by Megan Jauregui Eccles
“Grow yourself a boyfriend,” the box said.
How easy it would be. Plant the seed six inches below the soil, plenty of light, and water three times a day. So I bought the watering can and the pot and the seeds and dug them down deep. Watered and waited, moving the seedling into the rays of the sun that drifted across the living room. I had tried all the conventional ways to find love, searched and sought and waited and watched, but none of them were the right fit. I was always too much or not enough, measured out in all the wrong ways. I was tired of loneliness. I’d find love the natural way, grown up from the ground and straight into my arms.
I wondered what he would look like. If his eyes would be the endless blue of summer skies or the deep emerald of distant forests. If the sculpted, grainy face on the box was truth or fiction, if this was all some cruel trick played upon the loneliest of hearts. I gave him my breath in the mornings and evenings, when I was back from work. He grew too big for the shelf in the living room, so I moved him to the sunniest spot outside on my postage stamp patio. I marked the inches he stretched on the doorjamb. I sang him lullabies and love songs while my eyes made shapes out of the branches and leaves.
“This is crazy,” my friends said when they saw the chartreuse half-a-man on my patio.
“This is love,” I said, the nestled egg of my rage cracking open. I grew it myself.
I trimmed and pruned the naysayers from my life. They didn’t understand with their two-for-one dinners and their hearts already full. They already had what I wanted; how could they comprehend life with no shared breath? The silence stretched longer than shadows, not a comfortable and familiar quiet, but one of emptiness. They had always been enough, and I perpetually missed the mark.
The first breath he took was a symphony.
He opened his eyes—bright and green as new grass—some May morning and looked at me the way I’d always waited for someone to look at me. Like I was the whole world.
“It’s you,” he said.
And then he stepped from his terracotta pot and took me in his arms. His skin was rough in places, waxy as green leaves in others. He smelled like forests and faraway and tasted sweet like strawberries and freshly mowed grass. I took him outdoors and showed him the world: the dandelions coming up from the sidewalk, the Aegean blue river full of reeds and cattails, the park and its trees and trees and trees in all shades of green. I kept him indoors and learned the curve of his body against mine, the way he felt in the dark, the fragrance of his sweat like flowers in bloom. I told him the secrets I’d saved for someone like him, and he smiled and told me of the sun and the way it made him feel.
“It’s the way you make me feel,” he said. “Golden, warm, alive.”
“I grew you,” I said. “I grew you from a seed.”
He stiffened in my arms. He did not like that reminder. That he only existed because of me.
I whispered sweet nothings in his ear, singing him the lullabies and love songs that had sustained him when he was just a growing thing and not a man. He relaxed into sleep in my arms, his breaths soft and loamy.
When the city seemed too small for us, we took to the mountains, where the air was crisp and cool and everything around us a richer, darker green. I looked at him and told him it was like coming home, and he looked at the trees and said the same thing. And oh, that same sick, sinking feeling. All the while I could feel that same feeling I’d felt before, like time was standing still for only me, and the rest of the world was still moving for him, for all the hims that had been before him. I buried those feelings down deep, buried them down, but I should have known that the soil was damp and ready, and discontent has a way of growing.
“Can we stay here forever?” he whispered in my ear.
“A picture will last longer,” I said.
I framed the background, set the timer, waited for the flash. In all the pictures, I looked at him like he was the world, and he looked at the world like it was me.
We left spring behind. He was so much more in the summer, stronger and dazzling and better. His eyes were darker then. The rich, deep green of Irish fields and open promises. Things were good, too good. I could feel the shimmer of heat in the air like a warning of things to come. We spent all our nights on the streets, drinks in hands and smiles sweating on our lips. When people stopped to stare, I knew they were looking at him and me the way they looked at things they didn’t understand. At first, I thought it was because he was a plant and not a man, but then I realized they saw his beauty, the way his skin looked in the sun and the sweetness as he came to bloom, and wondered why I was there, why he had settled. They looked at me like I was a tomato worm. Pull it off the branch, crush it with a stone.
“I don’t care what they think,” he said.
“I do,” I said.
“I love you,” he said. “Shouldn’t that matter more than their stares?”
“Sure, sure,” I said in the sweetest of lies.
So of course I’d smile and put my head on his shoulder, and we’d sit there in silence. I’d breathe out and he’d breathe in, and time would seem like a small thing, a mountain we could climb. Because love was all there was in the world. Then I’d follow his eyes out the window, see the longing when he looked out, and I’d wonder, wonder, worry. The leaves outside shifted into new shades: copper and gold and red. The night came so much faster.
“Look at me,” I said.
“This again?” he said.
