Blue Spruce – a short story
Cathy’s unexpected visit caught me as I was about to start work on a crazy tree-moving project at my parents’ house. I’d been gathering my tools when she pulled in the driveway. Through the basement window I watched her legs swing out of the car and my heart start to pound in my neck. It was late August, the school year starting in a week. I hadn’t seen her since June. She’d probably just gotten back from the other side of the country, Seattle, where her parents lived and she had come to pick up the books and clothes she’d left in my old apartment. Too late. I’d already handed them over to her friend Malka to return.
She walked up the steps to the kitchen door, wearing leather sandals and her toenails painted red. I heard my mother invite her in. She and my mother had always gotten on well since I’d first brought her out to visit last year. Today, Cathy would have stories galore about her summer. Now they were sitting at the kitchen table and I was below them, in the basement. I couldn’t make out words–just the sound of her voice and my mother’s exclamations.
I grabbed the shovel and pick, exited the back door and walked around to the front of the house. I wasn’t wearing a shirt. I’d been running a lot. I was tanned and my stomach was flat, just home after spending the summer break doing an externship at a little hospital down in Pennsylvania. I was staying with my parents until I found another apartment for the med school year starting in a couple of weeks.
I hadn’t been in this good shape since the army. My posture had improved. Ever since Cathy had criticized my slouch, I’d tried to break the habit by standing with my back against a wall until it felt natural to stand my full height. My slouch, she said, was an externalization of inner shyness, a trait I needed to do something about, she implied, if I was going to be a successful, happy person. She never stopped to consider that perhaps I was rebelling against the stance I’d had to take as a soldier–though I wasn’t sure if that was the entire reason myself, either.
It was ten o’clock and hot but the sky had that deeper blueness. The nights were getting cool and the mornings misty. In a couple of weeks the leaves would take on reds and yellows. I walked over to the tree. Jabbing in the shovel about three feet from its trunk, I lifted out the first chunk of sod. My goal–quixotic but obtainable–was to move this tree, by myself, to a better location in the yard.
It was a beautiful twelve-foot-tall blue spruce with thickly cascading boughs, blue-green on the bottom, pale blue on top. It was ten years old and, beyond its attractiveness–its color, symmetry and fullness–the tree had a sentimental significance that made it worth the bother. It had been given to my mother as a seedling by my aunt Billy just a few weeks before she died. We had no idea where she got it from–someone probably gave it to her as a gift–or why she decided not to plant it herself. She knew she had breast cancer, but I was sure she didn’t expect to go so quickly.
In any case, when my mother planted it, she miscalculated and set it too close to a young maple. The maple grew rapidly and the spruce had been forced to bend, its upper half tilting away from the vigourous branches of the other tree. Its deformity had become so noticeable this year that my mother–reluctantly–had decided to cut the spruce down rather than see it grow more crooked as the maple devoured all the light. They couldn’t afford to have a landscaper move it.
I called a nursery and got some information. A spruce’s root system is less than three feet deep. All I had to do was dig a trench around it, undercut the roots, work some burlap under them, then–it being too heavy to lift up without a crane–run a trench at the same depth to a better spot fifteen feet away, get chains, borrow my uncle’s tractor, and drag it to the new location. The second year of med school didn’t start for another two weeks and I had nothing better to do. The work would keep me fit and help drive out anymore thoughts about the break-up with Cathy, which I’m ashamed to say had made for a lot of tossing and turning and looking at the stars and all that heartsick crap.
I loosened more blocks of sod, piling them carefully so I could use them to cover the raw dirt when I would be finished. Damned if I was going to drive off somewhere to avoid an encounter with her, though the thought had crossed my mind. She would see me when she came out and so what? Hello. I’m busy. Goodbye. No more games. I’d written her at least twenty times this summer. Twice she responded, a few lines about the various summertime activities she was being occupied with, camping trips and so on, “having a good summer.” Camping, of course, meant going with her brother and his friends–all of whom were guys who had stood up straight all their lives and were interested in her.
I’d let my heart get broken–but it was my own fault. There were twenty girls in our med school class, a number of whom I could have casually dated and remained free of entanglements. Cathy was striking but my first impression of her had turned out right: she was the spoiled daughter of a country club Republican. She wasn’t introspective enough for me. Not that she wasn’t a likable sort of person, sure, but popularity seemed too high on her priority list.
But she had this certain vulnerability about her too, like she’d maybe been hurt, how I don’t know, but that even so she had decided to remain open and expect people to be nice to her. And I was nice to her. I kept my negative impressions to myself.
