‘The Urban Forest’ by Ella Martinsen Gorham, ZYZZYVA No. 108, Winter Issue

Dan bought a house alone after he turned forty-one. It wasn’t in the order he wanted to do things, but he had grown impatient waiting for an acceptable woman to come around the bend. The house’s simplicity soothed him: a kitchen outfitted in stainless appliances, a living room mantel wide enough for his flatscreen, and three square bedrooms painted white as milk. A tank of a tree out front shielded him from traffic and forward neighbors.

Movers assembled his cross-training equipment in the garage, which had been converted into a spare room. On the glass shelves in the medicine cabinet he arranged his shaving kit, the European sunscreen that imparted a faint sheen to his skin.

When he was a boy his mother had let him burn at the beach, and a blister covered the right half of his face. The blister filled with liquid, deforming him for days before deflating in his sleep. It was typical of the maladies that would strike him when under the care of either of his parents. “We were raised by wolves,” his older sister Juliet liked to say. “We had to keep our wits about us, didn’t we?” He would nod obediently. Wolves, yes. Wits, yes.

Juliet and her woman friend Tamra lived in the same tree-lined pocket of Los Angeles. The Sunday after Dan moved in, Juliet invited him for dinner. “Bring a bottle of something,” she said on the phone.

“Can you be more specific?” he said, palming the dome of his NutriBullet blender. In front of his house, the mammoth tree spewed a shower of its dark fruit.

“Not that one you always get at Vons. Something—” Her voice was trampled by wind buffeting her convertible. “Tannins make Tamra’s joints flare, so no red. You know what? You can handle it.” In fact, she did not think he could handle it. He had known for some time that she believed he was backward socially, an unfinished project. She’d once sent him a link to the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, something for him to study.

After Dan hung up, he walked out front and circled the tree. Cherry-black marbles skipped off his head and shoulders. When they hit the ground they burst open, revealing a tiny network of yellow seeds.

He spread both hands over the broad, gray trunk and appraised a density any man would have to succumb to. Ten feet up, hulking limbs vanished in clumps of leaves shaped like pointed tongues. A mountain range of knuckled roots sprang forth at his feet. Dan got dizzy thinking about the span of the tree’s reach underground.

The sidewalk was stained a brownish color and smelled like old meat. Someone, the sellers or their agent, must have power-washed it daily during escrow. His stomach churned. This was on the two worthless fucks he’d hired to inspect the place. He’d paid them to be thorough. As the chief compliance officer of a brokerage firm, and its moral vector, Dan put a premium on being thorough.

Still, he had been in a rush to move on from his apartment of sixteen years. He’d lived in a studio over a bicycle rental shop. In his twenties, the thing to do was rent by the beach, stumbling distance from sushi houses and a pub painted green where you could pick up an easy-access girl on a Saturday night. The lifestyle lost its appeal as, one by one, his friends had managed to create something lasting.

Watching a person age held no allure: the flagging skin, the dark scrawl of veins across arms and legs. But settling down was normal. He wouldn’t be left behind to fester on his old futon. The desire to have a normal life for himself had overtaken him, so much so that he’d made sure to buy a house big enough to one day share.

***

Dan found a specialty wine shop on the way to Juliet’s, and a young clerk steered him to a Tasmanian white. “It’s one of those new finds,” she said, adjusting the apron strap around her neck with a delicate finger. “It’ll be perfect.” Her unnaturally blond hair was cut blunt at the chin, pieces swinging in and out of her face. She almost glowed in the dim, frigid room.

“I’m going to have to trust you,” he said, leaning into the counter. As she unspooled a length of gold ribbon, her shirt slipped off one narrow shoulder, revealing his favorite bone—the collarbone. Three small moles formed a line at the base of her neck. None of them looked cancerous.

Nice, clean outlines. He wanted to reach over the counter and adjust her clothes so no one else would see.

“All right? Have a good one.” She pushed the box toward him and smiled lopsidedly. Dan found it beguiling, as though she’d left the door a crack open for him.

***

Juliet and Tamra lived in an old Spanish-style bungalow on a street lined with palm trees, coveted for its cul-de-sac at one end. Tamra had inherited some money. She didn’t have a job, though supposedly she’d been trained in the art of feng shui. Dan couldn’t see any future in that post-recession. It was Juliet who carried the both of them with her publicity firm.

He rang the doorbell and the dog kicked in with its yapping. Then, his sister’s fair, cropped head appeared in the window.

“Danny.” Juliet threw the door open and pulled him in for a hug.

Tamra crouched, holding the dog’s collar as it craned its neck. She said hello in her flat monotone.

Juliet took the wine and they adjourned to the kitchen. She poured glasses for the three of them and sniffed hers. “Ew. Fruity,” she said.

“Is that bad?” Dan said.

“I’m going to let mine aerate.”

Tamra cleared her throat. “How’s the new house?”

“Coming along. I may have a landscaping issue.”

“You should let Tamra harmonize it,” Juliet said.

“Right,” Tamra said with a little edge. Once Dan had found her good-looking, with her dancer’s turned-out walk. But she was one of those women who didn’t like men. It went beyond a lack of attraction.

Together they carried bowls of aggressively healthy food to the table: farro salad with peppers, roasted cauliflower.

“Are you up for having a little houseguest next weekend?” Juliet said. She lifted the dog onto her lap. “This bubba. I wanted to take Tamra to the desert for some rest.”

“I don’t know,” Dan said. “I have errands. Bills.”

“Monty is so low-maintenance. It’s good for you to take care of somebody.” The dog sniffed at her plate. He had a flattened face and bulging eyes that gave him a look of constant alarm. She fed him a piece of cauliflower. “Look at bubba,” she said as he licked his nose assiduously.

“He needs a little male bonding,” Tamra said, and smirked at Juliet.

“He doesn’t shit, does he?” Dan said. Juliet let out a small laugh.“No, it’s fine. I’ll do it.”

***

After dinner Tamra took leave to do her “evening stretches” and Dan sat with his sister in her living room, a view of palm trees alit in the pink dusk.

“Why can’t I have a damn palm tree?” he said.

The dog sauntered in and Juliet put him on Dan’s lap. Dan placed his hands on the dog’s back, and then let them fall at his sides. “He’s wheezy, isn’t he?” he said.

She leaned in. “What’s new on the dating front?”

“I’m gearing up to join a new service. After I get settled in.” He grabbed an old Variety from her coffee table. The dog began to lick his pants.

“I was wondering something,” she said.

“Yes. I am receptive to meeting someone.” He thumbed the pages.

“Do you think you might be gay?”

A sucker punch. Dan winced and pushed the dog off his lap. “You’re batshit crazy. Way off the mark.” Of course she didn’t believe it was true.

“I can’t remember the last time you even dated,” she said.

“Oh, Jesus. I banged the girl who lived down the street. Giana. Then she pushed me to sell my weights.”

“Lots of women would do that.”

Dan stood and brushed the hair from his pants. “Game over. This is pointless.”

“I don’t want you to be alone. That’s where I’m coming from.”

“I’ll be on Tinder soon,” he said. “You’ve never heard of it.” His coworker Marcus used Tinder for hookups. She was too long off the market to know of it, too hunkered down in her own niche life.

He shut the door in her face before she could offer him leftover farro.

Order your copy of Issue No. 108.

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