Leaving My Houseplants Was the Break-up That Almost Broke Me

    I got the open road, the city got the plants

    The Vegas strip glitters in the distance. I’m sitting alone in a hot tub, a New Yorker suddenly thrust into an arid, alien land. All I can see is endless desert and track homes; all I can think about are my plants.

    In August, after calling Brooklyn home for nine years, I left for good. I miss my close-knit group of friends, my daily walks in Prospect Park and the city’s infectious energy—though the list of things I don’t miss is much longer. But all these months later, when I think of my houseplants on my old apartment’s windowsill, I feel pangs of regret.

    In my millennial coming-of-age, I gravitated toward greenery with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. At 25 and still dulling my own thorns, I moved into a lofted (illegal) apartment with two friends. It was the perfect place for my first potted plant, some hanging magenta petchoas. I never researched how to care for them—all I knew was that they made me smile. They thrived in the stifling summer months, brightening the doorway. When the first frosts arrived, they shriveled away, and I left them for dead.

    Three years later, I’d moved to a new apartment and grown more spiritually aligned with the glacial speed of growing flora. On the first warm day of spring, itching to show off my bare legs, I’d walk the 20 minutes to J&L Landscaping. The owner’s thick Brooklyn accent soothed me, plus he offered the best prices in the city. I’d load my leafy bounty into the back seat of a Lyft, buckle them up, and speed toward home. I was a mother.

    My brood grew to 25 plants, and my bedroom became a forested, essential oil-scented haven from the world of incessant honks six floors below. As I watched each new limb of my pothos plant flow over the living room television and onto the floor, I felt more grounded in my home. Sunday mornings bred a self-care routine for the ages: coffee from the French press, reading The New York Times in bed, and a half hour spent wandering room to room to water, from the snake plant to the bamboo. Each was an individual with its own needs, deserving of care and adulation—just like me.

    From J&L I bought a brilliant golden pot as an altar for my prayer plant, which curled up at night and unfurled in the morning—a miracle. A gifted leopard pot from Summer School ceramics was the ideal home for my technicolor garden croton. A monstera from The Sill loomed large in its peach pot in the windowsill, friends with the overachieving tropical fern which constantly unveiled new, tightly coiled palms. 

    My boyfriend at the time brought me a dramatic purple orchid, one I carefully tended to with ice cubes and trial sun spots. When it started to wither up for winter, he joked, “Don’t let our love die.” He broke up with me some months later, and the orchid never bloomed again. 

    At the end of March 2020, I got laid off. A weight I had evaded for years now settled onto my shoulders: It was time to leave New York. I decided to depart at the end of August to go on a solo road trip, hitting National Parks in nine states, before crashing  with my parents in Nevada. In preparation I donated bags and bags of clothing, kitchenware and books, unattached and eager to lighten my load. 

    The houseplants were another matter. How could I risk their being adopted into a home I hadn’t carefully vetted? My cousin suggested a genius idea—gift my most important possessions to people who would cherish them. So, it was settled: My treasured plant friends would pass gingerly into the arms of my treasured human friends.

    David came by to pluck a croton apple leaf and my black, silk Reformation robe coat. Ron biked over to select a long pothos and books that appealed to him. Stephen came to retrieve the nerve plant coursing with neon pink veins, housed in a tiny cerulean pot. While we sat on the couch talking, gunshots rang out on the street below us, killing one man and paralyzing another – a devastating confirmation that it was time to go. 

    A strange grief settled over my last week. Couldn’t I take even one plant with me, to mark my existence here? I considered digging up the monstera so I could transport it in my suitcase, but decided that was silly—and possibly illegal. Later, on Instagram, I saw that another millennial friend was moving west. She posted a picture of her plants laid out in the bottom of her suitcase, roots askew. Maybe I should have tried harder.

    I did take one living organism, my cat, with me as I stepped out of the apartment for the last time. Many of my houseplants remain there with my singer-songwriter former-roommate, who now lives alone. It’s a comfort to know that she still sings to them, her keyboard notes as vital to their growth as light and air.

    In January, I helped my parents move from their Los Angeles apartment to their retirement home outside of Las Vegas. Our first weekend there, my mother and I visited the local nursery. Hundreds of young trees were nestled in the sprawling desert yard, an expanse that would have been unthinkable in New York. I picked out a small green pot in the shape of a cactus, and carefully selected a juicy succulent to fill it. 

    Back at the house, my mother, father and I repotted maturing plants and tenderly wrapped the suffering lemon tree in frost-protective burlap. I transferred my new succulent into the cactus pot, and gave it a sip of water. For now at least, I was home.

    Jillian Anthony writes the Cruel Summer Book Club, a newsletter about change, heartbreak and healing.

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