They left the Queensland gum trees behind and came upon the winding Serpent Trail, a narrow path that would take them east and out of Australia, then south, and into Africa.
Thea asked with a mischevious smile because she already knew.
“How can we resist?” Ana replied.
Thea took Ana’s outstretched hand and they walked down the long, deserted trail, where desert flame blossoms grew on either side. Alone on that path with Ana, Thea began to relax. She felt better, loose and free. There was plenty of time. They had met at 11 a.m. as always and it wasn’t even noon yet. Still, there was much to see and neither Ana nor Thea wanted to spend their morning maneuvering around moms and grandmothers who pushed strollers in the Australian section of the Arboretum.
It was the third Tuesday of the month, also known as free admission day, a bonus for Ana and Thea. Their weekly Tuesdays for lunch or at museums sometimes cost them a little more than they should spend. But free day also meant crowds of school children and their teachers on field trips. If it were warmer, the crowds may have bothered Ana and Thea more, but the crisp air gave them a boost. Only a few rain-nourished clouds hovered nearby over the San Gabriel Mountains.
As they made their way down the path, they walked close together. They talked about Ana’s work in real estate, a new vegan restaurant they could try, and Thea’s latest freelance article. Now and then, their attention drifted to the unusual flurry of painted ladies that darted between the spiky ocotillos. Ana held out her free hand each time the butterflies passed by, hoping one would land on her palm. Thea watched her and wondered if the lavender scented perfume she sprayed on her neck earlier in the morning was noticeable.
“Have you noticed people don’t smile or say good morning anymore?” Ana whispered, as a couple walked passed them without a word.
Thea nodded. Though it was something she too observed, she didn’t care if anyone looked at them. It was better that way, more liberating.
When they reached the end of the Serpent Trail, the women paused to admire the umbrella shaped acacias that reminded them of photographs of the Serengeti. Up farther and off to the side, a cluster of trees with shorter trunks caught Thea’s attention, especially the wide-spreading limbs that joined together at the top to create dense, arched canopies.
If they were younger and more impulsive, would she and Ana try to sneak under those branches? Would they hide in the patches of shadow and shade to be alone together? She tucked the thought away and instead, remembered a word she learned.
“I think we both have dendrophilia,” Thea said.
“What’s that?” Ana asked.
“A love of trees.”
“Dendrophilia,” Ana repeated as they kept walking. “It’s almost a pretty word, but I don’t like the ‘philia’ part.”
Thea chuckled and tightened her fingers around Ana’s hand.
They crossed a grassy field and took photos of a tall fountain they’d seen featured in an old television show about a rich, eccentric man who had the power to grant visitors to his island their secret fantasies. Signs all around the fountain warned people not to feed the many peacocks that lived at the Arboretum. So far, Ana and Thea hadn’t seen any. They only heard the famous, high pitched cries in the distance.
“Uh oh…here we go,” Thea said, as they approached another narrow trail that would take them deep into the redwoods of the Prehistoric Forest.
“Don’t worry,” Ana said. “We won’t get lost.”
The week before, Ana and Thea decided to take a hike through some lesser known canyons near Malibu, which had been closed after the massive Woolsey fire. The blaze left some parts of the hillsides and brush blackened in its wake and a “No Entry” sign had been posted at the trailhead’s front gate. Lured by the tall grasses that had managed to grow and purple lupines that shot up high from the ash covered ground, they slid under the gate and went in anyway. They could see the ocean in the distance and Ana and Thea seemed to fall under the spell of both scene and solitude, unaware that they had wandered too far off from the common footpaths.
Hours later, when they located the exit well past 3 p.m., they were quiet, relieved that they found their way out before they were reported missing and on the evening news, but also anxious about the traffic home, the late dinners they still had to make and questions that awaited them.
The narrow trail into the Arboretum’s so-called forest led them down a long, shaded passage, but it was quick, and they found themselves back onto another main road. They spotted a bench to sit and Ana rolled up the sleeves of her maroon sweater. Thea stroked Ana’s bare arm with her fingers and they fell into a quiet trance. Everything around them, from the low lying succulents to the pink flowers at the tips of the trumpet trees looked so alive. It was as if the six years of drought had little effect on all that grew, as if the roots not only stored water, but also secrets of how to survive on so little.
Ana told Thea about a book she was reading by a scientist who theorized that life on earth began underground with microscopic bacteria. Thea liked to listen to Ana talk about what she was reading or a documentary she watched. Her voice was always filled with enthusiasm for what she learned. Thea tried to follow as Ana described the role of microbes and mitochondria. But her focus fell on Ana’s eyes, and how they had taken in all the colors of the Arboretum: the dark green of the cypress trees, the chestnut shaded bark of the sequoias, and even a hint of gray of the rainclouds over the mountains. It was as if Ana’s soul had internalized their whole day together, Thea thought.
“Anyway, there are still arguments about how bacteria evolved and the start of life,” Ana said. “What was the catalyst that caused it all? There’s still no definite answer.”
Thea wished she had something smart to add. Instead, a question tumbled out.
“What was the cause of us?” she asked.
