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And So, He Said

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The Two of Us

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Movie Review: Survive Style 5+
Personal Essay: Schedenfreude
Personal Essay: Pessimism


A short story about some childhood friends. Fall 2010.

It was sometime just after the sun had come up, but before the rest of the world had really woken up. Even in Chinatown, the stores were quiet, and the people were equally quiet, except for two. They were standing before the closed doors of a steamed-bun shop, but they weren't really interested in the boxes of buns stacked behind the glass doors. They were only here because it was a convenient meeting spot, located at a street crossing.

Instead, they were more interested in the little potted cactus she held in her hands. He had never seen it before. It was a small, squat, round thing with a single pink flower at its top, like an asterisk.

He was ten, she was eleven. They were students. She had longer hair than him, and wore a gray dress with sleeves that were pushed up to her elbows. She had beautiful wrists. Everyone knew she had beautifully shaped wrists, and slender fingers. He had always thought that her hands were beautiful. He wanted to hold them.

But not at the moment. At the moment, her words were more important than her hands. Because she was saying, "I'm giving this cactus to you." She was saying, "I was really happy while we were friends, but I have to go now."

Her family was moving away. She knew, and he knew, and she knew that he knew. It was simply a matter that hadn't been addressed until that moment. He was undeniably sad, of course. They had been together for several months now. They loved each other.

"This cactus is our love, okay?" She placed the cactus in his hands, and wrapped his fingers around its ceramic pot. The flower on top of the cactus quivered in the faint morning breeze. The air already smelled like smoked duck. Chinatown was slowly waking up, and she pressed his hands softly. She wanted to get this conversation over with before Chinatown woke up fully. "Keep it for me, for when I come back."

"When are you coming back?" He sounded understandably bewildered.

"I don't know." A pause. She pressed more firmly against his hands. "But I will, eventually. So take care of this cactus until then, okay?"

He nodded, and was about to say something, when she looked at him and gave him a brilliant, lovely smile, and said, "If I ever come back, and the cactus is dead, I'll kill you in your sleep, okay?"
She had a beautiful smile, and he stared, bewitched, as she said, "I'll break into your room holding a kitchen knife and slit your throat."

He nodded.

He was afraid that, if he said no, she would slit his throat then and there -- and he didn't want this farewell meeting to end badly.


They'd met two years ago, when they were put in the same art class. He liked colored pencils, she enjoyed watercolors.

They ended up going around everywhere together several months ago. They held hands. Rumor went around that they "liked each other," rumors that they both denied. It made things worse. They squeezed each other's hands as tight as possible as they walked down the street. They tried not to care.

She was older, but they were in the same grade. He was always impressed by her beauty, her grace, her way of living her life without listening to other people. One time, their art teacher demanded that she change a picture's composition, but she didn't, and instead added more colors. It looked beautiful, but received a bad grade.

She gave him the picture, afterwards, with a red D scrawled on the back. "You like it, so you can have it," she said, handing him the rolled-up piece of watercolor paper.


He hung it on his wall. It was green and pink and blue, and stood out against his beige wallpaper, and it made him smile. She was a good artist.


He placed the cactus on the bedside table, beneath the watercolor painting, next to his alarm clock. He'd never had a potted plant before, never had pets. He didn't know the first thing about taking care of cactuses, so he looked it up.

He placed the cactus on his windowsill and sprinkled some water on the dirt around its base.

The cactus was, as expected, silent and ungrateful for his little efforts.


She didn't come back for months, years. There had been some gossip about her, on her last day of school when the teacher brought her to the front of the class with the announcement that she was moving away. Gossip that her father had gotten into some legal troubles and that her family was moving away to flee from these repercussions.

He graduated elementary school, entered middle school. Somewhere out there, she was no doubt doing the same. How was she doing? Would she have a new friend? Would she still be as graceful? Would her hands still be as beautiful?

