When I say the tree was hollow, I do not mean the trunk of it.
No, the trunk was sturdy and new. Instead, the branches grew in all directions, even along the ground, spreading feverishly, so that there was a space inside where you could sit and talk, feet dangling off the ground, like being in a globe made of leaves. Perfectly audible from the outside, the globe nevertheless seemed safe, completely removed from the outside world, like a room made of nature.
It was there we met the very last time I saw her. But the story begins even before that.
Made desperate, angry, crazy by life in a town the size of a larger city’s mall, I had cut my hair off and dyed the remaining pieces in fragments of purple, green, and blue. I looked like a Funfetti cake but at the time, I thought it was tough or strange or, at the very least and most importantly, a visual symbol of my lack of belonging, putting the entire town on notice.
The next day, washing my hands in the sink, my eyes had met hers in the bathroom mirror.
“Nice hair,” she’d said. Her voice was low, sweet. I’d never talked to her but there were only two women in my high school that were rumored to like women and I spent a fair amount of time thinking about both of them.
This, with the attention and the eye contact, was just what I had envisioned when I cut my hair. I had little idea that this was the only part that would be exactly like I had envisioned it.
We sat next to each other in class, me right behind her, an accident of alphabetization. I came directly between her and her boyfriend, a metaphorical position that I longed to make literal.
We sat next to each other in class, me right behind her, an accident of alphabetization. I came directly between her and her boyfriend, a metaphorical position that I longed to make literal.Fittingly enough, the class was psychology and the teacher had devised several ingenious methods of delaying the part where he actually taught. Every so often, I remember something from that class and it seems so surreal that I wonder if I had made it up.
Did we really guess cards with an entire pack of cards to prove that psychics were not real? Did he really tell us, after, that he had students perform better than probability and that psychic ability ran in families, rather destroying the experimental premise?
Did we really meditate for up to half an hour, the sound of soft snores filling the class?
Did he really bring in a man who had been to Africa—the country not elaborated on, as if that vague description of the continent was an adequate explanation for his presence at the front of the class—to tell us homosexuality was unnatural? It didn’t, he explained, happen in Africa. Men held hands, he explained, but not in a gay way.
I felt the familiar churning I got in my stomach whenever I thought about women, about the future. I stared at my own hands as the man who had been to Africa talked. Sometimes, I passed notes between the girl and her boyfriend, and I got that feeling then, too; a much less morally bankrupt psychologist than my current teacher would later diagnose this feeling as anxiety.
Then, I thought of it as losing my appetite. Plenty of things made me lose my appetite and I refused to look more closely at them for fear of finding a common thread. I lost it when one of my beautiful friends discussed her boyfriend—friend jealous! And when people discussed their complete aversion to gay people—moral outrage! And when I faced down an economics test or any sort of public speaking.
I would have excused myself to go to the bathroom, but I feared drawing any sort of attention to myself. I tried to conceal and reveal at the same time and failed at doing either. Instead, my message was muddled. The question wasn’t, “Are you gay?” it was, “What are you?”
A question to which I most certainly did not have any answer, not then and not now. Indie, I said. Punk, I said. Emo, I said. Maybe, possibly, almost bisexual, I said, though only to those I knew very well. In such a small town, I knew how fast news can travel, especially the wrong news. And if I was to lose everything, I had vowed not to do it single.
I tried to conceal and reveal at the same time and failed at doing either. Instead, my message was muddled. The question wasn’t, “Are you gay?” it was, “What are you?”My strategy, of looking pretty and waiting hopefully, worked for a first and singular time when she asked for my number. I had only just gotten a cell phone—it was pink and covered with silly pictures of my friends and I making faces in a photo booth, one that we had gone up to San Francisco to find. We went to the big city to seek out culture, synonymous in our minds with photo booths and foreign food. I’d bought cheap shoes in Chinatown and felt like I had seen the world.
She picked me up in her car. She was smoking cigarettes. I’m not sure if my parents noticed I seemed to have reached a new pitch of excitement. That my new friend had me pacing, putting on my best David Bowie eyeshadow in the mirror, bright green and full of glitter.
Her boyfriend was there again, on again, though they had been off again only this morning. I hated him with a fervor I usually reserved for war criminals and authority figures. Ashamed of this hatred, I was intensely, unusually kind to him.
Seeing the car pull up in the driveway was one of the most intense highs of my short life, and seeing her boyfriend in the front seat was one of the most intense lows. I covered my devastation, so overwhelming it nearly vanquished my shyness.
I smiled at her and refused the cigarette when offered. I was dedicated to my running then, though I didn’t try as hard as I should have. I would do many things to get on her good side, but smoking was not one of them. Ridiculous, that rule and all the other rules I made for her, with her, because of her.
In the face of overwhelming feelings, I have a tendency to tighten my control, as though my regulation of their expression would result in a corresponding mastery over if or when I would have them. Then, I thought my rules effective and careful. Caution was my highest good.
She was to be my first, vivid illustration of the perils of that path. I had not chosen her and yet, here she was, in my life, in my dreams, in my phone, an unlikely, unasked-for number that would text me occasionally. I, of course, was always too scared to text her. I can only imagine what she thought of our friendship, such as it was, my frequent silences, my hesitations. The way I waited for all of her cues because I wanted so immensely, so embarrassingly and all-encompassingly, that it seemed I could not even tell what a normal friendship was under the weight of my desires. The scope of my needs was huge and terrifying. I had no idea what to do with them other than ignore them entirely.
One time, we’d left a tarp from construction on the ground in our backyard and when we’d pulled it up a month later, there were pumpkins underneath, thriving in the dark, damp environment. Some things, when ignored, do not die.
