We are looking for a place to live, B.J. and me, together.
It’s hard to find just the right house for both of us: office space for me, studio space for her, a yard or park for the dog, a landlord who will accept pets, enough light for her, enough space for me, no carpets, high ceilings, central to both our schools....
It’s also less than a year that we’ve been dating. Too soon, all our friends say, to move in together. Forget the old joke about lesbians moving in on the second date: in our crowd, there are rules about these things.
We sit in my apartment, a tattered commercial space in an old building overlooking Boston Common, exhausted from our search, tired of bickering, discouraged with compromise.
“Maybe they’re all right,” B.J. says, staring out the tall windows into the trees.
“Maybe it’s too soon,” I say, wondering what’s under the ‘70s paneling on the walls and above the suspended acoustical tile ceiling.
We’ll try again tomorrow. We want to build something that much.
To build a house in a tree, you must first find the right tree...trees.
When I was a girl, I climbed trees.
Pines were sweet and straight and tall. Hugging the rough bark, wrapped around the trunk, sitting on a branch no bigger than my wrist, swaying in even the smallest wind, I could sometimes see the ocean. I was part of the tree, and I could see faraway dreams. But pines are not the best for building. Each branch is offset from the other, like stair steps, which is good for climbing, but the lowest branch is too high, and who wants to shimmy up to one’s home? When you nail into it, a pine will bleed.
A live oak is the best for construction. Its arms are a cradle, branches low to the ground and side by side. The live oak’s trunk is solid and wide. It lives 200 years, growing slowly over the nails, and eventually even over the wooden construction. The treehouse becomes part of the tree.
If you are very lucky, you will find a live oak and a pine together, the trunk of the sweet, sappy one between the solid, stretching limbs of the other. Both are evergreen.
When you build a house in the cradle of the oak, you can build around the pine...a house that will stand 100 years and a house with a place to climb.
I am tall. She has more curves.
I would like to make a place where I can see far, where I can still dream. B.J. wants us to build something solid, something that will last forever.
She is an incest survivor. I am another kind of survivor.
We decide together that we will build something together.
This is scary. Inside, I am afraid of heights. Inside, she is afraid of old dreams.
We decide to rehab this patch-worked apartment overlooking the Common. The building is solid, nearly 100 years old. In the ‘70s, when we were both girls, this construction was layered over with fake wood paneling, suspended under acoustic tile ceilings, shagged with burnt orange carpets and lit fluorescent. But the ceilings are high, the windows tall, and the view distant beyond the trees.
We will build something together.
I built my treehouse from the parts of things torn apart.
My dad tore down the room he had added onto our house because the inspector Mom shouldn’t have let in said it was unsafe. The roof could have come down on our heads. I took the extra long two-by-fours (one of which Dad accidentally dropped on my brother’s head... a “funny” family story for years) to use for the crossbeams to support the floor for my treehouse.
I found two heavy doors in the dumpster behind the university. The doors would be my floor.
That’s really all you need for a treehouse. Support and a floor. I imagined a frame of clear white fir, a tall peaked roof, sheer curtains at the windows, pictures on the walls, a chimney with smoke pouring forth.
All I really needed, though, I found in the rubble of something dissected.
A storm has blown over one of the huge elms in the Common. The roots are still mostly in the ground, and the branches are a maze, still intact. The dog is ecstatic for the sticks to chase. B.J. and I poke into knotholes, discuss what one needs to hibernate in these knotholes, sit on the trunk and dangle our feet while we discuss each next phase of our rehab...the deconstruction.
We throw broken twigs for the dog, escaping, for now, the plaster dust, the wires dangling, the rotted carpet rolled in the hall to be carted away. We have peeled away the layers and found these: plaster crown moldings, a hidden doorway, oak doors that slide into the wall, a huge fireplace, gold-leafed wallpaper, a brick wall in the kitchen, a marble bathroom. We have scavenged the burned-out theater next door for a filigreed floor-to-ceiling round mirror and a tattered poster of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. We eat our lunches sitting on this fallen tree in the park, surrounded by branches of golden leaves, because the apartment is a mess.
One morning they have cut the tree into parts. The trunk lies in segments on the ground. Soon it will no longer be a tree. We count the rings, imagine the history of the tree, make up stories. We roll a huge section of trunk into the building and up the stairs to our apartment for a plant stand.
Back at work, we save all the wood we rip down to use again. “We’re saving a lot of trees,” we say.
My body divided into parts like in the Encyclopedia Americana under “Human” as I collected scraps for my treehouse.
Muscles one day. Huge, burning red sinews of raw liver like the cellophane picture you turn over the skeleton page. I had been dragging heavy doors out of the university dumpster.
Hands. They swelled up and throbbed. I couldn’t hold my pen in school the day after I used the rope to haul the wood up the tree.
Skin. Purple shins. Open sores and scrapes. You have to get all the bent, rusty nails out of scavenged wood before you can use it. Splinters lodged just under my surface.
I dragged my bruised and wounded parts into the top of the pine, wrapped my legs around the trunk and swayed, watching my brother and the other boys play war games below. They never saw me.
I wasn’t there, and I was.
We are almost too tired for the last part.
We argue over the paint colors, the light fixtures, the way we will redo the floor.
I saw both old wood and new and burn the trimmings in the fireplace. Our home is sweet with a forest smell: oak, pine, cedar, fir. B.J. brushes the walls and trim the colors of sky and growing things. We need no curtains on the tall windows because we are so high. All we see is treetops, leaves.
We separate the studio and the office with new dry-wall. I put her picture on my side; she puts my poem on hers.
From the Common, we look up and see our red brick building solid on the sidewalk and neat between empty lots. The balustrade on the roof is green with age, a fancy old crown. We pick out our windows, all three on both the fifth and six floors.
Home. We have built it together.
A treehouse is never really finished. You have to build it again and again.
The tree grows. It bends and the house must bend as well. There are always additions to be made, repairs, redesigns. Something new to be salvaged and hauled up by rope and muscle and hand.
There were lots of long days just lying there though. I was part of the leaves, part of the tree. I branched out, hid in the foliage, grew.
“You have a great place,” our friends tell us. “You,” as if the living together has made us one person. We are not.
I sit in tall windows, uncurtained, high over the Common during her flashbacks. She curves into a girl under the quilts below the ornamental orange tree which sits on the tree-trunk. I’m not exactly safe with the problems of her past, but her love is familiar and strong.
We make some things: a book, a painting, a home.
We take them apart: layers, trees, skin, paper, paint.
We create something new from the old pieces: house, tree, person.
©1997-2004 Blithe House Quarterly : all rights reserved