A Little Give

Adele buried her nose right below his armpit and inhaled deeply. She never liked someone so much that she wanted to know them by smell, but with James she wanted him in every sense.

“Guess what?” he asked her.

“What?”

“I found a house for us.”

As soon as Adele got pregnant, she moved into his studio, a converted one car garage. The kitchen and bedroom were marked only by lines on the floor. It was small, but there was enough room for her to lie down on the ground to do back exercises. Everything in the house was made of wood, so it felt like a cabin. It had vaulted ceilings with skylights, track lighting and hardwood floors.

“You did?”

“Yeah—it’s amazing. You’ve got to see it.”

“How many rooms?”

James sat up and pulled a T-shirt on.

“Let’s go see it.”

Adele tucked the covers up around her body. Recently, her routine had been go to work, come home, throw up, eat dinner, have sex, and go to bed.

“I’m ready for bed now,” she admitted.

“It’s eight o’clock,” he moaned. “The fresh air will be good for you.”

It probably wasn’t healthy to spend so much time inside. All the pregnancy books asserted that expectant mothers should get plenty of exercise. Adele’s work didn’t allow for much exercise or fresh air. She didn’t like answering phones at the title company where she worked. Ever since she became pregnant, the halogen lights and the smell of the air conditioning, or something in the carpet at the office, or the overly sterile smell, the that-doesn’t-smell-clean-but- actually-smells-like-dirty-toxic-bleach kind of smell, had started to bother her.

From nine to five, the air in the office entered her nostrils. It filled her lungs, altering her cellular structure, and infecting her blood. When she first got to work it wasn’t bad. It was a little tic in her nose. As the day wore on, the feeling intensified, and around 11 a.m., the first wave of nausea hit, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the air simultaneously crushed her lungs and expanded all of her internal organs. Once home, she would rush to the bathroom and vomit, expelling the toxins consumed all day long in the building.

She hoped the title company would move, or maybe when she had the baby, the feeling would go away. It was definitely some type of gestational allergy. She hadn’t told James about this allergic reaction to work because she didn’t want to worry him. She didn’t want him to suggest that she quit her job. James was a caterer, and she knew his income was not enough for her to stay at home, but he was also very protective of the baby, and Adele knew he would have opinions about it. When in truth, the baby was fine. She was probably just being paranoid.

Adele acquiesced, and although it felt late, she spotted the “For Sale” sign by 8:30 p.m., when they arrived at the lot.

“For sale?”

“Yeah, it’s incredible. Just wait till you see it,” he said.

“We can’t just go in. Is it empty?”

“No one lives there. I was just here earlier today.”

“You just went in?”

“Yep.”

James opened the door and jumped out of the car. He ran around to the other side and before Adele could think about what they were doing, he was taking her hand, leading her out into the dark night. There was a petite chain link fence around the yard. About 100 yards back was an enormous tree that was lit by the half-moon in the sky.

“I was here earlier. It’s really fine,” James reassured her. “I met the seller.”

Adele knew from work how complicated these things could be with agents and showings. Buying a house was a serious legal agreement, which was why it was considered unethical for a seller to bring in their own buyer. It disrupts the character of the deal if people start making promises they can’t keep.

“What did he say?”

“He just showed me the place.”

James opened the small gate to the yard. There was a path that made a gentle bend toward the center where the tree stood, silhouetted in the dark night.

“Is the house way back here?”

“Up,” he said.

“What?”

“Up here.”

As they reached the end of the path, he pointed up, and perched in the tree was a house. Not a child’s tree house, but a real house with stucco and windows and a roof, right in the middle of the tree. Rising along the trunk was a thick wooden ladder. James reached under one of the steps, flipped an unseen switch, and suddenly the ladder and the front of the house burst into light.

James was glowing.

“Isn’t this amazing!”

“What is this?”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

“Amazing.”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

James laughed. “You are going to love it!”

Then he started climbing up the ladder.

“Is it safe?”

“Of course it’s safe, don’t be ridiculous,” he called down to her.

Adele watched as James quickly ascended the ladder. She was nervous to go up while she was pregnant. She set her hand on the step in front of her and tested the bottom step with her foot. She bounced up and down on it for a bit, took a deep breath and looked up to James who had just entered the top and turned the lights on in the house. He stared down at her from a perfect square in the bottom of the house at the top of the ladder. His face was at the heart of the secret entrance.

“You’ve got to see this, babe.”

Adele put all her weight down, and pushed herself up. Each step sent her heart racing. She hadn’t been up a tree since she was a kid, and she couldn’t remember the last time she was on a ladder. It seemed like there were at least 50 rungs. As she took each step, she gripped the edges harder with her hands.

When she made it up and inside, she was panting. She looked around the room and saw wall to wall carpeting. Everything was painted a soft buttercup color. The entrance opened into the living room, and there was a couch and a TV. It looked like a normal living room, only in the center there was an enormous tree trunk and the ceiling had a hole where a sturdy branch broke out toward the unseen sky.

“This is crazy.”

“Isn’t it awesome? “

“Unbelievable.”

“He’s only asking $65,000 because they don’t have permits for any of this!”

“Is it safe?”

“Yeah, it’s totally safe,” he said, and to prove it he started jumping. The entire house shook. The floorboards went up and down, the windows rattled against the pressure. Adele’s stomach dropped, and a pain seized in her chest, she screamed sharply. Tears sprung to her eyes when she fell to the floor.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she cried.

