By Halle Murcek
I kept the aloe plant on top of the microwave, housed in a little ceramic pot painted with sunflowers, fine lines of yellow and orange, dots of brown and black so meticulous they could only be painted by hand. The kitchen got just enough sunlight to feed our plant, our “love fern” as I jokingly called it, at first. It was no coincidence to me that my own grandmother grew them as well as my boyfriend’s mother, both of which had such similar qualities it was uncanny: the need to nurture, a green thumb, an abundance of recipes, the best baked goods, always warm, soft and rich, a kitchen always emitting some kind of luxurious smell that would soon take over your palate. Remedies of hearty homemade broths that simmer for hours, jars of dried tea leaves, baskets of fresh vegetables from a garden, bottles of lightly scented lotions and oils to always keep their skin as soft as half melted butter. The need to nurture.
The fleshy green body of our plant was still young but already stealthy. I liked to think having greenery around kept my lungs healthy, recycled the old stuff I inhaled and exhaled through the apartment. I imagined oxygen swirling and undulating like the clouds on a weather map you saw on the news.
Nick would meander into the kitchen each morning, sleepy-eyed, bare chested and stunningly pale, stretching toward the light that came in bands through the blinds. With his toothbrush in his mouth he would approach the pot and press his callused fingertips into the soil, black as the grit permanently imbedded beneath his short fingernails from working long ours over a grill, feeding it, tending it then scrubbing it clean.
“Why do you do that?” I asked one morning, when he still took most of the responsibility for the little creature. I approached him from behind and lopped my arms around his waist, reaching for the little pot. He took my fingers and pressed them into the soil. It felt cool and damp, moist, like a sponge that had just been used.
“The soil should be damp, but not soaking, only when you first water it. Then you have to let it dry before you water it again. Aloe plants are meant to survive for long periods of time without water. They store most of it in their leaves and root system.” When I removed my hands the pads of my fingers were crumbed with dirt and the smell reminded me of how it does outside after it rains, pungent and a little sweet.
“So when do I get to start taking care of it?”
“Well, now you know all you need to know.” He looked slightly embarrassed for a second and rubbed his close-cropped hair with his palm, a something he did when he felt self-conscious. “I was worried at first that you would think it was lame. But, you know, it’s important to my mom. That she gave us something to take care of, it means a lot to her.” I wiped a smudge of dirt off his brow. I was always wiping smudges of something off his skin. He squirmed every time.
Nick’s mother grew several aloe plants amongst other various ferns with leaves like lily pads, flowers in poufs of gold and fuchsia and vegetables and bright as confetti. But she seemed to favor the aloes. And once they developed, their lance like leaves reaching far past the edge of the receptacle and onto the sill, she would uproot them and plant them in soft, clay rich soil in their backyard. Sometimes I think of her plants on the there, bathed in sun, amongst the plethora of medicine bottles, all different sizes and colors like little trinkets, as if they were a collection of some kind. I picture her standing there wrapping her plush hands around her favorite mug, sipping tea, the little string and paper attached dangling over the side, fluttering in the draft through the crack in the window. Even when it was the dead of winter she insisted on a little fresh air. She’d watched her little plants in the window amongst the bottles, wondering when a relapse would hit. But she would wipe the dampness on her upper lip from the steam coming off the hot liquid in her mug and along with it the possibility that one day she would have to have someone else tend to her plants.
The first time she had an attack, Nick was at work, he told me, and the hospital had called him first, telling him his mother had been brought in from her job completely paralyzed.
“At first they wouldn’t tell me anything, just that she couldn’t feel her hands or feet, arms or legs. She couldn’t move. I remember her mentioning feeling more tired than usual for a couple of weeks but thought nothing of it. She’s always running around, doing things for people, buying gifts, cooking, cleaning. It’s easy to wear yourself out, you know?” He avoided my eyes when he told me this the first time. We were outside, walking his Great Dane. We had just started dating and each day was a little glimpse deeper into his life. He left the story at that, the first time, and I didn’t push further. He tugged a few dandelions free from the ground and handed them to me.
