“We don’t have the space for an orchid. It’ll die,” Phil said.
The orchid was gifted to Ingrid as a late present from her parents, who visited about a month after her birthday. The white petals were flecked with violet speckles, diminishing in size as they reached towards the outer edges of the petals. The lobes were blurred with the orange of a ripe Chicken of the Wood. Spindly stalks grew out of the bark and yellow moss. They bent and reached with gnarled knuckles, fragile buds performing a slow acrobatic dance off the tips. The leaves acted as a safety net, reaching out firmly to catch the flowers as their show came to an end.
The pot did not match in any sense. It was deep red, richer than brick, but not quite maroon. It was thick, stocky, a chunky counterpart to the delicate orchid. The decorative holes in the side of the curved vase provided windows for the waxy roots to stretch out of and peepholes for her to keep an eye out for mold and rot.
Ingrid watered the orchid religiously, as her father did with his. Every Sunday morning, she would take it to the kitchen sink and soak the soil through. The bark surrounding the roots would turn almost-black and slippery, the moss transformed into spongey worms. After the last few drops dripped down the drain, the orchid would be transported to the semi-sunny table by the windows. Never in direct sunlight. She had watched her father dutifully care for all the plants in her childhood house. She knew what kind of dedication it took. Her father’s orchids weren’t the most gorgeous specimens, they had some brown roots and occasionally a leaf would fall off, but this was more due to the fact that they weren’t living in a greenhouse, where they belonged.
During the week, the orchid sat on her desk. Ingrid could tell the orchid wasn’t happy. The dry, brittle air in the dorms did not sit well with the plant. Over time, the orchid’s full, bright green leaves developed cracks, like aging skin. Despite her Sunday ritual, the orchid was bone-dry. She tried to calm it with a spray bottle full of warm water. She tried to soothe it next to the heater with damp paper towels. Ingrid knew the orchid didn’t belong, but was too proud to say so and didn’t have another place to put it.
“What did I say? This is no place for an orchid,” Phil said.
Sometime in late April, Phil and Ingrid were having a quiet night in. Quiet, meaning a small bottle of Absolut Citron as a treat after an especially arduous week. They dove deep into it. At the end of the rather uneventful night, the futon had to be converted back into a bed from its temporary folded occupation as a couch. Ingrid went to get the sheets out of the dryer so that they could fold themselves into the warmth of the fuzzy blankets and glowing buzz of contented drunkenness. When she walked back in the room, the orchid was splayed on the ground, surrounded by dirt, bark, and moss.
“I told you an orchid was a bad idea,” Phil said.
Staring blankly for only a moment, she rushed over and dropped the sheets on the desk. She knelt by the orchid, scraping the debris together. The bed was back to its primary function and had caught a good amount of the bark from the top of the pot. The pot still sat proudly on the desk. The orchid lay mangled on the linoleum, one of the two necks broken. The smaller of the two was snapped along the main shoot. Ingrid brought the stubborn pot down to ground level and lifted the plant into it gently. She scraped the soil into a pile and carefully placed the bits and pieces around the roots. She repositioned the clips that held the necks up and in place, reminiscent of how carriage horses are forced to keep their heads up when they pull instead of throwing their full weight into the often-times cruel job. Luckily for the orchid, all these clips did was keep those heavy heads from toppling over.
Phil sighed while she performed this task. She placed the orchid back on the desk. The fitted sheet was put on the bed without incident. She went to the bathroom to wash her hands from the soil. When she returned, both the orchid and the pot were on the floor, both looking pitiful and shattered. Phil’s hand was pressed against his eyes in an exasperated position.
“What the fuck?” She ran over to the orchid once again. The top sheet and quilt were now on the bed, the bottom corner of the futon covered in soil once again. Again, she scooped up as much as she could and found a replacement container for the mangled plant.
“I told you the orchid was going to die,” he said.
“What did you do?” Ingrid asked accusingly.
“It wasn’t my fault, the stupid thing was too close to the edge! I was putting the sheets on the bed, and my elbow knocked into it.” He paused for a moment, taking in the scene of her picking up the fragments of the pot. “Sorry I broke it.” He sounded slightly remorseful.
She ignored him and stood up, a little dizzy from the booze and anger, shards of pottery in her hands. The endearingly petulant pot was thrown out with a crash. Not so stubborn now. She slammed the door, not caring that the neighbors were probably sleeping, yanked the cleaning closet door open, grabbed a broom, and turned to open the door again. Phil was standing in the doorway.
