The Wisdom Tree

A year ago, you said you’d take me on a hike up that mountain with the one lone tree at the summit. 

You told me I smelled good. You liked how I dressed. I was a wonderful actress and a great mother. You could tell I was processing what you were saying during our lessons by looking into my beautiful blue eyes. I told you that they were green, but you said I had no perspective on myself. When we started being friends outside of tennis, you never asked me any questions but you were so perceptive I thought maybe you didn’t have to because you already knew the answers. You remembered every conversation we had. 

Six months ago, you told me you’d bring me home with you sometime. You asked me if I’d like to meet your dad when he came to visit. I did and we’d all do things when he’d come to town. You took my kids to the movies because my little one asked you. You carried my popcorn and drinks and sat next to me so we could talk. 

I didn’t know if you liked me the way I liked you, although maybe you did. You told me it was hard for you to let people into your personal life. But we’d spend hour upon hour with each other. You said you could talk to me all night. You’d say, “I don’t want a girlfriend. I’ve been by myself for over a year and I’m happy. I’ve made my life as simple as possible and I want to keep it that way.”

But then immediately afterward, you’d tell me how beautiful my smile was, how everything about me was so innocent and sweet. How nice I was. “You don’t have to even try. You just are.” I never knew how to react since I didn’t want to assume anything when maybe you were just being friendly. So i just said thank you and basked in your compliments when I’d go back home and try to fall asleep.

But that’s not entirely the truth. My timidity also stemmed from me not feeling worthy of you. Or really anybody. I didn’t think I’d be enough. Or I thought I’d be too much. So I never told you the truth for fear you’d laugh in my face: “You? Really?? You think I’d ever pick you?” 

I never pressed even though I wanted to be with you so badly I’d feel a twisting in my throat. Sometimes I’d be driving and I’d start to think of you and I’d have to pull over to the side of the road so I could cry. 

“Ma’am, do you realize you went through a stop sign and then swerved over to the side of the road. Are you driving under the influence?”

“.Kind of, officer.”

Over Christmas you texted, “Meeting you and your family was without a doubt one of the best parts of his year.” I said I felt the same way about you. 

On January first you texted me, “Happy New Year! I want to see more of you in 2019 than I did in 2018, and I don’t say that to everyone! You spectacular woman!” You sent me a video of you snowboarding and doing push-up handstands. Like you were a peacock fanning your iridescent feathers to impress me. I was already impressed. I had to go into another room so my sons wouldn’t see me shaking. 

My god, you really did like me. I finally had freedom to express how I felt about you without doubt and fear of rejection. I was proud of myself for letting you come to me instead of overwhelming you with what I needed. I had held out my open palm, allowing you to feel safe enough to eat out of my hand. Soon I’d be able to stroke your head. I couldn’t wait to see you in the New Year. I’d hug you, kiss you on the cheek and whisper in your ear, “I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you.”

But when I saw you, you were aloof. So cool, I thought maybe somebody else wrote your sweet, encouraging words to me. I went back to look at the texts to make sure I hadn’t imagined them.  

I knew you had been hurt by people who should have loved, nurtured and protected you when you were young. You would cry telling me about what had been done to you. I didn’t want you to think I was going to be another person who was going to take advantage of you. I expected a long friendship. You wanted to work together on many projects. We had all the time in the world. So I gave you whatever privacy you needed but also tried to be there to soothe you when you needed it too, and to show you your trauma wasn’t what made you special. 

You told me, “I just want to be with a girl who lets me be myself.” 

And I looked at you across the room and tried to will you to hear what I was screaming inside my head: 

You fucking idiot! Can’t you see how beautiful I think you are? How smart, how funny and special? How many hours have we sat across from each other in this your apartment this year and last? That girl you’re talking about is me!

Words seemed to trip us up. Sometimes I’d say something I thought was innocuous and you’d snarl. I’d see a shadow pass over the perfect, sharp angles of your face and I’d know I was in for a night of avoiding land mines.

Please just Let me be with you in a way that doesn’t depend on words. If I could kiss you, I know I could do better than I’m doing right now.

If I could just be more patient, calmer and not react when you lashed out at me—because I know beaten animals bite when they feel threatened—you’d see you could depend on me. And that I would never abandon you. 

But that was the height of arrogance. And also the depth of my self-abnegation. Because I don’t have the power to change anybody, especially somebody who’s convinced he’s right and doesn’t want to change. You didn’t want to compromise yourself adjusting to me and what I might have needed. We always met at your house, not mine. We were on your territory where you could strategize and feel safe.

The compliments you gave me at first virtually disappeared. Even when they did come, they would be diluted with insults. I thought if I didn’t put any pressure on you, if I let you call the shots and not challenge you, you’d relax into me.

But I did all the work. How nice that I made it so easy for you. Because you knew I’d never leave, you could do anything and there’d be no consequences. If I ever tried to tell you I didn’t like the way you had said something to me, you’d tell me “Don’t let me affect you.” But if I asked what you considered to be the wrong question, you’d clench your teeth and hiss at me. And then you‘d tell me I was misinterpreting you; you weren’t angry, you were being “precise.”

