by Nat Mesnard
The night of the gala, I arrived to work at the conservatory as the sun was setting. The glass building appeared alien, as though it had landed on the hill to capture specimens of the waning December light. Tom dropped me off at the back entrance. I was late, but before he would let me out of the car, he made me put his cock in my mouth. I didn’t have to do anything with it. I think he just wanted to know it had been there, and that knowledge enabled him to drive away.
The gala was a fundraising affair for the botanical garden, a schmoozy silent auction and party for a who’s who of the city’s horticultural philanthropists. We had been preparing for months. The approach to the conservatory’s front doors was encrusted in twinkling lights, and out back they’d erected a massive tent. Inside the headhouse, holiday decorations were everywhere, packing material and broken ornaments scattered among the pots and gardening tools. The air bore the distinctive odor of our corpse flower, the massive Amorphophallus titanium. It was blooming, but we’d hidden it back here. No matter how rare and fascinating the plant might be, no one wanted to drink bubbly flutes of Prosecco and slow dance to Christmas jazz next to a fly-pollinated flower that reeked of rotten meat.
I threw my backpack on the potting station and looked around for my magnetic nametag. Behind me, the doors to the glass house interior opened. The conservatory horticulturist, Mary Margaret, appeared. She was in her 50s, only a few years younger than my mother, and usually wore denim shorts, plus a T-shirt with the garden’s logo on the front. But tonight was different. Her body was sheathed in a synthetic black shift, and a multicolored beaded belt gave her a waist. She teetered on a pair of worn black pumps with kitten heels. Her glasses, ordinarily green with grime, were clean. It felt like I was seeing her eyes for the first time.
She said, “Alison. What took you so long?”
“I had trouble deciding what to wear,” I replied.
I had ceased to expect she would reprimand me. But I still wanted her to, somehow. I thought it would feel good—like instead of this ambiguity, I could just hate her. But her face was dim. She was somewhere far away, searching for an entry point into her own suffering. “After the divorce,” she said finally, “this dress was one of the only nice things I had left.”
I’d been abducted by the conservatory, and Mary Margaret, when the weather got cold. She needed someone to help transform the glass house into a sparkling holiday wonderland, she said, but every other member of the staff was “busy” whenever she came around. They did hate her, I realized. When you spend hours pruning and weeding, there’s not much to keep you entertained besides gossip. And they talked about Mary Margaret often, her monstrous tendencies the default subject when there was nothing else to say. I’d started working here in August, so as the newest—and the youngest—gardener, I had no defenses against her. As the rest of the staff planned the spring displays, took out dead branches, and sipped coffee poured from a steaming carafe at lunch, I found myself behind the glass.
“You’ll need to greet people at the front doors,” Mary Margaret said. “Point them in the direction of the tent, and if they need, show them where the bathroom is. Once everyone’s safe inside the tent, just do the rounds and keep the floor clean. We had a woman last year who slipped on a patch of water under the staghorn fern, and broke her clavicle. That was fun.” She laughed, and there was a hard joy in it. I imagined her standing behind the glass walls a year ago, watching the ambulance approach with lusty glee.
I left the headhouse, exiting into the doors that let out into the back room of the conservatory. As the doors swung shut behind me, the air changed. Out here, the smell was green and rich, a mossy jungle embedded with the scents of tropical flowers. It was warm, almost hot. Across the way the doors to the gala tent gaped open. Within, catering staff hurried back and forth, carrying chairs, adjusting lights, and fanning cocktail napkins out into feathered piles. The string quartet was setting up on the small raised stage at the back of the tent. In college, I had hated parties. But this one, the climax of our conservatory transformation, excited me. Yes, it was another night of work, and I had to come back in the morning, too. But I was nervy with anticipation, imagining guests flowing into this warmly lit interior, wine glasses tinkling, their laughter overwriting the usual white noise of the conservatory’s churning fans, bubbling artificial pools, and the deep generator hum emanating from nowhere and everywhere all at once.
I headed for my post at the front. Our conservatory was shaped like an upside-down Christian cross. Each transept housed a separate doored wing, closed off to preserve different air and temperature levels. Spanish moss dangled from tree limbs in the west wing, bearding down over plantings of tropical ginger. The centerpiece in that wing was an orchid wall whose flowers cascaded over a reflection pool. My mother worked in the orchid greenhouse that supplied these unusual specimens, and she’d helped me get the job here. I should have been in college this week, working on finals. But I had stopped after only two years. My parents said it would be good for me to take a break from playing video games and get some exercise. It would help me figure out what to do after finishing what my mom called “your year off.”
