Read time: 18 mins

You Had Me at Aloe 

by Ark Ramsay
2 July 2024

‘Chances are that bright light is one of Musk’s satellites.’

Aloe dropped this bit of trivia while arcing his finger across the night. In the dark, his eyes took on the colour of bracken water, and he squared his baseball cap until the brim connected with his thick eyebrows.

‘You sure?’ I probed, unwilling to sink the evening under the full weight of my doubt.

‘There’s a whole constellation of his little satellites,’ he went on. ‘We will grow old with a new sky.’

He curled his body towards mine and pouted his lips, signalling that I should kiss him, but we were not alone on this beach. A nearby group of drunken tourists, hands overhead and hooting, worshipped the gibbous moon as it slunk out from behind a cloud. Joggers orbited, panting like dogs.

I pecked Aloe on the cheek and wondered if I would see this new sky with him or with someone who understood the risk involved for two bodies—still outwardly shaped like men—to come together in public on this island.

‘Can I tell you something?’ He charged forward without waiting for a reply, ‘I’m not a real gay—not like you—you’ve suffered for it. I kind of showed up.’

He had only just come out to himself, having successfully chameleoned into straight passing for twenty-five years.

‘You want to get beat up?’ I feigned surprise but could still remember the primal yearning to be punished for my body’s appetites.

‘Yeh,’ he admitted, then quickly backtracked, staring up into his satellites, ‘No—no and I don’t want you to get hurt, obviously.’

I tilted his face so that we might kiss properly, downplaying my heart’s panicked rhythm. My own harassment was a film reel looping in memory. Being chased through a busy street for the unorthodox colour of my hair. The house of my body compromised by a stranger’s hand groping deposits of newly swelling fat on my upper chest. The tiny blue estrogen pills being discovered by someone who should not have discovered them.

He was ecstatic when we pulled apart, but my eyes darted to the shadows. When nobody appeared to do us harm, a part of me was disappointed. Without the punishment he so desperately craved, I worried that Aloe would step back into the closet, his gayness somehow underwhelming because it was not hard-fought.

‘Not so scary.’ He smiled.

‘Not so scary,’ I echoed. Terrified.

***

Aloes grow from pups. Cerberus-headed clusters that shiver into life beside the parent plant and root even in the least promising ground. When nothing falls to nourish them, they yet manage to persevere.

That’s how I imagined my heart when I met him—capable of outlasting drought.

            ***

Since accepting that my aunt was dying, Aloe had begun to respectfully dim the car lights as we idled in her driveway. Hers had always been a garden planted to bloom at Christmas. The white cascade of Snow-on-the-Mountain, barricading the wooden house, appeared wounded at this time of year. Poinsettia, fierce and blood-coloured, gashed through white.

Instead of ‘goodbye’ I offered my own bit of trivia.

‘The origin of “pheromone” is a portmanteau.’ I told the dark curl of his body. ‘It’s the words “I carry” and “stimulating” pressed together.’

‘I know that one,’ he said, flashing a Cheshire cat grin which I interpreted as loving. Then, in a suddenly dispassionate tone, ‘Don’t get too attached.’

‘To what?’ It came out of me with an exhaustion that bordered on mockery, but shocks arced through my fingers and toes. My body was born incapable of lying.

‘To…’ He fumbled, and I heard the word ‘me’, even if it did not come from his lips. ‘This one-upmanship.’

I took a deep breath and once again reminded him that I was not a man.

‘Oh.’ His voice held frustration and penitence in equal measure, ‘That’s not what I meant.’

He lurched across the handbrake to hug me; his muscled torso pressed atop mine made me feel delightfully small. I hated how delicious and feminine it felt. To be manhandled like that.

From the window, I watched him check his phone and reverse onto the quiet street. I had begun to speculate that he was receding, day by day, into the not-there-anymore. But there were some exits which were more assured than others. In the sunrise-yellow room of this house, with its many leafy denizens, my aunt had barely a few weeks remaining.

I needed Aloe to leave me before or after her death. I had long conditioned myself to survive staggered loss.

Only when I was pouring out a glass of water into a potted anthurium lily did I remember my aunt’s strict advice: never water anything at night. Not plants. Not dark thoughts.

