There was a time, when I was 20-ish, when I was really poor. A peanut butter sandwich for every (once a day) meal poor. No heat in the wintertime poor. Relative to most people in the world, I feel compelled to say, I still had it pretty good, but since I've never lived in the slums of a third world country, it felt rough. Luckily, despite having no money, I was happy and sort of perpetually drunk on youth (and, well, alcohol, if we're being honest). I made friends with the night shift waitresses who let me stay all hours in my favorite booth drinking hot water and the "complimentary" tea bag they'd toss onto the table with a wink. Motherly sorts. I eventually extracted their stories between chapters of books I'm now embarrassed to have loved so deeply: books whose spines I'd crack to tent on the table while I asked, "where are you from?" and "do you have any kids?" I thought, then, about how funny it would be for my own mother to be a night shift waitress, but now I think about myself putting on running shoes, taking the last bus, tying on the apron each night and wondering whom I might 86, and for what. Whom I'd tell, sympathetically, to sit down and for God's sake be quiet while I called a cab.
I worked at a laundromat then. I'd taken the job because I thought it would be voyeuristic; I thought I'd learn something about the human condition. Instead, I did what one might expect a laundromat attendant to do: I told people they better not dare even open that box of Rit Dye; I removed perverted ads from the community bulletin board; I refunded the quarters eaten by washing machines that had been clearly marked OUT OF SERVICE.
All of my paycheck went to rent, bills, peanut butter, bread and tipping the aforementioned waitresses. The one perk of working at a laundromat was giving away free washing or drying services to people, and the place where I worked had a sort of switchboard behind the counter. The only joy I found in my job came from watching people's faces as they poised to drop quarters into machines that started magically. I performed this trick for bartenders and pizza delivery girls and was treated in kind often enough to make it feel like we were running some kind of syndicate. Those interactions fed me -- literally and metaphorically -- enough to keep me from looking for a new place to work, until the owners fired me over the phone for being too "weird looking," for supposedly stealing children's clothes from the drop-off service despite the fact that I was nobody's mother, then, and my coworker had two daughters.
I cashed my last paycheck and walked to Fred Meyer. Looking around the store, I did what I never allowed myself to: I wished for the stuff they sold. I knew it was poorly made and overpriced for what it was and lame anyway, but it hurt that I couldn't have any of it. The matching bath sets, the scented candles, Vogue Magazine. Thinking back, I can still feel that sadness. How pathetic it was to stand there looking at the rack that held Us Weekly and whatever Nicholas Sparks paperback was popular then, with a loaf of bread in one hand, a jar of peanut butter in the other, wishing to afford something as shitty as a grocery store novel. To hell with it, I decided. I was gonna treat myself to something, but it had to be more permanent than a magazine, less useful than a bath towel. A plant would liven up my apartment, I figured, and they were cheap. Home with me came a 6" starter and the smallest terra cotta pot Fred Meyer had to offer. I named her Book. Because I was 20, and clever.
Book has moved with me from Bellingham to San Diego and back again. She's gotten leggy and fuller, leggy and fuller, preparing me for the way my babies would come thin, get fat, then skinny and repeat. A few times, she's been on death's doorstep and I've begun mourning but she's always pulled through. When I look at her I'm reminded that things get grim, but, then, better.
This weekend, we bought her a big new home. What was once a six inch tall sprout takes up an 18 inch pot. On the evening that I replanted her, our landlord called to say our house is being sold. We have no savings, and Nathan has no job for the fall. There have been times in the past 24 hours when I could almost feel in one palm the cool glass of the peanut butter jar, the springy bread under plastic in the other. But I look at Book, who had been withering in her years-old copper pot, now robust in the air on our front stoop, waiting to be carried back indoors, and I'm heartened. I have so much more, now, than free wash and dries, an on-the-house night of drinking, or dreaming up the potential past lives of a 50-something server with a perm. Is it crazy to measure your life's success by the vivacity of a house plant? Sure, yes. Obviously. And so many other, real things serve as my yard stick. Still. This afternoon, with a teething baby in my arms and an oblivious toddler playing trains on the floor, I opened the screen door, looked at Book and said to her, psychically: we got this. And honestly? I never really got tired of peanut butter.