The first time you see plant fibers jack-knifing out of your wrists, you think that you’re hallucinating. It wouldn’t be the first time. After your mom died you went a little batshit, started seeing what you thought were ghosts but which were actually just your baby brain electrified by grief. Flower stalk garbage in both your wrists seems like an outgrowth of that same nonsense.
It doesn’t occur to you that this is actual, physical plant matter. It also doesn’t occur to you that you should tell your aunt that you’re hallucinating. You ignore it as best as you can, covering the growths with long sleeves so you don’t have to look at them. You figure you’ll stop seeing them within a couple of days.
They don’t go away. Instead you start seeing them in other parts of your body—green ropey things busting holes through your legs and torso. Your skin stings and screams like it’s supposed to, and you don’t think that’s a hallucination. You wonder if this is some new symptom of one of your bullshit diseases. Maybe these aren’t flowers, but your bones turning to pulp in a thyroid storm. That’s not how that works. It’s not your bones. It’s plant matter, laid out along your veins.
Four days into this floral hell you’re in the locker room with the rest of your track team. Your entire body is lit up with itching. Diego Gonzalez is leaning against the lockers, laughing at something Jeremy McDaniel said about a gameshow you don’t watch. One of the contestants trains hamsters to detect whether or not someone is in love. This is stupid and you’re glad you think it’s stupid because if you thought it was funny, you’d end up laughing in front of Diego. You can laugh, but not because you’re actually amused. Your laughter is for shaming your teammates into running faster, not expressing joy. If you ever felt joy — which you don’t — you’d never show it to anyone.
You take off your Doc Martens to swap them for your running shoes. Thorny plant flesh is visible through your threadbare socks. You shove your feet into your shoes, heart pounding at the thought that Diego might see the leafy carnage. You don’t care about Jeremy, but you guess it would probably be better if he didn’t see it, either.
“Everyone else is already running in Fort Greene Park,” you say with a sneer. Diego is holding his gym shirt and not putting it on - showing off abs that you consider a public nuisance. You say, “you’d better hurry up and get over there — unless you’re trying to ruin our chances at winning our next race. Are you?”
“No sir! I’ll get changed and go to the park now, sir!” Jeremy says with a rigid salute. You are the fastest runner on your team, so you expect and cultivate this level of obedience, but it’s exhausting to watch it actually happen.
Diego sweeps a hand through his gelled back hair and thanks you for reminding him to get going. “There’s no excuse for the team captain to be late,” he says.
You scowl at him and crack your neck to set him on edge. As you walk toward the park where you’ll be running for the next hour, you try not to think about how annoyingly reasonable Diego is being. What’s his deal, responding to your intimidation tactics with pleasantries and smiles? It makes you feel like garbage. You don’t deserve to have someone like that speak to you.
Once you hit the pavement, the flower stalks start screaming at you for daring to try and use your body when they’re trying to consume it. You grit your teeth, bear with it as long as you can, but after twenty minutes your muscles are twitching and sparking with pain.
You don’t remember sitting down and putting your head between your knees, but there you are with your breath scraping through your lungs and cold sweat slithering down your neck. You feel someone looming over you and you want to swing your fist straight up and clock them in the face.
“You okay, Naoki?” It’s Diego, bending down to check you over. You flash to standing over your unconscious mother, no idea who to call or how to help her. Diego’s features are relaxed; he thinks he can help you. He’s an idiot.
You lift yourself up, wincing at what feels like thorns digging into your bones. “Fine,” you say, brushing unidentified yellow debris from your bike shorts. “Stop staring at me like you want to fuck me.”
Diego laughs and your cheeks flame. You don’t actually blush because you’ve trained yourself not to, but you feel a million little pulsing suns in your cheeks.
You bare your teeth and hiss. Diego asks if you think you need to see the school nurse, or if you need help getting home. “Of course not,” you say. “Don’t you have better things to do than hover over me like an idiot?”
“It’s my responsibility to make sure everyone on my team is okay.” Diego is still, impossibly, smiling.
You tell him to get out of your way so you can get back to training. Diego asks if you’re sure you’re up for it, and you tell him that you are. He says fine, you can keep running, but he’s going to keep an eye on you to make sure you’re alright.
The idea of anyone being this concerned about you, even on a professional level, is literally nauseating. When Diego leaves you alone, you find yourself spitting up onto the side of the road. Mixed in with the bile and drool you find rose petals. Deep pink, like you think the flesh in your throat must be.
You don’t remember eating flowers.
You have never eaten flowers in your life.
You bury the evidence under a pile of leaves, leave the park and catch the bus without telling anyone. Your legs are still hollering at you but you are great at ignoring pain. Halfway home, you have to stop to spit up another explosion of petals—this time, it’s enough to curl a fist around. No one’s on the street so you don’t bother hiding it.
At home, you whip out your phone and google coughing up flowers, and flower stalks in leg. You think you’re going to come up with aesthetic art blogs and maybe an article or two about psychosis or LSD use.
Instead you find an entry from the World Health Organization explaining Hanahaki Disease, also known as Flower Sickness.
Symptoms vary, but in the first stages they generally include plant material growing from the limbs and digits. In later stages, plant matter begins growing in the organs, or even the brain. Organ function can be impeded by plant matter obstruction, and all body parts can be damaged by the growths.
The true cause is unknown, but according to folklore, it occurs as a result of unrequited love, and can be cured when said love is requited. Some studies suggest that the stress of unrequited love lowers the immune system, leaving the victim open to infection. Many scientists believe that this is not a full explanation—unrequited love is not the only thing to cause lowered immunity, and lowered immunity should result in a variety of infections, not just this one.
There are a range of treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in severe cases. Because they’re uncontrolled growths. Which is cancer. Your mother had cancer.
