You’re a fake and a phony. And how about this for adding insult to injury? You’re hideous. My contempt for you is beyond reproach. I’m utterly sick of your presence, having persistently put up with your indifference and your silent treatments. Why is it that all you do is just stand there? You’re useless. I want you out of my apartment and my life – now!
Whoa…those acerbic words came from me, I realized, as I took a deep breath surprised by my visceral outburst and vehemently irascible behavior. Thankfully, I assured myself, the recipient of my brutal and biting criticism can’t hear me or even defend himself, because he’s not a person, but a plant. And I’m not even vocalizing my insults; I’m only processing them in my head like an actor in a silent movie.
In retrospect, lamenting over these condescending and nasty thoughts had indeed changed everything in my life from then on.
It was August 2019, a hot, sultry evening in Manhattan, and a bad hair day to boot. I could sense the days getting shorter. The air was as thick as New England split pea soup. Ominous clouds hung overhead like a gigantic jar of marshmallow fluff, lid removed, suspended upside down. After a long stressful day in the financial markets, mentally drained from football field-sized spreadsheets, my head felt like a burning house receiving a full-on fire hose flow of formulas and algorithms shooting through my brain’s open windows.
As I descended into the subway, I forced my mind to divert into other, more picturesque lands beyond – anything to redirect my attention from the four computer screens I had been fixated on for the last 10 hours, but I was only semi-successful. I contemplated why on earth my client added a “Von” before his already long last name, just for effect. I fantasized that a quick read of my initials, SG, could be mistaken for 5G, seemingly making my image more hi-tech. I wondered if my friend, Sandra, who called me during her lunch break to say she was about to orchestrate a salad, must be a wannabe conductor. As my mind floated away like the tide, I almost missed my stop. Darting out, I emerged from the trenches, as my skirt flared up over the sidewalk grating, like Marilyn Monroe – sans the glamor.
Dragging my sloth-like self home after 7:30 pm, I had that FOMO moment – fear of missing out – on a zesty hibiscus-infused margarita over scintillating conversation with my Brooklyn friends who tempted me in a late-afternoon text. I could almost taste the salt on my lips, as I licked my chops like a dog tempted by a treat, realizing it was the taste of my own sweat.
Upon arriving home, juggling my unwieldy bag, a mishmash containing who knows what – partially functional umbrella, mélange of electronic gadgets, random unopened bills from days prior and of course, apartment keys, buried at the very bottom, I swung open my door, aimlessly kicking off my “fashion before comfort” pumps with a one-two thud, clunk. I dumped my possessions in a random heap on my kitchen counter, released a deep sigh and did a one-take through the half-light of my adjacent living room.
The space exuded my assiduous attention to detail, albeit admittedly with an overkill of orange hues. It displayed a concoction of worldly objects accumulated from the many hiking and biking trips I’ve ventured over the years – my favorite healthy addiction. And it was then and there that I experienced an epiphany.
I took note of an artificial rubber tree ensconced in the far corner of my living room. Its dark green, waxy leaves had, in their neglect, gathered accumulated strata of dust and undefined urban detritus. The imprisoned, furtive tree was humbly perched near a window overlooking a bleak red brick wall of the adjacent apartment building. Inhabiting the third floor meant that natural light was a luxury and taking advantage of it required precise timing.
Within a nano-second, my inner voice asserted, ‘Get rid of that hideous tree; it’s ugly and depressing’ – a sudden realization that this lone tree sullied the crisp, colorful and inviting ambiance of my apartment – that which I had worked so hard to achieve over the years in my earnest and passionate quest for beauty, originality and style. I wanted it out of my sight – immediately. What a bone-head idea it was, back in the day, to purchase such a thing. I recalled the Zen Buddhist theory of wabi-sabi which finds beauty in all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. But at this moment, frustration gave Zen the one-two punch, and I was incapable of seeing one iota of beauty in this pitiful tree.
But really, I pondered, how long had it been since I lost adoration for my fake tree? What drove my stubborn persistence in keeping it in my life? Why hadn’t I acknowledged this animosity prior to now? Was my negativity the result of a blistering headache? Was I so blind-sighted and befuddled by everyday stresses that my tunnel vision made me oblivious to my immediate surroundings? Maybe I was just projecting unwarranted negativism after having foregone precious margarita-time.
As I threw on a T-shirt and foraged the remains of a deep green smoothie from the fridge, I tried to err on the positive by attributing this aesthetic revelation to my emerging and creative talents in home décor garnered from drooling over design blogs. I began to reflect on this tree’s history, amazed that it had been in my possession for over a decade. I have been a denizen of this grand metropolis longer than anywhere, including the Massachusetts suburbia of my childhood.
The tree stood at just over my height of 5’4” and was a replica of a young rubber tree that one would discover in the dense rainforests of the Amazon or on a luscious, mystical Malaysian plantation. I recalled schlepping it from not just one, but two previous apartments, so obviously it had meant something to me over the years. No doubt I was beholden to it, like a favorite old sweater. After persistently cohabitating with it, what a travesty it would be to discard it.
