The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

April 4th, 2014

Somber Fever

1.

 
               My plant is dying. There’s nothing I can do to change this fact. I’ve had her for three months. The first month her leaves were long and emerald, like painted fingernails. She shined with ebullience but mortality quickly seeped into her soil, turning her towards the rusty hue she has today. I’ve watered her. Trimmed and prayed. I’m not religious, but for her, I’ll fast until sunset. The praying hasn’t worked. Neither has the Miracle Grow. Soon, my plant will die, leaving me with an emptiness far too familiar.

2.

 
Mom says, Talk to her, it helps to talk things out, not just with people but in life.
               So I tell my plant about my job as the receptionist at the insurance agency. I’ve memorized all the extensions in our mid-sized office and can dial them at a moment’s notice. Since I sit at the front desk, I welcome everyone who enters. The delivery boys drop off burgers and pizza for my coworkers. I smile at them. My coworkers scurry up to my desk to pick up the cheesesteaks they shouldn’t be eating. I smile at them too.
               I update her on the Middle East, so my plant can appreciate how easy her life is with me. We take walks around the apartment. This is the television—isn’t it big? That’s the bathtub where I take baths to relax. This is my bed where I sleep each night. Do you like the canopy? Isn’t the bedroom the most perfect fire orange? See how the couch is turquoise? Everything has color! Aren’t you glad you don’t live in Beirut or Tel Aviv?
               Don’t worry, I say to her, The Middle East is far away.
               She’s not worried. My plant never gets excited, weary, or cold. She just sits there, even when I mention the hang-ups at work, which I know are my ex, Johnny. He calls three times a day. Sometimes the calls occur in rapid succession, and the phone rings like thunder. Other times, he calls twice in the morning and I sit tense for the remainder of the day, because I know the third phone call’s coming, it just hasn’t happened yet. He never says anything when he calls but I can hear him breathing, steady and deep.
               Stop calling me! I sometimes scream. This is the reaction he desires, but I can’t help my hysterics. Johnny knows how to dig into me, down beneath the skin.
               I tell my plant all about Johnny and how at first he was scary in a way I liked, a way that excited me. I met him at the café where I worked. Writers and private tutors spent their days ordering coffee. Johnny walked in like a cowboy with a vendetta. His ink black hair, tan leather jacket, frayed jeans and fire orange boots rattled the café’s quiet, austere environment. He waltzed up to Sylvester, a tutor with a long frizzy ponytail, who was sitting at his regular table. The table had the best view of the park across the street.
               Are you almost done? Johnny asked.
               I’m waiting for my next student, Sylvester responded.
               Johnny pointed to Sylvester’s empty coffee cup, and said, It looks to me like you’re done. Johnny loomed over Sylvester, who sat too nervous to move. I was frozen myself—a coffee pot tilted in my hand, threatening to spill scalding Italian roast down my leg. If it had spilled, I wouldn’t have cared. The bubbling scar would have reminded me of that beautiful, angry man.
               When his student arrived, Sylvester escorted the boy to a table in the back. Johnny settled into his seat and snapped his fingers in my direction. I heard it like the crack of a whip and reflexively turned to look at Johnny. His eyes were tiny galaxies, resplendent and dying simultaneously. He pointed at an unused coffee mug, sitting on his table. I walked over and poured him some coffee.
               That wasn’t very nice, I said. My knees trembled. I feared he might take his hand and move it between my thighs. I hoped he would.
               I’m not always nice, he said and winked at me.
               The wink was affected. His smile was too. Everything about him—clothing, ragged fingernails, spiked hair, those boots—all affectations. The intensity of Johnny’s desire to appear damaged and destructive fascinated me. And for the next six months, I craved every part of him.
               I tell my plant how Johnny would lug home crates of records with melodies he thought I would like and would pore over thirty cookbooks to construct the perfect chicken Marsala recipe. Those were the moments when Johnny’s intensity endeared me. Other times, he checked the odometer in my car to see if the mileage was up more than the few miles it took to drive to my office or to my mother and Ronnie’s home. And if I threatened to break up with him, he’d graffiti his love for me across town so that I could see how destroyed he would be without me. Now that we don’t have to see Johnny anymore, I tell my plant how much better we are.
               After, I laugh into her leaves. I don’t want her to be sad and keep on dying, so I tell her jokes. The one about the peanut at the bar and the one with the elephant that had antlers. I flatter her; there are plants at work, even one that sits on my desk, but they aren’t nearly as pretty as she is. She sags her already drooping foliage, seemingly asking, Are you sure? You’re sure I look pretty?
               I say, You’re my plant and you’re gorgeous. My compliments don’t help. She keeps dying all the same.