There’s also therapy to help encourage the sufferer to either declare their love or come to terms with the fact that it won’t happen.
Folklore says the second thing won’t work, but folklore is questionable. This whole thing is questionable. The only thing that isn’t questionable is that you are literally and physically barfing up flowers.
Oh, and one more thing. You are not in love.
“Do we want to cover The Smiths or Morrissey’s solo music?” Diego asks.
“We should do one of each,” you say, flicking a bit of pollen fluff from your sweater. “That way I can show the progression of his musical career when I write the biography.”
You and Diego have music together. The groups aren’t determined by grade, but by musical experience. You got in because of your encyclopedic knowledge of musical history. Diego got in because he can sing and play guitar. You have no musical abilities whatsoever, but you could talk about Morrissey for an hour if you had someone to listen to you.
You’re paired with Diego on a project. The teacher doesn’t say why, but you’re pretty sure it’s because no one else can tolerate you. You’re quiet in class, but your menacing track team reputation, combined with your hulking body and bulging eyes, make you a pariah.
So it’s Diego who has to endure your Morrissey obsession. You’re doing the easy part—writing about your favorite topic other than running. Diego is the one actually playing and recording the songs, something you’re incapable of.
You don’t like having to rely on another person. You’re glad that Diego asks you what you want him to play and doesn’t try to take over. You tell him that your favorite song is November Spawned a Monster, and Diego says he likes that song too, and he’ll play it.
His agreeableness is annoying. You don’t want him to just do what you say. Mindless obedience is the same as ignoring you. You don’t want him to ignore you. You don’t know why, because you hate him.
The flower stalks in your legs shift angrily. You feel something bust through the skin in your knees, and you hiss, biting down on your lip to stop yourself from screaming.
“Are you okay?” asks Diego. The fact that he cares is absurd. You tell him to shut up and you hate how predictable you are, but you don’t know what else to say besides no, and you’re not going to do that. Diego lifts an eyebrow, shakes his head and change the subject.
“Do we want to do a faithful cover, or change the genre?” he asks. “I found this album called Mexrissey that does Spanish covers of Morrisey’s work that are influenced by mariachi and other Mexican music. I’ve been wanting to do something like that for a while now, but with Puerto Rican music instead. Maybe salsa, or reggaetón, or something older like bomba y plena. I don’t know. How does that sound to you?”
You hadn’t considered doing anything like that, but you have to admit, it sounds cool as hell. “I don’t know,” you say. “How creative do you think Miss Nguyen will let us be?”
“I’m sure she’d love it if we put our own spin on it. Plus, it’d make my mom happy - she thinks everything should have a salsa cover.”
You are all about making moms happy. It’s the only thing you care about more than running and Morrissey. Most teenagers don't give a damn about their mothers. Don't appreciate that they’re alive and putting up with them. You feel something else burst through your kneecap, and this time it’s pushing visibly against your pant leg. Diego doesn’t look down, and you tamp it down easily. It looks soft, puffy and pretty, but your whole leg is alight with pain.
“Are you sure you're okay?” asks Diego, frowning. “You look like you have a headache or something. Do you need to go to the nurse?”
You're fine. You need him to shut up because his caring about you is making it worse. He doesn’t actually care about you, of course, he just cares about people, as a general category. He wants everyone happy and fed and not hurting. It’s not you. You are not special. You are nothing.
Your knee is killing you.
Diego digs a bottle of pills out of his bag. “Here’s some painkillers if you need them,” he says. “I take them for migraines and I’m not sure if they’ll work on regular headaches, but they’re probably fine?”
You snatch them, wanting to drown what you’re feeling in literally anything that’s offered to you. You need Diego to stop being nice, to stop making you like him, to stop making you hurt.
You need to say something to make him be mean to you, but your knee hurts too much to let your mind work. Besides, now you’re thinking about your mother and thinking about how she thought you were good. She wouldn’t approve of you desperately scanning your brain for the best way to hurt Diego. She’d be ashamed of you, and you’re ashamed of yourself and holy shit your fucking knee.
“You’re a worthless piece of shit and everyone hates you,” you whisper. Knowing it lacks your usual acidity, that it’s pointless to say and he doesn’t even hear you. It makes you feel better, a little.
Diego asks what you said. You don’t repeat yourself. Instead you say, “thanks for the pills.”
Later, in the bathroom, you roll down your pants and see that your knee is bright with blood. The plant matter busting through your knees has torn the flesh apart. Thank god the blood is seeping onto black pants or you’d have to worry about someone noticing. Diego noticing. The stalks have erupted into flowers. You clean up the blood and rip the petals off, biting your lip to keep yourself from screaming.
You power through the rest of the day, then walk home wincing with every limping step. You skip track practice because you know seeing Diego will just make it worse.
You don’t know why it’ll make it worse, just that it will. You are not in love with him.
In your bedroom, you’re checking the reblogs on the video you posted of yourself lurching around to Sorry by Justin Beiber in your bedroom, when you get a text from Diego. It says:
missed you at practice today. hope everything’s ok. let me know if ur having any problems.
You shudder, your stomach knotting up because you know he has to say this to you. He doesn’t actually care about how you are, nobody does. He just has to account for everyone because until the school year ends, he’s the captain. Most likely, he had a much better time without you there.
All Diego wants is to have fun with his friends, and you ruin that. What you want is to win, and you don’t give a shit if it’s fun or not.
You text him back:
I’m fine. I’ll be back tomorrow. Hope you didn’t slack off with me being gone.
we kinda did lol. without any races coming up in the next few weeks it’s kinda hard to keep focused. we ran for like an hour then went to get cheesecake at juniors. you should come next time!
I don't want to hanging out with the pathetic losers on our team. Half of them will be gone next year anyway, including you.
k. ur always welcome if u change ur mind!
