Tillandsia

Image of a screaming face within concrete.

The first tillandsia was a gift. It arrived on Molly’s doorstep with a typed note stuck to the outside of the box: “Congratulations on your first big-girl job! Love, Mom.” Her face grew hot as she thought of the plant delivery person who had surely read those words too. When she lifted the plant out of its box, its grayish leaves extended into the world like the feelers of an insect.

Molly had spent the past two years waiting tables and trying to sell resin knickknacks on Etsy. But nobody seemed to want a resin jewelry box studded with seashells, or a resin lamp filled with dice, or a resin flowerpot swirled with glitter. Or if they did want these things, they didn’t know that she existed. None of that mattered now. Molly had a new gig as a receptionist at a dentist’s office—a decent job with okay money and good benefits.

Molly’s mother called to ask if she had received the package. “You know, air plants are supposed to be impossible to kill,” she said. “No soil, no repotting. You don’t even need to water them that often. I heard they pull moisture out of the air—pretty neat, huh?”

“But what do I do with it?” Molly asked.

“They make great decorations. Maybe a nice way to spruce up that apartment of yours.”

Molly had moved into her apartment three months ago. In that time, she had tried to break up the endless ecru walls with photographs and string lights, but her efforts only made the empty space seem more impossible to gulf.

“How’s work?” her mother pivoted.

“It’s only been two days.”

“Well, maybe you’ll make some friends.” Why did her mother have to sound so hopeful, so desperate on Molly’s behalf?

“Yeah, maybe.” 

After college graduation, her two closest friends moved back to their hometowns. A year later, her best friend from high school followed her fiancé to Texas. But Molly stayed put in the town where she was born and lost her first tooth, where she learned to drive and went to prom. She kept in touch with her friends via texting and video calls, but there was always the moment after hanging up, when she would scroll through social media and see them skiing in Vermont or picnicking on the beach with their boyfriends or holding beers and smiling with strangers. Offline, Molly went to work. She served dozens of strangers every day, their faces blurring together until she went home after her shift, where she would try not to invent reasons why the other wait staff never invited her out with them.

The phone call with her mother ended, and Molly lingered at the kitchen table, turning the air plant in her hand. It looked waxy, fake—yet she could sense something vital coursing through its pith, something electrical and pulsing. Its tendrils curled around her fingers as if grasping for her, and Molly felt herself soften toward the plant. This was a thing that needed her.

* * *

At the end of her first week at the dentist’s office, Molly brought in a dozen donuts from the bakery across the street. Maybe some of her coworkers would tell her about their favorite donut shops over fritters and bear claws. Maybe they would even invite her to go with them sometime. She’d be able to tell her mother that yes, she had made friends at work, and then she wouldn’t need to hear any more nagging questions about why she didn’t get out more.

Two dentists cut an apple fritter in half to share. A woman who worked in accounts payable wrapped a maple bar in a napkin and nodded at Molly on the way back to her desk. The rest of the dozen went untouched until one of the hygienists, Dmitri, picked up a cruller and a glazed donut at lunch.

“Looks like today’s a cheat day,” he said with a wink and a smile. A silver filling glinted on one of his molars—had he gotten it before or after he decided to clean teeth for a living?  “Carla, come get one of these before I eat them all.”

Carla, the other hygienist, leaned against the sink, breasts puckering her scrubs. Molly held her breath. She’d only met Carla briefly, but Carla’s presence was impossible to ignore, a thermal energy that seeped into Molly’s bones. She looked up whenever Carla entered a room, listened through the walls for Carla’s loud laugh. Molly would bet that Carla’s apartment never felt empty, that Carla was too busy to jealousy-scroll her friends’ Instagram accounts.

“Too much sugar will rot your teeth,” Carla said, wrinkling her nose at the donuts. “But you go ahead.”

Carla’s look of disgust and the tone of her voice put Molly back in her high school physics class, wearing a sweater that she had crocheted herself.          

“Get a load of that granny sweater,” the girls’ track captain had said in a stage whisper to her snickering friends. 

