COMPANION PLANTS by Kathryn Roberts
THE FIRST TIME I MISSED my period I washed a sprig of fresh parsley and pushed it as far into my vagina as I could reach. At sixteen I was still discovering the capabilities of my anatomy. Every six hours I boiled water and infused it with bunches of the fresh herb and after twenty minutes I gulped five tablespoons of the elixir with a vitamin C chaser. I switched out the sprig every twelve hours and didn’t worry when some of the leaves, softened from hours stewing, tore off the stem and stayed lodged. The website said this was harmless and the bleeding would start within three days.
I wouldn’t be able to hide a protruding stomach or a baby. Miscarriage sounded less deadly than abortion. Danny drove me to Whole Foods to buy organic parsley so I wouldn’t risk injecting my body with pesticides. I spent the weekend moving from my bedroom to the bathroom and back, checking for blood. We never told Jackie.
The fear passed in thirty-seven hours but I wondered if the parsley would work a second time. My mother refused to consider birth control for me--the Pill was “an excuse to have sex”--so I never asked. She read my journal weekly but thought I didn’t know. So I detailed my day at school and headlined each page with a random verse from my devotional Bible, the only time I opened the book.
My mother discovered God after she discovered my father wrapped in his secretary’s fish-netted legs. I was two years old when he last kissed the top of my head and told me to be good. For years he was a presence relegated to birthday cards with a crisp one hundred dollar bill and a silver-plated framed photograph of him holding me in front of our Autumn pumpkin patch.
A month after my father left, Jackie and Danny’s parents bought the house next door to ours on the outskirts of the small town in rural Massachusetts where my father had left us, surrounded by apple orchards. Our mothers became close friends within weeks, a result not of shared traits or a common sense of humor but from proximity. Soon, my mother car-seated me into the neighbors’ station wagon every Sunday morning and we rode fifteen miles to the local Pentecostal church.
Jackie and Danny were twins and I an honorary triplet to the two, we tantrummed, pranked, and outgrew Sunday School teachers together. As teenagers forced to attend youth group, we snickered across the room during devotions, at the altar when someone wailed or spoke in tongues, laughing in the eye-language we knew from years of growing as a trio. But as much as we joked, we believed. We didn’t know ideas that weren’t infused with religion.
Our parents put us in a private Christian school. We sat, uniformed in skirts and dress pants, and learned history through a Bible-tinted lens. Science class avoided evolution and our literature was excerpted from major works, edited into story collections that dealt only with superficial struggle between good and evil. Every Wednesday, the entire school assembled in the gym for chapel. Every afternoon, we studied God in Bible class. Girls and boys had to sit at least six inches apart and all the teachers carried rulers.
Doubt came to me along with my sexuality: my body laid out and contorted before teen-aged boys, repeated, detached, while my mind traveled to a pond, Jackie lying on her back in a bikini of blue stripes, dark tan arms folded behind her head on a raft. Loons break through the water and dive again, teaching the adolescents how to hunt, stitching a line of spotted black feathers across the lake. I climb out of the water, fish-belly my way onto the wooden float and lay my head on Jackie’s ribcage. Every time a boy came inside me I was kissing Jackie, when he shoved my head down I was holding her hand.
Danny trusted his teachers for years. We dated for four months before Danny tongued into my mouth, another two before he slipped his hands up my shirt. He began to doubt his upbringing after I got pregnant. He angered through classes, picking fights with instructors. He bindered pages of handwritten notes from philosophy books, nature shows, lugged the evidence to each lecture and dared teachers to debate science. Given detention nearly every day, he used the time to write essays refuting religion. But he carried a pocket Bible hidden in his jacket and I saw him, closed eyes and head slumped down, lips mumbling inaudibly, sitting at the edge of the small grove of trees that bordered his house.
