Not Too Long Ago...

February 26, 2008
By Sarah Groves, Gainesville, VA

Not too long ago, my girlfriend gave me a cactus. As with many things with her, I decided not to ask why. She has an interesting idea of what constitutes a present—at various times, I’ve received from her a plastic llama and moose, books that she’d read and not particularly liked, and a carved wooden box that used to hold cigars and that, when I received it, held a paper clip and one earring. I think I speak for anyone reading this when I say—huh?

“It was my mother’s,” she said, and I wondered if someday soon I would be having a conversation with her mother, something like “Oh, and by the way—I’d like my cigar box back.” Worse, supposing we broke up. It would turn into one of those messy stories you read about in the advice columns, although usually the item is a ring, or something of great value and age, that the mother thinks is now hers again. I could imagine Amy, or whoever the new advice lady is, saying “While the cigar box technically belongs to the young lady now, she would demonstrate considerable class and tact to return it.” It worries me; I don’t want to keep anything in the box unless I get attached to it, and on top of that it has both the appeal of being a girlfriend-gift and the creepy factor of having belonged to her mother. I keep it in the back corner of my closet behind a shoe box, where I don’t have to look at it.

But the cactus was charming, a little thing like a green spiky Ping-Pong ball, sitting in its own little terra-cotta pot. The spikes are so small and so soft that they feel like fuzz. I took it almost as a show of good faith that she trusted me enough to take care of something. I don’t know entirely why she trusts me; I’m chronically late, and I have the kind of mind that can remember how to find the volume of a cone but has trouble with things like birthdays—and plants.

“Don’t worry,” she said, when I brought this up. “It’s a cactus. It doesn’t need much. Just put it in the sun and water it whenever you remember.”

I’ve killed plants before. It’s not that I don’t have good intentions; I just—forget about them. They’re small and they don’t call out “Sarah! You need to come and take care of me!” They don’t swarm around your feet, nudging you toward the food dish, like cats and dogs do. They just sit there, in a sort of polite “Oh, don’t mind me; I’ll just wilt, then” way.

But I was determined. This time, I wasn’t going to screw up; the cactus would have everything its vegetable heart could want. I water it every night at the sink, sometimes in the morning, too, if it looks dehydrated.

Even so, it’s not doing so hot. It’s developing this weird crease in its center, so it looks less like a ping-pong ball and more like a prickly peanut.

And, because I’m paranoid, I’m starting to wonder whether this is just my imagination, or whether this is a trick plant that doesn’t grow but just gets a funny crease and then keels over. This isn’t a good chain of logic to follow, because it gets me into other troublesome pits. I can see my girlfriend wandering around, smiling to herself, thinking, A cactus. I gave her a sad little cactus that doesn’t even grow. And she was so grateful, too. Sucker.

And if the cactus wasn’t meant kindly, what about the other presents? I always assumed, and hope to assume again, that they were part of her slightly off-kilter charm, like her earnest lectures on the difference between sex and gender, and I accepted them in that frame of mind. But now I can hear her snickering:

“A cigar box! An old wooden cigar box. And I told her it was my mother’s!”

And howling over the plastic moose and llama: “She adores them! What a rube.”

Being an unfriendly person by nature, this always sparks a little mental “Well, screw you” response. I already begin to imagine my next, scathing e-mail (“Guess what? I just said thank you for your presents to be nice! I never liked them. ROFL.”)

Wow, what razor-sharp wit, there.

And I do like them.

I especially love the cactus, my sad, little cactus that I can’t seem to do much for. So I went online, and I found out this:

"A cactus can suffer from overwatering, and may crack…Cacti can tolerate occasional mistakes in watering, and death by slow dehydration, because people are too terrified to give their plants what they need, is not any better than death by overwatering."

Great. I can’t water it, and I can’t not water it.

Love is a cactus.

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