I fear Hunter S. Thompson’s plants are dying. I’ve done everything I thought was right, taking-care-of-plants-wise, and yet they droop, sag, frown. In disappointment, I reckon. I think they’re disappointed in me.
I came into the possession of the plants—two peace lilies, one piece of unidentified vinery and one creature I can only describe as a coconut shell sprouting fronds—after discovering that the widowed Mrs. Hunter S. Thompson lived in my apartment building.
We met on the elevator around 11 p.m. I was wearing pajamas. For the last 12 hours, I had been working on a story for a graduate school class—it was into the thousands of words and about Maureen Dowd’s role as a public intellectual—and I’d only been prompted from my studio apartment for more cigarettes. (I cringe at the triteness of this detail, but there it is.)
Thus, I felt the need to apologize to the woman I would soon know as Anita Thompson, blaming a deadline for my appearance. “Oh, you’re a writer!” she’d said. “My husband was a writer. Hunter S. Thompson.” She wasn’t boasting; she was so sweet, sincere and happy. I stammered. I probably blushed; there’s a reason I’ve chosen a profession of indirect communication.
Anita, for I was to call her Anita, told me she’d drop by my apartment with a copy of a newsletter the Thompsons worked on back home in Colorado and, to my joy, she did. At some point, she invited me to a book launch party. Still in graduate school, full of optimism like so much Halloween candy, I assumed the event was some sort of fortune-telling. Foreshadowing. I was a writer, after all; Hunter S. Thompson’s wife had said so.
The plants: Anita was going home for the summer and asked me to babysit them while she was gone. They were resplendent, vital and green, and I loved the way they looked in my apartment. I watered them every Thursday, an empty gallon milk jug each. I rotated the pots periodically, so that every conceivable angle received adequate sunlight. I would have been less attentive to Jesus’s plants. Into the fall, and then into the spring of the next year, I’d send Anita the occasional email about retrieving them.
In this period, I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn; I think she moved, too. Eventually, I realized ownership of the plants had transferred. I suppose I wouldn’t have felt the need to retrieve five planters and schlep them across New York City. I would’ve just bought new plants.
So now I’ve had these plants for five years. I haven’t spent that time writing into the thousands of words about Maureen Dowd. (Not, honestly, a childhood dream.) I haven’t spent that time writing into the thousands of words about anything. (There it is.) My sense of potential grew more parched, which—for someone with no small amount of earnestness—was unsteadying: I’d wanted to be a writer; I was a writer. What a relief to have that sorted! And what did I write? Whatever, anything, nothing, all the things. Vine, lily, bored, breathless, snarling, sincere, burdened by student-loan interest but divined by $40 worth of greenery.
One peace lily died, a couple years ago. The lily had only flowered once in all the time I’d had it, but it was healthy and green, beautiful even without a bloom. I discovered I had a not altogether healthy interest in other people’s careers: ages first published, schools graduated from, brilliant first drafts written. I wondered about burying the plant as a literary sacrifice. I considered emailing Anita the news. I thought it was near impossible to kill those things.
The peace lily is survived by another, and I can’t remember ever seeing this one flower, but these things take time. I try to water the plants once a week, but that doesn’t always happen and when it doesn’t, the other two seem to weather it fine. Occasionally I’ll forget about the peace lily, leave town for a few days, and when I come back home and water the brown, collapsed mess I’ve created, I can hear the stems crack and crinkle as they stretch sunward.
I never used to refer to New York as home, it felt false, but in the years since I began doing so a host of other things feel false instead, my occupation among them. Passion becomes tedious. Process of elimination. This voice, that style, this topic, that genre, fiction, non-fiction. “Oh, you’re a writer? My husband was a writer.” I had started piloting toward some idyllic destination then realized I didn’t know how to fly a plane.
The maybe-ivy plant is a lot lower maintenance than the others, so it’s easy to forget about it. That’s why, down its arms, the color varies from dark green to dingy yellow, in correlation to how frequently I’ve remembered to water it. It used to sit on my desk, which then became a storage space, overrun with books. Then I moved in with my boyfriend and it ceased to even be my desk, shape-shifting into his desk—where, it must be admitted, actual work gets done. Now I write, when I write, on the bed, which has a certain symmetry, as the task often feels less like an act of the mind and more like a gnawing of the stomach for which a supine position is better anyway. I’m working on it, though, surprised to find that ideas come easier when I’m not obsessing about not having the perfect one. Ever so slightly less obsessed with rereading an acquaintance’s post on this or that respected blog or comparing another’s liberal-arts-college pedigree to my banal progression from small town to big city via state school, so well-trodden it loses meaning even as a cliche. Remembering that I didn’t used to write for these people, anyway. Didn’t used to know they existed. Another posture closer to seated-at-desk position.
When I write (on the bed, for now) I face the mantle, on which sits the ivy plant and a stack of books that’s foundation is, as it happens, Fear and Loathing in America. It’s actually the only Hunter S. Thompson book I own, and I bought it for a class. As far as patron saints of my career go, Gonzo probably wouldn’t even be a great one, if I’m being honest. I like him, but not as much as I like Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace. I’ve never even read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I saw the movie once, on a grumpy morning bus ride in college. Why force symmetry? For all I know, he’d never even seen these plants. It is curious, though. The book, and the ivy, a Pantone swatch of greens verdant and putrid. The plant is alive, as I’m sure it will remain, but its growth is, at present, imperceptible.