The Olive Tree
By: Don Tassone
Arjun Agarwal and Akeyo Kamau met during their first year of medical school at Johns Hopkins. Arjun was from India, Akeyo from Kenya. Both were new to the US.
They had seen each other in biochemistry. Each was instantly attracted to the other. He moved closer to her in class, sitting just behind her in order to watch her discretely. But she knew he was there and suspected his eyes were upon her.
One day, as class was letting out, he approached her.
“Hello,” he said, looking nervous.
“Hello,” she said, feigning surprise.
“My name is Arjun,” he said, extending his hand.
“I am Akeyo,” she said, taking it.
After making small talk about the class, he said, “I hope you will not think me too forward, but would you like to get coffee sometime?”
“Well, that is a bit forward,” she said.
“I’m sorry —,“
“I’d love to,” she said with a smile.
Arjun and Akeyo began falling in love over their first coffee together. Her light brown skin and dark eyes drew him in. His strong, stubbled jawline quickened the pace of her breath.
He asked her to dinner, and she said yes. He took her to a restaurant which advertised East African fare. The meat, vegetables and rice dishes were weak imitations of the foods she had known, but they made her feel a bit more at home, and she was grateful for his thoughtfulness.
During their third year of medical school, Arjun proposed to Akeyo. They were married in Baltimore right after their graduation and just before they both started their residencies in dermatology. Five years later, when they were both in private practice, their daughter was born.
They named her Olivia not just because her skin was olive but because Olivia, in both Indian and Kenyan, means olive tree, a tree they had both known growing up.
Olivia was the only child Arjun and Akeyo would choose to have. They spoiled her, giving her all the things they had missed as children. Most of all, they wanted Olivia to have a first-class education. For Arjun and Akeyo, education had been their path out of poverty and to a brighter and more prosperous future than anyone else in their families had ever known.
They dreamed their daughter would, just like her parents, become a doctor one day. And so even as early as kindergarten, they encouraged Olivia to focus on science and math.
But Olivia had no interest in these subjects. The only things that seemed to interest her in school were reading and art. When Arjun and Akeyo learned this, they were horrified. They considered reading and art soft pursuits and of no value to Olivia, especially if she were to become a doctor.
And so they discouraged her from spending time on such useless subjects, and they spent even more time helping her with science and math.
Olivia’s heart wasn’t in such things, but she was a dutiful daughter, and she tried to heed her parents’ advice. But she had little aptitude for science and math. The best grade she could ever earn in these subjects, even with a tutor, was a B. Arjun and Akeyo worried this would bring down her GPA and hurt her chances of eventually getting into medical school. Fortunately, the As she earned in English, art and history brought up her GPA. Olivia loved these subjects, even though her parents called them “a waste of time.”
In school, Olivia was unique. There were lots of Black and Indian kids, but no one else was of a blend of the two. Olivia looked like no one else. What’s more, she was striking with thick, black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, light brown skin and full, red lips. Her beauty made her unpopular with many of the girls, who were jealous, and appealing to most of the boys. In high school, boys were constantly asking her out.
“What do they see in me?” she asked a friend.
“Don’t be naive,” her friend said. “You’re gorgeous, and no one else looks like you. You’re mysterious. Guys love that.”
“But they don’t even know me.”
“Oh, come on. That doesn’t matter. Guys know what they want based on what they see. That’s all they need to know.”
This made Olivia sad. How could people be so superficial? How could none of the guys who asked her out ever once ask about her interests?
Adding to her funk, Olivia’s parents had begun insisting that she apply to Johns Hopkins and major in pre-med.
“But I don’t want to be a doctor,” she told her mother.
“That’s what you think now,” Akeyo said. “Wait until your junior year. By then, you can decide, and you will have fulfilled all your science and math requirements, regardless of which path you choose.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Olivia said, dreading the idea of pre-med but, for the first time, feeling hopeful that her parents might eventually allow her to pursue her true interests.
Olivia hated biology, chemistry and calculus at Johns Hopkins. At the end of her first semester, she had a C in all three classes. But she loved English comp and world history, getting an A in each of them.
Though her GPA was 3.2, her parents were concerned about her low grades in science and math.
“You’ll never get into med school with those grades,” her father said.
“I’m not going to med school, Dad,” she said.
“Well, then, maybe I’ll stop paying for your education,” Arjun said.
“Now, Arjun,” Akeyo said. “I told Olivia she could decide whether she’ll continue with pre-med when she’s a junior. But I know she won’t disappoint us and switch majors then.”
It was closest her mother had ever come to supporting her right to choose her own way, but it ended with a threat. Sometimes Olivia wondered if she was her parents’ daughter or their project.
The second semester of her freshman year was even heavier on science, with labs as well as lectures in both biology and chemistry. This left Olivia the option of one elective. She chose an art class.
The teacher was a small, goateed man named Mr. Nagy. What a shame, Olivia thought, that the art instructors here don’t merit being called professor.
The class met in the school’s art studio. During the first class, Nagy explained that students would be working in pairs over the course of the semester to learn the basics of sketching and painting.
