BY CASSI CLARK
Copyright is held by the author.
AROUND THE time I hit 40, most of my friends were getting divorced. Some were my age and not willing to wait for their husbands to grow up, but most were older. They’d waited until their kids had left the house, ever hopeful their men would change. But as nothing inside their homes changed despite the decreased number of residents, they realized how little their husbands had contributed, how rarely their husbands met their needs. And now in the time of their lives that should be for new adventures, the women found themselves lonely and still parenting their husbands. And so, divorce.
All of my friends, of every age, had or were spending the time and money to repair the damage done to them over their own lives. They’d gone to therapy and sought spiritual healing. They’d grown and healed and were ready for the next phase of their lives. I too was pulling the weeds of my childhood traumas, tending the broken stems and branches of my adult tribulations, and was planting the seeds for the life I wanted.
It was around this time that I met Suze, the woman who owned the local nursery. It was my favorite place to shop, with a fill and refill station for cleaning supplies, house plants galore, pots, fertilizers, seasonal seeds and bulbs, and nearly an acre of local and hardy outdoor plants, many of which she grew in her greenhouses. I often visited her shop seasonally, and when I just needed to get away, or when my soul needed to be fed. We exchanged gardening tips — more her than me — and talked all things plants.
One day, I went in in a bit of a mood. I admit it, I was anger shopping. I needed to pound something and dirt seemed like the best option. So, I came to buy a bunch of bags of top soil and compost. As we discussed which of the many options were best for my garden, I began to vent my feelings about my husband. I loved him, of course; but he refused to deal with his emotions. He’d been obviously angry for a while, but refused to acknowledge it, let alone process it. And so, it came out in annoying passive aggressive ways. When I suggested he talk to someone, he would rebuff me, or worse, ignore me. I was getting sick of acting like his therapist, and even more sick of his huffing and puffing around the house. He insisted he was fine, but he was making everyone else in the house miserable. And now our son was starting to emulate him.
The woman listened attentively, letting me vent. I suspected I wasn’t first angry wife she’d listened to. She was so calm, the nature of her work grounding I suppose. When I stopped talking, she said, “My husband used to be like that.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I thought about leaving him,” she said. “But in the end, I decided to help to him grow.”
I let out a big sigh of resignation. “I’m just so tired. I feel like Sisyphus and his rock. He won’t take any steps on his own and often fights against anything I suggest. You can’t help the unwilling.”
“Not that way, I suppose.”
“Is there another way?” I asked. She had a look about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but it intrigued me.
She looked me over as if making a decision. Then said, “Have you seen the plants in the back?”
Disappointed that she was changing the subject back to gardening, but always interested in plants, I said that I had not.
She indicated for me to follow her. We walked past the perennials and took a left behind the greenhouse holding the annuals. The back of her property was forested, but a few yards in was a clearing. And there, planted like Arrow Leaf Balsams in a meadow, was a patch of planted men looking everything like the Cabbage Patch kid commercials of my youth. Most were only heads poking above the ground, some grumbling about needing to go to work, others were pouting, and still others were sleeping. A few of the men were taller, seemingly having grown to their chests, waists, and a couple even up to their knees. These men smiled and waved.
“What is this?” I asked. The men did not seem to be in any danger, nor were they threatening. Fascinated, I walked among them. A couple of the heads tried to bite me, and I jumped away.
“Be careful of the newly planted ones,” the woman said. “They’re still a bit stemmed.”
“Can I help you with anything?” A man up to his knees asked.
I looked at the woman perplexed. She grinned at me, and pulled out a shovel and gloves from a nearby tool shed. “He’s ready to be repotted and brought into the house.”
I opened my mouth to ask the myriad questions in my head, but I could not form a coherent sentence.
“It is a bit unexpected; I know.” She said. “But I assure you it works.”
“How? Why?” I tried to formulate.
“My own husband was a bit stunted too,” she said. “But I knew he had so much potential if we could just find the right conditions for him to grow. Like you, I tried to push and pull him, but of course that never works.”
“So, you planted him?” I said.
She nodded and smiled like it was the obvious answer. “Some men just won’t grow in a domestic environment. You give them love and food and water. Meet their needs, and yet, they just won’t mature. Like you said, they have to want it for themselves.”
I watched as she retrieved a large pot on a wagon and set it next to the man up to his knees.