Now, like then, Molly felt her face grow hot, her throat close.

At home alone that night, Molly misted the air plant and tried not to think about work. Instead, she marveled at the way the plant sighed with every droplet of water. Spiny leaves leaned into her touch as if to say, Who cares what Carla thinks? Molly knew the plant was right. It wasn’t her job to please Carla, and besides, now she had this organism, motionless but still alive and dependent on her. She decided that the tillandsia needed a companion. Two air plants would be better than one.

* * *

On Monday morning, Dmitri leaned on Molly’s desk. “You have the worst job, you know. Much easier to deal with people when they can’t talk back.” 

“How was your weekend?” she asked.

“Pretty good, pretty good. Missed you on Saturday.”

“Saturday?” Her Saturday had been spent pouring resin into molds and setting up a terrarium for the new air plant. Had she been scheduled for a shift that day?

“Some of us got together.” Dmitri rubbed the back of his neck. “Here, give me your number, and I’ll add you to the group chat.”

The door jingled, and Carla breezed in, pushing her sunglasses on top of her head. “Stop harassing the new girl, Dmitri.” She turned to Molly with a sympathetic smile. “He’s not being creepy, is he?”

There was Carla, thick-lashed eyes laser-focused on Molly. Molly examined her computer keyboard, afraid she would be caught staring. “Not at all.”

“Good.” Carla fluttered her fingers at Dmitri in a wave and rounded the corner, back to her cleaning station. 

Dmitri waited until Carla was out of sight, and then leaned across the counter. “Carla likes to joke. Anyway, I’ll hit you up the next time we all do something.” He gave her a thumbs up, and then disappeared around the corner.

Through the walls, Carla laughed at something that Dmitri said. A warm sound that Molly felt herself stretching toward, etiolated. She closed her eyes. They were just flirting. Dmitri was probably testing out some corny pickup line about polishing discs. Why did Carla laugh at Dmitri’s stupid jokes? And why did the two of them have to flirt so loudly, in the middle of the workday, when other people had patient spreadsheets they needed to work on?

Molly walked to the staff room, leisurely, as if she were going to put something on the calendar. She cracked the fridge door open and found the pink box, untouched since she had put it there three days ago. Inside were three donuts—a long john, a coconut cake donut, and a jelly-filled. She ate the cake donut standing with the fridge door propped against her hip, flecks of desiccated coconut falling on her work shirt. 

She was sure that Carla had been there that weekend with Dmitri and the others, tossing her long burgundy hair out of her eyes and lifting a drink to her lips. Molly couldn’t fathom what her coworkers might be like after they had clocked out for the day. She didn’t know who drank or who didn’t, who was the biggest gossip, who told the best jokes. It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. She wanted to stop thinking about the things her coworkers were thinking when they looked at her. She wanted to stop feeling like everyone else lived inside a greenhouse and she was stuck peering in from outside. She dropped the pink box into the garbage, two unwanted donuts still inside. 

That night, she ordered two more air plants.

* * *

At the end of the week, she woke to find the air plants glossy with condensation. Her own skin felt dry in comparison, her lips chapped, her throat parched. She reached for her glass of water on the bedside table and discovered that it was half-empty. Her phone buzzed with a text from Dmitri: “Trivia night at the brewery. Who’s in?”

The group text, just like he’d promised. Her screen pinged as unfamiliar numbers replied to Dmitri’s message. She lifted her phone to reply but hesitated, imagining her coworkers’ whispers as she walked in. They would stare at her, wondering who invited the awkward new receptionist, and she would sit down, sip her beer and try to think of something—anything—to say.

She forced herself to take a deep breath and look around the room. At the protein bar wrappers in her trash can, the plastic tub of craft supplies on her desk, the clothes hanging in her closet, the air plant, her first one, resting on her bedside table. 

You’re okay, the plant told her, its voice comforting as a warm bath. Its gray-green flesh glowed in the light of her room. You’re safe here. Why had she wanted so badly to go out in the first place? Was she that desperate for strangers’ attention? She put her phone down, the message unanswered. 

