I wake up to the voice of a stranger in our yard. Through the window, I see an older man inspecting our fifteen-year-old shriveled, diseased Bradford pear surrounded by clumps of black, brown leaves.
Raising my head, I still smell you on the pillow. In my peripheral vision, I see you handing the credit card to the arborist. He glances at the tree again and shakes his head.
I drag myself out of the bed; the arborist has left. I notice the slant of the light falling on the tree, its branches waving in the September breeze. The yard is quiet when I open the screen door, a strong smell with a hint of citrus and spice fills my head.
When I go back inside the house, you are answering the doorbell, a bunch of neighborhood kids hyperventilating about our home being egged. “Who is it?” I catch their eyes, one by one, looking for the culprit. “It’s DJ, he’ll apologize later,” explains one of the kids. After they leave, I bring the hose around and spray on the garage door; some of the yolk solidified. I look at the house where DJ lives. Quiet. The kids are watching us from the street, waving and shouting, “We’re sorry.”
“It’s okay,” you call back, and help me wipe down the whites and the yellow. We are covered in stench. You put your arm around my waist as we walk in. I turn my head to kiss you, you lean your cheek in toward me, but I wanted your lips. It’s going to be that day again. Once you’d touch me as we passed by one another, you’d kiss my forehead and cup my face in your palms. You’d look at me in the most affectionate way, cloying, though without a trace of desire, desire that’s long gone from your eyes, your touch.
A pair of cardinals circles our yard. The male, orange-red like sunrise, hovers and sits on the feeder first. Then she follows, tan, with a rosy beak. Side by side, they pick up the seeds, bob their heads and fly behind each other into a neighbor’s tree, hidden from plain sight. I remember, twenty-eight years ago, when we first started dating, you pulled me behind an abandoned half-finished building, pushed me against a concrete wall, your expert hands sliding the straps off my shoulders, holding my breasts. Uneven cement scraped my skin. The exposed beams and rusty, protruding pipes were our naked spectators.
I sip the coffee, watch how you’re engrossed in reading a translation of the Upanishads, unaware of my presence. Your face round, puffy, your forehead so wide, I can draw a comic strip across it, your chin poking the humidity. You don’t look like the man I remember.
DJ is at the door with his dad. They both apologize. I am about to say something harsh when you squeeze my hand and smile. Your tone is polite and forgiving. DJ nods his head and sighs in relief, mouths, Sorry, again. His dad shakes your hand, looks at me with gratitude. DJ is looking at the space between my feet. A few drops of rain fall, then a downpour, cooling everything around us.
A few days later, the arborist is in our yard again for a fungicide treatment. It’s a last resort to prevent the fungus from spreading. I come through the patio door after he leaves. We are bathed in a fresh autumn breeze stricken with silence. Together, we sip our tea, look at the horizon and then at the dying tree. The tree that gave the impression of abundance with showy, white flowers at the onset of spring, the tree genetically engineered to never produce any edible fruit, the tree that won’t last another summer. “We should pray,” I mumble.
I’ve been sitting in Vipassana meditation for ten minutes. My arms feel sore, my big toe itchy. Ants skitter across my face. I don’t respond, I observe. That’s my training. To watch the sensations, rise, fade and eventually go away. It’s all impermanent.
A thought of you creeps in. That day, in a shabby inn, when we took a break from each other only to have food or bathroom breaks and my legs went sore and then numb from being wrapped around you, my throat was scratchy from moaning. When we covered the stained sheets with blanket and pillows before we left the room and ran down the back stairs to avoid meeting the suspicious eyes of the receptionist. Such madness. I was a sophomore in college, you were a senior. I return to my observance. My knees throb. How long has it been since I have felt like that? How long has it been since I have been sitting? I am tempted to check my phone, but I don’t, I keep going back and forth between the thoughts of you devouring me and my aching body.
It smells good in the kitchen. You dig a spoonful of tadka dal for me, bring it close to my mouth. My eyes closed, I suck the spoon as if it’s a part of you. “Let it go,” you say, laughing, pulling the spoon, ignoring what’s happening. When I open my mouth, cool air rushes in, settles like a shroud over my insides.
We’re in the patio again, it’s probably the last few days we’ll hear the screaming cicadas. I see the husks on the ground and wonder what does it mean to shed a body? The tree stands, still looking sturdy, a ring of warm honey colored light around it, a halo.
You wake up in the middle of the night, complaining of a lower abdomen cramp. “Kidney stone,” you say, clenching your fist. I help you get up and watch you swallow the ibuprofen. Another spasm. Your teeth clatter. I see the creases deepen under your eyes, the straight line of your nose rising into the air. You press my left hand. “After fifty percent of our lives are over, dying takes over living,” you whisper. I trace my right-hand fingers over that part of your doughy neck where the collarbone is. Your fists loosen. I watch you falling asleep and I think to myself, what if I don’t have sex with you anymore, there’s more to us. There’s love and respect. Then I shake my head, knowing I’m fucked. I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll be filled with the familiar emptiness of not being touched in an intimate way. I’ll search for signs that intimacy with you is still possible, that your touch is what will make me feel complete again. But for now, I’m not complaining, I’m holding the pain in, its lava heat forming a shape, a shape of your fingers, your lips, your hardness.
That night, I dream of you, and wake up slick between my legs.
The leaves of the tree have gone black, the branches almost bare. I touch the trunk. “I wish there was a way out of this suffering,” I whisper and realize I’m talking to myself, I am talking to you, as if you are the soil in which my tree has formed roots, roots filled with fungus and blight, roots that know about love, belonging, roots that only know to let go when they’re dead. The wood is wet with last night’s rain, it doesn’t look like the tree I remember.
That night in our bed, you turn towards me, caress my cheek. “You should find someone else,” you say. I see the moonlight streaming in from the windows, bare and white. “You don’t mean it,” I say, and place my fingers over yours. “I do, if it makes you happy.” Your eyes are closed. I want to say, I want you, but I stay quiet. I squeeze your hand and keep watching your face until my thoughts drop, until my lids go heavy.
Our backyard has been clean for a few weeks now, only a stump where the tree used to be. I avoid looking at it. It reminds me of a cold, gray morning, a clinic in the middle of a town where we studied together, where we fucked day after day. My senior year of college, a mutual decision and a necessary one, at least that’s what we convinced ourselves. I remember the nurse shaving my pubes, followed by an enema. I remember the light sedation, the squeaking fan, the occasional flickering of a tube light, my legs opened wide, the sour smelling blood that kept flowing for weeks and a stump of regret settling in me, a fetus that grew and shrank, a body I never birthed.
I remember not meeting you for weeks, punishing myself for the intense desire I had for you, that left me grieving, vacant. I don’t remember how that feeling ended, how we went to massacring each other with lust so cruel, we had no idea we had it in ourselves.
I’ve been sitting in Vipassana for more than twenty minutes. My ears tingle with the chaos of birds in the backyard, the sound of your voice speaking over the grinding of a neighbor’s lawn mower. It feels as if my feet, my palms, my forehead are crisscrossed with live wires, the electricity moving aimlessly around my skeleton. I want to catch that moment when the warmth between my legs turns into white heat and then longing, and when I’m aware of it, I wait for it to fade away.
Tara Isabel Zambrano is the author of Death, Desire, and Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection from Okay Donkey Press. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review’s 2019 Short Short Fiction Contest; runner-up for the 2020 Bath Flash Fiction Award; and been a finalist in Bat City Review’s 2018 Short Prose Contest and Mid-American Review’s 2018 Fineline Contest. Her flash fiction has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020. She lives in Texas and is the fiction editor for Waxwing literary journal.