My boyfriend leaves his patio tomatoes
at my apartment at around the three-year mark,
just when I’m realizing he may never commit.
This arrangement is supposed to be temporary,
while we’re out of town, so my neighbor can water
since he doesn’t know any of his neighbors
well enough to ask. Which maybe should be a sign.
We return from the trip, I am still ring-less,
and he leaves the tomatoes with me. I decide
this is a metaphor: Anything involving commitment
is my problem. On cue, winter blows in and the plant dies.
I bring in the last of the fruits and set them in a bowl.
I think, Patio tomatoes. Tomatoes designed for a person
lacking a patch of earth, a person whose level of settled-ness
is a patio. Biting into one, I notice the skin is thick and tough,
the taste unremarkable. Patio tomato: while it needs
care, it is not confined by its roots. I carry it easily to the trash.
The plant has been gone three weeks and the fruits just as long
in their bowl. I’m keeping my distance. Once I stop calling,
my phone starts ringing off the hook. Sometimes
I don’t answer, even turn off my machine. Let him wonder
where I am. I mean to write about the tomatoes, to record
their decay as it occurs, but I set them on top of the fridge
and forget them until I’m up there retrieving a vase
for roses. The tomatoes have collapsed and darkened.
I must have left three store-boughts in the mix—
there are stickers bearing the SKU 4664.
One store-bought is red and plump, passable, even.
It could be at the grocery, overlooked. It attaches
by the stem to another tomato that has shriveled
and grown a white collar of fuzz. The healthier
tomato appears to have sucked the life from this one.
A vampire tomato. The patio tomatoes?
They look like sundried, only black and crisp.
As if next, they will turn to ash.
Come February, he goes and ruins the whole metaphor
by marrying me. Unfortunately for this poem,
we’ve been happy ever since. The morning of our third
anniversary, I rise at five to write. We’ve moved
from the apartment to our house, and yes, I wrapped
the bowl of tomatoes in newspaper when I packed.
They’ve been taking up the back quarter of a desk drawer
ever since. Only the stickers remain unchanged.
In fact, without that dried-up vampire stem, they’d be
unrecognizable. Yet I seem unable to let them go.
I begin with the mold, the solidified collar, the puffy trails
that look like miniature storm clouds. No, maybe
I should start with the dark rings that stain
the bowl, ghosts of fruits’ original shape.
Frankly, a photograph would do better justice.
But who wants to look at a bowl of three-year-old tomatoes,
going on four? Who keeps such a thing? And how could I
explain this to anyone who has a practical use
for early mornings? Someone who is cooking stew
in a crock pot, folding laundry, or working out.
I was up early today wondering which to describe,
the fruits or the mold. I kept a bowl of tomatoes
so I could write about them as they rotted.
—from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
2012 Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist