On the route from my west London flat to the train station is a tree in a park. It’s pretty nondescript, only really notable because it stands by itself. But since sitting beneath its branches on my 31st birthday and popping the cork of the champagne that turned a friendly drink into a date, I’ve turned its seasonal changes into chapters of a story.
This is something I do, often to the exasperation of friends and family. I could say it’s because I studied literature at university, or because I review theatre, but it predates both. I’m incapable of letting things be. I need the reassurance of a bigger picture, the drama that comes with storytelling.
My tree has dropped its leaves twice since that birthday, a spindly outline in the rain as I run past, cursing the holes in my shoes and promising myself (again) that I’ll buy an umbrella. Coming home late at night, blurry with drink and self-pity, I’m greedy for the bleakness of its winter existence.
It’s easy to turn a tree into a metaphor when real life is messy. It won’t argue back or challenge you. My date never turned into a relationship, but what followed hurt like one. He was brilliant, but complicated, and I’ve made a habit of retreat. I’m no good at love. I want to recognise it straight away.
When we met, he was at a low point: a talented journalist frustrated professionally, and getting over someone. I seized on these as reasons for not taking it further, for becoming “just good friends.” Like me, he suffers from depression and the black hole he was in at the time scared me.
If you’ve had depression, it can make you selfish. You understand its power, how it is always lurking beneath the surface waiting to strike. I needed to be more than someone’s life-raft, fearing that we would both end up sinking. I didn’t want to be pulled down again.
But we didn’t go our separate ways. Instead we became confidantes, sharing things about our lives we weren’t telling anyone else. Weekly dinners and drinks were stations on the way to a destination I pretended not to see on the horizon. I wanted the intimacy without having to take responsibility for it.
This continued until a seductively idyllic evening of drinking with my friends and winning my local pub quiz ended with us spending the night together. The next morning, hungover, I tried to pretend it was business as usual. But it wasn’t and two weeks later he asked me out. I said no.
His hurt was raw. “I thought I had a reason to be happy,” he said numbly. His reaction afterwards was swift, as he cut me out of his life both on- and off-line. More than a year later, the extremity of this response still makes me angry. But if I’m being honest, he was only doing what I had done. We both put ourselves first.
We didn’t speak for months, and this rift loomed over my attempts at relationships with other men. I felt validated in my fears that he had seen me as a symbol rather than a person, but this was cold comfort. No one else was as passionate about gay rights, as interested in the world or as good a writer. In racing his demons, he outstripped everyone else I met.
But people change over time. He found a man who wasn’t afraid of the prospect of a relationship, and we eventually reconciled after a few awkward encounters at parties. He and his boyfriend recently moved in together and are deservedly happy. As for me, while I’ve never regretted saying no, he is still a complicated part of my life.
I’d like to think I’ve been as important to him as he has to me, but I’ll never truly know – I’m not brave enough to ask. So I take comfort in things like my ever-changing tree, watching it fade into a shadow of itself in late October before blossoming in time for my birthday in late April.
Looking for hope in the cycle of seasons is undeniably sentimental; but change, at least, is a fact. For me, next year promises a move from London to New York, which is scary but exciting. And perhaps leaving my tree behind will be a good thing. There are other stories to tell now.
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NOTE: Both photos are taken by the author, Tom Wicker. The main image is the park in which his tree grows, and the second image is the actual tree mentioned in the story.