I saunter slowly through the aisles of annuals and poppies, past flowering cacti and tiny Christmas trees following Michaelene in the Lowe’s Garden Center on a Friday night. It’s already dark, the cold wind swimming. Michaelene reaches an arm, long and slender, to touch the needly leaves.
“I want a live one,” she says. “Not one that’s dead.”
I follow her through the shadows, the unlit areas of the garden section. I’m visiting for the weekend, for her birthday, and because of my recent break-up.
“Mike and I used to have a live one,” she said, big eyes analyzing the cut Christmas trees.
I think of Mike and his goofy grin. His eyes that wandered elsewhere. I think of how she and I are both alone, again, like that summer after sophomore year in college, after our first big break-ups. When she cried in my car. When I bought us Wendy’s Frosties that we couldn’t eat from the drive-thru on Tennessee Street. When we sat by the dilapidated apartment pool, our toes under the plastic panels of the pool chairs.
That summer we agreed, when she moved into my ex-boyfriend’s room, when we threw away his beer bottles full to the brim with cigarette butts, that “soulmate” was a manipulative word.
“What about these?” she asks, turning a hanging plant full of pansies.
I touch the fully petaled head of a large white pansy. “I like these,” I say. “I like their dark eyes.”
She compares the assortment, sizing them up for their health. Evaluating their blooms. An older woman shuffles down an aisle adjacent to us, her pant legs nearly dragging on the ground.
“Who comes here on a Friday night?” I ask.
“Us.” Michaelene laughs.
The night is dark and the air is too cool for my strapless top and yellow scalloped skirt. All in a moment I’m parched and terrified, rubbing my arms, aware that I am alone, again.
We push the plants towards the checkout lane and I calm, safe in her care, I think. In her homebody patterns: the Lowe’s Garden Center. The take out Indian food we split. The music we loop through a portable speaker. The wine and the weed and the no T.V.
We are twenty-five now. But still, I can see we are the same: boy crazed, love sick. Potting plants. Sweeping dust. Sighing deep. And nearly missing what the wind says, scarfing our limbs.
The next morning I hear her body shift in the bed above me, in the loft that hangs over the couch where I’m curled in quilts. Robins chirp and flit. The fat squirrel at the feeder again. I shuffle, too, and soon, she floats down.
“Good morning!” she sings soft. “Can I make you some tea?”
I roll my shoulders, digging my fingers into the ridge of my neck, a lump hurting deep under my skin. She boils water in the kitchen while I look at her walls, covered with anatomy notes, printouts and pictures of bodies, of muscle groups, their insertions and their origins. Dry erase marker covers every bit of glass she has: the sliding doors, the large mirror standing up against the wall. Words she’s handwritten so she can remember, that she can see clearly as she makes toast or ties her shoes. She’s in Physical Therapy grad school, a program that requires cadaver labs and close looking. Keen eyes and quick thinking.
“Does your shoulder hurt?” she asks.
“I may have slept on it weird.” I continue to roll my bones in circles. Stretching left and right.
“Want me to palpate it?”
“Sure.” I move my butt from the couch to the carpet where she meets me, placing her fingers on the back of my shirt.
“It works better on skin. Do you mind?”
“No.” I take off the corner of the top.
I try not to flinch at her soft fingers on my skin. At the intimacy afforded young girls who play doctor, not grown ones.
“Let me see your forearm,” she says.
I give it over.
“It’s also called your antebrachium. The superficial extensor muscles begin with brachioradialis, then laterally move to extensor carpi radialis longus, extensor carpi radialis brevis, extensor digitorum, extensor digiti minini, and then, finally, extensor carpi ulnaris,” she says in one breath, grinning and wide-eyed. “AKA: PT, ECRL, ECRB, ED, EDB, and ECU.” She laughs.
I exhale. The words sound like long lost dinosaurs, and without a picture, I can’t visualize the muscles. But with her fingers, she tells me where they are, highlighting each one that can be reached from the surface. I think of my muscles, active and pulsing. Warm beneath her light touch. I remember her nest-bed full of feather down comforters where we curled with cups of wine, lamenting our loves we naively thought were forever.
Michaelene jumps up to grab the tea from the kitchen, telling me about cadaver lab.
“We’ve dissected everything now,” she says. “But we never see the face.” She pauses, holding the cups in the hallway before plopping back down to the carpet, handing me the tea.
“Let me show you my textbook,” she says, arching over her folded legs to grab the old heavy book, flipping through pages filled with photos. I can tell she’s excited to show me real photos. From real dead bodies.
“This is the bottom of the foot. We’re working on it now.”
I breathe in deeply, looking at the dead and dry yellowed foot before me. The layered muscles like old meat. I squirm inside, the back of my legs tingling with unease. I clench my teeth and press my lips together in a grin. This is my best friend, I think. This is her life right now, immersed in a world where dead bodies and Latin names are normal.
So I am immersed with her, turning the page.
We take our shoes off on the front porch of the yoga cabin in the middle of the woods. Michaelene creaks the wooden door open. The room is full of yogis, young and old, laid out on colored mats, some stretching, others still as stone in a meditative pose. We are on time, but the others have to move, to make space for us. Settling in the back, we speak with our eyes, holding tumblers of tea to our mouths. On the wood paneled walls, an assortment of gods and deities hang: a Jesus, a Buddha, a Kali. Plush blue carpet supports my hands as I look up at the tall ceiling of the cabin.