But lord, we were from different backgrounds. No country clubs for me. I was one of the lower middle class guys who didn’t know enough about Vietnam to avoid getting sent there out of high school. When I got in college afterwards, while I was trying to write poems, she was probably memorizing jokes to regale her buddies at sorority parties.
But Cathy and I ended up hanging around with the same crowd. In a large group we’d go dancing. She actually did have her own sense of humor. She and I danced together well. Then after awhile, it was just her, Ralph and I, going out for movies, beer and pizza. I was from the local area, so I showed them my old haunts. Then, sometimes, it would end up just her and me. But friends. I started to feel very comfortable around her.
However, last January, along came the human sexuality course, each session of which was a lecture followed by what in essence were hard-core skin flicks–“attuning the student of medicine to the full range of human sexual behavior.” Definitely that. The classes were extremely well attended, attracting students from other departments along with the spouses and significant others of my classmates.
After one of these classes, Cathy and I happened to be having a cup of coffee down in the cafeteria.
“Would you believe that at the age of twenty-three I’m still a virgin?” she said. Cathy had a lesser sense of embarrassment than I. I glanced around. No one seemed to have heard her.
“By choice or chance?”
“A little of both,” she said.
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with saving yourself,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” she said.
“I’m curious,” she said, sipping out of her styrofoam cup, smiling.
The issue of her sexual curiosity surfaced later that week, while she and I took a stroll in the new falling snow after anatomy lab, trying to get the smell of formaldehyde out of our noses. This time she said flatly that under the right circumstances with the right individual she would love to experiment–that, as a matter of fact, she had gone so far as to have the student health service fit her for a diaphragm quite recently.
I didn’t make it through the army and get myself into medical school by lacking discipline. I remained hypothetical. I said from my point of view it would be a mistake to engage in a casual sexual relationship with someone whose friendship one valued. Sex complicates everything. It could backfire. I quoted her a line from B.B. King–“when two good friends become lovers you know it’s the beginning of the end.”
Nine o’clock that night, my phone rang. I’d been sitting by the gas heater in my tiny studio apartment, staring at my histology notes and thinking about making love to her. The snowfall had turned into a storm, sudden gusts nudging my window.
“Why don’t you come over?” she said.
Her apartment was as warm as my Volkswagon had been cold. She wore nothing but a gorgeous blue robe that looked like a silk kimono. That exactly what it is, she told me. She’d gotten it while she was an exchange student in Japan. She spun around. She had make up on, she smelled wonderful, her face glowed, and a week later she moved into my apartment and stayed for the rest of our first year of medical school.
We walked in the snow at night, made love and studied together. Her “A” in physiology owed a great deal to me. Over spring break we took a trip to New York City, saw plays and started, you know the way it goes, talking about the future. And worse, I began getting jealous when she paid attention to anyone else.
I knew it was crazy but at least there’d be a breather when she went home to Seattle for the summer. There’d be time to regroup, get objective again. I’d be happily occupied doing that externship in Pennsylvania, following a country doctor around for couple of months.
In thirty minutes I’d created my trench around the spruce, jumped in and, using the pick, began loosening dirt under the root bed. How long where they going to chat? Well, in all fairness, there was absolutely no reason my mother should be unfriendly towards her. I had merely told her that Cathy and I had backed off a little. No details. My mother liked her.
“Time might heal it,” she said.
I told her I didn’t think so. It was so damn obvious now. When she asked me to visit her parents, I should have said: Cathy, this has been a great experience, but it’s too much too fast. We ought to let things settle down, sort our feelings out, not live together next year and see what happens. We’re different.
But, of course, I let myself sink even deeper. I take the train out west in June–which was very beautiful, going the Canadian route, pulling out of Toronto, factories and suburbs giving way to tamarack bogs and logging camps, then prairie, and finally the mountains in British Columbia and clear green lakes. She met me in Vancouver and we walked around the city, going in old stores, and looking at furniture and brass beds.
Then we climbed into her father’s car that ran on propane and pinged and popped as we drove to Seattle. It was the largest house I’d ever been in, situated on a lake near the country club. Mt. Rainier jutted up beyond the trees in her backyard. Cathy’s mother was beautiful and, as Cathy had warned me, a chain-smoking, high-strung woman. Three sisters lived at home. The youngest, seven-year-old Lenora, was a certified genius, according to Cathy. When I met her, she shook my hand and acted extraordinarily confident. I suspected the child had more self-possession than I did.
She probably got it from her Cathy’s father, Dr. Leonard, a surgeon and a great story-teller. He took us all out to dinner my first night there. Their table talk was a revelation to me. I had never encountered a family that conversed so much–a continuous round of family stories, anecdotes about mishaps on vacations, spills, bloopers, the death of pets, grades, boyfriends new and old, exploits of the older brother, auto accidents, illnesses. Then they urged Cathy’s father to haul out his jokes.