When I first moved to New York City, I was fascinated by the myriad neighborhoods for shopping, dining and entertainment. In addition to the oft-referenced Chinatown dim sum and Little Italy cannoli, there were districts for diamonds, lighting fixtures, Korean cuisine, knock-off designer bags, art supplies, buttons and trimmings and the plethora of wholesale-only shops with signs perched in the window that read, “Por Mayor.” As a newbie to the city, I was unaware of what exactly that meant, until I learned the hard way. In my unrelenting attempt to find the perfect pair of purple earmuffs to don with my puffy purple coat, I spotted them in a shop’s window but sadly was informed that there was a dozen pair minimum.
Once settled into my first apartment, I decided that some greenery would naturalize the urban look. But I had to be realistic. My career required living on airplanes, and thus I couldn’t risk owning the real deal – like opting for a stuffed animal in lieu of Rover. Lo and behold, buried within the plant district, was a sub-district dedicated solely to artificial plants; yes, an entire street with storefront signs bearing the names, Panny Silk flowers and Blondie’s Treehouse, selling man-made flowers, bushes and topiaries. It was fake-plant heaven. When it came to my tree, it was love at first sight. OK, so it didn’t absorb light, release replenishing energy or mitigate climate change. But I could at least get lost in the idea.
To this day I still own this bit of greenery in my apartment and I now faced the bleak reality; my rubber tree looked staid, worn and lonely – actually, pathetic. It now seemed out of place, like capers in raspberry sorbet or stilettos on a tennis court.
While I assumed its simulated bark and textile leaves were manufactured on an assembly line in China, I fantasized that it was yearning to be in bright sunlight and fresh air, arching its patulous limbs toward the sun’s rays with its leaves rustling in a light breeze. I imagined its roots soaking up the earth’s moisture, tweeting sparrows perching on its branches, rambunctious squirrels scurrying up its trunk and snowflakes clinging to last seasons’ withering leaves. Undoubtedly, I was losing it.
Busting out of my melancholia, I concluded, I wouldn’t dare discard the tree. Pangs of guilt ran through me as if picking a daisy from a public garden. My tree must find a new life where it would again be loved, admired or, at best, occasionally dusted.
My urgent mission was to find the tree a new home. After multiple repositioning and adjustment, I selected my top-pick photo and posted it on Craigslist. Surely with the abundance of city habitants craving more greenery in their concrete lives, there was bound to be a taker. And inquiries rolled in. Being a single woman living alone, I had to ensure that one of my stealthier looking male friends would be present should the interested party be some rapist impersonating a dendrologist (one who studies trees).
The first potential buyer, Cecelia, impulsively arranged to drive from Philadelphia, well over a two-hour journey, and with traffic, double that. Caveat emptor, the tree was not even worth the price in fuel and tolls. I invited Steve over for his favorite risotto dish and we dined and caught up while awaiting her arrival. By 11 pm we lost hope, only to be informed that Cecelia was party to a fender bender on the turnpike, returning home with her battery-dead cell phone. While she was hardly the most reliable counterparty, I remained optimistic.
Megan seemed sweet and sincere over the phone; thus, I took the risk of being alone upon her and her friend’s arrival. The transaction was as smooth as silk. Meghan was starring in an off-off-Broadway play while statuesque, olive-bronzed friend, Kyle, was the stage designer. While my eyes were focused on his captivating temples it was the hazel eyes that had me. Deep, serene, and a green hue that mirrored my own.
All Meghan and Kyle required to complete their stage set was a tree. And yes, my tree was their answer. As an avid theatregoer and passionate about supporting the arts, my tree would be a win-win for the producers, actors and audience. My tree wouldn’t be in plein air, but I envisioned that post-run, it would be promoted to Broadway productions to the likes of Sunday in the Park with Jake Gyllenhaal or Sunset Boulevard with Glen Close. I refused the cash and wished them luck.
So off they went, vibrant Megan and captivating Kyle, enthusiastic and appreciative, carrying my tree horizontally out the door, together with a full bottle of artificial plant cleaner I had dug out from my kitchen cabinet. I suspected Megan and Kyle could be ‘an item’ but risked it and swiftly palmed Kyle my business card on their way out.
From then on, my apartment would take on a new life. I filled the vacant corner with a stylish iron rod chair supporting crisp white cushions – no more orange! In its outdoorsy feel, where I now relax, I reflect on my earlier epiphany – my desire to immediately discard that which had lost favor. What evolved from this gut reaction was a meaningful and enlightened realization – to appreciate the importance of opening my eyes and focusing on the beauty of my immediate surroundings. I realized that if something or someone in one’s life is out of sync or just feels off, tossing it away may not be the ideal solution.
Better yet, ignite a change, create a new environment or make an introduction – be proactive. Envision basking in the rays of a new direct luminary. As French writer and philosopher, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, wrote, “Bite into that hope as if it were a chocolate bar.” Be persistent. The outcome can be fulfilling and enriching, not only for one’s self but for others.
Best of all, I could revisit my tree next week. I was invited to the play’s opening night, followed by the cast party with, none other than, Kyle. Yes indeed, all was good.
This story is a work of fiction.
Shelley Goldberg is an Environmental Sustainability Investment Manager and Strategist.
Top photo: Bigstock