Dmitri didn’t invite her out again. The weeks passed, and she continued to buy air plants. She wanted to be surrounded, wanted to turn the stark, white space into an oasis. Tillandsia rested on her bookshelf and on her dining room table and on her windowsill. She admired their tangled limbs, their anemic color, their compact forms that never wilted or lost leaves.

Molly increased her misting and set shallow bowls of water by the windowsill. The room grew muggy, yet she woke each morning to hands that itched, the skin scaly and dry. One day, she woke up and discovered that the backs of her hands were bleeding. She wiped at the tiny beads of blood with a spare tissue and examined the red streaks they left behind. When she looked up, the tillandsia on the windowsill was haloed in the morning light, condensation clinging to the fuzz on its skin. She stroked the spines of the plant with the back of her index finger. When she lifted her hand, the plant begged to be touched again.

At lunch that day, Carla flopped into the seat across from her.

“People are so full of shit, you know?” She punctuated a text message with one final tap.

“What happened?” Molly asked.

Carla gave her a look that said she was dying to talk about it. “Nothing. We’re all adults. You’d think people would know better.”

“Yeah,” Molly agreed. “You’d think people would know better.” What was life like for Carla, with her painted nails and her enormous boobs and her loud belly laugh? Far more interesting than her own, surely.

Carla leaned in anyway. “So, it’s Dmitri. He’s always hitting on me—not like it wasn’t obvious or anything. We got drunk last weekend, fooled around a bit. I was kind of on the fence ‘cause I see him here all the time, but it was all right. I thought we were good, so I texted him. He’s been ignoring me ever since.”

Some secret. Anyone could have guessed that Dmitri and Carla had hooked up and had a falling out. The office had been unusually quiet without their giggling; now the only ambient noise was the high whine of tooth polishers. “That sucks.”

Carla gave a heavy, full-body sigh. “Just don’t mess around with coworkers. It never ends well.”    

Maybe Carla should take her own advice instead of lecturing coworkers, Molly thought. She shook her head. Not a very nice thought to have.  

“Anyways, thanks for listening.” Carla smiled, but her eyebrows furrowed when she looked down at Molly’s hands. “Are you okay?”

Molly slipped her hands under the table. “I’m fine.”

Carla looked hard at her for a beat but didn’t pry further. “Ever see Downton Abbey?”

Molly hadn’t, but she nodded anyway. “Maggie Smith is great.”

“She is, isn’t she? A goddamn treasure.” Carla’s gaze was focused on a spot just above Molly’s head, perhaps thinking about hedgerows and sly butlers, manor houses and stiff English accents.

It was almost 12:30. Molly stood and took her Tupperware to the sink. “My lunch is over,” she told Carla as she zipped her plastic container back into her bag. “But, for what it’s worth, I think you could do better.”

Carla laughed, a boisterous, startled sound. “Thanks.”

Molly slid the strap of her bag over her shoulder. She drifted back to her desk, for once not minding the smell of stale toothpaste or the gargling that emanated from the patient rooms. She was riding the high of Carla’s thanks, a single word that echoed through her head on loop.

* * *

Her hands continued to crack, even though her apartment felt like a greenhouse. Molly consulted a dermatologist, who prescribed a steroid cream and then, when that didn’t work, a humidifier. At work, the office remained empty of Dmitri and Carla’s giggling. Carla continued to sit across from Molly at lunch, where she would remark on patients who had been especially squirmy or lament how she never got to go out dancing anymore. Molly thought clubs were too loud, the music too lewd, but she smiled and nodded anyway. She imagined herself at Carla’s apartment, drinking beers in a circle of partygoers. She and Carla would roll their eyes at a story that went on too long, their bond strengthened by their lunches together. Molly would share horror stories from waitressing, and everyone would laugh in the right places, would gasp at the most entitled customers. They would find her charming and ask who Carla’s delightful coworker was. Maybe some of them would even check out her Etsy store.