The east wing was different from the west, its displays carefully pruned. That wing featured a miniature cottage about eight feet tall housing taxidermy squirrels seated around a small table, enjoying an English tea. This disturbing scene was a useful in easing my conservatory duties. Despite the glass house’s grandeur, it contained no automated system for watering—why install irrigation, I guess, when you could pay cheap hired help instead? Here in the east wing, I could stand in the flowerbed on the far side of the toy cottage and peer through its windows to the interior doors, watching for Mary Margaret. The plants in that corner were bright green and flourishing, thankful for my extra attention.
On my first day in the conservatory, before I’d learned to avoid her, Mary Margaret had trapped me at the top of a ladder in the west wing. She needed me to prune the bougainvillea plant, which had started to push its vine-like branches between the metal crossbars of the conservatory walls and the exterior glass. Surrounded by petals too pink to be believed, I sheared off unruly sprigs as she explained how her ex-husband had left her. He’d gotten himself an apartment, she said, a whole new secret life, while still remaining in hers. He always did the finances, so for years, she never knew. “Then he gave me herpes,” Mary Margaret said.
Thorned vines wrapped around me like a long and dangerous dress, I tried to look down at her, but Mary Margaret’s body was obscured. She was a disembodied voice, her pain floating up to me through the verdant growth of the conservatory’s eternal spring weather. “He got them from the other woman, the girl he was sleeping with in that apartment. And then he brought that back into our house. Our life.”
I quickly said, “I’m sorry. That sucks.”
“Sucks?” She laughed shortly. “Well, I’m sorry too. Sorry that’s the kind of person he was. Is. We even went to church together. Sometimes I think about him there in church next to me, sitting right there under God’s eye. Disguising himself as someone good. Can you imagine it? What makes a person do such evil?”
How was I to answer that question? But she wasn’t asking me, not really. She was asking the universe, and I was just there, a witness to her bottomless suffering, the tar that came back when she drew from that well. I seethed at the contamination she made me feel, and yet after I left work, I kept picturing her ex-husband. Drifting to sleep after sex with Tom, floral afterimages lurked behind my eyelids, orchids, palm leaves and cacti merged with the specter of Mary Margaret’s torture.
Today I did not pass into the east or west wing. I skirted the large planting in the conservatory’s central room, and stationed myself near the front doors. The first guests were already arriving. Outside I could see clustered silhouettes promenading along the brick walk. They moved slowly, admiring the holiday lights, talking, and laughing.
I adjusted my blazer. I’d been on the verge of tears by the time I left my apartment. Something was always off. Top too short, shoes too old. I’d forced myself into a dress my mother bought me last time we went shopping together, this dumpy cotton blue thing gathered at one hip. Tom didn’t even have to say anything to let me know it was wrong.
Like Mary Margaret, Tom had also been divorced. He and his ex-wife were both art professors at the university, and she’d run off to Mexico with a Brazilian poet she knew from a retreat. Tom was two years older than my dad. Before I dropped out of college, I had been studying applied math, so I’d never taken any of Tom’s classes. We met because I rented the attic studio in the row house that he owned just off campus. He lived on the bottom floor with his Welsh corgi and his teenage son. We met when Tom showed the apartment to me and my father, who, upon inspection, announced that the ceilings were water-damaged. When dad wasn’t looking, Tom had smiled at me wryly, as though we were in on the same secret. I smiled back, knowing then that I would take the apartment, and also him.
Ultimately, I’d chosen the blazer because its incongruity felt intentional—something that I could own. It was brown tweed, thrifted, and had elbow patches, making me look like I was the professor. Outside the doors, a tuxedoed man was helping his female companion up the stairs to the conservatory entrance, assisting her as she took oddly delicate steps. Our first guests. The man pressed the assist button and the front doors opened, swinging my reflection away into darkness.
When the two figures entered, they paused for a moment, delighted by the display behind me. What greeted them was a massive planting that spiraled upwards from a fountain pool at its base crusted in wishing well pennies, climaxing ten feet up into the conservatory’s spectacular dome with three full-sized palm trees. A week ago, some men had unloaded six life-sized white plastic unicorns destined for installation here, their horns encrusted in rhinestones, manes and tails made from real horsehair. The theme of this year’s gala was “creatures of fantasy.” I’d spent hours with Mary Margaret securing their purple-pink hooves in the slanted dirt of those flowerbeds, amidst blooming white cyclamen.