During the best of times, even when I’m at my most gregarious, I’m a quiet person. Their volubility just about buried me. I did enjoy talking about politics though, and when that subject came up I found myself mentioning with animation how much I disliked Nixon and that I’d voted for McGovern. Her mother went nuts. The Democrats have ruined America. Do you have any earthly idea what Sam pays in taxes every year–throwing money away on people who refuse to work?
I didn’t. So she lit another cigaret and proudly informed me. About a quarter of a million dollars. Oh how my heart bled for the poor guy.
Further efforts to draw me out ended by the second day. Smiling had become hard work. I would take a book and read down in the basement bedroom while Cathy visited friends. Sometimes we drove around. We camped out one night in the Cascades, and one of her sisters came along to chaperon. And her father took us on rounds at the hospital, let us scrub in on a couple of operations. During surgery he joked about his wife insisting he carry out the garbage before going to the hospital. The nurses laughed and teased him.
I felt most comfortable alone with Cathy. At night she’d sneak into my room for a while, but we didn’t make love. She had left her diaphragm with one of her girl friends back at school so her mother wouldn’t run across it. Then came our last night. I’d be leaving in the morning. We went to a night club overlooking the Puget Sound. A folk-singer from California played his own material, and it was good. Two men, friends of Cathy’s older brother, came over to our table.
Both of them were tall, slender, and dressed in white shirts and white shorts. They’d just returned from sailing in the Sound. Cheerio. One of them had gotten a new twenty-five foot sloop. They were potted. One was especially full of himself. He slid a chair up close to Cathy and leaned over, whispering in her ear, chuckling. She grew amused.
I’m not a bellicose person, but after a few minutes of watching his nose skimming around the rim of her ear, I stood up, reach forward, grabbed the front of his shirt, and shoved with just enough force to send him backwards. The crowd turned and the guitarist missed a beat. He dusted off his shorts, glared at me, told Cathy he’d see her around, and strode off.
Why? she kept asking, after we got in the car. He wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“I love you,” I said.
She leaned and gave me a kiss, but that’s as far as it went and we didn’t talk anymore on the way home. We pulled in her driveway. She shut off the engine and started crying.
It came out that yesterday morning she had told her parents about the living together business. They were quite upset–not only about us living together, but also regarding her choice of men. Her father said that if she became engaged to me, it would be an act of unfairness towards me. Her mother told her my beard made me look like a Rabbi–that I was just a reverse snob, and not to trust a person who slouches.
And it was true, Cathy said, you slouch and it was very un-attractive. And I was a reverse snob–all those sarcastic comments I’d been making about country clubs. There was nothing wrong with country clubs! Her father worked hard. The club was his way to relax and be with friends. And now that things were being spoken, why hadn’t I been thoughtful enough to buy some condoms? Goodnight.
At the train station Cathy looked carefree.
All the way back I was miserable to make contact with her, to apologize and explain how I felt. So I wrote and wrote.
Dearest Cathy, Let me be honest, I miss you with all my soul. There is no more ambiguity in my feelings for you. I love you. I think of you every moment. Forgive me again for being such a wet blanket during my visit. I’m not always sullen and stupid, you know that. My sleep and appetite are gone. I’m losing weight. I take walks after midnight on the street that lead up to a ridge above this little town and my heart is aching to see you. I stare at the stars and all I can think of is whether you might be looking at the very same constellation. Write and tell me how you feel. It was my birthday last week, Mrs. Sinclair baked me a cake.
Once, I enclosed a necklace, hoping I guess to inspire some guilt, encourage her to write, call, anything.
A mound of fresh dirt lay drying in the sun. I heard the kitchen door open, she and my mother saying goodbye.
“Well, there he is,” said my mother.
“Hi!” said Cathy.
She jogged over and I stood up straight, aware of being covered with sweat.
“Ethel told me about the tree. I think it’s great you’re going to move it. Would you like some help?”
“It’s no big deal. Be done soon. Need the exercise.”
I jumped back into the trench and hauled up some dirt.
I could see her legs. She had definitely done lots of sunbathing. Probably sailing too.
“I just got in today,” she said. “Drove all the way by myself.”
“Long drive,” I said.
“John,” she said. “You look good. I was thinking maybe we could get together for dinner or something, talk.”
“Busy I’m afraid, thanks though,” I said.
She didn’t leave for another minute or so. But that was Cathy, wasn’t it–skating over the top of things? She said she’d better go finish unpacking. She’d gotten an apartment in grad student housing.
I stopped digging, feeling sick to my stomach, let the shovel fall, listening to her shift though the gears.