Every morning, the hour before the dawn—the clear hour, an hour laced with sheen—Poppi would slip off her plaid Smart Wool socks, slide open the door of her 35th floor apartment on the Upper East side, and walk in dew. Her garden was the only thing left that was hers, though her horticulturalist had planted it for her. Her horticulturalist who, on her 30th birthday, said everyone needs green in those gray right angles. Poppi steadied herself by placing her freckled hand on the Buddha’s head statue. She did the first of three sun salutations. Then downward dog. Her hamstrings stung.
Poppi knew the horticulturalist had been shitting in her zen garden for weeks. She thought shit would make her leave. But Poppi didn’t mind. Her father had been a plumber. She grew up with plungers and pipes and union picket lines. And Poppi was not about to give up a view of the East River because the woman she loved had gone sideways. We all go sideways now and then. She was waiting for the horticulturalist to return to herself and touch her again. To bring more green in all the gray.
The first time she stepped on the shit she had squirmed. Ran back into the loft and filled the claw foot tub with hot water and lavender bath bombs. She scrubbed the cuticles to the bone. So, by the third week, the shit seemed like another part of the garden, not a part she had planted but at least a trace of the woman she called love. The horticulturalist who did squats at dusk. She released everything. And she ate without thinking.
Poppi’s stomach was no longer flat. The bulge in her yoga pants made her gray– she had gained forty pounds from the hormones or the shots or the eclairs. But none of it came to be. She had wanted to keep trying. Poppi’s spirit animal was a bulldog.
Poppi could feel the cold dirt in her palms and her feet. But she could hold plank out here and it made her feel alive. She didn’t have to think about it. Plank was better than the crunches she would do later with Cindy or Christy or Brandi, she could never recall the name of the instructor. Girls who would crunch and smile and crunch.
She lowered herself down, the cool mud a cheek pillow and sighed. She didn’t know what had made the horticulturalist go sideways. Maybe it was the credit card she had run up trying to get pregnant in the first place. Five thousand dollars. How her horticulturalist left the monthly bills on the pillowcase saying at the same time: I put flannels on the bed, the ones you like the most. Maybe she was mad that Poppi stopped taking photos. There was nothing left to photograph she thought. Nothing left to frame or appear from the edges. Poppi had spent her twenties photographing deformities for medical journals. What everyone else turned from, she stared right at. Had been that way since she was a child. That’s how she looked down so many toilets. Once she found a live squirrel and even a dead fish in a McDonalds’ porcelain bowl. She had a portfolio of cleft palates, amputees in black and white tucked underneath some cashmere sweater that the Horticulturalist bought in the first six months. Back when the horticulturalist brought her orchids. Orchids rarely bloom twice. Those months when things mattered.
Poppi knew she had to pack up the last vinyl, undo the clothes pin, tie up the ropes she had linked from window frame to bookshelf. She would shove these photos in the trash at the end of the day and leave it for the horticulturalist to take out. She didn’t want to hock both Nikons at the pawn shop—just to have enough cash to get out of the city, a train perhaps to Syracuse. A new name. A motel—one with deadbolt on the doors. She had no savings. No plan B.
Last week she had huffed over to the Salon, the one on Lexington, near Payard, got a French pedicure. She wanted to break the callus on her heel, the stubborn one that wouldn’t go. She had scrubbed it with an emory board but it never changed shape. It had the spirit of a St. Bernard, all will and no compromise. She refused to tell the horticulturalist who by now had long stopped licking her feet, or even tell Dr. Smoochan—the podiatrist with diarrhea of the mouth. Dr. Smoochan had molded Poppi’s feet into orthotics. Orthotics that Poppi lost on the subway. Poppi couldn’t contain things. Only ideas. Fragments. Images. Inconsequential things.