The little flower on the cactus' tip wilted and withered away, and he continued to care for it, sprinkling water around its base every week or so. The cactus remained a cactus, and sat there silently beneath the painting on the wall.

He wondered why she'd chosen a cactus. Of all the pretty plants and flowers, why a cactus.


He graduated middle school. He'd grown a lot taller, and had started wearing glasses. He was older and smarter and more mature now. He still took care of the cactus, but it was mostly out of habit. He watered it once in a while, and put it in a bigger pot when he realized that it was starting to grow too big for the little pot it had come in.

He thought less about her. It had been so long.


And then, he accidentally killed the cactus.

It wasn't through neglect, nothing like that. Rather, he had taken too much care of it. He had watered it too often. Part of the cactus' shell split. He'd first dismissed it as a natural part of the plant's aging. But then it started to rot. Chunks of it went brown and shriveled and it withered in on itself like a rotting apple. It looked putrid. He couldn't keep it around any more, not when it looked like a dying animal.

The truth was, he'd given it too much water. He'd given it a steadily increasing amount of water to compensate for the fact that it was a bigger plant, in a bigger pot, and the plant had simply absorbed all the water it could until its cells burst. It had essentially drowned in its pot.

What could he do?

He held the dead plant in his hands and stared at it, trying to think of what to do.

Because -- what if she kept her word?

What if she broke into his room in the dead of the night with a kitchen knife?

He knew that she came from a troubled family -- he had visited her house once, back before she left, and all he remembered was that her house was full of empty bottles and broken furniture. Her father had been sleeping on the couch, guarded by a row of bottles. An army of glass. He mother never present.

In retrospect, he knew that she was possibly a bit disturbed. Raised under bad influences. So what did that signify? Had she only threatened him because she needed help? Or would she actually carry out her threat?

He didn't know, but what he did know was that he didn't want to die just yet.

For a moment, he considered telling the police, but then he realized he wouldn't know what to say. 'A girl I used to like might come back someday to break into my room and slit my throat because I let her cactus die.' Even in his head, it sounded silly. That wouldn't do. He liked another girl in class, and he didn't want rumor to go around that he was a troublemaker.

So what else could he do?


He bought a new cactus. It was short and squat and round like the first once, but this one didn't flower. The shopkeeper said it would flower in a few weeks, maybe.

He put the small pot in the place where he'd kept the first cactus. It sat silently below the spot where he'd hung the painting a few years ago -- but a few months ago, he'd replaced the painting (juvenile and poorly done, now that he looked at it) with the certificate he'd received as the MVP of the school's junior tennis championship.


Now that he was older, he knew how to take better care of the new cactus. He looked things up on the internet, found himself an online manual on cactus care, more carefully regulated the amount of water that the cactus got. It was a happy, healthy greenish color and even though it didn't flower, that was okay. He was sure that this one wouldn't die.
"What a nice cactus," his mother told him when she came in to dust his shelves one day. "Much better than your old one. It was starting to look like a rotten apple."

"Yeah," he answered. "I like this one."


He graduated middle school, moved into high school. Grew a bit taller, got a bit older, became a little bit smarter. But not more mature, not really.


The bun shop had widened its business scope in the past few years. Now they sold boxes of microwavable buns, as well as ones that were pulled hot from the steamers and eaten then and there. The boxes lined the walls, almost like tiles, but with holes where the storekeepers would pull out customer orders to hand them over. It always felt a bit perilous in the store, now, like there was the constant danger of being buried under boxes and boxes of cold, pre-steamed buns.
It was still his favorite place, though.

Maybe because he'd visited it a lot, years ago, with her.

(But he never really thought of it like that.)

He went there maybe twice a week, to grab lunch or dinner or just snack, and usually came out content. At least, he was quite content when he walked out one afternoon chewing on a still-hot bun filled with egg custard when he suddenly saw her down the street.

It didn't take more than a moment for him to recognize her. She had the same long hair, the same slender limbs, the same beautiful wrists poking out past the sleeves of a gray cardigan. He would have recognized her anywhere, but especially here, where she'd threatened him with a smile all those years ago, there was no way he could deny that it was her. Here she was.