“Is this your husband?” I asked.
“No,” they both said in unison.
“I’m Jack,” the man said, and held out his hand to shake.
I shook it, thoroughly discombobulated.
“My wife brought me here, what?” He looked at the woman. “Last spring?”
The woman nodded. “Jack fought it at first. Like they all do.”
“But then I realized I actually felt better than I ever had.” He said finishing her thought.
I raised an eyebrow, and he laughed.
“I know. It sounds insane. But with nowhere to go, no one to answer to, and nothing but quiet and time, I was able to relax. Take stock. I started to feel my feels. I was so angry. At first, I thought it was because my wife brought me here, but eventually I realized I’d been angry way before.”
The woman patted him kindly on the shoulder and the put his hand over hers lovingly.
“Suze would come out every day to feed and water us. We’d rage at her until we had nothing left. And then she’d say…” He looked at her grinning as if it was still novel.
She smirked. “What else?”
He laughed. “What else?! Can you believe that? No judgment. No telling us how to feel. Or what we should have said. Just ‘what else.’” He wiped a tear and continued, as she began to dig around him.
I wondered if I should offer to help, but was too captivated to move or speak.
“Once we spent all our energy, she’d bring us yummy foods and tuck us in to sleep.”
“That’s all it took, getting you to vent your emotions?” I crossed my arms and looked at him skeptically.
He smiled kindly. “Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. Being planted prevented us from running away. And facing that initial anger was only the beginning.”
“Jake took to it pretty quickly, but it can take some of the men months to even start thinking about their feelings and what brought them here. Though I have noticed these newer ones take less time. I think they just haven’t been exposed to as much noxious toxins.”
“My bitch wife brought me here,” a head called out.
Suze made a like-that gesture.
“Once we are able to name our emotions and the wives start visiting. They share one grievance per visit.”
“I learned that with my Harold,” Suze interjected. She kept digging up soil around Jack and putting it in the pot. “If I tried to make him grow too fast, he’d start to wither.”
I nodded at the logic, like over fertilizing. And then shook my head at the insanity of it and put my hands in my pockets. I noticed the rest of the men had become quiet. They too were listening.
Jack smiled at her again, then continued his story. “When Mary would bring me her complaints…”
The woman gave him a look, and he dropped his head like a child who forgot his times tables in front of the class. Then he took a deep breath and said, “Needs. I was defensive at first. But Suze would guide us through the conversation until I could see how my not taking responsibility hurt Mary. Eventually I began to see where my behaviors came from, and that I could grow new patterns. That’s when I started sprouting!”
“Why is he going in a pot? They don’t just pop out?” I asked, marveling internally at how normal this was beginning to feel.
Suze leaned on the shovel. “Once they get about to their knees, they’re ready to re-enter the world. But they still have a lot of social skills to learn. We have been teaching them about emotional labor and interrupting, but it takes practice around other people to really get it.”
“Whose we?” I asked.
“The wives. And Harold.”
She stuck her shovel under Jack, and he tipped a bit. She held him on the shoulder, while she worked the shovel in deeper as if getting under his roots. “Help me out?” She asked.
I nodded and jumped to.
Harold ran toward us from seemingly nowhere. He jumped in without saying anything and grabbed Jack around the legs.
“Under the shoulders,” Suze instructed me, and we lifted him out of the ground like a tree. Dirt clung to his feet. We set him into the pot. He held the edges to steady himself while she filled in around him.
“Thanks, babe,” she said kissing Harold when Jack was packed down and stable.
“I found that leak in the greenhouse irrigation pipe. Wasn’t that bad, but kind of hard to get to. And I thought I’d see about Jack. He looked like he might be getting close to ready to pot.”
“Oh thanks!” She said. “That irrigation leak was on my list, but I haven’t had time.”
“I got you, babe,” Harold said.
“I’m really excited to get back into the house,” said Jack. “Mary has shown me how to work the family calendar,” he said proudly. “And did you know we have shared contacts, so I can call the kids’ school or doctors?”
Harold smiled and patted Jack on the back.
The comment brought stinging tears to my eyes. I’d recently tried to make my husband take the kids to their annual doctors’ appointments, but he’d claimed he couldn’t miss work. More often than not, it was just easier to do it myself and know it got done. But household management left me with little time or energy for my own business.