You want to throw your phone across the room. You are deliberately being an asshole, while doesn’t he react as if you’re an asshole? Why is he just spewing endless streams of nice nice nice?
You have to make him stop. It’s killing you, literally. You feel flowers plugging your throat.
Don’t hold your breath. I’d rather set myself on fire and get stabbed in the chest with a rusty knife than spend even one minute hanging out with you.
Diego responds with a crying cat emoji, and you really do throw your phone across the room.
In the kitchen chopping cabbage for okonomiyaki, you ask your uncle Nobuo how a person knows when they’re in love. Your voice is flattened with congestion—your body has elected to be allergic to the pollen it’s creating. Your uncle doesn’t want to answer the question. He looks into the pan of half-cooked bacon instead of at your face. He never looks at your face.
You twist your neck, vertebrae creaking. Your uncle sighs. He knows he has no rational basis for fearing you. Your creepy face and your looming body and your jacked-up smile aren’t your fault. You are a child. Your eyes bulge because you have Grave’s Disease, and you move like a contortionist because you have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. You are a sick child and your mother is dead. He should be sorry for you. He is. He’s a good uncle, a good man, who gives pity where pity is due.
“Is there a girl you like?” He flips the bacon to keep it from burning.
“No. I don’t like girls.”
This statement is the best you can do. You don’t want to say you’re gay because that implies that you feel attraction of any kind, to anyone, and you don’t. You won’t. But if you did, you’d probably feel it for a boy.
Not for any particular reason, not because of Diego. Possibly because you’re so disgusted by the concept of love that you could only ever feel it for a being as repulsive as yourself. Possibly because you’re just gay and you don’t need to overanalyze it.
Your uncle is blinking at you as he pats the bacon dry of grease. He is wondering at the contortions of your lips as you work this bullshit out in your head.
“You don’t like girls? I don’t know if that means you like boys or you’re just a late bloomer, but you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Pass me the bonito flakes?”
You do, and he accepts them, nodding. You snarl with irritation because your question isn’t getting answered, but you can’t bring yourself to actually ask it again.
After scratching the back of his balding head for a few minutes your uncle says, “how do you know you’re in love? That’s a hard question. One that requires a lot of thought.”
“Does it? Aren’t you in love with Aunt Haruka? Why would this question be difficult for a married man? Don’t you love your wife? What’s wrong with you? You disgust—”
You slam your mouth closed with such force that it rattles your teeth. You’re not supposed to do this to your uncle. He isn’t your track minion, he isn’t someone you can defeat with aggression. To beat your uncle, you need to make sure he isn’t afraid of you. Otherwise he’ll throw you out with the other garbage.
“Wow, Naoki, that’s…harsh? Are you feeling okay, kiddo?” He laughs and strokes the back of his neck. “Of course I love my wife. It’s just that we’ve been together for so long, it’s hard to remember the moment when I knew I loved her. I’m not sure there was ever one specific moment. Love is more gradual. You start getting to know someone, you start finding things you have in common.” He grins, blush creeping across his face. He slops some oil into a newly heated pan.
“Can you love someone you have nothing in common with?” you ask, scratching the roots buried in the back of your knee.
“Absolutely. Your aunt is the kind of person who sets a goal and achieves it. She doesn’t worry about what might go wrong. I can’t make decisions without writing a pro/con list and asking everyone I know what they think. When I get stuck, she helps me move forward - and when she needs to slow down and think something through, I’m her guide. I guess you could say we complete each other.”
Your uncle lets the cabbage patties slide into the sizzling oil. You say you’re going to your room for a while. You have homework.
“I thought you said you’d finished?”
“There’s something I forgot.”
You scuttle off to your bedroom, deep sea dive under your covers, and convulse with what would be sobs if you were capable of crying. You don’t even know what the hell you’re half-crying about. Maybe it’s that you’re beginning to realize why your heart thuds at the thought of Diego. Maybe it’s that the thudding is painful. Maybe it’s that you know that you will never complete anyone, and that no one will ever complete you.
You feel another bloom burst through your thigh and have to muffle a howl into your pillow. You don’t love Diego. You can’t. If you do, this floral parasite will strangle you from the inside, and your only protection — your cruelty — will be gone.
But when Diego calls you during dinner, you tell your aunt and uncle that you have to take the call. They have no objections; in fact, they smile at each other as you lurch toward your bedroom.
“What do you want?” you say. “Why are you calling me? Haven’t you ever heard of texting? What is this, the 1980’s?”
“I’m pretty sure people were still calling each other long after the 80’s.” Diego laughs, a high, bright sound that sets your teeth on edge. “I tried texting you, but you didn’t answer.”
“What’s so important that it couldn’t wait until Monday?”
“We have to work on our project over the weekend, don't we? It’s due next week, so if we wait until Monday, we won’t have time.”
“We’ve already divided up our duties. You’re not helping me write, and I’m not helping you perform, so what else is there to talk about?”
“I want you to hear the cover I’m working on! Plus it’s easier for me to work when other people are around. If I’m on my own I get distracted. You’re always really focused and determined, so I think it’ll help me out if you’re around.”
“What, so now I’m stuck with babysitting duties? Take an Adderall and do your work.”
“I’m good with my Intuniv, thanks. Can you come over tomorrow?”
“No.” You dig your fingernails into the bloody hell scape that used to be your knee. “Why would I waste my time helping a loser like you? All I have to do is get my own work done.”
“That’s not true. If half the project is missing, so is half of your grade. I’m not saying I won’t do it if you won’t come over. I’m not trying to manipulate you. Stay home if that’s what you want. But you are very much responsible for the work I do, and vice versa.”
“Why would you want me over at your gross house anyway? If I were you, I’d want to stay as far away from me as possible. I mean, am I nice to you? Am I at all pleasant to be around?”
You hear Diego’s throat clearing, as if he’s about to speak.