The woman was tall, her hair a strawberry blonde, facial features delicate and augmented with understated white gold jewelry. She shrugged out of her camel coat, which fell easily into the man’s hands. A bird’s egg blue dress was revealed, waist high and length sweeping down to her feet and just touching the tile of the conservatory floor, which I’d helped clean this morning. Readjusting after shedding the coat, the woman pulled her long hair forward over her shoulders, adjusting it to frame her face. Her cheeks were ruddy and soft. All at once, I realized she was pregnant. The dress’s high waist was couture maternity design, cut to render her radiant.
The man approached me. “Which way to the party?”
“Just down there, sir,” I said, pointing.
He nodded, and handed me the woman’s coat.
I watched them skirt the unicorns, then disappear into our artificial jungle. The camelhair fabric remained ample, lush in my hands. They were supposed to check their coats in the tent, not hand them to me. But I was galvanized by the notion of doing something for this couple, this woman. I imagined handing her the coat check ticket, and us meeting eyes. “Oh, thank you,” she would say, giving an embarrassed laugh that was nevertheless confident, her face near-angelic. In that moment, it would be clear I had done right by her, helping her evening proceed beautifully, without confusion or error.
People were streaming inside now, a promenade of guests, couples recognizing each other as they circled the unicorns, their voices bouncing off the tile. Each time the doors opened, cold air touched my face, followed by the appearance of new grandeur, my eyes feasting on men and women in their holiday finest. When the last of the guests had trickled in, I walked back through the glass house to the tent’s entrance. At the coat check, the attendant took the woman’s garment and handed me the numbered ticket.
“Can I—am I allowed to go in there?”
The attendant looked me up and down. “Just make it quick,” she said.
As I crossed the threshold, I was drowned by the music of the string quartet and the cacophonous voice of the crowd. The women stood on display in their resplendent gowns, holding drinks but not drinking them, listening to the men as they spoke. Around them, tables holding entire trees as centerpieces placed this scene in a sylvan forest. Each tree bore in its branches twinkling lights, white hydrangea globes, and mirror-shards that spun slowly in the tent’s inner air. There were more of the plastic unicorns here, too. They flanked the stage, outfitted in silvery bridles adorned with fresh flowers and gem-encrusted saddles. From each unicorn’s horn hung massive silver-plated globes, engraved with curvy, feather-like designs evoking the veins of a leaf.
Those delicate lines reminded me of the metalwork Tom taught his students. Mostly women, they worked in silver and copper and gold, adorning themselves with jewelry he had approved. He was obsessed with a particular kind of beauty. At home, this fixation had led him to assemble a collection of statues, paintings, and textile depictions of the Virgin Mary. He had been Catholic, he told me, and Mary was at the heart of his artistic mystery. She was all over his bedroom, statues in corners, her visage on the wall, their silent faces rendering it a place of strange spirits, an icy, late-winter version of this gala’s first snow splendor. I avoided looking at her when he fucked me because he pushed my face down into the bed. Tom said once that our bond was “animalistic.” I couldn’t really judge, because I hadn’t had sex with a lot of other people. So I said, “As long as that’s okay with you, it’s okay with me.”
The crowd was shifting, and it seemed the meal would begin presently. I glanced back and forth, trying to locate the pregnant woman. In my mind, she gave off light, the aura of a goddess, and I searched the crowd in vain for this telltale signal. The female guests all resembled each other somehow, even in their variety of dresses. I headed back toward the entrance, where I leaned against a thick metal pole holding up the canvas to ground myself. Inside of the tent, a man was stepping up on the stage. The crowd quieted, taking their seats as he adjusted the microphone. I stepped further back to clarify I wasn’t part of the audience. One of the catering staff sidled over. He asked, “Want a drink?”
I looked at him, asking quietly, “What do you have?”
He pulled a mini bottle of Jack Daniels out of his pocket.
“Sure,” I said.
The bottle made its way into my hand. “Stay warm,” he said, then slipped back into the shadowy alcove where he was helping to prepare drinks.
I turned to leave.
Mary Margaret was standing behind me, watching.
Shit. I was screwed. Drinking on the job was cause for termination. Even I knew that. She should fire me on the spot. Besides, there was so much else. I was sullen, avoided her constantly. I had chipped the hoof of one of the unicorns, broken a reflective ornament reminiscent of a disco ball. At least Tom had told me if I ever needed money, he would pay me to clean his studio downtown. We’d been talking about my scholarship money, how I’d lose it if I didn’t go back to school in the fall. But I assumed he was good for it. “I’ll find something for you to do,” he had said to me. “You’ll be okay, I promise. You’re a little genius, Alison.”
A fantasy struck me as I approached her. I imagined being slapped by Mary Margaret. Her palm would sting my face as she told me I’d done evil before God’s watchful eye. But as I approached, she wouldn’t even look at me. Instead, she began snapping dead twigs off a tree in the corner of the back room where she stood.
