Antoine Wilson
Sentimental Recollection
New Prose From the USA
We had a tree. I think it was an oak or an elm. Big, a good climbing tree, generous with shade. People tell me there’s no way an oak or elm could survive in Saudi Arabia, that I was twelve, that I must have remembered it wrong. This wasn’t Saudi Arabia, I tell them. It was the compound, where we and 5,000 others lived out our own version of America, surrounded by fences and gates. We had a tree. We were new and we had this huge tree in our front yard, on one of the only tree-lined streets in the compound. (My father was important, so when the company hired him, we got priority housing.) On warm, clear, windless Arabian nights, hundreds of couples and kids converged on foot and on BMX bikes to stroll and ride the length of our tree-lined street, the most convincingly American street in the compound. People called it Little Houston. A template for memories of the world we’d left behind.

I used to take a lot of pictures, and before we left Texas for Saudi, I shot a whole roll of film to make a panorama of our house and neighborhood: 360 degrees around, then up to the leafy canopies and the sky above. When we arrived in Saudi, I pasted the pictures to the inside of a big bowl and hung it over my bed with a pulley, so I could lower it just above my face while lying on my back. My desk lamp, the shade cranked to the side, lit the dome perfectly.

Something woke me that night: a giggle, a thunk. By the time I was awake the night was silent again. We’d been in Saudi maybe three months. I was in a state of constant exhaustion, having problems falling asleep, waking up at dawn every day. Any glimmer of consciousness and I was wide awake, wishing this life could be just another layer of the dream-continuum. But you can feel when you’re awake. There’s a heaviness, a solidity. My mother had died the year before: malignant melanoma. My father’s affair with the au pair, long suspected and long ignored by our community, suddenly became a scandal. Next thing we knew, Megan was our stepmom and we were on a plane to Saudi.

The night was still and quiet and dry. I turned on my desk lamp, cranked it to the side. It was two a.m. I lowered the Texas dome over my face and then I was lying on the grass, on Sassafras Drive, on a muggy August afternoon. The sky was divided, high wispy clouds to the North, a bank of massive gray clouds to the south. Our old house, its porch, half-rebuilt by my father: the skeleton of a porch. Among its bones, in triangular shade, I could just make out the cinderblocks we’d used as steps…

I awoke to Megan’s shaking my shoulder gently. “Sweetheart,” she said, “come out in front.” It was morning. She had pulled up the dome and tethered the string to its little cleat. My brother stood in the hall. His eyes were puffy, and he was on the verge of tears. I dressed and emerged into the hallway. My father stood at the open front door, a silhouette ringed by blinding brightness, sparkling dust. I followed him outside. Before my eyes adjusted, I thought something had exploded.

Our tree had been draped with hundreds of feet of flowing white toilet paper. My father began to gather it from the lawn, using a long curved stick to herd the mess. It was early, and our street was deserted. My brother looked to me. “Don’t worry, Max,” I said, “I’m sure it was my friends.” He had doubt in his eyes. He held large clumps of toilet paper in both fists. Megan picked through the ribbons, harvesting intact rolls. “We can use this stuff,” she said. Our tree shimmered green and white in the breeze. Streams of toilet paper rounded out its roundness, and the contrast made the green leaves greener. We gathered all of the toilet paper in the yard, and some of it that had blown onto the street. The wind picked up, paper fluttered everywhere, and in fifteen minutes, the sky went from deep blue to dusty washed-out blue. For some reason, we’d saved the tree for last. I climbed high into the branches, to work from the top down. My father, my brother, and Megan all watched from below. Paper was everywhere. Above roof level, I tasted dust on my tongue. I could no longer see my family through the dense white ribbons of paper. I reached the top, and poked my head up. The paper at the top of the tree lined up with the wind, and flapped like a bunch of aviator’s scarves. I saw green lawns, bungalows, swimming pools, the walls of the compound. And in the beige distance beyond, the clump of boxy buildings that was Al-Khobar, the towers of the desalination plant (like smoldering matchsticks stuck in the ground), the shimmering waters of the Gulf. My father’s voice from below: “Get to work.” I reached out to retrieve a strip of paper. It tore at a perforation, like it was supposed to. The orphaned piece clung to the end of a small branch, the wind gusted and the piece looked as though it was going to come loose and fly away, but did not. I had a handful of toilet paper. I crumpled it and watched it fall. It was a long way down. The paper snagged on a crook and stuck. Of course, I thought. Of course you’re going to stick to this bark, to these leaves and these branches. You used to be a tree yourself.