My first real relationship was with this person I met in college. He was funny, interesting, smart, and the first person that showed any real commitment to me. To be fair, before that I was a freshman and before that I was in high school, so it would have been unreasonable to expect much. But he was also the first person I felt like was mature, genuine, and sincere. We dated for about two years. I had really thought, at the time, this is the person I might be with for life, even though he was the first person I had ever been with in a serious way.
He once picked me up from the airport and presented me with a potted bromeliad, in lieu of traditional flowers. “Best flowers ever,” he would say, and I would laugh. He meant that, unlike traditional flowers, a potted plant, particularly one as sturdy as a bromeliad, would not die or fade as quickly as cut flowers. They are a hardy breed, and require very little attention to survive.
I started to see the potted plant as a sort of symbol for our relationship. I watered it and took care of it. I made mistakes, like over-watering, on occasion, but it still survived. At some point the bright red flower in the center started to die. I learned that bromeliads flower only at the end of their lives, and then produce offshoots that can be re-planted. So even as the flower began to wilt, a new, green shoot sprouted out of the base. I cut the flower and tended to the plant as usual, and still it survived. “Best flower ever!” he would repeat to me as we discovered the amazing properties of bromeliads, and I would laugh.
At some point our relationship started to take a few wrong turns. My significant other was going through a lot of work stress, and his boss announced their office was moving to California later that year. We had several conversations about what we would do. But they were going to move several months from when I first heard the news, so that was not really the issue. I would have been happy to stay together at least until his departure, and figure things out then. The real problem was that after that, he started to disappear.
We lived in the same house that summer, my sorority house. Over the summer, it is rented out freely to any affiliates of my school or friends of sisters, regardless of age or gender, and it was hard to find an apartment in Boston. I had just graduated and started working, my significant other was working, we’d hoped to move in together to an apartment in September but for the summer we had to live somewhere, so we chose this. He lived with a couple friends as roommates, I lived in a single next door.
And despite living in the same house, it became so that I rarely ever saw him. He would not even sleep in the bedroom he was staying in, and he started hanging out a lot with people I didn’t know well. He brought up the name of a particular person frequently, and though I hope I am not a jealous person in general, he was spending such little time with me or around me that I started to wonder why, particularly when he was not even sleeping at home. It later came out there was a lot more stress at his workplace than I initially heard about or realized. I sympathized with what he was going through, but I also realized how differently we handle hardship. When I am suffering, I want to spend time with the people closest to me. When he was suffering, he wanted to get as far away as possible from his normal social group and friends. And he wouldn’t talk about it, until much later.
All this time the plant was still in his room, because his room was bigger than mine so I left it there. With no one watering it, the hardy bromeliad was wilting and wilting. It became dry and yellow on parts of the leaves. I left it there, thinking, I hate that I’m the one that puts in all the effort, in taking care of this plant, in this relationship. And then one day I just took it. I cut off the mother plant, finally, so instead of replanting the offshoot I let it grow in the place of its parent. And then I started taking care of it again. Thinking, in a nonsensical, irrational, way, this would heal everything that has been going on. This would heal me. This would stop me from feeling things I had never associated with this relationship before, anxiety and stress and anger.
And what I learned was that, if you water a plant, particularly one as sturdy as a bromeliad, it will grow just fine, regardless of whatever meaning you associate with it.
It had been about a month since things had first started to sour. I lay in bed thinking about what I really wanted. We had a tough conversation, which I initiated. I cried the next day, in the comfort of my best friend’s arms. I was confused. In the end he had said he did not want to end it. But I just felt exhausted and spent. I wasn’t sure what he was doing or what he wanted anymore. The plant was on my nightstand, fully recovered, green, beautiful.
I had thought to myself, I am young; I feel full of life; I could die tomorrow. I don’t want to die unhappy. It was not worth it to me to be unhappy at this time of my life, even if in the long-term it could have worked out. I chose my happiness. But that is all I am responsible for. The plant, tried as I might have to bestow meaning upon it, refused to reflect the status of our relationship by dying at the end of it, and, given water, sunlight, and air, continued to obstinately ensure its own survival. This is all I am responsible for, too. My own survival.
Even if I want to be responsible for the happiness of others, beyond trying my best to be a decent human being, I cannot. I cannot stop them from feeling what they are feeling, or force them to feel differently. Even if others want to be responsible for my happiness, they cannot. They cannot impose any feelings on me. My mental state, my health, my survival, my happiness — these things are up to me to take care of and determine. This is a significant difference between myself and my bromeliad. The bromeliad at least needs me to water it, even if its only once in a while. But I have legs and arms; I have a mind of my own and a beating heart. I drink water; I eat food; I nourish and heal myself.
I live my life without regrets. In those two years, to be truthful, there were more happy days than sad ones. But the further away I get from that final moment, the more I see, with the wisdom that comes with hindsight, signs that I’m not sure we were quite the best match. Again, maybe there’s no such thing as “best”, and I believe the majority of people, where both partners are truly trying and willing to compromise, could make things work. But still, sometimes it’s a little easier or a little harder, and our personalities were such that, I think it would have been a little harder.
I still have the deepest respect for this person. I hope he achieves all the things he would tell me about, all the dreams we would talk about. In fact, I know he will. I will still support him from a distance, as a friend, even though I don’t think he’s ready to have me as a friend yet, and maybe never will. I would never, ever say anything negative about him, or about his character. It simply didn’t work out between us, and I hope it works out for him, with someone that’s the right person at the right place at the right time.
And I still have this plant, although it is quite literally not the same plant any more. I think I will still keep it, in spite of everything that has happened. It is derivative of the former plant, but distinctly different. It is new. It has survived because I have watered it. And ever since I have cut away the dying things to let the offshoot grow, it has thrived.
I see symbols in that, too.