3

 
My mom tells me to name her. She says, Give her individuality. Plants are like any life form; they require compassion.
               My mother has a vegetable garden that spawns produce every summer, so I trust her advice when it comes to plants.
               I decide to call my plant April. I got her in April. April is the month of my birthday, a month full of hope. But April is only a month long. So I name her Millennium instead. That way you’ll out live me, I explain. I call her Millie for short.

4

 
I don’t know how Johnny got the phone number at the insurance company where I work. The last time I saw him, I was still working at the plastic surgeon’s clinic. The week after I’d ended things with Johnny, a woman had checked in with a collapsed nose. She had asked the doctor if, when he reconstructed her nostrils, he could also remove the bump along the bridge. The surgery was successful. When she came to, the bump was gone. Her boyfriend and parents visited her in the recovery room, their smiles masking disappointment. She would forever look different from the woman they loved. I couldn’t imagine a sadder fate. After the patient was released, I put in my resignation.
               I remained unemployed for a month before I found the job at the insurance company. A week after I started, Johnny began calling the office. The first time he said, I miss you, then hung up. That was the only time he spoke. Now his deliberate breath fills the receiver. The sound is undeniably his.
               I’m not surprised that he found me. Johnny could find me if I was locked in the trunk of a car abandoned in the woods or if I was drowning at the bottom of the river. When I walk home alone, I pretend Johnny’s following me. That I have an infantry of one. But when he calls me at work, I remember that Johnny isn’t going to save me.

5

 
Mom tells me I need to relax. Plants come and go, she says. Maybe Millie can remind you how stable your life is.
               I work a job that bores me. I sit at a desk next to a plant that I hate, warding off an ex-boyfriend who won’t stop hanging up on me. If that’s what she means by stability, I want the rockiest life there is. Mom just shakes her head. That wasn’t what I meant, she says. She’s just a plant.
               No, she’s not. You should know that. You were the one who told me to name her. To feed her compassion! I can hear the desperation in my voice. I don’t care. Millie is dying; I am desperate. These are the stable elements of my life.
               Come on, mom says. If Millie dies we’ll buy you another plant. Don’t get exasperated over this. You’ve got a good job, a nice apartment. The rest comes with time.

6

 
Mom says, as a child, I took everything too seriously.
               It’s not good for a child to be so somber, she told me when I was seven. It sounded like a disease– somber fever– where your arms would fall off and your nose would turn blue. The thought terrified me; I pinched my nose all the time. Clamped my nostrils shut so my nose wouldn’t get too cold and turn blue. And I made a point of laughing often.
               What are you laughing at? My mom would ask.
               It’s none of your business, I’d say, then laugh harder. But my laugh lacked jolliness. The sort of hoho that one associates with politicians. I couldn’t laugh my way out of somber fever any more than I could skip my way free from chicken pox, something I had also attempted. Besides, forced laughter reminded me how far I was from being easygoing. So I stopped laughing and accepted my fate. Somber fever. I’d stand in front of the mirror and tuck my arms in my shirt, looking limbless.
               This is me when the fever sets in, I’d tell the girl in the mirror that I was destined to become.

7

 
I should have ended things with Johnny after he got me fired from the law firm. I was furious with him, but more so, relieved. I hated that job, and he knew it.
               The Sunday before I got fired, Johnny and I had a vicious fight. He’d torn one of the pillows on my couch. I showed up to work on Monday with puffy eyes and tattered hair. My boss muttered something about personal hygiene when she passed my desk.
               The first package arrived after lunch. Beneath layers of Styrofoam peanuts, it held a heart-shaped pillow, purple as an eggplant. I put the pillow next to my computer, knowing that, by day’s end, the sight would either infuriate or endear me. My boss glared at the pillow when she walked by. A few minutes later she called me into her office.
               If you can’t leave your personal life outside the office, she said, We are going to have serious problems. I nodded, telling her it wouldn’t happen again.
               An hour later I got a second delivery—stuffed crimson lips. Twenty minutes later another arrived. It continued all week. By Friday, hundreds pillows overtook the lobby. Each pillow apologized in its individual hue and shape. An aqua unicorn followed by a coral arrow. Johnny wouldn’t back down until I forgave him; I couldn’t help but be charmed by the force of his desire for my forgiveness.
               On Friday, my boss called me into her office again. This isn’t working, she said, pointing to the door. I grabbed as many pillows as I could carry and left to find Johnny.

