“Louis, you still have food all over your mouth.” Cassie stared at him, coldly, from behind her glasses.
“What do you mean, I didn’t eat that vegan food you brought me, I just threw it away.”
“Well, whatever you ate, it’s hanging on corner of your mouth. Did you go foraging for food while I was in the restroom or something?”
Louis eyed her incredulously, wondering how she could talk to him like that. She’d been cold towards him ever since she went home for a few weeks in over the summer. Sitting here, one month later, he wasn’t sure if she even liked him anymore.
Louis got up, walked to the glass windows in front of the museum, and looked at his reflection. How had he walked the entire mile from his apartment to the museum without noticing that he had bits of food dangling from his mouth? It was embarrassing, and confusing, to be a grown adult that somehow managed to have food on his face without having eaten breakfast. Louis pulled his lips back, baring his teeth for a better look. He found what looked like blades of grass stuck between his teeth.
“What in the hell?” He brought his hand to his face, picking at the grass while Cassie stared at him in confusion. Louis’ pulled leaf after leaf out of his mouth, getting more and more upset with each passing moment.
“I just don’t understand” he said, turning back to his girlfriend.
“I’m starting to get really freaked out about this!”
He hadn’t, in fact, eaten anything since he found grass between his teeth the evening before. This was the third time that week that he found vegetation stuck in the curves and creases of his body. Two nights ago, it was tree bark on to his back, sticking to him so strongly that when we moved to pull it off, it ripped the skin from his back with a loud SSSHHHHRRRRIIIIIKKKKKKK! He was left with a long, angry strip of pink skin and a mysterious rash that was turning gold and brown.
Cassie giggled, quietly, under her breath, but tried to stifle it when she saw his face.
“Cassie, this isn’t funny! I need you to take this seriously, I’m scared! I might go to the ER today if this doesn’t stop!”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Really, this whole thing is just so bizarre. It’s hard not to think you’re making some of this up, you know?”
“No. I don’t know. Why would I make this kind of thing up? You think I’m doing this for attention or something?”
“I don’t know, Louis, I just…”
He cut her off angrily. “You just what, Cassie? You just wish I would stop pretending? You think I’m doing all this to myself? You’ve been a real jerk since you got back, you know that? You seem completely uninterested in helping me through this. You seem uninterested in us.”
“Don’t turn this around on me, Louis. You’re the one acting out, making things up so that I’ll pay attention to you. It’s not going to work this time.”
“This time?” Louis was fuming. How could she think that way about him?
How could she doubt him now, of all times, when he needed her the most? Typical, he thought, she’s always so skeptical. So untrusting.
“Yeah, this time, Louis. And you’re right, I have felt differently since I got back. I’m not sure if this is working anymore.”
Louis’ heart sank. He looked at Cassie in quiet defeat. “Can we not do this right now, please? I need you to be by my side for this. I just need your support while I try to figure out what’s happening to me. We can talk about “us” this weekend.”
He watched her shoulders drop and relax. Finally, she sighed and said “Okay, Louis. I get it. This whole thing worries me, too. I mean, last Sunday, there were mushrooms growing behind your knees! They were actually growing! Then, on Wednesday, dirt was coming out of your ears and nose. What am I supposed to think?”
It was a good thing he hadn’t told her about yesterday morning, he thought. She wouldn’t believe him if he told her that he woke up to find his leg stuck to the ground. He felt rooted, or planted, like a big, dumb tree. A fucking tree! The evening before, he fell asleep with his left leg dangling, like usual, off the left side of the bed. When he woke up, though, his leg was covered in rough, brown material and his foot was buried in the dirt below the floorboards. His leg was cut and splintered by the rich, oak wood flooring that he had installed himself with his father. That morning, in order to stave of the rising panic inside him, Louis went through a mental checklist:
- Am I actually awake? Yes.
- Am I drunk? No.
- Am I high on drugs? Hmmm, maybe…. or maybe not. Cassie smoked all my weed yesterday and I’m too broke to buy anything more serious…
- Am I going crazy? Probably.
Louis quickly decided that at this point, the only thing he could do was try to get his foot out from beneath the floor. His self-inflicted inquisition about what drug he might have taken would have to wait.
He flexed his calves and tried to raise his foot. Nope. It was stuck there. Rooted. He pulled and jerked his leg. He wiggled his hips like a drunk, jazz-era dancer. He tried to jump using his other, non-rooted leg, but all to no avail; he couldn’t get his left foot out of the ground. Finally, in a fit of embarrassment and necessity to relieve himself of his morning piss, he managed to yank his foot out from between the jagged wood that used to be his floor. Pain shot through his leg like electricity.
“AAAGGHHH! Fuuuuuuuuuuck!” He yelled, repeatedly, while hopping across the room and clutching at his foot. Tears of frustration and pain stung as they slipped down his cheeks and a sudden, uncontrollable stream of hot pee rushed out from his body. This was the single most embarrassing moment of his life, he was sure. The shock of peeing his pants, as an adult, in his own home and feet away from the toilet, was more than even Louis could bear. He would take this to his grave, he decided.
