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I’m trying to build a metaphor around a patch of dirt I like to call a backyard. My boyfriend has this little area behind his house. After two years of watching the neighborhood use it for an illegal dumping ground, we decided to make something out of it. We emptied some left-behind planters of sulfuric sludge, cleared away cinderblocks and an insulating layer of cigarette butts and started to make something green from something grey. We dragged some trash out, dragged some back in (like two grills that lean precariously on a leg and a wheel). We set out a card table, turned over some leftover lumber onto some leftover paint buckets to make benches — y’know, really classed the joint up.
We’re trying to plant wildflowers amongst the weeds, but this soil is rubble.
I’m sitting here with a nice cold cider and my laptop. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. I should be happy — ecstatic even — but there is a distinct sense of melancholia that shrouds me. This happens every summer, and what makes it worse is that I can never identify from whence it comes.
I am, for all intents and purposes, a very happy person. I enjoy all manner of privileges and good things, some of which I worked very hard to achieve, and many others I happened upon by chance. I have two jobs I love very much, and which allow me to express myself creatively without much censorship. I do not suffer from clinical depression as far as I know, though it does run in the family. What I’m saying is, I guess, I got life.
It didn’t seem so hard when we first started, but tending to damaged roots is a slow and delicate process they want us to handle with care.
Don’t you ever want to take a sledgehammer to the whole damn place? Douse it in kerosene and watch it fucking burn? I like to think a tree might rise from those ashes; it probably isn’t a risk worth taking.
I like to blame my morose tendencies on the weather. In the winter, it is easy to say you’re just not feeling well because it’s fucking frigid and who can be happy under those conditions? But that kind of sadness has a name: seasonal depression. You’re sad because it sucks out. You’re sad because you can’t see the people you love as often because it sucks out. You’re sad because you can’t go running around in your skivvies because it sucks out. You’re sad because you haven’t seen a tree that doesn’t look like it wants to commit suicide since September. It isn’t until the summer, when the frost melts and the icee man comes calling and the pool is open and the yard (however ridden with stubborn weeds) starts to incubate natural life, that you realize the source of your woes isn’t dependent on the weather. It’s you. Or it’s me. I don’t mean to project.
So we excavate this rubble that cannot and will not give life. You find a dead rat while you’re raking the yard and you pretend to throw it at me. I yell at you because that is so incredibly disgusting. And you look at me like you didn’t know I would get so upset about something so small. But I am, and here we are, in this yard full of weeds.
I’ve been in a relationship with a man for over three years now, which is at least three years longer than any other relationship with any other person, male, female or otherwise that I have ever sustained. This is the Big One. I have always been the reason something goes wrong. I become restless, or anxious, or needy, or just batshit crazy. And it always seems to happen about right now, when the weeds start to show green in his little patch of dirt.
Last summer, I told him I wanted to see other people. Specifically, that I wanted to start seeing women, that this was a huge part of who I am, and that maybe non-monogamy was equally a part of who I am. So, we took a little break. I will be the first to admit that it was a selfish albeit necessary move for the both of us.
Past relationships have always been a product of convenience, emotionally or geographically or both. They ran their course and didn’t need much help because once they were over there was no question as to whether they would ever return. But, because it seems plausible that this boy might be the person with whom I spend the rest of my life, I have to start counting my blessings; I have to start planting seeds, the kind that will grow back next year and the year after that. Our little break was one kind of seed. Our open relationship is another. I’m hoping that that the way I manifest happiness in my life is by creating new things with my friends, lovers, and family.
We’ll have to take it slow I guess. Pull some weeds. Lay some soil. In the meantime we’ve got this tomato plant we’re growing in a big fat plastic pot, painted the color of terra cotta, that we found beneath some cinderblocks that smelled like piss. And for now we’re gonna stick it right in the sun. Already the leaves smell spicy and green. There is a little promise of something plump and red. I’ll try to nurture something that tastes and smells and looks as fine as you do.
A garden needs constant tending. It needs biodiversity. Those things can be hard to find in a city like New York. It seems as though everything you try to grow is vulnerable to elements out of your control: flash floods, vermin, alley cats. The summer heat brings every threat to the surface. So you trim and weed and build trellises and cages. And still one day you wake up, and a rat has burrowed a hole in your basil plants.
Much like a garden, a relationship needs tending, especially one vulnerable to predators. So when you show up at your boyfriend’s house at 4 am because you can’t sleep, creep through the 1×1 hole in the basement wall, hoping to tuck yourself under him arms so that he will wake up wrapped up in you, only to find that he has spent the night in Taylor’s bed, it’s important to remind yourself that you are not despairing because you are unloved, just temporarily lonely. True love manifest itself in tinier, more complex ways — like the look on his face when he comes home later that day, and sees you’ve been waiting for him, naked and drooling on the pillow and he assures you that you are his number one priority and he should have told you he wouldn’t be home last night. There is a feeling when you learn a new thing about yourself and the person you love; the feeling that you have built something solid. This is what staves off the sadness.
I had this dream we woke up at dawn, and the morning glories had wound themselves around the whole yard. They spun around barbed wire fence toppers and made a bed of themselves down the whole block, creeped through the doorways of the Louis Armstrong Projects and made everything smell so… crisp. They circled the elbows of your other lover’s freckled arms. They pulled at the orange red tendrils of my own. And nobody was awake to see it but you, me and the sparrows.
Building a relationship does not preclude exploring others. Learning what you love and hate about the bodies and behaviors of other people writes an encyclopedia of human nature that helps you understand how you can manage to love the sum of one human’s parts more than any individual part of any other person you have ever known. There’s no formula for this. Feelings will be hurt. Mysterious tiny animals will eat your tomatoes. It will feel like a crazy, impossible, futile thing to do. But, when September rolls around and you know you both put in good, hard work instead of letting the melancholia creep its way inside of you you, the impending task of staying warm in the winter doesn’t seem so daunting.
This is the first summer of my adult life that I have not tried to leave a relationship; the first time I feel like I have the tools to tend a garden.