How Fighting a Potted Plant on My 30th Birthday Led Me to the Existential Crisis I Never Knew I Needed
It was the eve of my 30th birthday. But instead of contemplating the future, I was absorbed in a memory: the first time I ever got drunk.
I was 18 and on an overnight ferry from Genoa to Barcelona with my high school’s Spanish Honor Society. My best friend and I sneaked away from the group to down shots of Baileys. After wandering around the ship, we joined the rest of our group in a dark, Euro-club-style room. Bodies writhed. Lasers flashed. My pulse thumped in time to the bass line of that ’05 Daddy Yankee banger every Miami kid knew how to get down to. I danced until my clothes were soaked with sweat; I spilled tequila all over myself.
As the kaleidoscope of faces swirled in the dark, I thought: This isn’t me. But do they know?
I spent the remainder of the trip contemplating my hangover and a feeling I couldn’t place—was it embarrassment? Was it guilt? Sure, I'd broken the rules, but I hadn’t gotten hurt or done anything that dangerous. Whatever I was struggling with, perhaps even more unsettling was that none of my friends seemed to be buzzing on my mopey wavelength. For the remaining few hours aboard the ship, I felt it rocking when no one else did.
At 18, I may have been too busy evaluating myself to enjoy the simple pleasure of letting go, but something primal in me detested being known as a “good kid.” Terrified I’d live out my days as one of those people who are perceived as perpetually having a stick up their ass, I actively forced my personality to become more relaxed about casual mischief-making.
Twelve years later I would find myself totally changed. Age was, and still is, making me a little spunkier, a little bolder, a little less prone to worry. But by 29, I was so far down that different road that my friends should have sent out a search party.
If the opportunity for naughtiness presented itself, you could find me scampering around, securing my position in the center of it. All innocent, all for amusement, I’d routinely commit small transgressions while socializing, like borrowing candles from empty tables to see how many I could fit on mine, convincing other patrons to switch drinks with me, or challenging men twice my size to arm-wrestling matches.
My friends usually thought this was hilarious, and accepted it as the cost of doing business with me. At best, I considered myself a charming liability, but I knew at times my antics could drive people up a wall.
Once I lit a cigarette in a taxi. My friends all shouted out in unison. The driver asked me if I knew what year it was. I shouted apologies and tossed it out the window. We laughed it off, but deep down, I knew it was careless, reckless and, let's face it, kind of a dick move.
I might have eaten all of the orange wedges out of a bar setup once or twice, or tried to take a selfie with an angry cop. You know—goofy stuff I always wrote off as spunky and harmless. I was the “mischief pixie” of my friend group, I convinced myself. In retrospect, I’m sure it all stemmed from a deep loneliness that can only be felt when you’re the permanent third wheel going out with coupled-up friends.
But on the night in question, I had no excuse.
Early spring 2017: my 30th birthday. Nothing in me cared to plan an outing in my own honor. Still, this was 30, and my friends wanted to party, so I donned the sequined tiara they’d gotten me and made a reservation at a Mexican joint known for its rowdy brunches.
We spent a few hours catching up, the number of jalapeño margaritas growing exponentially as those hours wore on. My “Birthday Princess” tiara sliding down my face, I peered out from under the pink marabou to watch my buddies laugh and dance. I was content.
As the last hours of daylight saw us into a cab, we were a single conglomeration of silliness looking for more fun. By the time we’d migrated downtown, we were starving and dehydrated but, remarkably, still amped up. We ducked into another bar...and that’s when I saw him.
Tall, leaning effortlessly against our table, he was more than a man—“he” was a glorious potted plant, and it was love at first sight. (On my end, anyway.) I slid into our booth. Under the shadow of the plant’s gently arching fronds, my contentedness multiplied. I was in a sweet little bliss bubble and taking appointments. As I sipped my trillionth margarita, I felt the familiar twinge of cheekiness poking at my good mood.
Every time a frond from the tree grazed my shoulder, I’d feign insult and slap it a little. Kind of like Willie and the elephant around the campfire in Temple of Doom. But what started as a playful flirtation turned into “a thing.” A comedic bit.
