Problem Tree

Gold with a few green stragglers, the short tree under my fire escape was almost ready for my neighbor’s art project. Once the leaves were gone he planned to affix small yellow, orange and red envelopes, mirroring fall colors, filled with the problems of strangers. “Not a giving tree,” he said to me bouncing up and down slowly on the balls of his feet, “a problems and complaints tree.” I couldn’t help but smile even though I knew this was a serious art project. “A whining tree,” I suggested.

Grant, my neighbor, had a man-bun, a new fashion where even men with hair that was just shaggy, rather than long, scooped up the top part into a ballerina’s bun. He also smoked, another must-have accessory of the downtown New York City hipster. I kept my back to him, resentful of the poisons he forced on me, second-hand. “How do you think it looks?” he asked, taking out a box with the empty envelopes ready to go. “I don’t know,” I said. “Until you put the cigarette out, I’m not turning around.”

He laughed and laughed, a combination of guffawing and shallow high-pitched chuckling, as if he was calibrating something inside himself. “OK, OK,” he said. When I couldn’t smell the cigarette poison anymore, I slowly turned around. “You know,” he said, “we’re outside—it’s all diluted outside.” I shook my head and felt my irritability rising. “Not true,” I launched in, ready to debate, “if you’re in close proximity, it doesn’t matter whether you’re outside or inside. It’s equally poisonous.”

Grant was ignoring me now and riffling through the envelope box. “Actually, these have problems in them already,” he said. “I have two boxes now—one full of problems waiting to be picked off the tree, once it’s bare, and another, empty, waiting to be filled by additional problems.”

“Sealed or unsealed? If the idea is for people to pick problems, do they pick the problems seen or unseen?” I asked. I didn’t mind exchanging my long-term problems for another person’s, as long, of course, as it wasn’t a terminal illness, horrible disability or psychological malfunction worse than I already suffered from. Basically, I was looking to exchange with someone who was just having trouble finding the right hairdo, or a person who couldn’t afford the $5,000 “it” jacket.

“I think it would be better for everyone to pick at random, unseen,” he said. I laughed and moved away from the sealed-up problems.

“And I was so close to being able to have foresight in my life, almost got to choose the perfect problem for myself!” I said.  Grant didn’t find that overly funny. He looked at me with an implacable face and then smirked. He thought of this project as a serious psychological study, I guess. “Well, it won’t be long now,” I said. “Another couple weeks and the tree should be free of all leaves and ready for problems dressed up in fall colors. Since it’s going to be in fall colors, maybe a lot of people won’t even notice that it’s small envelopes instead of leaves, and they’ll just walk past.”

Grant didn’t seem concerned. He was one of those types who assumed people would be interested in everything he did. The idea that he would be disregarded was beyond his belief. “No, they’ll notice,” he said. Problems will be blowing in the breeze.”

“You mean ‘in the wind,’ like the song,” I said, laughing. Grant didn’t laugh. “Yeah, sort of,” he said. His man-bun needed tidying, so Grant patted it repeatedly and sighed, as though the burden of maintaining a proper man-bun while readying an obscure art project was too much to ask of one person. “I think it will be well received,” he said.

A few weeks later, after a windy rainstorm, the tree was bare, so Grant brought in a few friends more burly than himself to affix the envelopes with a hammer. Each envelope was secured to a large nail with durable string and then the nails were hammered into the tree.  The envelopes were red, orange, yellow and brown, and really looked a little like droopy autumn leaves from a distance after they all were in place.

Grant was having the equivalent of an art gallery opening that night. He had invited everyone he was connected to on Facebook and Twitter to come by and pick off problems. “The only question is whether there will be enough problems for everyone,” he said.

I laughed as he looked mystically upward as if he had just made a divine proclamation. He didn’t seem to hear me. “Yeah, well, I guess some people will just have to do their best to get by without problems,” I said.

At first the problem tree had only passive visitors—people who lived in the neighborhood curious to see why there were multicolored envelopes hanging from bare tree boughs. But by the end of the tree’s “opening night,” a few had begun to pick off problems. The surprise came when a girl with a polka dot umbrella, a miniskirt, and what looked like combat boots, pulled one of the golden envelopes down and then reached into her purse for a pad and pen. After scribbling for a minute or two and re-reading whatever she had scribbled, the girl pushed back her long dark bangs, walked over to Grant and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, is it OK to leave problems, or do we just have to take them?” she asked. “You don’t even have to buy more envelopes, see?” she said, stuffing her scribbled up piece of paper into the same golden envelope she had taken from.