And she must have recognized him, too, because she walked up calmly and said, "It's been a while, hasn't it?" She said, "It's nice to see you again." She said, "I missed you."

Surreptitiously, he looked for any trace of a knife on her before saying, "I missed you too."

She smiled, and they hugged. She felt warm.

Once more, he wanted to hold her wrists.

They were still so beautiful.


"Your room's so much neater," she said. "It used to be so messy."

He laughed halfheartedly as she sat down on his bed. The bedside table was next to her, and the cactus sat innocently on it, just left of center. She was looking at it. He distracted himself by getting her a drink.

She said, "Oh, you took down the painting I did."

She said, "Your room's changed a lot."

And then she said, "This cactus isn't the one I gave you, is it?"

Time froze, the air filled with ice, and he felt like there was a knife against his throat. "Huh?" It was a stupid noise that escaped his throat. He rubbed the back of his neck with an awkward laugh as he said, "What are you talking about?"

She merely smiled at him. It was a small and quiet and utterly cold smile.


He didn't want to die.

He didn't want her to sneak into his room at night and slit his throat.

He hadn't thought about her much over the past years, but that still wasn't the way he wanted to see her last.


He didn't even think to deny it. All he could think was, how did she know?

"How did you know?"

She was still smiling as she said, "I carved a little X at the bottom of the one I got for you. A hug for you." She turned the little cactus pot around. It, predictably, didn't have any X. Its skin was flawless and tight and green. "So this one can't be the one I got for you. What happened to it?"

"It died."


Some part of him was searching her for a knife.

She wouldn't have one, right? It was just something she'd said back when they were younger, right? She wasn't actually delusional and murderous, right? She wouldn't actually try to do anything to him, right?

There was only the small clacking noise as she tipped the cactus pot over. Gravel spilled onto the table's surface. The cactus didn't move, but she did say, "I'm kind of disappointed."

(He was relieved. 'Kind of' never killed anyone.)

Then she said, "Do you know why I gave you a cactus, instead of a flower?"

He shook his head. The fallen cactus looked especially forlorn.

"It's because cactuses are pretty hard to kill. They live a very long time, and can survive without water for a long time. And even if you kill them by giving them too much water, if there's enough of it still alive, it will eventually continue growing. They're very resilient."

He thought about asking her whether she liked cactuses, because he couldn't think of anything else to say, but it felt somewhat inappropriate. So instead, he said, "But it's the same kind of cactus. The new one."

"But it's not the one I gave you." She got up off the bed. There was a sense of finality about her words when she said, "I was hoping you wouldn't desert me, but I guess that was too much to ask for."

"I didn't desert you."

She only smiled, and gestured at the wall beside his bed. The missing poster. The imposter cactus. It was cloudy outside but a faint haze of light filtered through his window and caught her wrists. Pale and slender and graceful as she moved to clasp her hands behind her back. There was no malice in her eyes or her voice, but there was nothing kind there either. Not anymore.

She only said, "It's okay. I was sort of expecting it."


She asked him a bit about school, and then left.

She never said anything about where she'd been, how she'd been, why she'd come back.

Part of him wondered if she'd planned this all along, thought that she'd been guilt-tripping him, that she was trying to make him seem like a bad person.

Frustrated, he threw the cactus to the ground, where the pot shattered.


The last thing she'd said to him was, "I wasn't really going to kill you. Of course not. I'm not crazy. You can't possibly have thought I meant it when I said that."

She'd laughed, her hair brushing against her cheeks and shoulders. Fine strands of it brushing against her cardigan as she moved towards the doorway of her room. She didn't say 'good bye,' or 'I'll be leaving,' or 'see you again.' Especially not that last one. She only let her fingertips linger against his doorknob for a long moment before telling him with a smile that was almost pitying. Almost pitiful.

"But I did hope that you'd manage to keep us alive."