by Laurie Stone
The plant was outside a florist shop that was moving location, a jasmine vine in a small plastic pot, the last plant left for people to take. It had as many brown, shriveled leaves as glossy, green ones twisted around a wire trellis as well as a few whipped-cream colored, trumpet-shaped flowers about to drop off. I brought the plant to the flat where I was staying and cleaned it up. It was July, and I would be in London a few more weeks. If the plant survived, it would need a new home, but it was alive and I was alive, and I did not see that much difference between us.
I was on assignment, photographing food for a chef. Some days we met at her restaurant. The rest of the time I waited for Alec. We had met the summer before at a café. He was at the next table, lost in thought until he asked me a question about my camera. He was wearing a hat with a little brim – a hipster hat, a musician’s hat – and I thought, Oh, well, never mind the hat.
The flat I was staying in was dark. The next day, I carried the plant to Regent’s Park and read on a bench while the vine absorbed intermittent rays under a moody sky. Across from us a woman squirted sanitizer on her hands and rubbed them together. Whenhad people become so afraid of germs? They were everywhere. How could you think you could avoid them if you ventured into the world? The park was green, and everything was alive and growing, and this made me hopeful for the plant. In the year since meeting Alec, we had exchanged bantering emails. When I learned I would be returning to England, I sent him my dates, and he wrote saying he would be on tour. He actually was a musician. He said he would try to return while I was there. I worried he was only being polite.
I bought a clay pot for the vine and carried it to the park every day. I started to think of the plant as he. One day I wandered over to the zoo with the plant and watched an elephant pace across a small preserve. The elephant was a four-year-old female from India, a sign said. She circled her area on large, round feet with nails the shape of half moons. At one point, she laid down on her side with her left knee raised. It was as if she was following a command from an invisible trainer. Her knees and elbows were shaggy. Her wrinkles looked like a map.
She seemed too large for land, and I imagined her floating in a sea. Her eyes looked sad in the way that elephants always look burdened. To right herself, she rocked onto her back, flashing her sex, which made her look like a giant, vulnerable rag doll until she swept up and caught sight of the plant. The preserve was bordered by a trench and a stone wall. The elephant trotted over to us and stretched her trunk across the divide to sniff the plant. I saw little hairs in her nostrils and felt we were sharing something.
When, after a while, she shuffled off, I felt the loneliness that was curled inside me like a cat that slept most of the time. Alec’s wife had been dead for a year when I met him. He had talked about her at the café before we walked to his house, by way of Hampstead Heath, passing through a meadow of wild flowers. It was quiet there except for the songs of birds and the two of us laughing at something he said or at nothing. It rained on the way, and when we got to his house he dried my hair with a towel. I wondered if it was easier to touch a person you would probably not see again. After I left London, I replayed the scene in my mind over and over. It became lodged there. I looked for Alec everywhere I went, even back in LA.
I bought plant food and did research on the Web about jasmine vines. I loved the plant and wondered what had become of other love I had felt. What had become of the love I had felt for people I didn’t know anymore? Did it mound up in particles in a corner you would discover one day as you were sweeping? After a week of caring for the plant, shoots began to bud in the crotches of several leaf spacings. I took pictures of the new growth. As a photographer, I was used to looking closely at things, but I had not previously pored over a plant. The rest of the time I went to the restaurant to meet the chef, took walks, and checked email. The new stems produced pairs of waxy leaves. I thought I could see them growing. I moved the plant around to patches of sun as they flashed on a chair, a table, the kitchen counter.
Alec’s wife had died of stage four breast cancer. When she was diagnosed, he had asked her doctor how much time was left, and the doctor had said, “How long is a piece of string?” Alec had felt patronized by the answer, and he and his wife had consulted a more forthright doctor, but as I waited for his return, the phrase took on meaning. He played bass in a jazz band and supplemented his income buying and selling Asian rugs. He was on tour in Europe and the Balkans. He could decide to go on a buying trip to Turkey or Iran and not make it back to London. The floors and walls of his house were arrayed with the most intricate rugs I had ever seen. His house was old, with rooms that tumbled into each other. In the back was a sloping garden with roses the size of faces. Everywhere were pictures of his wife, with her thick mop of curls and quizzical expression that seemed to be saying, “Why not me?” I believed their marriage had been a happy one.
