The first place I thought of as perfect was the old tire swing in the woods by my house. I found it one day after the yelling drove me out of the house in tears, yet again. I put on the only shoes I could find, my shiny patent leather mary janes that my grandma had bought me for Christmas, sloppily fastened the velcro straps, and ran. My parents didn’t even notice the screen door slam shut after their only child, their terrified and confused six-year-old daughter. They were too busy fighting over the water bill and a woman called Susan.
The sun was shining, bright and cheerful like the sun in the family portrait I drew in school that had hung on the fridge where I put it, until my mother tore it off in a fit of red wine and tears. As I ran out into the long swath of woods that made up the greenbelt behind my house, the golden light became spotty and inconsistent where it filtered through the high arching branches above. I slipped on rotting nurse logs and spattered my dress and nice shoes with mud as I tried to escape. I had become used to losing myself in these woods and somehow finding my way back. I found myself loving the running but hating the reasons. I still love running; it helps me escape for just a few minutes in this crazy world. I never joined track though. The competition is beside the point.
I found the tire swing after what was likely minutes but seemed like days, my pudgy cheeks bright red and my pigtails lopsided. It was hanging in a tall oak tree, although at the time it was simply another tree to me. I wouldn’t learn or care about the name until I was twelve and figured that I was smart enough to be able to look it up. It wasn’t a proper tire swing, not a tractor tire large enough for two or three small children to share. It was a simple car tire, with a thick rope wound through it and up into the branches. I didn’t care if it was sturdy, or safe, and I certainly wasn’t old enough to be suspicious of a random tire swing deep in the woods. If I had found it as a cynical teenager, I would have wondered if it was a serial killer’s sick trap for lost children. On a bad day, I would have decided that the rope was used in a hanging and this was some sort of twisted memorial to a suicide.
I didn’t think any of these things. I wondered if Hansel and Gretel or Snow White had built it. I considered the possibility of my fairy godmother hanging it for me to find during a particularly nasty fight. I decided that it was mine, and used a rock to carve my name into the tree. I took note of landmarks so that I could find it again. After planning the methods I would use to find my way back to it, I climbed inside and swung. I think I made up a song about it, something along the lines of: swing swing swing the tire, swing it in the tree. Merrily merrily merrily merrily I am in a tree. I wasn’t the most musically inclined child.
I’m glad that I found the tire swing as a six-year-old who found wonder in almost everything. That way, it is still special to me. I will always be my place.
I spent almost every day in the tire swing the summer after third grade. My parents had decided to get a divorce, and my first thought when they told me was: Finally. I know that I sound awful but they had been fighting and yelling and throwing things for my entire life. I was done with the drama, done with them bitching about each other to me, not understanding that I would never take sides or agree with them. I didn’t care if my dad had no job; it meant that he could spend more time helping me bake cookies with m&m smiley faces. I didn’t care that my mom drank wine all the time because she would pour me grape juice in a wine glass and cut out cubes of cheddar cheese, and we would have a wine and cheese party. I didn’t understand why my mom hated her assistant Susan because she was nice and gave me candy when I visited Mom at work. I wasn’t old enough to recognize cheating without a clear explanation.
My parents asked me to leave the house when the lawyer came, which was often. I later found out that my parents fought at great length over every single belonging in the entire house with unhappy resolutions. They assumed that I went across the street to the Dennises, where a little girl named June lived, but instead I went to my swing. I brought spiral notebooks that I filled with plays starring me and Harry Potter, or Ella Enchanted, or Laura Ingalls Wilder, who I love because she shared my name. I would practice the cursive that I was learning in school or make up complicated math problems that were actually just two-digit multiplication. I would swing lazily and stare up at the glimpses of clouds through the sky. I would sneak a book from my mom’s bookshelf and try to decipher Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice and then give up and try to swing as fast as possible.
The tree was my castle, my dungeon, my fortress against emotion and the struggles of life. When one day June asked me where I went when she told my parents that I was at her house, I shrugged and deflected the question as quickly as possible. She always remained suspicious, but learned not to press me.
When my parents finally signed their divorce papers and divided their possessions, I remained with my mom, the only reason being that she was staying in the house. My dad was moving to San Francisco for a job opportunity that had emerged during the divorce proceedings. He invited me to go with him, but I was adamantly against it: there was no tire swing in San Francisco. I didn’t care about the small number of people that I classified as friends, but who were really more along the lines of acquaintances. I didn’t worry about a new school or a new city. I just didn’t want to lose the tire swing, the only place that was mine and nobody else’s.
“Laura, are you one hundred percent sure?” my dad asked as the movers loaded the last of the boxes into the moving van. “You would have so much fun growing up in San Francisco.”
I shook my head, feeling the guilt leech through me like a fast-acting venom.
“What about your old dad, here?” he asked playfully, but I could sense the hurt. “He’ll be all alone.”
I threw my arms around him, tears soaking into his shirt. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” I said. “I just have to stay here.”
“It’s okay, angel,” he said, stroking my hair. “You can visit. I love you.”
“I love you, Daddy,” I whispered.
He gave me one last squeeze before wishing my mother a stiff goodbye and climbing into his car.
I visited my dad, a few months after he got settled in San Francisco. He let me pierce my ears, and took me to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory and the Golden Gate Bridge. I loved spending time with him and I dreaded going back to the cold house where my mom remained, but I also missed my swing desperately. The plays and poems written in my dad’s downtown apartment had none of the spark of the ones written beneath the spreading oak leaves, and the books I read seemed less lifelike.
