The beam from the cop’s flashlight played on the back of a young man, a back moving with sinuous grace, completely immersed, absorbed in the act. So involved were they, so silent, he almost regretted breaking it up, this pure lovers’ communion. But this was a public place and he had a job to do.
“All right, time to say goodnight,” he said good-naturedly, and the back stiffened, the slow motions stopped. A quick fumble, a slow roll, and they were face to face. It was the policeman’s turn to be surprised.
“Where, where is she?” he said, suddenly sounding much younger than his 35 years. For there was no one else there, just the young man and the ground. But he could see the glow, the passion that remained in the eyes of the ones who weren’t just screwing, but making love. It was unmistakable, that hot light that seemed to surround those who really loved, and were loved. There was no shame in that light, even under the most embarrassing circumstances. He’d seen it in cars, elevators, parking garages, hedges, yes—and there was never shame.
“Or he,” he added, suddenly mindful of the constant diversity trainings that reminded public servants that gays were people, too. The young man placed a tender hand on the mossy roots of the Scotch pine, whose drooping branches had not quite obscured him from the eyes of the law.
“Sorry, Officer,” the man said. “We just wanted to be alone, but, as you see, we couldn’t go to my place: it has to be here.”
“Who? I don’t get it,” answered the policeman, forgetting in his confusion his training, the learned rote replies to the lawless. He spoke human to human, in consternation. There was simply no one else there, but the man didn’t exude the mad pleading aspect of the insane, just the flushed face of love interrupted. His hand rested gently on the tree root, smooth and bare where moss had not grown.
A quarter moon sent a shaft of light through the trees, as all over Central Park, police broke up lovers, sellers and buyers, dreamers and the hopeless and sent them home to their beds, the bars, the steps of the churches. The motto of the city to a citizenry bereft of companionship, imprisoned in its small rooms and penthouses, the overt message of its restaurants, museums and parks once admission was paid, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
The silver-blue light illuminated the base of the tree and the puzzled face of the interrogator, the serene visage of the lover. “Don’t worry,” said the lover, softly, to no one, “You won’t be in any trouble; I’ll see to that.”
“It’s the tree,” said the cop. “You’re talking to the tree. You were doing it with a goddam tree. Now I’ve seen everything. Come on.” Picking the man up from the ground, handing him the laptop case that rested on the other side of the trunk, nudging him gently down the path toward the patrol wagon.
Stopping on the path, they looked back at the splendid pine, silhouetted against the bright night sky. “Isn’t she wonderful,” breathed the lover. It had been a slow night: the policeman took another look, seeing through the other man’s eyes the statuesque beauty, the quiet self-possession “Yeah, actually, she is,” he said, wonderingly.
They stood in the moonlight and stared at the pine, the branches of long needles that swayed with the breeze. The perfume, a green, herbal, spicy scent, like a bowl of hot cider. The cop remembered the smooth, silvery roots embedded in, surrounded by that soft moss, emerald-black in the night. He tried to recall the last time he was in love.
It wouldn’t be worth booking this guy, but he should take him in. Can’t have people lying around half-naked in the greatest city park in the nation. The others would laugh at him, collaring a botanical freak. He certainly wasn’t dangerous, and you could tell by his clothes he had a job and plenty of dough. He was dressed for a date, button-down shirt, dress pants, L.L. Bean boat shoes. Aftershave, the whole nine yards.
“Don’t bump your head,” putting him, handcuffed, into the car, and stuck in his hair, some gummy pine stuff and needles, a couple of small oak leaves, too. “I’ll take you home.”
“You married or anything?”
“You find a nice girl, err, or guy--whatever. Settle down, someone to come home to, you know?”
“I’ve already found her.”
“You can’t be in love with a tree! It’s not natural!” (Then he wondered if he’d missed the diversity training that said yes, actually, it was natural to be in love with a tree, as natural as it gets, really. And not illegal, having no victim.)
“Too late. Believe me, I know it’s not easy. But love is love, right?”
“And what makes you think that tree will love you?”
“She told me so,” the young man said, nearly gloating. “We’re engaged.”
“Maybe. Don’t care.”
The cop deposited him at his doorstep. “Stay out of the park at night,” he warned. “There’s bad people in that park. And if you’re there in the daytime, you keep your clothes on, ok? Have a little class. Stay out of public view and don’t turn your back to the path, or you’ll wind up mugged, maybe dead.”
“Okay, but you know how it is when you’re in love…”
“Get in the house.”
“Okay. Goodnight. And thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Ever,” he added, pulling away from the curb. He lost the collar, but really, what crime had been committed? When he got to the station, his fellow officers had thought up a few; public indecency, vagrancy, tampering with public property. For no fewer than eleven other people, men and women, had been picked up on tree-related offenses at that precinct alone.
“She was standing next to this sycamore, you know, the kind with that bark that’s smooth some places and peeling in others? Heart-shaped leaves? I noticed her just hanging around and thought maybe she was hooking, but her clothes weren’t right for that. Looked like a nice girl, maybe 30, understated makeup, wearing one of those floaty summer dresses, a yellow dress.
“So, I’m kind of keeping an eye on her from the other side, thinking maybe she’s waiting for someone, and next thing I know, she’s slipped out of her dress, hangs it on a branch, and she’s standing there in a silky slip, printed with vines, leaves all over it.
So, she puts her arms around the tree, she’s hugging the tree, pressing against the trunk, smoothing that papery bark with her soft brown hands. Murmuring something to the tree; even kissing it! Sliding that silk slip against the tree, and I can’t figure out if this is some kind of pagan thing or what; all I know is, it’s totally hot—and probably illegal.”
“So, what’d you do?” interjected a voice from the back.