“No,” you say. “I’m not. You’d be much happier if I got cancer and died a slow, painful death. Actually, you’d love that. I bet when you go to church on Sundays that’s what you pray for. I’m right, aren’t I?”
Diego’s eyes widen. “I don’t know why you’d say that. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I’ll admit that sometimes talking to you can be challenging, but I like you. Even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t wish that you had cancer. My mom had cancer. I know how awful it is.”
This news hits you like a punch in the throat. Your face crumples, and you press your fists into your eyes to stave off tears. This is your something in common. This is your love. Your mothers had cancer. Your mother and his.
You find yourself saying, “I’m sorry that happened to your family.” You don’t know how you managed to choke out something kind, and you aren’t glad you did, but Diego is.
“Thank you,” he says. You picture his hand over his heart, though this likely does not describe his body language at all. “Really, that means a lot.”
“Whatever,” you say. You consider hanging up on him, then flushing your phone down the toilet to make sure that he can’t ever contact you again.
“So,” says Diego. “Can you come over this weekend?”
You find yourself agreeing to go there Saturday at 2 PM. You are an idiot.
Diego is waiting for you with a plate of homemade cookies.
“My mom helped me make them,” he says. “I’m still learning, so I’m not sure how they turned out. Hopefully my mom’s advice saved them from being inedible.”
You don’t want to eat Diego’s cookies, you want to eat his mother’s cookies. His mother had cancer and so his mother is your mother and you want to eat your mother’s cookies even though your mother rarely baked. But also, you do want to eat Diego’s cookies. Despite yourself, you like that he did something nice for you.
You inhale two cookies in one bite, then proclaim them disgusting. Diego laughs, as if what you said was somehow funny and not the same stupid thing you always say.
“Your mom survived cancer?” you ask, sitting on the couch and wondering how you can take up both more and less space simultaneously.
“Oh, yeah. She had it before I was born. It was uterine cancer. She had to have a hysterectomy. She was pretty sad about it.”
“Wait, what? She had a hysterectomy, and then she had you? How does that make any sense? Are you sure you’re not mixing up your timeline?”
You hope that he is. You want him to have endured watching his mother suffer, like you did. You’d thought you had that in common. Your guts twist. You want shared pain, connection, this is severance and it hurts.
“Oh, no. My other mom is the one who actually gave birth to me. I definitely remember the timeline.”
All right. Gay parents. That indicates, at least, that he wouldn’t be repulsed by the idea of a boy lusting after him. Disinterested maybe, but not enraged, not violent. You don’t care. You have nothing in common now that you know his life is not infused with suffering the way that yours is. You don’t love him and you don’t want him to love you.
You ask Diego what he’s thinking for the project while wolfing down another fistful of cookies.
“Well, you said your favorite song was November Spawned a Monster, right? Should we work with that one?”
Holy shit of course not. You hadn’t thought it through when you suggested it, but you can’t handle those lyrics spilling from Diego’s mouth. Not when the song is about you.
Without kindness Aunt Haruka and Uncle Nobuo would have thrown you out on the street when your mother died. They didn’t have to take you in, but they did. Out of kindness. Without kindness you’d have nothing to eat after track meets, no medicine to control your wild thyroid, no bed to hide in when existing proves too hard. You are handcuffed by kindness and you can't live without it and for this you are shivering with shame.
Like the poor twisted child in the song you will never know love. You are a hideous monster. Nobody can bear you, and nobody should try.
If Diego sings these words you will know that he agrees.
“Not that song,” you say, shaking your head, swallowing the bile bubbling in the back of your throat. “Something else.”
“Okay, sure. How about Bigmouth Strikes Again?”
Laughing while nauseous is difficult, but you pull it off.
This song suits every word you’ve ever said to Diego. The only thing that’s different is you’d never call him sweetness, and when you insult him you aren’t joking, you’re lying. Like the narrator, your emotions are cruel, small, and self-centered, but unlike him you aren’t beautiful about it.
But what’s more beautiful than flowers laid out along your bones, waiting to burst from your flesh? Isn’t that some gorgeous Victorian bullshit? You once read that Victorians thought tuberculosis was sexy, despite the fact that it’s a bacterial lung infection that chews up your lungs like aphids chewing a leaf. You have leaves chewing you now, and supposedly it’s because you’re in love.
So when a handful of crushed wet flower pushes through the small of your back, making your eyes water with pain, ripping through blood and muscle and fat and skin, you wonder if Diego would think it was beautiful past all that blood.
Your shirt is black because you knew this might happen, so Diego doesn’t notice any blood. He’s used to you making weird faces and hissing, and so he doesn’t ask you if something’s wrong.
He says, “so how about a reggaetón version of Bigmouth Strikes Again?”
You tell him you don’t know much about the genre. This is not true. You say that you can’t imagine what such a mashup would sound like. This is true.
“Okay…well, if you’ve heard anything, you’ve probably heard Daddy Yankee. He did Gasolina—let me play it for you, I’m sure you’ve heard it before.”
If you did, you came across it randomly - coming out of someone’s car, or on the Internet. You definitely did not look up reggaetón the first time Diego mentioned it, and listen to the first twenty songs that you found. Gasolina is most certainly not on your workout playlist.
Diego pulls out his phone and turns on the song. Once the chorus hits, he starts jerking harshly from side to side, pointing at the invisible viewer for emphasis.
After he sings the first line, you spout the backup lines while gyrating your nonexistent hips, arms thrust into the air. You don’t mean to, but it still happens.
When Diego looks at you you’re expecting mockery, but he just grins and continues singing, all while rhythmically loping from side to side. At some point he puts on a white snapback that would look like Daddy Yankee’s if it didn’t have a Badtz Maru embroidered on the front.
