The Tree

Molly Montgomery

I had to the face the tree every time I walked down the block to the store. It loomed in the corner of my vision, the way an unpleasant obligation pesters your thoughts as much as you try to drive it away.

I would walk around the side of the block to avoid it, past the schoolyard of screaming children behind my house. I began driving to the store, and when there was no parking, I even drove all the way to a different store, just so I wouldn’t have to glance at the tree. I never knew much about trees, but I’m pretty sure this one was an oak. A sprawling oak, large and languid, with low-hanging branches just inviting me to climb it again. But I knew what I would find if I clambered up its knotted bark, and I knew who would come to mind.

I’m not sure why memories stick to some objects and not others. I had never taken down the prom photos framed on my bedroom wall. They had stayed put through all of these years, perpetually gazing down at me during break, whenever I returned to my old bedroom in my parent’s house. It didn’t bother me to see the frozen smiles plastered onto our faces or the glossy dresses and tuxedos.  No, it didn’t bug me to see me and Derek posing together, because that night would always feel plastic, artificial, whether or not we were still together.

The tree, on the other hand… in my mind’s eye I could picture our familiar course, the one we had established as kids. I would wrap my fingers around the lowest branch, barely within my reach, and he would boost me up, and then pull himself up after me. From then on, the tree was our domain. We would easily ascend another five feet to the spot where all of the tree’s limbs converged, a locus that created a secluded seat for the two of us.

We weren’t the only couple that had scratched our initials into the tree’s bark at that spot. There were a few other names and messages scrawled on the tree, but ours were the only ones that stood out, because we went up there again and again for so many years, carving the heart anew, cutting the letters deeper into the trunk. Even after we had both graduated from college, we’d returned. That time tree had seemed smaller, conquerable. Our limbs were longer, but we had not forgotten how to climb. When we were together, the grasping and pulling, the shifting of weight, all of it came naturally as if we had lived our entire life in that tree. It had been a year or so since graduation. I wondered if our signatures, our naïve proclamation, had become just like everyone else’s: faded and illegible.

When I had told my mother I was moving back home to Berkeley, she had sighed and said in her best exasperated tone, “Oh, Laura, you’re just being melodramatic.”

But I could tell from the frantic way she made me risotto, my favorite dish, that first night back and the from the way she emptied my suitcase’s contents directly into the washing machine that she was pleased to have me home. My dad was too, in his own gruff way. He logged into my computer without asking me in order to install some anti-virus software on it.

It was unsettling to have nothing to do. No job, no schoolwork, no obligations. I regressed into the role of a teenage daughter again, despite the years separating me from adolescence. I slept in late, sometimes until the afternoon, when I would wake to the sound of my mom watching her daily soap opera in the room next to mine.

A sort of numbness rooted me to the spot, turning everything I touched into stone, too heavy to lift. I tried reading, and devoured my way through my childhood library, which I had found packed away in boxes one day while I was exploring the attic. The change of pace was nice from my hectic life in New York and all of the turbulence and chaos that I associated with it. Yet it didn’t solve my problems. It just kept them at bay.

At night Derek’s words haunted me, our last encounter replaying over and over in my head: “You think you’re really different, that you’re nicer, better, but you’re wrong, Laura. You’re selfish and vindictive and the worst part is that you won’t admit it to even yourself.”

The realization that he was right slammed me again and again. Guilt pinned me down, weighing on my chest, making it difficult for me to breathe at night. I felt like I had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and there I crawled, not a human being, but a flattened worm.

All I wanted was for the pressure to ease, for the guilt to dissipate.

“You need to get out of the house, Laura,” my mother told me one day, as we were eating breakfast. She piled bacon onto my plate. I stared down at it, watching the fat sizzle. My mother had forgotten I was a vegetarian.

“Mom, remember, I don’t eat meat,” I replied, not acknowledging what she had said.

“Nonsense. You only became a vegetarian because of that boy. Watsons are all carnivores at heart. Eat up.”

“He’s not ‘that boy’, Mom. His name is Derek. And it wasn’t just because of him,” I protested. Tentatively, I tasted one strip of bacon, savoring its meaty taste. No more than a second after I had swallowed it, I felt regret pinch my stomach.

“I never liked the way that boy treated you,” my mom was saying. “Always bossing you around, making you feel inferior. He never gave you any respect.”

For some reason I still wanted to defend him, to reason with my mother. But what was the use arguing with my mother about it? She would believe what she wanted to believe. So I shrugged.