And I could hear it in the way he sighed and see it in the flecks of marigold disappointment in his eyes, that he’d rather be looking toward the sun. And so we took the heat into our bodies and let it burn, both screaming and saying things we did and didn’t mean. Sap rose up to the wounds, scars in the flesh and foliage. After, he’d hold me and tell me I was his whole life.
And I’d tell myself I believed. Tell myself it was true. But then I’d remember the way he looked at the sun and those trees, and I’d roll so my back was toward him.
“I grew you,” I spat. “I grew you from a seed.”
“Not this again.” He curled away from me.
The wind turned cold and so did my bed. He slept out in the living room, out where the sun might see him as the days grew shorter. His hair littered the floor like pine needles. His eyes went from green to ochre, a change neither of us had expected. I liked him ugly. I relished the way people looked at us when we went out. This time, he was the object of their pity. This time, he was the one who had come up short.
I shouted that to him, one terrible evening.
He wept green tears, sticky like sap. They tasted sweet on my skin after we made up.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You love me the way I am.”
I stared at this thing I had made from water and dirt and want. What was love, after all, but settling. I leaned into our silences—once so full—now brittle as the falling leaves. Cold as the oncoming winter. I didn’t want to be in the space he was. I stayed later at work, moved with the hours of the clock, and only saw him in the dark, curled up beneath layers of cloth. I called a therapist.
“You have to,” I said.
He planted his roots, refused to move. “I don’t need to talk to a stranger. I need to talk to you.”
“I can’t be around you when you’re like this.”
“Please don’t leave me,” he said, leaning into me.
And so I cried and let the salt burn him. When I’d run out of tears, I stole back to the places and friends I had forgotten. They welcomed me back, sympathetic and sweet. They knew this cycle of love and love, of good and then not good enough.
“Get rid of him,” they said. “He’s weighing you down.”
And of course I told them about spring and summer and the way it had been. They nodded and sipped their drinks and asked me if I was happy. But who has an answer to that question? Who can puzzle together those words with the pieces of their life and say they really mean it and they wouldn’t change a thing?
I called my mother, searching for absolution, and told her the story.
“The grass is greenest where you water it,” she said.
I hung up without saying good-bye. What did she know?
When I returned to the apartment, he was outside on the patio. He looked at me with russet eyes, dull and without beauty. It did not thrill me to see him. I felt nothing.
“I grew you,” I said in disgust. “I grew you from a seed.”
I locked the bedroom door and slept in my empty bed.
I did not expect him to wither up in winter. Did not expect the thorns and brown spots where he would rot and crinkle. Did not expect him to lean against the windowsill, reaching for the sun the way I wished he’d reach for me. Finally, he did.
“Water,” he said. Whisper voice, dry husk of a throat.
“Later,” I said.
Happy, in some ways, that he wanted something from me. But it wasn’t something only I could give. Anyone could fill up the can and let water fall through. Anyone could be that girl.
And I went to work and to the gym and to have drinks with friends. I watched the vibrant shades of the sunset alone, marveling at a beauty I could not have. By the time I remembered to sprinkle his roots, he was nothing more than a shrivel of a man, his fingers falling from his wilted hands. Eyes dull and brown and empty. Guilt, like vines, grew the way he never could around my heart.
What had I done?
I waited three weeks, watering and coaxing and begging him to stay. Loving him gone the way I didn’t know how to love him when he was fresh and green.
I thought about taking him up to the mountains, where the sun would reflect brightly off the snow. I told myself this is what he wanted, that he was getting what he wanted after all this time. To be among the trees and sun and sweeter air. But I’d already done so much for him. What was the use?
I was never enough for him, for anyone. He wanted more of the world than I could give and never enough of me.
Instead, I lit a match. Broke him piece by piece and tossed him into the fireplace. Remembered the warmth of his skin after he’d spent some time in the sun. Remembered the sweet, woody scent of his limbs entwined in mine. Remembered the way it had felt when he was just a seed. Had I really been happier waiting?
I took the last pieces of him and threw them in. Watched the scarlet flames lick up and catch. Smoke and heat, like everything we used to be. I wondered what I’d do in spring, when everything was brighter and sweeter. I found the box. Read the instructions again and again. Looked for the warnings against falling in love. There were none.
“Grow yourself a boyfriend,” it said.
How easy it was to burn.
Megan Jauregui Eccles writes dark, speculative fiction for young adults. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside—Palm Desert. She is represented by Lauren Galit of LKG Agency. She lives in the foothills of San Diego with her husband, four sons, dogs, and various farm animals. When she’s not writing or rehoming rattlesnakes, she pairs lipstick to her favorite books on Instagram and plays Dungeons & Dragons with her husband and boys. She has been accused of owning too many books, but it simply isn't true.