The field rumpled with men talking to themselves and each other. Jack started to speak again, but Harold interrupted. “Jack, have you let the women talk at all?”
Jack looked at us reflecting on the last ten minutes. “A little?” He said.
“What’s the rule?” Harold asked.
“Split the time evenly. If there’s two of us, I can talk half the time.”
“And if there’s three?”
“And if there are two women and two men?”
“The men get a quarter of the time total between them.”
I looked at Suze utterly surprised. She smiled, resting on the shovel watching the exchange, and whispered, “Why not do it right?”
“Because women don’t get to talk and even though it may feel like I’m not talking that much I’m probably not letting them get a word in edgewise. And if I think I’m only talking an eighth of the time I’m probably talking a quarter of it.”
Harold nodded, and Jack straightened up. “I’m sorry,” he said to me. “I’ll do better.”
“It’s ok,” I said out of habit.
Suze gave me a look like my mother when she disapproved of my teenage fashion choices, and said, “Don’t do that.”
I nodded wishing I could take the words back. “Thank you, Jack,” I said.
Harold grabbed the wagon and wheeled Jack away.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked Suze.
She put the shovel back in the tool shed, and pulled out a hose and a bunch of cups with large flat bottoms and built in straws. “About fifteen years.” She indicated for me to distribute the cups as she filled them.
“What about work? Not all families can afford to lose a paycheck.”
She shrugged. “It’s a long-term investment. You can choose to stay in the marriage and be miserable, get a divorce and figure out how to fend for yourself, or this.”
“Ah. Yeah, I guess so. What about the kids? Do they come visit?”
“Oh sure. They love helping to feed and water their daddies. And they get the men’s undivided attention. Many of them end up having better relationships well before the men return home.”
“Like divorced dads,” I said across the field. “That’s pissed off more than one of my friends, that their exes become good dads after the divorce.”
Suze nodded. “It does help their relationships with their wives too.”
“But why the pots? They seem willing to learn, why not let them free?” I asked setting the watering cup before the last man. He said, “Thank you,” and the tops of his shoulders popped out of the soil. He grinned up at me, looking like my kids when they were little and learned to do something for themselves.
“It’s a reminder, so they don’t fall back into bad habits. It’s easier to prune them. If they stay in pots, they can be put in corners. Sometimes they need it so they can have some time to themselves, and sometimes as a time-out to think about whatever it is they’ve done. When they outgrow the pot, then they can leave it.”
“Seems like more work for the wives,” I said coming back to the shed.
“A little. But the women need to adjust as well. Like you letting Jack off the hook for talking too much.”
“Most of us get into the habit of doing everything because it’s easier. We want things do our way on our schedules. Having the men in pots reminds us that we too need to change our habits, let them do the family labor.”
“And it works?”
“Huh.” I pictured my husband among the men, and wondered how long it would take him to find his feet. “How much does it cost?”
“Just the cost of feeding and watering them.”
“Why do you do it?” I put my hands in my back pockets, and surveyed the men again. It was late afternoon, and they seemed to be getting sleepy. One of the heads wept quietly, and the one up to his shoulders next to him whispered consolations.
“My little act of feminism,” she said. She wrapped up the hose and hung up her gloves.
“Any failures?” I asked.
She closed the doors and placed the lock. “There have been a couple whose roots were just too damaged, but our success rate is pretty high.”
“What happened to the ones that didn’t…,” I paused looking for the right word. I settled on “grow.”
She glanced into the woods. “Compost.”
I followed her gaze, thinking of a few of my friends’ exes the world wouldn’t miss.
We walked back to the main part of the nursery and my pile of bagged topsoil.
“What do you think?” Suze asked. “I’ve got an empty spot.”
A smiled and thought about Jack’s hole. It seemed like good soil.
Cassi Clark is stubborn optimist and seasoned rabbit hole explorer. Her first book, Breastfeeding is a Bitch, But We Loving Do it Anyway—a non-fiction memoir—was awarded an IndieBrag Medallion, translated into Spanish, and has been devoured with frequent, brief, intense paroxysms of uncontrollable crying and laughing by freaked out new moms around the world. Links to her magazine articles can be found on her website, cassiclark.com http://cassiclark.com/. Her Substack, Protect Your Nips https://cassiclark.substack.com/, brims with experiments in finding hope one messy, twisted idea at a time.