There is a photograph on the wall of my bedroom now, nearly hidden by crumpled parking tickets and pictures of twenty-somethings holding red plastic cups. In it, six children sit in the unfinished frame of a house, perched high between four trees, sneakered feet dangling down. In the middle are two girls, one in a Winnie the Pooh sweater and one in a bright pink t-shirt, their middle arms wrapped tight around each other’s backs. Their smiles push their apple cheeks up into their eyes, and the girl on the left has a gap where one front tooth should be.
The picture was taken fifteen years ago by some nameless, faceless grown-up standing below, and it shows the neighborhood kids of Center Drive in what would soon be the first tree house on the block. The girl in the green with the missing tooth is you; the one in the pink is me.
My family moved next door to your family when we were four. As my father’s ancient black pick-up truck pulled up to our new house, squished in the cigarette-scented middle seat I saw you at the top of the driveway: sun-bleached hair stuck out like straw from underneath your helmet, and you straddled a mud-caked pink tricycle as if we had kept her waiting. “Hi,” you said without preamble as I hopped down from the passenger side. “We’re going to be friends.”
You came inside that day, and we ate Spaghettios and peanut butter sandwiches at the bare kitchen counter, stacking tiny noodle circles on the tines of our forks and speculating about the contents of the cardboard boxes that filed past to the hallway. When your mother came to collect you, you hopped off her stool and gave me a ceremonial hug. “See you tomorrow!” you shouted as you were whisked out the door.
It was two years — of preschool and playgrounds, REC soccer and learning to ski, matching striped leggings and a shared guinea pig — before the construction of the tree house began, the culmination of months of begging and promises of responsibility. Ground was laid before first grade started: you and I watched, sandy heads capped with child-size hardhats and waists ringed with miniature tool-belts, as our fathers stripped branches and sanded plywood through the humid New England summer.
Months later, the tree house was finally finished. We climbed the steps for the first time on one of those late August evenings that seem never to end. It was perfect.
The tree house spanned the line dividing your backyard from mine, and narrow and perilously tall stairs led from the pine needle-covered ground to a slate-gray porch roofed with asphalt shingles. We gripped the railing as we climbed up, peering in the Lucite windows before we unlatched the door. Inside was small and square, and we separated to explore every corner, running our hands along walls painted the yellow of an almost-ripe banana. We jumped on the set of white bunk beds that stood against the back wall, nestling into faded floral cushions that I recognized from your mom’s old lawn chairs, and we stared up at the filmy fabric that hung from ceiling beams as we pondered the tree house’s possibilities.
We quickly moved in our most important possessions, heaving small suitcases filled with board games, temporary tattoos, and Disney movies up the stairs. When the school bus dropped us off in the afternoon, we flung our backpacks through the door and raced to the backyard, scaling the stairs with more bravado each time. Inside the tree-house, we were outside the reach of parents and siblings, school and schedules. Inside, we created worlds of make-believe: grocery stores and restaurants, witches’ covens and fairy empires. We stood on the porch at dinnertime, bracing our arms as we leaned over the railing, to yell at our mothers: “Just five more minutes!”
As we grew older, the stairs became creaky and uneven, and we walked more gingerly, conscious of added inches and the weight of breasts and hips. We still escaped to the tree-house after school: armed with peanut butter sandwiches and diet sodas, we lay on our backs on the floor and talked about things not safe to say outside. Inside, we shared stories of first crushes, first kisses, and first sips of beer. We wondered how to use a tampon and, later, how to use a condom. We fled there when my first boyfriend broke up with me and when you found out your grandfather died. If the floor held years of dirt, nail polish, and crumbs, the walls held years of secrets.
My family moved again fifteen years later, when you and I left for college, and it was not packing a bedroom into boxes or saying goodbye to a familiar street that was most difficult. The new owners of my house, the family who would pad along its hardwood halls and plant its gardens next, distrusted the ramshackle cottage balanced in the trees in the backyard. They didn’t see its magic, only the cracks in the wood and the spider-webs in the corners.
The day they tore the tree house down, you and I stood below, much taller and older than we had been when we first saw it go up. We watched men in hardhats with tool-belts drive machines, yellow like the walls inside, into the posts that supported the tree house. The porch fell first, its spindly railings fracturing as they hit the ground. The sides collapsed more slowly, sinking towards the middle as the roof weakened. A flutter of curtain peeked through a splintered window as the structure finally gave, and you and I held hands to press back our tears. The teenager in me scoffed at my nostalgia, but I ached for the girls who had grown up in this house in the trees.
We live miles apart now, you in a city twenty minutes from where we grew up and I in a southern college town. We can no longer meet every day after school, and when we visit each other, the white walls of our new apartments bear little resemblance to our first home in the trees. We talk often, though, and on the phone, my back pressed into the floor with my feet propped on my bed, I swear sometimes I can feel the thin carpet of the tree house under me and smell the pine outside my window.