On the last day of my job at the restaurant, I still had no plan for the plant. The new shoots had grown long enough to weave around the trellis, and I could imagine the plant expanding into a green globe. I thought if I offered the plant to the chef or one of her cooks, they would toss it in the trash as soon as I was gone. The chef was a food world star who lived in a media whirlwind. I thought of digging a hole in Regent’s Park and planting the vine near one of the little lakes where gardeners would be unlikely to yank it out. Maybe I could place it close enough for the elephant to see. I could set it out in its pot on the street for someone to find, just as I had found it, but the plant and I were long past such a brush of happenstance.
The week before my departure, Alec had written to say the band had been extended in Berlin but he still hoped to make it back. He sounded more polite than eager, and I was ashamed I had spent my time in London waiting for him. I wondered if waiting was something I was good at. I sent him my schedule for the days leading up to the final shoot. I thought if he came back, he might like to see the restaurant. Every time the kitchen door swung open, I searched for him.
We were on a break. The cooks had set out food and drinks on a long table. The drinks were in tall plastic cups with domed lids. I picked up a drink containing carrot and strawberry juice and sat with it on the end of a bench. As I loosened the lid, the drink exploded and drenched the table. It must have been filled too high or placed under pressure. My shirt was splashed and my hands covered in red stickiness. It happened so fast, my area looked like a crime scene, and I sat there, not wanting to make a fuss, although the cup seemed still to be erupting like a little volcano.
One of the cooks rushed over with a towel and began mopping up. He said, “Angela, sweetheart, move away from the mess.” I shifted a little on the bench. The cook swabbed the juice that had seeped into cracks on the table, and I felt myself slipping down one of the cracks and entering a living room, where the sofa complained when you sat on it and the piano begged to be played.
When the doors swung open and Alec swept in, I blinked to be sure it was really him. He came to where I was sitting and said, “Hold out your hands.” I did what he asked. He wiped them with the towel and said, “Come over to the sink.” I followed him, noticing muscles in his shoulders under the blue shirt he was wearing. He ran water over my hands and dried them. I said, “Are you English?” He said, “In what sense?” I said, “Are you being polite or do you like me?” He said, “Some of both.” I said, “I didn’t think you would come.” He said, “I know.” I said, “Hello, I must be going.” He said, “Can’t you stay a few more days?” I didn’t want to say yes because I didn’t want to want what I wanted. Out the window was a smudged, black shadow on a brick wall. I didn’t understand what people were doing with each other. It was easier to be with plants and animals, except for the sense that inevitably came over you that real life was happening someplace else.
I said, “I have been otherwise engaged.” His mouth twisted. He was tall. I am tall. In that way, we fit. We sat across from each other at the table. I liked the way his hair flopped over his forehead and looked good uncombed. I liked that I didn’t know him and that he wasn’t a rushing sort of person. Small plates of beautiful food were lined up between us. They looked like miniature gardens or materials for the boxes of a Joseph Cornell work of art. We didn’t eat. We looked across the table to see if we could recognize something.
He said, “Help me kill the moths.” He had returned to an infestation in his house, and he feared for his rugs. I have a friend who likes to involve other people in her decisions. She asks you to select a winter coat from three she is considering or give a thumbs up or thumbs down to an expensive set of dishes she has already made up her mind to buy. The consultations make her feel as if she lives in a community where people confer in the town square.
I asked Alec if he had brought back new rugs, and he said he had. He said, “I like bargaining in languages I don’t understand. It makes me feel sexy when I get my way.” He laughed, as if he was joking, but I thought it was an interesting thing for a man to say. I imagined the moths fluttering around his house with their little owl faces and powdery wings. The powder on the wings of moths was where old love perhaps collected. It would take time to spray and bag the rugs until the house was rid of insects and eggs.
All those nights ago when I had taken the plant from the wooden riser in front of the florist shop, I had wanted to place it in Alec’s sunny kitchen across from the face-sized roses. I had wanted the vine to send out tendrils until it had grown so large Alec could plant it in his garden. When he watered it or pruned it, he would think of me. But now I wanted only to find a safe place for the plant.
I slipped a straw in another pink drink that was cool and sweet, and I thought everything would taste this way until another moment displaced it like a croquet ball or a magician’s sleight-of-hand misdirected my gaze. I knew a woman whose jaw had been removed as a consequence of cancer. She had the look of a sea creature, and her mouth opened and closed in the manner of a puppet. She was an exceptional dancer, but what she wanted was romance. I said to Alec, “I will kill your moths on one condition.”