“I was a different person when I was a kid. I was terrible, sneaking out, getting drunk, getting arrested, calling my mom a bitch for no reason. I was angry and I didn’t appreciate her, everything she did.” This was months later after we had dinner with his parents for the first time and I immediately warmed to this woman who reminded me so much of both my mother and grandmother combined. We were driving home, bellies full and tipsy from the glasses of wine and beers after the meal was well over. Nick became confessional after a few drinks. But I hoped it was because he trusted me. I wanted to take care of him as much as his mother did. The way he was with her now I saw reflected in how he was with me. Leaving notes on the backs of old bill envelopes, surprising me with picnics at secret locations, the Chapstick I liked left on a pillow, surprise brunch when I came home from yoga. He took care of me and sometimes I thought he was trying to make up for the years lost with her.
Nick wiped his face with the back of his hand. The low light in late summer shone on his cheeks, his face shiny like a soap bubble.
“I remember one night, when I was supposed to be grounded, I snuck out of the house and got absolutely obliterated. When I came home at 3AM I was too drunk to remember to come in the door she always leaves unlocked, so I tired climbing through the kitchen window.” He paused, swallowed gripped the steering wheel. “I got stuck and when I pushed myself through I knocked over all of her medicine bottles and broke a bunch of dishes. I was bleeding. Of course I woke her up and she just stood there and shook her head, cleaned me up and told me to go to bed. Do you know what I did?” He shook his head so violently I felt myself tense, keeping my eyes on the road where his weren’t. When he stopped he took a deep breath.
“Nick, you don’t have to tell me this. Don’t feel like you owe me any kind of explanation just because I share things with you.” He pulled over then, dust hovering on around the car on the side of the highway. Cars sped by in blurs. His eyes were round and dark and wet.
“I called her a bitch and told her that she was a horrible mother. And I just kept screaming “bitch” at her. She never said anything and has always pretended like it never happened.”
Nick fingered the aloe plant that his mother had given us, a note attached telling me to snip an end off when her son burned himself on a pan or with hot grease. It was weeks after she brought the little plant in from the kitchen and placed in my palms as if I was cradling a child. I thought about how intuitive mothers are when, that night, searing a soft shell crab for us, the little monster cracked and spit hot juice onto his wrists.
The next day I walked into her house proud and needing to tell her how I had followed her instructions. She led me to the kitchen, gave me a cookie on a napkin and a mug of tea like hers. We stood there at the window sill and she motioned to her garden off to the side of the garage, told me how she would go to the backyard when Nick and his brother were little, and their fair, unscathed skin pulsed red on their bare backs and shoulders from playing in the sprinklers for too long, how she would take her gardening shears that she kept in a neat basket next to her gloves, patterned with lilies, and snip an end off, rubbing the cool, gel-like secretions over their bodies. That night I did the same, snipped of an end with kitchen shears and made him sit still in his protests. I coated my fingertips in the fluid, thick like sap, and rubbed the sores there in little figure eights.
I think about his burns, those little boils and blisters and I think about his mother, and the lesions on her brain that make her body attack itself. I think about how she cooks dinner for her neighbors and gardens, how she would send us cards in the mail and made us care packages. A woman who does everything for everyone but herself. I think about pain seizing some parts of her body while others buzz and go numb, as if there is a short circuit somewhere. I think of her rubbing that aloe over her sons’ bodies and I water the plant she gave me, every day, pressing my fingers into the soil the way Nick showed me. It’s tentacles reach just past the pot now, out to me. I think about how she told me why the aloe plant was her favorite, that it might not be the most pleasant thing to look at but she’s ok with that. On another visit she asked how my plant was holding up and it felt good to tell her the truth, that I watched over it and watered it, but no too much, that I liked having something to take care of because most of the time Nick wouldn’t let me take care of him. I remember her motioning to her backyard again where one grew like a small shrub.
“It’s about as old as the both of you are. I started growing that one when Nick turned 2. It’s got a little time on him.” She turned to her son then and cupped his day old whiskered cheek in her hand. He rubbed his chin up and down a little and looked at her in that moment like he looked at me the first time he told me he loved me. She broke away and scraped up the little pile of pills on the counter. “Down the hatch,” she said and threw them back with a glass of water that Nick had gotten for her.
This is how I remember.
Halle is a 30 year old Midwest born, New York bred writer who holds both a BA in Creative Nonfiction and an MFA in fiction. By way of Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Halle found her voice in both creative nonfiction, flash fiction and prose poetry. Most of her work revolved around the restaurant industry in which she has worked for 5 years and how urban cityscapes define the humans who live within them, broken into categories: Love, Street, In-Transit, Afterhours, Food, and Music.