Did you know that weeping willows have healing properties?
At night, they are particularly beautiful, creating shadows when the moon is nearly full and making the entire arboretum look haunted and mysterious. Often, after a storm, the heavy branches will tease the face of the fish pond, creating fantastic ripples like miniature waves in the sea. If the weather is decent, I would sometimes crawl up the roots of the largest willow, and while leaning against the sturdy trunk, I’d try to make out particular images in the wrinkled swell.
When Charlie first suggested we meet here, I was beyond reluctant. Other than the fact that the arboretum closed at dusk, and we were breaking and entering, it felt strange to go back to a place that had been such a staple of my childhood. Mom frequently took Robbie and me there in lieu of teaching science or history from a textbook. I’d look at the Reeves-Reed estate house and daydream about fairies and princesses instead of listening to stories about the Lenni Lenape Native Americans or photosynthesis. She probably knew I hadn’t been paying attention, but now I regret not listening to Mom more, not asking her more questions when I had the opportunity.
I’d like to think she’d like Charlie. I want to think that she’d approve of our relationship and maybe even excuse our daily misdemeanors. But the frustration is that I’ll never know.
Now that we came so frequently, my attitude was evolving. The first few times Charlie had jumped the stone wall—pulling me over with him—I felt a bell of moral ineptitude going off in my head, telling me there is a reason the deer gates automatically stop opening to its visitors at dusk.
“You know I can probably find a way around that.” Charlie laughed as I tried to scale the stone wall by myself.
He planted his hands around my waist while I made my way off the other side of the wall. Charlie’s grip didn’t relinquish. In fact, instead of releasing me, he pulled me closer and secured the bomber hat on my head.
“No thanks. It’s bad enough we’re breaking and entering. Don’t go and make it worse by doing something to the security fence, okay? Please?”
We began our usual walk along the pedestrian path. And although it was overcast tonight, without a moon, we both knew the trails well enough that a small flashlight provided an adequate amount of illumination.
In the dark I heard him laugh. “It ain’t breaking and entering if it’s city property. ‘Sides, I’d just be reversing the outlets for the gate. It wouldn’t hurt nothing.”
“Until someone realizes that people have been sneaking in here these last couple of weeks. What if they install security cameras?”
Charlie laughed freely and closed his entire hand in mine. I rubbed my fingers against the calluses of his palm, amazed that his bare hands were still so warm in late November.
“Nobody is gonna know you in that ridiculous hat.”
“It isn’t me being recognized that I’m worried about.” I nudged his elbow with my arm, trying not to think about the possibility of security cameras or the state police being called when they saw Charlie breaking onto taxpayer property.
He scoffed. “You should be. What’s your school gonna think if you get caught out here with me? You could lose your scholarship or something.”
I tangled my arm around his and tried to ignore the chill in the air. Though I couldn’t see beyond the scope of the flashlight, my eyes adjusted to the dark easily. Wearing my favorite white mittens, I traced the outline of the red oaks and the European breech, naked now except for a few straggling leaves. Those first fallen leaves danced around my sneakers and along the trail to the greenhouse. Like something flimsy, they crunched beneath Charlie’s feet noisily and scattered to the wind.
“My scholarship is academic; as long as my grades stay, I stay. So please don’t worry about stuff like that.”
I felt his eyes on me, skeptical as always when I encouraged him not to worry. “Think of it this way,” I offered “If I could sneak out of my house every night without my Dad being suspicious,” I pinched my fingers together in his face for emphasis. “Then I think I could deal with the academic counsel.”
I was lying, of course, but I hoped to alleviate Charlie’s anxieties anyway. Since he had returned to me and promised to stay, things moved more quickly than I would have liked. My sudden change in disposition was helpful when Robbie was re-deployed to Iraq. Dad was glad to see me ‘back on my feet.’ Though he blamed my happy attitude completely on my acceptance to Sonoma State University and the University of San Francisco, and frankly, I was okay to let him think that. I detested lying to Dad, but I tried to reason that I was leaning less towards a lie and slightly closer to some kind of half-truth. I knew applying to colleges so close to where I was found was risky, but since living on campus was mandatory for most undergraduates, if there was any suspicion, me living in a dorm could drown it out.