Grant spent a good minute patting his man-bun and looking upward. “Well, I don’t see why not, but we won’t be making any progress that way—the problem tree will never be emptied. It’ll turn into an ongoing project—old problems getting taken and new problems being added. “OK, well, I guess, if it’s important to you. Maybe you’ll be one of the few,” he sniffed.

I couldn’t resist jumping in then: “Actually, she probably has the right idea. It’ll be more interactive and interesting that way.”

“It’s possible,” Grant allowed. “Like I said, we’ll see.” He turned away from me and took out one of his cigarettes, cupping his hand over it to light it without the wind interfering. I turned away and began walking in the other direction. “What a disgusting habit!” I said loudly before holding my breath and leaving.

It didn’t take long for the tree to catch on—it seemed that anything free—even problems—moved fast in New York. I wished the envelopes weren’t sealed so you could shop for your problems. I hated the idea of having to choose a problem unseen. I also couldn’t decide which of my own problems to give away. I mainly had resentment and anger to give away, more than problems.

I resented the bicycle riders who rode the wrong way on streets, ran stoplights and then were babied with public service announcements about how we all should be concerned for their safety. I also resented smokers, as I mentioned. I was tired of having to run around them, or even cross the street, to avoid being downwind of their cancer smoke. “Have you heard the news? Smoking causes cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, and even causes your teeth to rot,” I longed to tell them. But of course they had heard the news. They just believed it wouldn’t happen to them, or that they were “living in the moment.” Or better yet, this response: “Well, there are just so many ways to get cancer.” That was a classic smoker line.

I wondered if resentment and anger counted as problems I could pass on to an unsuspecting art project participant. I also had anxiety to give away. The next day I finally decided to chance it at the problem tree. Instead of exchanging my anxiety and anger, I thought it would be more humane to choose an easier problem to pass on. So, I was offering up my lack of closet space. Now, I just had to hope I wasn’t exchanging my lack of closet space for a rare disease or the problem of being pursued by a psychopath. After all, when you gave away a minor problem, you never knew what—how much worse—you were going to get in return.

I was standing under the problem tree, glowering up at it, my resentment again the issue—resenting this time that I felt compelled to participate in an art project. I didn’t like to not do something I said I’d do—and even encouraged—so now I was stuck on a cold day looking up at orange, gold and brown envelopes fluttering in the breeze, each one promising a chance at bad karma—being so unappreciative of one of my own problems that I end up with a much bigger one. I had never taken the time before to savor my problems. Now, I felt regret that I had to choose one to give away.

“You’re thinking about it too much,” Grant said, sneaking up on me from behind. “Be in the moment; it’s not about choosing—just tear one off.” I smiled, but my heart wasn’t in it. It seemed like just another depressing chore, rather than an exciting artistic experiment. Why would you want to give your problems to someone else?

“Well, I was thinking of my closet space problem, and I never have enough quarters when I go to the laundromat. Does that count as a problem?” I asked. “Or how about how much I loathe smoking?” I wondered that out loud as two girls, who looked like they were in high school, lit up near me. “Or how about how I lack the willpower to dust properly and weed out the old clothes in my closet?” Grant wasn’t listening to me anymore. In one hand was his lit cigarette, which he puffed on about once a minute, and in his other hand was his phone, which he was scrolling through looking at text messages or e-mails, head averted. “I think you just have to choose a new problem,” he said finally. “Then, whatever your own problem is, will become apparent.”

Already a few others had snapped problem-filled envelopes from the tree—almost with glee. I was the only one hesitating. I guess I was taking it too seriously, I told myself. So, I treated it like buying shoes and decided to just go by color. Gold goes with everything, I said to myself, so I snapped off a low-hanging branch with a gold envelope: “My roommate steals from me, but just small things—little fold-up umbrellas, cigarette lighters, hand towels, books. But I’m afraid to say anything because she’s my favorite roommate ever. I’d rather live with a thief whose company I enjoy than with an honest person I don’t like.”

