Think gaudy East Harlem hookah-bar décor. Think candlelight. Think hot, smoke-thick, cinnamon-scented air. Think fledgling romance. Think hushed Arabic. Think midnight. Think Bono crooning quietly under the sounds of October in New York or New York in October, singing, blue-eyed boy meets a brown-eyed girl. Oh-oh-oh. The sweetest thing.
It doesn’t matter whether these things actually happened or whether you make them up to make perfect things more perfect. In either case, your generational obsession with the cinematic is sufficiently humored. Later on, if need be, stick a directorial finger into your hippocampus and tweak the lighting, change the flavor, change the song. There is a way we remember things, and it is this: We remember only the things we want to remember—we forget the unflattering details. We are kind to ourselves, at least in hindsight.
Sit yourself directly across from him, look at him, pretend it comes naturally. Decide what accent you will speak in today and, once you’ve decided, ask him very simply, “Tell me a story.” Maybe he will smile, or maybe you will remember him as having smiled, and maybe he will ask what kind of story you want to hear.
“A happy one.”
He will hold both of your hands in both of his hands, and he will tell you about a 10-year-old boy in Colby, Kansas. taking bus No. 12 home on the last day of school before the summer, walking down his driveway as slow as possible, memorizing everything. Finally, stepping onto his front yard, he stretches his arms out as far out to his sides as they will go, looks up at the bluest of all possible Midwestern skies, and falls backwards onto the earth. No real regard for where he lands because that wasn’t the important part. The important part, he will tell you, was falling. He will tell you about making snow angels without snow. Summer vacation angels, ice-cream truck angels, bicycle bell angels, Kansas angels.
Suddenly, too soon, it’s your turn to tell a story. You will know this because, more often than not, he will tell you. If you’re caught off guard, at least be charming about it. Recover. Then tell him about the trees in Madras that you spent your childhood falling from. Jasmine trees and mango trees. Indian summer trees followed quickly by Indian monsoon trees. This might remind him of his best friend, Christian, and their secret meeting place—a grove across the lake behind his house. They called it The Restaurant. He will trust you with this code name, and you will promise that your lips are sealed. When, in response, he says, “That’s not true—I know you’re going to write about this,” don’t let on how exposed you feel. Smile, instead, at the predictable intimacy, and tell him your own childhood secrets. A tree that you claimed to have planted when you hadn’t really. Tire swings.
In return, he will tell you about the tree house that he and his cousin tried to build in their Grandma Kay’s yard in Meade, Kansas. At Grandma Kay’s funeral this past summer, what they remembered was that she had let them. He will tell you that the tree seemed a lot taller 10 years ago than it really was and that it’s gone now, anyway. You will tell him that you’re terrified of your parents dying, and he will look at you as if he knows you. He will look at you as if he gets you, and surprisingly, you’re OK with it.
Tell him you had to put your dog to sleep last December and how, at your grandfather’s cremation a decade ago, you were only nine years old and you didn’t know any better, so you started lifting tree logs towards the pyre. So many strangers, all in white, all tilting their heads to one side, all saying things like, “I’m so sorry.” Saying things like, “Your dadaji was a great man.” You remember how your mother pulled you back, told you only boys were allowed to touch the pyre, and then lowered her veil and cried for the first time.
These are the things you remember, and, to be honest, it doesn’t matter whether they even happened. There is a correct way to tell a tree story, and it is this: Remember only the things you want to remember—forget the unflattering details. Be kind to yourself , at least in hindsight.
Tell him about your brother and your father and your hometown. He will tell you about his. Three hours later, realize that you’ve been holding hands so hard that you have to check for nail marks. Tell him about your grandmother’s poetry. When he says, “I really want you to teach me Hindi,” laugh very softly and tell him you will. Mean it. Then, when he leans in, let him.