He had been watching her for four years—watering her plants, grooming her plants. First in grad school, then when they moved in together in Cambridge, and later in their first house as a newly married couple with house plants. It had taken years for him to credit: to observe, to suspect, to hypothesize about, and finally to believe.
Her plants—their plants he’d thought at first—sat on pedestals, long benches, and gleaming wooden foot stools in front of windows sodden with sunlight. Numerous trips to the local flea market, an old drive-in still showing first-run movies, had produced this odd assortment of plant stands.
They had been married for two years when he first became curious. How diligently she plucked off old leaves, inspected them for mites, mixed drops of dark fertilizer into their broth. She hovered, swooped, and sometimes knelt before them as she watered their soil. For one of their anniversaries he bought her a copper watering can, its long spout a perfect curve, capable of safely snaking in among the leaves to reach the carefully cultivated earth.
Then the day came when something, what?, made him realize that the leaves on a Christmas cactus had begun to droop alarmingly. Their link-like stems were limp, green arcs, a green that verged on brown. He went to the door of her study to suggest that he might water the plants for her, but she said oh no and assured him she was keeping an eye on them. They were really just fine. Besides he had better things to do with his time.
Did he? He supposed he did and returned to his own study where he was putting the finishing touches to a paper on the political ramifications of eighteenth century British cartoons.
The day came, though, when he was sure. He put on his glasses and peered down one row of plants and then another, stooped over two low benches, poked his finger into the soil of a ficus tree. Dry. The plants were almost dead—or in various stages of dying. When he summoned his wife to see what he saw, she said, “Darling, they’ll be fine. Don’t give these plants another thought.”
And then she moved into action: water, fertilizer, pruning, dusting, petting, sunlight. It was somehow familiar: how generous her glee had seemed at first, before he understood her parsimony. Children? Perhaps it was why he never wanted a child. It is why she is no longer his wife.
Pamela Painter is the author of three story collections, Getting to Know the Weather, which won the GLCA Award for First Fiction and was reprinted as a Classic Contemporary by Carnegie Mellon, The Long and Short of It, and Wouldn’t You Like to Know. She is also the co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, now in its third edition. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Ploughshares, Smokelong Quarterly, Iron Horse Literary Review, Mid-American Review, and Quick Fiction, among others. She has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction. She teaches at Emerson College.