The Climbing Tree

August 20, 2016
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Oliver had never felt so uncomfortable in his entire life. He couldn’t go more than five minutes without being poked by the oak’s knobby bark and every time he adjusted his position, the problem seemed to get worse. The branch supporting his legs was just as knotty—within seconds of sitting down Oliver was given an unsolicited colonoscopy. Yet it was the oak tree’s leaves that irritated Oliver the most. Fluorescent yellow and flamboyant, the leaves would twirl down into Oliver’s lap, giggling at his misery.
“Why are you so happy?” Oliver asked the third leaf that landed on his jeans. He willed the leaf to fade back to green, but it was unrelenting. “Are you teasing me?”
Oliver stuck his fingers in the corners of his mouth and pulled upwards. When he removed his hands his face slid back to its previous state, a defined frown with a wobbling lip. More leaves pirouetted in a gust of wind—brighter, if anything, than they were before. 
A door slammed, diverting Oliver from the foliage. He turned to find his mother sauntering out of the house and across the patio. Although her stilettos were no thicker than a matchstick, she did not stumble as she transitioned to the muddy grass. She paused at the trunk of the oak and peered upwards, combing the maze of branches for her son’s face.
“Oliver,” his mother said, her voice oozing with honey. “Please come down, sweetie. You can’t stay up there forever.” Oliver made a point of looking away. She sighed before tacking on, “we’re going to have to talk about this sometime.”
Oliver planned to respond calmly, like a grown-up would, except his words were twisted into a whine. “No! I’m not coming down.”
“Not even if we discussed everything over ice cream?” She widened her eyes theatrically.
“What could I do to make you come down? What if we do something fun tomorrow? We could go see a movie and then talk this over.” Oliver didn’t reply. His mother swallowed, raising her voice to a squeak. “Or maybe go play mini golf? Would you like that?”
“I’m not coming down until you and Dad stop getting divorced.”
Silence. His mother suddenly found the ground very interesting. When she looked up again she was wearing a slight smile.
“Oliver, I told you before. I wish everything was that simple, but it’s not. Could you please just—”
Oliver’s mother pressed her lower lip between her teeth. After a second she rearranged her face into another grin. An infinitesimal something shifted in her eyes, something Oliver knew but could never wrap his tongue around.
“Okay, Oliver,” she said after a while. “Just know that everything is going to be fine. In fact, it might even be better than fine. This divorce will be good for us.” Her shoes’ crisp laughter rang in Oliver’s ears long after she went inside.
It took a minute for Oliver’s brain to whir to life again. Why did his mom seem happy? Oliver knew divorce was bad; his mom would always sigh sympathetically at the news of it, like she did at the mention of the homeless or terminally ill. Except divorced people didn’t wave signs asking for money or lose their hair. Their symptoms were much less obvious. Mr. Grahame, Oliver’s neighbor, had been divorced the year before and Oliver rarely saw him out of his bathrobe (though Oliver very much doubted that was for hygienic reasons). Mr. Grahames' daughters never looked happy in the fleeting glances Oliver caught of them either. Cassie and Sarah would appear next door for a few seconds before a tan minivan spirited them away. Oliver’s mom couldn’t want to emulate the Grahames—she refused to change out of her skirt suits and spindly heels and rarely had the time to drive Oliver anywhere.
Besides, didn’t divorced people fight? Oliver was sure the Grahames fought, could even recall his dad’s hands over his ears while obscenities flew from the neighbors’ back garden. Oliver’s parents rarely talked, let alone fought. After work, his mother would say a quick hello and then scuttle to her office, not leaving until bedtime kisses. Oliver’s dad usually hid in the living room with a stack of tests and a red pen. Oliver always thought of hermit crabs— his mother was happy in her own shell and his father was at home in his. He couldn’t remember the last time they had butted heads, but that had to be a good thing. People only moved away when they hated each other.
Unless, a niggling voice in the back of Oliver’s brain supplied, it’s me they hate. The thought made Oliver’s chest feel leaden, as though someone had replaced his heart with a metallic replica. Oliver tried so hard to make his parents proud, but he was prone to mistakes. He knocked things over without meaning to, forgot his school books in his desk, and spilled thousands of glasses of water. No matter how much they professed to love him, Oliver’s parents couldn’t deal with his antics everyday. If their plan worked, Oliver would be forced to split his mishaps between two houses.
Pins and needles pricked Oliver’s left foot. Oliver shook his leg, slamming it against a branch to quell the tingles. The resulting thwock slammed another idea into Oliver’s head— the divorce was his punishment. His parents always said they hated to nag him. Maybe instead of sighing and scolding, his parents were combining all their punishments into one—a divorce.
Yet surely Oliver would make more mistakes after this, mistakes that warranted action. He was only nine— he had thousands of days in front of him, ready to be filled with minor crimes. Oliver was probably adding another offense to his list right now by sitting in the tree. Could he be punished again? What could be worse than divorce? Should come down from here, Oliver’s fevered brain asked,  I don’t want things to get worse.