“I think I’m getting the dance wrong,” he says, laughing. He sits on his bed, swings his hat to the side. “So yeah, that’s an example of reggaetón. Want to go for it?”
“Again, I’m just writing the bio. But sure.” You shrug, sitting down next to him because your knees are objecting big time to your impromptu dance. You edge away, the closeness makes your flora swell and shake. You say, “do you have all the instruments you’re going to need? Can you play them on your own?”
“Not exactly, but I have a guitar, and I can borrow a keyboard from the school. I can program the keyboard to simulate the drums. It’s not going to be perfect but it’ll be good enough.”
He starts talking about the arrangement he wants to do on the guitar and this time you really have no idea what he’s talking about, but you like listening to him speak. You like seeing his ability to be enthusiastic about something he can’t do perfectly.
This trait, applied to running, makes you furious, but in this context it seems appropriately joyful.
You love him. He will never love you because he loves everything. He is light and he is kindness and you should be living on your own underground. He will love you because you exist, but not because you are you.
At first, you feel this in the tightness of your throat, the plugging of your nose, the pressure behind your eyes that isn’t thyroxine but tears.
The feeling shifts to your chest — your ribs crack under the pressure of some noxious bloom. Your lips part against your will in a strangled shriek. Now Diego notices a problem. He hops off his bed and hunches down so you’re looking down at him.
“Are you okay?” he asks, eyes wide with fear. He grabs your shoulders, then pulls back, apologizing for hurting you. You reach for his hand and then pull back too.
Your flesh gives way to flowers, and you hear the crunching of bone. You watch bug-eyed with horror as thorny roses unfold from the gaping wounds in your chest. You see their outline through your T-shirt. Diego sees it too.
“What is that?” he asks, pointing at the growth with a shaky finger.
You try to answer but when you open your mouth you vomit bloody petals, thorns that scrape your tongue, and spitty congealed pollen. Diego backs up to avoid being hit, stands up straight and says he’s going to go get his mother. “Just hang on — you’ll be okay.”
You throw off your shirt because it no longer fits, and lay back on Diego’s pillows, panting and dribbling blood onto his sheets. You try rolling over to see if it’ll hurt less, but all you do is shake loose a cloud of petals and pollen. You sneeze, shaking your broken ribs and forcing another scream.
Diego’s mother appears. She is a chubby Puerto Rican woman with her wavy, graying hair pulled into a ponytail. You wonder if this is the mom who had cancer. You hope she is. You want help from the one whose body betrayed her by seeding growths it wasn’t supposed to.
She puts her hands on her hips and surveys your destroyed body. She asks her son what’s going on.
“I don’t know Mom, should we call an ambulance?”
“Of course — we need to call his parents, too.”
“Naoki, could you give me your phone? I can probably find your parents in there. Or you can call them, if you can talk.”
How stupid is it that you’ve broken your ribs and lacerated your chest over someone who doesn’t know that you don’t have parents? Your mother died of cancer and whoever your dad was left before you were born. You never told Diego this. He doesn’t know the most basic things about you, and yet you love him, you’re going to the hospital over him?
Diego’s mother calls an ambulance while Diego calls your aunt. They speculate about what’s happening, their theories ranging from you being a weirdo who dug holes in your chest and planted flowers, to your body being taken over by freaky space tumors. Neither one of them mention flower sickness. Probably, they’ve never heard of it.
You don’t want an ambulance—money is tight, and you don’t want to spend another night laying awake listening to your aunt and uncle wondering why you cost so much money and why they decided to take you in in the first place and why didn’t they just put you in foster care like everybody said they should?
You’re fine. It’s just a couple of broken ribs. You could run like this, once you pop an ibuprofen and ice your chest. But you can’t speak without groaning, and the ambulance arrives before you pull yourself together.
Diego asks to ride with you to the hospital. His mother agrees, and says that she’ll go too. You have no idea why this is necessary. You can take care of yourself. Who cares if you hurt so bad that you can barely speak, who cares that your breaths are crackling and rustling with new blooms in your lungs?
Apparently, the paramedics do, because they load you into the ambulance without question. The movement jostles your limbs, dislocates something, but just now you’re struggling too much with breathing to care.
You hear Diego’s mother talking to your aunt on the phone. You feel fuzzy and disconnected from your senses, so you're not sure what either of them are saying. You think that you hear fear in your aunt’s voice, maybe anger, but you could be wrong. You feel the ambulance stop and jolt through traffic, you feel Diego’s hand closing over yours, but you see nothing, hear nothing, and soon you feel nothing, too.
When you wake up, you focus your aching, twitching eyes on the most gruesome goddamn thing you’ve ever seen.
On the table next to your hospital bed is a clear, glass vase. In that vase you see flowers. The bottoms of the stems are clipped clean. You can’t smell the blood because you’re still congested from the pollen hurricane, but you can see it. Those flowers aren’t a well-meaning yet useless get-well gift. Those flowers were plucked from your body. Roses, rhododendrons, daffodils and peonies, and as the final fuck-you, a bundle of bloodstained chrysanthemums. Your mother knew what every flower symbolized. If she wanted you to hand over a bad report card, admit to breaking a cereal bowl, or tell her how you felt about her impending death, she’d say “chrysanthemum” and you’d speak the truth.
If these flowers have some kind of message for you, you aren’t prepared to listen.
You’re not surprised by the macabre vase, but you’re not exactly happy about it either. You try to force yourself upright to get rid of them, but your progress is halted by the presence of a heavy bandage. You wince at the pain of movement, squeeze your eyes shut and try to breathe. After two more attempts, you give up and fall back onto the mound of white pillows behind you. All energy has left your body, and you’re in no mood to pretend you’re okay.