Jackie relinquished the last of her faith two days before their eighteenth birthday, when Danny wrapped an old rope around the railing surrounding the first platform of their tree fort, tied an end around one of the bars they had held in place while their father drove nails through the scrap wood. He climbed the ramp to the second platform, holding the free end of the rope, fastened a loop around his neck. When Jackie found him, he wasn’t swinging like the corpses in films with head slightly tilted and peaceful closed eyes. His neck broke from the impact and his head leaned too far back, bruises painted his throat oceanic. His green eyes stared bloodshot at branches. There was no wind and he remained still. Jackie sat cross-legged, crunched down leaves and dirt, threw acorns at Danny’s corpse. I sat behind her when I arrived and folded my feet under her legs.
“But he got a haircut yesterday,” she said.
I imagine Jackie waking Danny in the womb, whispering It’s time, voice soft but throaty already. He grabs her ankle. I’ll go first, she tells him. Follow me when you’re ready.
Twins share history. Jackie and Danny grew up as a single person: their parents referred to them as the twins. They shared bunk beds, switching off top and bottom every six months, until at twelve their parents enforced separate rooms. And still, late at night, Danny crossed the Jack and Jill bathroom to Jackie’s room, joining our sleepovers.
Our houses were close enough to walk across the lawns in two minutes. The next nearest neighbor was too far away to see. Every summer night our families barbecued on concrete patios. My mother tsked at their mother when she suggested setting her up with a single man from the church, their father charred burgers and hot dogs but smothered them with ketchup so we couldn’t tell. We made individual forts and exchanged old apple cores like currency, buying access to each others’ secret lairs where we cooked meals of rocks and rotten tomatoes. At night, we climbed up on the roof with Jackie and Danny’s dad and watched the lightning bugs Morse code across the sloping hills.
When Jackie found Danny in the orchard, she climbed to the first platform, untied the rope and dropped Danny to the ground. He splayed, neck odder-angled, leg crumpled behind, other out front but his hands folded across his chest. Jackie jumped to earth, pulled apart his hands, unbuttoned his cobalt Oxford shirt and dragged it off his body. When she ripped off her sweater and sleeved her arms in him, she couldn’t close the buttons. She wore the shirt anyway, trying to absorb Danny, morph into him as I held her.
We held hands at his funeral, three days after Jackie had tried to convince her parents to cremate Danny. If she had run to them right away, called them, crying, from the small grove of trees behind their house, Help! Maybe they would still hear her. But after they found us sitting together in a pile of leaves at the base of the tree, staring, Danny mangled and shirtless, their daughter dressed as their son, her parents stopped listening. My mother only let me near Jackie because she figured neither of us would hurt ourselves with the other around.
The headstone said Daniel and I pretended he wasn’t beneath it, that his parents had given in and Jackie had scattered Danny through the apple orchards where we used to run long afternoons, lost in the aisles that rowed our childhoods into infinite neat lines. We spent our first years believing our lives would unfold across the farms, connected by the god who judged us and the families that guided us to Him. When we found our way out of the maze of trunks we spent the first few seconds disoriented and unsure if we’d arrived at the same house where we’d begun. Jackie and I outgrew the days between the trees before Danny, and he’d beg us to run across our roots with him again.
Jackie crawled into my arm, shouldered head to me. My eyes focused on the periphery: A sky stretched with thin clouds, Jackie’s unbuttoned charcoal peacoat over Danny’s forest green sweater, black patent leather Mary Janes on a white-tighted toddler, a woman’s chipped French-tipped fingernails. The pastor spoke of forgiveness as members from our church avoided each other’s eyes. No one mentioned suicide. The lowered coffin signaled finality and even in the expressions of sympathy, no one offered the usual solace At least he’s with our Lord. Most people left the post-burial reception after a quick pass around the living room. Our mothers walked upstairs after only ten minutes, Jackie’s father followed soon after. Jackie fell asleep in a chair, staring at the untouched snacks on the plate she sat on her lap.
