The summer before she met Ben, Gwen had a bad sexual experience. It hadn’t quite been rape, she didn’t think. He just hadn’t been very well-behaved. She didn’t relay the bad behaviour to friends. To them he was just the entomologist who kissed like a fish. To them it was funny. She had nightmares about him stabbing her to death.
When Gwen was a child, her mother put her in charge of the family fruit trees. It was no orchard, just an orange tree rooted in the lawn and two large potted plants – a dwarf peach tree and an exuberant bush of kumquats. As she tended to them, Gwen began to think of herself as the peach tree, her mother the stoic orange.
The elementary school she attended kept two kid-friendly botanical encyclopedias in the library. During lunchtime, Gwen would copy the names and features of various plants into a scrapbook. Generous neighbours and public parks donated leaves and flower cuttings. Matching her notes to the species samples became her own personal, perpetual game of bingo.
Just as she’d noticed the orange tree in her mother, and the dwarf peach tree inside herself, Gwen began to see her growing scrapbook of plants living in all the people around her. She found their kumquat bush in a gossipy neighbour (the rare individual who was sour about life and nonetheless charming), a monstera in the postlady (durable and dog-averse), and an oak tree sapling in her best friend (a conscientious child who only wanted to be useful, but who was destined to be beautiful and admired, Gwen was sure).
When she met Ben, many years later, at a party, she knew right away that he was a marigold. He was beautiful and magnetic and fair. He looked at Gwen as though she were a flower as well. Yes, a fruit is a flower. But dwarf peaches are neither presented as gifts to lovers, nor do they taste very good. They are ornamental trees. Gwen had made peace with this.
The incident with the entomologist made it difficult for Gwen to return Ben’s gaze. She didn’t want him to want her – she just wanted him to remain beside her. They talked about their studies – her botany classes, his history thesis. He studied the history of oceanography. He wrote about old, disproven oceanographic theories. Gwen put it to him that, in a way, that meant he studied imaginary oceans. He agreed very earnestly.
Ben asked for her phone number, and Gwen was relieved when he only used it to offer the same tentative, sincere company. They drank tea above a bookstore. In a tavern named after a famous horse, they spoke about their childhoods. She showed him her genetically engineered plant species in the university greenhouse and he complimented her work. He invited her to walk with him along the pier, where he often sat and thought about all the lovely, incorrect assumptions that oceanographers of the past had come to once upon a time, probably observing the sea from a similar vantage point.
They hung their legs over the seawall and spoke about God. The water was volatile that day, and the terror of the scene only emphasised Ben’s marigold qualities. He watched the chaos serenely. Even when a little spray hit them, and Gwen’s heart revved up, he just smiled at her. She could taste salt on her lips. She wondered if his lips were salty, too. He had a very nice mouth. There was a blossom in her chest. A small fruit. She would let him kiss her. She wanted him to.
She invited him up to her apartment. They drank water. He played her piano. And then he said he should really go home if he was going to make it back to his side of town. Gwen knew the bus ran all night, but she would hardly talk him out of leaving.
“Can I kiss you?” He asked, and she said yes.
And then a bit later:
“Is this okay?”
When other lovers had asked that question, they had been asking for carte blanche. Gwen, in all her enthusiasm to kiss him, had forgotten that anything other than kissing existed.
“I just mean this!” He gestured between their mouths.
“Oh!” She smiled and put her hands back in his hair.
They met at the observatory a few days later. Ben gave her a secret, and when Gwen thought about it later, she realised she hadn’t given him one in return. She’d just said over and over that she was afraid to die, and Ben had laughed at her. The sound of them both laughing was a comfort later on, when she was alone and frightened again.
She was still a little afraid of him when they went back to his room. Because she’d gone willingly into the entomologist’s place, hadn’t she? But, once over the threshold, she thought of how dissimilar the two men were despite their gender and advanced degrees.