Some distant part of you had hoped to find Diego at your bedside, but no one is there and you're not surprised. Diego and his mother probably went home once they’d done their civic duty and made sure you didn’t die. Your aunt or your uncle probably showed up to take care of insurance stuff and then bailed. Despite the fact that you sat by your mother’s bed for hours while she slept off surgery, you don’t expect that kind of dedication directed toward you. Especially not from Diego. This is reasonable and you’re not crying about it. Your eyes are just watering because of the pollen.
After forty minutes of breathing through pain, you get bored enough to jab the call button. You remember pressing it to summon a nurse when your mom coughed up blood onto the silk scarf you bought her for her birthday. Not the same button, you aren’t in your mother’s old room, but the same set-up.
Minutes late you’re greeted by a woman with a wide, leering grin. You distrust her immediately. A clipboard is pressed against her lavender cardigan, and her bone-straight brown hair is held back by a chipped, rhinestone coated hair clip. Shadowing her is a nurse dressed in hospital scrubs. Her ears are enormous and her eyes are too far apart. You don’t trust her, either.
“Hello there, Naoki,” says Lavender Cardigan. She pronounces it Nay-oh-key, and when you offer a correction she ignores you. You want to head butt her in the chest, but you’re too weak to sit up.
She asks you how you’re feeling while the nurse is adjusting your IV and popping a thermometer into your mouth. You’re not sure how they expect you to answer the question.
Once the nurse has her numbers, your mouth is free. When you speak, you hack up a cloud of pollen. Lavender Cardigan steps back, and the nurse offers you a cloth to wipe your mouth with.
“I’m here to talk with you about your condition.” Lavender Cardigan sits on the side of your bed. You scowl, twist your head to the side. You didn’t give her permission to touch your bed. She smiles harder, looks down at her clipboard. “Do you know what your official diagnosis is?” she asks.
“I’d have to be the world’s stupidest asshole not to know what I have,” you say with a snort. “Pretty sure there’s only one disease that makes you grow flowers out of your chest. Also, stop calling me Nay-oh-key or I will jump out the fucking window.”
“Language!” she says, placing a hand to her heart in mock shock. “What you say is true — but do you know what causes it?” Her leering grin turns simpering. Her downturned eyes crinkle with sympathy.
You shrink back, take a deep crackling breath and try to face the conversation like a human instead of a panicking dog. You say that, as far as you know, there isn’t a definitive cause.
“There actually is. While science hasn’t confirmed it completely, there’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that it’s caused by unrequited love.”
“So you’re telling me that I’m supposed to believe this? That because of some disgusting hormone-induced emotion I allegedly have, I magically became some kind of plant monster?” You sigh, fling your head back, ignoring the pain that slams through your neck when you do. “Sure Doc, that makes perfect sense.”
“Oh, I’m not a doctor,” says Lavender Cardigan.
“Of course you’re not.”
“I’m actually a licensed therapist. My name is Miriam Crowley, but you can call me Mimi.” She tries to make eye contact as she says this, so you shut your eyes.
“I’d rather call you Ms. Crowley, if that’s all right with you.”
“Whatever makes you feel comfortable.” You bare your teeth and she responds with a stretched-out smile. “I’d like to discuss the cause of your condition. Who are you feeling unrequited love for?”
“How is that any of your business?” You look up at the nurse, who nods vaguely in agreement, but doesn’t do anything to help you. You say, “I’m sure you can help me without me having to tell you who it is. You wouldn’t even know who they are anyway, unless you spend a lot of time lurking around my high school. You probably do, you’ve got a real creepy vibe to you.”
You stop talking, cough up a lump of congealed pollen. Thankfully, this time you catch it in the cloth the nurse gave you.
“I don’t need personal information about them, I just need you to acknowledge who they are, so we can take steps to move forward.”
“We’re not doing anything. It’s me who has to ‘move forward’, not you. Assuming of course I’m actually in love or whatever, which I’m not.”
“Things will progress a lot more smoothly if you can be honest about your feelings.”
Ms. Crowley’s grin is so obnoxious that looking at it makes your stomach lurch. Her teeth are stained with frosted lipstick, and there’s a popcorn hull stuck in her gums.
“All right. You need to brush your goddamn teeth. How’s that for honest feelings?”
“You know that isn't what I mean.”
“What do I have to say to get you to leave me alone?”
“For now, you simply need to acknowledge that you’re in love with someone. You don’t have to tell me who they are, or anything else that you don’t want to tell me, but you have to admit that this is how you feel.” She pats your hand, and you snatch it away from her. “Otherwise,” she says, “there’s no hope of healing your condition.”
“Well, then, I guess I’m just going to have to die of flowers exploding out of my asshole, because I’m not in love with anyone.” You shrug, shaking loose a few rose petals from behind your ears.
“I wish you could be more in touch with your emotions,” she says, shoulders slumped in an exaggerated sigh. “It would help you so much.”
Finally, the nurse steps in and says the first reasonable thing anyone other than you has said so far.
“Naoki did just wake up from major surgery. I think it might be a bit unreasonable to expect a teenage boy to suddenly get in touch with his emotions in that state. He’s got enough painkillers in his system that I’m surprised he’s forming sentences.” She jerks a thumb toward your IV pole. “How about we let him get some sleep, and you can pick back up on your interrogation later?”
“I’d hardly call it an interrogation.” She blows a loose strand of hair away from her face. “I don’t think that’s fair at all. But fine, you’re the nurse. Nay-oh-key, we’ll revisit this once you’ve had some rest.”
“Eat my entire ass,” you say. The nurse throws back her oversized head and laughs.
You try opening your eyes, but they’re gummed up with what feels like tree sap. You have to scrape off the gunk and pry your eyes open with your fingers. Once you finally do, it takes a while to force your vision into focus.
Your focus lands on Diego, who is sitting in a grey plastic chair near your bedside. His hair is, for once, not gelled into submission. He’s wearing a color block t-shirt with an ice cream cone on it. The rings under his eyes are crow-dark, and though he is smiling, it looks forced. He looks like he’s been up all night worrying. About you? Was he worrying about you?