This problem giver didn’t register any resentment as far as I could tell. The simple fact of anyone—let alone someone I trusted enough to live with—stealing from me would have created such resentment that I couldn’t have gone on living with that person. And yet somehow the problem giver didn’t seem to care. She (or he?) seemed more troubled that she continues to like this person and doesn’t want to have to ask him or her to move out.

“What a waste of an excuse to get rid of someone!” I said out loud. Grant turned around and laughed. “What? What are you talking about?” I considered lying to save his impression of me as a nice person, but ended up not bothering. “Well, this problem giver says her (or is it his?) roommate is probably stealing stuff, and instead of using that to get the roommate out of the apartment, the problem giver is looking for ways to keep the thief in spite of the stealing. She figures it’s a shame to lose a roommate you like just because he’s stealing stuff,” I said. Grant kept laughing at me and shuffling around his pack of cigarettes—even though he knew I detested being around smoking. As if he were doing it to spite me. “She’s a people person, I guess. She doesn’t like to cut out people from her life over small stuff,” he suggested.

I decided no longer to look at him. “’Small stuff?’ What are you talking about? He’s stealing from her—and he isn’t a stranger off the street. He’s her roommate.”

“But she likes this roommate—you can’t under-estimate that,” Grant said, fishing around in his pockets for his lighter. I was ready to get rid of him just for the smoking, so a roommate letting stealing go didn’t make sense to me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped. I decided to turn my back to him again, like I so often did during our conversations, to avoid his poison exhalations. “Well, anyway, so now what do I do with this thing?” I said snapping the golden envelope in the air.

I still needed to come up with a problem of my own to “share”—to pass along to a poor unsuspecting stranger. That’s what you get for being open minded enough to participate in a weird outdoor art project. I tucked the stranger with the thieving roommate into my purse and began obsessing over which problem to force onto someone else.

At home that night, the disarray of broken was stunning. The shades no longer could be pulled up and down because the pulley had long since broken. The small lamp with the cute miniature shade in the bedroom (on the windowsill I used as a nightstand) was broken for unknown reasons.  I had dropped it while making the bed last week, and though the landing had been soft, the cord had gotten muddled somehow, and now it wouldn’t work. The outlet closest to the lamp no longer worked, either, because when the previous lamp broke, a fuse was blown and I didn’t like tampering with the fuse box, so it remained blown.

A cabinet over the stove was missing, and had been missing for about five years, when it nearly toppled on my head. My landlord’s son said he’d get me a new one, but never did, and since I wasn’t using the cabinet for much, I just let it go. The bedroom window no longer locked for reasons unknown to me, but I was on the second floor, and an intruder would have to drag a ladder into an alley and then precariously balance it, so I was taking my chances (knock wood). The soap dish was gone from above the tub in the bathroom. Two times the landlord attempted to affix it, and two times for unknown reasons I had come home to a shattered soap dish lying in pieces in the basin of the tub. How did that happen?

The light on the ceiling in the kitchen was out, and had been out for years. I kept having the bulb replaced only to find it burn out just a month later, so I figured something was screwy with the wiring, and it was safer to just ignore.

The oven and stove didn’t work, but that was by choice. After returning from a business trip and finding a note from my cat sitter that my orange tabby Springles had turned the stove on (I guess she was getting tired of cold meals or it could have been her toys and food, which I left on top of the stove), I was so scared, I got the gas turned off. I wasn’t using it anyway, so why bother? The white paint looked like curdled milk in an upper corner of the apartment due to water damage after a leak sprung through the floorboards of the apartment above mine. The leak was gone (hopefully), but the water stain remained.

I sat in the disarray like the owner of an avant-garde one-of-a-kind dysfunction capsule. Who else had this particular mix of disrepair? It was the home living equivalent of a fingerprint—it was my disrepair print. The rent was stabilized and hadn’t been raised since I moved in ten years ago, so combined with the subconscious affinity I must have felt for the disrepair and dust (easily taken care of on my own—if I weren’t inert), I lounged on the couch considering my anxiety, and, now, the problems I could share. Was disrepair my problem, or just a symptom of a problem?

I was surrounded by long-time Village dwellers—people who had lived in this building for 30 or 40 years, and due to rent stabilization, only paid a few hundred dollars a month, while I paid $1,650. Should I resent these people—another thing broken in my life? As far as I knew, they weren’t even stealing from me, and I wanted them gone. I felt I was paying their share for them (so maybe they were stealing from me). I could hear NPR on from the room across the hall, which its owner kept ajar at all times, and If I listened slightly more closely, I could hear the Hare Krishnas down the hall ringing a bell and chanting. Grant’s apartment wasn’t in the few-hundred dollar range of old-time stabilization, but he was about $500 behind me, and unlike the old timers in the building, he didn’t have to endure a bathtub in the kitchen.

