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“That’s not my name.” She peeked her head over the platform, and long strands of hair fell around her face.
“That’s not the point,” I said. “The point is, are you okay?”
“My name is Summer, and yes, I’m perfectly fine,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, why wouldn’t I be?” I said.
“You’ve been through quite a lot. With the man.”
I wondered what exactly she could see from that tree. I wondered if she could see clear through the kitchen to the bedroom, and if she had seen Lee and me estranged to our separate sides of the bed. I wondered if she could see beyond my anatomy and sense the way my brain weighed love against commitment in a delicate balance or limbo, waiting for something to tip the scales.
“What do you know?” I said, and a part of me meant the question sincerely.
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “He seemed like a good man.”
I didn’t ask a follow-up question, because, at that point, I didn’t want to know what she knew. I tugged on her pulley and sent up her tuna melt, and then I sat at the base of the tree and we ate our separate sandwiches in silence.
Summer and I became friends, and each night after work I rented movies for the two of us to watch and turned my TV toward the window. Summer especially liked love stories or stories about a cause. I made chicken curry for us to share, although I hadn’t known the recipe before. Summer sent an ingredient list based on her travels down on the pulley and I went out to buy garam masala and mango powder. Often after work I leaned on the trunk at the base of the tree and we watched the sun set, talking as the slow glow of twilight faded.
When Summer asked about Lee, I ignored her. Once, we talked about what would happen when we were forced out of the apartment and the tree, and I mentioned that I could find a new place for us to move in together. I looked at other apartments, but none of them felt right, as the trees around them were too small or too thin, obviously imported rather than native varieties.
One Sunday, I sat under the tree, and Summer and I shared a bottle of red wine. The days had turned slightly colder, and I talked about my parent’s home in Lenexa, another Kansas city. There, the storms had crawled so that you could always see them coming clearly and from a great distance. The phone rang inside of my apartment window, and then Lee’s voice came through on the voice machine. I stopped to listen.
“You ought to give him a chance,” Summer said.
“Mind your own business,” I said.
“I wasn’t trying to pry,” Summer said. “There’s love there.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said. Summer was a romantic. She lived in a tree. She had been trying to fit Lee into every conversation as of late, and I had had it.
“Almost certainly,” she said. “I can see a lot from up here.”
“What are you talking about?”
Then Summer told me about the week before Lee left, and how, on her first night in the tree, Lee had come home from work with what looked like good news. The window had been closed, and she had been unable to hear, but he had walked in the door and picked me up to spin me around in the kitchen. She saw me tilt my head back to laugh. I tried to place everything I knew about myself into the body of that woman, laughing in an apartment kitchen with a man she loved, and then I thought about deterioration, the end of fall, and leaves giving in to gravity. I didn’t know that girl anymore and I wasn’t sure I ever had.
“Listen to me, tree woman,” I said. “You should stay out of it.”
“That’s not my name,” Summer said.
“That’s not the point,” I said, and I walked back inside where I shut all of my windows.
A few days passed. I watched a romantic comedy alone, and the phone rang, but I turned down the message-machine volume. A demolition crew arrived early one morning, and, on my way to work, I saw them take measurements of the tree in preparation for its impending destruction. From my car, I saw them raise their heads and speak up into the tree, but with the windows rolled up I couldn’t hear what they said to Summer.
I remembered the two of us laughing the week before at a movie about two sisters who love two brothers. Finally, after about a few days, I brought out a plate of curry as a peace offering. It was dusk, but it was already dark enough that I couldn’t clearly see into the tree, which loomed above me. “Tree woman!” I called out as a joke. I heard her laugh up in the branches, and I was relieved that she had forgiven me. Then, after a beat, I heard a man’s voice. I stood at the base of the tree and listened to the murmurs above. Good for her, I thought and took the plate back inside. I opened my windows and listened to their joint laughter. The wind tossed the leaves, and, after a while, all went quiet.
I tried not to bother Summer and her lover, at whom I never got a good look. He came only at night, and not every night. I figured that he had a job or some other relevant commitment. When I passed below the tree at night on my way out for groceries or a drink with friends, the two of them were silent. Each day I exchanged niceties with Summer, who, in the day light, was alone in the branches. A few times there was enough evening light that I thought could see the tree man’s face through the leaves from my kitchen window. He looked like someone I had known once, with a firm, set jaw, but it was hard to tell. Lee didn’t call anymore. I looked at the paint squares on my wall. Fawn would have been a fine color, I said out loud to no one. I missed Lee, and I kept to my side of the bed an imaginary line drawn down the middle that I couldn’t bring myself to cross. I reserved the other half of the defeated mattress for what I had already lost.
I ran out of milk one night and tiptoed below the tree on my way out to the store, careful to avoid pinecones and twigs. I sidestepped the construction tape that the demolition crew had strung around, but right below platform, I could hear that Summer and her lover were still awake and talking. She said something I couldn’t quite make out in a chant-like cadence, and then, the man spoke. I had heard his voice before. In fact, I realized it was a voice I knew intimately.
“Lee?” I said into the tree. “Lee, is that you?”
“Um,” Lee said. “Um, yes.”
“It’s not what you think,” Summer said.
“What are you doing up there?” I said.
“He wanted another chance,” Summer said. “He was planning a grand gesture. A romantic coup d’état, if you will.”
“How long has he been in there?” I said. “Has he been sleeping in the tree with you?”
“It’s not like that!” Summer said. “I’m playing cupid. He came to me for help.”
I remembered the sound of the two of them together at night, their laughter high in the branches. I thought of the silence in the tree limbs very late, and suddenly, I thought about my brick.
“Listen,” Summer said, her words quickened. “This isn’t about me.”
“You can’t let him live there!” I said. “It’s not right!”
“Do you want me to come down and be with you?” Lee said.
“What?” I said. “What did you say?”
“Tell me to come back,” Lee said, and a new confidence fortified his voice.
I thought about what Summer had said about Lee and me together in the kitchen. For a moment, I let myself recall the way I felt in his arms and the sensation of my skin pressed against his. I looked up at his dark silhouette in the tree, and I imagined myself making room for Lee again on the refrigerator’s shelves or in the underwear drawer. To do so would be to admit that I was unhappy alone, which wasn’t unbearable. I knew suddenly and with great certainty that I could relent for this man. I could forever fold the socks that he would wear on his two feet. But then, I realized that might have been his plan all along: his checkmate move. I wondered how much of what I was feeling came from within me, and how much came from the strategy they had devised together. Was this love, I wondered, or defeat?
“Fuck you, tree woman,” I said finally.
“That’s not my name,” she said.
“I know,” I said.