In July, the summer after eighth grade, everything changed for the better. I was reading one of the books on the summer reading list, either To Kill A Mockingbird, or Jane Eyre, which I had actually managed to slug through two summers before. I was draped through the swing, which at that point regularly groaned under my weight, resting on my stomach with the book on the ground. It certainly wasn’t an comfortable position, but it made it so that I could sway gently in the summer breeze and occasionally glance up at the azure sky, visible through the thicket of trees.
I was completely entangled in the plot of the book, and I don’t know if I would have even looked up if the rope hadn’t snapped. I was suddenly on the ground, my head whipping forward and hitting the book, a molded rope landing on top of me.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” a girl’s voice exclaimed. I looked up to see a girl with flaming red hair rush out from behind a nearby tree. She was wearing forrest green cargo pants and black combat boots, a combination that would usually be horrible, but looked surprisingly put together on her.
Instead of saying something reasonable like ‘I’m fine,’ or ‘Yeah, thanks,’ I just stared at her. “What are you doing here?” I snapped, annoyed that my private place had been invaded. This was mytree, and therefore my place to fall to the ground and awkwardly extract myself from a small tire. Alone.
“Oh, um, I just moved here, to the house on the East edge of the woods. I was walking around here one day and found this little swing. I’ve been coming here almost every afternoon.”
I checked my watch, and sure enough it was three, right around the time when I had been getting back home lately. If she had been coming to the swing at this time every day, I wouldn’t have seen her. It was an acceptable explanation, and totally reasonable that someone who found a tire swing in the woods would decide it was theirs for the taking. It’s what I had done, all those years ago. But somehow, it felt like a personal affront.
“Well, this is my tire swing.”
“Oh, the one your parents built you when you were little? I’m so sorry,” she said, her blue eyes regretful. “Um, I’ll just go.”
I was tempted to let her disappear into the woods and never come back, but I felt obligated to be honest. “Wait,” I said as she started walking away. “Um....”
“Stephanie,” she said in answer to my unasked question.
“I guess this really isn’t my tree. I mean, my parents didn’t build it or anything. I found it when I was six, and its just kind of been my place, you know?”
“I do,” she said, surprising me. “Know what its like to have a place, I mean.”
She walked back to where I stood by the wreckage of the swing, her closeness revealing that we were the exact same height.
“I grew up on a farm in upstate New York,” she continued. “And one day when I was, I don’t know, eight or nine, I had a giant fight with my brother. I was dumb, I’m sure, but it was so upset that I had to leave. It was snowing really hard, but I went out anyways. There was a forest behind that barn too, so I went in there. I walked around for hours, and found a little abandoned barn. That was my place.”
She ended the story so simply, but I understood her completely and I could tell that she sensed this. We stood in comfortable silence, under my tree, in the warm sunlight, taking each other in.
Watery sunlight drips in from between the gray clouds that streak across the November sky. I shiver in the cold air, remembering those warm college years in California that have made cold an unusual sensation. College was incredible, and I am so lucky to have gone where I did. I loved the people, the scenery, the closeness to my dad after years of living halfway across the country. But there always was the one thing that I couldn’t forget: my tree.
I didn’t allow my silly childhood wishes to stay near it get in the way of my education, but I did occasionally feel that it was the only thing that could fix my life. I wondered if it was the cure to the overwhelming darkness of my sophomore year, to the horrible fights that year with Stephanie, who I followed to Stanford after our incredible high school friendship promised to keep going into uncharted territory. I missed this giant oak tree, with the new tractor tire swing that Stephanie and I erected in the tenth grade.
Standing here now, I am feeling that odd numbness that is so hard to explain; the feeling that everything is right but also that you are separate from your surroundings. I feel like a ghost drifting over my life, seeing how this tree could be used as a metaphor for everything. The fresh starts, the memories, the going too fast, the falling, the slow but steady growth into who I am. I used this tree for my college essay, drew from it when I wrote the fiction piece that got published in The New Yorker, got a painting of it done as a birthday present for the girl who became so important to me over the course of one summer.
And now I am saying goodbye.
Even throughout those years at Stanford, I still had summer and winter break, and the occasional long weekend when I came out to visit my mom. I had opportunities; I had some sort of regularity in seeing it. But this is goodbye for a long time. It might even be a goodbye for years. Me and Stephanie are moving to London, of all places. Miraculously, we were the two people in our entire company chosen to be relocated to the British offices.
The tree never lost its illusion of immensity; it seemed as tall as the empire state building when I first found it, and it still does. I feel like all of my innocence is preserved in this tree, and seeing it unlocks some sort of magic that reverts me back to the little girl I used to be. The girl who didn’t have to worry about taxes or paying bills or figuring out how to get her work visa authorized. The little girl that I miss desperately, even though I know she was impractical and a little bit on the slow side.
I brush my fingers against the trunk, rough with the carvings of a little girl, and later, two bored teenagers. It is such a familiar feeling, as prominent in my mind as the sensation of my fingers on my laptop keyboard, the feeling of my bare legs against the sheets. I sit down in the tire, close my eyes and breathe in the scent of the bark, the few leaves that remain scattered across the canopy of branches, the rubber of the tire and the rope that suspends it. I push my feet against the earth, gently swaying on the rope.
I rise and take everything it, take a deep breathe. Inhale, exhale.
Stephanie came yesterday and said goodbye. It’s my turn.
“Goodbye,” I whisper. “Goodbye, my old friend.
I turn and walk away, letting the tears fall down my cheeks.