Life In The Trees

We meet every year under the big trees in the Trestle Forest.

It's been a tradition since we met in kindergarten two years ago. Her family stays at a cottage up the road on the lake, and my family lives in a big house on the other side of the lake, down a different road. It's always taken me longer to walk, and my big sister has always had to come with me, but not this year. This time I get to come alone.

She's there already. I can see her hair. It's yellow and shiny in the sun. Her skin looks green though. It's the sun through the leaves. She's twirling around and around in the little opening off of the big road. I smile when I see her, but she doesn't see me. Not until I'm right behind her. Then she jumps and stops, giggling like a maniac.

"Hi." I say quietly.

"Hi." She giggles. And then she reaches up to her face and holds her mouth open. "I lost two teeth since last summer. See?"

I do. On each side of her mouth there are two molars missing. I know the names of all the teeth. My daddy's a dentist.

"Oh yeah? Well I broke my leg in the winter."

Her blue eyes open wide. "I burnt my hand on the stove."

We're walking, trying to one up each other. She sprained her toe, I got a concussion. She hit her head off the door, I pulled a muscle in my leg. It goes on like this until we're both lying. She was bitten by a dragon, I was pushed off a building by an elf. With every untruthful story we came closer to the trees. The ones we'd met at.

When we reach them we're too preoccupied to climb them, so we sit down in the long grass instead. The trees are big and leafy with lots of branches. They're really close together, and you can climb from one to the next without touching the ground. We met here when we were both running away from our parents. She was mad about her dad not letting her go fishing. I was mad because my sister wouldn't take me swimming and I wasn't allowed to go alone. We both ran here. And then we spent the afternoon playing in the trees until our parents found us.

"Come on, Emery. Let's climb." She says as soon as she's bored of the hurt game. She stands up and wipes off the seat of her little white sundress. I get up too and head over to the trees with her.

She swings up into the trees like a monkey, her sandals knocking loose bark tumbling to the ground. I follow after her, trying desperately to be as graceful as she was. I grip the branch closest to me and pull my weight up. The branch snaps and I fall back down, hitting my tailbone.

She slides out of the tree at my cry and kneels beside me as I try to sit up. Tears slip out of my eyes, and she can't see them. I don't want to have a girl see me cry. But when I see her face I can't help but cry because I know she won't laugh at me or call me a sissy. I'm right. She puts her hand on my face and pushes my hair out of my eyes. She's so nice to me. She reminds me of my mommy, 'cept my mommy's name isn't Bliss Taylor.

"Are you alright?"

I nod and blink away the tears. "I'm okay."

She smiles and helps me up. I start to climb the tree again when I realize we're still holding hands. "We're going to get married, you know." She says.

I look at her hand on mine and smile. "I know."

We're riding our bikes into town with change jingling in our pockets. We're almost there. I can see the edge of town. The short wood building that marks the city limits.

Bliss is riding beside me. Her bike isn't as new as mine, and it's slow. That's because it's a girls bike. Girls are always slow, except for my sister. She's faster than me because she's bigger. But not Bliss. Bliss will always be smaller.

We're getting closer and closer to the building. The flea market. And Bliss goes faster than me. I stare at her in awe as she speeds down the hill and swerves in front of the front doors. She giggles and runs inside.

I hop off of my bike and run in after her.

"Bliss, what are you doing? I thought we were going to get ice cream." I ask her when I find her. She's looking through the trinkets with wide eyes. Searching. I look with her, but I don't know what for.

"My mom saw something here yesterday when we were getting books…" She says. "Here it is!"

I look at the two identical fuzzy blue boxes she's holding up. She hands me one. I weigh it in my hands.

"Don't open it." She warns and starts walking to the cash register. I follow her close behind. "They cost two dollars. You get one and I'll get one with our ice cream money."

I grin and nod. "Okay."

We buy the little boxes and go outside. I want to open mine but Bliss won't let me.

"No. We got to go somewhere special."

We ride up the hill, back to the corner of our roads. I follow Bliss down her road until we get to the opening where we meet at the beginning of every summer. Together we walk back into the forest to where the big trees are and climb my favorite one. The one that looks over the lake.

Bliss and I are sitting on the same branch, looking at the water.

"Now what?" I ask eagerly. There's probably candy inside. I want candy.