Ben seemed a little nervous. It was warm. The room smelled good, like smoke and sea salt and the inside of a new book. She realised she would have to ask for some of the things she wanted, and so she did.
Before Gwen left for class in the morning, Ben gave her one of the potted plants from his kitchen windowsill. He was hoping she might save it. She said she would see what she could do, very casually. It was a simple task for a serious botanist, but simple did not mean unimportant. To garden is to meddle with life and death. There were many things she could do to revive the flailing red geranium, and it would be a success.
The next week, Gwen had tea with a friend. She mentioned Ben lightly and spoke at length about how well the geranium was doing. Gwen’s friends were mostly women from the fine arts college, and she was always conscious of the mise-en-scène they had invited her into. The painter was heartbroken and dressed in black. Dead roses lay on a velveteen tablecloth.
“When are you seeing him again?”
Gwen looked at the tea leaves settled in the bottom of her cup. It looked like rain, or the bent canopy of a willow tree.
“I’m not sure,” Gwen said. “He hasn’t answered my last message.”
The painter looked disapproving.
“You’re very pretty, Gwen. And a talented botanist.”
Gwen began to think of all the ways she might have disappointed him. People put dwarf peach trees in their gardens to make the space look a bit nicer. But really, if you look closely, they have their own special flaws, much like any other tree. And maybe you’re a bit more disappointed with the dwarf peach tree’s imperfections. You planted it for beauty’s sake, and now you’re confronted with a distracting protrusion on one of its branches. And some of its leaves are mottled and browning.
Sorry! Don’t know why I didn’t see this! Ben messaged eventually, which was obviously a lie, in retrospect, and in regular spect, too, because a little symbol had shown up earlier next to Gwen’s text, telling her it was seen.
When they met again, Ben told her that he was moving back to San Antonio. His grandfather was ill and needed someone to help him. Gwen could hardly argue with that.
“There’s no seaside in San Antonio,” she said, hopelessly.
“You can keep the geranium,” he said, tenderly.
It had been such a lovely surprise when the fruit had appeared inside Gwen’s chest, but the little fruit would rot now.
Some plants in the university gardens were moved into the greenhouse from season to season, so that they might survive the winter or the summer, depending on their preferences. The snapdragons were left outside in the wintertime to die. If they were sheltered, and they survived the winter, they would protest this extension of their life in the next bloom with paltry, half-hearted flowers.
Gwen usually accepted the nature of annual plants dispassionately, but this year she found herself dispatching the lifeless stems gently into the compost, holding a little funeral for each flower. She sowed the fallen seeds, though they had always managed without human intervention.
Gwen wondered if she might find more solace in a year abroad. She could go to the Peruvian Amazon and meet thousands of new plants. And who knew? Maybe she would also meet a rugged local ichthyologist. Maybe they would raise children in Lima and the children would call her Mamá. That sounded like a nice life.
She received her study abroad acceptance letter the day before she heard whispers that Ben was back in town. Still more time passed and she had no word from him, affirming the sentiment of her friends that she should be over him and preoccupied with her Peruvian future.
She began to sell her belongings. She spent her days taking Spanish classes. And then the week before her flight to Lima, she threw a going away party.
She had invited Ben in the email blast, but was surprised when he showed up. She offered him a drink, and while she poured it, he told her about a new job he’d secured in town, photographing the boats that came and went for a maritime archive. Gwen offered a benign congratulations, when what she really wanted to say was:
I think you’ve been back here for months and I’m only seeing you at my going away party? Do you only want me when one of us is going away? Did you know you were going back to San Antonio before we first slept together?
The questions, she knew, were cruel. The main grievance with a dwarf peach is that they can be quite tart.
He was the last to leave.
“I just wanted to give you these,” he said, and pulled out a small brown envelope. Cabbage Rose Seeds was printed on the outside in his calligraphic hand.
