The Dead Bougainvillea

    by Lavanya Arora

    I’ve been awake for three days. Work keeps getting piled on top of each other like that one December night when we decided to visit a house party that was sure to turn into an orgy but somehow just became a cosy sleepover after a few drinks. When we woke up in the morning, five bodies away from each other, my primary partner, Jay, smiled.

    That warmth. 

    That light.

    Not to sound religious or spiritual but I’m sure I was a sunflower in my last birth. Always drawn to wherever a sun appeared. I know this solar system has just a single sun. The Sun. But I’ve always found this singular-focused, monotheistic, monogamous, monochromatic view of the world to be rather limiting. Why can’t I have all the stars? All the warmth?

    Anyway, on the third day of seeing stars all around me, I noticed a peculiar, foreign beam of sunlight poking in our bedroom through all the green in the balcony. It wasn’t there yesterday. I got up from the bed to investigate who or what let in this trespasser.

    “Jay! Wake up! I think I’ve killed another plant. It’s the mauve bougainvillaea. The white one is alright. What happened to the mauve one?” I screamed from the balcony. Then rushed inside, only to find Jay still asleep, unfettered by my shrill nonsense. How does one sleep like that? Why do all the plants in my care keep dying one after the other while the ones in Jay’s care still sprout, new leaves somehow hopeful to find their way out even after five years of being brought home? That’s three years longer than we’ve been together.

    If everything keeps going on the same way, I won’t be able to fall asleep for at least two more days. This isn’t happening for the first time, and by now, Jay understands. No, no, they’ve understood it from the very beginning. Only I have had a problem with accepting how they could have accepted it so easily. That’s how it goes. See, if I had something profound to say, I would have said it by now. All I know for sure is that when the day ends, at least someone’s plants would stay alive, at least one of us would fall asleep. I’ll take my chance at staying awake for a few more days if it means being able to sleep in their warmth after that.

    I get back in the bed and cover myself with the duvet until only my eyes are outside, looking at the slow whir of the ceiling fan. Jay wakes up half an hour later and walks out of the room for their daily morning rituals. A few minutes later, when all of them, parent and five year old children, gather together in the morning—while I’m still in bed, awake even after all my orifices kept calling their name for hours last night, and the night before that, and I’m sure, half-sure at least, that theirs did the same—I wonder what are they chatting about? Do their plants call me a step-parent behind my back? Does that lead to Jay telling them the story about how we matched with each other on Hinge, delayed meeting for three months due to one made up reason or another, and then never left each other’s side after a fateful encounter at Atta Galatta?

    What exactly happened that day? Oh, yes. There was a book launch event. I decided to go because it was a boring Sunday afternoon and I had not got out of the house during the weekend. Jay was there to provide moral support to the author, their close friend, who just happened to be a prolific drunkard, as we found out later that evening. At the event, Jay and I looked at each other across the room. I smiled quite sheepishly, with all my insides tangled up. There was no escaping an awkward confrontation after the launch ceremony was done.

    Jay, with a tepid cup of cappuccino wrapped in their hands, approached me. “So, I see that the monkey has finally stepped outside their tree today?” 

    Thankfully, I had had some time to recalibrate my innards by then. I could retort with, “Only to see if other trees in their territory are being tinkered with.”

    “So, what do the intelligence reports say?”

    “You’d have to kill me to find out.”

    “May I propose an alternative instead? We,” they pointed at the author and a couple of other people, “are all headed to Pecos after this affair is over. Care to join us?”

    An endless supply of draught beer on a Sunday evening with semi-interesting people? Isn’t that the definition of paradise? Who was I to deny? Later on, we exchanged instagram ids, as one does, and finally planned a proper first date.

    We decided to go bookstore hopping on St Marks Road on the coming Saturday. While peeking through the Indian Writing section at Bookworms, Jay blurted, “Do you know that care is a side effect of being alive?”

    Perplexed, I took my face out of the Hungry Tide, and said, “What the fuck do you even mean by that?”

    “Show me your  teeth.”

    “This is getting weirder by the second. Not that I’m not into weird shit but-” before I could complete my sentence, Jay repeated, “Just show me your teeth.” So I did what any reasonable person would do on a first date. I latched on to their neck with my teeth and didn’t leave for a good fifteen seconds. Thank goodness this section of the bookstore was sort of an isolated room in a corner and no one entered it during this time. Can you imagine the embarrassment? Well, not for me but Jay.

