THIS IS US
Cherry Tomatoes and Friends
When the things you love make you sick
The cherry tomato plant on my patio came from Home Depot, of all places. It stands about two feet tall, green and thick and fuzzy, tiny fruits flowering in clusters among the leaves. I have wanted this plant for years.
When we decided to move to Chicago from Brooklyn last July, I was overjoyed at the prospect of growing herbs and vegetables in our own little garden. Outdoor space is more common in Chicago than in New York, and after more than a year cooped up in our pandemic apartment, I was ready to nourish my relationship with plants, the outdoors, air and water and light.
My wife, Kaitlyn, is the master gardener in our house, tending to dozens of plants both indoors and out, but the tomatoes were my idea, so I feel responsible for them. I check them every day, notice the green of their leaves, the reddening of the globes. I water them and pick off the dried-up parts. I count the days until the sweet fruits will be ready for me to harvest and eat. Mostly I stare at them, take pictures of them, tell them I love them.
I put a lot of loving intention into these babies, these tomatoes, but at the end of the day, I cannot guarantee they will produce exactly what I need, the just-right fruits I crave. I can hold up my end of the bargain and hope, and not much more. I’m slowly making my peace with knowing that as much work as I put into them, it may not be enough.
Two sad stories:
A long time ago I had a best friend named Billy, and I would have done anything for him. We got in a big fight and then we never spoke again. That’s the short version.
A shorter time ago I had a best friend named Lexi, and I would have done anything for her. We got in a big fight and then we never spoke again. That’s the short version.
I have lost other friends too, in some normal ways and some not normal ways. Casey took his life before I had a chance to tell him how much he meant to me. Others have departed my life in less permanent ways, but it still hurts that I can’t talk to them like I used to, that what we had doesn’t exist anymore. I am losing friends as we speak, watching what we had unravel one text message at a time. It breaks my heart fresh every time a friendship weakens or dies. Maybe I’m too sensitive.
Some of my lost friends have come back to me: Becca and I didn’t speak for years, but now she’s one of my closest. A series of high school friends faded away ages ago, only to reappear now that we all watch Drag Race and have TikTok. It’s nice how that happens, but I don’t understand it. What makes some friends come back? What keeps others away?
Others gently remind me that I am not the only person who has lost close friends, that this is part of life, and I know this is true. At the height of my friendship breakup with Lexi, I talked to other friends about my hurt constantly. Loved ones shared their own stories of important friendships suddenly dissolving without warning or respite. I know I’m not special.
But sometimes the pain is so big that it feels like I am the only one, and this makes me wonder if I’m a narcissist. (My therapist says that if you’re worried you’re a narcissist, you’re not a narcissist, which gives me some comfort.) Everyone I talk to about these heartbreaks agrees on one thing: We don’t have enough of a cultural script for friend breakups. Maybe that’s why it feels like all of us are going it alone. Maybe that’s why I can’t get over it.
Until recently, I could not digest raw tomatoes at all. They gave me terrible heartburn, made me feel sick, and for years I simply didn’t like the taste. For a long time, my chronic stomach illness was an easy excuse when I was served unwanted raw tomatoes in a dish: sure, I didn’t like them, but the effects on my gut were way more significant.
But a couple of years ago, Kaitlyn and I went on a trip upstate, just to get out of the city for a while, and at the diner where we stopped for lunch I ordered a BLT. I couldn’t tell you why; it just sounded delicious, cool and creamy and crunchy on that warm September day. It was so good, I lost my mind over it. It changed my heart, tomatoes-wise.
Ever since that sandwich, I eat tomatoes almost every day. I put them on toast atop a thin layer of ricotta. I stir them into pasta with roasted zucchini. Sometimes I pop them off the plant and eat them whole like butterscotch candies, the acidic juice exploding into my mouth a surprise every time. Sometimes my stomach is fine with it, and sometimes I pay the price with an aching gut and a fit of nausea.
This is a bad habit of mine: taking something that’s not good for me but wanting it badly enough that I force my system to tolerate it. Tomatoes might make me sick. Still, I love them enough, now, that I’m always willing to take the risk.
