philodendron Emerald Philodendron
Bara Swain

My first engagement and last yeast infection ended at the same time. Over a glass of prophylactic cranberry juice, I recited my objections to my dearly betroubled, the nearsighted son of the current Mayor of Cranford and former Miss Union County of 1956, referring occasionally to the key words inscribed with a fine-line permanent marker on the palm of my left hand.


"Your mother doesn't approve of me, Johnny."

"My ... what!? Are you crazy, Stella? How can you ... my mother thinks the world of you!

I'm sorry, Johnny."

"My God, my God! Didn't she -- correct me, Stella -- didn't she say that you were the best thing that ever happened to me? And didn't she ... she she she she ask you for the recipe for your Tuna Noodle --"

"Sit down, Johnny."

"-- Strudel, Stella? My mother ... my mother thinks the sun --"

"I said I'm sorry, Johnny."

"-- that the sun rises and sets on your bowel movements!"

Using visual imagery, I tried to reconstruct my unabridged list scratched on loose leaf paper, wide-lined, and arranged in tabular form (Johnny: Pros and Cons). Ranging from the superfluous (prefers Velveeta to Jarlsberg) to the offensive (supports Al Sharpton), I envisioned my pre-nuptial inventory, filed in a three-ring binder and hidden in the back of my closet next to a year-old jar of marshmallow fluff, a discarded dental plate that made it difficult to pronounce certain combinations of letters (especially "th" and "ch"), half of a plaster cast salvaged from my orthopedist and autographed by Susan Sarandon, and two Brand Name Calorie Counters (paperback and hard cover) from my mother. Mother. Mother.

"Oh!" I cried, illuminated. "I don't want to be the mother of your children, Johnny!"

A week later, I was already on the rebound, sharing my fold-out Castro-convertible with a cliché -- my mother's gardener, a rangy man with beautiful knees, a chiseled face, and several outside interests: cake decorating, vocabulary enrichment, and the partnership between the honey bee and the flower. "It's unique," said the gardener. "Like you, Stella."

The only mementos of my formerly betrothed were 1) an economy-sized box of deodorized panty liners, and 2) the word, "urine," printed in tiny block letters on my thumb joint.

"What's this?" asked the gardener, reaching for my hand.

In a leap of faith, I directed the soft-spoken man to the back of my built-in closet, stained the color of my hair -- pale mahogany. Then I removed my clothes down to my Fruit of the Loom and waited for his return. His joints cracked as the gardener lowered himself to my coil-spring mattress and balanced the black binder on his thread-bare knees. I leaned over the man, the eldest son of the current chief-cook-and-bottle-washer at Crock of No Shit (a natural food stand on Cranford Avenue) and former bra-burner of 1968, and flipped the pages open to the tab marked "Johnny."

"Read," I said. "Number fifteen."

The gardener raised his eyebrows. "Doesn't use a pooper scooper?"

"Try number sixteen."

"Manicures his nails?"

"Look at the bottom," I said, impatiently. "Under 'Miscellaneous.'"

"Miscellaneous. Number sixteen," recited the gardener. "Says that I smell like urine?"

"That's it!" I cried, jubilant. And then I began to sob in earnest.

I was still weeping softly when the gardener reappeared at my side with a pocket-sized dictionary and a thick magic marker. Before I could protest, he nuzzled my earlobe and inhaled deeply. "Chinese Hibiscus," he whispered, then drew on the skin of my neck. Nostrils flaring, he traveled down my shoulder to my armpit. "Moth Orchid. Lovely," he murmured, as he tattooed my pale skin with ink. Then he inched down my torso to my navel. "Chrysanthemum," said the gardener, making love to each syllable. "Chrysanthemum," he repeated and, consulting his dictionary, circled my belly button with thirteen black letters.

The next and last thing I recalled until the sun woke me from a deep sleep, was my white cotton panties sliding down my legs, caressing my ankles and disappearing into the night. I found them the next morning, sandwiched between the gardener's pillowcase and bronzed hollow cheek. I rolled over my lover, carefully, and headed to the bathroom. The toilet seat was cold against my skin. As I leaned forward to watch the warm stream between my legs, I was startled, momentarily, at the sight of my blackened inner thighs.

Slowly, I traced the bold cursive strokes with my tell-tale thumb, over and over, blushing and giggling like a bashful bride at the words inscribed with a permanent black marker in between my legs: Emerald Philodendron.

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