I joined her, reaching up into the plant. It was a tree whose name I knew—jaboticaba. I mean, how could I miss this one? The plant looked sick, with shiny, purple-black boils growing flush with the wood of its slim trunk. Those were not an illness, however. They were its fruit.
“Um,” I began, not sure what I was trying to say. Fragments of apology skittered across my consciousness, but did not coalesce. The alcohol and the woman’s coat check rested hidden in my blazer pocket.
“You know,” Mary Margaret said, ignoring my attempt to talk, “Christmas always makes me think of my ex-husband. Our last holiday together before he left.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, this response automatic by now.
“He bought me a hammered dulcimer.”
“That’s kind of beautiful,” I said. “Can you play?”
“No, but I always wanted one. I wanted to learn.”
“At least he gave you one nice thing before he screwed you over.” Swept up in the glamour of the evening, the rapture of the gala crowd, I imagined Mary Margaret at home with her instrument, the trapezoid of it propped on its stand. She’d strike the first notes and forget everything but the music, the movement of her hands.
“Later,” she went on, “I looked at my bills and I found out that he used my credit card to pay for it. He bought me this thing with my money. Money that I earned working here.”
My hand grazed one of the boil-like fruits as I worked, listening to her. The horticultural name for plants whose flower and fruit grew in this particular way was “cauliflory.” My mind latched onto this vocabulary as easily as it did to the equations I’d worked with during my two years of college. The word repeated itself in my mind, echoing unbidden, and I slipped into its cognitive resonance as if reading some nonsensical poem.
“You should sell the dulcimer, then,” I said. “Get back at least some of the money.”
Mary Margaret shook her head. “I still have it.”
“Why did you keep it? Isn’t it better to get rid of everything that reminds you of him?”
“I couldn’t touch it.”
I asked, “So the dulcimer is laying there in your house right where he left it?”
“More or less,” she replied.
Behind us, the party’s energy was rising. Applause overtook the tent, and the host on the stage continued, his voice elevated, as though botanical garden philanthropy were a moral imperative, the most important thing anyone could be doing right now. I wondered if Tom would remember to pick me up. He was inconsistent, sometimes late. I never knew what he was going to do. I guess I could have asked my parents for a ride. But I’d rather Mary Margaret drive me home than do that. Despite that they lived nearby, my parents had been inaccessible since my mom learned what happened to me in high school.
I never should have said anything. I’d been writing my college application essay, which my mom was helping me revise. The topic of the piece was “a challenge you’ve overcome” and we got to talking. I let slip that my high school freshman-year boyfriend was now in jail. My mom asked me if it was drugs, and I said no. He had been molesting his baby sister, it turned out, since she was six years old. He was the first person I’d had sex with, but I didn’t mention that. My mom hated sex. Even bringing it up obliquely, through this awful conversation we’d had about my boyfriend, made her freeze. I saw in her face shame, and underneath it, pity.
After this, I went to college, and she called me every day. “I gardened after work today,” she’d say into the voicemail recording, her voice ghostly with suffering. She intoned “I love you” as though she were grieving over an open casket. When I dropped out, I had known that taking this botanical garden job wouldn’t lead either of us out of our private underworld. But I’d allowed myself to believe it.
“You can eat these, you know,” Mary Margaret was saying. She pulled a shiny black fruit from the crotch of a branch on the jaboticaba tree. “They’re actually pretty good. Like blueberries.” She gave me a conspiratorial grin.
“I’m not hungry,” I said, revolted. “Are you going to eat it?”
“Sure,” she said. She put the fruit in her mouth and bit down. “I snack on them sometimes when I forget to bring lunch.”
Turning away, I said, “I’m going to make the rounds. I’ll check the staghorn fern and make sure the floor is dry. So no one slips.”
The west wing was warmer than the rest of the conservatory, and the air there smelled good. Yesterday I’d helped rearrange the orchids on the wall display, a final organization so that the plants looked beautiful for our rich guests. I’d clustered all the lady’s slippers on one side of the wall, a clique of snarling purple blooms. At the time, it seemed perfect, a drama of asymmetrical color. But tonight it looked wrong. The issue had to do with negative space, the triangles and trapezoids among the flower spikes adding up to a ratio that felt off.
Beyond the orchids, the staghorn fern hung suspended over the walkway, an unholy brown and green sphere suspended from chains. The floor beneath it was dry, but it had shed a sprinkling of mossy dust. Mary Margaret kept a broom stored behind the orchid wall. I stepped into the nearby flowerbed and went back there to retrieve it. As I went behind the wall, I heard the noise of the door opening, then voices.