"Now we get married." She smiles.

I nearly fall out of the tree.

Bliss opens the little box in her hands and takes out a rusty little ring with a pretty blue rock in the middle. Inside mine is the same ring with a purple stone.

"Now repeat after me." She says, taking her ring out. I do the same and give mine to her while she gives hers to me. "I, Emery Beach…"

"I, Emery Beach…"

"Take you, Bliss Taylor…"

"Take you, Bliss Taylor…"

"To be my wife."

"To be my wife."

Bliss squeaks and grins. "And I, Bliss Taylor, take you, Emery Beach, to be my husband."

She grabs my hand and shoves the ring onto my pinky. It nearly falls off. I do the same to her finger, but I don't try to scrape the skin off.

"Kay. Now you kiss your bride."

I laugh and put my arm around her shoulders. She looks at me and smiles and I peck her on the lips.

"EWW!" We both cry and then giggle.

But secretly I know it wasn't so bad.

I tap on my steering wheel, my stomach churning like I'm about to throw up. And I am. Bliss moved in to her families cottage with her mom almost three months ago, after her dad split to Spain with his receptionist. I thought it would be my chance at her. My chance to date the girl of my dreams. But nothing ever turns out like you plan it.

Bliss climbs into the backseat in her semi formal dress, corsage and all, ready to go. Her date climbs in after her. Connor Lee. If I have an arch nemesis then it's him. Greasy, stupid, useless, and a total pot head. The failure of our small tourist trap town.

I start the car and pull out of her driveway, ignoring her moms eager wave. My date is an enigma to the lovely couple in the back. They don't know who she is. That's because she doesn't exist. I refuse to go with anyone if I can't go with Bliss Taylor.

We speed down the road. Bliss and Connor don't realize how fast I'm going. I turn the radio up louder. I can't stand the sound of their kissing. It's making my stomach hurt more and more. My eyes water like lawn sprinklers. This whole thing is a punch in the gut.

I want to run the car right into a tree, wrap it around the bark in a sick embrace. I don't want to hear this anymore. Instead, I turn up the radio. They don't notice. Bliss's lipstick is a smear, her hair is getting messy.

I don't think about it.

Or at least try not to. It's hard when that's all I seem to have in my head. Mine. She's mine, and you're touching her with your failed hands. I want to scream this at Connor. I want to kick him out of my car and let him walk back into town. I want to hop out of the car, grab Bliss, and run away with her. But most of all I want to break down and cry.

I look out the window and see something. An arched break in the trees illuminated by the twilight glow. The trees. The entrance to the spot where we met back in kindergarten. That was so long ago. Now we're in our final year of high school. I'm going off to University. She's going to Europe for a year off. Everything has changed.

Including us.

I know that. I don't want to.

We get into town and I pull into the parking lot at the school. There are tons of cars there, and the entrance to the school is swamped. I shut the car off and get out. Bliss and Connor don't move from the back seat. I don't care. I slam the door and storm off to the school.

I don't go to the gym like every one else. I grab the key out of the main office and open the door to the Drama room. There's a couch in there, and I know where the teacher stashes chocolate.

While the dance rages at the other end of the school, I sit alone in the dark and eat.

"What are you doing, Emery?"

The sound is so unexpected. I didn't hear the door open. I jump a foot into the air. Bliss stands alone at the door, her face in shadows.

She flips on the lights. Her eyes are red and puffy, her hair is a mess. The make up on her face is smeared, and her dress is rumpled. My stomach hurts when I see her. She's shoving it in my face.

"Chilling." I say. But it's so clearly a lie.

She steps into the room and shuts the door behind her.

"Connor dumped me."

And I understand.

Bliss begins to cry and I nearly run across the room to comfort her. That's how we spend our prom. Bliss cries and I try not to hurt Connor fatally. But it doesn't work so well. On our way to the car I see Connor sitting on the curb with Mandy Koopman.

Bliss is upset. She just wants to go home. But this guy has ruined my life. He has shown me that Bliss chooses others above me. He stands up, short and solid. I'm tall and even. I look weaker than I am.

"What the hell is wrong with you, man?!" I demand, holding Bliss behind me.

She's telling me not to do anything. Not to hurt him. She still cares more about him. Bliss thinks she knows me. She thinks she knows everything about me. She doesn't. I'm not as peaceful as she wishes.

