:: Article

Succulent Contraband

By Terita Heath-Wlaz

On the days that I drive to work I usually park on a side street in La Jolla called Eads that is lined with extraordinary homes only a Starbucks or two away from the Pacific shoreline. The residents of the neighborhood can all afford landscapers, lets say entire teams of landscapers, and spare no excesses in dolling up their properties in botanical masterpieces.

I have spent most of my life in New England. After two years in Southern California, these gardens rarely fail to challenge my idea of what plant life is supposed to look like. Like, the towering birds of paradise and their beautiful cobalt faces. The spectacularly weird array of cacti and mystery-flora crowding rose bushes, and vines with neon blossoms that look like battery-operated gadgets from Spencer Gifts. On the short trip between my car and the restaurant where I work, I do a piss-poor job of not looking utterly dazzled.

One Saturday after work last month, I fell from this visual tightrope straight into someone’s yard, and swiped a chunk of succulent from their flower bed. A kind of pressure had been building for a long time, and stealing herbage apparently functioned as a good steam vent. The succulent had coral-colored triangular leaves and perfect radial symmetry, and a thick stalk that looked sort of like asparagus. I’d like to be able to say I executed the theft gracefully, but the truth is I was acting really shifty. I hurried anxiously up the street like I was carrying an HDTV freshly dragged from the master bedroom. A middle aged couple strolling past me on the sidewalk electrified my criminal instincts. I imagined them pointing at me, hissing “WHERE DID YOU GET THAT SUCCULENT?”, their voices searing with malice. I curled my wrist and tried to hide the succulent behind my ass, my fear undeterred by the couple ‘s total lack of interest. It was only after I was safely inside my getaway car that I felt a rush of triumph. I was the convict in the movies, speeding across a dusty state line to a chorus of bad language from helpless cops in aviator shades, and mustaches.

At home I left the broken piece on the kitchen counter for a few days. The thing with succulents is, you have to wait for them to shrivel up after you cut them away from the mother ship, or else the stalks will rot. You might be tempted to dig them a moist hole in the soil, but you have to watch them suffer, and deflate, and it’s okay to take pleasure in that too, if it’s your thing.

When mine looked sufficiently grumpy, I prepared a small pot mixed with sand and dirt and lightly propped the stalk on top of it. The idea is to tease the succulent out of its stupor, like waving smelling salts in front of somebody’s nose.

Over the next few days I watched the bottom leaves wither like a cluster of torted testicles. The top leaves still looked plump and cheerful, but the dying nethers? Obvious foreshadowing. I started to feel a stirring of existential malaise; maybe stealing really IS wrong. Maybe filching a living thing and then letting it die is a way of creating some minute cosmic imbalance. Maybe I should dispose of the doomed succulent now, before my living room becomes the site of a small compost pile. I still toted the watering can back and forth, but in my heart I was planning the next plant that would occupy the real estate of the empty pot.

The morning that I pinched the succulent between thumb and forefinger and turned it over to find tiny white filaments sprouting from its underbelly, I almost ran into the bedroom to shake my boyfriend awake. What a fantastic development. The roots were delicate but determined, probing adorably for soil. They looked like the spikes that businesses attach to their storefronts so the pigeons won’t hang around and shit. I felt very happy; I listened carefully and I think the whole world was happy. I looked at my thumbs but they were still pink. That part would probably come later- maybe I had to prove myself a second time or a third. Or simply love my succulent contraband for ever and ever. My heart had grown as big as a truck and was speeding all the way to the state line.

Terita Heath-Wlaz

Terita Heath-Wlaz is a poet, essayist and waitress. She earned a B.A. in Psychology from Brown University in 2005, and now lives in Southern California with her boyfriend and their two madhouse cats. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Bird Dog, Coconut and Juked.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 11th, 2007.