He was probably still tending to his problem tree, cigarette in hand, gazing up at the branches weighed down with the submissions of strangers. Puffing cancerous smoke at those who paused to hang a problem—as if they needed another problem like incidental poisoning.

No need to speculate when you have a problem tree under your window. I pushed the shade back just enough so I could look down without anyone seeing me—I wasn’t in the mood to be cajoled into coming down “for a few.” Grant wasn’t smoking, but was shaking the envelopes and unhooking some of them and holding them up to the street light, as if he could see through the sealed paper to the problems beneath. He then grabbed a red envelope, and with a letter opener in his pocket, delicately pried it open. He concentrated intently and then began laughing, and not even soft, embarrassed laughing, but loud, careless laughter. It wasn’t that late at night, but I guess he thought that, as the master of the problem tree, people would assume he was securing the envelopes rather than prying. Grant had come prepared. He had a glue stick that he used to reseal the envelopes, so, he must have assumed, no one would notice that they had been opened. It seemed no different to me than reading another person’s mail, or even a private diary entry. I opened my window and stuck my head out, prepared to resist coming down to “talk it out” with him. “Hey, hey,” I yelled as if I were trying to shoo away an unwanted stray animal. “Hey, there, Grant!”

He looked up and smiled. “Yeah, what’s going on?” Always so casual and in the moment. Smoothing his man-bun. “You’re opening private messages,” I shouted down. “Not private, intended to be shared by whomever happens to choose them,” Grant said. “Right, ‘whomever happens to choose them,’ not you, prying with your gratuitous inspections,” I said. He probably thought I was joking because he just kept smiling, and even started laughing. “Have you figured out what your problem is yet?” he asked.

I had to control myself from also laughing, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. “Well, I think my main problem is intrusions like yours into places they don’t belong—having the people who live around you overstepping. I’m not as nice as my problem-giver,” I said. “I don’t think it’s OK to steal from a person you live with, or near, just because you’re friends and like each other. I feel like you’re violating the people who stuffed their problems in the sealed envelopes and were naïve enough to participate in your art project. It’s disrespectful.”

Grant shuffled his pack of cigarettes, and drawing one out and lighting it, blew smoke generously into the air, to spite me, I thought. I turned away and let him address the back of my head. “Nobody here seems to mind except you,” he said.

“Some of them—maybe even a lot of them—probably do mind, but they’re too embarrassed to say anything, or they just haven’t figured out yet what you’re doing,” I said.

“That’s your presumption,” he said.

I turned then and shut the window to the apartment and drew the shade down, not wanting to see Grant’s arrogant perusal of others’ problems—as if he was window shopping for problems while the rest of us were forced to choose sight unseen. The sounds of dog claws scratching the ceiling and clomping human feet sounded as the man who lived above me got home. The chiming of the Hare Krishna bells down the hall was at it again, and the man across the hall was blaring a jazz show on his radio. I thought I could even smell Grant’s cigarette smoke sneaking in through my windowpane.

Maybe my problem was insulation—if only the windows were better insulated and there was no smoke from friends’ or strangers’ cigarettes that could pass through—no incidental poisonings from others. And the door frame could be insulated, too, though I wasn’t sure how. Maybe I could find a cloth towel to shove around the corners and underneath to make the noise from my neighbors less noticeable. I grabbed my phone and began shuffling through the white noise options in an app I had recently added. Would I prefer to pretend I was at the beach, on a train, on a camping trip with crickets, lying under an industrial strength fan, or locked inside a vacuum (one option was a whooshing air sound)? The vacuum was appealing, but I chose the beach for now. With the waves up at full throttle I could barely hear the voices outside, and couldn’t hear at all the Hare Krishna bells.

Next, I retrieved the plastic Ziplock bag of flesh-colored foam earplugs that I kept by my bedside. I rolled them up and squeezed them as deep inside my ears as possible. The waves sounded muffled now, but I kept them as fail-safe aural barriers to others. My problem-giver could live with a thief she liked, but I wouldn’t have it. Even the idea of stealing the silence I owned, or stuffing my empty air full of cigarette smoke, would result in a sealing off, an enclosure against trespassers.

