Hydroponics by Monica Busch

My grandmother’s tomatoes are the sweetest, but now my grandfather grows them in water. I used to kneel in my grandmother’s garden in the summer. Dirt would cake the cracks in my knees and get under my fingernails as I’d watch my grandmother’s hands weave around the plants. Her hands, older and more mature than mine, were inside snug gloves. I watched her closely and touched every plant after her, trying to feel what she already knew and no longer needed to touch to navigate. She grew beans, peppers, and sometimes carrots. Some years there were strawberries and potatoes. Once, there were snap peas. But, she always grew tomatoes.

I followed behind my grandmother in the mornings before lunch, hopping over the hoses arranged in a web through the rows of vegetables. When I asked if I could play in the sprinkler one afternoon, she suggested my kiddie pool instead.

“We don’t want to waste water,” she told me. “Not when it’s going to be so much hotter next week.”

I thought on this for about thirty seconds before declaring I was hungry.

“Didn’t your mother feed you breakfast?” she asked.

“Yeah, but I can I please have a snack?”

She paused a moment and looked down at me. I wiped the perspiration from my upper lip.

“Why don’t we get you something to drink in a few minutes, instead?”

My shoulders drooped, my stomach growled, but I knew better than to argue with a suggestion that was really an order.

“Sometimes,” she told me, “your body thinks it’s hungry when it’s really thirsty.”

I stopped myself short from rolling my eyes. Respecting my elders, as she so often reminded me to do, really meant doing whatever they wanted or else I would have to take an early nap or sit on the stairs for timeout or skip dessert. So I conceded and instead wondered how your body could mix up thirst and hunger. One is in your mouth and the other is in your stomach. It’s not that I’m not thirsty, I thought, but I definitely want cheese and crackers.

My other grandmother always had candy dishes sitting out, but this one was always telling me I wasn’t actually hungry, like when a baby asks for juice but you give them water instead. I continued behind her, feeling a tiny bit dejected.

The maze of tomato plants we weaved through seemed endless; the sky was their only contrast. Bulging green and red bulbous balls hid under lazy leaves all around me. My grandmother, focused, inspected each plant, vines sprawling up their posts, weaving through the cages they needed to grow.

This is when her gloves came off.

Her thin hands grasped each tomato one by one, turned them up and down. If every green trace had faded from the fruit, she pulled, plucked it, and placed it in her bowl. She moved on to the next, the fuzzy vines bristling against her creased fingers. I reached out to the nearest stand which housed tiny, me-sized tomatoes. She looked at my pudgy fingers fitting the swollen ball, still on the vine, in my palm. The corners of her mouth turned up, ever so slightly.

“Those are cherry tomatoes,” she said.

I looked up into her eyes, the color of the sky behind her. Beads of sweat collected at her hairline and more gathered in the caverns of her sharp collar bones.

“See how small they are?” she asked. “They never get any bigger.”

Saying nothing, I reverted my eyes to the fruit in my hand and wondered how it knew to stop growing, when it knew it was full enough of tomatoey insides that it could just hang in the sun, bobbing in the summer breeze.

“Is the whole thing red?” she asked me.

Furrowing my brow and still quiet, I mimicked her prodding, turning the dwarfed tomato in all directions. I looked back up at her and nodded.

“Well, go ahead and pick it then. And be gentle. Don’t pull too hard and hurt my plants.”

I tugged and felt the quiet release. I wrapped my fingers around the freed tomato.

“Let me see that,” my grandma immediately ordered. I obeyed, as I was taught to do, and she rubbed the fruit on her shirt. She inspected it once more before handing it back.

“Go ahead and try it,” she said.

“Eat it?” I knew better than to eat fruits and veggies that weren’t refrigerated, and my grandmother insisted everything be washed, sometimes twice, before eating.

“Yes, eat it- it should be pretty sweet,” she said.

I hesitated before putting the whole thing in my mouth. I faintly noticed the flavorlessness of the skin before I bit down and the sun-warmed guts exploded between my teeth. My hand shot to my mouth to keep everything inside. I was sure it was the sweetest thing I’d ever tasted.

Eyes wide, I swallowed and looked up at my grandma. She saw the hunger flash through my eyes.

“Good, huh?” she asked.

I responded with a mushy “mhm.”

“You can have one more. One. I don’t want you spoiling your appetite before lunch.”

I was disheartened but I plucked another cherry tomato from the vine. I plunked it in my mouth and the taste was better than I remembered. I could eat these for hours, I thought, and never need a glass of water.

 ***

Fifteen years later, my grandmother works full time; five days a week instead of three, not nearly enough time to tend a garden. My grandfather is running a business from home after the tuxedo company he worked for shut down the New England branch he managed, leaving him jobless, but with extensive dry-cleaning skills. He built a new garden in their new backyard in South Carolina, where they moved when I was in high school. It’s a tiered, raised bed garden. My grandmother, working later and later, has never stepped foot in it, even though she brags that he built it just for her. His tomatoes are grown inside the house, though, in water. There is only room for one red thing behind their new house, and that’s the dirt.

