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STAN & IRENE
I have a lot of plants. I collect a lot of plants. I am a plant person. Dog and cat people I find droll. You know what they say, that people who are mad into pets have no respect for their fellow humans.
One of my favourites is a Dracaena reflexa. It's also called Song of India, and it's actually a tree. I call him Norah, and he likes to listen to Ravi Shankar. I don't care much for Norah's music though. Neither does Norah. I can tell because once a song from her came on the radio and Norah started to droop right before my eyes.
The last few days I've come to notice that I seem to have some new houseguests. Normally cockroaches don't live in this part of the country and I suspect one of my plants must have brought them with them. I'm not sure though. This morning I saw a cockroach walking through the soil of my Dracaena marginata – I really like the Dracaena family, only one I can really recognize. I wasn't sure if he was just passing through, that cockroach, on his way to somewhere else or not, and he was going so fast that I didn't have the chance to ask him.
I decided to go ask my plant dealer instead.
I rode over to Stan's. He's the plant dealer from Iran.
Stan from Iran has been in this country a long time and I'm not sure if he really is from Iran or not. He doesn't have any accent. I imagined people from Iran having accents. Maybe he came over as a small child. He looks like he could be from Iran though, and I suppose I have no reason not to believe him. He's got a full head of white hair and white eyebrows and white hair that comes out of his nose and white hair that comes out of his ears, and little white whiskers that grow on his face. I often find myself wondering if everyone in Iran looks like him when they get old. I secretly suspect that there are only old people in Iran because it's a very old country and close to Babylon. I have made many mental notes to ask Stan, but I keep forgetting.
I grew up in this neighbourhood but I never knew about Stan's until I retired. It was the first week of summer vacation for the kids, but I knew I would never be going back. I hadn't thought before I retired what I would do after. I was at a bit of a loose end, with the rest of my life laid out before me on a blank page and no crayons. I just got on my bike one morning and went exploring and there was Stan's. I'd never been into plants before but the moment I saw the shop I knew, and the moment I met Stan it was all confirmed. I have been going to his shop every morning for the past couple of years.
Plants are kind of like 3rd graders, you know. With kids you sprinkle some knowledge on them and hope they grow in all the right directions, like plants need water. It seemed like a good replacement.
When I rounded the corner past the gas station on Firth Avenue Stan's plant shop is already in view. There's not much more around it to distract the eye; empty lots, an appliance shop, a shut down bar. Stan's has got a big green and yellow sign above the door that says “Plants.” I like the simplicity of it.
Stan's shop isn't very big and so a lot of times Stan orders me the plants I want from his plant dealer. Stan has a nice catalogue and we look at the pictures together and the little descriptions, which just say where they're from and what they need. Right to the point. Sometimes he pre-orders me a plant that he's come across or heard of, because he knows what I like.
We go for lunch sometimes, Stan and I, to Fanny's Fish and Chips. I don't really like fish nor chips, but Stan seems to. It's just a short ride from Stan's Plant shop. Stan doesn't have a bike. I'm not really sure how he gets around, or if he even goes anywhere apart from Fanny's so he doubles me when we go there. I was afraid at first because I'd never doubled before, but he said it's okay, so I believed him. Sometimes he tries to scare me when he's doing it. Wobbling the bike, but when he can tell that I am indeed terrified, he stops.
He's always been curious about where I keep all my plants, and I've been very coy about answering him, out of embarrassment. The truth be told is that though I love plants, I don't really have a green thumb, and I'm very forgetful. I take the time to make lists of what plants are what, what they're called, the info about them and what they need to persevere, and I try very hard to be organized. Like I was when I was teaching. I don't know how I did it for all those years with the students, but nowadays, I usually end up misplacing the piece of paper that I've written all the information about the plant on. Then I draw a crude picture of it and go to Stan and ask him what kind of plant it is. Sometimes he doesn't know either and that's usually when I end up killing the plant because I panic and either drown it or starve it. Sometimes I do both.
That day when I went into Stan's, he seemed a little distracted. He said hi, but far too rushed. Normally he says hi and comes up to me grabbing both my hands and shaking them up and down. It's no secret that we fancy each other in that special way, but we both know that we're too old to start any funny business, nor want to really share our lives with another person. We're set in our ways, but we're fond, and our morning meetings seem to be enough for us both. But because we have this healthy distance I don't feel like it's my business to ask what's going on, or if something is wrong, so I don't. Instead I just ask him if I should come back another time.