He flicked his eyes to his house. It looked unfamiliar in the twilight, even though Oliver could still remember the day he moved in.  He was five at the time, wearing cutesy slogan shirts and a cherubic smile. Cardboard boxes teetered in stacks that skimmed the ceiling. Oliver’s father had hidden inside an empty box in the kitchen, planning to spring out as his mother walked past. Oliver’s mother spent twenty minutes searching the house, her calls of “Jim?” echoing off the blank walls and mixing with Oliver’s maniacal giggles. As she made her way into the kitchen, Oliver’s father attempted to leap out of his hideaway. The box betrayed him. He teetered back and forth, clutching frantically at the flaps of brown cardboard, before landing on the kitchen tiles with an unceremonious plop. His wife’s gasp of surprise turned into a shriek of derision. Oliver’s father feigned indignation, but, seeing that he was convincing no one, broke into cackles. Soon all three of them were huddled on the floor, cackling as the boxes tinkled in amusement.
Oliver needed to relive that day. He would force the shrunken shirts over his head or stuff his cheeks with cotton wool. He would shrink back to two foot tall, no matter how much it pained him. He would glue himself to the tree and allow the gnarled bark to jab him as many times as it wanted. Oliver clasped both of his hands together in an ungainly handshake— he would not touch the ground until everything was okay.
The door opened as Oliver untangled his hands. His father walked across the yard, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans. His mother also stepped outside. She hovered by the door, and although Oliver could not see her face, he was sure she was as smiley as she was before.
“Hey, bud.”  His dad’s greeting sounded flat, like a can of soda left unattended for a week. Oliver did not reply. His father searched for his eyes among the shadowy leaves, but Oliver turned away again. “I know this is hard to hear, but you have to come down. We’re getting divorced either way, but we’d sure like to help explain things to you.”
“You don’t have to.” Oliver tried to imitate the shrewd voice of the man who sold laundry detergent on TV. He had no intention of doing laundry, but watching a pesky grass stain disappear into an expanse of white cloth always made him want to buy a bottle. “I’m going to stay up here forever or until you never get divorced. If you don’t get divorced I’ll come down and we’ll be happy.”
His father ran a hand through his thinning hair. “That’s not how things work, bud.”
“Why does it matter how other things work? This works! This works really well. ”
“Oliver, we actually want this divorce. And we want you to be in our lives. If you come down we’re still getting divorced, but we want to talk to you without all these leaves in the way.”
Oliver swept the leaves away from his face, met his father’s eyes, and quirked his eyebrows, another trick he picked up from Mr. Laundry Soap. “If I don’t come down will you not get divorced?”
Oliver’s father looked at the ground. “No, bud. That’s not how it works either.” Silence inflated between them like a balloon. It was punctured after a few minutes. “Are you really not coming down?”
To Oliver’s surprise, his dad did not walk away. “I’ll sit with you, then,” he said. He inspected a suspect clot of grass before taking a seat on the ground. Oliver longed to ask what his father was doing, but knew admitting confusion would forsake his place of power. The click of heels against the patio told Oliver his mother was approaching. She stared at Oliver and then his father, but did not part her shiny lips. She crouched at the base of the tree, futilely tugging at her skirt to lay flat.
Oliver waited. The scene reminded him of the silent movies his dad showed him last year. Oliver knew the house that fell around Buster Keaton boomed as it hit the ground, but the sound was lost on the way to Oliver’s ears. Noise should have filled the air—apologies, pleads, propositions, plans, even angry proclamations— but Oliver heard nothing. The silence pressed in on his bones until he thought they would splinter.
“If I come down will you guys start talking to each other again?” 
Oliver’s mom inhaled deeply, probably resisting the urge to sigh. Oliver waited for her to make another ultimatum, suggest another plan. Nothing.
“Did you hear me?” he called.
His mother inhaled sharply. Is she laughing, Oliver asked himself, his mouth opening in shock. He peered over a cluster of leaves and saw his mother huddled against the tree trunk.
She was crying. Tears dripped down her face, slow and unsure of the terrain they were conquering.
His father rested a stiff hand on her shoulders.  “It’s okay, Regina,” he said in a voice more muffled than usual.
A gust of wind rattled the oak, swinging branches towards Oliver’s nose. He leaned back out of the twigs’ warpath. The rustling of the wind blocked any noise from reaching Oliver’s perch.
“Mom? Dad?” Oliver called. He pricked his ears, but couldn’t hear the response, if there was any.
Oliver shimmied down to the limb beneath his and stepped from there to the lowest branch, close enough to the grass to land without injury. For the first time Oliver realized how late it had become. Stars poked holes in the expanse of black, looking lost, but somehow at home amidst the darkness of the night. Mr. Grahame’s windows were dark save for one, which shone with the flickering bluish light of a TV.
Oliver slid from the tree and, after a split second of defying gravity, collided with the ground.

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