***

The first aloe plant I ever watched over was rescued from a Kroger Supermarket in Columbus, Ohio. The planter was the size of a coffee mug emblazoned with, You Had Me At Aloe. The lesser of two cliches: the other option was, Aloe, Can You Hear Me? Overseas, and alone for the first time, it became the one familiar presence in my Ikea-furnished dorm room.

That single brown spine struggled to make it through its first winter, and in that, we were alike. But I imagined that in the scorch of the following Columbus summer, it learned new things about me from its perch atop the windowsill. Judgement-less and revived, it monitored my laboured transition from pants to skirts to pants again. Neon nail polish blotched on and then scrubbed off almost immediately. The plant was there when Grindr was installed. The first bad blowjob. The first good one. It silently witnessed its fair share of stumbled-through prayers in which I never beseeched God to change me—only that there would be place for a girl like me in my old life.

I had been taught, by my aunt, not to endow plants with such human qualities—but I was lonely. I forced that struggling-to-grow cactus to be something it wasn’t. Out of everything that took place in that dorm room, this alone would have caused her shame.

By the time the aloe sprouted its own pups, I had begun to trust the words of an American boy who sat on the edge of my bed twice a week, blue jeans around his ankles. In the aftermath, we would lie together for a little bit and talk at each other, practising the kinds of monologues that could only be given to someone in transit. They’re your family, he would repeat, his hands in my hair; that love is forever. Mouth full of him, I could not respond that it was not their love I was worried about losing—but the momentary privilege of being myself in secret.

‘Do it over video,’ he said. ‘That’s what I did. Quick. Band-aid.’

I took his advice.

My mother, who already texted me twice a day, began the Skype call by asking if I was eating properly. Was I making use of the spices and pepper sauce she had bundled for me? Both parents leaned too close into their separate screens, warping into bulbous, fleshy creatures. I took a deep breath. First, I told them about my grades. Then, the taciturn Ohio weather. Then, a long pause where my father tapped the glass and asked if I had frozen. Punctuated with where you did you goes and you still theres? He explained that the prayer group held me in their intentions, first in a roll call of divine wants, privileged to be held above an end to all wars. I thanked him. This is what the American boy could not understand; I did not want an escape from my parents’ care.

There was no prepared speech. If anything, it shook out of me, my body, incapable of lies. I told them that I was not straight. Knowing that words like gay, queer or the truth—transgender—would be mudslides that collapsed any bridge we might together cross.

I said it with my whole chest, thinking that alone would make my father proud. Even if he did not like the truths he heard, he would come home nodding to himself, It was said well.

The back of my throat was sore, where the American boy had been.

There was a parrot in the background of the call, probably flying home to roost. Its shrill alarm was picked up by others of its kind, and I pictured sunlight on iridescent green feathers—there was ample time to speculate about the world outside. Within the call, there was only the lapsed, absent expression which precedes disconnection. My mother left the call. My father left the call.

I crossed the road, bought two large pizzas topped with cheese and an oil spill and devoured both next to the sidewalk. I learned there, fingers patinaed with grease, how to stitch all that hurt to my ribs, telling myself it would be survivable that way. An anaesthetised ache. In the background and accumulating, to be slowly felt over a period of a decade, instead of all at once. There had been a pandemonium of people in my life, cawing parrots, squawking things I had long stopped agreeing with. But those people had loved me and been mine.

The most painful part of disassembling my life in the Midwest was not that it had only just begun, but that aloes were abundant. Nobody wanted to house my green refugee, so it was abandoned atop a recycling bin. I watched it for a while, the way I imagined mothers did when forced to leave their babies at fire stations, but nobody came to its rescue.

My aunt was the only family member to pick up her phone. She said, Come home and live with me with the excitement of a black sheep who suddenly finds herself in a herd of two. When I recounted the entire story, she made me double back and explain what happened to that cactus. She mourned for the aloe more than her fractured family.

***

Aloe gone, I shut the jalousie windows in the living room, even though my aunt no longer cared if someone invaded her dying space. A stern nurse arrived in the late afternoon to help her shower and then into bed where she lay trapped until the sun rose again. Sleep was elusive, and any noise had her calling out in shock.