“I know they’re probably not suited to the rainforest. But maybe one day you’ll be back somewhere they can grow. And besides, they’re a great companion plant for geraniums.” His geranium, thriving, was sitting on top of her suitcases in the otherwise bare apartment.
In the middle of sex, Gwen asked if he was laughing at her.
“No!” He said, “No, I’m just happy!”
“Oh,” She smiled. She was surprised that being with her could make him happy. If she thought sleeping with anyone in particular could make her happy, she wouldn’t avoid them for any amount of time.
Gwen did meet a handsome ichthyologist in Peru. He was funny and kind. But once she had let him get close to her, she realised he smelled all wrong. He was, to her, a Callery pear tree.
Then she dated a poet, who was staying near their station and who followed the botanists around, scribbling down anything they said that sounded particularly lyrical.
One day, he took note of the expression in fimo. Gwen discreetly explained to him that there wasn’t anything romantic about the phrase. They were examining the excrement of a poison dart frog in its capacity as a fertiliser. This actually seemed to delight him, which in turn delighted Gwen.
Ben emailed that evening to say he was thinking of visiting Peru, and wanted to know if he could see her. Gwen informed the poet that, much as he delighted her, she wanted to remain friends.
Just before he was due to arrive, Ben emailed to say he had fallen ill and was delaying his trip indefinitely. Gwen was tired of trying to supplant her affection for him, and decided instead to focus on her survey of local epiphytes. She wondered what it would be like to live as a prosthechea aemula instead of as a human woman. Perhaps it was misguided to imagine an orchard’s life was any less fraught.
Gwen returned home, near the university town, for the holidays. She saw Ben, though her mother disapproved. If he cared about Gwen at all, her mother reasoned, he would have said so by now. They went to the movies. He held her face when they kissed, which made Gwen feel precious, like a flower herself, again. And then he seemed reluctant to see her a second time, which made her cry. She wished her mother could be wrong from time to time.
She wished her friends could be wrong, too. They met her at the airport when her year in Peru had come to an end.
“Did you hear from Ben when he was in Peru?”
“He didn’t wind up coming, he was sick,” Gwen said.
“I don’t think so? He wrote an article for the university newsletter about the ports of Callao he visited last month.”
Gwen ran into him in the supermarket one day. She felt very bitter and was unable to do anything to make herself feel otherwise.
“I heard you visited Peru after all,” she said.
“Yes!” he said. “I thought you were still working in the Amazon at the time. It’s on the other side of the country.”
“I suppose it is. But I spent many weekends in Lima. I wish I’d known you were coming.”
“It was all very last minute,” he said. “I was only there for a few days.”
She nodded. The omission still felt glaring, but she couldn’t imagine pushing the issue.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, and he sounded earnest.
“My number is still the same, if you’d like to eat dinner together sometime,” she said.
“Definitely,” he answered. “This week is a bit busy. Lots of ships coming in. But I’d love to catch up. Maybe next week?”
“That sounds nice. Let me know when you’re free,” Gwen said, waving the apple she was buying as she joined the queue. He was still comparing cans of tuna. He waved one in return.
Next week came and went, as did the week after. She planted the cabbage rose in the window box of her new apartment, and repotted the geraniums next to them. Perhaps when the roses had bloomed, if she’d still had no word from him, she would return both plants. Perhaps she would attach a note saying:
I don’t want to be passive aggressive, but these plants have begun to make me sad. Please take them back.
She wished she could also return the ripe, if tart, dwarf peaches piled up inside her chest, because they were heavy now. They were meant to be collected by the person who’d summoned them there.
The poet wrote to her – no note, just a piece titled In Fimo – Dedicated to Gwendolyn. It was brief; “My heart is in fimo, because of Gwendolyn. It’s not totally her fault – I asked her to do it.”
Brooke Henzell is an Australian writer whose work has previously appeared in Washington Square Review, Misery Tourism, and giallo. She is a graduate of Barnard College, where she concentrated in creative writing.