“Give it to me.” He said this with a sigh, just barely owning up to the responsibility.
She tried to push past him, but he grabbed the broom handle and stopped her. She pushed back and he let go. After the remaining bark and moss had been swept out onto the balcony, she put the broom away and went into the room. The bottle of vodka was on the desk next to the orchid. She picked up the orchid, now housed in a small mesh tin cup, and put it on top of the wardrobe, where it would be safe, save from a freak accident. She took a long draught from the bottle and climbed under the covers, still quivering slightly with residual sadness.
The orchid watched from the top of the dresser as the woman curled herself into a ball. The orchid watched the man who leaned against the desk rub his face and stare at the woman’s back. After a few minutes, he undressed and got into bed beside her. He stared at the ceiling and then looked over at the back of her head. He reached out his hand and stroked the curls that were strewn in a tangled mess across the pillow. The woman did not react. The man retracted his hand and looked at the orchid. The orchid stared back. The man reached over to the lamp, switched it off, and plunged the room into semi-darkness, save for the weak sliver of moon that shone in. The man looked at the messy curls one more time and turned his back towards hers. The orchid wilted a bit more.
The next morning Ingrid had to cut off the broken limb. She put cinnamon powder on it, as the Google God told her. She patched and repaired and continued on with her Sunday rituals. The orchid stayed alive.
The orchid was moved out of the dorm room and into a house where it had the potential to flourish. The summer months brought some life back into the orchid, but not much. It remained in the tin cup and never had the faintest thought of flowering again. It became the friend of the windowsill cat who enjoyed resting her head under its once-again firm leaf to shade her eyes from the sun. Ingrid’s father inquired into the orchid’s health and she lied, saying that the orchid was doing well and that the pot looked beautiful on the windowsill with that cat. The father asked for a picture, but she never sent one.
In the fall, Phil and Ingrid moved into a new apartment. Her cactus collection stood watch on the windowsill, eager for any sun that appeared. The orchid was placed next to them for one afternoon and then forgotten when the curtains were closed for privacy during the nighttime. The next day, amongst the chaos of unpacking, the orchid was again forgotten, to wilt in the bright sun. When Ingrid finally remembered, she ripped the curtains back to find the sun-scorched orchid.
The leaves looked as if they had been pan-fried, like a burnt piece of toast. The necks had brown streaks running down their length, intermixed with a sickly, cruel shade of yellow-green. The delicate knuckles were sickly and stunted. The cacti looked disappointed in her for letting their new friend die.
“How could you?” they cried.
She looked at them remorsefully, apologetically. Years of gardening and she couldn’t keep her orchid alive. She could keep an entire garden flourishing, zucchini growing to the size of baseball bats, any colour of pepper that existed, asparagus that was so flavorful you ate them unwashed, right out of the ground, and yet the orchid died.
The orchid, not quite dead, but nearly there, said goodbye to her new, spiky friends. The man leaned against the kitchen counter with a worried look on his face. The woman’s eyebrows were furrowed, and her mouth had a downward slant. The orchid could tell she was trying not to let her tears out. The orchid drooped a little bit more. She had almost had a chance in this new place. She had shied away from the sun, trying to find shade, but she had failed. The sun had scorched her leaves and burned her neck. The orchid sighed and slouched over a bit more in her pot. The orchid was exhausted.
Ingrid picked up the sad-looking orchid and moved it over to the kitchen counter. She looked at the orchid for a few seconds, arms crossed, angry at herself for forgetting it, angry at Phil for initiating the slow, painful death. The orchid had been a possibility. It had been a chance for her to prove that she could take care of something so finicky, so delicate, so difficult. The orchid had been an opportunity to show her father that she had learned something from him, from his dedication and hard work. Her father would be so disappointed.
Phil placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry she died,” he said. “We never even named her.”
“Don’t kid yourself. You’re relieved.” She sniffled slightly.
He didn’t say anything because he knew it was true.
“I give up. I’ll just stick with the cacti for a while,” she said and sniffled again.
She lifted the orchid out of her deathbed and walked over to the trash can. It seemed unceremonious, but there was no compost pile. She took a deep breath and put the orchid in the bin.
Florence is a Creative Writing major at Warren Wilson College. Her poem “Cliffs” has been published in the Seabreeze Literary Magazine.