My recurring friend taught me a lesson

I don’t know who Kyle used to be. He was dead when I met him.

When we met he was a single stick sticking out of manure earth, a stump surely dead without a trace of life. My regular friend Jack kept Kyle in a big blue pot in his bedroom, near the window where he would get enough light.

Jack watered him every other day and spoke to him softly, “You do better, Kyle. i see you grow You can do it. Take your time. I know you will sprout when you are ready.”

Jack wasn’t always this attentive. In a previous iteration of our date night, I gave him a jade plant and a pink index card with instructions on how to care for it:

  1. Put in full sun.
  2. Water with two tablespoons every 10 days.

Jade plants are among the most popular succulents in our region. They grow all over the eastern edge of LA County, a glorified desert. Without a sprinkler system, succulents are really the only flora you can grow easily and reliably.

Jack told me he wasn’t ready for a relationship but I didn’t believe him. He was smart, funny and full of potential. I did all sorts of overly helpful gymnastics to convince him that loving me was a good idea, that I could make his life better, that I could help him grow.

The first time he broke up with me was on Christmas Eve. I stopped by with a box of sentimental gifts that I had spent dozens of hours curating. I knew he’d spent the last few days shopping for his family, but he didn’t have a present for me. I must have looked disappointed because he was telling me to grow up and let go of expectations that love isn’t about giving things to people.

The jade plant was dead before we met again.

My mother used to stand in her garden in El Monte and play her violin to the plants in our garden because she read a study that said music helps plants thrive. She loved birds and she grew plants that would attract them. I watched as she cared for them with more curiosity and compassion than she had for her children. Some of her plants, like Alyssum, grow better next to other plants, like Swiss chard, so she experimented and planted those that worked better together.

University of California researchers later replicated many of these studies and found that the plants did not thrive because of the music. They thrived because they had a high level of nurturing.

Years later, when Jack and I re-attempted our relationship, his tiny house was filled with plants inside and out, an array of tropical greenery that required splashes and fluorescent lights and watering systems that he orchestrated twice a day, like a skincare routine. I didn’t think these plants belonged in Southern California. But I was impressed with his foliage and I acknowledged him for all the ways he had changed.

Jack spoke to Kyle daily in a tender tone that infuriated me. “You’re getting better, Kyle,” he would say. “I know I haven’t given you what you need, but I see you coming back to us. You’re gonna make it Kyle. You’re doing a good job!”

They say that plants need seven things to thrive: space to grow, the right temperature, light, water, air, nutrients and time. I’ve tried all of these. I even made playlists for Kyle on Spotify and left them on when I couldn’t be there. But while I stayed with Jack, Kyle was left a dead stick in the well-watered dirt.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to take care of a plant, what it means to take care of anything.

One day, while Jack was in the shower, I stared at Kyle, fighting the urge to snatch him out of the pot and take him outside to be one with the earth.

But Kyle wasn’t my two saws. So I knelt down next to him and said, “I’m sorry he killed you, Kyle. He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know how much sun or water you needed. He would leave you alone for days and sporadically check on you whenever he had a tendency to notice you. Their leaves must have fallen off one by one and he didn’t notice. You needed consistency and he couldn’t give you that. It’s not your fault you didn’t get what you need, Kyle. It’s not your fault you didn’t grow. Now it is ok. You can let go.”

I looked up to see Jack standing in the doorway looking down at me as I cried on my knees next to Kyle.

“You’re overreacting,” he said.

“I don’t wanna be a dead thing you keep in the corner.”

“This isn’t about you,” he said. “This is about Kyle, and I know what Kyle needs.”

“Kyle wants you to let go,” I said. “He is dead. He must be buried outdoors. He wants to return to earth.”

“Never,” Jack said. “I will never give up on Kyle.”

When Jack left for work, I got up and filled my water bottle. I sat cross-legged in a little ray of sunshine that filtered through the corner window and thought maybe I was ready to grow. Maybe the gifts I needed were things I could give myself.

The last time I walked out the door, I didn’t leave a message. I just put one foot in front of the other for the miles it took me to get far enough away. I couldn’t imagine going back. I sipped my water bottle as I walked, looking at the variety of trees that needed to be rooted deep enough to survive the constant drought. I didn’t go back to get my yoga mat, my toothbrush, or my grandmother’s ring. I just walked west toward the sun, determined to save the only life I could save.

The author’s debut memoir, Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, is available for pre-order. This website is michelledowd.org. She is on Instagram: @micheledowdz

LA Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the LA area, and we want to hear your real story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. The submission guidelines can be found here. Past columns can be found here.

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