Suellen Rocca, Torso II, 2000-12. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches. Image courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Suellen Rocca, Torso II, 2000-12. Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches. Image courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery



by Annie Werner

The rain pounds against the living room window of my 5th floor walk-up, blurring the tree tops and fire-escape outside. My cactus on the windowsill is dying, skin withering at the round green edges—which is unfortunate considering she’s my only friend.

I bought my cactus last summer when I moved to this apartment, right after my husband left me. My husband left me because I was too difficult. My difficulty was that I had a drinking problem. I’ve been sober since he left. Some people go to AA. Some people start smoking. I bought a cactus.

She’s almost made it a whole year. Cacti are pretty easy really. A little bit of a water and sunlight and—it’s true what they say—communication. But I can’t figure out what’s changed and she won’t tell me. I tell her I’ll do everything I can to save her. “It’s too late,” she says, stifling a cough.

This late spring rain may have something to do with her state of mind. Or maybe she’s just grown surly with age. Over the past few days she’s gotten less green and more shriveled. It’s all happened very quickly. Or maybe I just hadn’t noticed the signs earlier.

When I first got her she was a little round stump of a cactus and I grew her to the elegant, three-pad prickly pear she is now. Her base pad is broad with two smaller pads jutting out the top like cartoon ears. I whisper into them, “You’re my best friend and I accept you for who you are even if you never bear fruit.” And she'd say things like, “What’s a bear fruit?” and this brought me great comfort, getting to explain things to someone, instead of the other way around, which is how it usually is most times.  

The rain softens to a drizzle and I try repotting my cactus. I set up a larger pot with fresh soil and fertilizer beads. When I move her body from one pot to another, some of the more brittle needles snap off in my hand. She moans in agony. The soil is soft and pliable on the other side of my gardening gloves as I pack her in nice and firm. I take a step back—she’s a little tilted to the left, but I believe her roots are secure. The secret to flora that flourishes is all in the resolve beneath the surface.

The next day, the rain stops completely and birds are chirping outside my bedroom window. I enter my living room only to be greeted by my cactus, tipped over, black dirt spilled on the windowsill and the floor. She is still attached to her roots, and I can’t help but feel a small sense of accomplishment about that. I stand her upright and refill the pot, padding the bed of soil delicately around the base of her body with my bare hands—no time for protective gloving in a triage situation

“I’m sorry about your accident,” I tell her, though I know a botched suicide attempt when I see one. The soil blackens my nails and clumps around my fingertips.

“You’ll be better in no time,” I add, though I’m not entirely sure if I’m saying this more for her or for me. It’d be disingenuous to characterize our relationship as more than a little one-sided. We all play to our strengths and hers is listening. Mine is discipline. I was even a disciplined drunk—exactly one margarita got me glitzy, three got me generous, six and I blacked out.  

I wasn’t alcohol “dependent” per se but once I started, I couldn’t stop. Drinking made me feel like a hyperlocal celebrity. Put another hit on the jukebox, Johnny! Next round’s on me! Spilling margaritas, spending my husband’s money, a middle-aged housewife waking up on the bathroom floor, spread out on the tile like a slug with my shirt off and one shoe missing.

There was no inciting incident to our official separation, just an ongoing crescendo of dissension. He'd already had the divorce papers—he handed them to me as he left, a newly scabbing and angry scratch above his eyebrow I didn’t remember him having the day before and that he wouldn’t let me tend to. He said he’d stop alimony payments immediately if he got word I was drinking again. I asked him how he’d know, you know, not being in my life anymore and he said, “Honey, when you drink, everyone this side of Park Avenue knows.”

“You need new friends,” says my cactus, huffing in her repotted spot. “And a new hobby. Perhaps employment?”

“I don’t need to work—I just need to stay sober.”

“You’re a piece of work,” she says, clearing phlegm from her throat. I think about working a simple job with simple tasks, but since I’ve been sober every social interaction feels like an opportunity for humiliation. What little damage I have uncovered from my past has been excruciating enough. Benjamin, the middle-aged checkout clerk at the 24-hour grocery store where I bought my cactus, used to flinch when I approached, pulling out my husband’s charge card. Over time, though, he softened.

“You seem well,” he said a couple months after my divorce. He looked down at the floor like he maybe hoped I hadn’t heard what he’d said or he hadn’t said what he’d said. Wiry grays sprouted out from his dark head of hair.