“Good, you’re awake.” Now his smile looks genuine. You almost smile back, but you restrain yourself. You know your smile is terrifying. You don’t want your genuine attempt at connection met with fear.
“How long have I been asleep for?”
“I don’t know if you woke up while I was gone, but you got to the hospital three days ago. How are you feeling?”
You say this because it’s what your mother always said post-surgery. She was fine, even though they’d just removed a former kidney that was now mostly tumor. She’d have to be on dialysis for the rest of her life, but she was fine. She’d been sliced open, literally, but she was fine. For you, she was fine. You don’t know if she wanted to protect you, or if she, like you, simply couldn’t admit to weakness.
“I doubt that,” says Diego. “That was an intense surgery. I think it took almost a whole day for them to get everything out. I can’t imagine you’re not exhausted.”
“Obviously I am. I had a lot of shit wrong with me before this though, so it’s not a big deal.”
“I don’t know what you had going on before this, but this is major, Naoki. You could have died.”
“People die all the time. An air conditioner could have fallen on you on your way here. You could have gotten hit by a car. I don’t know what your point is.”
Diego laughs. Picks up your hand, which is tinged green from chlorophyll. You almost snatch your hand back, and then you don’t.
“They’re saying you’re going to need chemotherapy. Basically, they’re treating the flowers like tumors. That seems strange to me, because they’re actually beautiful. Not like tumors at all. I asked the doctors to save them. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh, so that grotesque mockery of my pain is your fault.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you’d see it that way. I just thought they were beautiful.” Diego scratches the back of his neck. “Flower Sickness is romantic. I’m not saying it’s good, but there’s something beautiful about suffering for love, isn’t there?”
“Of course there isn’t.”
You hate that he said this, and you also love it. Your mother used to say that about giving birth to you. It hurt like hell, but wasn’t there something wonderful about sacrificing your body to meet the love of your life, your child? You’d had no idea what she was talking about, so you just said that you wished she hadn’t been in pain.
And you? You’ve always secretly cherished your pain. Running hurt you badly—your knees would dislocate themselves because your joints were incompetent bastards, and your muscles would get torn to shreds because they were weak. You paid for victories with agony, and you were proud to do that.
But love, romantic love? For someone who sees beauty in your nearly dying for his sake? Screw that.
You’re about to tell him to get out of your room, but before you can speak his head is down, and he’s spitting out an apology.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he tells you. “I was just trying to put a positive spin on the whole ordeal, but I shouldn’t have. And I shouldn’t have put the flowers in your room without asking how you felt about it. That was weird. It just made me happy to think about you being in love. You’re so closed off emotionally, so alone all the time. It makes me sad.”
“Cool, so you pity me!” You laugh, dislodging another clump of pollen. “I feel totally respected by you right now. Thank you so much.”
“I don’t pity you. Actually, I admire you a lot. If not for you, our team never have beaten Helen Keller H.S. or Photographic Arts. None of us knew how to push ourselves to do our best, before you. You changed my life.”
“Your life seems pretty much the same to me.”
“It’s totally changed! My grades went up. I go running every day now when I used to do it three times a week. I’m killing it on guitar - I’m even writing my own songs. They’re good, too. I’m not bragging, just telling you the truth.”
“Great. What does any of that have to do with me? I didn’t tell you to do any of that. I didn’t care what you did as long as as you stopped being lazy long enough to let me win races.”
“Before you, I was okay with being mediocre. I just wanted to hang out with my friends and have fun. You take track seriously - you really want to win. That makes me want to try harder, too.”
“So I terrified you into being a joyless drone with no friends like me. What a great influence I’ve been.”
“I have friends. That’s part of my point. You might not have Flower Sickness, if you had just allowed yourself a little more human connection.”
You groan, grinding your aching head back into your pillow. “You think that’s easy? You know human connection is a two-way street, right? Have you seen me? Have you spoken to me? Have you experienced me in any way? What kind of human connection could a freak like me possibly make?”
“You’ve made one with me.” Diego takes your hand, rubs the lines on your palm with his sweaty thumb. You shrink back, reflexively call him nasty. He tells you he’s serious. “Really. I’ve seen you. I’ve spoken to you. I’ve experienced you in several ways, and I want more. Honestly, I—” He shakes his head. “No, I can’t get in the way.”
“Of what?” you ask, scraping pollen out of your collar bone. “Right now I’m either going to learn to shoot vines out of my hands like a knock-off superhero, or I’m going to die. There’s nothing to get in the way of.”
“You’re in love with someone, right? You don’t have to settle for dying. You could actually ask them out and see what they say. If you tell me who it is, I might even be able to help you.”
You roll your eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You really don’t know?”
“Is it Jeremy?” There’s no irony in Diego’s expression — he’s serious. You burst out laughing, which makes your surgical wounds howl. Your eyes cross with pain, and you end up gasping for breath instead of cackling. Diego reaches over and rubs your back until you get your air back. You have no idea how he ever worked up the nerve to touch you without knowing if you’d like it, or if you’d bite.
“No,” you say. “It’s not Jeremy. Who says I’m in love with anyone? You know that there’s no proof that that’s the cause, right? A lot of doctors think it’s a parasite. Not that that’s entirely dissimilar from love.”
“Maybe it isn’t caused by love. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. But if you are in love, it doesn’t hurt to do something about it, right? Even if it’s a parasite, and you’re going to die no matter what, don’t you want to make what’s left of your life more enjoyable?”
“Not unless you’re in love with him!”
“Are you in love with Jeremy?”
“No! I just thought it might be him since he’s the person on our team that you talk to most besides—”
“Besides me.” Diego crosses his arms, and purses his lips. After a long pause he finally asks, “is it me?”
