Julie has twenty-six plants in her three hundred square-foot apartment. Half she maintained when her ex still lived there; the other half she acquired in the eighteen months since. There are nine different succulents, mostly teacup sized, placed in cream-coloured planters shaped like llamas and other animals. There’s a trio of African violets placed on a tiered display close to the window like toddler girls posing for a portrait. There’s a fern hanging in the corner beside the couch and a large palm on the opposite side in a wooden pot on the floor. There’s a skinny dracaena beside the television that she frequently turns away from the light to coax into a more pleasing shape, only to have it grow taller and more haphazard. Butted against it are three baseball-sized cacti in a series of white pots placed in a wooden tray like a set of dips. She grows rosemary, basil, oregano, mint, and parsley in her kitchen. She has one violet orchid on a shelf beside the only books she re-reads. A pothos hangs from her kitchen cabinets like Rapunzel’s hair. Her favourite is the string of pearls in the bathroom. Her sunny bathroom—always the cleanest, always the healthiest.
She feels the soil of each of them every day and only waters them when they are dry. She spritzes them with a glass vial she keeps on her living room side table. She takes a wet paper towel and cleans the leaves on the first Saturday of every month. Sometimes she cannot wait and does it anyway.
— ♤ —
She has just done this and sat on the couch, a blue velvet three-seater she inherited from her grandmother, when she gets a call from Mark that he was there. She tells him to come up.
She wonders if he’d think her apartment was like a jungle. She looks at the palm like it was her father; then at the fern like at her mother.
She opens the door. He is taller than she imagined. Darker. He is holding a six-pack of Heineken and a bottle of wine in an LCBO paper bag.
“I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I thought you might be.”
“I’m trying to cut back, actually, but thank you.”
“We don’t have to drink if you don’t want to.”
“No, no. Obviously I’ll have a drink now.”
He takes off his brown boots and hangs up his coat. His socks are the nice kind, striking and neat.
He first notices her window looking onto Queen Street and idles toward it as she opens the bottle.
“Nice place,” he says. “How long have you lived here?”
“Bet it’s awkward with those elevators. Waiting turns and all that.”
“I’ve kind of given up worrying. There’s probably COVID coming through the vents—what’s one person on an elevator going to do.”
He laughs politely as she hands him a glass. He fetches a beer from the pack. They toast.
— ♤ —
Suddenly, it’s quiet and she remembers her playlist. She pulls out her phone and looks toward the speaker beside her. The Lumineers comes on.
“Nice,” he says, nodding. She doesn’t think he’s a fan, but that he is grateful for the sound.
“Don’t think I’ve ever had a first date in my own apartment.”
“Yeah. First for me, too.”
“Ended there, maybe.”
His face suddenly softens, as if the first few sips of beer have taken hold. “So what do you think of Tinder during a pandemic?”
She shifts her blouse so the V is centred over her breasts. “Same as before, I guess. Just harder with all this lockdown shit.”
He nods. “I know.”
“You been single long?”
“About a year, I guess.”
“Before you could at least go out with friends. Now how else are you going to meet anyone?”
She sighs and says, “It sucks.”
“Oh well, at least the LCBO’s open.”
She holds her glass toward him. He taps it with a clink.
“Guess we should order some food. You okay with Thai?”
“Oh no, I should do that.”
“No, it’s all good, I got it set up and everything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine.”
“Let me give you some money at least.”
“Honestly, it’s all good. You brought the booze.”
He stands along with her and shuffles awkwardly. He is at least a head taller than her.
— ♤ —
She puts her mask on to go downstairs to meet the Uber. It occurs to her that a man she does not know is in her apartment without her. But then she wonders what could he steal or see. Her iron pills? Her vibrator?
She returns to find him on the couch, scrolling through his phone. He gets up to help her with the bag.
“It’s fine, honestly.”
“You’re really organized here,” he says as she pulls out plates.
“My roommate leaves shit everywhere. Only reason why I suggested here. Drives me even more nuts with COVID.”
“One good thing about living alone.”
“That must be pretty hard now.”
“I used to like it.”
She notices how his gaze hardly leaves her as he’s eating. Not in a leery way, but in an attentive way. As if he worries she will think he is bored if he looks at his food. She remembers how her ex would look anywhere but at her while he ate.
He leads most of the conversation, asking her about her work and hobbies. He asks about her travels in southeast Asia. She likes it when he looks away, giving her a chance to notice how his skin glows, how his eyes dance.
“Have you travelled much?” she asks him.
“No, I’m still paying off some loans.”
She feels suddenly privileged that she’s never had a loan.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I’d like to someday. But who knows when now.”
“I think people desperate to go travelling again are a bit sad. Is there nothing here to keep you entertained?”
“You say that because you’ve been places.”
“True, but I still think people need to learn to be happy where they are. Within reason.”
“I don’t want to sound entitled, I’m really not. I just think there’s so much excess. Like look at us. First date ordering take-out. It’s not so bad.”
“No, this is great. You’re right, we should just be happy with what we have.”
“I mean I just miss being able to sit somewhere and watch people.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“I just want to be in a place with noise.”
“I hate the masks. I always forget to take them.”
“Me too. And hand sanitizer.”
— ♤ —
By her third glass of wine she is twirling her hair and putting her feet onto the couch towards him.
He hunches over toward the coffee table and she notices his bulky shoulders carved into his merino sweater. She smells his aftershave. She is impressed that he wears aftershave.
He gets up to go to the bathroom and she tries to ignore the hard lashing sound, although she imagines him standing over it. She waits to see if he washes his hands. He does.
“I like all the plants you got in here, by the way,” he says as he comes back. “Makes it seem so home-y.”
He sits back on the couch and doesn’t flinch as she moves toward him. His hands are warm around her waist. She doesn’t drink a fourth glass of wine. He doesn’t have a fourth beer. She doesn’t notice when the Lumineers come on again. Neither does he.