At midnight I snuck out of the house and returned to the grave. I dug my fingers in the soil, wanting the dirt under my nails, leaving my hands half-buried for too long. Parsley ends but also begins, and I covered the length of Danny with seedlings. When it blooms, the wasps will come and patrol the cemetery, protect the flowers from neighboring bodies; swallowtail butterflies will lay larvae in the leaves and yellow-dotted black and green stripes will caterpillar up and down the plants, feeding, until they transform and take flight.
Months after the funeral, we drove away from Massachusetts in Jackie’s car. Our parents thought we were going to a graduation party but we reached our classmate’s house and kept going west, my backpack in the backseat and her trunk packed full of clothes, water, trail mix and a small cooler of food. Jackie brought Danny’s old 35-mm Pentax SLR, insisting we record the trip on something tangible, negatives to back up. Adventure looks better later when you can’t preview the images, she insisted. No room for self-editing as you go.
Through images we discovered ourselves, defined our edges in photograph-captured outlines. Even a mirror or window shifts around your boundaries but in photographs the edges stick to glossy paper, engrave images that cannot shift: Jackie thin and thinner, shoulder blades protruding like over-sized chicken wings and jeans that slid off hips even when belted. Fall asleep after an autumn funeral and wake without hunger.
At every rest stop she grabbed the camera, shot frames, shielded it from the sun as she switched out the film. When I took cell phone snapshots as we drove, she screeched to the side of the highway and refused to start again until I promised to keep the phone shut off. Western Massachusetts and Upstate New York stretched out, familiar from school trips across the state, county fairs, summer camps—then Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. The terrain shifted imperceptibly, but Jackie stopped by the Welcome to Nebraska sign for a photograph. She had never been west of Illinois.
When I found out I was pregnant, Danny sat on the side of our high school soccer field as night edged in and begged me to leave with him.
“I have a cousin in California. We can keep the baby,” he said.
The silence ached because it was unanswered but definitive. I was lying on my back, pinprick holes punching through the sky, faster as dusk slid away. Danny ran his fingers across my scalp, at first gentle, soon hair-pulling. I reached to sleeve his cheek, tears in fabric so they wouldn’t leave traces on the ground. I couldn’t stand the thought of physical remnants.
“This can’t have happened, Danny. I don’t want to remember.”
We never told Jackie.
We reached the outskirts of Cheyenne in time to watch the sun rise in the barren landscape, to shutter-click a memory of presence. The Wyoming isolation stunned us. Mountains, sparse plants across dust, a single road interrupting. Layers of color in the sky dotted with the bug-splatter spots on the windshield. Pink ground, pink hills, pink road.
Jackie pulled into a rest area and made me breakfast of dried mango, vanilla Greek yogurt and stale grocery store croissants. She watched my hands move to my mouth, then stared across the hills to our side. The rocks jetting through pink earth fed her. When her stomach voiced loud enough for me to hear she denied pain.
“I no longer feel anything,” she said.
I spoon-fed her two bites of yogurt before she doubled and threatened to throw up.
In the family restrooms, the only individual door-locked spaces in a country releasing itself to us in dusty yellow-lighted rest stops, we rinsed our hair in the sink and washclothed our bodies. Jackie’s body was familiar, from years of sleepovers and locker rooms together. But when I glanced at the mirror girl that stood beside me, bending to pull on dark skinny jeans, she was gone. In her place stood the wire framework for a bendable doll, begging to be covered in padding. Her skin hung on the wire, waiting to be filled, or to decay. I stared at her, disgusted, oddly allured, wondering at this transformation from living to halfway dead and tried to remember when it began.
At what point does mind relinquish power to body emaciated, inch so close to sluggish that it has no defense against an ache for food? Jackie swore she felt nothing, rumbling and sharp ache left behind in a grove of trees in Massachusetts. I imagined the pain of stomach grinding and gurgling against itself, acid dissolving only air. Her muscles adjusted soon after, agreeing to live on caffeine, killing off strands of themselves gradually. I wondered if her heart knew to hold onto itself, or if it gave willingly, too.