And the truth is, this was familiar to me. As hurt as I’d be after your “precision,” it felt like home. Because it literally had been. I told a trusted friend about you and she looked me in the eye and said, “You like mean men.” She said it without judgement and so I heard it clearly. And it was simple and it brought me up short. She was right. I was primed for you, your hot and cold nature, your edge that could challenge me but could also slice me open at a certain angle and make me bleed. The insecurity of feeling that I could say one wrong thing and you’d disappear without explanation. Just like I’d told you my father had done. 

And one day you said in front of me and my friend that her legs were better than mine. You knocked the wind out of me. You’d told me in the past that I made myself an easy target. You’d also told me, “I can be a real dick sometimes.” You were right on both counts. You looked at me and smiled after you said it, and I saw you had hurt me on purpose. To test your powers. 

My friend encouraged me to tell you how I felt. She said it was unhealthy for me to keep it inside. And if I didn’t tell you, you’d do it again.

So I made my voice as calm as possible and told you. I’ve known since I was twelve how to manage difficult men. You said nothing. You were so angry you looked like you wanted to hit me, although you never would. I asked you what your thoughts were. You paused for what seemed like an hour. 

“You really want to know my thoughts?” 

“Yes.”

“After all I’ve told you about myself, I am beyond disappointed that you think so little of me. It shows me you have no respect for me and you don’t understand me. At all” 

And:

“You should apologize to me, but you know what? I don’t even want you to. I’m not interested in what you’re thinking.” 

And:

“These are your issues, not mine.” 

And the kicker:

“To be honest, I’m not attracted to her legs or your legs.”

When I get scared, I look calm. I go still. My self-esteem evaporated, but you couldn’t tell the damage you did. 

That’s a lie: of course you could. You can be cruel and strategic. You teach strategy for a living. And you’ve learned strategy in life so your relatives wouldn’t beat the shit out of you. The dark side of your intuition and intelligence is knowing how to hurt people in the most efficient manner. Even though I never said out loud how I felt about you, you knew the power you held over me. 

And you didn’t talk to me. For three months. You looked right through me when I brought my kids to lessons with you.

Then last week, all of a sudden, you did. I had been taking lessons with your brother instead because you just stopped teaching me. I showed up for a lesson and there you were. No explanation,. You hugged me. You even said nice things to me. You told me when your brother had texted you the other day about scheduling this lesson, it had really been you texting on your brother’s phone. Your softening came out of the blue but I was overjoyed. Afterward, again, I sat in my car and cried. 

I thought, “Maybe it just took him some time and space. Maybe he won’t apologize, but wanting to talk to me is an admission of sorts. Maybe he actually missed me. Maybe slowly, slowly, slowly we can be friends again. I can’t hope for more at this point because that’s dangerous.” But of course I did

But the next lesson, I walked onto your court and you were stormy again. No hug. You complimented my strokes, but otherwise you looked like you didn’t want to be there. Then you told me that you had dropped a bag off at my house. I said, “Oh. I didn’t see it,” and you replied, “When you’re not expecting or looking for something, you don’t see it.” 

And when I went to give you a hug and a kiss on the cheek goodbye as I used to do, you jerked your head away. “No kisses anymore. That’s over.” I tried not to look shocked. “But we hugged yesterday so I thought it was ok.” “Hugging and kissing are two completely different things. Completely.” So I played it off and told you goodbye and see you soon. I walked to my car quickly and tried not to fall down. I had to wait a few minutes until it felt safe to drive home as the sky lost it’s light.

I came home and saw the shopping bag filled with my stuff on the back porch. You had driven to my house, opened my gate and left it beside the kitchen door. Inside the bag: the calamine lotion I bought you when you were being eaten up by mosquitoes in the fall. The play I wrote that we had rehearsed for months and had planned on performing together. And the birthday card I gave you right after you stopped talking to me with a small present inside. I had written “I know you and I are different people, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, being different can be helpful. I can’t predict the future, but I can’t imagine a time when I don’t have warm feelings for you. Take care.” 

You could have thrown everything out and I would never have known. Then it hit me: the reason You acted friendly again that first lesson was to make the moment I saw the bag of my things at my house, the objects I had given you that you could no longer tolerate, that much more murderous. You had saved my script and my birthday card and gift for three months for the sole purpose of flinging them into my face one day when I least suspected it. You might as well have tossed a grenade into my lap.

I had a sick feeling. I opened Instagram, and thanks to its algorithm, there you were with your brand new girlfriend you apparently met five days ago. You are draped over each other, faces pressed together. In the post, you called her Mrs. Right. 

And I don’t know what to do. My kids still take classes with you. I don’t want to explain to them why I don’t want to see you. Why I’m always so sad. I can’t tell them my feelings for you. I don’t want them to know how cruel you were to me and disillusion them, because they adore you. And I don’t want them to take care of me until I’m ready for a nursing home.They don’t understand heartbreak. One day they will, but they don’t need to be burdened by mine right now. They are miraculously happy and well-adjusted.. virtually unaffected by their dad’s and my divorce. Why would I ruin that for them with a man I never even kissed the way I was hoping.

But I can’t see you again. I can’t play a sport I love because I can’t disassociate it from you. I’m too despondent to be angry, but I hope one day soon I can work up to it. And then maybe soon after that I can make my way to not caring about you at all

But right now I look up at that mountain you told me you’d help me climb so you could show me that brave little tree, and I start to cry.

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