by Marilyn Duarte
It is 1:40 in the morning when I wake up. I turn over, nestle my head deeper into my pillow, and watch you sleep. An inhale automatically fills your chest; an exhale effortlessly escapes you. I hold my breath and wonder how much longer I can ignore what I already know.
My eyes trace the shadows of the Grand Oak Tree’s arthritic fingers extending across your bedroom blinds. Its limbs are contorted into an open-palm position, cradling the empty space.
I climb out of bed and tiptoe down the dimly lit hallway. My packed suitcase lies spread open in the middle of your living room, my belongings exposed. Folded on top of a week’s worth of clothes is the hunter-green dress I never got to wear. You must have forgotten that you said you’d cook me a pasta dinner on my last night visiting. I didn’t ask you where you had been nor why you hadn’t called because you rolled your eyes whenever I asked you a question.
Once planted, oak trees’ roots grow quickly. They instantly trust the soil they are dug into, rustling alongside their new family, swaying to a new rhythm. They grow unabashedly; they flourish.
I imagine shutting my suitcase and walking out the front door before you wake up, but I’m afraid the thump will startle you, and I wouldn’t know what to say if you asked me why I wanted to leave now. Or maybe I would know, but am afraid that you would agree with me. I glance towards your bedroom; my body follows my gaze.
At dawn, you draw circles around my shoulder blades with your finger and I turn to kiss your bare chest. You mumble that you’re disappointed things did not work out with the other girl. I recoil, bite my lower lip, and slide away from you, but the bed is too narrow, so our bodies still touch. I stiffen and look at the painting of indecipherable figures on the wall above your bed, and swear they are swirling, emerging out of their frame. You repeat the girl’s name, even though I didn’t ask you to, but now she’s real, and I wonder what she was like. Did she have a kind smile? Did she introduce you to her children? The blurred images dance towards me, fade, then evaporate.
Grand Oaks can grow as tall as 150 feet. Their height protects them from succumbing to fire. If burned, their roots and high branches remain intact, still connected to their charred, hollow trunks.
Warmed by the morning sunlight, I stand at the entrance to your backyard. I place one of your lit unfiltered cigarettes between my lips, even though I haven’t smoked in years, and drink some French-pressed coffee, even though I don’t like the taste.
The dusty-gray, scaled leaves of Spanish Moss are draped in clusters all over the oak tree resembling waterfalls of tears.
You join me and speak of yet another girl. I watch your hardened gaze stare past me, retrieving the past.
The drooping curtains of moss sway in the breeze. I tilt my head sideways and spot a few streaks of white paint covering a section of your shared wooden fence. Someone must have abandoned their project before they had properly begun it.
I’m speechless when you say that after all the time we’ve spent together, you had hoped—expected—to develop feelings for me, but hadn’t. Didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. I am not surprised you feel this way. I am stunned you think that you have tried.
Grand Oak Trees can endure excessive damage and exploitation. Even after they die, they continue to give, providing shelter and feeding acorns to vulnerable wildlife. They are also believed to hold endless wisdom.
I strain to hear a sound other than my voice whisper that I should have already left. Disappointment blankets my body and my muscles constrict.
One of the oak tree’s thick branches is bent to the ground: its body a slithering snake.
Partly joking, mostly not, I apologize for failing my audition. You tell me that you value me and make offers of friendship. I wonder who you are trying to convince.
Because these trees are sturdy, capable, and independent, it is easy to forget that they need nourishment. They cannot survive freezing temperatures.
I walk into the clapboard bungalow and hear the hum of the refrigerator buzzing loudly. I zip my suitcase shut, turn the doorknob, step outside, and breathe in the balmy air.
Marilyn Duarte holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Tampa’s low-residency program and is currently a Staff Writer at Longleaf Review, a Creative Nonfiction Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine, and an Assistant Creative Nonfiction Editor at Pithead Chapel. Her work has appeared in The Tishman Review, (mac)ro(mic), Ellipsis Zine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and elsewhere. Originally from Toronto, she now divides her time between Canada and Portugal. You can find her at http://www.marilynduartewriter.com and on Twitter @MareDuarte28.