My apartment, at times, has resembled a lush rain forest. A tall palm shaded my television. Five generations of spider plants populated my windowsill, shooting their offspring into one another's pots. Some sort of fern had fanned its leaves over my desk, relegating my pens and folders to the floor. A bamboo stalk corkscrewed up from the vase on my dining-room table.
I was somewhat baffled as to how all these plants had taken over. My Washington, D.C., studio is smaller than some of my suburban friends' closets, so I vet my belongings mercilessly. I own a single colander, exactly one umbrella, and just four forks. When my grandma gives me a new dress as a present, I get rid of an old one. But there was one type of present I couldn't say no to: greenery given to me by friends who'd been here long enough to acquire plants, but not long enough to become rooted themselves.
The entire collected works of Hannah Arendt, ugly paintings by great-aunts, a never-used blender: These things were boxed and lugged to Tennessee by my best friend Sybil. Her aloe plant? It moved in with me. My friend Zak towed a bookcase that was missing a shelf from D.C. to Chicago, but he abandoned his lily by my door one morning. Taped to it was a hastily scribbled note: "Bye! Do you want my plant?" Living things they may be, but houseplants seem to rank somewhere between lint and soap fragments in terms of the emotional attachment they inspire in most people.
I, however, took in these green orphans, and they quickly became stand-ins for my far-flung friends. I lovingly watered Sybil's aloe, and was proud as a parent when it doubled in size. Busy with law school, Sybil probably was not too worried about the health of her succulent, but I sent her cellphone pictures of it anyway. My friend Rachel's spider plant – entrusted to me when she moved to New York to be a poet – quickly outgrew its pot. I transplanted and fertilized it, and soon had a spider plant family cascading from my windowsill to my couch. Before she moved, I'd call Rachel and invite her over for decoupage and cookie baking, and she'd be at my door in less than 10 minutes. Manhattan, it turned out, is too far to travel for a few hours of art, so I started calling Rachel with updates about her plant's progeny instead.
But just as greenery threatened to annex my apartment, I started a new job with long hours. Watering fell by the wayside, as I came home with just barely enough energy to feed myself. More often than I'd like to admit, my dinner was peanut butter (crunchy) spooned directly from the jar.
Zak's lily wilted and shed leaves. The spider plants drooped, and the youngest ones died. I didn't realize it for weeks, but my rain forest was rapidly turning into a desert.
It was the sight of Sybil's aloe plant, however, that finally broke the drought. I was lying on my couch, having dinner (crackers and unwashed grapes) when I noticed its sad state. Once healthy and plump, the aloe had taken on a grayish hue; its spiny stalks draped limply over my TV. "Poor Sybil!" I thought, as I imagined her staggering through the Vanderbilt library, parched and weak. Too polite to interrupt a study session to ask for help, she collapses between the stacks, the pile of papers she was carrying fluttering around her like fallen leaves.
Truth be told, I actually hadn't called Sybil in weeks, so I dialed her number while transporting the aloe plant to my kitchen sink. As I ran the tap, Sybil told me that she was not, in fact, dying of thirst. Actually, she was flourishing at law school, already standing out as an academic star and founding the most sought-after study group. I was so proud of her, I called my dad right afterward and bragged about Sybil's accomplishments as if they were my own.
It wasn't long before my rain forest was back in full bloom. The fern perked right up and the spider plants resumed their slow, steady takeover of my couch. Zak's lily didn't survive the drought, but Sybil's aloe returned to its full height within a week. I returned it to its spot on my television, where it stands sentinel as I write this, ready to sacrifice a leaf in the unlikely event of an oven-related burn. All it needs is an occasional cup of water, a moment of attention during a busy day.