I bought a plant a year into us living together. We couldn’t have pets because we were both so allergic and so poor. We named her Alice Vera the Aloe Vera.
We lived in the back of a historic house in Halifax that got almost no daylight and we relied heavily on space heaters to keep our dungy basement warm. It was not an ideal place for a succulent to thrive but Alice persevered. We would move her throughout the day to help her find little pockets of sunshine. She would spend an hour in the afternoon sitting in the middle of the living room floor because the sun would briefly peak between the neighboring houses and come through our window directly. She was constantly on the brink of death. She was bent over to one side and always had at least two droopy stems, but she was our girl. We spoke about her like she was our pre teen daughter. When we would go away for the weekend we would sit down and tell Alice that we were trusting her to be responsible and safe while we were away. We’d leave her money to order pizza.
A year and a half ago I decided it was time for us to leave Halifax for Toronto which forced us to have a lot of difficult conversations with our friends and family, artistic collaborators, and the kids I had nannied for the past five years-- it was incredibly hard to tell people we were leaving. By far the most difficult conversation happened within our own household. We sat down as a couple and told Alice we’d be uprooting. We told her we had rented an apartment on the 28th floor and that the entire north facing wall was windows! Not only would she get natural light all day long but a spectacular view! Even though she hadn’t grown much and was struggling to stand up straight in that dark cramped apartment, it was her first home and it was going to be tough for us to leave. The idea of change scared us but we were going as a family and that made it easier. We packed her up and we rode shotgun together in the U-haul. The move happened during a particularly cold first week of February so each time we’d make a pit stop Alice would come with us. She has seen the inside of some of Canada’s most glamourous truck stops-- those OnRoutes are no joke.
The move was tough. Four days on the Trans Canada with stops along the way to visit with family, all while knowing we were on a one-way trip was tense. None of us knew what was in store and the comfortable silences we once enjoyed were suddenly holding more weight. We had all been living with each other for so long we could always tell what the other one was thinking. At one point Alice tipped over, and somewhere between Edmunston and Montreal she broke a stem. It was messy. It was uneasy. If we had just stayed put none of this mess would have happened.
When we finally arrived we did everything we could to make the 28th floor feel like home. We carefully curated an Ikea magazine worthy apartment. We bought new plants: A Jade named a Harriet, an Orchid named Margaret, planters filled with pansies for the balcony. Rapidly Alice began to grow. Her colour came back. Everyday she was different. Bigger. Stronger. Maybe even a little braver.
I watched these changes happen to her. I felt proud and inspired. When we first met she was a tiny little plant from the Halifax Seaport Market I had picked up for $5 and here she was now, standing tall and beginning to outgrow the second hand pot we bought her all while overlooking downtown Toronto.
When my relationship ended a few months later I got out as quickly and quietly as I could. I moved a suitcase and about 6 boxes of things across town to my gracious friend’s home where I stayed all summer. I left the majority of my things behind. When you live with someone for so long it’s hard to know who owns what and I felt I had done enough damage. I left a lot of my favourite things behind. My comfortable bed, my towels, my cookware, my partner, and Alice.
At the time I wasn’t able to articulate to anyone my reasons for leaving. My parents were confused, my boyfriend was heartbroken, my friends were supportive but worried. I was forced to go into survival mode. I got a second job and worked. I worked all day, every day for four months. I didn’t have time to think about what I had done. I didn’t give myself a second to process the changes I had put into motion. All I knew was that I had to make money if I wanted to stay here. I stopped thinking, feeling, and creating. I worked tirelessly to be on my own and although I managed it the sacrifices often felt greater than the reward. What I had thought would be a freeing era filled with self discovery and adventure had become exhaustive and detrimental to my health. I had forgotten what it felt like to sleep for eight hours every night. I had forgotten how to take pleasure in eating. I had forgotten how to be creative, how to be funny, and how to have fun.
I had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it, I just kept repeating over and over to myself:
“Just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean it’s right”.
The only thing I took time for was nurturing what was left of the relationship with him. I was determined to have it evolve into something new- if he would allow it. I gave him space for months and as his life moved forward he slowly came back into mine as a friend. Whenever I experienced a loss this year (and there were a few) he would immediately volunteer to meet me for a drink. We would always meet publicly. I wasn’t ready to go back up to the 28th floor and he wasn’t ready to have me there.
We would sit and drink and laugh. I'd ask how Alice was doing, he would say she was thinking of applying to liberal arts school in the fall. I would ask how she was adjusting to living with other plants, and he explained they were working through some issues of jealousy but that deep down she was probably just missing me.
A week ago we had planned to meet up for a friendly drink. It had been a while since we had seen each other and we felt we were due for a catch up. A few hours before we were planning to meet I received some devastating news and I knew I definitely needed a drinking buddy. I also knew it would likely result in me crying publicly so I asked if we could meet at the apartment. Partially for privacy but also partially because I was feeling more self deprecating than usual.
He met me down in the lobby, and as we rode the elevator back up to the 28th floor we stood in the same weighted silence we had felt just over a year ago in that U-Haul. Neither of us knew where this was leading.
He had hung new pictures in place of the ones I took with me. He had installed the lamps we had discussed getting over the kitchen sink. He had filled the holes I had left on the bookshelf. He had a crap load of all the snack foods I would never let him bring into the house. The changes were subtle and gut wrenching.
Before I even took off my coat I made my way to the window sill.
Sitting in the exact place I had left her was my girl Alice. I hardly recognized her but greeted her in the way I always had, “Hi Alice! Were you good while I was gone?” as I stroked one of her branches. She had quadrupled in size. She was a bright, gorgeous green I had never seen before. Her core stem was wide and strong, her branches sprawled right across the window sill. She looked dominant and bold next to the other plants. He said “I think it’s time I replant her into a bigger pot- if you buy it I’ll consider that your child support”. I turned around and looked at him and he stared back at me smiling in a way he never had before. He was suddenly bolder, brighter and more dominant too.
I was immediately struck with the understanding I had been searching for these past seven months. I couldn’t help but correlate Alice’s physical growth and his emotional growth with my absence in their lives. With Alice, I always knew she’d be better off in a different environment. I knew I was being selfish for keeping her in that dark, cold basement apartment-- I just really wanted a succulent. I knew my apartment would never allow a plant like that to reach her full potential but I figured Aloes were resilient.
When I saw her sitting on that window sill, larger and healthier than I ever thought was possible I realized I had been doing the same thing to him. He had no idea what he was capable of, he just knew he was bound to me and determined to make it work whether it served him or not. His love for me was unconditional and if it meant only seeing a few rays of sunshine a day in order to be with me then so be it.
To see them both be bigger and stronger and healthier without me is a tough pill to swallow but now when the moments of weakness and exhaustion hit and I’m left wondering why I’m out here alone I think of him and Alice.
I’m doing it for them- because even though it was easy, it just wasn’t right.