It seemed the only way to have the freedom to make everything just the way I wanted it was to seal everything off. As long as others could affect my environment, I wouldn’t be able to have everything exactly the way I wanted it. I felt they were stealing from me the ability to make things the way I wanted them to be. With this epiphany I rushed to the window to see if Grant was still there snooping through strangers’ problems, opened the window and yelled down sharp enough that he jumped and his lit cigarette fell to the pavement: “Hey, I figured out my problem—other people are interfering with the way I want things to be—they’re stealing the way I want things to be from me!”

Nobody was paying attention. Grant looked up, smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, his voice rising at the end of the word, “that makes sense.” He laughed and began picking up trash around the tree. I was being made fun of. I turned back inside my apartment and resumed the insulation. No need to open the window any longer, not even in summer. I had a strong window air conditioner, and it was too cold during the winter to open the window, and now I could see no reason to communicate to anyone on the other side anyway. I didn’t want to be laughed at, or have poison smoke blown at me, or have to see a poseur unsealing sealed-over problems and conducting inspections of his “art project.” I didn’t want to feel any more like I was being intruded on. “Intrusions,” I sniffed to myself.

The problem was I could still hear the murmurings of interest and excitement over that stupid tree, even after all the measures I’d taken not to. I would have to talk to the landlord about getting Grant and his project removed. Maybe the tree, which hadn’t grown too big, could be transplanted to a pretentious experimental art space somewhere nearby. A place friendly to smoking, smirking man-buns—who presume to know your problems.

“Yeah, the tree right under my window,” I told Lester, the super, as soon as he called me back. “Grant Edwards has this art project where he’s stringing envelopes from the branches and it’s causing a disturbance—it’s keeping me up at night.”

Lester said he couldn’t do anything because the tree was on public property, and Grant had gotten a permit for his project from the city, so I would have to live with it. I could complain to the city, but by the time they got around to reviewing the situation and making a decision, the project would be over. The problems hanging under my window, tended to by a man-bun hipster-poseur, would remain.

The problem was the problems were self-perpetuating. No sooner had one envelope been taken down, then another was tacked on. Apparently, there was enthusiasm for this project. The word must have spread, and there were endless participants. So, I decided to add my problem to one of the tree’s branches. The project wasn’t going anywhere, so I might as well get something out of it, I reasoned. “I’d like to find the best kind of insulation to seal myself into my apartment and into my peace. My problem is intrusions from others,” I wrote on the note inside my sealed envelope. “Where or how can I seal myself in better?”

It was raining slightly, and I had my dome umbrella out to catch even the tiniest droplet. Meanwhile, others at the problem tree were umbrella-less, with their hoods up, at best. They didn’t seem to care about getting cold mist on their faces, or their hair getting humidified. Even a few man-buns were letting the rain trickle into them. “Do you think I could exchange my problem of not being able to find an affordable apartment with someone else’s problem?” a twenty-something woman in glued-to-the-bone jeans asked a friend, who laughed. “That’s your biggest problem? Hey, I’m 31 and still single.” Then they both started laughing and reaching up to hold a potential problem for a second or two before reaching for another, as if just briefly holding the sealed envelope could transmit through their fingertips the best problem to choose. Even worse, there was a bantering, amorous couple also under the problem tree, exchanging kisses and nudging each other in baby talk as they looked up at the hanging envelopes. “No, that one,” the woman said. “Oh, no, the low hanging ones are the ones for you,” the man shot back. They laughed and laughed, though who knew why?

I sidestepped, like I once saw a crab sidestep on the beach. I wanted to evade detection, though anyone who was interested could see me standing right there. “Care to share?” I heard a loud voice chirp. I looked up to see the amorous couple. I tried to laugh casually. “Share what?” I asked.

“The problem you’re leaving behind,” the female half of the couple said. She was chubby but wearing the skin-tight jeans that were the fashion, along with a black close-fitting jacket with a hood with a fake fur trim. “I’m looking for ways to better insulate myself,” I said. She smiled, nodded and laughed. “Right!” she said. “I get that. These Village apartments are really drafty. We can’t seem to keep the wind out.” I smiled as kindly as I could and continued my sideways crab crawl. I sighed and looked up at the roofs of the nearby buildings hoping to indicate that the conversation was done.