The night before Carla’s birthday, Molly swirled teal pigment powder and glitter into a batch of epoxy resin. Her college friends had always loved the resin trinkets she’d made for them. Perhaps Carla would be flattered by the gesture, would realize how Molly had been listening during all those lunches together. An air plant sat on the counter next to her as she poured the resin into the mold she had chosen, keeping her company. Look at you, its delicate coils said, so creative, so talented.

With the resin curing in its mold, she peeled off her gloves. Blood flecked the latex interior. She rubbed on the steroid cream and sucked in a breath at the way her cracked hands stung. The resin glittered. The sparkles, the vivid color—it seemed so childish, a pathetic way to get the attention of a woman who had nothing in common with her. She turned away from the project, seeking out the tillandsia on the shelf above her.

Lit from above, the plant radiated soft light. Don’t worry, it seemed to say. You have so much to give.

* * *

The next day, the staff grazed on the cheese tray that Molly had left in the breakroom for Carla’s birthday. Molly had made sure that there were no donuts this time, nothing too sweet. She sat across from Carla, who smeared a plate of crackers with brie.

“I could eat my weight in cheese,” Carla said as she brushed crumbs from her scrubs.

Molly was lactose intolerant, but Carla didn’t need to know that. Not wanting to miss her opportunity, she fumbled inside her bag. “Happy birthday! I got you something.”

“You didn’t have to do that.” Carla’s mouth puckered as she worked something out of a tooth.

Molly’s hand was clammy. “Just something small. Here.”

Into Carla’s hand she pressed a keychain, glittery teal and teacup-shaped. Tiny plastic stars and seahorses floated inside.

“Did you make this?”

Molly hesitated but nodded. “It’s a hobby.”

Carla held the keychain by its silver ring, letting it twirl slowly, suspended over the tabletop. Light reflected off the plastic surface until she folded her hand around it and slipped it into the pocket of her scrubs. “It’s cute,” she said, before looking back down at her phone screen. 

No one else was in the breakroom. It wasn’t quite 12:30. Molly waited a few more minutes, but Carla continued to text, absorbed in a different conversation. At last, Molly wiped her palms on her thighs and returned to the front desk. She shouldn’t have given Carla that stupid keychain. It was corny, weird, too clingy.

At the end of Molly’s shift, Carla and Dmitri stood talking just outside the office doors. They lapsed into silence when Molly pushed the door open. As she passed them, she felt Dmitri watching her go. 

She wasn’t quite out of earshot when a snatch of their conversation drifted toward her. “…kind of dorky, right?” Her cheeks went warm, and she fought the urge to turn around. Only after she had slid into her car and buckled her seatbelt did she look back.

Carla was laughing, one hand covering her mouth. A speck of blue dangled from Dmitri’s hands, so vivid that she could see it from the parking lot. Dmitri began swinging the keychain in wide arcs, the details blurring as the keychain gathered momentum. Children, both of them. Molly’s finger twitched on the handle of the car door, but she was safe from where she sat watching, sheltered in her little terrarium. She breathed slowly, savoring the warm, humid air, and then she started the car. In front of the office, Dmitri lost control, and a whizz of blue hurtled toward the pavement.

* * *

  Back in her apartment, she slid off her shoes and sank onto her bed. All she could think of was Carla’s head tilted up at Dmitri. She pictured the keychain cracking as it hit the ground. The look of disgust on Carla’s face at the donuts she had brought. The high school track captain sneering at her sweater.

Seeking comfort, she looked to the tillandsia on her bedside table. Fibrous tentacles grasped for her in an open-armed embrace, and she lifted the tillandsia to her chest. The other air plants reached for her from the bookshelf, the windowsill, the top of her dresser, all asking to be held, too. Please, they seemed to say, we need you. She gathered as many as she could and lay back against her pillow. She closed her eyes, savored their weight against her.

The cracks on the backs of her hands started to bleed again. But it didn’t matter. She would stay there until Dmitri and Carla had forgotten her. Until the tillandsia had sucked all moisture from her body. Until she became as green and still as the room around her.

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