“The way each of us sees the world is unique,” he said. “We need to share our views, but we also need to understand how others see the world. Otherwise, we become myopic, and we never learn a thing. We never grow. Art is about sharing how we see the world. In this class, you’re going to do that with another person—ideally, someone who isn’t like you. I want you to work together on sketches and paintings that convey something different from anything you would create on your own. In the process, you’ll be expanded, and that, I believe, is the true purpose of art.”
Olivia liked what she was hearing but was having a hard time understanding how this class was actually going to work.
“Look around you,” Nagy said. “Find someone near you who you don’t know, someone who doesn’t look like you, maybe someone of the opposite sex. Introduce yourself. This will be your partner in this class for the rest of the semester.”
A murmur arose from the students. A couple of them laughed. Olivia looked around. The young woman to her left was Indian. The young man to her right was white. She looked at him just as he was looking at her.
“Hello,” he said, smiling.
“Hello,” she said.
“Would you like to be my partner?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“I’m Patrick,” he said, extending his hand.
“I’m Olivia,” she said, taking it.
Patrick did indeed look different from Olivia. His hair was red and straight. His skin was pale, and he had freckles. He was thin, like Olivia, but much taller.
Once his students had paired up, Nagy instructed them to move to one of the large paper drawing pads set up on easels around the perimeter of the classroom. He told them to sketch whatever they liked, taking turns until their artwork was complete.
Olivia thought it was interesting that Nagy was not more proscriptive or that he didn’t start with some type of instruction on how to sketch. He was certainly unlike her other professors.
“How about that one?” Patrick said, pointing to an easel in the back corner of the room.
“Okay,” Olivia said.
They walked back to the easel together. A charcoal pencil and an eraser lay in a tray at the base of the drawing pad.
“Would you like to go first?” Patrick asked.
“I’d be happy to,” Olivia said. “Any requests?”
“No. Sketch whatever you like. I’ll follow your lead,” he said, smiling.
“Okay,” said Olivia, picking up the pencil.
She slowly drew a slightly rounded line across the bottom of the canvas, leaving a three-inch gap in the middle. In the gap, she drew several curved, winding, vertical lines, flaring out at the top.
“It’s a tree,” Patrick said.
“Yes, an olive tree,” she said.
“Your name,” he said.
“How did you know?”
“High school French,” he said.
“Francais, eh?” she said, filling in the contour of the trunk and extending it into several thick branches.
“Yeah,” he said. “I took it despite my parents’ objections.”
“Why did they object?”
“They thought it was silly, that I’d never use it.”
“Well, I think it’s refined.”
“What are you studying?” she asked.
“You mean my major?”
“Yeah,” she said, roughing out the foliage, using lots of short, pointed, angular strokes.
“Technically, I’m a business major.”
“Yeah. It’s the only way my parents would pay for my college. By the way, that olive tree is looking awesome.”
“Thanks. So you don’t want to major in business?”
“What do you want to study?”
“I want to be a poet.”
She stopped sketching and turned toward him.
“You want to be a poet, and you’re a business major?”
“I know. It sounds crazy.”
“Actually,” she said, “not so crazy.”
“What do you mean?”
She turned back toward the easel and sketched some rocks at the base of the tree and wobbly lines, as the texture of bark, along the trunk.
“I mean I love English,” she said. “I wanted to be an English major, but my parents insisted on pre-med. They want me to become a doctor, like them.”
“Do you want to be a doctor?”
She picked up the eraser from the tray and lightly rubbed away the thin pencil lines which she had used to guide parts of her drawing.
“There,” she said. “An olive tree.”
“It looks amazing,” he said.
“Well, thank you, Patrick.”
“What else?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What else should we draw?”
His question surprised her because she hadn’t thought beyond this tree. She had drawn this image all her life. Sometimes she sketched a distant background, but her focus was always on this solitary tree. In her mind, it had become an expression of who she was and how she saw herself in the world, unique and alone.
“Your tree is beautiful, but it looks a little lonely,” Patrick said. “I think it needs a friend.”
He took a step toward her and held out his hand, his palm open, his fingers outstretched.
Olivia laid the pencil in his hand.
“Thank you,” he said, turning toward the drawing pad.
“Olivia,” he said, “have you ever seen an olive tree?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said.
“I have. Hundreds of them. In Provence—in the south of France. I spent a week there last summer.”
“I have a rich aunt,” he said with a grin. “My trip was a high school graduation gift.”
He bent down and began sketching the trunk of a tree next to the one she had drawn.
“You know,” he said, “the olive tree is known as the tree of eternity. It’s been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. It looks ancient too, green and gray and blue, like the colors in an old movie. I saw rows and rows of olive trees in France. They stand there in the valleys, on the hillsides, in fields thick with red poppies, looking so stately, like ancient sentinels standing guard over the earth. There is an elegance and a serenity to those trees, Olivia, and they’re so lovely that it’s easy to forget how tough they are too. Did you know olive trees can grow just about anywhere? They’re resilient and adaptable. Maybe that’s why they’ve been around for 6,000 years. Maybe we could all learn something from a grove of olive trees.”
“I’d like to read your poetry sometime,” she said.
“Anytime,” he said, roughing out the foliage of his tree. “So why do you want to become an English major?”
Don Tassone is the author of a novel, Drive, and two short story collections, Get Back and Small Bites. His third story collection, Sampler, will be published in November 2019. He lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati.