One Tomato, Two Tomato: On Happiness and Superstition
Amy Bonnaffons, author of 'The Wrong Heaven' writes about relationships, the highs and lows of happiness, and the beauty of uncertainty.
One Tomato, Two Tomato: On Happiness and Superstition
I call my boyfriend and report, "Biggy and Wayne aren't doing so well."
He pauses. "Don't worry," he says. "It's not a metaphor, or anything like that." We both laugh, nervously.
Biggy and Wayne are tomato plants. He bought the seedlings at a Home Depot and drove them to my house, an hour away from his. We potted them together and set them down in my sunny backyard. My backyard gets more direct sunlight than his—that's why I got the tomatoes. But I wasn't sure I was ready for the responsibility.
I have whatever is the opposite of a green thumb. Even houseplants, even the houseplants described as "unkillable" by nursery staff, seem to wither under my care. I forget to water them for weeks, then I over-water them to compensate, sealing their fate—or they just die for no good reason. Sometimes they seem bent toward death from the beginning, like tubercular waifs in Victorian novels.
I don't have a great history of keeping relationships alive, either. My twenties were punctuated by a series of brief, blazing intimacies, with long celibate stretches in between. There were reasons I could point to: geographical distance, serious mental illness, wildly mismatched expectations. It didn't help that I seemed to always attract people who were already in relationships, or otherwise completely unavailable. I seemed to give off a vibe that said "fantasize away, but don't get too close." I was aware that I probably bore some responsibility for projecting this vibe, but I wasn't sure how to change it. In retrospect, I'm not sure I fully wanted to. Despite the frequent frustrations, the occasional heartbreaks, on some level it worked for me—keeping my loves at a safe distance.
In the summer of 2016, motivated mostly by pure curiosity, I went to see an astrologer my friend had recommended. All I'd told her in advance was my date and time of birth—but she sat across from me, fixed me with a wry knowing look, and said, "Your problem is that you think love is exalted by distance and difficulty." I felt stunned, almost affronted, by the accuracy of this; even my own therapists hadn't been that direct. "Well, what do I do about that?" I asked her. "Well," she said, glancing down again at my chart, "The bad news is that soon you're going to be lonelier than you've ever been before. The good news is that after that, you'll be ready for intimacy, real intimacy—with someone who's a real person, who farts and has onion breath."
For the next few months I braced myself, watchful for the oncoming worst-loneliness-of-my-life. It arrived in a form different than I'd expected.
On election night, I stood at a bar surrounded by friends—all in couples—watching the horrifying, unthinkable results come in while a drag queen dressed as Hillary Clinton attempted, gamely and futilely, to soothe our flagging spirits. Discouraged, my coupled friends started to leave, in couples. Soon I was the only person at the bar that I knew. Did I stay here, watching my country get taken away from me in the company of strangers, or did I go home to my empty house? Both prospects seemed unbearable. I'd never had a problem with solitude; I'd always taken some pride in my enjoyment of it. But tonight the world seemed like a storm-tossed sea, and I wanted someone else in my little rowboat.
I had my second date with Steve soon after that. I'd been attracted right away to his crooked smile, his gentle wit, his obvious kindness. But now I noticed the care with which he listened to me—not to confirm some pre-existing fantasy, or to bide his time while waiting to speak, but actually to learn about me, to try and understand. On our next few dates, he brought me little gifts—a bottle of homemade apple cider, a seashell he'd found on a weekend trip to the beach. He sent me flowers on my first day of school. Upon receiving them, before I saw the attached card, my first thought was "there must be some mistake." Things like that didn't happen to me.
The real miracle was that I liked it. In the past I'd been suspicious of such gestures, unwilling to believe that they came from genuine feeling rather than from some generic impulse to fulfill a romantic cliché. The difference, now, lay partly in Steve, in his unmistakable thoughtfulness—but also partly in myself. I understood now that love did not exist a priori, an exalted passion that had to prove itself by withstanding obstacles and difficulties. Instead, it was something one made in collaboration with another, co-constructed through a series of small gestures. Steve was demonstrating to me that he was willing to participate, willing to do that work. There was a symbiosis between action and emotion, a way that passion grew as small kindnesses accumulated. (It also helped that we shared the same goofy sense of humor and had really good sex.)
