I won my almost-husband in a game of poker. Deep in the game, Maria had already lost her watch, all her rings, and the diamond-studded nipple clamps she wore beneath her sweater. Her gold tooth we didn’t want, so she offered her brother Ted, he of the spreading lymphoma. For his part, he climbed onto the kitchen table willingly enough, pineapple candy-cane protruding from his crooked mouth. “What the fuck,” he said. “I’m dying anyway.”
“Really,” I said. “You can just fold.” I didn’t need another man to scare away, especially not a dying man. I had worse luck with men than I did with cards.
But Maria would never fold. Not the losing type, you’d say. Today, though, Maria turned up a boat against my rather impressive straight flush. So taken by the thrill of victory, I had momentarily forgotten the prize she’d offered: Ted.
I let her keep the nipple clamps.
When Ted arrived at my house, he didn’t come alone. As he sauntered across my bead-shrouded threshold, he dropped a potted, yellow poinsettia into my hands. Then he helped himself to the makings of a sandwich from my fridge.
“What should I do with this?” I asked, shaking the flowering star at him.
“Let it soak. Then plant it.”
“Soak?” Two conversational turns in, and I was already annoyed. I took a breath. I needed to remember how to talk to men.
“Just soak and plant, and you’ll know where you’re at. Easy as pie,” he said, slathering my mustard onto my bread.
“Leave some of that for me.” I made a sandwich every morning. Every lunch, I’d unwrap the paper from around that beautiful beast and spend the rest of lunch introducing it to my small intestine. Alone. In the corner of the dimly lit lunchroom. I couldn’t do that if he put the entire contents of my fridge into his mouth.
Ted screwed the lid on the mayo. “The poinsettia. Put it in the middle of a room, during a party, perhaps, and let it soak up people’s words. The next day, plant it in soil seeded with coffee grounds. Then wait a week.”
“Wait for what?”
“For what’s really important.”
But he wouldn’t explain, not even when I threatened to kick him out. Just wouldn’t leave. So I took him to bed. It’d been so long, I really didn’t know what I was doing. When I woke up, he was still there, and that’s when I decided to break my promise to myself and marry him. When I asked, he smiled. “Let’s do it today,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Let’s wait.”
“I can’t wait long, baby,” he said. “Tomorrow might be too long.”
“Soon,” I promised.
I could hear Ted’s snoring from the kitchen, where I stacked turkey and cheese and salami onto bread, wrapped the monstrosity into butcher paper, and tucked it into my jacket pocket. On my way out the door, I grabbed my keys and water bottle.
Oh, and I grabbed the poinsettia. What the hell, right?
No one noticed the puce-leafed poinsettia sitting at the edge of the room, opposite Karen’s retirement cake, just as they never seemed to notice me sitting in the corner of the lunchroom. I was like the burned cheese smell lingering near the microwave — there but just beneath notice. And now, somehow, I had transferred my near-invisibility to the poinsettia.
I took a piece of cake, yawned at a few folks who’d mistakenly let their gazes wander, and faded fully to the background. A wallflower. I followed their conversations, about wives and husbands and boyfriends and shit, like a butterfly follows an asteroid, which is to say not at all.
When the party ended, I dug my poinsettia out of the trash and headed for the door — then turned around mid-stride and reached back into the trash for a paper filter plump with wet grounds.
I didn’t have a shovel, so I used my hands. The plant looked lonely on the side of my apartment, under the window with the broken blinds, but I had no other space to plant in. The life of a renter.
I stood and watched it, but nothing happened. Ted came out to stand next to me, watching me watch. “Wanna get married?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Soon.”
I stood and watched the poinsettia the next day, after work, but nothing. I asked Ted, but his silence had only grown deeper on the subject, his mouth full of my food.
On the sixth day, Ted left. Doffed his hat and walked down the street. I thought he’d come right back. He didn’t.
On the seventh day, it happened. A week, just as Ted had said. Oh, Ted. I missed Ted.
I didn’t notice at first. Plants and I don’t get along, and I thought it was dying. However, when I picked up a curled leaf, I found words inked into the skin. My co-workers’. Fragments of their conversations I had failed to follow. Weekend plans: kids’ softball games, husbands’ paint classes, wives’ hiking meet-ups. Each leaf an icicle into my lonely heart. I spent an hour reading those leaves, hearing Ted in the back of my head: you’ll remember what’s really important.
I scuttled inside to confront Ted and crumpled when I remembered he’d left. When I went back outside to pluck more leaves from the poinsettia, I found it wilted and brown, only one curled leaf remaining. I stooped, unfurled it, and read Ted’s words.
If you knew you’d die tomorrow, what would you do today?
I looked at his words. I looked back to my empty house. I didn’t know the answer to his question, but I knew one thing: whatever I’d do, it sure as shit wasn’t this.
I left my door unlocked, left it swinging open in the wind, and walked down the road.
L. Lambert Lawson writes from his library in Southern California. From 2005-2007, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. He can be found online at www.llambertlawson.com or on Twitter @llambertlawson.