Poppi didn’t know why she couldn’t stop eating and throwing up. It had started when she got pregnant the first time and it never really stopped after each miscarriage. She carried sponges and bleach wipes in her purse in order to clean the bottoms of toilets in public restrooms. Evidence was never her game. The doctors had told her three out of five former ballerinas had spontaneous abortions, pregnancies that ended on their own terms. Chromosome abnormalities. Progesterone deficiency. Incompetent cervix—that is what they told her she had. One that opened too early. Timing always a stranger. Even as a girl she could not jete on the right count. With the four miscarriages she had accelerated dilation. And an overachiever high strung fetus will always flee. Leaving a placenta and a mother wanting. Poppi was never quite mother. Never quite dancer. Never quite photographer. Mostly just basin girl.
She got up from the mud and went inside. Found the note from the horticulturalist: This, whatever this is or was between us, is just not. Leave the key under the chives. Fuck shit fuck, Poppi thought. The horticulturalist would be long gone for work by now. Poppi stood in the island of their kitchen. The Kahlo magnets staring back at her on the silver fridge. They had met at a Frida exhibit at the MOMA. Poppi was stuck in front of the Kahlo—the one with her legs splayed, with the baby’s head descending out of her vagina. That day the horticulturalist had muttered loudly, “children will rent you, good thing Kahlo never had one—think of all the paintings she wouldn’t have made.” Poppi, annoyed that a stranger, however beautiful in her black hair pulled in a bun and wiry glasses cute, had interrupted her meditation on the bed rails, the baby’s head, the garden of blood. “Think of how her vision could have changed, had she had one instead of losing them.” This made the horticulturalist ask for tea at a cat café. Poppi hated cats but didn’t want to tell her. Poppi went then to the cat café, careful to taker her allergy medicine first and along with her just in case. Three weeks later Poppi moved in here, to the 35th floor. She was relieved to be out of the shelter. Horticulturalist never knew of the shelter.
She thought of returning to the gas station of her childhood, down south, of the cold quarters she could slip into the red machine, of the night crawlers she could split in half before she dipped them in chocolate, of how pigs feet always taste better in white chocolate. But she didn’t have enough for a Hershey, much less a block of Callebaut, or even a kitchen to temper it the way her auntie had shown her. Didn’t matter much anyway. Her auntie had killed herself, slowly, one bottle of wine a day for a year. Poppi hated wine.
After her workout video, she boiled her coffee on the stove, poured it in a little blue porcelain cup. Longed for a new patisserie where no one knew her. She knew that half of the cafes would close in the first year and of the half that survived, half would close. Poppi could find a new chocolate dessert every month. She had her favorite chefs, with names like Jacque or Frances, cafes with high turnover on the counter, so no one would recall her name. She knew which patisserie had a bathroom that would lock, and where they sold skim milk. But no chef could compare to her aunt’s desserts.
She wrote Cavafy on the whiteboard that hung in the kitchen– wrote the words her mother had whispered to her. The island in her. She knew the horticulturalist no longer read Cavafy. But she wrote none the less. Like beautiful bodies of the dead who had not grown old, with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet, this is how desire looks without fulfillment. She pocketed the dry eraser for later.
She flipped on the TV. Stared at explosions of a café in Israel, watched cats eat their deformed blind litter, ugly women from Arkansas get dental work, or listened to the past voices of Vietnam vets tell Congress how they split women’s bodies from vulva to sternum and yanked organs out. Perched them on sticks in rice fields. Their skin peeled in the sun, new scarecrows for the Vietcong. Who didn’t want to vomit after this? She burped. Ate some roast beef.
Horticulturalist got tired of the Sappho, of Cavafy. She grew tired of the cups and saucers simmering with vomit that Poppi left around the loft. Poppi refused dishes, clean or dirty. Wash a fucking dish now and then, horticulturalist said. Poppi stuck her finger down her throat, heard her mother’s voice in her heart, Oh Cardia Mou—but preceded to puke none the less into the Hardee’s glass. She wiped her mouth. Stared down at chunks of Sysco Roast beef.
