My on-again, off-again boyfriend taught me a lesson

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

By the time we met, he was a single stick poking out of fertilized soil, an assuredly dead stump without a hint of life. My on-again, off-again boyfriend Jack kept Kyle in a large blue pot in his bedroom, near the window, where he would get enough light.

Jack watered him every other day and spoke to him gently, “You’re doing better, Kyle. I can see you growing. You 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 dating, 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 once every 10 days.

Jade plants are one of the most popular succulents in our region. They grow everywhere on the eastern edge of L.A. County, which is a glorified desert. Without a sprinkler system, succulents are really the only flora you can easily and reliably grow.

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 performed 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 I had spent dozens of hours curating. I knew he had spent the past few days shopping for his family, but he didn’t have a present for me. I 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 her violin to the plants in our yard, because she’d read a study that said music helped plants thrive. She loved birds and she cultivated plants that would attract them. I watched her care for them with more curiosity and compassion than she had for her children. Some of her plants, like sweet alyssum, grow better next to other plants, like Swiss chard, so she experimented and planted the ones that worked better together.

Researchers at the University of California later replicated many of these studies and found that the plants didn’t thrive because of the music. They thrived because they had a high level of care.

Years later, when Jack and I tried our relationship again, his little house was full of plants, inside and out, an array of tropical greenery that required spritzers and fluorescent lights and watering systems he orchestrated twice a day, like a skin-care routine. I didn’t think these plants belonged in Southern California. But I was impressed by his foliage and I validated him for all the ways he’d changed.

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

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

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 stared at Kyle and fought the urge to rip him out of the pot and take him outside to be one with the earth.

But Kyle wasn’t mine to save. So I knelt 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 left you alone for days on end, caring for you sporadically, when he had the inclination to notice you. Your leaves must have fallen off one by one and he didn’t notice. You needed consistency and he couldn’t give that to you. It’s not your fault you didn’t get what you needed, Kyle. It’s not your fault you didn’t grow. It’s OK now. You can let go.”

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

“You’re overreacting,” he said.

“I don’t want to 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 needs you to let go,” I said. “He’s dead. He needs to be buried outdoors. He wants to return to the 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 small ray of sunshine that poured through the corner window and thought maybe I was ready to grow. Maybe the gifts I needed were things I could give to 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 on my water bottle as I walked, studying the variety of trees that must have roots deep enough to survive perpetual drought. I didn’t go back for 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 preorder. Her website is michelledowd.org. She’s on Instagram: @michelledowdz

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.




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