Spring felt slow to arrive the year after Marcus left. By early April, the daffodils’ dark green leaves had only barely begun to emerge from the soil. The heavy rain was expected, but moody clouds hovered even in its absence. Impatient, Miranda rose early one Saturday morning and set out for the hardware store on Beacon Street, hoping their usual selection of house plants wasn’t fully picked over.
The short drive over exposed the wreckage of the previous night’s thunderstorm. Tree branches and debris littered the sidewalks, and a downed power line was cordoned off with traffic cones. Miranda was grateful to have avoided the outage. During one of their first nights together–now a full decade and three moves ago–Miranda’s tiny studio in Queens had lost power, and she and Marcus had delighted in drinking wine and playing Scrabble by candlelight, ironically energized. Yet as Miranda approached her mid-thirties, flickering lights brought nothing but anxiety, as she thought of the groceries liable to go bad in the fridge, the lost comfort of mindless scrolling on her phone, the potential of going days without a shower.
“Can I help you find something?”
A bored looking teenage sales associate approached, her heavy eyeliner clearly affirming that 90s aesthetics were back, even in unfashionable New England. Miranda realized she probably looked lost, standing tentatively not far from the store’s entrance as she began to question whether her recollection that they even sold plants was somehow misplaced. Her short-term memory over the past few months had been unreliable, leaving her to second guess herself even when undertaking mundane tasks. The doctor said it was probably just her insomnia.
“Um, yeah, maybe. I know you’re stocking up for the spring, but do you have any house plants left?”
“You’re in luck,” the clerk said, gesturing to Miranda to follow her. “We just moved them to the clearance section but there are a few options left, let’s see what we have.” She strode confidently toward the back of the store. Miranda breathed a quiet sigh of relief, grateful to avoid even small disappointments during the fragile first hours of the day.
“Yeah, so it’s a small selection, but there’s still a few to pick from. Looks like we have a few snake plants, some alocasias. They’re all good for purifying the air, if that’s what you’re going for. There’s the orchids, obviously. And the birds of paradise. Those are always popular if you’re looking to brighten up a space. Real California vibes.”
The girl cocked her head slightly and pursed her lips as she waited for Miranda’s response. It was hard to tell if her deadpan tone was meant to be ironic or not. Miranda decided to treat it as sincere.
“Thank you,” she said, meeting the clerk’s eye.
The six months since they first said the word “divorce” had been a time of hibernation. Marcus left in early November, as they both agreed that the forced joyfulness of the holidays would be too much to bear. Miranda hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell her parents and sisters that her marriage was ending, much less about the devastating discoveries that had preceded the rupture. She spent Christmas alone on her couch, eating take-out Thai food and binging 90 Day Fiancé, among TLC’s other finest offerings.
If Miranda was the protagonist in her own drama, Marcus had been her foil. Where she was quiet, reserved, he was ebullient, the kind of person who people would unironically describe as lighting up a room. When it was her turn to pick a movie, she’d go for the quirky independent films, while he would inevitably choose the blockbusters. Whereas she preferred nothing more than a quiet night in, Marcus was eager to try every new restaurant, attend every town hall, show up at even the most rinky dink community events. His need to be seen was only matched by her penchant for seclusion. For years, it had worked. They were “complementary,” they told themselves and others, yin and yang, each making up for what the other lacked. But when she uncovered the years-long trove of text and email conversations he’d had with other women– some explicit, some not; some one-offs, others ongoing–it was clear he’d wanted for nothing.
During her stretch of isolation that followed, the toughest moments were not those of self-pity but those of self-doubt, when the decision gnawed at her. Affairs were so common, after all. Or so every women’s magazine had told her since adolescence. Perhaps she should have tried harder to salvage the relationship. Perhaps she should have accepted his grand apologetic gesture–a proffered trip to Hawaii to renew their vows–and moved on. She began having recurring dreams of falling–off a cliff, off the Staten Island ferry, out of a plane–and invariably woke with a jolt.