Once he finally made it to the restroom that morning, Louis sat down on the toilet and examined his foot. Tendril-like roots hung from the sole of his foot where soft, pink skin used to be. The top of his foot and most of his ankle were covered in hard, brown material.
“What in the hell…?” He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Just what in the hell, man?” he mumbled to himself.
I have to get myself together, he thought. Step one, take a shower and wash the piss off of me. Step two, figure out a way to get dressed and get to work with my new club foot before I’m late. Louis couldn’t be late for work again or his boss would fire him. Plus, he made plans with Cassie for a lunch date at their favorite art museum and he didn’t want to keep her waiting.
That afternoon, in the heat of the mid-day sun, the two of them sat, arguing on the steps of the Museum of Modern Art. Cassie wouldn’t meet his eyes, he noticed, as he attempted to convince her of his plight.
“Seriously, Cassie, I can’t even find this stuff on WebMD, I have no idea what’s going on with my body. Even google doesn’t know what’s wrong with me.”
She sighed. “Louis, I don’t know what to tell you, just go to a doctor already! Every time I see you it’s like I’m watching some weird, National Geographic documentary about hippies who try to become ‘one with the earth.’ You know, the ones who are stoned out of their mind and keep ranting about herbal remedies… You sound like a crazy person. Who walks around insisting that they’re growing and sprouting things on their body? It’s starting to get old… maybe you should go see a shrink, instead.”
The veins in Louis’ head throbbed at this point, and he tried to control his breathing by thinking of small, cute animals on YouTube. He had to choose his words carefully so that this whole, ridiculous situation didn’t spin out of control.
“You know, Cassie, this mess I’m in wouldn’t be so bad if you just listened to me, for one minute! Please just really listen to what I’m trying to tell you! I know I sound crazy, but I do not need to see a shrink.”
“Okay Louis, fine. Yes, you’re becoming a tree. You win. You’re a beautiful, flowering tree, some kind of weird, Japanese science experiment. And you’re crazy, Louis.”
“What do you expect me to say? Yes, I feel like I’m going crazy. In fact, I’m one step away from becoming that crazy hobo on 6th Avenue who glues plastic carnations to his back and eats slushies out of the trash! I’m going out of my mind, here!”
“There’s something wrong with you, Louis.” And with that final declaration, Cassie stood up, grabbed her bag with a huff, and shot him a dangerous look before stalking away. It was the kind of look that he knew meant ‘don’t you dare follow me’.
She left him there, angry, tired, and hurt because she was supposed to be the one person who he could count on to be there for him. So much for that, he thought.
The worst part, though, was that he was still hungry. The two of them had agreed to get vegan food from the local co-op, but his vegan burrito had tasted like cardboard, so he threw it away. It had looked completely unappetizing, too. Everything, lately, tasted and looked bland to him, except for random, tuber vegetables.
Well, he thought, at least she didn’t notice my limp when I walked up, earlier. He had been dreading the conversation in which he had to tell his girlfriend some pathetic story about peeing his pants. On the way to her apartment earlier that morning, he tried to come up a good, solid lie, like oh, I fell down the stairs when I was leaving my first floor apartment, or I fell while trying to save a baby from a fire on 4th Avenue, or his personal favorite, I decided to use my foot as part of an art exhibit about the inequality between rural villagers and city dwellers in China.
Louis decided to go home after lunch and forget that the day had ever begun. It was all too strange and unreal for him, anyway. He could just call in to work and tell his boss that he wouldn’t be back after lunch, screw it. Louis made to stand up and stretch, to scratch his stomach a little, but was immediately jerked back down onto the cement steps.
“What the…?” he looked down, “no no no NO!” he yelled. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Louis’ leg was covered in green, succulent vines that had crept up from the bushes lining the steps where he sat. The vines were so thick that he couldn’t tell where the plants ended and his leg began, and they had somehow made it all the way up his thigh without his noticing. He tried pulling the vines off but sharp, hidden thorns cut into his hands each time. People were starting to look and snicker at him as they passed, and he knew he looked like a bad art exhibit. The kind where some college freshman tries to make a ridiculous, theoretical point by staging his final project in a public space.
Ugh, why is this happening to me? He asked himself.
Finally, after several loud and embarrassing attempts, Louis took the plastic fork from the remnants of his lunch and hacked away at the vine that was slowly creeping up his leg. He stabbed at it with abandon, no longer caring about the safety of his leg. Again, he had no luck. The plant was just too hardy and the vines too dense. The small, plastic prongs of his fork broke off one by one until he was holding a sad sort of popsicle stick.
Louis sighed, mentally and physically giving up on the situation. He was stuck, and fucked, as Cassie would say, and very unsure about how to proceed. His stomach grumbled unhappily, and he slowly pulled his phone out in utter defeat. He dialed the closest, cheapest Chinese restaurant he could think of and sat back against the concrete steps. At least the sun feels good on my chest, he thought, as he moved his hands down to rest on his stomach. He felt something small poking up from under his shirt just then. There, growing right in the center of his belly button, he discovered a thin, budding branch.
“Whatever,” he said. “Just…whatever.”