“I went away for ten, fifteen minutes. Picked up a homeless guy and called the Salvation Army to come get him.”
“Chickenshit.” The others laughed.
“Then I go back, see? I’ve got to know if what I saw was one of those mirages you get on night shift when you haven’t had enough sleep, or witchcraft or maybe there was a guy there shooting it for his film class at NYU. Whatever.”
“You went back to see if she was looonely,” crooned the voice from the back and everyone laughed again, not in a mean way, but the knowing laugh of people who had walked in his shoes, about a thousand times.
“You want to hear the end of this story? ‘Cause I could go get a sandwich instead,” heading for the door, he was stopped by many hands. He turned back to the room, knowing he held the audience in his palm.
“Okay, so I go back to the tree. And she’s there.” (A low whistle exhaled from a rapt listener.)
“She’s sitting on a low branch, one arm around the trunk. She’s put her dress back on, but her shoes are lying on the ground. Sparkly nail polish on her toes, with little acorns appliqued on. She’s kind of leaning back into the leaves, the young leaves, such a bright green I could see it in the dark. The moonlight gave them silver edges. Her lipstick is gone and her eyes are huge. She’s smoking a clove cigarette.”
“Then what’d you do?”
“Helped her down from the tree and brought her in.”
“What was she doing?”
“Said she was passionately involved with that tree. That the sycamore gave her the warmth and affection and honesty no man could ever give. That, enfolded in its branches, she felt she could really breathe for the first time, that she’s found trust. Stuff like that.”
“She works at Bellevue. Psychologist.”
There was a rare silence. The cops got to their feet, the women among them looking thoughtful, the men perturbed. “If women are getting all that... comfort from trees, where does that leave us,” muttered one guy, a big, strong handsome man who’d never lacked for female company. His smooth-shaven face was animated by an intelligent mind; he was going to have to up his game, maybe even get married, if he wanted to feel secure.
“It’s not just women,” answered his partner, a skinny cop who’d just made it over the height requirement after attending an intensive yoga retreat. “Last week, Bill there arrested a football player for necking with a silk tree. Said he couldn’t resist its fragrant pink flowers.” Bill-there, validated the statement with a nod.
In the following months New York saw an epidemic of tree-related incidents. Only the politicians and the religious nuts were outraged, saying tree-love threatened the moral and economic fabric of society. Everyone else seemed to take it as a natural consequence of an even more natural phenomenon.
After years of being “virtually” involved, faces pressed into cell phones, scoliotic necks and enlarged texting thumbs, people were beginning to tear themselves from technology with the loathing, ambivalent need of the addicted.
With more and more people suffering from ADHD and Aspergers, with cheating and using on the rise and divorce at 50% in the first five years of marriage, what could anyone expect? Not being able to rely on other human beings, the solidity and dignity of a loving, deeply-rooted tree only made sense.
Spiritual leaders explained that being close to a tree exposed one to the aura of its spirit, and scientists argued that the increased oxygen levels from photosynthesis created a natural high that, once exposed to, becomes one of life’s necessities. Breathing in this pure oxygen, the exhalation of our plant partners, along with the volatilized essential oils of crushed grass, cedar branches and moist soil was shown to elevate the mood, increase cognitive functioning and make employees more efficient—when you could get them to come to work, that is.
As more people fell under Nature’s spell, funds poured out for the Audobon Society, Greenpeace, Earth First. Citizens formed committees to save individual trees whose roots were breaking city sidewalks, invading water and sewer mains, insisting that trees should be given equal rights to humans. A movement was afoot to allow people and trees to marry, and tree-whisperers helped communicate the true desires of botanicals to their human partners and the legal community. It was too late for politicians and powerful anti-environmental lobbies to stop the movement by mass timber-felling operations: the first major action of citizens’ rights groups nationwide was to make the cutting of any tree a felony—murder, in fact.
The policeman parked his car in a secluded spot and trained his flashlight on the path ahead. He had just come on duty, and was supposed to be patrolling the public restrooms, making sure they were secured. Slipping off his heavy belt, stashing his gun and hat under the seat, he locked the vehicle and strode softly up the path. Just ahead, where the path turned, a horse chestnut blossomed with tall candles of flower spikes, each individual blossom centered with crimson thread of color, a runway for pollinators. A nearby apiary, one of hundreds placed throughout Central Park by the parks administration, hummed quietly, the bees settled into the honeyed combs for the night, while moths floated above, among the chestnut blossoms.
The policeman stepped up to the tree, put his hand on the thick bark, a gesture of reverence. Sliding to the ground, soft with last year’s fallen leaves, he leaned his back against the trunk and felt the spirit of the tree wrap around him, a soft, glowing embrace. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back, resting on the rough bark, remembering his childhood in Rhinebeck, the soft summer nights, fireflies, the faint sound of his parents mixing Martinis on the back deck. A quilt under a horse chestnut just like this one; what it was like to be eight years old and up late, alone, outdoors, safe under a branching limb. His body, grown strong in the intervening years, hummed with a quiet aliveness under a shell of fatigue from work, traffic, the craziness of the city.
He could feel the blood moving in his veins like heavy sweet sap, enriched by deep drafts of scented air entering his nose, his lungs, until he felt it in his very marrow, his pith. The tree bent over him, its base an inward curving space cradling his relaxing body, its firm body pressing back, strong and safe.
“I love you,” he whispered, open eyes gazing upwards into the swirling mass of flowers and stars. The rising wind ruffled branches with its song, sending a shower of creamy petals onto his forehead, his lips, his neck, brown above the crisp, white t-shirt and dark blue broadcloth. A bouquet filled his lap.
“I love you.”