She tossed at night in the car, woke up and said her bones wouldn’t let her rest. Lying down hurts as much as sitting hurts as much as standing. Where do you move when the ache won’t stop? She shivered in her sweater under blankets even when the air ran in the 80s. Her fingers, always cold.
We lurched through Utah, skirting Salt Lake City, passing over mountains. The car hesitated with each incline, slowing to forty even when the gas pedal rode on the floor. We hit the edge of the city, peaks rising to our left and the vast white ground spreading to our right, and pulled into a gas station. I’d begged Jackie to eat breakfast, but she refused and we rode in silence for hours.
“I need an apple. Will you grab it and a diet pop while I run to the bathroom and meet me outside?” Jackie asked and tossed me a few bucks.
I sat cross-legged on the grass at the edge of the parking lot and listened to the seven voicemails my mother left me. Jackie insisted we not contact our parents, but I imagined my mother’s tightening chest as she grabbed her old flip phone every fifteen minutes to check for the little message icon.
Jackie came back and I passed her the apple, soda and a small bag of trail mix. She shook her head at the dried fruit and nuts.
“You’ve got to eat more. Just take it in the car, okay?” We stared at the mountains.
I wondered what it would be like growing up where the ground is uneven, where you wake up peaked-in, snow-capped and cereal-bowled into a valley.
“You know Danny loved you, right?” Jackie said, still refusing to look at me.
She hadn’t spoken his name in months. We’d never discussed the year I’d spent dating her brother, circumventing our strict parents with a series of fabricated group dates. I looked at her, but she stayed profiled. My mind turned circles on itself. Did he talk about me with her or did she just suppose?
“We were sixteen...” I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to say what she needed.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. Just wanted you to know in case he never told you. He never said anything, but I could tell. I was jealous of you two. Mostly of him.”
Jackie slipped her hand into mine without looking over. We sat for several minutes, not speaking. I absorbed her through her bony fingers, drew the cold out of her skin, let my hand take on her smell. Clasped fingers tighter and wiped my eyes across my shoulder. She turned, smiled, kissed my cheek and stood.
“Let’s get going.”
She chased me across the parking lot, laughing. As we ran I worried. If she fell, would I be able to catch her in time or would she hit the asphalt and barely make a sound as she shattered into a thousand pieces of bone?
Rest stop in Nevada. The sun fell over the desert hours before we decided to pull over. I quit asking to pause for snacks: when I looked at her, I felt too guilty to eat. We piled out of car, bathroomed, settled back in.
“Let’s skip this stop and find a town,” Jackie suggested. “We can get something to drink and camp out in a mall lot.”
We pulled off a random exit. Megaplex gas station, deli, restaurant, mini-mart, arcade and coffee shop. No mall or movie theater or other stores. One road led back onto the highway, one disappeared into the dark. Inside the mini-mart, I lost Jackie. Forgot her for the aisles of granola bars and bags of chips. I grabbed two bottles of water and a Diet Pepsi, a sugary fake cappuccino from the instant machine, two hard-boiled eggs in a plastic tray cellophane-wrapped and a triple-serving bag of white cheddar popcorn. Jackie stood somewhere behind me as I paid and pieces of her voice reached me in waves.
“Sure, at the car. Whatever’s good.” She sidled over and we hook-armed it outside.
“What’s going on?”
“Got us some beer. That guy’s gonna bring it to the car.”
I’d had my first beer two days after the funeral. After her brother died, the few times when Jackie’s parents spoke, they whispered over her, as though she’d evaporated with her twin and speaking too loudly would disturb memories. Her mother left three weeks later.