8

 
I haven’t heard from Johnny in over two weeks. Did he forget about me? I ask Millie. Do you think, this time, he’s really disappeared?
               Millie’s leaves sag. She has no answer. But we’re better without Johnny. Without the phone calls. It’s just that he stopped calling so suddenly. Last Tuesday. When it was time to go home, I didn’t get up from my desk. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I walked outside without hearing from Johnny. Would the sidewalk collapse and trap me underground? Would I find Johnny standing outside my building with a can of canary yellow paint, ready to repaint my apartment and with it our relationship? Would there be a world outside my office walls if I left before hearing from Johnny?
               For three hours after the office closed, I sat, waiting for Johnny to call. The janitor vacuumed, dusted the lobby, and watered the plant on my desk. The night outside had fully darkened. I took the long way home, hoping a man might mug me and Johnny would busting out from behind a dumpster to give the guy a black eye.
               I arrived home unscathed. I had no messages. No flowers. No chocolates. No gallons of paint. Just my quiet apartment. And Mille. After watering Millie, we sat down on the couch. He’s gone, I said. He’s really gone. This should have made me happy.

9

 
The fact that Millie won’t stop dying makes me hopeless. How can I expect to control my life when I can’t even keep her alive?
               I don’t trim Millie too short or water her too much. These are common mistakes people make when they try to love their plants. I’ve joined chat rooms where Internet friends send me pictures of their plants. There’s Lila and her lily, Lily. I have a snapshot of Paul and his bonsai, Jean Claude Van Tree on my refrigerator. I send them pictures of me and Millie, snuggling on our couch and dining on our balcony.
               Lila says to hold the scissors at a forty-five degree angle when I cut Millie back. I send her a close-up of my scissors at forty-five degrees. Paul tells me to count to five as I water her, to ensure I’m giving her the same amount of water each time. I water her twice a week. I trim her once every ten days. They concur; I’m loving Millie just right.

10

 
My mom doesn’t understand why Mille is so important to me. I want to explain it to her, but she never liked Johnny and wouldn’t understand why I wanted to hold onto anything that connected me to him. But each day Millie continues to live is another declaration that I’m progressing to the next stage of my life. A stage without an explosive, irrational man. But I don’t tell my mom this. She’d comment on my somberness, the quality she locates as the root of all my problems.

11

 
Johnny bought Millie from a boy working at the county fair. The boy had the prettiest blond hair; I wanted to wrap a strand around my index finger and suck on it, tasting its golden perfection. Johnny watched me in the bumper car rink when I drove into the wall because I couldn’t stop looking at the boy’s luxurious locks. He noticed me stare at the boy while he had his fingers inside me on the Ferris wheel. I should have stopped looking, but I couldn’t. We exited the Ferris wheel, and I tried to hold Johnny’s hand. He pushed me away. Johnny’s face grew angular in the way that made him look like a tiger.
               What’s wrong? I asked.
               Nothing, he said, frowning. He brooded until his entire body fell stiff with rage. This wasn’t the mulling anger that made me want to pounce on him, but a jealousy deeper than any Johnny had previously displayed. Johnny circled the blond boy the way a cat encloses his prey. Don’t, I whispered. Don’t, I said loudly. Johnny didn’t flinch at the sound of my voice. He was so focused on the boy that I didn’t exist.
               Step right up, the boy shouted, oblivious to Johnny. Hit the bull’s-eye and win a prize. Hit it twice and win an even bigger prize.
               The prizes ranged from plants to stuffed animals to coupons for a free cotton candy at the stand next door.
               He repeated these sentences until someone came up, attempted to hit the bull’s-eye and failed. It looked easy, but it was a very small bull’s-eye.
               How about you? He called to Johnny. Want to try your hand at ar-till-er-y? He said artillery like he was a machine and I hoped that he was, that way he wouldn’t feel the pain Johnny was about to inflict upon him. Perhaps I should have gone over and dragged Johnny back to the car where I could kiss him until his anger subsided. But I didn’t. Although I didn’t realize it until later, I wanted to watch Johnny torture that beautiful blond creature; I needed to witness the entirety of his brutality.
               The boy held the rifle out, but Johnny reached out instead to take hold of his golden hair.
               How much for the plant? Johnny shouted, tugging at a fistful of the boy’s hair.
               It’s not for sale, the boy said, You have to win it.
               Johnny yanked harder. The boy screamed a high-pitched yelp like he might faint.
               Am I winning? Johnny asked.
               After a few tugs from Johnny’s strong mitt, he gave Johnny the plant for the price of two games. As Johnny walked towards me, looking like he’d just won a home-run derby, the boy collapsed to the ground, hyperventilating. His feeble expression made him even more beautiful. I wanted to spit on Johnny’s stupid orange boots for what he’d done.
               Johnny handed me the plant but I wouldn’t take it. That wasn’t nice, I said. Johnny forced the plant into my hand.
               I’m not always nice, he said and kissed me with his wide-open mouth.

