At the summer’s end, a lone woman moved into the old tree outside of my kitchen window. The tree’s generous limbs relented at its center and formed a cradle large enough to house a single person and her things. The woman built a platform using a plywood square cut to accommodate the branches, and she lifted up provisions with a pulley system made of ropes and a discarded paint bucket. Beginning her first week, local activists arranged a schedule to deliver a steady supply of canned goods, water, and batteries in order to demonstrate their support for her cause, which was to save the tree. I imagined the woman was probably lonely in the tree, and when I thought about the logistics of what she faced—limited square footage, lack of plumbing, gravity’s constant threat—her feat seemed impossible or remarkable. I stirred a pot of rice at my kitchen stove and felt sorry for her. I wondered if someday a fellow supporter or tree man would scale the bark to join her. Late at night, there often shone the single beam of a book lamp or a flashlight in the dark. I was alone again.
My landlord, Debbie, wanted to tear down the tree, gut my apartment complex, and replace my fixtures and floors with stainless steel and reclaimed wood. Surveyors from the city inspected the area and staked colored flags into my lawn for future electrical lines. Some of the other tenants vacated early, and my landlord led potential investors on tours of the half-empty building, knocking on my door many afternoons to showcase my westerly view. We lived in a part of Lawrence, Kansas that was being remade, and in the hands of men like these, buildings like mine would transform into clean condos with manicured lawns.
“Where do you expect us to go?” I asked a crowd of investors gathered on my stoop one Monday.
“Find another place to live,” said one of the men, checking his elaborate watch.
“We can’t help you,” another one said, and they turned away from me.
I didn’t know from where the tree woman had come, only that she arrived at the beginning of fall. Lee hadn’t left me yet, but he soon would. The leaves on the tree were richly colored an abundant green; they would never be that color again. She came at the news that the city would tear down the trees that lined our neighborhood’s sidewalks in order to import a rare Chinese variety with decorative pink blossoms. She had chosen this tree alone due to its historic significance: Quantrill had burned down our Kansas town in the nineteenth century—the hotel, the schools, the horse-shoe shop—to protest the city’s abolitionist leanings, and this tree alone had survived.
A local news crew had once come to do a story on the tree woman. She responded to questions by speaking loudly from up in the limbs, and, when asked to give a final statement, provided a bold soliloquy on historicity and freedom. “That’s a woman who knows what she wants,” Lee said before he flipped the channel to sports.
We both knew I was not a woman like that. Some months before, we had decided to paint the apartment, and we had gone to select swatches at the hardware store. “Pick your poison,” Lee had said and waved to all the colors on the painting department wall, but I couldn’t decide on a single color. We tried lime-green, twilight, and a brown color called “fawn” that was soft and dull like a deer. Lee painted test squares from sample cans onto the wall—patient Lee, tireless Lee—and then he smiled and said, “You choose.” I loved that smile, but I couldn’t pick for fear that I would make the wrong choice, and then I would be surrounded on all sides by the evidence. Lee painted more test squares, “barley harvest” and “baby dreams,” each color a future I couldn’t fulfill. “Choose,” he said, but I was frozen, and our wall remained as a color wheel and a reminder of what I couldn’t do.
The day Lee moved out, I stood above him while he placed his dog-eared 800-page history of World War II on top of the folded clothes in his suitcase. “Tell me not to go,” he said, but I couldn’t say it. “Tell me to stay,” he said. I wanted to tell him, but instead, I remained silent as he carried a final round of boxes to the car. I looked down at him from the kitchen window, and I thought about flinging it open and saying, “Stay,” but the word sounded so final and so fatal in that way. At some point, the tree woman mouthed something to me from the other side of the windowpane, either “No” or “Go.”
“What?” I said and I pulled open the window to better hear her, but Lee had already closed the door to his car and started its reluctant engine.
That evening, I threw away all trace of him: forgotten laundry, our photographs, his strawberry jam. A coworker from the library called to invite me to a barbeque, but I let the machine pick up, because I didn’t want to tell anyone Lee had left in case he decided to come back. I opened the windows, threw bleach on all the floors, and scrubbed it clean. I had a system owing to the fact that I had been through this before. Before Lee I had lived with a man named Rob who had proposed to me. The proposal hadn’t felt right, though: the blender pulsed furiously at a chimichurri in our cramped kitchen, grinding at garlic while Rob descended to his knee, so I said, “Let’s try this again some other time.” We tried again in a restaurant where the ring was hidden in a tart and emerged with its grooves caked with chocolate innards.
I was resting in my spotless living room as shadows overtook the walls when the phone rang. “Tell me to come back,” Lee said when I picked up. “Fine,” he said, “at least admit we have a chance.” I was silent on the line, and after a few moments he told me he planned to drive back to his mother’s house in Nebraska the next morning. Afterwards, I couldn’t sleep, and outside I heard the tree woman rustle the branches. The sounds of her life were indistinguishable from the animals and insects, all of them prone to the whims of the weather and the endless loops of the moon and sun.
The next day I woke to a loud voice outside my window. “You’re totally insane!” a man yelled from the front lawn. I came to the window and found a small group circling the trunk and looking up into its branches. One woman wore a fanny pack and one man appeared to have just finished a jog. I recognized them as the members of a newly formed neighborhood association, each with a highly intentional haircut. “This is our town, and we want progress!” the jogger yelled.
“You’re being completely unreasonable,” the tree woman said. Her voice remained measured and calm. “We can go forward without destroying what we already have.”
“We need this plot!” said the jogger, who appeared to be leading the effort. He launched a stick into the tree, followed by several small stones. The others joined him, and they all threw whatever they could find on the ground at the woman. A very large rock sat at the base of the tree a few feet from the jogger.
“Hey!” the tree woman yelled. “Stop that!”
The truth is, I didn’t care about the tree, not truly. They could have torn down that tree and every other tree, and I wouldn’t have complained if they had left me alone. Each tree seemed to have an identical cylindrical trunk topped with scraggly brush, and I was generally unmoved by nature or historical fact. I had never even climbed a tree, and in grade school I had let other kids scale the trunks while I remained securely on the ground. But now, from my window, I found in the tree woman’s face a familiar look of panic and indecision. In my mind’s eye, her features bore a striking resemblance to my own, although in reality we looked nothing alike. The angles of her face were softer, and her hair was a shade like “barley harvest.”
“Hey you, bastards!” I yelled out the window, surprising myself with the boom of my voice. “Leave her alone!” I picked up a brick that I used to prop open my kitchen door and I lifted it high above my head.
“Brick!” the jogger yelled. They appraised each other and me for a moment, and then they set down their stones and retreated slowly toward their cars. They hurtled insults out of their car windows as they drove away in a caravan. I sat at my window for a while to make sure they were gone for good, and with my brick, I guarded the woman and the tree.
I fell asleep in my chair, and when I woke it was late afternoon. A breeze grazed my cheek, and the sky was a half-hearted blue. The phone rang and the machine picked up, but I ignored the message. The day faded into orange, then burnt orange, then red, and the tree leaves shimmered as if wet. I made two tuna melts and took them outside to the tree where I called up. “Hey, tree woman!” I said. “Are you okay?”