“Anyway, I think you should go visit your grandmother. You can have that privilege,” she added sardonically.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen my grandmother. She lived in a nursing home about an hour away from my house, which made visiting her an “ordeal” as my mother put it. We would drive for over an hour into the heart of Central California, through the blandest landscape imaginable— just brown pastures bordering either side of the highway as the smell of cows permeated the car through the ventilation. Then, once we arrived, my grandmother would usually be asleep or not in the mood to see us. We would have to wait until the nurses let us into her room. Then, usually no more than ten minutes later, she would declare she was too tired to talk any longer and proceed to ignore us by turning the volume up on her TV until the sound drowned out our voices.

I didn’t mind that my mother wasn’t coming with me on the trek to visit Grandma. Whenever the two of them were present in the same room, the conversation devolved into a shouting match.

The nursing room was a plain, one-story building in the shape of a hexagon with a courtyard in the middle. The residents of the home could walk around and around the building in circles and never get anywhere. I was in high school when my grandmother had first moved into this place, right after my grandfather had died. I remember trying to escape from the explosive fight my mother and grandmother were having in the hallway. But the place was small enough that no matter where I walked, their abrasive bickering followed me. Finally I wound up right where I started. I had groaned, wishing I were as deaf as the rest of old people there who were calmly going about their business, paying no mind to the shouting women nearby.

I signed into at the lobby, recognizing the same plastic plants and peeling floral wallpaper as always. Unpleasant memories inundated my mind’s eye. A nurse input the code to open to the door to the inner rooms.

“Make sure you close the door tightly behind you,” she warned me. “You don’t want any of the residents to get out.”

Get out, I thought, you would think they were serial killers.

She led through the hallway, past a group of old women playing mahjong and a couple sitting in on couches in front of a TV playing an old black and white movie. Their eyes were glazed over.

“They are from Recollections,” she told me, which I knew was code for the floor for the dementia ward, located in the basement. “We usually keep them downstairs, but today Harvey and Heather were behaving so well.”

She gave them affectionate pats on the head, like they were children. Or dogs.

She led me to my grandma’s room. I knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again, this time louder and longer. There was still no answer.

The nurse frowned.

“I don’t think she’s sleeping. I saw her up eating lunch a few minutes ago… Maybe she went outside.”

Sure enough she was sitting outside in small courtyard on a lawn chair, soaking up the sun. She had a Jane Austen novel in her hand. My grandmother read Jane Austen? There were so many things I didn’t know about her, that I had never even bothered to ask.

“Hi Grandma,” I said, sitting down on a chair next to her.

“What are you doing here already, Laura?” she demanded, “I hope you didn’t drive too fast.”

I sat down next to her.

“No, Grandma, I drove the speed limit,” I assured her. “There just wasn’t any traffic.”

She closed her book, and I noticed the way the veins on her hands bulged from her skin, like knots on the bark of a tree.

“Why are you back in California? Your mother wouldn’t explain anything over the phone. She just said you were back from New York. I thought you were getting married.”

I winced at the onslaught of questions. This was exactly the conversation I had wanted to avoid. I couldn’t tell this story again. I didn’t want to. Whenever I had to open my mouth to tell it, it was like the air dried up all of my words, and I felt shriveled up inside.

“There’s no wedding,” I told her simply. “I broke up with Derek.”

“No wedding?” repeated my grandmother. “But you two were inseparable. You always have been. Ever since you were little.”

Since kindergarten, yes. Childhood sweethearts. Meant for one another. All my friends had told me that our relationship gave them hope that soulmates really did exist.

“Who ended it?” she asked. “Was it him? Or you?”

I sighed. The real answer was too raw, too painfully complicated. I was never sure how to really explain it— the image that came to mind was a plane falling in a downward spiral, imploding from the inside and collapsing into nothing, just rubble.

“I did,” I answered finally. It was an incomplete answer, but one that was true.

“What happened?”

“I actually would prefer not to talk about it.”

Flashes of the past few months came unbidden to the forefront of my mind. I heard myself shouting at her, that woman, my hands shaking— You bitch, you had no right to take him from me, you’re screwed up, sick

“Well, something must have happened,” she said, “What was it?”

“Grandma…” I protested.

“Did he get another woman pregnant? Did you cheat on him, Laura? If you don’t tell me, I’m going to jump to the worst conclusions. Is that what you want me to think of you?”

This was my grandmother all right. Nosy as an anteater. She had never drilled me this much before because I had never tried to withhold anything from her, anything too shameful to admit. But I had seen her interrogate my mother like this before, and I was not enthusiastic to see where it would lead.

My mother had even warned me before I left that she would try to do this.

