I saw a tree and thought of you, or rather, thought of the way you see trees. I remembered when we walked through the Ramble in Central Park, a wild place in the center of a place wilder still, resplendent and emerald in the early summer sun. You stopped suddenly when you saw it. I remember how you cocked your head in appreciation, a tendril of hair escaped from behind your ear. You brushed it back with an unconscious hand.
“There it is,” you said, with such earnest excitement that I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something exceptional. I was, as it turns out.
You stepped over the little metal fence and wandered into the thicket, leaving me to clamber after you, much as I’d always done. You stopped in front of a tree, a tree among many others, seemingly just the same. But it wasn’t, not to you.
“Look at the way the branches duck and curl and reach around those of the other trees,” you said to me. Or maybe it wasn’t to me at all. “The way they’ve grown in such seemingly random chaos in pursuit of the sun.” You patted it approvingly and laughed a little when you saw I was standing behind you. “What do you think?”
You’d brought me to see your favorite tree in Central Park, the type of thing I’d never even thought to have. You were always collecting favorites, or at least you did then, of strange little things. Your favorite brick on the facade of your old W 83rd street apartment building, the one to the right of the door, covered in lichen. Your favorite letter of the alphabet, g, but only in lowercase, and only in Times New Roman. Your favorite aisle in the local drug store, the one with the greeting cards.
I looked at your tree, not really sure what I thought, having never thought much of a singular tree before. I made some dumb joke about seeing the forest from the trees.
You shook your head and said, “I think it should be the other way around.” You were never one for the bigger picture, I never one for the details. You lived in the details, in the small things. You held them close and made them part of you.
I wonder why that tree was your favorite. I’ve thought about that a lot recently. Did you see yourself in the knotted boughs, in the anarchic nest of twigs and leaves? Maybe you felt that you’d contorted yourself around others, twisting around the shade they cast, growing in strange ways in pursuit of the sun. Which was I, then, the shade or the sun?
That day was perfect. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was. Your hand in my hand, your laugh in my ears, the air fresh and green and full of promise. I was one of your favorites that day, a piece in your kaleidoscopic collection of things and places and moments. What an honor that was. The shade came for us eventually, the darkness, but not that day. That day, the sun shimmered all around us, chasing off the shadows.
I don’t remember exactly when the clouds rolled in and stole you from me. Only that they did. ‘Stole’ is the wrong word, I suppose, a selfish word, a cowardly word. I let them take you, didn’t I? I watched as your world grew smaller, when your discarded favorites littered the street and were carried off by the wind. I was afraid. Afraid you’d throw me away like the others, so I left.
You’re gone now. I’m sitting on a bench, your bench. Or is it mine? I bought the little metal plaque and chose the words for you. “A place to rest, a place to grow, bending always toward the sun.” I made sure to include a g, lower case, the font is Times New Roman. I think you would’ve liked it. I guess the bench is for me, really. The things we do in the name of others when they’re gone are never really for them, are they?
Strange the pieces we pluck from someone’s life to define it once it's done. And you had so many pieces. I can’t help but think the mosaic I’ve crafted is woefully incomplete. How many favorites did you have that you never thought to say aloud? How many have I just forgotten? What were the shadows you hid that made you a gnarled thing, twisted and contorted.
I don’t want to think about that, about those dark things that ushered you away, leaving the world empty and barren. You always liked Greek mythology, not in a pretentious way. You read Ovid on the subway. Okay, maybe it was a bit pretentious, but I liked it. You taught me about Persephone and then made me Demeter. Did I get that right?
I’ve thought only of those dark things for a while, but I’m trying to push them aside. I’m trying to think of that day in the Ramble where we did just that. God, your eyes were so bright, your smile so wide. I got sunburned, but not badly. “It will turn into a tan,” you said, with a dismissive wave of your hand, a gesture that seemed to hold all the wisdom in the world. It’s hard to describe how light I felt in that moment as the sun flirted with the horizon and the grass felt cool between my bare toes. You cupped my reddening face and laughed. You kissed me. I would live in that moment if I could. I’d hold it in my mind and let it grow and grow until it consumed me forever, became my everything. But I can’t.
I should tell you, the tree I saw today is nothing like your favorite. It’s not in the Ramble surrounded by its kind, fighting below the canopy for discarded rays. It stands alone on a brown, frost covered lawn. It’s tall and straight and uncomplicated. It’s branches are bare, reaching mournfully to a blank gray sky. It’s not dead, but dormant, waiting for the sun to chase off the shadows. I guess it’s my favorite tree in Central Park, at least for now.
I’ve started my own collection, you see. It was hard, at first, for me to notice the details, the small things that make up the big things. I’ve made a practice of it, a ritual. It helps me be close to you, or at least it feels that way. My favorite chair in that coffee shop on Broadway, in the corner where the light filters through the colorful glass bottles on the window sill and you can hear the scream of the milk steamer. My favorite street corner, bathed in the smell of garlic and butter from the Italian restaurant, where the old man plays the violin on his stoop. My favorite subway station, the one where the walls are decorated in colorful mosaics depicting places beautiful and far away. I wish I could show them to you. Maybe you noticed them when you were here.
I’m sorry. I think you know that. I hope you do. I’m sorry I ran away when you retreated. I should’ve gone after you. I thought I had lost you already then, but I didn’t know what lost was, not really. I’m sorry we couldn’t live forever in our park, on that day, in that magic we didn’t notice until it had gone. I notice it now, when it comes. In my favorites and in yours. I hold them close and make them part of me, just as you did.
It’s quiet here, on the bench. It’s getting dark. I think I see the shadowy things that carried you away. I understand, now, why you wanted to escape. I want to go with them too, sometimes. Would they bring me to you? I won’t go with them, at least not yet. I think things will feel better in the spring, when you return to me, like Persephone. Did I get that right? Anyway, I want to see your tree again, as it was that day, shimmering in its sequin foliage, bending and yearning, growing. Yes, I think things will feel better in the spring, as they always do in the sun.