After that, she sent a letter once a month. No one opened them. Her husband never begged her home. If Jackie missed her mother, mourned or loathed her leaving, she hid it somewhere in her room, a field, the tree fort. In a house that rarely saw alcohol, there were suddenly bottles of beer every night, sometimes whiskey. Jackie snuck out a few rounds from the refrigerator and bicycled them in a basket to our spot. We huddled under a blanket and yelled our stories of Danny into the night but we stopped reciting memories when winter arrived.
Jackie unlocked the car when she saw the guy approaching with a paper bag. He climbed into the back, shoved aside bags of empty pop bottles and stretched out his legs across the seat. His dusty hiking boot hooked my shoulder as he swayed his foot in rhythm to the electronica we played. Despite his mountain-man beard I figured he was still in his early twenties. I fidgeted with the seat belt, turned so my left fingers grazed the door handle.
“I’m Luke.” He stretched out his plaid long-sleeved arm and passed us each a Fat Tire. His eyes were a color that wavered between henna and mahogany. He leaned back against the door, propped his head on folded arms. This guy is harmless, I thought.
“So where are you headed?” Luke asked.
“We were thinking California,” said Jackie, shrugging at me.
“For how long?”
Jackie and I stared at each other. We’d driven west only knowing we wouldn’t return until we were ready. The logistics of the trip--money, food, housing--we figured would show up. One morning we’d wake up and head home or find jobs.
“No idea,” I said. “We’ve got no plans.”
“Dude, you two should come up to northern Cali.” Luke sloshed beer on his cargo pants as he hoisted himself into lean-forward position. “I’m riding up with friends, we’ve got work up there for the summer and fall. It’s outdoor season, everyone needs extra help. Show up with us and you’ll be all set.”
“Outdoor season? Work doing what?” Jackie asked.
“Seriously? Helping with the plants, trimming in the fall.” Luke laughed at our expressions. “You do know what Humboldt’s famous for, right?” We shook our heads and he smiled. “Weed.”
We drank another round of beer as we learned the details of our new jobs, a way to stay west-coasted for an entire season. Back home, any mention of marijuana on television flushed parents who quickly hit mute or switched the station and shook their heads. The only time I’d seen pot was in an upperclassman’s old issue of High Times he got when he visited his brother at college.
When we finished the first six-pack, Luke bought another and we joined his friends in the old conversion van they were driving north. Jackie hit bottle four and slurred herself onto the lap of a lanky, blond-haired guy who’d introduced himself as Dustin. He laughed and kissed her neck.
I thought about grabbing her waist and leading her back to our car, protecting her. But from what? Our purpose was escape. Break what we know into as many pieces as we can,,subtract, add, reassemble and set ourselves in a new world. At least when she drinks she consumes something, I thought.
We left our car in the parking lot. Eventually, Jackie’s dad would wonder where she was. Before him, my mother would notify the police, even if I called to check in. We emptied the trunk, threw the keys inside, slammed the door down. Emptied and doors locked, the car waited, parked by the dumpster behind the gas station, for someone to decide it was abandoned.
As we drove away -- Jackie sleeping across the backseat of the van, her head in Dustin’s lap, my head resting against the passenger’s window, Luke’s hand on my thigh -- I wondered where the people in Nevada live. No houses visible from the highway cutting across the state. Only casino-town oases, series of hotels with pumped-in water and neon. Even the monstrous gas station, hubbed into the landscape by numerous truckers and vacationers trying to reach other states, seemed planted for travelers. As I fell asleep I imagined a desert filled with underground cave dwellers. Dark holes carved into the side of the earth, steps down to subterrain. Walls drawn with elaborate manuscripts in pictures and words, narrating a life of shadows. Tunnels running between each home, through great halls, cafes and bathhouses, connecting an entire world. Beneath our wheels, people moved through the subways like alcohol through blood.
KATHRYN ROBERTS received her BFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College where she served as Managing Editor of Guideword. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including Literary Juice, NAP Literary Journal, Girls’ Life Magazine, and the Sun Journal. In August, she begins Rice University’s doctoral program in English.