‘Who are you who are you who are you.’

‘I’m here,’ I said. ‘It’s me.’

‘Who is me?’ the voice asked, confused until it climbed into consciousness. My aunt called my name. The one I had chosen. ‘Alicia?’

Hearing it, all of my man-ness sloughed off, and I could leave that protective armour in the living room until the next morning. That was the gift we were giving each other, to be unguarded, here when it mattered most.

‘You were out with the boy?’ My aunt breathed, as I stepped into her room.

Slow to reply, I changed out of my clothes in the dark and into one of her old nightgowns. Tented in floral print, I climbed into her queen-sized bed.

‘Yes,’ she answered the question for herself. ‘Yes, you were out with the boy.’

Her hand shot across the mattress and clutched mine. A phantom of her old fierce self in the force of that grip. I told her that I liked him, and she sighed.

‘Girls, boys, you have to be prepared for when they leave.’

What she did not add: families, friends, congregants, close neighbours, familiar faces in the supermarket and people you pass on your morning beach walks. My aunt was always cataloging the people who would go extinct from my life.

‘Not tonight, Auntie,’ I said. ‘Just for once, let him stay.’

‘Alicia,’ her voice was heavy. ‘The house is paid up; you know how to take care of my garden; you have the skills to make a little money here and there—but your heart. I cannot go until you understand how much is left to lose.’

‘When do you plan on going?’ I pushed back.

Glued to the wooden roof were glowing plastic stars. A week before, Aloe and I installed them as a surprise so that waxy yellow constellations were present for her to chart the bed-locked voyage from sundown to sunup. Fake stars in her room. Fake satellites outside. Everywhere a new sky.

She started coughing, strained and wet, bringing nothing up. I waited to see if it would stop, carefully monitoring her breathing. She had been convinced of her imminent death for months now, to the point that even the nurse looked down on her with renewed concern.

‘Did you water the plants today?’ she asked, as she did every night.

‘Yes,’ I promised.

‘Good, good.’ She was drifting off, with only enough energy to repeat her one commandment. ‘Green things will never hurt you.’

I took off the nightgown and left her to sleep.

***

The first thing my aunt taught me about gardening was to dry out the wounds of a succulent cutting so that it might scab over and reduce the chance of infection when planted in fresh soil. Arranged like the arms of a desiccated sea star, those cuttings spent six days on her kitchen table.

She wanted me to witness, firsthand, that there was a start and end to the healing process.

***

Aloe was in the garden when I awoke.

My aunt’s nurse was out there as well, a large man in navy scrubs with immaculately plaited cornrows that ended in bright baubles—like a schoolgirl’s. They were both bent over the root system of a neglected ponytail palm that had managed to split its clay planter.

Catching sight of me in the kitchen window, the nurse called out.

‘What does she want us to do with this?’

On his first visit, the nurse had gripped my elbow and warned of an inevitable, colourless place, where my aunt would give up on everything—even gardening. Only, she continued to flash in and out of presence like the sweeping return of a tidal bore.

Today, she slept in her favourite chair, the muted television set looping game shows. I answered the nurse, parroting another one of her green commandments. An invocation she used to sing into the dirt as she toiled.

‘All my growing babies will be healthy and happy.’

Aloe kicked a booted foot at a shard of clay, dislodging it from the root cluster, and victoriously thrust it overhead. The nurse patted him on the back, and they traded inaudible masculine praise. I stepped out into the yard, self-consciously shirtless.

‘I’ll leave you—boys to finish,’ the nurse said, eyes on my chest, an unasked question gapped between ‘you’ and ‘boys’.

‘That’s not a boy,’ Aloe said, pointing at me with the electric grin of someone who stumbled upon the right answer, but the nurse was already on his way inside.

Aloe kept his finger outstretched, and I felt a surge of simple, overwhelming affection. Shoeless, I kicked the planter pot, hard enough to inoculate myself with the briefest of hurts.

He skidded over and wrapped that leg in an awkward embrace which forced squawking laughter from both of us. I bent the peak of his baseball cap until I could see his water-streaming eyes. His forehead pressed tenderly against my kneecap, grip so fierce I felt the need to start running so that he could have the chance to hold me back. I let it all unfold, my heart breaking and breaking, because I did not yet know if this was to be the maximal limit of care. The gross amount of love I would ever receive from him—and if it was—how could I waste it?

