A few weeks ago, my friend and I schlepped down to DC to visit some art museums. I’m still not sure why, as the government was very much shut down. We found ourselves standing in front of one of the Smithsonians with our lack of foresight, surveying the strange emptiness of DC. Well — I did, while she proactively browsed through her phone for places that were actually open.
“Huh,” I remarked, “There appears to be a distinct lack of yoga pants and shirtless jogging men.”
“Excuse me.” A disembodied voice came to our left. “Do you mind moving so we can take a picture?” The speaker and his friend were clearly not familiar with this Smithsonian. Entrance is that way. It has even better Roman columns.
“The National Botanical gardens is open…” my friend suggested.
I shrugged. “I like plants.”
Off we went. A single employee staffed the front booth, frazzled from the increased popularity of the place. Apparently we weren’t the only stragglers who resorted to Google. “The missing yoga pants,” I said, gesturing at the sea of lycra. “I found them.” My friend glanced pointedly at my leggings.
The building exterior was deceptively small. The gardens were expansive. We were immediately hit with pungent smells from exotic bulbs and humidifiers. I started sweating immediately, thankful for the vigorous brushing of deodorant I had slapped on that morning.
We slowly weaved through different rooms. “Orchids!” My friend pointed at a blush and yellow bloom, its label reading Michelle Obama. I looked back at the orchid and Michelle Obama was drooping slightly, as if in response to the state of affairs with the current administration but too dignified to fully wilt. Same, I commiserated. A few steps later I saw the Nancy Reagan orchid, fully collapsed on lichen.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like having something named after a person while still alive. The closest I ever got to this was in a building in Boston called “Wang Ambulatory Care Center,” and as I walked inside, I felt a giddy connection to my brethren. MY last name! And then I remembered that 23andMe said I had 931 relatives.
“My god,” my dad had said when I told him said news, after we discussed how excited some of my friends were when they discovered they had a third cousin living in a remote corner of Ireland. “What if we contact all of them? I wonder how many of us are related to Genghis Khan.”
All of us, probably. He was a prolific man.
By then we had reached the herbs room. The temperature was distinctly colder than the room which housed the Brazilian rainforest; all the sweat I’d accumulated immediately condensed to a cold sheen around my neck. I whipped my coat back on and hit my arm on some eucalyptus. “Sorry,” I said automatically. My ducked head swung close to the adjacent fennel plant the same time I inhaled, and I braced myself, fully expecting fennel to saturate the next breath.
“Nothing!” I exclaimed, in fake outrage that was mostly real. “These herbs smell like nothing.”
“Nothing?” My friend bent her face close to the plant and took a deep breath. The fronds poked her nostrils. “Huh.”
“I think we should smell all of them.”
“Good idea,” she said, and then twisted sideways to smell a jasmine plant. The further we meandered, the more ridiculous and aggressive we became at sniffing. “What about this?” or, “What about THAT?” We crouched for the shrubby herbs. Jumped for the Amalfi lemons (which, smelled like regular lemons but mixed with baby powder). Rosemary, Thai basil, Scottish thyme. Or Scottish thistle. At that point, I wasn’t sure.
My friend stopped me when I pointed to the row of cacti.
“But it could be DIY acupuncture,” I argued, and the lady pushing a stroller behind us started, rapidly trying to decipher whether or not I was serious. “Like that 5-Minute Craft things on Youtube. But for health.”
We had looped around to the lobby once again. I was surprised to find the employee there in the same position, still looking as if she were desperately trying to find a quiet corner to hibernate. I tried to think of some that we had passed; can one sit in a cacao tree innocuously? Hide in a big pot of anthuriums? We had just made a full circle and weren’t even trying to stay on course. I had, however, spotted a girl studying in the midst of the tropical plant atrium. It was oddly poetic, the way she hunched over her laptop, typing away on the slightly damp bench with the din of excited children over hanging moss around her. I wondered if she was actually getting any work done. I think she wore jeans. Yoga pants would have worked better.
“What was that?” my friend asked, and I realized I said the last part out loud.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Let’s get ramen.” At least that was still open.
(Click on image to enlarge.)
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