The Proposing Tree: A Love Story
The tree: It is the sort of round, mighty oak that many people only imagine exists, since it is rarely seen by human eyes. Its branches plume like a soft cloud, green and full, and its base is more like three trunks than one, winding and twisting around each other before finally joining together as a single broad life. It would be easy, if one were driving by in a car, to look past it altogether and miss the majestic way it leans out over the street there on the corner. There are many lovely trees in that Los Angeles neighborhood, but none compare to the Proposing Tree, as it is now called, for there is magic beneath its branches.
The young boy didn't notice any of this, only that the branches were strong and it was an easy climb. His parents bought the house only a few months earlier and he felt like a king every time he rose above the yard, held safe in the arms of his new friend. There was only one compromise he had to make to continue this passion. He could only climb the tree when his mother was present, normally sitting on the nearby front porch reading a book, or staring off into space wondering when it would be her turn to live the adventures she envisioned.
That particular summer day was not much different from any other. The air was sticky and hot, and the boy imagined that climbing even a few feet above the Earth would take him into the cooler atmosphere where he could breathe again. He was a steady climber, occasionally taking a risk or two so it wouldn't get too boring, but always aware that at least one of his mother's eyes was fixed upon him.
He was on his way back down the tree when he saw something stuffed in the 'V' where two main branches came together, seven feet from the ground. He leaned forward to see what it was and noticed the sealed plastic container just big enough to contain the distinct hand-stitched binding of a homemade book, much like the one he made in school weeks earlier. He pried it from the grip of the tree and took a closer look.
He opened the plastic and read the title that was printed on the cover: "The Proposing Tree. By Fredrick James." beneath this there was one line that was hard to read having been exposed to natural elements. It said: "This is my gift to you, Great Friend." After thumbing through a page or two the boy realized it wasn't much value to him and called down to his mother.
"Mom, I found a book or something. It looks like someone hid it up here."
The woman set down the novel she was reading and looked up at the boy, shading her eyes from the bright sun. "Bring it down and show it to me," she said to him.
He jumped from the lowest branch to the ground, something the woman always hated to see, and ran over to where she sat. She glanced at the cover and opened it to the first page.
"It's not really a book, more of a notebook," she said to her son. "Look, someone spent a great deal of time writing this out by hand. I wonder what it's all about."
"Why don't you read it and find out?" the boy said as he skipped back to the tree. It was an obvious reply, one that often comes from the mouth of a child, the sort of wisdom adults need to listen to more often.
"Why not," she said beneath her breath. "The other book is boring anyway, and this smells like an adventure. Who knows what I'll learn."
And so she began to read the story of the tree, written by the man who knew it better than anyone else. Why it was hidden in the branches of the oak was still a mystery, but each word brought her closer to the truth. Within minutes, she was completely engrossed.
This story is my gift to you, Great Tree. Of all the books I've written this is the most important; though no one else will ever read these words. It is a story you know well, for you witnessed the whole affair and you heard every word that was ever said beneath these branches. There is no place on this Earth, save this very spot I now stand, where my heart has been more open and my mind more clear. You are like a silent clock that has marked my days and remembered every meaningful word I ever said. You deserve to hear the whole story, then, and to know how it all ends.
You are the Proposing Tree. Do you realize that? It's impossible for me to know if you understand what has happened here in your shadow, all the events that have shaped our love these last forty years. I had known Carolyn for six months when we found you, and it's true that I loved her from the first moment we met. Our lives coil around each other, just as your roots wrap themselves around this moist Earth. Even the fragile twigs that stretch furthest from the ground have felt the rapture of this joining. You have beheld our long journey to love and are the judge that heard our words, remembering them for us to one day claim. If I had sufficient words to thank you for your gift I would surely offer them. Hopefully my devotion is enough, both to you and the woman I love. That is the only thing I can offer now. Devotion, after all, is the only thing that really matters in this world.
Has time really moved so fast that I now reflect upon these events as if they were a dream? You are the only thing that has not changed at all, Great Tree, though your arms now claim the sky with greater authority than when I was young. We, on the other hand, have aged and matured, but we have gained a perspective that was impossible when we first met. It's hard to believe that forty years have passed since we noticed you on the corner of 2nd and Windsor. Thank God we stopped to look upon your greatness that day, for you symbolize everything that is important in both our lives.