Connor says something profane, and then something about Bliss. I don't hear him. I swing out of no where. My hand collides with his jaw. The force is enough to crack my knuckles. Connor falls to the ground and I grab Bliss.

We leave Mandy crooning over him while I try not to scream.

In the car back to her house I try not to look at her. There's a pounding in my head with every tear that slips down her cheek. The world is pounding in my head like a conga drum. Bah-boom, bah-boom, bah-boom. Thoughts and images swirl, mixing with emotions. My heart aches like there's a hole in it. I want to shut it all up. I want to bury my head in the sand.

Bliss says something and I lose it. I stomp on the break, and the car swerves. Bliss screams and I grit my teeth. We end up in a ditch, and the irony of where we are makes me laugh until it hurts. I get out of the car, climb onto the hood, and look at the trees. The stupid, stupid trees.

"Are you happy now?!" I scream at them. They're still and watching. "Are you?!"

"What are you doing?!" Bliss cries. I jump off of the hood and help her out of the car. She isn't crying anymore. We stand there for a minute, just staring.

Something crazy comes over me and I grab her face and kiss her. It's firm and hardly romantic, but it means a lot to me. This is how it is. There's no romance in my love. I always want what I can't have. I'm a moron.

I break away, my face red. And then I run like a baby, leaving her alone on an abandoned road surrounded by nothing but trees.

I run home and hide in my room.

My heart's broken more than I can bear.

I just want to sleep for the rest of eternity.

Sam hands me another cup of coffee and I take it with a smile. I haven't seen him in months. He stayed in town while I went off to University. It's a little weird to be back in town. It seems so small now. Abandoned in the winter slush.

"Bliss's coming back, right?" He asks. There's a crowd behind him waiting for the answer. I smile and nod, feeling the tiny little bow in my pocket once again.

"Yep." I reply. "She's meeting me here as soon as her plane gets in."

As soon as I say this, the little bell over the door rings. A big blue parka with blonde hair steps inside. The crowd turned to Bliss and begin welcoming her immediately. I stand up with a smile, still feeling the little velvet box. She wipes her feet on the mat and looks behind her.

Another parka steps inside and takes her hand.

My face is falling, my gut hurting. Rejection once again. That's all I seem to get from Bliss.

She chats her way through the room. Man candy drops his hood as she drops hers. He's dark skinned with a face like a model. I want to kick him repeatedly in the jaw until he's deformed.

Bliss gives me a hug. She smells like snow, soap, and man candy's guy perfume. I smile so hard it hurts and let go. We sit down and Sam comes back with menus.

"Hey Bliss. Nice to see you." He says. I nod along and try to chat with man candy. He doesn't speak much English.

"It's great to be back. But I don't think Manuel likes it very much." She laughs, and I try to laugh too as Manuel man candy shivers. Inside I want him to be as cold as I feel.

Sam takes our orders. Bliss has to tell Manuel what to eat like he's a baby. I don't understand why it's bothering me so much. And then I feel the box in my pocket.

"Oh, right!" I say, trying to sound as excited as I am broken. "I found this in my moms basement while I was getting the air mattress for my bed."

I pull out the box and slide it over to her. Manuel goes to grab it but Bliss makes it there first. She looks at it in confusion.

"Open it. You'll see." I urge. I want to see her reaction. I want to see her smile and squeak when she sees what I've found.

I want Manuel man candy to know where he stands with me. He's an outsider. He doesn't belong in her life like I do.

She opens the box.

"What's this?"

I hear the words but they don't quite reach my brain. I'm stunned for a moment. And then I carry on with the mirage that I'm not falling apart on the inside.

"Our rings. Well, your ring. I'm wearing mine." I smile and show her. "Remember? When we were seven we bought them at the flea market with our ice cream money and had our little wedding."

Bliss's eyes widen and she blushes. The first thing she does is look at Manuel. Then she snaps the box shut. "Oh yeah." She says. "I forgot."

My phony smile falls off of my face for good. I stare at her trying to show how hurt I am with my eyes. But she doesn't see me. She's trying to tell Manuel something in rapid Spanish.

They start to fight. He's mad, pointing at the ring box and then me. The words he's saying sound harsh and vulgar. He stands up and slides out of the booth then storms out of the dinner. Bliss turns to me, her eyes full of hate.

