by Matthew Dickman
I just finished weeding the flowerbeds that line the backyard of the house I rent for myself and my sons. The three of us had begun the project on Saturday. It felt good to be outside on a warm October day, good to spend time together outside with no reason to wear a mask. The smell of the warm soil being turned, how that felt in my hands, the smell of the backyard grass, how bright the green was. My oldest son, Hamza, tending to one side of the beds, and me at the other side with a plan to meet in the middle. Working quietly and listening to the Pixies on a small portable speaker, while my youngest, Owen, dug up our raised bed, jumping up and down in the dirt in bare feet. I think it’s the happiest I’ve been since the separation, since the pandemic began, since losing my job.
Owen came up to me and said, “Poppa, this is like that book where the artist plants ideas.” He was talking about M. B. Goffstein’s A Writer, a tale about how writers cultivate ideas and plant them like seeds and how even if a couple of small green buds come up from the soil only to be eaten by a rabbit, it’s okay. Owen likes this book because his mother and I are both writers and he likes flowers and plants and getting dirty and making mud. Hamza and I didn’t make it to the middle of the flowerbeds. The weeding took longer than I thought. But we did enough to see that there was some change, enough to feel good about going in and having dinner.
I don’t remember growing up with many plants in the house, though I think we did have a big ivy or something hanging in the corner of the living room. The living room was covered wall-to-wall in orange shag carpeting, the couch was low, upholstered in yellow and green just like the stuffed chair in the corner, and above the chair a plant hung in its crocheted planter. But that’s all I can recall. Not that we didn’t bring the outside in. We had two large lilac trees in the backyard, and when they bloomed my mother would cut armfuls and place them all over the house. But the house wasn’t a green house. There were no plants on the mantel or on the tables next to the couch, no herbs being grown on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, no fern in the bathroom. I don’t remember my friends’ homes being filled with plants either. It was as if the neighborhood was too filled up with the reminders of other failures: torn-up lotto tickets and cigarette butts scattered around the bus stops, unemployed and unemployable fathers sitting on front porches, kids shaving their heads. There was no room to bring a plant home, no space in the mind left to manage if the plant died.
My mom did, however, keep some roses and, at times, a small garden. Both she and my twin brother grew the roses in our backyard. I have a picture of him standing in front of some yellow roses, maybe twenty-three years old, wearing blue jeans, a blue button-up shirt, and some Doc Martin oxfords. His arms are crossed. Not in defense but, I think, out of pride. He’s smiling, and the thing he helped grow is bright behind him, as yellow as a lemon.
The small garden my mother kept was along the fence. She grew tomatoes and cucumbers, maybe other vegetables too, but what I remember best are the cucumbers. I remember how crushed she was when she went out one morning and saw that some animal had eaten them. “We can’t have anything nice,” I remember her saying when one of us kids would break something in the house. And that is what I thought when I saw her standing there in a beat-up old robe, some morning haze still visible above the grass. She looked like the neighborhood version of a character in a Brontë novel. I saw her staring at the garden patch, this thing she had made that was now ruined, saying “shit,” a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We can’t have anything nice, is what I thought, and then I went back into my room before she could turn and see me.
Once, when I was about nineteen years old, I was drinking coffee, smoking clove cigarettes, and reading a book at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. It must have been November, because I was wearing a sweater and a jean jacket. I loved the feeling of being far from my neighborhood in the crisp chill, smoking, reading, watching people.
An old man sat down next to me on the bench and asked what I was reading. “Some poems,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, “I love poems, read one to me.”
We talked and talked, and eventually he asked if I wanted to come over and have a cup of coffee at his apartment, maybe read more poems. He said he lived in a penthouse apartment a couple blocks away. I said yes, and we walked over together, his arm in mine. I was being cruised but it also felt cozy. Like I was walking my grandfather home. His penthouse ended up being a one-bedroom apartment in a retirement building, and instead of coffee we drank some cheap wine. What was amazing was that his whole apartment was filled with plants. Littered with them, you could say. Everywhere you turned there were plants, so that the last of the November light coming in through the windows turned the air a sort of aquatic green. I loved it there and went back a couple more times to see his plants, drink wine, smoke clove cigarettes, and read to him, sometimes with my head on his shoulder.
I didn’t keep my own plants until I was living in Austin, Texas, where my twin brother and I had both been accepted to an MFA program. It started slow. I didn’t have plants in the first two apartments, but in the last apartment I created a little garden, a corner oasis.
The apartment complex was three floors high and shaped like a horseshoe. The apartment doors all opened out toward a small outdoor swimming pool and parking lot. I was on the third floor at the corner, so right by my door there was some extra real estate. The stairs came up right there and I had about a three–foot–by–three–foot landing outside my door. I put a wooden folding chair there in the corner, along with a small glass ashtray. Around this I added a potted tomato plant, a couple of ferns, a plant that was supposed to attract butterflies, a beautiful hibiscus, a palm that grew to be four feet tall, and some potted cacti. The plants sort of trickled in; it wasn’t like I went to a nursery and brought home a miniature jungle. They arrived one at a time, like guests at a dinner who all had some secret about one another.