As the days, weeks, and months accrued, I kept track of them carefully, nervously exultant at each new milestone: six weeks, three months, five months, eight. It had been years since I'd had a boyfriend who'd lasted this long. I moved in a haze of happiness and anxious superstition. Everything seemed like a sign that the relationship would "work out" or that it would not: the next song that came up on Spotify Shuffle (was it a happy song or a breakup song?), my horoscope (did the vague talk of "new beginnings" mean that our love would grow, or that it would die to make room for something else?), my dreams (was it a good thing or a bad thing that in my dream I'd stood on a pier and thrown a suitcase into the sea?).
Slowly, though, I learned to relax. It's not that I became a more enlightened, less anxious person. It was just that Steve kept being there, and slowly I began to tease apart the relationship between fear and reality. When I was fearful, he was there; when I was relaxed, he was there too. In the past, my fears had accurately predicted disaster; now, they seemed to bear no relationship to what was actually happening. He admitted to having his own anxieties from time to time—it had been a long time for him, too, since anything had worked this well—but he refused to be scared off by happiness, by the plethora of fears it itself raised (the feeling Brene Brown aptly calls "foreboding joy.") I thought of something I'd been told once by a fortuneteller I'd visited in Thailand: "You're good at finding patterns," he'd said. "But if you look down at your feet and see a pattern in the leaves on the ground, that doesn't mean that pattern will hold through the whole forest." Our human brains are excellent at pattern recognition—which is our strength and our downfall. Which patterns do we pay attention to?
The tomato plants, for instance. What did they mean? One of them immediately flourished, and the other remained scrawny and meek, like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. They soon came to be known as Biggy and Smalls, then Biggy and Lil Wayne. Every time I went out to water them—every time I failed to forget to water them—I thought of Steve, of what we were building together, about how I didn't want to fuck it up. All of this was thoroughly obvious, right on the surface. It was such an obvious metaphor that we joked about it. But did its obviousness make it a good metaphor, or a bad one?
I was surprised not to feel panicked when both Biggy and Wayne developed some sort of blight—a blackness that crept in from the edges of their leaves. I called Steve and told him about it. He told me that friends of his had reported similar troubles with their own tomato plants. "Don't worry," he said. "It's not you." I believed him—still, some small, watchful, superstitious part of me prayed for the plants' survival, for what it would prove.
One day in late summer, a massive thunderstorm swept through town. I huddled inside with my cat while my windows shook in their panes. I wasn't surprised, when I finally went outside to see the next morning, that Biggy and Wayne had been decimated—knocked over, flattened against the grass, their stems broken, their leaves grey and limp.
I called Steve and told him about it. "Well," he said, "There goes that experiment." We both laughed. "Seriously, though," he said. "It doesn't have to mean anything."
I thought for a second. "Actually," I said, "I want it to mean something." I paused, searching for words to articulate my half-formed thought. "But the thing it means—it isn't failure," I said. "The meaning is that we tended this fragile thing, with no idea how it would turn out. We tried, and we kept showing up."
"I like that," he said. And that was the end of the conversation.
This summer, Steve and I are moving in together. We have ideas about the kind of garden we'll grow; we'll try tomatoes again, and other things too. Nothing is ever certain; blights come, storms come, of both the internal and external varieties—but for now, I'm grateful to have someone in my lifeboat, grateful that it's him, grateful that I now feel that it's worth it to show up for the little things—to appreciate the mystery at the heart of daily joys, to patiently tend the unknown.
Amy Bonnaffons is the author of The Wrong Heaven which has garnered praise from such publications like, O, The Oprah Magazine, Fast Company, and Signature Reads. We loved it too!
Get your copy of The Wrong Heaven here.
To read more of Amy's work visit her website.