It wasn’t until March that Miranda began to observe small pinpricks of optimism pierce the gloom that had become so familiar. She’d feel herself get briefly excited about the prospect of trying a new recipe or reading a new book. The moments of lightness were few and far between at first, but she knew that if she tended to them carefully, coaxing them to stay a little longer, that eventually the clouds would dissipate more fully.
“Are you a rewards member?”
The fresh-faced cashier brought Miranda back to the present. After a protracted debate with herself, she’d settled on the bird of paradise. The spiky orange blooms would contrast well with the turquoise paint she’d recently purchased during one of those bursts of hope, in which she’d envisioned herself as a person whose home had accent walls.
“Oh, no, I don’t think so.”
“Would you like to sign up? It’s free and takes just a few minutes.”
“Not today. Thank you though.”
“Okey doke, that’ll be $29.95. Credit?”
As she swiped her card Miranda looked up and saw a familiar face at the next register, but she couldn’t place the woman in context. She cursed her memory yet again before it came to her: Joan, who worked at the front desk of the tennis club she and Marcus had briefly joined, before Miranda bowed out. Joan looked up just as Miranda made the connection, and Miranda regretted failing to avert her gaze.
“Miranda!” Joan called. “I thought that was you. It’s so great to see you!”
Miranda gripped the plant in one hand and her receipt in the other as Joan approached, laden with shopping bags.
“How have you been? So glad the temperatures are finally going up, right?”
“Yeah, really,” Miranda replied, nodding perhaps too emphatically to hide her dismay at having to make small talk.
“I’m doing well, just picking up a new plant for the house. Looking forward to when everything really starts blooming outside. How are you all?”
“Oh you know, we’re good. Just another busy weekend. Both the boys have soccer games today so I’m just getting a couple errands out of the way before we cut up the orange slices and load up the car.”
Miranda nodded again, smiling as if she could relate.
“That sounds like fun, hopefully the rain holds off.”
“Yeah, you just have to expect it during mud season I guess!”
Joan hesitated ever so briefly.
“Listen, I just have to say, I was so sorry to hear about you and Marcus. I–I know it’s not my place but I just always thought you seemed perfect together. And my boys simply loved him when he was coaching in the rec league. I’ve never seen my youngest actually excited to play a sport! He really had such great energy.”
Joan smiled warmly at the memory before catching herself. For Miranda, the awkward pause that followed was becoming familiar. Her ex-husband, so many were eager to remind her, had been much loved in the community.
“Anyway,” Joan continued. “I better get going. But I’m so happy we ran into each other. You look great, really. Take care!”
Miranda forced another smile of her own, and raised her hand that was clutching the receipt in a tepid wave.
She pulled into the driveway with a sigh of relief. The home she and Marcus had been able to afford with their first-time homebuyer’s loan was modest by the town’s standards, and it was overdue for a new roof and a fresh coat of paint. But for Miranda, it felt like a refuge. Even after all the discord that had transpired within its walls, she always felt her heartbeat slow and her brow relax as soon as she walked through the front door.
She carried the bird of paradise inside and began experimenting with where to put it. Her initial thought had been the office. It was where she spent most of her waking hours, after all. She placed the pot in the corner and sat at her desk, trying to get a feel for what it brought to the space. It could work, she thought. But it wasn’t quite right.
Miranda moved the pot to the bedroom, then stepped back to admire it with a satisfied exhale. That’s more like it. Yet seconds later, she unwittingly pictured the plant wilted, brown, lifeless. Miranda closed her eyes and counted three deep breaths. One day, she assured herself, her brain would stop defaulting to imagining the end, the downfall, the death of things she cared about.
When she opened them she flipped open her laptop, determined. Her grim vision didn’t have to become the reality. After all, never before in history had information on how to keep plants alive been more easily accessible. She typed in some search terms and clicked on the top link.
Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise)
Basic care: Moist, well drained soil. Mist leaves and allow to dry between waterings. Tolerates a wide range of lighting conditions from low light to direct sun.
Ok, ok. It seemed simple enough. Definitely something she could handle. She skipped over the instructions for outdoor strelitzia plants and scrolled to the bottom. And it was in that moment Miranda knew she’d made the right choice.
Meanings and symbolism: freedom.
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