Sweet Potato

published by The FU Review

He was a bit like my dad, I guess, with his furrowed brow and bright blue eyes. Frowns from change and bright blue souls that had always been the same. Mike worried a lot. He was a worrier. I shrugged a lot. I was a shrugger. Of doubts. Of responsibility. I’d shrug off the future like an unwelcome touch on my shoulder. But Mike would turn and shake its hand, a wrinkle deep between cerulean eyes.

Even the stress lines in his skin were endearing. Mike had a rugged, intelligent handsomeness, as though his face had grown older than its age through earnestness. There was a sinkable gloss to his gaze like he’d been crying or laughing, which honestly happened quite often. Mike would always cry when he laughed and laugh when he cried. Whether at the intensity of a joke or the self-indulgence of tears.

I often wondered if the children we’d never have might be like him. Mike never wanted kids; he didn’t see the point. What kind of life? But I was selfish. I wanted to see his blue eyes on a young face and pass on my name to someone more beautiful than myself. I wasn’t ugly. I was just plain. I lacked those bright defining features that make some people glow. People like Mike. People like Dad. After a few years, Mike agreed to a couple of kids. No more than two – one to replace each of us – and not now but maybe in a decade or so. But I think he only agreed because he knew we wouldn’t last that long.

We met on the farm. Mike was there to contribute to the future; I was there because I liked to feel the earth beneath my fingernails. Everyone had to plant and harvest their food to avoid spending a fortune at the supermarket. I farmed for me and Dad after work. We could afford to shop, but I craved peace and quiet, and I liked how the soil seeped into the curved indents of my fingertips. Mike worked on the farm from sunrise to sunset, harvesting for anyone in the neighbourhood who didn’t have the time or strength.

I remember him bouncing along the field lines on bended knees. Mike could plant more plants per hour than anyone I’ve ever known and, for each one, he would gently pinch a leaf and rub it between his fingers in gratitude. We fell together with the same slowness as the harvest. It was too hot to touch during the day, so we would wait for the coolness of the evening then melt into each other, and I often felt the goosebumps on his skin raise the hairs of my own arm. In my dreams, he would rise from the ground as a plant, his roots spreading into the air like an upturned vegetable. What kind of vegetable? He’d ask. A sweet potato, I’d say, and then laugh wildly. In the morning, Mike always woke first. He would stir me awake with a series of small touches, rubbing my earlobe between his fingers.

We didn’t live far from the beach. I’d pick up shells while Mike collected bits of plastic. Dad joined us sometimes. He was a worrier too, like Mike, but his worries came from a troubled past, not a troubling future. Dad had a persistent memory. His childhood of poverty. His career in a hated job. His drowning wife.

“It was the Russians for us,” said Dad, kicking up sand. “But the planet always survives.”

“This is different,” said Mike.

“Is it?” I asked. “We’re reactive, not proactive. We were never going to change our lifestyles before a change to our lives.”

“We won’t have time.”

“Don’t worry, Mike,” I told him.

“Worry,” he told me.

Then Mike and Dad would both frown at the sea while I read a book.

Mike would often go on protests. I’d stay at home. He never forced me to join. Mike took our doomed future as a personal responsibility. Honestly, I didn’t want to think about it. And whenever I did, I would distract myself with the green of a leaf, or the sun on my eyelids, or the weight of a shell in my hand.

One day, we walked the green mile of the beach in the grass off the sand dunes. Dad a few steps behind. Mike a few steps ahead. Me, in the middle, picking up shells.

Mike looked out towards the sea.

“Oh, look at that,” he said, and then turned to me. “We’re going to die.”

His face was the focus of my gaze. I saw the waves pull back and swell on the horizon in the pixelated scene behind his head. Unfathomable. Unsurvivable. I glanced back at Dad, who stared behind at the long beauty of the beach. I squeezed the shell in my hand, its sharp edges sparking a pressing pain. Then I looked at Mike. The contour of his face was only to distinguish his glimmering eyes from the glimmer of the sea.

Mike grinned at me, his frown finally gone.