"I hope you're happy." She hisses. "You just ruined the best relationship I've ever had."

She leaves the dinner in a huff, chasing after Manuel man candy.

I stare at my coffee until the food comes and then goes cold.

Cold as I am.

It's the day I never wanted to deal with.

Bliss's wedding day.

It's as beautiful as I thought it would be. Everything is sunny and white. There are flowers everywhere, and the whole church smells like lavender. Her bridesmaids are wearing beautiful dresses, her flower girls are clean and managed to keep their up-do's up. Everything is perfect. Everything is Bliss. It's as I've always imagined it.

Except I always hoped I would be the groom. Not a bridesmaid. It's the biggest slap in the face to stand beside the woman you love while she marries someone else. Worse than standing next to the man who has her heart.

I always knew Europe was a bad idea. Bliss fell for an Irish singer, the next Glen Hansard he says. I don't believe it. He might be good looking, but his talent is birthday parties at best. I don't understand what else she sees in him. He's not the sharpest tool in the shed. He has little manners. His schooling ends at grade twelve… and yet I haven't had the heart to tell Bliss she's better off with me.

I have my B.A. in history. I'm a professor at U of T. I bathe regularly. That isn't enough. I'm still just a friend. Hardly a friend now. Bliss is always so busy talking about her new hubby… she's punishing me for something I did. Or didn't do. Where did I go wrong? Where did I lose us? I thought it was meant to be for so long. When did things change?

It hurts too much to think about now.

Her fiancé is grinning at me like an idiot. I glare back. The rain on the happy couples parade. I don't want to be here. I just want to leave. To run back to the trees and cry forever. I remember when we were thirteen. We would climb up into the trees at opposite ends of the meadow and talk to each other with walkie-talkies. Or when we were eight and we camped out in the middle of the meadow with her cousin Lana.

When we were six and we knew we would get married some day.

The wedding march starts and the doors to the church reopen.

Bliss stands there with her dad. He's tanned and wrinkled like his receptionist.

She looks like an angel in her long white dress. Her blonde hair is put back simply with diamond combs. Her bouquet is made of white lilies. These are the things I will forever hate. The lilies, the dress, the diamond combs… I'll always see them as what closed the door.

But I know it's the goofy idiot to my left. The man who's stealing my sunshine. I hate him. I truly hate him. But I smile when Bliss looks at me and pretend I'm happy for her. She smiles in return. My heart tears when it reaches her eyes because I know it's barely on my lips.

I look at her fiancé again. I look him right in the eyes and let him know with one look he's lucky. I let him know it should be me marrying Bliss.

He doesn't know. I know he's missed the point.

So I look away and spend the rest of the wedding trying not to punch him in the teeth.

The reception isn't as bad as I thought it would be. Bliss ran up and gave me a hug the minute I got there. She smelled so good. And then the next thing I know she's gone, back over to her husband. He looks happy, but not happy enough. He doesn't know what he's done. He doesn't know who he has married. He's blind.

I spend most of the reception outside, smoking and reminiscing with Connor Lee, my old buddy from high school. He's not as big a failure as I thought. The guy is young, good looking, and owns a car detailing shop.

We both talk about Bliss and how lucky the knew guy is. Connor brings up our old friendship. How no one knew her like I did. How I met her almost a decade before anything else. And I mention the trees.

Once it's out there I tell the whole story about how we met after my sister wouldn't take me swimming. I tell him about how we would meet every year by the trees. I tell him about the campouts in the meadows, the walkie-talkies, how we said we would marry each other, how we did marry each other with our flea market rings… I tell him about all the other things we would do. Star gazing, reading comic books, getting freezies from the Kwik-Way. I tell him about when Bliss tricked me into skinny dipping, and how we spent grade twelve prom eating chocolate in the Drama room.

I say sorry for hitting him because he wasn't the real threat.

"It's alright." He grins, stamping out his last cigarette. "If I would've known you love her so much, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near her."

"It isn't like that." I shake my head. "I've never loved Bliss more than I'd love any other friend."

"Really?" He asks. "Because it sounds like you do."

I brush it off and change the subject.