“Oh, orchids,” a woman’s voice called out. “Did you know Mark and Dennis collect orchids? They even go on trips to Costa Rica to gather rare specimens.”
“I like the moth orchid,” replied the man. “What’s it called?”
“Phalaenopsis. Those are the ones they sell in grocery stores.”
I didn’t want to surprise them by coming out of the plants suddenly. Next to the broom leaned the ladder Mary Margaret and I used to access the plants on the upper part of the wall. Placing my foot on the bottom rung, I tested my weight on the ladder. It seemed secure, so I moved up until I could see through the ornamental grasses planted atop the wall.
It was them. The man in the tuxedo, his glorious pregnant woman in her blue dress. They stood on the bridge over the bubbling pool. As I watched them, they moved toward a pot I’d set out on the ledge the day before so people could see the frilly bloom up close.
“Cattleya ‘Laura Bush’,” the man read. “Now that’s a real lady’s orchid.” He caressed the orchid’s lip—its big, modified lower petal—with the tips of his fingers. I watched the woman watch him doing it, feeling dizzied by their nonverbal exchange. The man took his woman’s hand and led her back toward the doors into the central room.
As the doors swung closed behind them, I followed. I would give the woman her coat check ticket. She would smile. She would thank me. I needed to find an approach that would let me offer this small item without incident or confrontation. Beneath the great conservatory dome, the couple skirted the unicorns, and the man opened the east wing door.
When I entered the east wing, I didn’t see them at first. I wondered if they’d exited the door on the far side, disappearing into the night. Then I heard the woman giggling, and I understood where they were. The couple had discovered my niche behind the toy cottage. I knew exactly what angle to stand at so I could peer through the windows and see them. I squatted down, pressing myself into the boxwood hedge. They were in view, standing in the dirt where I watered. I could approach and reprimand them, say there was no stepping in the flowerbeds. But I remained, quivering, and watched.
The man was kissing the woman. It was aggressive, a dramatic action, as though he was sucking on her face. She appeared to be enjoying the assault. Her white gold earrings caught in the spotlights meant to bathe the cottage in the warm glow of childhood legend. Then the man pulled back, and gripped the woman’s chin and jaw in one hand, tilting her head slightly back. He pressed his index finger against her cheek, then slid it against the corner of her mouth. She opened her lips and teeth. He held her mouth open with his finger, pushing it in so she’d open wider. He paused for a moment. I didn’t understand what he was doing. Then with a guttural sound he spit in the woman’s mouth.
In those days, when I left the conservatory after work, I felt I was simply entering a larger hothouse, the air just as close, glass walls lurking behind the sky. Waking in Tom’s bed in the morning, I’d drag myself back up the stairs and prepare to go to work. There was no point in taking a shower, because I was just going to go back to the conservatory and get myself all dirty again. This cycle whirled, capturing me in a vertigo of edges, this sense everything I saw or smelled or touched was both sharp and slipping. And so it was as I witnessed this transgressive act behind the miniature house in the east wing.
I never gave the woman her coat check ticket that night. I still have it, the slip of paper crumpled and tossed on my broken dresser with the other garbage I kept, its number—17—meaning everything and nothing. That night, I backed away. I returned to the room where Mary Margaret and I had spoken. She was gone now, lurking in the headhouse, or prowling at the edges of the gala tent. As I was, she too seemed fascinated by the false promise of the evening. She, too, desired nearness to the gala’s manufactured abundance, even if it was not made for her, and she’d have to clean up after it when we arrived into the aftermath tomorrow.
Approaching the cauliflorous jaboticaba, I took three of the largest fruits I could find. My hunger, suddenly, was unbearable, and all I had was the tiny bottle of Jack Daniels I’d gotten from my caterer friend. The tight globes fell into my hand. I put them in my mouth and bit down. Skin broke into tough shreds, blackening my teeth with geometric darkness, with overly soft, gritty seeded flesh, the wine dark juice filling my mouth, coating my tongue, and dripping down my chin as if I were delighting in summer’s ripest bounty, even if what I was really eating was the fruit of the dead.
Nat Mesnard is a writer and game designer based in NYC. They teach narrative design and game making at Pratt Institute and School of Visual Arts, and co-host the podcast Queers at the End of the World. Nat’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction is published in Brink, Catapult, Cartridge Lit, Autostraddle, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Nat’s work in game design includes short works published in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 Level 1 Anthology, and multiple full-length print titles from 9th Level Games.
Image source: Fabien BELLANGER/Unsplash