12

 
Maybe I’m killing Millie not because of how I water or trim her but on account of my demeanor. I try to laugh into her. I do. But I’m either dragging my feet around our apartment; rushing to work in dress clothes that don’t fit me; or returning home too tired to do anything but watch television. On the weekends, I try to do fun things with Millie. We brunch on my balcony and read stories about countries we will never travel to.
               Millie enjoys the stories from abroad but pales when I show her pictures of the Eifle Tower or the Taj Mahal. Images of Stonehenge remind her that she’s never even seen the sidewalk beneath our apartment building, let alone the English countryside. So I walk her to the front of our building and point to a window on the second floor. That’s us, I tell Millie. Our building is no Versaille even though it’s called Le Chateau. The paint is chipped around the windows, and the front door creaks when opened.
               Don’t worry, Millie. We’ll move up and out of this.
               We walk towards downtown, and I show her the apartment building we’ll move into once I get a raise and the three-bedroom Victorian house we will buy when I’ve decided on a career that supports down-payments. When we reach the park, we sit on the bench that faces the coffee shop where I used to work. It’s bustling. Sylvester sits at his regular table, his ponytail flapping against his back as he nods at a student.
               See, I say to Millie. We’re already on our way.
               We sit in the park until the sun sets. Millie grows nervous on the walk back and, instead of telling her that Johnny will come to our rescue, I say, I’ll protect you Millie.
 
Millie’s leaves are cold by the time we get home. I breathe my hot breath over her until she’s warm. We settle on the couch to watch the evening news. Millie’s leaves look greener than I’ve seen them in months. They are no longer brown, but yellow. Images of Iraq fill the screen. The Middle East, I say. Millie’s leaves grow lime. She appreciates her life with me.

13

 
When we got back to my apartment after the fair, I told Johnny we didn’t fit.
               He held me tight against his chest. You seem to fit right here, he said.
               And I guess that was the problem; I did. My head fell snug into the hollow of his clavicle. I pushed him away from me. From a few feet, I had to strain my neck to look into his eyes. At that distance, we didn’t fit at all. No, I said. We don’t.
               I made him leave but he stayed outside my door the entire night, muttering to himself. A week earlier I would have opened the door, and we would have spent the night on the couch, holding each other like we never wanted to part. A week ago, that would have made me feel safe. But watching him bully the blond boy didn’t attract me; it didn’t make me feel safe. And it wasn’t because the incident was out of character for Johnny. It was just that, we all have our limits, and I realized that this was mine.
               In the morning before he left, Johnny kicked my door. The mark of his shoe is still etched into the paint. I tried to wash it away, but the imprint proves too deep. After that he was gone. I didn’t hear from him for a month. I quit my job at the cosmetic surgery firm and began anew. Until the phone calls at the insurance agency started, I couldn’t believe how fully he had disappeared.
               Millie, though that wasn’t her name yet, was sitting on my coffee table. There was a dark ring around the bottom of her pot. Her leaves sagged, and she needed water. She looked in worse shape than I did. I thought, I should throw you away. I didn’t want any connection to Johnny. But reminders of him were everywhere in my apartment. He had convinced me to paint my bedroom the same shade of orange as his boots and had given me a teapot with Love, Johnny stenciled on the handle. I wasn’t going to repaint my apartment—I liked the orange too much. And even if I did throw the teapot away, my new, unmarked teapot would be the one that replaced the pot Johnny had bought me. If I got rid of everything in my apartment, the vacant space would prove an even stronger reminder of him. I wouldn’t forget Johnny just by throwing Millie away.

14

 
When the first frost hits I tell Millie that we’re ready for a change. Johnny hasn’t called us in over two months. I carry her to the thrift shop and we buy a 1960’s wool pea coat with rabbit trim along the cuffs. The fur is white and soft. All afternoon, I wear the coat, rubbing the fur against Millie’s leaves until we realize that we’re comforting ourselves with the softness of an animal that was killed fifty years ago. We throw the coat in the trash. Instead, we go to the department store where there are racks of coats. They come short and long. Down, wool, and fur. Millie likes the camel wool pea coat but it’s too similar to the one we’ve just thrown away. I insist on down. It’s the warmest, other than fur, but Millie and I do not like fur. We agree. Millie steers me away from black.
               No more black, her greening leaves warn me.
               On the far rack, against the wall there is a coat so royal blue it makes me choke. Millie’s leaves perk as we approach. This is our coat.
               On the walk home, we pass a paint store and turn around to go inside. We choose two gallons of mint eggshell. Mint is more calming than orange. Our new down coat is ideal for winter. These are sensible choices. We’re working on being sensible.
 

*

 
Amy Meyerson is a writer living in Los Angeles. She teaches writing at the University of Southern California and is currently at work on her first novel.

What motivates her to create:
“As I get older, most of my motivation to create comes from those rare moments of complete connection with those around me. A great conversation inspires like nothing else.” 

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