By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. I could still hear the mysterious stranger’s voice ringing inside my head, “Your relationship was like a tree. Full of fresh, green leaves. And now, it is withering, dying. The leaves are dry and ready to break at the slightest touch of the finger. One wrong move and it all breaks. One reason to mistrust you, and it burns.” Oh, he had been so right…
It had been late at night; I had decided to go to the local diner. An old stranger with blonde hair and dark brown eyes had asked to sit in the chair besides me. “There is no other place remaining! Please!” he had said. Clearly, he was not alright. The entire diner was empty. But seeing that he was old, I let him. Always felt nice to give myself credit for being a good person.
After I finally got my plate of meat and started eating, he asked me about my family. Where I was from, who lived with me, who did I like most. It was difficult. Especially after what had happened last week. But for some reason, I told him everything. There was something, warm, about the way he spoke. As if I could tell him anything at all, and it would be fine.
“My wife died. Some disease, can’t take its name. Science mumbo-jumbo” I continued the history I had been telling him, “Took a long time; she was in the hospital for about a year. Kind of my downfall, to be honest. Everything has been going south every since she left my life. Business is bad, people are leaving for better opportunities. My daughter does not want to talk to me anymore. Not like I spent a lot of time with her.” By now, there were small, glistening tears starting to form in my eyes.
The stranger smiled, “Why?”, was all he asked. And I poured myself out again. He really was something. “I was eaten up by my work. Was rarely home. When Meredith, my wife, was in hospital, I did not visit often. All I did was pay her bills. Come and show pity for a few minutes and walk out. And for that entire time, my daughter was right there. Judy. She did not go to school, and I shouted at her. She shouted at me. Only time we talked was in front of Meredith.”
“And now that I say it out loud, I sound like a total jerk. The busy, systematic man. Guess I am one. Always hated people like that when I was a child, was sure I would be good. Now here I am.” I stopped and took a sip of the coffee which had just come. The stranger kept the smile on his face.
His eyes studied me. I could feel the gaze piercing into my head and trying to figure me out. As if he was a counsellor, using his mind tricks to find out how he could treat me. Instead, he looked down almost immediately and said, “Hmm. Well, not going to lie, you are a jerk. Not that your daughter was right. She should think of herself too. But you are definitely a jerk. That was your family.”
I noticed how he was already talking about them in the past tense. As if Judy was already out of reach now. As if the two people who I thought were important to me were lost. He continued, “But if you want her back, you need to put her in your shoes. Everyone thinks and acts in their own way. She thinks of you as a careless man who thinks his job is more important than his family. That she was able to leave her school to look after her dying mother, but you are so bent on money that you just come by for a few minutes and go back to your desk”
The stranger raised his eyebrows, as if asking me if I understood. I nodded. He continued, “And you. You see it differently. That the only way you can get enough money to give your wife the best chance is to do hard work all day long. It does not matter if you spend very less time with them, you are working for them. To keep them happy. And your daughter is not going to school. You stay away from your family to make money and help them get a better life, but she does not care. She just skips school, wastes your money.”
I nodded once more. He stopped and did not say anything. I picked up where he left off, “And now that these two thoughts collide…they create something bad. Hate for the other person. For personal reasons. And we fought. Should I call her? Ask her to meet me tomorrow afternoon?”
The stranger shrugged and made a weird sound, “It’s your life. Do what you want.” He looked around for a while and continued, “Well, a lot of people are leaving. I should too. But remember, if you talk, think of her thoughts too. Think what she must be thinking and then talk. You see, your relationship was like a tree. Full of fresh, green leaves. And now, it is withering, dying. The leaves are dry and ready to break at the slightest touch of the finger. One wrong move and it all breaks. One reason to mistrust you, and it burns. You do not want that tree to burn.”
He walked out of the diner, leaving me and a half full cup of coffee.
The next afternoon, I was at that exact diner yet again. The only difference was that I could see Judy in the corner. She was busy with her phone, not noticing I was there. Her black hair had grown since the last time I saw her. Meredith would not have allowed such long hair. She hated the mess it created.
I went to the seat beside her and sat down; making sure to keep a smile, like the stranger yesterday. She tried one too. She also miserably failed at it. “So…?” was what she started it with. I did not reply for a while. ‘One wrong move and it all breaks.’
“I wanted to talk to you, about…us. Why don’t you come back? Please.” I started with that. She scoffed and put her phone down. She called for one of the waitresses and told her to bring two cold drinks. As the waitress went away, she tilted her head and kept staring at me. This was a different kind of gaze. Not of the stranger, who was trying to figure me out. This was the gaze of a person who knew me well, and she was trying to figure how to tell me what she wanted to.
“You know I won’t” she finally said, “Not after what you have done. You do not care about us, about mom. She died…and” her voice cracked, “And you were not there. Because you were busy with your work buddies. And you were busy trying to stay away from your responsibilities. She was with you how many years?”
Judy had prepared for this. She was ready for anything I said. It was as if she was determined to get away from me. “25”, I replied. Judy nodded, “And that is how it ended. You stay with some guy for twenty-five years and come to know him. You think he will always be with you. And when you breathe your last, that same guy is ten kilometres away, oblivious to the fact that you are dead. All of your hoped shattered. Your connection broken in those last few seconds. She did not even want to see me. She wanted to see you. Wanted to tell you things…” Judy did not continue. When the waitress came back, the table had a small puddle of tears.
“I did not know, yes” I said, “But I did not have a choice. I was doing this for her, for you. And I know damn well that she would not want you to leave school. She would want me to take care of you. She has left me with your burden. I want to lift it. And I swear, I will be there, from now on. I will.”
Judy shook her head. “No. You were not there for your wife. I am worth less. How do you intend to be there for me, when you work all day? Will it not be exactly like living alone. I sleep, you come back late. By the time I get up, you are gone. That is how it always was. And mom was there for me those times. In the past two years, I have seen her bedridden twelve times. And every time, I never saw you care. She slept, she woke up, and she lived. And she did not have you. She had me. But I did not know how to take care of her.”
“She got up herself and bought medicines. She went to the doctor, all by herself. Not one day, did you stop at home. Never did you ask her what was wrong. Every time I saw her ill you were not there. Every time I thought that you would care and wait one day. Seems kind of right that you were not there when she died. Because you were out there, earning money, going to work, running from us. I will not come with you. Because you are nothing. You were not even good enough for the woman who trusted you for twenty-five years.”
“And even then, she wanted you in the end. She was so blinded by her faith in you. That she did not even notice that you were working for yourself. Saving yourself from us. You were not worthy. Not worthy of me. And definitely not worthy of her. You are nothing. You are just a pathetic man who knows nothing about love. You know nothing about people who are special to you. And you sure as hell don’t know anything about how to raise family.”
That was the tipping point. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what triggered it. All I know is that I cried. I cried, got up and slapped her right across her face. Anger was boiling in my face. The two other faces inside the diner turned towards us. “You know nothing about me. You whiny little mouse. Nobody is perfect. But you just cannot accept that. You will never be perfect. None of us will be. But I hope such a fate befalls you one day and you realize what I did and why.”
I had done it. I had taken a matchbox, lit a match on fire and thrown it at the dying tree. The trunk was slowly being consumed. And by the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. I looked back at her, still in shock and staring at me, her face red and full of tears. I called a cab and got in it. I gave the driver the address of my house and we went off. The tree was now engulfed. It was gone. With no repairable parts. I had destroyed the last tree I had. I had destroyed with my own hands, any reason to live.