City Trees

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
First short story I wrote and was still happy about afterwards. I started out with complicated characters, each with their own history, but it actually turned out to be most effective when I stripped all that away.

Submitted: April 04, 2010

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Submitted: April 04, 2010

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City trees

How can you feel like the walls are closing in on you when you are standing outside? Strangely enough, it tends to happen more often than you’d think, especially in this place. I bring a new cigarette to my lips and lean against the wall of the main building I came out of about ten minutes ago. There are green grounds with a square flowerbed here and there. A small number of city trees are standing in otherwise empty areas, no doubt they're meant to give the boring patches an illusion of being interesting. I call them city trees, because they’re the tamed, thin kind you see in the trapped little plant boxes you find on the side of city roads. These trees are told how to grow from when they are saplings, by being put into contraptions not unlike straightjackets. How ironic. A little way off there are the gates, but great effort has been made to make them seem like they’re a preview to luxury and style that can be found behind them. In fact, all that is behind them is this asylum, a group of insane people and now; her. She is sitting a little way off, on a bench under a tree, tranquil and silent. Her long black hair and distant gaze make her look like a beautiful but sad painting. She is holding her head up attentively, as if she is waiting for somebody. The tree is young, and still in its skin tight prison. She doesn’t know that I am here. I am here for her. It feels like longer than ten minutes that I have been standing here, looking at her. I can’t bring myself to just stroll over. She might get confused, or be shocked. The serene picture she forms, sitting on that bench under the tree, will break the minute she notices me. The scene that might come in its place scares me. I am wondering if I have the courage to let myself be taken into those icey blue eyes, or whether I will choose to soothe my pain and longing by letting my own eyes rest on her beautiful existence without me. I almost burn my fingers on the cigarette. I tap out the last of the ashes onto the brick wall and walk away with the stump to find an ashtray. I can hardly believe that I can take my eyes off the sight that has been taken away from me for so long, but you wouldn’t believe how hard the people here come down on littering and other such rule breaking. That’s what it comes down to in the end. Before love comes mindless passion, before passion comes a heart breaking loneliness, and before loneliness comes public duty. I remember seeing a little ashtray in the lobby, on one of the tables that have been put up for the visitors. This place is usually sealed off to the public. I wish it wasn’t so, that I could see her every day, or every week, just sitting under that trapped little tree and waiting. I find the round plastic tables in the lobby, and I find out that in fact each table has an ashtray right in the middle of it. They’re not made of glass, like I initially thought, but of a thick plastic that is attached to the tables themselves. Somebody probably had the bright idea that crazy people might discover that glass breaks and cuts into flesh. Looking at some of those lunatics out there, I can only imagine the grim satisfaction that they must be feeling that the clever conceiver of this table-ashtray contraption has not yet come across the even brighter idea that crazy people are already fully aware that cigarettes are little sticks of burn makers as well. Now that I think about it, maybe they did realize that problem already, but just decided to ignore it. After all, taking steps would mean the ban of cigarettes which would be rather silly now that we can`t take the ashtrays off the tables. Fortunately, even most crazy people seem to realize that the holistic feeling of a lung filled with tobacco outranks a scarred enemy and a force feeding of tranquilizers. I select a table that looks exactly like the others, forcing myself to take pride in my freedom to personally select in which container I am forced to dispose of my cigarette butt. I take explicit care disposing of my trash, placing the tiny stub between thumb and forefinger, slowly, as if demonstrating to the nurse at the reception who is trying to inconspicuously eye my actions, moving my hand to just above the tray and dropping the body into its coffin. I find myself wondering what she could be doing now, but really I know that she will be sitting under the same tree, in the same position, when I return. The lobby is almost empty, as if nice weather stated a vacating of the premises in the rule book. Hell, it probably really does around here. No wonder the nurse is scowling at me. There is only one other person here, sitting stock still at a table next to mine, only the eyes moving. I hadn’t wanted to look at anybody. Letting people into my world isn’t something that comes easy to me. But I look. I look because I wonder if the person is male or female, and because I wonder if it’s a guest or a resident. Either is hard to tell. The person is wearing unattractive clothes, not the white and blue robe that the residents on this ward wear, but it might be somebody from another section of the building. In any case, it’s clear that the person has strayed