I heard footsteps and the rustling of jackets while I kept my eyes fixed to the periphery and uppermost borders of the buildings. After a few minutes, I glanced carefully down—inconspicuously in case someone was still around—and saw the couple had moved on and I was alone again. It was about 9 pm, and the problem tree’s traffic had slowed. Sometimes a passerby would pause for a few seconds, or a couple would stop and make a few comments, or laugh to themselves, but other than those brief interruptions, it was pleasantly empty—for about 10 minutes.

A procession of cancerous smoke snailed around my head and then: “I thought you were trying to get rid of this.” It was Grant, of course, with his ever-present cigarette. I winced and turned my head. “I tried really hard, I called Lester—you probably heard—to get rid of it, but since you got a permit for it and no one else seems to have a problem with it, yada, yada, whatever, he says there’s nothing that can be done about it, I’ll just have to stick it out.”

Grant laughed and turned his head up, blowing his smoke up out of his mouth and nose like a whale blowing spray through its blowhole. “Poor thing, so sad,” he said. “Have you decided on your problem yet?” he asked. I wondered whether I should just ignore his question, or even walk away since that was the question that set me off the last time we talked, but thought it would only make him laugh at me again if I stomped off. “Insulation, to be apart from things that could hurt me, like that,” I said pointing to the smoke drifting up into the air. Grant smiled and sighed. “Well, it’s not that bad, is it?” he said. “Are you kidding?” I nearly shrieked. “Second-hand smoke is even worse than first-hand smoke. It causes cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and even limb loss—“ Grant had dissolved into laughter and was nearly doubled over in hysterics. “No, really, people loose limbs from it,” I shouted. “It causes constriction of the arteries—really I’m not making that up.”

“I believe you,” he said, continuing to puff. “But I don’t think that’s your problem.”

I kept sidling away, crab-style, sideways, just like one of those little animals skirting along the shore, just out of reach of the water, but close enough to slide back in if necessary. “Well, you’re right—I mean that’s only part of it—it’s bigger than that. It’s the Hare Krishna bells down the hall, the man with his dogs stomping around on top of me—above my apartment—the man across the hall with his forever open door and his pile of books pushing up against my doormat. It’s all the whistling and humming and people singing to themselves—I just can’t stand any of it. I try to be considerate, and it just seems that nobody reciprocates,” I said.

“They don’t because they don’t see it as being inconsiderate,” Grant said.

“Well, I can’t help it if people have bad manners,” I huffed. “I just have to try to protect myself from them.”

The man-bun was wispy that night with many stray hairs escaping. In fact, it was more the idea of a man-bun that night than an actual bun. Grant noticed me staring and winked. “What?” he asked. “Something wrong?”

“No, it’s just—just, why do you bother with that thing?” I asked pointing at the top of his head. He smiled and reached out to where my hand lay against my side and brushed over it lightly. “You don’t really care about that, do you?” he said, “Or about the smoking?” He had grabbed hold of my limp, cold, moist hand, and was pressing his fingertips into my palm. I tried to wriggle free, but couldn’t.

“What are you talking about?” I stammered, looking up at the tops of the buildings and turning my head to avoid the stench of cigarettes.

“Why you won’t spend time with me,” he said.

“We’re very different,” I said. “It’s hard—I don’t think we’re on the same schedule or like a lot of the same things. And the cigarettes—I really can’t tolerate them—I can’t spend time with anyone who would smoke around me.”

Grant dropped my hand and stepped a few paces back, looking up at his art project. The problem-filled envelopes were weighing down the small tree. “So, it turned out pretty good, didn’t it?” he said.

“I’m surprised anyone wanted to bother—people are so lazy and inarticulate, I’m surprised they were able to think of a problem and then write it down and tack it to the tree. If you hadn’t supplied the pens and paper and envelopes, I bet nobody would have bothered,” I said.

Grant and I both started laughing and surveying the weighed-down tree. “Are you sure you don’t want to try out my cappuccino maker?” he said, seeing an opening, I suppose. “Thanks for asking,” I said quickly, “but I have a lot to do before tomorrow—I have a morning meeting to prepare for, and I suppose you’ll be smoking, as usual.”

“Probably,” he said, “but I always leave the window open.”

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