“Holy shit, babe,” James said.

He dropped down next to her and gathered her in his arms.

“I want to get down. I need to get out of here.”

James tightened his grip on her.

“I’m sorry. No, no, no. That was stupid. We’re totally safe. The house has a little give—that’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? This is not safe!”

“This is totally safe.”

“We’re in a fucking tree. This is not safe.”

“We’re in a tree and it is totally fucking safe.”

Adele pulled away from him. James’ stare was ardent and unrelenting. She looked around the room. There were cracks in the walls, but all the furniture and décor were definitely from Ikea. She took a deep breath and felt the floorboards under her legs. She rocked her weight back and forth from hip to hip. The floor did not give with her weight.

“I’m okay.”

“I won’t jump like that again.”

Adele laughed. Then James laughed. She collapsed against him. They sat holding each other, and for the moment, Adele forgot she was in a tree. It felt like she was on the floor of any old little house with cute furniture.

“This place is really amazing.”

“There are no permits so basically, we could get this place—“

“You’re kidding right?”

“I’m totally serious.”

“You want us to live in a tree?” Adele looked around at the retro furniture. “You want us to live here—with a baby?”

James nodded his head with the most expectant optimism she had ever seen on his face.

“This is a once in a life time opportunity.”

“I could barely get up the ladder. How will I get up here with a baby?”

“We’ll make a real staircase.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs of an apartment. Plenty of families live in apartments.”

“Um…this is a tree.”

“I know.”

“It’s growing, right now. Right as we sit here. What if that branch keeps growing and pulls the wall apart?” she asked, gesturing to the tree branching out of the ceiling.

“Then we’d fix it.”

“There’s no laundry and dryer. How will I get the groceries up with a baby?”

“We’ll make a pulley system. It’s going to be great!”

“Like the Swiss Family Robinson.”

“Isn’t it great?”

“I can’t do this. I cannot do this.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, I can’t.”

James sighed, loudly, but he didn’t take his arms away from her. She wondered what she would do if he released her. Would she leave without him? She really wanted to.

“How would we pay for this?”

“Your tax return money!”

“That’s money we are going to use for when the baby’s born. That’s my money.”

“Oh that’s your money?”

Adele nodded her head.

“What does that mean, ‘that’s my money’?”

“I mean that’s my money, and I’m not going to use it to have my baby in a tree house. I want to take off of work to be with the baby. And I don’t want to be with the baby here, in a tree.”

“If we live here, you could quit your job. Our payment will be less, and we’ll have more room. We’ll have a yard and everything.”

James pressed his body against her. “I’m telling you that this can work, just like this. Us in here. It is different, but not really. It’s really the same. It’s the same as being down there.”

“It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe. There’s ground and things are built on it, and they don’t bounce, and they don’t move around or shake or rattle. It’s not the same.”

It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe.

James pushed her up lightly so they were facing each other on the thick carpet. Adele could see the entrance just a few feet away. It seemed so far and so close at the same time. She wanted to relax and just be in the house on the floor with James, but she could not. She kept staring at the square exit, dreading how difficult it was going to be to get down the ladder. She imagined dangling her legs over the edge, searching for the first step. She pictured clinging to the rungs as she moved her heavy weight downward, wondering at each new step if something would snap. Coming up was hard enough, but getting down was going to be much more difficult.

“I want to go to bed,” she said.

“There’s a bedroom here.”

“I want to go to our bed.”

“Okay. You hate it. Let’s go,” James said, and pushed away from her to stand up. He held his hands out to her briskly and didn’t look at her as he helped her up.

“I’ll help you down,” he said, as though he had been privy to her thoughts. “Do you want to check out the bedroom before we go?”

Adele shrugged her shoulders.

“Fine,” he relented. “Let’s just go.”

She had never seen James look like that before. His shoulders slumped over a little, and he hung his head low.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s look at it.”

He lifted his head to her with a smile.

“It’s really cute,” he said.

They walked through the narrow hallway that wrapped around the tree trunk, and on the other side were two small bedrooms. One room was painted pale blue. Stenciled on the walls were purple animals and monster sketches. The master bedroom was painted a dark gray. There was even a master bath attached to it with a claw foot tub, and around it the walls were made of polished corrugated steel.

There was a queen sized bed that had a black frame and a red comforter that was neatly tucked into place. The pillow cases were gray and black.

“Does the house come with all this furniture?”

“I don’t know. We can ask.”

Adele walked over to the bed. She sat on the edge and bounced up and down on it. James went to the window and opened it. Outside the branches of the trees framed the glass, but the stars were still visible through the breaks in the leaves. A breeze immediately filled the room, and like a dried leaf Adele fell over on the bed.

James sat down and put his hand on her back. The pressure was something different than when he touched her before. She buried her face into the mattress and let the warmth of his hand soften the tense muscles along her spine. She liked the bedroom better. There was no center hole. No entrance that reminded her that at any moment they could fall through the floor. Everything was stylish and closed in tight. It looked secure. It was almost romantic, suspended in the night’s sky. But she couldn’t stop the thought that kept rising like a bubble in her mind, again and again, over and over. She couldn’t stop picturing and planning exactly how she was going to get back down.

Hilary LTHilary Tellesen is a writer, dramaturg and performer. Her work has been published in Watershed, Educational Insights, and in a collaborative publication in re:home from the 1078 Art Gallery. She teaches a variety of writing classes at Butte-Glenn Community College and California State University, Chico.