Eventually his date to the wedding finds him. Mandy all but halls him back into the reception to dance, and I'm left alone with all of Bliss's husbands friends. I go back inside and sit in my designated seat with all the other bridesmaids. It's a little embarrassing to be the only guy at the table, but I deal with it.

That's when I see a flash of white go behind the curtain of the stage and expect the worst. I stand up and pick my way through the crowd until I get to the stage door. I take the back way up. The way I know from the community play I was part of in the eighth grade. Bliss was married in our town. That makes me happy and sad at the same time for a reason I don't understand.

Up on the stage I find her. Bliss isn't crying like I want to. She's up on the catwalk, staring out the low windows that let in 'natural light'. I climb the latter up to her, nearly tripping on the white heels she left at the bottom. She knows when I'm there.

"Emery…" She whispers, her eyes never leaving the view. The moonlight shines on her face, making her skin glow. I sit beside her and sigh.

"Yeah."

She looks at me with wide eyes. "I should be happy… but I'm…I don't know."

I nod. I understand more than she thinks I do.

"Do you think I made a mistake?"

I want to say yes. I want to tell her she made a horrible mistake. I need to tell her. To tell her the truth. But I swallow it. I'll never tell her. This is my secret. She doesn't want me. She wants her knew husband. I'm just selfish. I've always been selfish. Wanting what I can never have.

So I smile and put an arm around her shoulder. "I don't. If you love him, then you didn't."

She smiles and sniffs back tears. "You're right."

And then she kisses me on the cheek and we start talking like we did before. Talking like we were best friends again. Like she was visiting for the summer, and no one in town knew her but me. It was almost like we were back in the trees.

I'm dying inside the whole time.

I shove my hands into my pockets and take a deep breath. The last place I want to be is here, at my moms house for a giant reunion. Not just family, but old friends from town too. No one told me Bliss would be here. The situation is compromising.

Bliss is sitting on the other side of the pool with a grizzled new husband. It's been almost three years since her wedding. We'll both be thirty one in the fall.

She keeps looking at me, but I never look back. She's just as striking as she's always been, but there is something sad about her. I can feel it more than see it.

My mom raises a beer mug over her head and raps a spoon against it. she's beaming at me. I try to return it but I can't.

"Everyone! Everyone! Emery has some good news, right Emery?" She's so happy.

I feel cold.

"Uh, yeah." I say and stand up. "I… I ask Janet to marry me."

Everyone's eyes turn to the little china doll I've been walking around with all night. They're all so happy. I look at Janet, but I can't meet her eyes. I look across the pool instead.

Bliss is staring at me. And she's smiling. But it doesn't reach her eyes.

"And I said—" Janet starts.

I can't let this happen. With my whole family and all my old friends watching, I stand up and run. I run as fast as I can away from it all. No one can follow me. They don't know the Trestle Forest like I do. They don't know the secret place I'm going.

The tree branches lash my skin but I don't feel them. I'm cold. So cold. Nothing can hurt like the cold. Nothing. I'm bleeding inside and out. For real and in my mind. There's nothing that can stop the flow inside. No band-aid or hug. No tub of ice cream or Big Mac could make this hurt any less.

I felt like such a sissy. Tears fell free down my face. My mind just keeps going over all of the things I've ever done wrong. There were so many things I should have done. Things I should have said. I'm getting married to a nice girl. I should be happy.

But I'm not. Just cold. Janet is nice. She's kind and sweet and my parents think she's great. But they don't know her. I don't know her. She's not the one I love. Every person I tell about our pending marriage makes me feel like I'm being shackled to another commitment.

I dated her because she looked the exact opposite of Bliss. She's chunky with dark straight hair and brown eyes. And she's pretty. Really pretty. But she's not Bliss. I don't want anyone if it's not Bliss.

I get there. To the spot that I've been blundering around the forest looking for.

The trees.

They're my favorite and least favorite place. Bittersweet. I had so many good childhood memories here. Camping out, falling out of the trees, marrying Bliss with our rusted rings, walkie-talkies, and meeting Bliss. But it's tainted with the bad. Crashing my first car, kissing Bliss, talking to Connor about all the good times, realizing I was an idiot…

The sky seems to agree with me. It starts to rain. To pour out buckets and buckets of water as I climb up the nearest tree. The one with the new branch. The one that I fell out of when we were six.

