Friday, September 19, 2008

Every summer, ten or fifteen people told me about the Miracle that is Tomatoes. You absent-mindedly fling a few little seeds onto a tiny plot of dirt -- or on a square of cement, a manhole cover, the hood of a car -- and return a couple days later to a truckload of ripe, juicy fruit.

In April I went to some odd art event where a woman was handing out seedlings of heirloom tomatoes. "The environment needs different varieties of tomatoes," she told me. "Please, take a plant."

"I can't," I said. "I'm not ready for that kind of responsibility."

"Sure you are," she said, thrusting the tiny thing into my hand. "Congratulations! You're a dad."

I sighed and took the little seedling home. Obviously it was my time. God couldn't have made it more clear that Farmer Roman needed to make room in his life for something else. I bought a big bag of soil and a fancy terra cotta pot, and I moved the little guy into his new home.

Almost immediately, though, I realized something was wrong. He didn't grow. He yellowed. Gone was the happy little seedling I was given. He became just a shadow of his former self. In desperation I checked the soil bag and saw something I hadn't noticed before.

There was a warning label. On a bag of DIRT.

"DON'T USE THIS IN POTS!" it veritably screamed. "It's for GARDENS! This is GARDEN soil!"

It totally confused me, printed in bold red type. I got the wrong kind of fuckin' soil? There are different kinds of fuckin' dirt? Confusion turned to anger, and anger turned to concern. My little seedling was in trouble, and it desperately needed my help.

I ran to the garden store and checked all the bags of soil: yup, some were for gardens, and some were for pots. I got their most expensive potting soil and transplanted the poor little sprout. The next few nights I barely slept. I kept him out of drafts, dribbled fertilizer around his base. I waited. And waited. I tended to the little guy like Cuban nurses tend to sick Castros. And slowly, very slowly, his color came back. He grew a quarter inch, then a full inch, then sprouted a new pair of leaves.

From that point on, there was no stopping him. By June he was two feet tall. I beamed with pride at his amazing achievement, then stupidly went back to the garden store to gloat. His contemporaries were five feet tall and veritably dripping with fruit.

All of a sudden it hit me: my plant had a problem. He was a grade or two behind. I had a Differently Abled Plant.

What was the problem? I wondered. Nature, or nurture? Was he genetically an inferior seedling? Had his brief residence in substandard soil crippled him for life? I kept watering and feeding him, but knowing he'd never be as good as the other plants, all the passion was gone. Sure, he was doing his best, but he was stunted. Angrily, jealously, I pictured all my neighbors happily eating their tomato sandwiches and cooking up spaghetti sauce.

I did my best to be proud of my little plant. Every day I'd offer him encouragement. Look, I crowed, you're growing! August came. Gosh, you're nearly three feet tall! September. Wow, look at all your leaves! I lived through the summer with a mixture of regret and shame. While everybody else had a picture of their plants proudly displayed on their desks, mine was in my wallet. "Hey, Roman, you've got a tomato plant too, don't you?" clueless friends asked.

"Do I?" I replied, searching the ceiling as if trying to remember. I'd pull out the one lone photo and watch as their curiosity gave way to embarrassment. "Well," they'd belatedly offer, "it certainly does have a nice branch!"

"I don't think I've ever seen such an attractive leaf!" somebody else would chirp.

One day I decided I couldn't take it any more. At the garden store their tomato plants were fifty percent off, since summer was coming to an end. It was time for my little plant's circle of life to be complete. I put on gloves, grabbed a garbage bag, and went outside to pull him up.

I had a hand around his trunk when I spotted them. Small and gnarled, but unmistakable. Tiny. Yellow. Flowers.

FLOWERS! I screamed. FLOWERS! I veritably danced around the thing, like relatives at a Greek wedding. My little plant is making FLOWERS!

With a swell of pride it hit me: all my hard work had paid off. Sure, I'd had to adjust my expectations. He hadn't given me bushels of fruit like all the neighbors' plants. But he'd given me what he could. He wasn't sad, or sick. He wasn't defective. He was different. He wanted to flower, not grow fruit.

I put away the gloves and brought out the MiracleGro. I must have snapped at least a hundred pictures.

Flower away, dude, I thought. Flower away.

I love my little gay plant.


Anonymous said...

The best thing about tomato plants is the smell of the leaves.
Is this taMAYto or tahMAHto?

RomanHans said...

Yup, usually they smell fantastic, but my plant has a vague aroma of clove cigarettes and CK One.

1904 said...

Your little gay dude is adorable. I don't care what anyone says.

Yet Another Steve said...

Yeah, what's with those people who think houseplants are an appropriate gift? I've given up being nice and will from now on give each of them, in return, a puppy or a kitten. Or a third-world orphan, depending on what's available at the moment. "Oh nonsense, it won't be any trouble at all, you'll love it!"