“If she insists on asking you about your personal life, Laura, you just tell her that it’s none of her business,” my mother had instructed me. “I don’t ask questions. You’re an adult, you do what you like. But your grandmother doesn’t understand that. She thinks whatever that if it’s your business, then the whole family should know about it.”

“Grandma, I’m not going to tell you,” I said firmly.

She frowned. I half expected her to tell me that I was disrespecting her, but miraculously she remained silent.

“How are you doing?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“Fine,” she answered curtly.

I sighed. So we were going to play this childish game.

“Is the food good here?”

“It’s nothing like cooking for yourself. They won’t let me do that here, they’re too afraid I’ll burn down the kitchen.”

She snorted.

“As if I would burn down the kitchen. I, who had five children and a husband that I cooked for everyday for decades.”

“Maybe they could make a special exception for you,” I said. “I could talk to the nurse about it.”

She waved my suggestion away.

“No, don’t bother,” she said, “Your mother already told them not to trust me. They treat me like a child, always saying, Mrs. Roland, did you take your pills today? And I tell them to fuck off, because  I already took ‘em. I’m not going to forget. I don’t have dementia, like your grandfather did.”

I shrugged, deciding that I was no longer going to try to converse with her. My words just dangled in front of her, hooks for her to bite. So I just quietly sat there, waiting for her to speak. We sat in silence for a few minutes and I looked at the shadows, imagining that I could see them moving and feel the spinning of the earth, time slipping away.

My grandmother’s frowned, furrowing her deep wrinkles, which creased like pages of a worn book. She spoke.

“I remember when you were around 10 years old, I would babysit you two during the summer. He only lived a couple of blocks away. And you two would climb that tree at the end of your block, up to those high branches. I never told your mother about that, she wouldn’t have been happy. Her generation is so obsessed with safety. Letting you climb trees would not be safe, according to her. But I told her that when she was your age I had let her climb all the trees that she wanted, and it had been her own fault if she fell down and broke something. That’s how children learn— not from being coddled and penned in. But through experience.”

She trailed off, lost in thought. I squirmed in my uncomfortable wooden seat. Was it really necessary for her to bring this up? Of course, she had no idea what that tree meant to me. But it felt like she was rubbing salt into an open gash on my skin.

“Even then you two seemed made for each other. You finished each other’s sentences. And that boy, he would tease you and make faces at you. I could tell he had a crush on you. When I heard your mother told me you were seeing him, I thought, here it is. Here’s the chance I never had, the chance I blew. I hope the two of them make it.”

“Well, we didn’t,” I said sharply. “It’s over.”

My grandmother took my hand and squeezed it, her sinewy fingers giving me a pulse of energy.

“Love is hard, Laura. I know. Love can be the hardest thing in the world.”

She looked me directly in the eye, her small, bright, watery eyes locking mine and I saw what I had failed to see before— not a grandmother, an elderly relative who had to be taken care of, but a human being, with her own past, her own dreams.

I had never thought to ask my grandmother for advice before. I had never considered that she might have wisdom to impart.

“Grandma, what would you do if you had treated someone really badly and they didn’t deserve it? How would you ever make things okay?”

“Are you talking about Derek, dear?”

I shook my head. I realized that if I wanted her advice, I was going to have to explain everything. Bring my love for Derek to life again with words, only to crush it once more.

One day (at the time it seemed out of the blue, but looking back I should have noticed what was happening before then), Derek came home to our apartment from his job at the Met. He sat me down and told me, somberly, his predicament. He was in love with another woman, an art student working in the gift shop. I knew her. She had attended our dinner parties before. But, he tried to reassure me, he hadn’t stopped loving me. He wouldn’t. Ever, he said. But didn’t I think it was possible to love two people at once? It wasn’t unheard of.

We had discussed this topic before, the two of us, with our intellectual debates, passing judgment over the entirety of Western civilization. And hadn’t I agreed? That monogamy could be a form of control? Of enslavement?

All the same, they were just words. Words that tumbled loosely from my lips. Any idiot could see I didn’t believe them entirely— there I was, denouncing monogamy with an engagement ring on my finger. And I thought the very fact that we were engaged meant that he really felt the same.

So I bolted, taking back my idle philosophical statements.

Stripped of my pretensions, a creature inside emerged from me. One ruled by instinct, inflamed with raging jealousy.

I harassed her— with voicemails, emails, Facebook messages. I called her boss at the museum and pretended to be an unhappy customer, making the worst claims. I found the site where she posted her artwork and wrote scathing comments. This painting is nothing more than vile trash, I had said. Just like its painter.

