She lived in a red brick house and out of her bedroom window she could see the nearby forest. During the autumn of her fifth year, she accompanied her mom on a stroll through the forest. And as they watched the auburn leaves break away from the branches and glide swiftly to their final resting place, her mom remarked “these leaves die gracefully”. While her mom continued to talk poetically about the nearby trees, a leaf that still had specs of green landed on the girl’s shoe. She picked it up, and as her eyes soaked in the skeleton of the leaf and its sharp edges, she decided to take it home with her. At home her dad gave her a big piece of white paper, and she outlined the leaf with a black pen. She used pastels to color in the leaf’s outline, and she tried to preserve the leaf’s hue to the best of her ability. She remembered her mom’s remark about the leaves, and since the girl recently learned to read and write, she used a pen to title her picture in sloppy letters “Dead Leaf #1”. The next day she ventured into the forest again, and found another leaf. As the cold windy days of the autumn flew by, a collection of pictures titled “Dead Leaf #2”, “Dead Leaf #3”, “Dead Leaf #4”, and so forth filled a big brown box that stood in her bedroom. She continued this hobby every year, although every year the number of leaves she collected grew less and less. And during the autumn of her twelfth year, she found other interests, and she stopped collecting leaves. She only remembered the leaves when they crackled under her feet, as she took the forest path home from school.
During the autumn of her fourteenth year, a boy she had known since third grade took an interest in her. They had geography together, and every day before class the boy would ask her about what she did the previous day or about geography homework. She did not like the boy and she always kept her answers short, but she smiled at him while she answered because she was a polite girl. And although she did not like the boy, one day when he was sick from school and she had nobody to talk to before geography class, she realized that she missed their banal conversations. A week later he asked her if she would be interested in getting ice cream with him on Saturday. She said yes, not because she liked him, but because she had a craving for raspberry ice cream.
She was looking out of her bedroom window when she saw the boy arrive at her house on his bike. He got off his bike, but instead of walking towards the door, he stood for a moment and just stared at the house. She watched him while he used his right hand to fix his hair. This task proved pointless because a moment after he lowered his right arm, the wind blew his hair into disarray again. He began slowly walking towards the door, and when she heard the doorbell ring she knew it was for her.
They rode their bikes to the ice cream shop. She was grateful to the wind that shook her bike and bounced against the trees because it made it impossible to talk. At the ice cream shop, they sat at a table near the window, and the boy began the conversation by asking his usual question, “how has your day been?”. She told him how her dog chewed up her favorite red sweater, and how she had to chase him all though the house. The boy laughed, although she had not intended to be funny. “Do you like the zoo”, the boy asked.
“My favorite animal is the giraffe. I like it because there is not another animal that is similar to it.”
“Giraffes are cool.”
“Do you like the beach, I love going to the beach when there are plenty of waves.”
“The beach is alright, I don’t go that often.”
“One time I was surfing, and I lost my balance, and before I knew it I was flung underwater. I thought I was going to drown. As you can see I didn’t. I would have lost the surf board if my foot wasn’t tied to it.”
“I really wish I had a dog. Do you think you will have a dog when you grow up?”
“Maybe.” And the girl proceeded to ask the boy about his recent art project, not because she cared, but because she knew the boy would spend at least twenty minutes describing it, and she would not have to contribute to the conversation
They decided to ride their bikes though the forest before going home. They stopped next to a huge oak tree, and the girl had somehow lost her hair tie, and since she was standing up wind, her long hair kept whipping the front of her face, and protecting her from the boy. The boy gathered her hair in his hand, he held it behind her head, and he kissed her on the lips. The girl smiled because this was her first kiss. The second time the boy kissed her was on graduation day; he kissed her on the cheek and wished her good luck. They only kissed twice because two days later, while they were standing next to bright red lockers, the boy asked her if she wanted to “go out” and the girl responded “no, but I would like to be friends”. They were inside, and the boy did not have the comfort of dead leaves to soften her words.
During the autumn of her twentieth year she met the man she was going to marry. He was in her cultural anthropology class, and it became tradition to have coffee with him afterwards. One day, while discussing the Wodaabe tribe , the man said “I envy them. It must be nice for those men because all they have to do is put on makeup and do a little dance, and the women pick whichever guy they want, and they have sex with him. In our society men are required to put in a lot more effort if they want to get laid”.
“Would you put on makeup for me and dance around?” she asked seductively.
“If that’s what you are into,” he replied. And that jocular remark was the start of their relationship.
They dated for nine months and twenty days before they became engaged. During those months they saw each other every day, and she got used to telling him the most minuscule details of her life. By the time they got engaged he had heard twenty broken nail anecdotes and knew the biography of all of her friends. They laughed, talked, and argued passionately about what movie to watch on Friday night, and when he popped the big question, she kissed him and yelled yes, and spent the next day describing the proposal to her friends. However; the evening that he proposed, she lay awake all night, and as she listened to his breathing next to her, she wondered if she really loved him. She loved spending time with him, and she knew that she would be devastated if he broke up with her, but she didn’t have the feelings toward him she always imagined a person in love should have.
During the autumn of her twenty-sixth year, she spent a Saturday afternoon walking though the city alone while her husband was on a business trip and her three-year old son was visiting her parents. She collided with a man, and he accidentally spilled coffee all over her. “Let me make it up to you,” the man offered, and she agreed, mainly because the man had a handsome face. He bought her coffee and they went to a nearby park. They swung on the swings while they pleasantly conversed. She observed the way the sun made his wedding band gleam, and she wondered if he noticed her wedding ring. They did not talk about their jobs, spouses or children (she did not even know if he had children), but instead they talked about politics, religion, and Monet paintings. Towards the end of the conversation the man announced “it is so refreshing to have a real conversation with a person. I’m sick of answering superficial questions that include the words ‘what do you do’, ‘what degree do you have’, and ‘how many children do you have.”
