I have a pet cactus, and his name is Earl. The truth is: I love Earl. In fact, I get along with him better than I do with the majority of people. Unlike humans, Earl doesn’t talk back or expect anything from me. He just sits on my windowsill and takes in whatever sunlight New England has to offer. He doesn’t bother making trouble with the other objects on the windowsill. He’s happy with just being himself—a tiny, green, three and a half inch long, photosynthesizing, spiny dick-shaped thing sticking out of the ground.
I’ve had Earl for a little over a month now. That’s about three percent of his life (Earl is three years old). I received him as a sort of “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” gift. My two best friends and I had known each other since the eighth grade. Unfortunately college placed some distance between us, as I was the only one who left Georgia. Right before we started sophomore year, the three of us met up again in my friend’s room. I noticed a cactus sitting on her desk, picked it up, and couldn’t resist cooing at it. “You should keep him,” she said, smiling.
So I did.
I was a bit nervous going to the airport. I was really afraid that they wouldn’t let him through because I know they usually don’t allow pets or plants on any international flight. But I figured—this is a domestic flight, and Earl wouldn’t hurt anybody ... his spines are fuzzy. But just in case something happened, I asked my parents to stand outside of the security line so that I could give them Earl if he couldn’t pass. They waited.
I walked up to the start of the security line and handed my ID to the man at the counter. He saw Earl in my hand, looked at me, and said, “You’d better not eat that thing—I hear they’re poisonous.” He smiled and let me through.
The real panic came at the security line. I didn’t think I could carry Earl in my hands through the scan. I couldn’t put him on the conveyer belt either because a million monstrosities could happen to him—he could get knocked off, he could get confiscated, he could get tipped over or caught in one of the grooves and lose all his soil. Luckily, I realized that I could nestle him inside one of the trays.
I went through the scan and looked back in anticipation at the man overlooking the scans. A few beats passed, and I knew that Earl was safe when the man turned back, gave me a weird look and shook his head. He was trying hard not to smile.
I pranced to my gate, with cactus in one hand and luggage in the other, smiling like a fool who just got laid.
Not only did does Earl behave extraordinarily well, but he has also made me a lot of friends. During the plane ride, I put Earl on the seat next to me while I was getting my things in order. Suddenly, I felt a shadow, and I looked up to see a 27-year-old guy standing over me. “Uh ... Why is there a cactus in my seat?”
We ended up talking for the whole plane ride from Atlanta to Boston.
Sometimes I take Earl on walks. The first thing I did when I got on campus was put on my best white cotton dress, fashionable pink sunglasses, gladiator shoes, and strut around school with my cactus. I made sure to cover lots of ground so that I could give him the full range of Harvard soil. Poor Earl barely had his roots covered when I first got him.
Sometimes I really worry about Earl. If a window is left open, he could get cold and shrivel. If there isn’t enough sun, he might get depressed and shed off his spines and die. One time, I took him on a walk and brought him to my boyfriend’s dorm on the other side of campus (I thought that giving Earl a father figure would inspire him to grow). I left Earl there overnight and was too busy for the next few days to bring him back to my place. On the third day, my boyfriend put Earl on the balcony outside his window so that Earl could get some full sunshine. When I came to his dorm and asked where Earl was, he pointed towards the window and I saw my little cactus nearly toppling over the ledge, as a breeze came through. I screamed and ran to save Earl’s life.
That same day I snuggled Earl into my basket next to some textbooks and a jacket and biked him all the way back to my dorm, which was about a mile ride away. Earl nearly fell out several times, and he lost about half of his soil by the end of the trip.
Since then, I have taken Earl on a few more additional walks (he now has full soil again). I put him back on my windowsill overlooking the Quad yard. Sometimes he has company—my neighbor has an aloe plant named Aloe, and for a while the two became companions—but mostly, Earl sits by himself on the windowsill.
After closely examining Earl so many times, I have decided that Cacti are fascinating plants. Earl, in particular, is a column-shaped cactus. His whole body is divided into ribs. These things are called tubercles, and each tubercle is covered in little white cushions called areoles which have spines protruding out of them. Spines can either be very thick, dense or fuzzy and light-colored. Earl has the latter. They’re more like thick hairs than spines, and they stick out in jumbled directions over his body. Earl has a tuft of hair at the top, which I pet a lot. This section, which I call the head, is also slightly greener than the rest of his shaft.
This part of Earl’s anatomy puzzled me for a very long time. But I looked at him closely again one day, and suddenly noticed that Earl had grown an extra areole on each of his tubercles. All of a sudden, Earl had grown four millimeters! Apparently, the top of the cactus contains many parenchymal cells, which have thin cell walls and are capable of frequent division. These allow the plant to grow. This is what Earl spends all his time on: he sits staring at the sun all day, gathering and photosynthesizing and collecting enough little molecules until he has enough to produce an extra areole. He secretes the new forms out of the tip of his head, and they gradually move down his body, like a beautiful, life-giving, slow motion ejaculation.
Cacti make especially good pets because they thrive off of negligence, which I provide a lot of. It can be very comforting to know that I can come back, regardless of what I’ve done or who I’ve become, and still have the same cactus waiting for me. To be honest, Earl never really changes because he doesn’t grow that much. I’ve long since given up on trying to make him become a macho cactus. Instead, I just try to keep him from dying. So I put him next to my sun box. It was originally supposed to be for me, to keep me happy when there is no sun, but I have found that keeping Earl alive is enough to keep me happy. In the end, we’re both just trying to live.
—My Ngoc To ’14 is a sophomore in Pforzheimer House. Her boyfriend better watch out. Earl might be the perfect man.