Inside the house I had two more ferns, one in the living room and one in my bedroom, a basil plant that kept dying in the kitchen, and on the balcony off my bedroom, a big potted palm. But it was the little garden outside my front door that I found myself in most often. Sitting there, reading poems, smoking Parliament cigarettes, and drinking iced coffees. From there I learned a lot about what was going on in my neighbors’ lives. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to sleep, working on some little piece of writing, so I would sit out with my plants in the three a.m. humidity. I would see someone leaving an apartment where the husband was away on business, or hear a fight echoing across the pool from an apartment on the opposite side. I had a neighbor named Della who called herself “The Delegation,” and she was. She always seemed know more than me, no matter how long I spent in my garden. She would come over and bum a smoke and we would share intel with a couple butterflies hovering like spies around us. Most of the time nothing much happened. I would sit out and read, write things down in a notebook, a neighbor would come home from grocery shopping, look up and wave, ask how the plants were. I would run down the stairs and help them with their bags. I miss that, the ease with strangers that the pandemic has taken away. I miss those plants and Della, maybe especially the hibiscus.
When Julia and Hamza and I moved in together, we had a couple of plants. Some small things—I’m not sure of the names—with thick, roundish leaves. Then, for my fortieth birthday, Julia bought me a giant dinosaur kind of plant in a beautiful clay pot. It was big to begin with, but only grew bigger. It made the living room feel dynamic, and the air you breathed around it felt clean. We had it in two homes, the first house we rented and then a smaller apartment. I remember it most in that apartment. The living room had high vaulted ceilings and sun windows, so that the light would make its way down through the air, with its floating dust, before touching the dino-plant. Stillness and movement. A year after moving into that apartment, Julia was pregnant with our son Owen, though we were convinced we were having a girl and had already come up with the name Opal. Pregnant and with little money, we decided to move to Berlin. Before we left we gave the dino-plant, as well as a couple of ferns, to the yoga studio where Julia practiced. When we came back from Berlin, broke, a few months later, we found out that the plant had died. So we bought a medium-sized vine, potted it in a hanging basket, and hung it from the ceiling of the small apartment we were able to rent.
After Owen was born, we would place him in his rocking basket right beneath the plant and he would stare and stare at it, reaching for whatever blurry green thing he was actually seeing. I had dreams that the plant would become too heavy for its hook, pull itself out of the ceiling, and come falling down, crushing his face. I began setting him just a little to the left beneath the plant, which never did fall down. We called that plant “Planty,” and after the word “owl,” it might have been Owen’s second or third or fourth word. Owl, Momma, Poppa, Planty.
When Julia and I separated it felt like a death, like people say. A death of a relationship, a death of self-esteem, a death of love, and a death of the future. The house felt empty, so I decided to fill it up with life. Not just for me, but for my sons as well. I wanted my pain to be translated into something else. Initially, I wanted to meet people outside of the groups Julia and I had moved through. I wanted different friends. I didn’t want to fuck my way through the loss, but I did want to sit with new and strange people and drink coffee and get drunk and have them all over for dinners I imagined would last long after I put the boys to bed. But then the pandemic happened, and whatever door I imagined was opening toward a new life slammed shut. So I began to buy plants. First just one or two. Then more and more, and now I have about twenty plants in this small house. Owen and I water them. Hamza keeps Owen from pulling them apart, and when you walk into the house it doesn’t feel like you are walking into a space where something died, where someone was gaslit or shamed or fell apart. Instead it feels like a house where everyone has their shit together, because don’t you have to have your shit together to keep plants alive?
This past August I turned forty-five years old. I took the boys to the small town on the Oregon coast where I had been going with my family since I was born. We marched through dunes and the high beachgrass to the ocean and stood staring at it. The warm smell of the sand and grass, the salt of the ocean. I felt almost good. We had been here a few times a few times over the years. First Julia, Hamza, and me. Then the three of us and Owen. Loss everywhere, that’s just a matter of life.
The morning of my birthday I got a text from Julia. My heart jumped, and I opened the text on my phone. It read, “Do you mind if I go to your house and use your printer? I have some documents I need to sign that are important.” My instinct was to text right back and say, “Yes, of course!” I had always felt that Julia’s life was more important than my own, that whatever Julia happened to be living through was more urgent, often hovering around the energy of an emergency, and that whatever I was living through was something to suck up like air. I looked at the text and thought, Of course, it has only been ten months and Julia has forgotten the day I was born. I didn’t respond. Two hours later Julia texted, “Oh, and happy birthday by the way.” It seems to me so petty to be hurt by something like this, petty and small.
When I brought the kids back from the coast and dropped them off, Julia was standing in the front yard. The boys ran to their mom, who bent down and hugged them. Then Julia stood up and said, “Happy birthday, Matthew,” handing me a small potted plant. I said thank you and hugged and kissed the boys goodbye. I put the plant in the backseat of the car. I had seen this same plant before, in the floral department at a Whole Foods or New Seasons. I knew Julia had bought it that day, the sticker still on it, the soil damp. I listened to an old Sundays album and drove home.
When I pulled up at my house, I did something I don’t think I will ever do again. I say I did something, though it felt like an injured eight-year-old inside me did it. I got out of the car, opened the back door, pulled the plant out, walked around the house, past the backyard and into the ally, opened the big garbage container, threw it in, slammed the lid closed, and thought, Fuck you. Poor plant, who did nothing to no one. How childish. I’m like a child, I thought later, a child raising children.
Being indignant about one’s pain is different from actually being in pain. It’s a bit of poison in the veins. It’s a hair shirt, a cat-o’-nine-tails you swing at your back while you walk in circles through your own blood. Of course, beneath that indignation is the relentless battle of trying to love oneself, of being told that we are supposed to love ourselves, of failing at it and instead ending up having a more realistic relationship with ourselves—one that includes empathy—and hopefully empathy for others. But we also fail. We fail and toss beautiful plants in the bin.
Published on May 12, 2021