here. The clothes are old but neat, a drab checker blouse draped over square shoulders and brown slacks covering broad legs. The clothes are baggy enough to hide any figure in the rather thick mass they cover. Small blue eyes staring from recesses set over slabs of cheek have been staring at me before I noticed them. The rest of the body doesn’t move, but the eyes flick from my head to my body in detached movements. A little bit below a mouth hangs half open. The hair is cropped short, but the roundness of the head has a softness to it that hints at femininity. The overall view is not fetching, but I wouldn’t describe it as ugly. It just looks like somebody nobody would ever consider hugging. My looking doesn’t seem to have any effect. The eyes continue to flick up and down over my body, unconsciously avoiding my eyes as if the fact that my body is being felt up by those groping little pupils has nothing to do with me personally. And it probably doesn’t, just as my staring at that person has nothing to do with how he or she feels about it. I get uncomfortable, and find I have been standing still while I was looking. It can’t have been more than a second, but I still feel startled. As I straighten up, the eyes finally flick towards mine. Suddenly locked in this involuntary connection, I can’t look away in time. Instead, I give a curt nod of acknowledgement, and ward off my eyes at an acceptable speed. I notice that the eyes are not being taken off me in turn. “Do you mind?” I hear, suddenly. The voice is higher than I had expected, sounding more female than male. It sounded detached, but normal enough. I half-turn back to the person. “Excuse me?” I mumble. After hearing the voice, the person looks more female. She is still looking at me, her head tilted backwards slightly. Not speaking anymore, she holds this gaze for a second more than feels comfortable. Now she looks away. A bulky hand lifts up to her face. She holds her index finger and middle finger to her mouth, as if she is smoking, and moves them back and forth from her mouth two times in quick, jerky movements. Then the hand drops onto her lap and she stops moving again. She is gazing at the wall. I wonder if she is trying to ask me for a cigarette. I feel in my pocket for the pack I have. I half take it out and take a step towards her, but she has stopped reacting completely. I hesitate for a second, and push the packet back into the pocket and turn around awkwardly. As I walk away I hear her mumbling; “Excuse me? Excuse me….” I think about turning around again, but the detached voice doesn’t seem to be directed at me. I quicken my pace and walk into the hallway. That was weird, I tell myself. Obviously a resident then. Normal people don’t behave like that. I can’t let myself think about it too long, because I am about to step outside and see her again. She will be sitting stock still, and I will look at her and she will look at nothing in particular. I feel better after seeing the strange woman. I like my attention to be captured by people who I don`t know and never will know. Outside, under her little tree, she never understood my fascination with strangers; the way I could feel elated after sitting close to somebody who still vaguely smelt of smoke from the burning wood of a campfire he had probably been sitting close to earlier, or the way I could smile when I see one old lady sitting secluded, in her own little world, peacefully tending to something in the garden while the other seniors at the retirement centre were enjoying social activities. I never explained it to her, either. I wouldn`t even if I could. The feeling I get is one of the few things that only belongs to me, and only to me. Not even to the strangers that set it all in motion. It was like something I had secretly stolen from them. I recall a long time ago, near the house where my parents lived, when a teenager walked across the street. He was concealing in his jacket one of those bubble blowing sticks; I forget what they`re called. He was obviously too old for them, and he walked as guiltily as if he were hiding a joint or a bottle of alcohol. Then, when he seemed to think no one was looking, he stopped, pulled out the toy, and blew a single bubble. He walked on with the evidence floating behind him, before popping into secrecy. By now, the boy has probably forgotten this event, but it will be my personal little story forever.

She`s not there. I blink and stare at the empty bench for a few seconds. A dull panic comes over me, and I feel my eyes grow bigger. She`s gone! She`s not where she is meant to be, she left me! I look up, and scan the area. In the distance, near the gates, I see the shape of her white dress, the hem billowing around her legs. I start towards her, and then see the rest of the picture. She is holding the arm of one of the male nurses. She hangs on to him, and he playfully pulls her close to him. I want to sink to the ground, but instead I just stand still, staring after her and her boyfriend. I`m here for her, but that has nothing to do with her. I edge towards the bench on which she had been waiting for him. She walks through the gates, which lock and trap her behind them. A broken little twig hung from the city tree close to where she had sat. She had probably snapped it without noticing. I turn from the gates and pull it off its trunk. I realize when I watch the city tree, its branches clutching at something it couldn’t grab; purgatory is being told which way to grow.


© Copyright 2020 Charlie Loan. All rights reserved.

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