He didn't hear me the first time since he's in the back room. I think he lives back there but I can't be too sure. I ask him a bit louder this time, and he tells me to hold on. He seems to have some new plants in, so I take a look at them. Putting the leaves between my fingers. Stan always keeps his plants nice and clean. They're like silk, or at least what I imagine silk would feel like. I'd like to be able to tell just from looking what kind of plant it is, but I'm too old to start trying to learn new things.
Stan came out from the back looking flushed and sweatier than normal. I knew something must have been very wrong. Usually he's very composed. He told me that he didn't have much time for me today but said he wanted to give me something. He handed me a large duffle-bag and my first thought was how am I going to get this home? Then he came up to me grabbed me by both arms and put his lips onto mine.
My first reaction was to push him away. We'd never kissed before. I did think about this with Stan though sometimes. Late at night, when I couldn't sleep the blanket pulled up to my chin. He parted his lips and I felt like there was no option but to do the same. I'd seen this on TV so many times so I knew that it involved moving my head side to side. I felt a cool, warm current shoot through me, and in spite of myself I let out a little moan, and I didn't want it to ever end. And then it did. He pulled away, handed me the bag and told me he had to go and started to head to the back. I just stood there a bit dazed and couldn't even remember why I was there anymore. As though he remembered for me he turned around and walked back to be me quickly. As quickly as a man with a limp can. He stopped just short of me and said, “I love you Irene,” then he turned around and headed to the back again. And I thought, well isn't that something, maybe this is what love is. Because truth be told, I'd never been in love before.
I didn't want to be rude and overstay my welcome, so I turned around and got on my bike with the heavy bag and headed home. I wondered if Stan liked Ravi Shankar. I never asked him.
I dropped the bag beside my shoes when I came in and had to lay down. It seemed like more of a morning than I had anticipated and as I saw a cockroach scuttle across the corner of my ceiling I realized that that was what I was going to ask him. Then I remembered the bag.
I set it on my coffee table and unzipped it. It was full of watches. Rolexes, like the one Stan always wears.
I rode by the shop every day, rain or shine since that day. It at least kept some sort of semblance of routine going on in my life. Every day it was still closed. I'd look in the window and see the plants dying, and the cockroaches, so many of them. At least I got my question answered. I'd marked the days on my calendar, since he'd been gone. After a couple of months the shop was emptied and the sign was gone. I still kept riding by every day and watched as new young people painted and renovated and put up a new sign, in an array of pastel letters saying “Clara's Cupcakes.” That's when I knew that Stan wasn't ever coming back.
Eventually I killed off all of my plants without Stan's help except for a cactus and Norah, and the roaches seem to have gone to the curb with the other plants.
I renamed the cactus Stan. The one I used to call Clementine. But Stan suits it better. It's a big cactus, one of those one's like you see in cartoons that looks like it has two arms held out, bent at the elbows with hands pointing upwards to the sky. I put some white cotton balls all around the top to make it look likes Stan's hair, and I'm amazed at the resemblance. Then I go into the bag of watches that I've thrown in the back of my closet since the day I last saw him because I don't know what else to do with it. I try to find one that looked exactly like the one Stan wore, and instead I find a folded piece of paper. I open it and written in big block letters like one of my grade 3ers would have written is:
IRENE, I'M NOT FROM I RAN. I THOUGHT I SHOULD TELL YOU. I THOUGHT YOU WOULD FIND ME MORE EXOTIC IF I TOLD YOU THAT SINCE YOU LIKE YOUR PLANTS EXOTIC. LOVE ALWAYS, STAN
I take a watch that looks the closest to Stan's, fold the note from him into a smaller square than he did and put it in the left cup of my bra. I go back to the living room and wrap his watch as far around one of the arms of cactus Stan as I can. Then I put some Ravi Shankar on my cassette player and got on my knees to be the same height as cactus Stan, and just stared at him waiting. When my favourite song 'Morning Love' on the cassette comes on I move in closer to cactus Stan and say, “I love you too Stan.”
I push the weight of my body forward and lean into Stan's face and put my lips onto his. I feel his white whiskers piercing my lips. I can taste the salt on his, and our lips burn and sting together, and I know that this is really how I always imagined love would be.
AMBIKA THOMPSON lived her past life in an alternative universe that had everything sorted out. In this universe she can't really recall what happened in her past-life so she's resorted to living in Berlin where she is a mother, writer, and musician. She's written for Sugarhigh and the Lifted Brow Digital as a cultural correspondent; NOW Magazine, and Ex-Berliner as a music journalist; and has contributed short stories to NPR Berlin, Fanzine, and the anthology “Tales from Another Country” as part of the Reader Short Story contest in 2012 that she was shortlisted for. She is also one half of the cello riot grrl band Razor Cunts. ambikathompson.com