I wasn’t able to stop myself. It was like some sort of spirit possessed my body, one consumed by pure hatred. That’s what I told myself at the time. That’s how I excused my behavior. But I know it isn’t true. I could have stopped whenever I wanted to.

I knew why I kept on doing it. Not to punish her, but to punish Derek. And to keep him calling me. Demanding that I stop, trying to reason with me. He should have known it was no use. I had thrown logic out with the window, trading it entirely for unbridled emotions.

One day, Emerson, one of my closest friends in New York and also Derek’s past roommate, took me out to a coffee shop in the Village for what he called an intervention. It had been a week since Derek had revealed the truth about his feelings for that woman. I had fled our apartment the next day, taking my belongings with me, and had bunked up with my one of my college friends. Each day I had called in sick at work. It wasn’t a complete lie. The fury and pain I felt were dizzying. I was not in a fit state to carry out the duties of my job, menial though they were.

Emerson, who as an artist was always pursuing some new fashion trend, had his hair dyed a deep purple and slicked back. I smiled when I saw him and the sleek black and white suit outfit he was wearing. My cheek muscles felt numb from disuse.

“Come here,” he said, enveloping me into a hug. “How are you dealing?”

I shrugged.

“Don’t give me that,” he said, “I know what’s been going on. According to Derek, he did exactly what you guys said you were okay with doing, and you flipped out and ditched him. Not to mention the fact that you’ve been stalking his new girlfriend.”

Hearing him lay out the situation like that felt like being dunked into a tub full of ice water.

“Do you blame me?” I asked, fearing the worst.

“Honey,” he replied, “Of course I don’t blame you. Jealousy is not a force to be reckoned with. All the same, you can’t say you didn’t see this coming. You two agreed that you were going to be accepting of each other dating other people. Or at least, that’s what Derek told me.”

I nodded.

“It’s true,” I said, “But I guess I never really thought about what it would feel like if it happened. I thought it was all a thought experiment. You know, just for philosophy’s sake.”

“You should know by know that Derek always takes everything he says literally, Laura,” he told me, giving me a pitying look.

“I get that now, thanks,” I snapped. I didn’t want his pity.

“It’s really a shame, because I always thought you two were meant for each other,” he continued, oblivious. “Nothing could break you apart. You were the strongest couple I ever knew. So considerate of each other, and so flexible. Perhaps too flexible, looking back on it. A branch can only bend so much before it snaps.”

I glared at him. Was it really necessary for him to point this out?

“Derek still loves you, you know,” he said. “He’s willing to take you back.”

“And then what? He’ll get married to me while he’s fucking her on the side?”

“He loves you, Laura. He would probably give her up if you asked. That is, if he’s not too angry at you for making her life a living hell this past week.”

My hands curled into fists under the table.

“No, Emerson, you’re wrong. Derek wouldn’t dare compromise his principles. He’s a man of honor,” I spat venomously. That’s what I had always loved about him after all, I thought to myself. How much he cared about living the right way. He was the kind of man who would walk old ladies across the street and pick up litter on the street, carrying it blocks before he found a trash can. But when his idea of what was right conflicted with anyone else’s, well…

“Plus I wouldn’t go back to him even if he got rid of her,” I proclaimed defiantly. “I’m done with him. Don’t you see? Things can never be the way they were.”

Emerson nodded.

“Such is life, Laura. I’m sorry it took you so long to figure that out. It has to be tough, having your first break up when you’re in your twenties. But the way you’re reacting to it— sending that woman hate messages and all that stuff— it’s insane. You have to stop.”

I wanted to explain to him that I wasn’t doing it by choice. I couldn’t control the impulse I felt, the pure vindictiveness, that drove me to hunt her down, punish her in any way that I could. But I couldn’t put the feeling into words.

“Get away from New York for a while, away from Derek,” Emerson said. “I know you, Laura, and you’re not like this. You’re better than this. This place is toxic to you. You have to get out.”

Emerson had to leave for a gallery opening, so we said our goodbyes. But I remained in that cool, dark corner of the coffeeshop for a while, letting his words sink in while I sipped my drink.

That night I booked my plane flight home. Within a week, I departed, with no apology, only deep regret that I couldn’t express. The fire within me had burnt out, leaving me with only ashes.

I hesitated to share all of this with my grandmother. I never wanted to explain the story in full, because I didn’t want people to see me as I really was— a villain.

My grandmother didn’t interrupt. She just listened, nodded, and chewed at her lip.

“I don’t know how to make things right, Grandma. I don’t even know where to start,” I finished.