Ana remained quiet. A mist seemed to come over her eyes and her expression changed. Thea sensed her question punctured the peaceful moment they were sharing. She could feel Ana’s thoughts flow away from her and over the walls of the Arboretum, toward a home built with love and commitment and where responsibilities awaited.
It had been almost 20 years since Ana and Thea had seen one another after graduating from college with sociology degrees. Several months ago, they found each other again at a coffee house. At that moment, it seemed to Thea as if no time had passed between them. She could still see that fierce drive in Ana’s eyes to push beyond the mundane. Just being close to her again, inside that coffee house, made Thea’s heart crackle back to life. For Thea, the memory of those two young, carefree women who seemed made of only breath and skin back then, who once whispered a promise to each other that they would grow old together, was as clear as when it had all first happened, as if they had never gone on to have lives and loves outside of each other.
“Let’s go,” Ana said, rising abruptly from the bench. Thea held out her hand, but Ana didn’t take it. Instead, they walked in silence for a while as they headed up onto another small path around a murky pond, where turtles peeked their heads above the surface for sun. The west side of the Arboretum was free of visitors and so quiet that an airplane overhead sounded like a roaring warbird. Thea gazed at the plane and followed it as it slid southwest across the sky. She imagined couples on board going to far off places. Maybe to Guam, she thought,or a quick stop to Tokyo, and then to the real Australia.
As Thea day dreamed, she felt Ana leave her side.
“Look!” she heard. “How beautiful!”
At first, Thea thought Ana was running toward someone else. Instead, Ana hurried up to a massive elephant foot tree and wrapped her arms around its thick trunk. She smelled its bark, then closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against its rough, wrinkled surface. A calmness came over Ana then, and Thea froze, overwhelmed with longing and skin hunger.
Ana pulled her face away from the trunk and took a step back. She gave the tree one long, last look.
“Dendrophilia,” Thea managed to whisper a few seconds later.
“Oh, come on,” Ana said. “I saw how you looked at the roots of those ficus trees.”
They giggled nervously as if they were on a first date and had just shared a new secret. As they walked on, a tangy smell in the air led them into the citrus groves. Ana picked up a honey tangerine from the ground, peeled its thin skin carefully, and gave half to Thea. It was juicy and sweet and Ana collected a few more to share as they headed toward the exit.
“I don’t want to leave,” Ana said, looking at Thea.
“Me neither,” Thea replied.
Just then, a peacock strutted in front of them and blocked their way. He spread his train of feathers so that the blue-green eyespots on each plume stared in their direction. Thea had read on one of the many signs that a peacock flaunts his feathers to attract a new peahen. She and Ana watched as the giant bird rotated his body one way, then the other, his chest and body exposed without any care for the last peahen he had likely abandoned for the promise of new love. After a few rotations, the peacock quit and with his train of feathers still open and wide, strutted back toward the edge of the road. Thea nudged Ana toward the exit and they left in silence.
It was almost 3 and traffic would soon get bad. There was no time for coffee.
In the parking lot, they stood between their cars, and looked at each other, both still quiet. Ana stroked Thea’s eyelids and cheek as if she could brush away the sorrow, as if it were dust. They moved closer into each other and shared a soft peck of a kiss on the lips that smelled of tangerines.
Their day together was over, but still felt heavy on Thea’s mind as she drove away, toward the on-ramp heading west while Ana went to the east.
On the road home, Thea imagined Ana sitting next to her in the car and replayed images of their day. She tried to hold on to the butterflies, to the patches of shade under tree branches and to who they were for those four hours. But the concrete and steel of the highway and traffic all around her stole the colors away. Thea knew she should be grateful, but sometimes she wanted more than just Tuesdays, which they settled for because no one seemed to need or miss them on that day.
What was the cause of us? Thea had asked. Again, she regretted the question. Neither wanted to say, she knew, because the answer was rooted too deep into their past, where it had to remain.
Thea’s vision blurred as she sped up to change lanes. Traffic stalled and she was stuck. Her impatience rose. She wanted to turn back to find Ana, but she knew her eagerness irritated Ana. There was nowhere to go, and in the end of it all, Thea just wanted to go home.
Her cell phone beeped, but Thea ignored it as traffic sped up.
Several minutes had passed until she exited the freeway. She took side streets for the rest of the drive home and when Thea reached her driveway, she parked and let the car’s engine run. It was still early but already, there was that amber glow that comes with the late afternoon sun. Her legs felt heavy. She rested her head on the steering wheel for a moment until she noticed her phone still sat on the passenger seat.
Thea picked it up, saw the piercing, red light that blinked and swiped the alert to read the message.
“Better than nothing, isn’t it? We have something good going on, something out of the reality of every day trudging along. I’m grateful for that and for all the days to come with you.”
Thea slid the phone in her bag, cut the engine and got out of her car. When she reached the foot of her front stairs she paused. A familiar question surfaced in her mind. Where will they go for a few hours next Tuesday?
Susan Abram is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who has written news stories about homelessness among women, the struggle to find mental health care, and juvenile justice for foster youth. Her short stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Lunch Ticket, and T/Our. She can be reached via Twitter: @sabramLA