My on again off again boyfriend taught me a lesson

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

When we met, it was a single stick sticking out of the fertilized soil, a surely dead stump with no sign of life. My boyfriend Jack kept Kyle in a big blue pot in his bedroom near the window where he would get enough light.

Jack watered it every other day and spoke softly, “You’re doing better, Kyle. I can see you growing. You’ve got this. Take your time. I know you’ll sprout when you’re ready.”

Jack wasn’t always so attentive. In an earlier iteration of our dates, I gave her a jade plant and a pink card with instructions on how to care for it:

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

Jade plants are one of the most popular succulents in our region. They grow everywhere on the eastern edge of LA County, which is 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 useful gymnastics to convince him that loving me was a good idea, that it could make his life better, that it could help him grow.

The first time he broke up with me was Christmas Eve. I stopped by with a sentimental gift box that I had spent dozens of hours curating. I knew she had spent the last few days shopping for her family, but she had no presents for me. He must have looked disappointed, because he told me to grow up and let go of expectations, that love isn’t about giving people things.

The jade plant was dead before we saw each other again.

My mother used to stand in her garden in El Monte, playing the violin with the plants in our yard, because she had read a study that said music helped plants thrive. He loved birds and grew plants that attracted them. I saw her care for them with more curiosity and compassion than she cared for her own children. Some of his plants, like sweet alyssum, grow best next to other plants, like Swiss chard, so he experimented and planted the ones that worked best together.

Researchers at the University of California 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 attention.

Years later, when Jack and I tried our relationship again, their little house was full of plants, inside and out, a variety of tropical vegetation that required sprinklers and fluorescent lights and irrigation systems that organized two times a day, as a skin care routine. . . I didn’t think these plants belonged in Southern California. But I was impressed by his foliage and validated 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,” she said. “I know I didn’t give you what you needed, but I see you coming back to us. You will, Kyle. You’re doing a good job!”

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

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

One day, while Jack was in the shower, I looked at Kyle and fought the urge to tear him from the pot and take him outside to be one with the earth.

But Kyle wasn’t mine to save. So I knelt down next to him and said, “I’m sorry I killed you, Kyle. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how much sun or water you needed. He left you alone for days and days, taking care of you. sporadically when he wanted to fixate on you. Your leaves must have fallen one by one and he didn’t notice. You need consistency and I couldn’t give it to you. It’s not your fault you didn’t get what you wanted you needed, Kyle. It’s not your fault you didn’t grow up. It’s okay now. You can let go.”

I looked up to see Jack standing in the doorway, looking at me, while I was on my knees next to Kyle, crying.

“You’re overreacting,” he said.

“I don’t want to be a dead thing you have in the corner.”

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

“Kyle needs you to let go,” I said. “He is dead. He must be buried in the open air. He wants to return to earth.”

“Never,” said Jack. “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 front of a little ray of sunshine pouring in through the corner window and thought maybe I was ready to grow. Maybe the gifts I needed were things I could give myself.

When I walked out the door for the last time, I didn’t leave a note. I just put one foot in front of the other for the miles it took to get far enough away. I couldn’t imagine going back. I sipped from my water bottle as I walked, studying the variety of trees that had to have deep enough roots to survive the perpetual drought. I didn’t go back for my yoga mat, my toothbrush, or my grandmother’s ring. I walked west into the sun, determined to save the only life I could.

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

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

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