***

This bedroom was once a quarantine for new plants. It had no ceiling stars.

On an air mattress, with its ill-fitting sheets, Aloe squirmed atop my lap. The globe of his ass mapped in stripes of pink and red.

‘I am yours,’ he whined. ‘I am yours I am yours I am yours.’

He was so loud that it triggered my aunt’s haunting investigation from across the hallway. Who are you who are you who are you. Their voices blended until he belonged to her.

I brought my hand down again, and he rocked forward, jostling a pile of laundry. He shoved his face into tea towels and cleanly folded blouses, clenching his teeth around a plea for me to continue. Raising my sore hand, I brought it down on the same spot. He squirmed under my ministrations, and I felt a wave of pity overtake any lust. His gritted teeth, his demand for me to keep going, the tears welling in his eyes—this was a body convinced that it deserved to be punished. Through warming, inflamed flesh, he vibrated with a desire to be destroyed. But the power was tantalising—owning instead of being owned—so I convinced myself that there was healing to be found through all this pain.

Afterward, covered in the pearl ropes of his ‘stimulating’, he clung to me fiercely. Smelled my armpits and the evidence of himself on my chest, as if his other senses had failed him.

‘What about you?’ he asked quietly.

I was thrown back into my body. That betraying tendril had risen and fallen with Aloe across my lap. He had bucked against it expectantly, and the configuration of my anatomy had lapsed into blissful confusion. Now, it was as uncomfortably present as unspoken regret.

He reached a hand under the elastic waistband to palm my flaccid penis, and I screwed my eyes shut. Wrong images assaulted me: spoiled food after the electricity is cut, the solid wave of sargasso seaweed browning the coastlines, the car-tire separation of one-half of a mongoose from the other. When touched down there, only entropy came.

Eventually, he let go, flopped across my stomach, and asked,

‘What now?’

‘I had a good time.’ Working through a practiced apology: ‘I don’t need anything else. Promise. You’re good.’

He shrugged his shoulders, and anger spewed up my throat. I tasted bile. How dare he give up so easily. Not press in a new way—do the work of translating the parts of my body speaking a strange gibberish. I deserved pleasure. How was I expected to find it alone?

‘I get it,’ he said, patting my stomach. ‘Your whole gender thing. Man, when I was little, I used to dream of being a girl—like before bed I would dream that little Aloe would have long hair and play with the girls—it was so weird. As a teenager, gosh, this is even funny to think about, I wore my mom’s clothes when she was out. Put on her makeup too. Little girly Aloe. Anyway, all of that vanished when I turned sixteen. All gone.’

He chuckled as if the joke was ongoing. I lay there winded, without the heart to tell him that those thoughts were forever. There was no way to take the little girls entombed in our man-bodies and laugh them away. My hand was smarting, and I could not shake the feeling that it had come down repeatedly on some sixteen-year-old girl who took the brunt of all this pain and pleasure.

‘Maybe it’ll just go away for you too,’ he said, palm pressed against the grey fabric of my underwear. One squeeze, then he let go.

My mind was filled with rotten food, sulphur-stinking seaweed, spilled guts.

***

‘I am happy when the Poui tree is yellow yellow.’ My aunt drummed her fingers on the mattress, evidence that her mind had rushed back in with the tide. ‘Even if it comes a month early now because the world is getting too hot.’

Her nightgown was covered in beatific teddy bears, mine in purple orchids.

‘When else?’ I pressed.

‘The mango? When it fruits.’

‘No, with people.’ A mango tree could never love me the way I wanted to be loved.

‘People?’ There was shock in her voice as if she had not considered us an option. ‘A woman who used to make me happy paved her whole garden over in concrete.’

‘Why?’

‘She said there was too much—upkeep. I think she was talking about both me and the garden. Then she left the island anyway to go work in America, so there was just this house with concrete all around it for no reason.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled.

‘Alicia, why are you apologising?’ She was interrupted by a fit of wet, bed-shaking coughs. ‘You aren’t the woman who did that.’