    After I let go, without a wisp of humour in their tone, Jay said, “Teeth, it seems, are a side effect of being young.” We both looked at each other for a good few seconds before laughing our guts out. Thankfully not literally otherwise we would have had to buy that entire section or pay for cleaning it and all the hospital bills that would have followed later.

    Ever since that day, we kept laughing in and out of bookstores, museums, cafes, and pubs spread across the city, learning at least one new thing every weekend. Old or new, it didn’t matter. Not that I kept a count. If you were to look in my laptop and search for an Excel sheet titled Things I’ve learnt from being with Jay, you’d definitely not find a password-protected document with a third-party encryption. On the other hand, you might find a powerpoint presentation titled Warmth right on my desktop. It’s also password protected but only because it contains a detailed analysis of all the weird sex positions we’ve tried ourselves and with others over the last two years. So many dicks in one place, you’d think you’re in the parliament. I’m only joking, at least half-joking, of course.

    ###

    When I tell people within the community that I don’t believe in the institution of marriage, some of them tell me that same sex marriage is a revolutionary idea. They want to have the choice of staying in the country and not be persecuted. I always end up letting out a laugh in the most inconvenient situations and this isn’t any different. “Having the rights and being able to exercise them are two very different things. Just because it’s written in the constitution doesn’t mean it’s valued by the people.” I say and wait for a response. When only echoes return, I know that it means it’s time for me to exit stage.

    While scrolling through Instagram reels early in the morning, sitting atop the great equalising ceramic pot, that was what was going through my head, after a month of having been in that exact situation and having nothing to retort with. On some days I wish I could keep my brain in a vat, let it grow roots. See what I did there? If you didn’t, I’m sorry, life doesn’t come with footnotes and references. You have to do some research on your own.

    Look at me preaching as if I’m some dick-in-bread scientist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who wants to prey over that second year student after everyone has left the lecture hall. No, this is no time for blood to rush to my second head but my partner is finally awake and I think it’s time to roleplay this fantasy out. I’ll need to bring them coffee in bed and make sure they’ve brushed before I tie a ribbon on my dick and present it to them. I’m not going to cut it off, don’t worry.

    I’ve lived most of my life wondering about things rather than doing anything to make them happen. I wonder which childhood trauma I should attribute this procrastination to. I’ve used my father not being around a little too much. There’s a separate encyclopaedia with Weight plastered all over it. Let’s please not talk about teenage years at all. They might kick the socks out of your brain. Oh, look, a new phrase. What would you make its meaning to be? Even if it isn’t accepted by the Oxford dictionary, it’s mine and I’ll name it Kitty. A metaphor Kitty, have you ever met anyone like that? Please don’t tell any of these thoughts to my therapist. I know how I frame some of these thoughts is a little self-sabotage-y and politically incorrect but hey, we’re allowed a few flaws here and there unless they’re hurting someone else, no? That’s the spice of anyone’s personality?

    Shit, I think I’m forgetting something. Oh, yes, the impending sex. And the coffee that’s yet to be brewed. And the present moment. But I don’t have to focus on anything else, because as I think about all this, they’re already on the second stage of their plant-parent daily ritual: the watering can.

    I need to show those plants who’s the boss here, so I pop up behind Jay, take the hideous purple water can from their hand and keep it aside, pluck a lemongrass leaf and tickle them dry. Thank fuck for whoever invented curtains. And tarp. Some of the plants need indirect sunlight but need to be kept in the balcony, it seems. Talk about being high maintenance.

    I seriously need to stop being jealous of those plants, their slender stalks, and the variety of shapes and sizes of their leaves. So green.

    Regardless of anything, I would always keep my plants in the sun. “What good is all that chlorophyll for if you can’t use it?” I’d tell them. I’d sunbathe along with them for the entire time but nothing happened to me, did it? Should I have fed them some chicken curry for lunch or poured them some lukewarm tea in the evenings? I couldn’t have possibly wasted my precious cold brew on them. I did read them a few love letters between Woolf and Sackville-West. I even read them a few poems here and there. I think they liked girls are coming out of the woods the best. They had a minor growth spurt after I read it to them. If they had survived, they would have grown up to be such formidable intersectional feminists, just thinking about them makes me proud. But the truth is that I’m alive and they’re dead when it should have been the other way around. 

    Maybe I am killing myself slowly by staying in the sun for so many days without any sunscreen. Even if I am not killing myself, I suppose just living more and more is killing me by default. But my skin doesn’t burn up or become flaky in the sun. They should do a study on me, maybe harvest this invisible anti-ultraviolet pigment to make a new and better sunscreen that earns me enough royalty to do nothing else for the next however many years I’m around.

