The first time Sal hands me the slim joint, I take it and breathe in and then I cough. We’re in Sal’s greenhouse three weeks after my husband Robin’s passing and late enough in summer that the crickets are dying. It seems cruel to die in summer, what with all the abundance.
Sal has roly-poly breasts, heavy as muskmelons. I know because I touched them by accident when she hugged me at the wake. By contrast I am small, withered more by life than Sal, the first wife, eleven years older than Robin and me.
I take another hit off her delicate joint, this time without incident. Our fingers meet when I pass it back, and an electric jolt roots me to the ground.
“Sorry,” she says. “I vacuumed before you came. Maybe that was it?”
Sal moves among the rows of jade (crassula ovata), hen and chicks (sempervivum tectorum), fire sticks (euphorbia tirucallii) and pinwheel aeonium (aeonium haworthii), tugging at the leaves. If they feel weak and rubbery, or look yellowed and hollow, she removes them. Every day she checks the plants, wiping the leaves with a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol when the leaves freckle with white dust, an indication of sodium imbalance. She moves quickly and with purpose.
“In California, where these are native,” she told me our first day in the greenhouse, “succulents glow red and purple with summertime sun, but here they restrain themselves. Not enough heat and light.”
People who didn’t know Robin well sent carnations and lilies. His friends offered summer’s bounty: Zinnias, peonies, and gaudy Gerber daisies. Sal sent a cactus bearing one desert flower in a whitish pink tone.
I did not get flowers. I forgot.
Robin’s ashes are in box number five eleven at the famous cemetery down the street. There’d been a mix-up with the crematorium concerning the urn, which he’d special-ordered from Venetian glassblowers on our honeymoon. But Sal sorted it out, and he is in his place now.
Later I found out he’d taken her to the same Venetian trattoria on their honeymoon, that it was she who first purchased a glass urn, in shimmering yellow-greens.
“He was so happy, Junebug,” Sal says. I’d become Junebug that first day, after telling Sal I couldn’t bear all the sympathetic voices checking on me daily. I’d said if I heard my name again I’d crack up, imagining madness to be a hard-boiled egg pulled out by an impatient cook.
Greedy, I take one more toke. Together we imagine how Robin would laugh if he saw us, squeezing one arm around each of our bony shoulders. The biddies, he might say. He would excuse himself to start the grill or open another bottle of wine and leave us in our girl space.
Before this, I’d been so reserved in my pearls and coordinated outfits from Talbots or St. John’s. I’d always been courteous to Sal but that’s where things ended. Now I favor tunics and bright scarves, and layer bracelets down my arm so you hear me coming. Now I bring Sal gifts of heirloom tomatoes and fresh goat’s cheese. She loved him too.
Sal’s partner calls to say his plane is delayed and that he’ll stay the night in New York with a cousin. Sal laughs as she puts down the phone and says, “Doesn’t he remember telling me all his family was dead or moved to Hawaii? I don’t know who it is in New York, but it’s not a cousin.”
“Oh, Sal,” I say. “Oh, Sal, Sal.” My brain stumbles around the word sorry.
“It’s not him I care about, Junebug,” she says. “It’s just—starting again.”
“You don’t have to let on,” I mumble.
She has a choice. I can let her make it.
All I have is what I’m avoiding. A trip to the glass-walled room, to number five eleven. A conversation through walls with what’s left when the spirit is gone.
Sal pulls a seedling off the highest shelf, where string-of-pearls and string-of-bananas cascade earthwards. Its leaves are bluish, like old copper, with rusted tips. Sal tells me it’s subspecies arborescens and when she’s not looking I sneak its wooden descriptor into my pocket. The word is pleasing.
“You’ve made me think flowers are boring,” I say. I place the blue jade beside my handbag. I haven’t yet told Sal I’d chosen a spindly Peruvian torch (echinopsis peruviana) for my dining room table, a solid and prickly plant with an escapist limb creeping upward. I regard my cactus in the morning when I take my coffee and again at night over wine and sushi. Sometimes I talk to it, just to keep my voice from rusting.
A car horn sounds in the drive. Sal’s one o’clock pickup. She slips out the back door and hefts a box loaded with succulents. She makes good money selling plants for weddings and happy life events.
When she is out of sight, I practice squeezing the leaves of one of the jade plants. They feel firm but I know they are really hollow, unless water counts as substance. I reach for a leaf that’s limp and shriveling, yellow-green in the afternoon light. I tug it free.
When Sal returns to the greenhouse empty-handed I show her what I did, then tell her I need to get rid of his pillow. “It still smells, but less so.”
She pulls me into her arms, which are sweaty and streaked with dirt. One month ago I would never have been here, but I curl deeper into Sal’s stained body.
“It’s not bad,” I say, pulling back. “Please don’t think that’s what I mean.” My mind hunts for the right word but what can I possibly say?
I look in her eyes. There are rust-colored flecks in the green, and the green is varied and deep and I don’t realize how hard I’m pinching her hand until she cries out my real name.
Lindsey Danis juggles freelancing with working on novels about queers in the restaurant industry and bisexual activist teens. Her writing has appeared most recently in The Manifest Station, Helen, and Queer/ish. Keep up with her at @wordhack or lindseydanis.com.