The yoga instructor welcomes us warmly, her face genuinely relaxed, at peace. I wonder what that feels like.
As we start to stretch, Michaelene whispers over a long stretched leg, “I look at bodies differently now,” she glances around the room. My eyes follow hers, scanning the spry body of a thin older woman, the softness of a girl with a brown ponytail, slightly younger than us. “I can see the muscles beneath the skin. Moving.”
I try to see what she means during the two-hour class, watching the different bodies pose. An Asian woman beside me bends with ease in a turtleneck and loose capris, her black ponytail falling forward with her stretch. A woman in her early twenties leans tight-bodied in front of me. I watch Michaelene’s too, long and reaching like a dancer’s body.
A certified yogi, Michaelene deviates from the instructor’s routine, and I follow her lead. I become her mirror, mimicking her moves. It isn’t the practice or the pose that makes me feel at ease, but the sameness in our twinning. The sameness in our history of loves gone wrong, of morbid heartaches, of starting overs. Of being here, in a peculiarly decorated yoga cabin in the middle of the Gainesville woods.
The session draws to a close when the instructor prepares us for Shavasana, or Corpse Pose. The instructor suggests that we lie flat, but Michaelene scoots towards the wood-paneled walls, whispering an alternative.
“For this one, I put my feet up against the wall. That way, all the blood rushes back into your body.”
My stomach squirms again at the thought of blood pumping fast and hard back into circulation, but I follow, scooting closer, too. With feet propped and eyes closed, I begin to feel it. The slow rush oozing in. The thick liquid permeating every part of me. I am statue-still. Hard marble after moments of setting. Slowly, the cells soak and seep. I hardly need to breathe.
I remember driving around like this after my ex-boyfriend moved out, when I carried her boxes and crates and bags of clothes into my place for the summer. When we accelerated through yellow lights, kissing our own hands and hitting the roof of the car. We sang along to our summer anthems, yelling lyrics loud. We wanted coffee. We wanted B.L.T.s. We wanted to fuck. We wanted to be loved.
“See that building coming up on your right?” Michaelene asks, driving past and pointing to a large red brick building with sleek glass windows. “That’s Shands, the hospital people are airlifted to.”
I imagine the quick crunch of metal cars. Soaked sheets and car interiors. I cringe.
“I get chills when I see a helicopter flying in because I know it’s really bad,” she says.
We look ahead, her car sloping down a steeper street. We are paralleled in the car ride, the quietness invading like a stray looking for food. It’s not a stray though; it’s a fear we’re too afraid to speak aloud.
At the end of the weekend the sky molds over like Humboldt Fog. Gray and blue and stinking of the coming Monday. The sky says it’s going to rain soon.
“Let’s go pull you a fern before you leave,” Michaelene says.
I slip on a pair of her sandals by the door where she keeps all of her shoes.
Outside, the air is still cold, but wet. We walk to the front of her apartments, to more of the foliage and bushes. Crouching down, Michaelene assesses the ferns. Her careful hands feel for the bunch of stems before she pulls up, yanking the plant from the dirt, its roots dangling long and kinked.
Inside, she hands me a terra-cotta pot and a bag of soil on the white tile floor of the living room. She runs to the kitchen to grab us cups of water.
“There’s a sea shell in the bottom,” she says, opening the cabinets. “Covering the hole to keep more of the water in.”
In the pot, there’s a small white shell on its back like a cup. Like a buried treasure I won’t see again.
Pulling out a fistful of soil, I look at the clump. The dirt, so black beneath my nails. I drop the handful in.
“Make sure to layer in the roots!” Michaelene says from the kitchen.
I coil the long roots in, hoping it will be happy in its new home. I think about my own, now empty. How I had stayed in a relationship, longer than I should, because it is in our nature to care for living things.
I pack more soil in, lightly with my fingertips, so as not to smother the roots.
Closing the trunk of my car, Michaelene hugs me hard. We say that she doesn’t live too far. That two hours is nothing, and that we should do this more often. I think of how she said that her Mom always leaves first thing in the morning. How I’ve stayed as long as I could, the encroaching dark already at the corners of the sky.
Rolling out of the parking spot, she stands, arms folded in front of her wooded apartment, a statue, a Venus waving me off. She looks somber, her face flat, her smile missing, and I know she wants me to stay, to also avoid the perpetual loneliness that follows failed love.
Immediately as I drive away, rain plops down on the windshield and the sun sinks quicker than I expect. I’m stuck in traffic on the interstate, trying to see through the wipers and the water.
At home, outside my yellow brick apartment, I dig out fistfuls of wet soil with my hands, dropping them into the pots. I shake the new plants out from their plastic carriers, layering their roots, topping off with more soil. Mosquito bites swell on my thighs, itchy and red. I try not to scratch. I wipe the sides of the pots with a wet rag before placing them on my stoop next to the fern Michaelene plucked for me. In a moment again, I am scared and parched. But I breathe, hands on hips. Lucky. Alive.
Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA at the University of South Florida, where she writes nonfiction, poetry, and comics. Her work has been featured/is forthcoming in Brevity, The Offing, The Rumpus, Booth, Word Riot, Hobart, and was nominated by The Boiler for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She reads creative nonfiction for Sweet: A Literary Confection and lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches composition and creative writing at USF.