I slid into the back of the cheap car that smelled like weed and smoke and dirty gym clothes and let it take me away.
We were seeing the kind of psychobilly band I was obsessed with, the sort where the singers wore all black and sang about death, but in an ironic way. They’d appropriated the campiest of horror movie tropes so that you would know for sure they were joking. Emo was out, scene was in, and fantasizing about death was only cool if it was a joke and if you could look convincingly disaffected.
I’d worn the wrong shoes, embroidery sewn to thin soles that sold for under ten dollars, and I trashed them that night in the chaos of the mosh pit. The next weekend I would buy boots, heavy and black and clunky, that would add three inches to my already formidable height and two sizes to my already formidable feet. I would always remember the way she taught me to stand straight in a mosh pit, arms up and braced, just at the edges so I could push the boys that spun out right back in.
The concert was held in the downstairs of a dingy bar and we received the bright neon wristbands proclaiming we were too young for alcohol despite her boyfriend’s effort to locate a fake ID.
He must have been there for the concert, but he was with his friends or upstairs in anywhere other than the space we had carved out for the two of us among the screaming, dancing, kicking bodies.
That night, it seemed like it was just her and I, her gentle instructions, the jostling, the pushing, the adrenaline and the battle to stay on my feet to greet the band with screams. It was a battle we fought together and it was exhilarating.
I can’t remember how the night ended, there or later, how we got home. I knew I liked her too much and sprouting in my heart was the hope that despite the boyfriend, she liked me too. I didn’t begrudge anybody else trying to hide the way I did.
She dropped me off and I barely said hello to my mother, who was waiting up for me. I was covered in other people’s sweat and smelled like other people’s spilled drinks and cigarettes and I was floating in a cloud of bliss. I couldn’t imagine anything better.
At least, not until she texted me again to hang out, just us this time. I had no idea if they were on or off again. I couldn’t think how to inquire without making plain the awkward depth of my need.
I texted her back, too quickly, and then admonished myself for the quick texting. I wrote in my journal. I tended to my dying plants. I baked. And I thought of her.
Do I need to explain that she was beautiful? She seems to have disappeared, a figment of my childhood. She’s not on Facebook, not on Instagram. If I sat next to her on the train, I would not recognize her. Seventeen and awkward, she cannot possibly have looked like the goddess I pictured in my mind.
Better that way, not to know which way she’ll vote or what her daily routine is. The strange thing, we had never got the chance to disappear into ordinariness. Instead, it sparkles like the costume jewelry I treasured in my youth, better in my memory, better lost.
So, I met her in the hollow of the tree’s branches. She curled into a crook at the heart of the tree and I climbed high, legs swinging from a branch scarred with years of banal graffiti, testimony to loves long since forgotten.
I could hear the low foghorn sound from boats in the harbor and fog curled, dampening some sounds and carrying others far from their sources.
I did not touch her. One of the things I remember most is that we never touched. Instead, she talked to me, at me. How easily replaceable I was, with any other moderately impressionable listener.
And the things she spoke of! I would not yet understand what it was to kiss a person you wanted but did not particularly like for three more years. I did not understand the pain of a breakup or the fluttering feeling when you first held hands. She spoke to me in the language of the human experience and I understood none of it.
How could I? Secure in my solitude, untouched and untouchable, I had yet to meet the sort of woman who would make me quake, who would look at me with purpose. I wouldn’t have the words for the things I wanted for many years after that. How strange and unknowable is a nameless thing.
She talked of women and she must have felt the sudden shift in my attention as she came upon ground that was familiar to both of us.
“Do you ever—”
She left the sentence, left me hanging.
“Sometimes,” I conceded, not sure what came after that ever. Do I ever want? Dream? Think of them? Did I struggle out of sleep disturbed and heartbroken? Did I take my journal into the woods behind my house and curl up into the most sprawling tree I could find and brood? Did I write pages and pages and pages of stories where they almost touched but did not, could not? And here is another one of those stories.
Word travels fast in a small town and I didn’t think she could keep a secret and I could have written you a multi-page list of reasons it would be a terrible idea.
I would not regard simple desire as a good enough reason to do anything for years to come. After all, what is want compared to logic? Want makes no convincing arguments. Want does not look good on a resume. Want rifles through an ordered life like a burglar, warps plans, contorts reason. The idea of satisfying even one of my desires made panic stir in my chest.
“Do you dream in color?” I asked her. Those were my questions then. Do you dream in color, do you dream as yourself, do you dream out of your own eyes or from afar? I would do a kind of longitudinal study in the next few years, only I never wrote anything down and now cannot remember the answers I received from people on three continents, of all ages, all dispositions.
I suppose it was really only one question in the end—do you dream like me?
“Yes,” she said. Older now, I believe we might add color to our dreams, if they did not originally have them. “Do you?”
I had run the numbers a million times and the reasons to stay silent outnumbered the reasons to tell by a factor of ten.“I do. I think it would be interesting to dream in black and white…” I trailed off. She spoke of the essence of her life and I could not, would not, reciprocate. The true substance of my own life seemed only to come to me in dreams, or in solitary moments.
I wonder, sometimes, what sort of person I might have been, had I then had the courage to tell my truth. I had run the numbers a million times and the reasons to stay silent outnumbered the reasons to tell by a factor of ten.
Little did I know that the way I ran equations was wrong. I didn’t have the full picture. I was only fifteen. I asked her to tell me about one of her dreams. We didn’t hang out much after that.
“What if I kissed you,” a friend asked me later, a woman, and I couldn’t answer. It was a question I did my best to forget, once it had been asked. I would have liked to have asked that question of her. What if I’d kissed her? What if I’d told?
Impossible, improbable. I’d run the numbers. My equations were flawless.