“Well, you obviously must apologize to her, Laura,” she said finally after a few moments’ pause.

I balked at this idea.

“How can I?” I said. “What I did was so terrible, why would she even believe my apology?”

“As long as your words are sincere, they will reach a part of her,” she replied. “You do want her forgiveness, don’t you?”

Her forgiveness? I had never thought of her forgiving me as a possibility. I had always assumed that she hated me as much as I hated her. But did I really have a reason to hate her?

“I do,” I said after a moment’s pause.

I thought about how I could contact her. I’m pretty sure she had blocked me from every means of communication. I did not want to see her in person. The very thought made me want to vomit.

“You know, when your grandfather remarried, I felt something very similar,” she admitted to me. “I just wanted to rip that woman to pieces. I didn’t, but what I did was much more harmful. I poisoned all of my children against her, feeding them lies about her. None of them ever trusted her, and it wasn’t fair to them or to her.”

No wonder my dad disliked his stepmother so much. I had never imagined the conflict that must have existed between her and my grandmother. I had been ignorant, regarding them merely as two frail old women in different nursing homes, as if they had always existed that way.

“You’ll never be able to make things right entirely,” she continued. “Once you’ve broken a vase, you can try to glue the pieces back together. But it won’t be the same. You’ll always be able to see cracks.”

Her words stayed with me as I drove home, thinking about what to do. Now that I was in motion, now that I had an objective, I felt more at ease. My mind prickled like a muscle that had lost circulation and was now awakening again. It wasn’t painless— it hurt, but it was a productive feeling, this pain. It drove me to do something.

For the first time, I fully recognized what a hypocrite I had been. I, who had worked tirelessly at my job campaigning to save children from slavery, had not even treated a former friend with basic decency. Was I really any better than the bigots I had criticized my entire life? I had disregarded the fact that this woman was also a human being who deserved respect, not simply my enemy.

What could I do to make amends? She certainly wouldn’t see me in person, and I didn’t want to show up at the apartment that she and Derek shared, demanding to be let inside. They would probably call the police, thinking (and not unfairly so) that I had come to murder her.

I was so distracted with my planning that as I rounded the corner onto my street, I realized with a pang that I had forgotten to circle around the block. There was the tree, in plain sight.

The tips of its leaves had started to redden, a telltale sign of autumn approaching. It proffered its branches towards me, welcoming, nurturing. I stopped the car, parking it next to the path that led up to the tree. Discarding my shoes in the car, I hopped onto the dirt trail, sinking my toes into the brown dust. Slowly, I tiptoed up to the protruding roots, advancing towards the tree cautiously, as if it could turn and flee from me. I placed my hands on the trunk, closed my eyes, and inhaled its oaky, dry scent. I picked up an acorn from the ground, and tossed into the street.

Memories rushed back, but they weren’t harsh or painful. They were lovely, carefree, and I nearly doubled over with longing, wanting to be in those moments again.

I suddenly knew why I had been avoiding the tree. Not because it would harm me, but because I had believed I did not deserve its presence anymore.

Now I understood what I had to do. Everything shifted into focus. The fog obscuring  my thoughts evaporated.

I ran down the street to a small stationery store down the block. I found the items I needed in a hurry, and impatiently tapped my feet as the man at the register rang them up. I almost didn’t notice when he complimented my hair. For the first time in weeks, a moment of male attention didn’t send my heart reeling with guilt. I even managed to smile back.

Quickly, I carried the items back to the tree, placing them in the small purse I usually carried with me. This gave me freedom to move my arms. I swung onto the lowest branch of the tree and pulled myself up all the way, something I had never done before on my own. Gritting my teeth, I scrambled up the branches towards the base of the limbs. But I didn’t stop there, not even to look at the scratches declaring eternal love. Leveraging my weight on one of the thicker tree limbs, I boosted myself higher than I had ever climbed before. Finally, I reached a horizontal branch further up and sat on it. The branch creaked, but remained steady.

I looked around, astonished by the view. My neighborhood rests on a hill looking down over the San Francisco Bay, and from that branch of the tree, you could see it all—

the entire bay, dotted with gray ships. Fog blanketed San Francisco, but the tops of the skyscrapers and of the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers peaked through the clouds. I had been climbing this tree for years, but I had never looked beyond its branches.

Now was as good of a time to start as ever, I guess.

I pulled out stationery from my bag and an old ballpoint pen that I had found in my purse. I scribbled on a leaf of paper to make sure the pen still worked. The ink flowed.

Tentatively, I began to write my apology.


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