Here is something I’ve told Kaitlyn and nobody else: I dream constantly about the friends I’ve lost. Once a week I dream that Billy and I are hanging out, sometimes at a movie theater or at a bar or at a party, and in the dream I think to myself, “Isn’t this nice, that we sorted out our differences and we’re friends again? Aren’t you grateful?” It happens this way every single time.
When I dream about Lexi, I am angry. This is how I know I haven’t resolved my feelings yet, that I still have more work to do in therapy. I dream of yelling and screaming and crying. I wake up mad. These dreams are not yet as frequent as my dreams about Billy, which I can count on like clockwork, but I’m remembering them more and more often.
Perhaps these dreams are showing me where I failed in these friendships, the things I couldn’t bear to do in my conscious life: take up space, make my needs known, forgive and forget. (I check myself here: Am I the one who failed? Does it have to be anybody’s fault?)
My therapist says I am holding onto a lot of trauma and guilt and pain about losing these friends, losing any friends, and I know that she is right. Sometimes I wish I could simply flush my brain of these friendships, forget they ever happened, instead of dealing with my hurt feelings over them. Even then, I bet they would still come to me in dreams, rendering the whole complicated process useless.
And after all, not all of my friendship dreams are bad. Like when I dream about Casey? Well, I dream that he is still alive.
We got Covid this summer and had to extend a vacation on the West Coast in order to isolate. For 12 days, my tomato plant went unwatered, unharvested. We came back and the leaves had mostly shriveled, but waiting for me was a bundle of bright red cherry tomatoes, huddled together as if for safety. I took them off the vine and ate them one by one.
“Tomato plants are dramatic,” Kaitlyn tells me, and she’s right. A few hours after we have extensively watered the dried-out plant, its leaves curl out into lush greenery again. A few leaves stay dry and brown, but she tells me not to worry about them. She warns me, though, that we might not get as many tomatoes as we did last year because of our accidental abandonment of the plant. I am heartbroken.
So I channel my emotions into plant care and love this one a little extra, checking on it constantly, whispering sweet nothings like a lover. “Grow, baby, grow,” I tell the small green bulbs emerging from flowers, thinking maybe I can will the plant into being what I need it to be. We just planted another cherry tomato seedling, a gift from a neighbor, and I’m curious to see if it will fruit in time for summer. Still, my loyalty lies with this one, my baby. I promise it that whatever it can give me is enough. After all, I am the one who left.
Cherry tomatoes need some kind of support structure, like a trellis or stake, in order to grow. Without this support, the plant can get too heavy and refuse to hold up its own weight. Contact with wet soil increases the likelihood of disease or insects. When the plant is heavy, stems break. Half-ripe tomatoes drop to the ground, stymied before they can reach their full potential. The harvest is lackluster, the fruits wasted.
A friendship takes the shape of its container. Ride-or-die, maid of honor, best friends forever. It, too, needs a structure in place to guide it, to help it grow.
I will send this essay to my friends knowing that my words are not enough, knowing that too often I have made myself someone’s trellis when in fact what I needed was something safe to fall back on, something to make me feel secure. Too often I have tried and tried to force something to be good for me when it simply wasn’t. It is easy for me to crumble under my own weight, to aim too high and too big. It is easy for me to sacrifice myself. I am tired of wasting fruit.
Casey, if you’re reading this, we miss you.
Lexi, if you’re reading this, I would still bail you out of jail tomorrow.
Billy, I know you’re not reading this.
I plan to ask friends if they have any use for our tomatoes next time we travel, as well as the chives and cilantro and sage and bell pepper and the other good green things growing on our patio. Even though I won’t be here to enjoy them for some time, they should not go to waste.
Since we returned from our extended absence, three more tomatoes have ripened, ready for picking. About two dozen more are coming in, still light green and fuzzy. With these, I will be patient. I will not pick them before they are ready. But with the red fruits, I do not bother to wait. I pluck one from its vine, wipe it on my shorts, and put the whole thing in my mouth. While it is still here with me, while the weather is still warm and growth is still possible and this plant has not yet died — I savor.
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