There is a place that I used to visit everyday, a big tree in a patch of woods on the edge of the city. The fact that it exists there at all feels like some kind of miracle. The legs of the tree sprawl out like an octopus, in the middle of this rare patch of life. Rich, green leaves form a thick canopy above. The light pours down through the gaps and dances with shadows on the dirt below. A peaceful stream flows over the tree roots and the passing dogs and birds drink the cool water for relief from the summer’s afternoon heat. You can almost forget where you are even though the low roar of nearby traffic is constant. I would always sit at the base of the tree, leaning against the familiar mossy bark.
I have only ever seen one other person sitting in “my” spot. Other than me and the birds, the people that come by are usually just passing through, trying in vain to keep up with their blissful dogs running through the stream. But one day as I approached the tree I saw that someone was already there. From far away he was hazy, but as I got closer I saw his details, more than he probably hoped to reveal. A mop of curly hair, mouth turned down, he looked so sad. As I passed him, I did what I thought was the kindest thing to do when you spot someone looking sad: I pretended that I didn’t notice, so that he could continue to exist without the added adrenaline rush of being “caught” in a state of vulnerability. I kept walking and looked around for something that could serve as a substitute spot. There wasn’t much, but I finally settled for a nearby rock in the brambles. It definitely was not the same, but I tried to let that go and take in the woods around me.
It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later when he left the spot and saw me perched on my uncomfortable rock. He smiled and I felt a kinship with him that must be similar to how two Mercedes owners feel when they both pull up to a stoplight at the same time: we were of the same cloth, perhaps, but very unlike Mercedes owners, we were just two weirdoes in the woods. I surprised myself and said “hi” as he passed by. Another human thoughtfully wandering through the woods. He must be my soulmate. Either that, or he’s a serial killer. It was a nice thought, though. The first one, that is.
Should I do something, I wondered. It had felt cosmically significant, if such a thing is really possible. I liked the idea of it. It would make a good story, or maybe a poem. Could I make this into a video, I thought to myself. I dug deeper into this idea, taking notes in my mind. I would do what I always do: try to turn life into some kind of work, something tangible, something that makes sense, instead of the disappointing, complicated mess that it is to live. It’s much easier to think and imagine than it is to pursue someone. Your ideas can’t let you down like people do. Your ideas can become anything that you make them. So I thought that was that.
But then one day I saw him again. I was already settled at the spot when I saw a figure approaching. This time I was the one having a bad day. I was lost in thought and didn’t realize that it was the same person at first. When he came closer, his details came into focus again. Seeing that the spot was taken, he walked past it, but then as if he had suddenly changed his mind, he backtracked and sat right down on a root of the tree. He was so close to me. A big move for an introvert. Or a small move for a serial killer…I mean, who would sit so close to a stranger in the middle of the woods? It was still New York after all, and in this city you are really asking for it if you so much as sit a seat away from someone on the subway when there are plenty of open seats elsewhere. This would be a moment to say something, I told myself. This is not something that happens everyday. But I didn’t have it in me then. All I could muster was one line: “Have a good one,” I said as I got up and started to walk away. “You as well,” he replied with a smile. Part of me wished that I had stayed, but it wasn’t in the cards.
I saw him a third time, but in a different spot nearby. He was sitting on the low, winding wall that watches over the park, in what seemed like an intense conversation with a woman. They sat close together, facing each other. I could sense that they were involved. I smiled when I saw this scene, it made sense. It is so rare, after all, for any two people to be in the same place, even when they are physically so. For two strangers, the odds were especially low. He was engrossed in the conversation and didn’t see me this time, even though as I walked past him I was smiling like a fool at life toying with me. I wasn’t even sad that he was not available after all, I just couldn’t believe the coincidence of seeing him three times, among the trees. But as I went over the moments in my head, part of me still felt that it was too significant for me to not do something at least. Not to try to win him away from anyone else, but to connect on some level. I knew what I would do.
The next day I returned to the spot. I picked up the sharpest stick that I could find and I wrote him a message in the dirt where we sat:
What is your name?
It was barely readable from afar, but if he sat in the spot he would be able to see it. I thought about taking a picture so that no matter what happened there would be some proof that this story had existed, but I decided against it. I wanted something to remain pure, of the old world.
When I came back to see if he had answered my message the following day, it was covered up by a new layer of dirt, my old letters only just peeking through. Had he seen it in time? Maybe he just hadn’t come to the spot that day. Maybe it was too vague. I let my mind wander. Most likely it had gone unseen and nature had intervened through its everyday patterns. I had known that it was a long shot. But at least I had believed in something and had seen the value in trying.
I never saw him again, he faded away with the summer. But I wasn’t sad, I knew that it wasn’t ever really about him. He wasn’t a person to me, he was more of a beautiful idea, the kind that can only exist in our minds. I guess that is the part that’s sad. The idea of a soulmate…what a nice thought it is, but logic says it’s just that—a nice idea, nothing more. But this experience made me think that maybe instead of searching for a cure, a missing piece, some kind of salvation…maybe we are each our own soulmates. We know ourselves better than anyone in the world—all of our details, our baggage, our flaws. All of the reasons that we have become who we are. We will be there with ourselves until the very end. And having a promise of forever in a time of constant change, even if it’s only from ourselves, is a truly powerful gift. I will be forever grateful for my soulmate tree.