“Of course it’s you!” Shouting this triggers a coughing fit, which hurts your lungs. Mucus-sticky petals attach to your chin, so you wipe them off with the cloth the nurse gave you earlier. “God, you really are stupid.”
The instant the words leave your mouth you start looking for a way to take it back. Before you can figure out how, Diego stuffs the words back in with his lips. He wraps his arms around your shoulders and kisses you carelessly enough to risk dislodging your IVs. You kiss back, praying you won’t puke flower viscera into his trusting mouth. Then you elbow him off of you.
“You’re just doing this because you think if you don’t I’ll die. It isn’t real.”
“That’s not true,” he says, wiping his lips on the back of his wrist. “Why would I do that? It wouldn’t help you—doesn’t the other person have to love you back for real?”
“I doubt it. This isn’t magic. It’s my body’s response to what’s probably a parasite, but if it is love, it’s my body responding to me feeling unloved. If you somehow tricked me into thinking it were real, do you think my cells are going to know the difference?”
“So, conversely, if it’s real but you don’t believe me, you won’t get any better?” Diego sighs. “I guess I’m going to have to think harder about how to convince you that I’m serious. I love you, Naoki. I really do.”
“We’ve spent what, two or three hours together outside of music class and the track team? You don’t love me. You don’t know me.”
“If that’s the criteria, then you don’t love me either. You’ve spent exactly as much time with me as I’ve spent with you. You don’t know me. I have a cousin named Epiphanio who lives in Los Angeles and self-identifies as a brony, did you know that? The first time I played Pokemon, I accidentally used my Master Ball on a Raticate and I cried.”
He puts his hands on his thighs, and leans forward in his chair.
“And I’m intersex! Did you know that? I’m intersex and I can probably get pregnant and it’s a huge part my life and personal history, but you didn’t know that because we don’t know each other well enough. Yet. But you love me so much it nearly killed you. So why can’t I love you, too?”
You don’t know what to say. His outburst underscores just how ridiculous your feelings are. He’s right — you know nothing about him and therefore you have no basis for loving him. But you do. You do. You love him and it hurts worse than anything you’ve ever felt before.
Diego wraps his arms around your shoulders again, this time taking greater care to avoid the IVs. He kisses you, left hand cupping your cheek. Tilting your neck to meet him hurts, but you kiss him back.
You picture vines shooting out of your arms and binding him to you, but nothing like that happens. Instead you just cling to him. You kiss each other in tiny spurts for several reasons—you can’t believe he’s willing to kiss you, you’re too exhausted and in too much pain for anything intense, you’ve never kissed anyone before and don’t know how, and finally, your plant monster status is still stopping you from breathing through your nose.
There are more problems. You bump noses and his teeth get caught on your lower lip. You don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling, or if what you do feel is enough to lift your flower sickness. You do know that you want to keep kissing him, that your chest feels warm and his hands are warm, and that that’s a good thing.
“Are you cured?” asks Diego, eyes shining like they’re being lit up by the moon. It’s hospital halogen, but you find it beautiful nonetheless.
“I don’t know,” you say. You don’t feel flowers stirring in your lungs, but you refuse to indulge in optimism.
“Okay,” says Diego, face pressed into the curve of your neck. “I hope it worked. Even if it didn’t, I still love you.”
You shut your eyes, tilt your head so your ear is pressed against his temple. Your mouth says, “you’re stupid” but your mind and heart are saying “I love you too” and you’re pretty sure that Diego hears the translation.
You are not cured. Not exactly. This isn’t a fairytale.
You do not magically regain your strength the instant you accept that Diego loves you. Your broken ribs and your surgical wounds are unaffected by your feelings. The pollen trapped in your sinuses will take weeks to flush away. You have plant cancer and you have to go through chemo and radiation treatment. Diego thinks this is overkill, but you don’t. Anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to prove that Flower Sickness is actually caused by unrequited love, and you’re not about to forgo treatment for some pseudoscientific bullshit. You already know that love can’t cure disease. If it could, your mother would have survived.
So you get your treatment. You lose your hair and you vomit furiously and you lose twenty pounds you can’t afford. You take the rest of the school year off, get pneumonia twice thanks to your chemo-trashed immune system. You scream, you cry, you suffer and feel closer to your mother. Your aunt won’t look at you because this is, sort of, what it looked like when she lost her sister.
Sometimes you let Diego help you, other times you tell him to go away. He lugs his guitar and the keyboard from school to your bedside, and he plays that reggaetón version of Big Mouth Strikes Again. He also plays a salsa version of Girlfriend in a Coma too, and you like it because you like the darker humor of this Diego. He is sweetness and he is light, but he’s also someone who would play a song about wanting to kill a comatose girlfriend to you as you lay helpless in your hospital bed.
You stop producing plant matter. You gain the weight back, and grow back your hair. You cut it into a mohawk. Diego gets a mohawk, too. You’re on five different medications, on a schedule, careful about interactions with caffeine. You avoid triggering new growths by staying out of the sun. Lavender Cardigan says that your treatment plan should include regular make-out sessions with Diego. You call her an idiot but you do make out with him, a lot. She tells you to be more open with your feelings, and you don’t tell her that you will, but you do try, just a little, with Diego.
You are not cured. Flower Sickness is a chronic illness. You could relapse, easily. But you’re not sprouting flowers anymore, except in the window boxes you and Diego buy together to grow in his bedroom. You grow chrysanthemums, and daffodils, and roses. You hope your new relationship lasts. If it doesn’t, you’d like to think that you’d fall in love again and tell the person before you explode in floral fanfare. You also have the option of never falling in love again, and that is a comfort in its own way.
But, you think, things will probably work out with Diego. Long enough, at least, for your body to forget how to generate plant cells.