My grandfather is experimenting with hydroponics, they told me on the phone that spring, and also cooking every dinner. I’m visiting for a week between semesters.

Sitting at the breakfast bar in the temperature-controlled, air-filtered kitchen, I face away from the murky water in the plant contraption as I watch my grandfather slicing tomatoes, to be sauteed with the zucchini he also grew, except outside. All of the tomatoes are the size of my fist. We talk as he slices, each fruit oozing seeds across the cutting board. He tells me that my grandmother is exhausted.

She’s really down-trodden; she complains her kitchen is his kitchen. She doesn’t know where the good knives are whenever she looks for them, or whether their pantry has black or pinto beans when she needs them. The new pediatrician’s office she works at just isn’t like the one she was at three days a week in New England, when I was growing up. The other CNAs she’s in charge of at her new job don’t respect her. They don’t even put their phones away when she asks, and the doctors do nothing about it, he says.

He slices and slices, pushing little pink piles aside to make room for more. I see no cherry tomatoes. He tells me that they have settled on a new church, but they are still without friends. By the time the weekend comes around, he says, my grandmother needs to run errands with her mom, who is ninety and lives with them now. She is too tired to relax. The hum of little water pumps sings a song of steady motion. My grandfather finishes with the tomatoes and puts them in the frying pan.

I hear the garage rumbling open. The door next to the refrigerator soon opens and my grandmother, hair now down to her shoulders, enters in her navy blue scrubs.

She cheerfully greets me and side-eyes the sizzling vegetables. She asks me what I did that day, which friends I visited, whether I had plans to see my brother. She tells us about the traffic, and while complaining about a lady who failed to turn on a red light, she pulls basil out of a cabinet and sprinkles it on the tomatoes. She never stops her story.

After dipping a wooden spoon in the pan and tasting its contents, she pauses for a half a beat, satisfied. She puts the basil back and tells us she is going to change, walks across the kitchen, and slams her bedroom door behind her. For someone very concerned with things like interior design and the state of the new wooden moldings, she always seems to be slamming that door.

Later, the four of us, my great-grandmother included, sit at the high-top table and my grandparents ask me about classes, friends, and student debt.

I answer as my grandmother pushes the tomatoes and zucchini around her plate.

These tomatoes are pretty tasty, she tells my grandfather. She reminds us how much she loves onions.

He grows them in water, she tells her mother. She means the tomatoes, not the onions. Those are from the store.

My eyes widen and I smile because I don’t know how to pretend to be interested in plants that grow in water. I had a beta fish once that ate aquatic plants but it died, and that’s it, and I don’t really care. I much prefer the sun. So I say wow, but she doesn’t care what I say, as long as I react, and, already forgetting the topic of water pumps and roots suspended in fishtanks, she comments that she’s gained weight. But these must be invisible pounds weighing her down, making her feel heavy, because none of us can see it. My grandmother is not yet sixty, but she is a smaller than me, though we are the same height. My grandmother has never been overweight, I’m convinced. But she insists that her clothes don’t fit.

I grimace and say nothing, not arguing with a suggestion that she is commanding I believe. I also don’t know how to pretend to be interested in people complaining about their pant sizes. I don’t really care, because it took me all of my adolescence to realize that bodies are different, all of them, and sometimes you gain weight and sometimes you lose it. And even though I understand that, it’s sometimes still hard to believe, especially when I’m hungry and I catch myself in the mirror and I wonder if maybe I’m not hungry for another slice of pizza, but a glass of water instead. It can be really hard to tell.

My grandmother, though, is insistent she’s blowing up and will soon explode. I look at the bottle of red wine on the counter behind her, out of place in her historically dry house.

My grandfather sighs, and I think she must say this a lot. He is worn down, unamused. He doesn’t even look up from his plate. My grandmother stabs a tomato with a fork, picks it up and inspects its roasted skin. The tomato sits on the edge of the fork, separated from her. A bit of resigned longing seems to glimmer below the surface of her greying eyes. She doesn’t get to feel the vines anymore. She doesn’t know if there was any green left when the tomato was plucked because she’s too busy chasing women half her age around and stopping them from texting. She’s too busy looking into mirrors and watching her self swell to a size she would never actually reach.

My grandmother is a cherry tomato, I think, but her kind doesn’t grow here because no one takes the time to tend to them, so she forgets how sweet she is. Instead, thinking they are thirsty, the tomatoes hang in water and they absorb all that is around them. Surrounded by others’ constant bloating, she thinks she’s turning into everybody else. She doesn’t know that her vines know exactly where to grow and that the cage she weaves through is exactly the right size for her.

She swallows the tomato and and clears her throat. She remarks that it’s early enough to have a glass of cabernet before bed, and gets up to scrape the rest of the food on her plate into the trash. I look at my plate and I hear my grandfather sigh again.

We finish dinner and all I taste is water.

~

Monica Busch is a writing and literature student from Massachusetts. She explores multiple genres, often settling on familial themes. She lives with her roommate and two cats.

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