Sometimes she sounded just like my mother. Whenever that happened, I wanted her to hurry up and die so that I could begin the horrible work of getting over the loss of everyone with that voice.

A fake star dislodged from the roof, and for one brief tantalising moment, I thought I was witnessing a meteor shower. More wet coughing. Persistent this time. I wondered if our family, our old congregation, the prayer group, the people who used to join my aunt on early-morning beach walks, the neighbours—everyone who professed to love her before the concrete woman—would be present at her funeral.

‘Alicia,’ she said, ‘maybe I’m wrong. You know, just one seed out of many. Maybe the boy sticks around and never concretes anything over. Maybe you find a way to be yourself and be loved for it.’

I thanked her. Grateful for the attempt at comfort. But I knew her well enough now to sense when she was lying.

***

Aloe got there before the ambulance.

Into the bedroom he bolted, palms up as if intending to use them as defibrillators.

‘Where are we?’ I screamed, ear to the phone receiver, unable to provide clear instructions to dispatch.

‘Above Conset Bay—you always think it’s Martin’s Bay—but it’s not.’ He stared down at my aunt, drowning in her body. ‘Why do you confuse the two; you’ve lived here for years.’

Ignoring the rest of his statement, I clarified for the ambulance driver who had arrived outside some other house, in some other village. Aloe called out my aunt’s name in a firm tone and seemed surprised when that did not revive her.

Then, the winding drive behind the ambulance where Aloe took my right hand in his left, and clumsily prayed. I did not agree to half the things he offered to sacrifice in return for my aunt’s health.

Then, the dour waiting room lights. It was Christmas Eve, and two women paraded through the aisles of plastic bucket chairs, singing about the saviour’s inevitable birth.

Then, the hours waiting to see her. Only to find her flustered, demanding to know if any of the staff understood how to care for the drooping orchid on the receptionist’s desk.

Then, tearful Aloe, saying all the things I wish he had said to me—and that I had said to my aunt: You are a great woman; you make me feel seen; I am myself when you are around; please stay.

***

I squinted as a bright light slipped out of the sky.

A shooting bolt of oranges and yellows. I thought meteor. Then, Elon’s little satellites. It was directly overhead now—the phosphorus flare of a match racing down a black hallway. The street was quiet, the somnolent garden rustling with night creatures, my aunt and Aloe asleep inside. I did not move. There was nowhere to go. The new sky was already tearing itself apart.

I waited, but the light snuffed out, and when something landed in the yard, it did so with a kettle’s whistle and the crinkle of a soda can. My body, that creature I could never lie to, was strangely calm.

Behind an enormous snake plant on the patio, I found my aunt’s emergency flashlight.

These were dew-forming hours, and the grass was cold. I passed the beam of light back and forth until I found a piece of woven metal fabric, blackened at both ends, no larger than a grapefruit. It looked like nothing I had seen before, garbage from the heavens.

I touched it; warm.

This alien warmth burst the final threads, and all that deferred grief rushed through me. I was losing everyone all over again, and still, there were two more left to lose. It did not matter that Aloe, on returning from the hospital, had buried his face into my stomach and promised to remain through things good and things bad. Or that he had folded our clothes, stacked them in a bound-together pile and crawled into bed beside me. Or that his nose slotted against my neck as if it had always belonged there.

The piece of twisted metal was half-buried, the force of its descent planting it in the soft earth as if space had been made in the garden for this foreign body. Aloe’s voice sounded from the bedroom, and I expected my aunt’s startled owl call, who, who, who, who. It did not arrive. The night was full of objects breaking off from their place of origin and spiralling far.

To see if anything else was falling, I looked up.


2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: Issue 1


Artwork © Illustrations — Keyonne Yard / Keeks Art Studio

About the Author

Ark Ramsay

Ark Ramsay (Bridgetown, 1994) is a non-binary writer currently based in Barbados. Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The A-Line: Journal of Progressive Thought, Small Axe, Gertrude Press, Meridian, The Rumpus, Passages North, and The Gulf Coast. Their writing has also been a finalist for the Inaugural Story Foundation Prize through Story Magazine and an honourable […]

Related