Where do I begin? I have told so many stories this lifetime, but none of them struck so close to my heart than the one I am about to describe. It feels important to give you a full reckoning, to explain all the things you could not have learned from the conversations we had beneath your branches. Maybe I am doing it more for myself than you, for it helps me examine the life I shared with Carolyn, the opportunity to look beneath the crease of our winding relationship and discover the truth that has eluded us till now. Whatever the reason, it feels good to talk to you again, the way I used to talk to you, and to bare myself in a way I normally cannot.
I had always been a solitary pilgrim wandering through life without ever really committing to it. Had it not been for Carolyn I may have never changed. Writing was my way of waving off any real existence, choosing instead a world that existed in my mind, a world I could change at will depending upon whatever story I was weaving at the time. When I was in high school I discovered I had a talent for writing and I used it to escape from the mundane world my parents had built around us. There were six of us living in that small house in Peoria, Illinois; I had two brothers and one sister. I was the only one in the family with enough courage to leave Illinois. The others seemed content to live out their lives there, but I ran off to California as soon as I could afford the ticket.
Los Angeles offered an escape from my outer circumstances, but not the inner torment I felt. At first I tried to insert myself into the circles that might help me break away from my Midwestern neurosis, but I was so much more comfortable on my own, holing away in my small apartment writing short stories and essays. Luckily my self-imposed exile paid off professionally and within two years I had a fair number of articles that had been published in respectable journals. Then a book proposal I sent to a small publisher was accepted, and before I knew it I was on my way.
I had already written two books by the time we met, neither of which were huge commercial successes. They did attain what one could call "cult status," which meant that the handful of people who actually did read them were fanatically loyal. Carolyn was one of those people, though in a way that was immensely refreshing. Being a successful artist in L.A. meant that she interfaced with celebrities much more recognizable than me, which left her completely unimpressed by my limited degree of fame. I received a message from a friend that a young, attractive woman wanted to meet me, and though I would normally never return such a call, I somehow felt compelled. More than once I had broken this rule, normally with embarrassing results. After all, this was forty years ago, 1959, and things were so much different then. I had never been married and my freedom brought with it a special kind of rebellion. This situation was different somehow, and I knew it. I decided to trust my instinct and see where it might lead.
The day I walked into the restaurant at the corner of Wilshire and Normandy changed my life. She said to look for the woman wearing a red headband sitting in a corner booth. I entered through the front door and scanned the room, waiting for someone to notice me. My habit was to remain a bit aloof and let whom ever it is I was meeting see me first. But when our eyes finally met all that vanity disappeared and I felt my soul leap forward. Her eyes were like radiating pools of light and they seemed to pull me forward. And yet, there was nothing that could match the smile I saw. It was the sort of smile that was more a window to the soul, a soul brimming with life. I was captivated by her at once, and that captivation has continued now for forty years.
"Hi Fredrick, I'm Carolyn," she had said as she stood up from behind the booth.
"Hi, it's great to meet you. I'm Fred James, but I guess you already. . . ."
"Of course I know, I called you, remember?"
And that was how it all began. We sat in that restaurant for hours talking and laughing, then decided to drive to Santa Monica to walk by the beach. I remember thinking that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met, with her short black hair and open smile. Every time she looked at me I felt my knees go weak, and every smile was like a nail in my coffin. I wanted to reach out and touch her skin, or her hair, or even the air around her body. Anything would have satisfied me. I tried to resist the urge, to stay a safe distance away from her and not reveal more than I had to. But the feeling was becoming too strong. A tornado was turning inside me, and I didn't know how long I would be able to stay rooted in the place where I stood. I was falling for her like I had never fallen before, and the need for silence became apparent all too soon.
That night we were sitting together on a long pier looking out over the quiet ocean, and I felt as if my heart was speaking to me.
"She's the one," it whispered. "She's the one who can unravel all the chains you've wrapped around yourself. There's an energy that's moving between you that no one can fully comprehend, especially you, not yet anyway. Don't hold back this time, Fred. Open the door that you've hidden behind all these years, if only for a moment. She won't let you down, no matter how things appear at first."
