceiling with the elephant ear leaves, and then I read the message and come back down. I text you back. Saturday is fine. I remember I still haven’t taken down that framed photo of the two of us at the pumpkin patch last year. I go into the bedroom and take it off its nail. You were the one who hammered this nail into the wall, who framed and hung up this photo. You bought the frame yourself, too, and so I put it in the box with the rest of your things. Then I look around the apartment, at the hand towels you picked out, the removable wallpaper you suggested we put up, and maybe what bothers me most is actually just how much of you is left in this place after you’re gone.
We schedule a time for you to come by on Saturday. I go through all the drawers and cabinets, finding things to add to the box. Then you show up on Saturday, with a flannel on over your t-shirt, and I hate how soft you look, how gently mussed your hair is. I give you the box, tell you to look around if you want, but I’ll let you know if I find anything else. You stare around you at the plants—the aloe overflowing the mixing bowl, the succulents at war with each other in the window, the cactus on the table threatening to plunge its spears through the drywall. They’ve gotten still bigger, somehow, since the other day.
What happened? you ask.
What do you mean?
You wave a hand at the plants. How did they get so huge all of a sudden? I mean, these are succulents; it should have taken years…
You trail off, and I don’t have any believable answers for you. You shift the box to one arm as you walk over to the orchid you got me, now with its blossoms as big as your head. I uncross my arms from over my chest and watch you looking up at the elephant ear’s leaves scrubbing at the ceiling. Its stems have grown stronger, firmer, turning a shade darker from their normal bright green. I wait until you leave, and then I finally realize what bothered me most about you, about all this. What bothered me most was that it was you, in the end, who decided to leave.
I spend the next couple weeks listening to the same playlist over and over, watering the plants and feeding Cindy and trying not to feel anything. I stay later at work than I need to. Mia tells me to take care of myself, and I tell her I’m trying. I’m still waking up in the night, but now only once or twice, and then I sleep soundly until morning. The plants begin to stabilize too. I compare them with the pictures I’ve taken on my phone, and they don’t seem to have grown any more in the past few days.
Good job, I tell the elephant ear, as one of its long stems begins to sag back down toward the carpet.
When the plants go a full two weeks without any more sudden growth spurts, I go back to Second Chance Glass. I pull up to the studio and have to fight the urge to fidget as I walk inside. Then I see the huge green glass bowl with pink and red flecks, catching the light like a kaleidoscope, still resting in its place in the window. I buy it before I can convince myself not to, along with a little trinket dish for Mia.
I drive back through another night’s traffic, back through the rivers of cars each fighting their own way home. When I get to the apartment, Cindy is running on her wheel in the bedroom, and the glow of the streetlight outside glimmers on the unwashed dishes waiting for me in the sink. I take off my shoes and light a candle. I unwrap the green bowl and then lug it into the bathroom so I can repot the elephant ear in the bathtub. A new curled-up leaf emerges from the plant’s base, sticking its head out from a fold in the last stem to rise up before it. I spread a layer of pebbles in the bottom of the glass bowl for drainage, add soil, and then draw the plant out of its cracked pot and into its new vessel. Its roots have more room in the green bowl, more space to spread out. I breathe a sigh of relief as I bring the elephant ear back into the living room and set it on the floor next to the coffee table, where the light from the window can come in and splash off the bowl’s flecks of color.
I wonder for a moment what will happen if the plants surge again. But I have a comforted feeling, like a weighted blanket on my chest, that they’re done growing for now. I look around the room at the trailing vines and towering stems, the giant leaves and petals. Maybe I’ll find a new place soon, one with bigger windows and a sunny balcony, one with enough space to hold all this impossible, flourishing life.
Emily Dexter (she/her) is a writer from Carmel, Indiana. She enjoys writing poetry and fiction, as well as painting and dabbling in the fiber arts. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Two Hawks Quarterly, Relief Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2023, Emily Dexter