“I don’t think those questions are superficial,” she replied. “The degree you decide to get has to with you inner qualities. And the job you acquire has to do with the type of degree you get. And with all the available birth control, the amount of children you have has to do with your personal choice, and not with god’s.”
“I don’t agree. The person you are is the person who spent the last two hours talking to me. The way you talked, the jokes you made, the opinions you aired; that’s what makes you an individual. Everything else is just facts. If you know that someone is an engineer with two kids, what do you really know about them?”
“That the jokes aren’t true, and engineers really do have sex”
The man laughed and looked at his watch. “I have to get going,” he said. They both stood up, and he walked towards her. He kissed her on the lips, a kiss that lasts too long to be considered proper. They don’t exchange contact information, but before they part their separate ways she asked him, “what is your favorite season”.
He answered, “fall.”
“Mine too,” she replied, and they both smile. Then they turned around and walked in opposite directions.
During the autumn of her thirty-fifth year, she and her twelve-year-old son went on a stroll through a golden leafed forest. This was not the forest of her childhood, although it did have many similarities. As she listened to the crackling of the lifeless leaves under her son’s feet, she told him the story of how she used to collect and trace leaves when she was a child. “What a stupid hobby,” he replied. “Why did you do it?”
“It was not a stupid hobby,” she answered. And she tried to explain to him the beauty of those leaves, but she could not find the right words. Her son smirked at her silence and continued walking down the forest path as his shoes tore apart the auburn leaves beneath them.
During the autumn of her thirty-sixth year her divorce became finalized. Six months earlier she had discovered that her husband slept with half the women in America. Maybe she was exaggerating; maybe he only slept with one-third of the women in America. The signs had been there all along. The long weekend “work” trips, the clothes that smelled of a perfume she did not own, and he did not even need to lie to her because she was a master at deceiving her self. However; when she saw his credit card bill, and noticed that he spent one thousand dollars on a necklace she never received, she could no longer live in denial.
It was her idea to get a divorce. She would have forgiven him if he had apologized profusely, and if he had sworn that he would never cheat on her again. She would have been satisfied even if those words had been lies. Instead, he said that although he loved her and wanted to stay married, he was not going to pretend that he would stop cheating on her, and he would understand if she wanted a divorce. She should not have been surprised by his words because this was the same man who admired a tribe where cheating was encouraged. In the divorce settlement she got the house and full custody of her son, although she did agree to let his dad see him when he wanted to.
She is alone in the house, and she is sitting in a wicker chair while trying to reread one of her favorite books, but her mind keeps wondering off. She remembers the comments she got during the divorce.
Her mom: “You are lucky to be rid of him, think of all the diseases you could have gotten.”
Her dad: “You are lucky to be of him, think how awful you would have felt if he had a love child.”
Her best friend: “You are lucky to be rid of him, you deserve so much better.”
The words “you are lucky to be rid of him” resonate in her head. She knows he was an awful husband. She is lucky to be rid of him! He was the man who cheated on her, lied to her, and made her delicious grilled cheese sandwiches every morning.
During the autumn of her thirty-eighth year, she goes to the second wedding of one of her friends. Since her divorce she has become a gym member, and when she looks in the mirror she knows her body looks good. She decides to wear a brown strapless dress to the wedding. At the reception everybody compliments her dress and the way she looks in it. In fact one bawdy friend tells her that the dress makes her boobs look “absolutely luscious”. Despite these compliments she feels empty inside, and spends the reception going from one group of people to another.
The group of people who are sitting at a table are laughing and reminiscing about drunken college nights, the group of people who are standing next to buffet are severely criticizing the government, and the group of people on the dance floor are admiring the decorations and music of the reception hall. She talks to every group, and depending on the group she laughs, scowls, or nods. However, she is on autopilot and her brain is busy repressing the memories of her own wedding.
A man asks her to dance and she politely accepts. While they dance he asks her, “where do you work,” and she answers him. Than he asks her “what degree did you get” and “and how many children do you have.” After she satisfies his inquiry, she asks him if he enjoys going to art museums. “I don’t have time for art museums,” he replies. “I have three lovely daughters who take up all of my time.” He than proceeds to give a monologue about the many wonderful qualities his daughters possess.
It is two in the morning and she is at home admiring herself in the mirror. The compliments weren’t lies; she does look good in that dress. She thinks about the bride, and how happy she looked dancing with her second groom. She tries to remember a time when she had been deliriously happy, but she can’t think of such a moment. She recalls all the shallow conversations she had at the wedding. She wonders at what age did she become alienated from her friends, and then she begins to think that perhaps the connection she used have with them was an illusion. She ponders this new thought as she unzips her dress and washes off her make up.
During the autumn of her forty-second year, she decides to visit her parents, while her son and ex-husband chase after college girls. Her parents still live in the same red brick house, and her bedroom had not been altered since she moved out. She stands in her bedroom and she looks out her window at the familiar forest view. She remembers the games of tag, the bike rides, and the midnight kisses under the stars which she experienced in that forest. She remembers the long walks home among the trees, and how she used to imagine her future during those walks, and she realizes her current reality does not match those daydreams. She walks towards her closet, which once was overfilled with clothes, but now is overfilled with mementos from her past. She sees a familiar brown box in the closet. As she opens the box, she sees a pile of papers with traced leaves on them. They are arranged in numerical order: Dead Leaf #324 at the top, and Dead Leaf #1 at the bottom. She looks at every leaf drawing, and she examines the coloring and outline of each leaf. She notices the way her handwriting deteriorates from cursive to sloppy letters. She walks out of the house and enters the forest. She is on a mission to find dead leaf #325.