She must have sensed what I was feeling. She turned away from me and looked out over the ocean, and I suddenly knew what she was thinking.
"This has been an incredible day, Fredrick, and I feel so fortunate to have met you, and to feel this connected to you." Then she looked at me and smiled. "We're going to be friends for a very long time, aren't we?"
"Yes, we are," I said, and it was all either one of us needed to say. We're going to be great friends. Hide it away now. Don't let her see how wide you've opened yourself. Go back to your room and learn not to trust the voice that doesn?t know anything at all. "We're going to be very good friends," I said again beneath my breath.
I was thirty years old in 1960, and Carolyn was twenty-five. She had just moved to Hancock Park in Los Angeles two weeks earlier, renting a small bungalow behind a stately mansion that blocked her view of the quiet street. She became my best friend in less than a year, and I learned to hide the deeper pulse of my love behind a facade of thick branches and an impenetrable stone wall. The long walks we took through that neighborhood are still etched in my memory like thousand-year-old drawings upon a cave wall. I visit that cave in my mind as often as I can now, especially the day we first saw you, the Proposing Tree.
"Have you ever seen a more beautiful tree than this?" I remember her asking me. "It seems out of place here in the middle of Los Angeles, like it should be in the center of some small New England town, towering above all the old Victorian houses on Main Street. I'll bet it's older than every house in this neighborhood, and they built around it because it has some kind of special magic."
How could she have known what she was saying? Even you were unaware of the magic you held, and perhaps it took her words to release the alchemy. Regardless of how it happened, the moment we sat down beneath your shelter something moved in us both, though it has taken over thirty years for us to claim it.
We all plant seeds in the ground, but we must learn to patiently wait before we finally enjoy the fruit. A tree cannot grow overnight, and the more patient we are the deeper the roots sink into the earth. To rush the season is to miss the sweetness it could bear, and the life that should have been ours is then lost. You kept us from running too fast toward what we did not understand. And now that the harvest is full we feel the blessing you held. How can I express my gratitude to you, Great Tree?
"I have this dream of being proposed to beneath a tree like this," Carolyn said to me the first time she leaned against your trunk, letting her eyes move between the thick branches. "Especially on a day like this with a gentle breeze and a blue sky."
I stood next to her, just as I was prone to do, and reached out for her hand. "I've never really thought about it, but you're right. If I were to propose to a woman this would be the right place."
"Why don't you practice on me," she said as she spun around.
"What do you mean?" I asked, nervous and off balance.
"Let's practice on each other. You practice proposing and I'll practice saying 'Yes.' That way, when it's the real thing, we'll know what to do, how to look, everything. Come on, you're the writer, let your creative juices out and see what happens. It's best to be prepared for a moment like this. When you meet the right girl you can bring her here and you?ll already know what to say."
"And what about you?" I asked.
"Well, my part is easy. I just have to look into his eyes adoringly and say, 'Yes, of course my darling, I'll marry you.' You're the one who has the hard part. One false word and the whole effect is lost."
She didn't catch what I was really asking her, and it was better that way. I was never able to do more than drop hints about my real feelings since I wasn't prepared to take the risk of losing her altogether. What I wanted to say was: "And if I really mean what I say, if the words that come from my mouth are true and my proposal is real, what will you do then?" But this was not the game she wanted to play. It was too real, too risky, and we both knew it. If I wanted to keep her, I would have to play by her rules, but by then I was already accustomed to this.
"Propose to me," she cried again as we stood next to you, Great Tree. "This might be your big chance, you shouldn't let an opportunity like this pass you by."
There was something about the way she said those words that stirred my soul, a deep place that hadn't existed a moment before. I looked into her eyes and saw every promise I had ever wrapped my heart around. Just for a moment I felt as if I were free, and the passion I had pushed down suddenly sprung forward and took a deep gulp of air.
"Please propose to me," she said again. "I promise to pretend it's real, as if you're the one I've searched for my whole life, as if you're the one I will give my heart and soul to for as long as we both shall live, and I promise not to laugh." ...
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