Last night the horticulturalist looked at the scattered glasses of puke. One on the piano, the windowsill, the white bookshelf from Ikea, the glass coffee table. Then she said: I am not a bird. I have teeth, teeth I get cleaned every six months, teeth I floss. She tucked in her white polo into her Banana Republic size 2 tan pants. She unzipped her black boots, placed them back in the box on the top shelf. The garden, I am going outside. She was spitting. Poppi turned on her electric toothbrush and thought teeth are useless white mountains that can’t even stand up to acid showers. Her esophagus was peeling under the hydrophilic chocolate baths she gave it twice a day. The horticulturalist’s tooth brushes were neatly lined up like soldiers at the other side of the sink. Poppi remembered when she loved a woman who had seven tooth brushes.
By lunchtime Poppi had grown tired of shoving photos and shoes and scarves into her 1992 Toyota Corrola. So, she started walking to Central Park. She stopped inside the chiropractor’s office—looking for the doc who took walk ins. Poppi stared at the red and blue blocks in the corner, the magnetic letters on the dry erase board. She thought of the placenta thawing on the counter at home. Placenta comes from the Latin for cake; in Greek it is Plakoenta, in German mutterkuchen—mother cake. It is the only organ that serves a vital function and then becomes obsolete. Goats eat their own placenta. Dogs eat the placenta of cows. Poppi’s mama used to get hair gel from Walmart that had cow placenta.
Poppi just wanted to be touched.
But even this chiropractor, Ms. G. wouldn’t lay her hands on her. She used an activator, a black, gun-like object that made her nervous system relax. She had just graduated from the chiropractic school in Georgia and opened a practice called Maple Life. Poppy thought this was hysterical. Ms. G. laid her down on the white crinkly paper and active Poppi’s feet. Poppi’s meridians fired. The Spine is a Tree. Your chakras are all out of line. Branches have fallen off, others are covered in ice. Have you seen your chi lately? Why your lips blue, your hands so cold.
Poppi’s stomach gurgled but she didn’t want to vomit on Ms. G’s. electric- pink crocks.
Poppi tried a new chiropractor every month. None of them ever asked why her teeth were yellow. This one had lured her with nutritional advice, promising she could lose weight. Offering supplements. Horticulturalist refused to pay for supplements. Outside she saw hotdog vendor after hot dog vendor. The campus to campus bus flew by her.
Poppi stopped in Whipped on 59th street and got Passion Fruit Plaisir. Edith Pilaf on the speakers. Bright lights. Waiters in black suits with thin ties. The waiters here knew her and she almost wanted to say goodbye. She bought six Mansion Du chocolates on the horticulturist’s Amex and lowered the pink box in her purse. It was beginning to rain. She didn’t own an umbrella. She pushed the elevator button back in the apartment building.
Poppi lost this last girl at 9 weeks. Poppi knew it had been a girl. Horticulturalist was ready to stop trying. You can’t keep a baby—you can’t even keep roast beef down. You are not the keeping type.
Just before five, before the horticulturalist would return, Poppi hummed Happy Birthday as she chopped the meat of this liver shaped organ, now thawed. It was only a quarter cup, weighing less than a pound, barely enough for one serving. She tossed it; it was hers after all, this maroon echo of possibility in the blender with an eight ounce of V-8, two ice cubes and some Vodka. She drank it all in great haste, or like one of the sake bombs they used to drink on Friday nights together in that first year when all was possible. Underneath the Wonder woman glass she wrote on a post note..tired of shit. She kept the key. The door, she left open.
Sarah Jefferis is an author, editor, and writing coach of her own business called: Write.Now. Sarah holds an MFA in Poetry from Cornell and a PhD in CW from SUNY Binghamton. Her poetry collection, What Enters the Mouth, was published in February 2017 by Standing Stone Books. Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in Rhino, The Mississippi Review, The American Literary Review, Stone Canoe, The Hollins Critic and other journals. Her website is www.sarahjefferis.net.