I hate this tree. I hate it with all my heart. If I hadn't fallen out of it. if I hadn't gotten my hopes up. If I hadn't tricked my self into believing what she said would happen would happen…

I sit up in the tree and glare at the bark. I don't cry. I've wanted to cry all my life, and I did it while I ran. I'm done now. Done with everything. There's nothing for me to want any more. Bliss isn't mine. She never will be. There's no point in trying any more.

I start to climb back down. I'll go back to my parents house and tell Janet I'm sorry. We'll make up and in six months she'll walk down the aisle towards me. The shackles will come down and I'll be faithful to her. Because I do love Janet. Not the way I love Bliss, but I still love her.

When I reach the ground hands wrap around my waist. I turn around and hold Janet in the rain. But she's gotten thinner and taller. I don't understand it at first. Then I know. It's Bliss.

I don't hug her back. I don't hold her. I can't take this heart break anymore. She's saying something. Something garbled and fast. I don't listen like I should. I don't want to hear her. She gets up on her tip toes and reaches for my mouth.

I turn my head.

"No." I say. "Don't."

She looks at me with those big blue eyes. She's sad inside. I know it. But I've suffered enough. There's only so much I can take. She reaches for my hand and I clench it into a fist.

"Emery…" She starts. I don't want to hear it. "I love you."

"No." I say. My voice is shaking. "You had your chance, Bliss. You had it a million times. And maybe I did too. But it's too late now. There's nothing we can do about it. So just… just leave me alone."

Her eyes well with tears. "It's never too late."

"Yes it is! This time it is." I pull away from her. "Do you know how long I wanted you? How long I wanted us? And every time I thought I had a chance you stopped me?!"

She reaches for me again. "When?"

"Prom. I wanted to take you to prom. But you were already going with Connor Lee." I state, and step back. My voice is getting louder and louder. "When I asked you to meet me at the dinner. Remember that? Remember how you wouldn't even look at the ring? At our ring? How he mattered more than our friendship?! All those times I asked you to go somewhere with me, but you were doing something else with some other guy. They were all a big slap in the face and you didn't even care!"

My breathing is ragged, my hands balled into fists, my face red. She stood there trembling, her lips quivering.

"I'm not going to set myself up for more disappointment, Bliss. I have my own fiancée now." I glare at her. "And it won't take me twenty-eight years to figure out I love her."

I left the meadow. The trees, the rain, and Bliss behind. And I went back to the party.

Back to where Janet was waiting for me.

It's the first day of summer and we're spending the whole vacation at my parents house. They left it to us after they moved to Florida to escape the harsh winters. I smile as our kids explore my secret hideout. Our secret hideout.

They run around and laugh, climbing from one tree to the next. Our oldest loves the tree with the view. The one that looks over the crystal blue lake. There is a gap in the trees. The one nearest to the path that leads to the house has fallen down. The one that I fell out of when I was six. It's funny to think back on. How big the trees had looked. How big they still look.

It's been seven years since I've been here. Back when I was engaged to Janet. Back when I was bitter and cold all of the time…

I raise my wife's hand higher in the air and watch her ring sparkle in the sun. It was blue, rusted, and only cost me two dollars at the flea market. It looked lovely on my brides hand. My beautiful wife.

I look at her once again and can't believe how lucky I am. How incredible she is. How glad I am to have Mrs. Lana Beach as my wife.

She looks so much like her cousin, but at the same time they are miles apart. Lana isn't selfish. Lana isn't confusing. Lana has never broken my heart. Her cousin was out of my mind for good. Forever and ever. She had broken me too many times. Torn me limb from limb. But Lana…Lana loves me.

I hadn't been able to marry Janet. I could never forgive Bliss for what she'd done. And less than a year after I'd renounced love for good, Lana signed up for my class.

Bliss could never fill the void that Lana did. Bliss hurt me too much. We were friends. Best friends. And we would always be just that. Just friends.

I hold her hand tighter and peck her on the cheek. She smiles and rests her head on my shoulder as we watch our children play in the trees. The ones that watched me struggle through the most difficult obstacle in my life. And I pray that they'll watch my children grow up easily. I hope to God that they will never meet a Bliss Taylor in their lives. I hope and pray and plead that they won't love and hate the trees as much as I do.

Those stupid, stupid trees.