“This f**king ficus keeps touching me!” I screamed. I smacked it. My friends laughed, which made me laugh even harder. I couldn’t help myself. At last, a frond tickled my shoulder and I delivered a roundhouse kick that would’ve made Chuck Norris weep, administering a swift thwack with my arm for good measure.
“Ficus!” I said, “Cut… it… out!” Only it wasn’t a ficus, and playtime was about to come to an abrupt halt.
The manager beelined toward me. She leaned in to make sure I was giving her my full attention.
“Hey!” she shouted. “That’s a majesty palm, and if you touch it one more time, I will kick you out.”
I was a little stunned. It seemed like an outsized reaction—I mean, come on, lady, are you not aware it’s my birthday and this is just a treeohmygodI’
What the hell was I doing? I was a grown woman thrashing a potted plant in the middle of a decently classy establishment in New York City.
I thought of myself at age nine, scribbling on a giant piece of poster board with worn-out markers as I lovingly crafted Arbor Day decorations in my front yard. I recalled the petition I’d toted around my elementary school for weeks after that: “Preserve Our Everglades!” read the header in sloppy bubble letters.
When my mind returned to New York, I was mortified by the notion that the oldest person in our group—and, arguably, the one who gave the most f**ks about the rainforest—was the one behaving the worst.
The manager continued to harangue me. “You know, that’s a living plant and you’re just kicking it and treating it like garbage.”
I’m being so disrespectful, I thought.
“You’re being so disrespectful,” she said.
I swallowed hard.
“That tree is about a thousand dollars. I could charge your whole table for it. I could make sure you’re never let back in here.”
I wanted to make things right, but all I could do was drunkenly shout my regrets.
“I got so many signatures at my bus stop, man!” I whined. My eyes welled with tears. Do they know this isn’t me? My 18-year-old voice echoed in my ears.
The majesty palm looked weak and withered. My friends, aware I had flagged us as trouble, gave me the cold shoulder for the rest of the night, and I sulked and fretted until it was time to leave.
When I got home, I raided the fridge, then spent the next few hours staring at my ceiling as it spun. I used to be so in my head that I couldn’t even be casually irresponsible, but now the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.
Settling into my discomfort, I took a breath and had an honest conversation with myself.
I felt hollow. I’d been in a dark period of transition and confusion for over a year and, upon looking back, came to the conclusion I’d developed Fun Alex as a diversion from Real Alex—because Real Alex was sad.
That year, I’d struggled with a traumatic breakup, moved very far away from home, and questioned every choice along the way. I hated my job. I doubted my career path would ever lead me to anything but further regret and I was suffocated by fear of failure on the reg. I stewed in my own doubt constantly. My sex life was unfulfilling. I either ate too much or not at all. My living situation stressed me out. In general, I was afraid my eulogy would be given in a graveyard of woulda, coulda, shouldas as I languished in Midtown Manhattan and the happy rest of the world passed me by. All the while, I said I was fine.
I realized my mistake was in pushing through the things that were making me unhappy instead of sitting with them. I distracted myself a lot. The whole Fun Alex persona was a distraction in itself. Thinking I was above normal social etiquette just because I needed to keep my mind off of things was foolish.
“Am I an asshole?” I muttered as dawn broke outside my window. The dark of my room did not answer. I felt like I owed everyone I’d seen socially in the last 600 days a huge apology.
The next morning I woke up, still in my party dress, full of regret and leftover Vietnamese food. I met a friend for tea and he wanted to know all about the party. Ready to cry again, I recounted the previous night’s events, but something was about to change. As I wallowed, he held up his hand, and asked me something I’ll never forget.
“Do you think any of this will matter six months from now?”
Opening my mouth to protest, I froze. I realized I was making my behavior a crisis when in reality... was it even a big deal? Was I being too hard on myself? Would that manager even remember my face tomorrow? I reassessed everything.
No, this would not matter six months from now, but what would matter is whether or not I took the experience to heart.
I silently vowed to be a better person in my 30s. I would keep myself in check. I would look out for others who were letting their Fun Alexes get the best of them in social settings. I would advise they stop being a dick and chill out. Deep down, I knew I’d be prouder of myself this way.
I sipped my tea. It was so hot I scalded the roof of my mouth and all the skin peeled off.
There, I thought. I’m already like 6 percent an entirely new person.