When I asked him what he meant he looked out both sides of his eyes and told me to follow him. At the security desk in the back, he fiddled with some tapes until he found what he was looking for.

“We save notable incidents in case of future litigation,” he said.

The small TV in front of us glitched and I saw myself on the black and white screen. The French twist in my blonde hair flopped to one side, and my trench coat hung off one shoulder. I appeared to be purchasing a six pack of Bud Light STRAW-ber-RITAS from a young night clerk. There’s no sound. What starts off as a normal looking transaction ensues—until I reach across the checkout counter and grab the acne-faced clerk by his apron and shout very close to his face. He holds his hands up and I pull him in closer, spitting through gritted teeth, until a security guard pulls me away, my high-heeled feet kicking. Benjamin pauses the tape there.

”What was I so upset about?”

“We don’t take AMEX,” Benjamin said. Benjamin doesn’t work the night shift, but he’d been warned.

“I’ve made some important changes in my life,” I said, looking at my sneakered feet.

I clean up her spilled dirt. I wash up. I make lunch. The sun throws a bright rectangle on the living room floor through the window. The outstretched shadow of my cactus looms, and I notice that one of her ears has flopped down. The ear is the size she was when I originally bought her, smaller than all the other cacti in the row at the grocery store. I try to prop it back up with my finger, but it flops back down and even tears at bit at the corner.   

Clearly I can’t do this alone. Perhaps she needs someone else she can relate to in a way she can’t relate to me. I go to buy my cactus a friend cactus at the grocery store. From the row of cacti, I choose a giggly Barbary fig with a cheery yellow flower on top. Benjamin smoothes his red apron as I approach, smiles big and asks how my day is going.

The friend cactus giggles all the way home and already I know that this is a mistake. When I place the friend cactus next to my cactus on the windowsill, my original cactus is, of course, not pleased. I should have gone with one of the more sensitive Barrel Cacti.

“Won’t you try to get along with her?” I plead. One of my cactus’ needles falls out in protest. The friend cactus wags her gaudy yellow flower.

“Don’t be a prick!” blurts the friend cactus, laughing at her own joke. She reminds me of myself when I drank—or at least how I see the old me now that I’m sober. How silly I must have looked—a middle-aged woman drinking like a college girl, upper middle class and spending like we had yacht money.

My cactus sighs. I can’t tell if she’s not speaking to me out of spite or if she’s just not feeling well. I’m starting to feel hopeless, about as hopeless as I felt before I got my cactus, after my husband said that I should probably become a lesbian. That no man in the history of men would put up with my drunken tantrums, and before I know it the back of my hand swings in a wide arch— my knuckles crashing against her terracotta—and swipes my cactus to the floor, shattering her pot, black dirt blanketing the carpet and soiling my white sneakers. And then everything is still.

It’s strange to witness yourself in an act of violence without the fog of alcohol to distance accountability, without the detached recitations by your friends and family seated in a circle all around you, recounting one-by-one all your horrific behavior, and it’s not so much what they’re telling you as it is how they’re telling you, telling at you to you, while you stare at your nail beds, at a hangnail you’d give anything at that moment to rip off with your bare teeth.

I sink to the floor, my head against the wall. The grey light of dusk pools around the remains of my cactus splayed on the carpet. She snivels softly. She will be dead in a matter of days and it will just be me and this laughing cactus with her stupid, overbright flower. The giggly cactus is reflected in the glass behind her, a navy patch of sky truncated by the tops of trees and buildings. It’s Happy Hour. We won’t be due for rain anytime soon.


Published August 26th, 2018

Annie Werner is a writer from Texas living in New York. She’s written for The Village Voice and BlackBook magazine and has fiction forthcoming in Juked.

Suellen Rocca is one of the original members of the Hairy Who, the influential group of six Chicago artists who exhibited together for five years in the 1960s. Her exhibition, on view at Matthew Marks Gallery in NYC, the first to concentrate on Rocca’s works on paper, presents thirty drawings she made between 1981 and 2017. Building on the unique graphic vocabulary and innovative compositions of her 1960s work, these drawings represent a turn toward imagery she describes as “more internal.” Animals, trees and unclassifiable creatures are placed in densely patterned settings that carry a genuine emotional charge.