I've never told anyone this story.
Earlier this year I found myself in Auckland, again, and I wasn't happy. A combination of work stresses, life stresses, and niggling joint inflammation were putting me in a funk. On top of that the introverted side of me was screaming in agony, working elbow to elbow on a big desk with my project team for long days with no natural cover. I mean, I was seriously exposed there. I worked in an open plan office building which lacked not only walls but also half the floors and ceilings. Somehow I ended up with my back and my monitor visible from four different storeys. When each day ended I would amble back to my hotel room with nothing to do but kill time until the next day started. It was depressing.
At least by this stage it wasn't winter in New Zealand anymore. It wasn't hot, or anything close to that, but I could at least go for a walk at lunchtime and not get rained on or freeze. And so one lunch I found myself walking in Victoria Park, and then I found myself sitting under a tree on a bench in Victoria Park. In hindsight the tableau was comical: me sitting, scowling in the cheery sunshine surrounded by lush flora and smiling, exercising people on the lunch breaks. That's how it was, though.
The sun felt good, really good, and I didn't want to move. I pulled out my phone to kill some more time in the way I killed a lot of time then: playing Pokemon Diamond on a DS Emulator. I was taking out some hapless trainer with my Crobat when the breeze kicked up and the brushy branch of the tree above brushed me about the head.
It wasn't a painful blow. The tree was no sapling, but its branches were thin and leafy and it really only tickled. Still, I scowled deeper and shoved the branch away. Another gust later and the branch came back, stroking my face, clawing at my shoulders. It didn't just glance by. The wind swirled in some unpredictable way that made the branch feel like it was tousling my hair, embracing me, pulling me in for a hug.
"No, tree," I said. Haplessly, it proved. The branch would not relinquish its cuddling grasp of me. I slid a foot further down the bench, away from the tree and into the warm sun. The branch followed with its exploring, fiddling fingers and before I could stop it I was being tickled under the chin, batted, you might even say clumsily groped.
Before I knew what was happening I was smiling. I couldn't help myself. This tree was like an incorrigible puppy full of nothing but innocent affection and energy. I gave myself up to the moment, to the tree and let it pat me, let it have me with no resistance. I let it love me.
As quickly as it started the wind died down again. The tree stretched back up to its original position. The sun struck me, and I realised I needed to get back to work. Still, there was an extra bounce in my stride back to my shared desk. And I was still smiling.
By the end of the day, alas, any renewed optimism had been eroded. I slunk back to my hotel in anticipation of stewing sourly, putting off running on the treadmill, and then another night on the soft and lumpy hotel bed. After I'd turned out the lights I couldn't sleep. Not an uncommon situation for me when I'm in an airtight hotel room, but this was different. I kept thinking about the tree. I knew it had been nothing, just a serendipitous suck from a high pressure cell in the atmosphere when I was in just the right place. The tree didn't really like me, or have any feelings for me at all. I knew that. It didn't stop me from thinking about it though.
A point came in the night where I'd passed the threshold of no sleep. Down on the streets I could see nobody, Auckland is not a city that never sleeps. A police car cruised slowly down the hill, otherwise nothing.
I dressed quietly but quickly, jeans and the same t-shirt I'd worn the night before. I rode down the elevator and passed the desk staff who smiled at me, but said nothing.
It was a short trip back to Victoria Park. I walked quickly, not because it was cold, because I wanted to see the tree. I wanted to reach the tree before the rational part of my brain realised what was going on and ordered me back to bed. The rationality never kicked in, though. Not even when I passed through the park gates and onto the path that looped around the ovals.
"I'm almost here, tree." I thought, one united thought. Tonight I wasn't going to find myself anywhere, this moment I was going somewhere instead. I had purpose, although I hadn't worked out exactly what I was going to say to the tree when I reached it. Small talk to start, probably, play it safe and...
My feet had carried me to within view of the tree, it's white bark lit up by the reflection from the moon under the cloudy night sky. I didn't take a step further. I couldn't believe it. There, under my tree was another man. He was dressed in business pants, a buttoned up shirt. The tree's branch wrapped around him. His arms were around the tree. That was a freeze frame, but they were a flurry of motion. I couldn't tell where he ended and the branches began.
"Slut!" I screamed at the tree, which stirred a few homeless people nearby.
"Go back to Australia, mate," the man enveloped by the tree yelled back, muffled. He put extra snarl on the 'mate' part.
I ran back to the hotel, but I didn't cry. Eventually I found myself asleep.
I'm glad I don't need to go back to Auckland again.