Nonfiction by Shannon St. Hilaire
My plant is dying. All winter, the single twig of a stem lies flat against the dirt. Figures. There’s no one to keep it alive now that I live alone. Wrapped in blankets, I stare out the window at the constant drizzle, the sun too buried behind clouds to foster any kind of life. Maybe the plant has gone dormant, like me.
Come spring, the limp stem straightens right back up, raised from near death by sun and warmth. I get little pricks of joy when I look at it, at the new leaves unfurling. It is resilient and I am proud, although I’ve done nothing.
I want more. More plants I can keep alive now that I know I can do it. Something I can pour love into and have an affinity with, that loves the sun even more than I do, so we can enjoy the upcoming months of it together. Living alone, it feels important to have the company.
It is a glorious Sunday in May when I go to the nursery. I’ve strapped my milk crate to the back of my bike with bungee cords and I can get only as many plants as will fit in it.
Surrounded by the bustle of weekend gardeners, I read the labels for plants that prefer low light. I pick out seven of them. They fit neatly into the milk crate, along with a few planters I bought to put them in.
This, I realize, is a very Portland thing to be doing. When I first moved to town, my transplant friends and I would stop in the midst of beer-filled bike rides and spontaneous hula-hooping and say, This is so Portland of us. We’d grin, self-conscious of how much we belonged, ignoring the fact that we didn’t have to try; we could do whatever we wanted in Portland and still be accepted.
Now, I’ve embarked on that moment without realizing it, without ceremony. I’m carless and foolishly determined to bike with plants when the bus or a Lyft would be so much easier. My plan is half-baked at best but full of sunshine and enthusiasm, just like the early twenty-somethings who move here to be makers and musicians. I’m now in my late twenties and have a fancy full-time job that bagpipe-playing unicyclists and rompered twenty-two-year-olds with local brews would hate. I hope they don’t see me on my way home.
On the way, I stop by the party house I moved out of a few months ago in order to tend to my delicate health—a compromised immune system and frequent, drunken visitors don’t go well together. I go around to the back porch to pick up my former roommate’s extra planters, which she’d asked me to take off her hands. It’s a cemetery for dead plants. Maybe it’s bad luck, like wearing someone else’s wedding dress, but I’m not superstitious. I silently pay my respects to the plants who gave their lives so mine could live.
My other former roommate, Evan, rolls up on his bike and the new roommate, my replacement, emerges from the house. They’re about to bike around town to various taco stands, having a margarita and a taco at each one. I wish I could still enjoy a thing like that, but I have to prioritize how I spend my good days. The roommates are cut out for a life of alcohol-filled frolicking. I’m cut out for taking care of my eight plants and feeling okay.
The replacement roommate is a boisterous, nerdy Viking. Evan has crazy eyes I was afraid of for the first year I knew him, long before we moved in together. While I sort through dirt-encrusted planters looking for the right sizes, they crack beers, the Viking a little too excited to hang. Evan is also too excited but in a way that creates energy. They invite me to come out on the taco tour. I say maybe later, after I’ve tended to my new babies.
My apartment is eight blocks away. Loaded up with more ceramics, I decide not to risk riding, and I walk the bike. It’s difficult to balance, but I can do it for just a few blocks, for my plants. Five blocks from home, as I’m turning a corner, a bungee cord comes loose. The crate slides in slow motion, and despite the slowness, the load is too unwieldy for me to prevent it from falling and bringing the bike down with it.
The tiny succulents have rolled like pinecones. Dirt and leaves are scattered on the pavement. One long stem scaled with glossy leaves lies like a disembodied limb. Fortunately it’s from a plant that has many more stems, so this one gets left behind. There’s no major damage, just some trauma that the plants and I will work through together. I re-strap the bungee cord, put the plants back in the crate, and keep walking.
Two blocks from home, the crate falls completely off the bike. There are witnesses this time. A father is ferrying his kids into a van. There’s no way he doesn’t hear the crash, sees the dirt and, yes, the shards of ceramic scattered in the road. But he has too much going on. Once all the arms and legs are in the van, he drives away. I understand. I also have my own babies to look after.
An older man, from the vantage point of his voluptuous garden, asks if he can help. No thanks, I’m fine, I say. The less I acknowledge this moment, the sooner I’ll be able to forget it.
Is this still a Portland moment? I wonder as I scoop the shattered pot into itself.
There’s more dirt in the road than I can scoop up. It’s a crime scene. But only one planter is fully broken, and the plants somehow seem intact. Surely some will die later, but which ones? I hope not the pilea, with its happily rounded leaves. Or the peace lily, the air purifier. Or the succulents, who survive everything but overwatering.
I’ve lived in Portland five-and-a-half years, long enough to be disappointed that I didn’t execute my moment better. But now I only want to get my plants home. I have to take the risk of leaving some of the plants behind and coming back for them, now that I don’t dare to walk the bike with a full crate.
I get dirt all over the kitchen and under my nails as I pot my plants, wishing them to survive. It feels good to sink my hands into dirt warmed from the sun and damp from recent watering.
Once everyone is transplanted, I drench the soil with fertilized water and it turns a deep, rich black. Over the next few days, I study the plants for signs of life and growth, wishing I could do more, knowing they wouldn’t make it if I did. They need nothing more than sun and warmth and clean water to live. The air fills with the smell of earth and green and life, and I inhale.
Shannon St. Hilaire is a content writer at Airbnb. Previously, she interned at Tin House Books and wrote articles for The Fig Tree, a social justice newspaper. She sits on the board of directors for a writers’ organization, The People’s Colloquium. Her creative writing has been published in Portland 2017: An Anthology and Reflection, Gonzaga University’s journal of art and literature.