    Plants. Death. Dead plants. My dead plants. It shouldn’t hurt like this. I’ll be desensitised by the day after tomorrow, I think. There’s no telling how grief can settle into one’s heart, especially in mine. There can be so many irregular phases: hypersexual state, loss of libido, hypersomnia, insomnia, euphoria, dysphoria, death death death.

    Did I tell you that our neighbour tried dying by suicide last year and an ambulance came to take her to the hospital? The next day she was watering plants with a bruised neck. I didn’t know what to do so I waved at her. She waved back with a smile as if she didn’t just try to send a resignation to life just yesterday. I couldn’t hold my tears back anymore so I rushed inside our apartment and sobbed for two hours straight instead of performing my lunch cooking duty for the day while Jay was taking an afternoon nap.

    For some reason I still don’t understand why anyone would bear to live with me. Or have me live with them. I’m sure it takes a lot of strength to live with someone who has as many thoughts as bacteria in their body at any given time.

    Like every cell has death programmed into it, even my body does. Bless telomerase, bless whoever finally discovers a way to tame it and make us immortal. No, wait, curse them actually. Only psychopathic billionaires and those who covet that lifestyle want to stay alive forever. Right?

    ###

    “What’s the origin of umami?,” I once asked Jay, to which they replied, “your cum,” and if you haven’t guessed by now, my face was flushed, and within a few seconds  I was down on my knees sucking them off. After they were done, I smirked, “True, yours is too tart to be anywhere near umami.” And so we rolled on to another day.

    If you think about it, umami and unani are just a letter swap away from each other. Even then their pronunciation and meanings are so far apart. Maybe because their origins lie in two separate languages altogether? No, no, this isn’t going to turn into a lesson in etymology. I can never be a good enough teacher in this system of education. I have too many thoughts of my own to make sense out of them in a straight sentence. What I want to say is: I think my partner and I are like those two words, just a swap of an alphabet away from each other yet so different in our meanings and origin that it’s a wonder we ever came together.

    If we were born twenty years ago or if it weren’t for online dating apps, which Jay ever so humbly calls ‘the best platform for cis women to gain creepy followers on Instagram and increase their reach’, we could have never met. There could be several PhD theses written on the difference in our socio-cultural differences and how they should never have let us be in touch with each other let alone live in a shared space, but most of the academics only want to see things so objectively that they lose out on understanding the point of meaning itself. Leeches.

    Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an insecurity arising from not having made into the academic world myself but having been the offspring of one such person and observing her and her colleagues until I was the ripe age of get-the-fuck-out-of-the-house-and-never-turn-back-again. I could read through the heaviest volumes of academic journals in her library like they were fairy tales. During the second year of college came the depression. And after college, the great academic burnout. We all know how that goes so let’s just not get into the details right now.

    ###

    I remember the first time I said “I might have a functioning penis but I’m not a man ffs!” out loud and was met with crickets and sniggers. It was at the first office retreat at my fresh-out-of-the-college job. Someone in the office had an uncle who owned a coffee estate in Coorg. It was a long weekend, and it was mandatory to attend unless you had a major crisis and I couldn’t come up with a convincing reason fast enough. 

    We all sat around a bonfire drinking cheap homemade wines, some of which smelled of armpits after a strenuous workout but still somehow managed to taste good enough. I was on my sixth glass and as one would have it, the team lead, a six feet tall muscle mountain declared out of nowhere, “There are only two genders in the world, my guys and girls. Sorry, women. Never let the snowflakes tell you otherwise. Be proud of your genitals. That’s what makes you who you are.”

    If I could have, I’d have resigned right then. But certain choices are to be accounted for by taking privileges or their lack in check. Instead, I chose to stay in the same place, bear whatever came my way. As if I was supposed to follow some guidelines made by some dead guys in a bygone era to still make sense of my gender, my sexuality, my very being alive and belonging to and as whoever I chose.

    Maybe I am a plant in this life too? If not in appearance then at least in essence. The sunflower, of course. No wonder I keep having dendrophilic thoughts. But if I can’t even keep a plant alive, what hopes do I have of having sex with it? I mean, it would be ethically wrong as well, no? If I am, indeed, a plant, and I choose to do it with a plant that I myself nurtured, am I being incestuous?

    One thing is definitely clear that there won’t be any consent from my partner’s plants. Not that I’m attracted to them at all.

    Lavanya (they/he) is trying to figure out this whole writing thing one step at a time. Their work has been previously published in The Phosphene Magazine and TARSHI’s In Plainspeak.

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