The boy smiled and leaned back in the chair.
He narrowed his eyes in thought.
“Grapes, I guess.”
The girl had been leaning on the table, staring at him with unsettling intensity. As he answered, she sagged and pursed her lips as if to say something. She looked down at the sticky table top, crowded with empty beer cans. Her eyelashes fluttered on her cheeks.
“This won’t take long” she whispered.
She lunged across the table and kissed him. He thought he tasted tears.
Every year she went to the apple festival. Everyone did, driving from the farms, the suburbs, even the city. A large and contented crowd sauntered through the single street in town. It smelled of hair hot from the sun, gasoline, cinnamon, cow shit, and apples. The first time she went she was stunned. At the end of the day her forehead ached from the strain of her wide eyes. Apples, apples everywhere. Apple pie, apple cider, candied apples, dunking for apples, teenagers with soaking faces gripping apples in their teeth, squealing children with cheeks as red, round and gleaming as apples.
Every year the gutters were cluttered with apple cores. She could hardly bear the sight. She hid her face as people blithely tossed apples half-eaten. She wanted to gather all the cores and take them home. She did not understand. When she ate an apple, she ate the core. Her parents had tried to stop her, fearing it would damage her stomach. She persisted, but in secret. Her mouth was full of cuts during apple season.
One year she lost her parents in the throng. She was busy watching a trio of boys sitting on a low, stone wall, eating apples and whistling at girls. They tossed the cores at their feet. When she turned away she realized she was alone. She wandered aimlessly, bumping into people’s legs. It was growing dark and she was thirsty. She sat on the curb, wishing she could go home. Her foot brushed against an apple core and she shuddered. She picked it up and tried to brush the grit from it. Intent in this task, she did not notice the man who sat down beside her. When she did, she jumped with a gasp. The man smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling. He had a brown bag brimming with apples and he plucked one from the top and offered it to her. She shook her head furiously and furtively peered at him through the haze of her lashes. He shrugged his shoulders and bit into the apple. He ate quickly with gusto. Soon he was down to the core. She gripped her knees in apprehension, her knuckles white and bloodless. He opened his mouth wide, wider and bit right into the core. It sounded like bones snapping. He crunched and crunched until the core was gone, and with a wink he swallowed the stem. He stood up slowly, brushed the seat of his pants, hoisted the bag of apples to his hip and walked off. An apple fell from the bag.
She waited till he was out of sight to scurry and scoop up the apple. She curled up in the grass, though it itched terribly, cupping the apple to her chest. She could feel the blood beating in her temples. That man, that man, that man! He was so old, older than her parents. White hair and wrinkles. But he was like her. He ate the core.
She must have fallen asleep. It was well past dark when her parents woke her, so angry. They pulled her to the car, scolding and chiding. She hardly listened to them. She clutched the apple to her chest, right above her heart.
She ate a star fruit with grim determination. The new boy liked star fruit, was absolutely passionate for it. She adored his passion. She had spent ungodly amounts of money on star fruit since she met him. She ate it 6 times a day, at least. Some days it was all she ate, even though it was too mushy for her tastes. Nothing solid, no resistance. She had told him that she also loved star fruit. She puzzled over why she had said this.
If she ate enough star fruit, maybe things would work out this time. Taking another bite of the star fruit, she realized she was a traitor.
That night she threw up. After washing her face she walked to the grocery store and bought a single apple. She called the boy and told him it was over.
The house near her grade school had a crab apple tree. The people who lived in the house would scream and swing brooms at the kids if they took any of the crab apples, even the ones on the ground, the ones that fell onto the school property. It was this yard, this tree, and this fence where she was bravest. She was the craftiest apple snatcher in school. Being a slight child, she shimmied up the tree faster than anyone else and would toss apples at her giggling classmates. If the old, angry couple came out she would leap from the tree, over the fence and land running, whooping all the way home, with crab apples falling from her pockets. She saved the cores of the apples and after taking leave of her friends, ate them behind the shed in her yard. She savored the tartness and the blood. She licked the cuts on her gums, the insides of her cheeks, the roof of her mouth. Her tongue traced endless circles, spirals. The apple juice seared the wounds. She shivered with delight. She never questioned why she ate the cores; she just did, for as long as she could remember.
The newest boy was sleeping. They had eaten watermelon that night and his lips had tasted of it. She licked her lips, tasting his, tasting the watermelon. She had not eaten an apple in months. She stared at his ceiling, wriggling under his blanket. She wondered how she had ended up in this tiny room, with this boy. She was not in love with him. She wasn’t even very fond of him. She sighed and her eyes stung like there were bees in her tears. She wanted to eat an apple, suddenly. She crept from the bed, gathered her clothes and left.
It was hot in the orchard. She skipped from shadow to shadow, under the branches thick with apples. The boy ran after her, stumbling, laughing, calling her name. She collapsed under a tree, rolling in the grass, staring up at the undersides of the leaves. The boy kneeled beside her, his eyes wet with something unfamiliar and faintly dangerous. She rolled onto her stomach, sniffing at the grass. The way he stared at her… She felt a strange tingle, like a tickle in her shorts. She didn’t know what to say to him anymore. He was always sucking in his breath, panting, huffing, and watching her. She thought he had asthma, but he told her he didn’t. Why do you breathe that way? He didn’t answer. She kicked the sandals from her feet and squealed. Everything was so weird. The boy laid on top of her, something hard and small pressing against her ass. They lay that way for a long time. His breath was sticky warm on her shoulders, his teeth grazed her skin. She held herself very still and felt him tremble. The sun was setting and he stood up. See ya. She was alone with the stars and fireflies. Her shorts were wet in the back where the boy had laid She wiggled out of them and inspected the mark. It didn’t smell like pee. An apple fell and hit her in the chest. She wiped it on her shirt till it shone and then gently rubbed it against her lips. The first bite was always the best.
He said he didn’t like fruit. She puzzled over this. He subsisted off meat and bread and beer. He was small but hearty. He licked and nibbled till the chicken bones were stark. This was strangely exhilarating. For the first time she was not disappointed. She tested him, bringing grapes, cantaloupe, peaches, nectarines, kiwis by the armfuls. He refused them all. She thought, ‘he defies all my standards.’ He thought she was crazy. She stopped thinking in fruits. She felt adrift, but warm and almost contented. It was summer and she was far from the orchards. She ate burgers and steak and salmon, all steaming from his tiny grill. The blood taste in her mouth was not hers. She avoided vegetables, even. She ate nothing that rooted itself in the ground. She felt unanchored from herself, and it was delicious. She slept for hours, and whimpered when he left the bed. She unplugged the phone, ducked around corners when she saw a familiar face, and had her meals delivered. In this hazy world, which she had crafted through inertia, she was absolved of all her mistakes, all the wrong boys, all the wasted hours. She knew it was temporal, but she did not care. She knew the tides would shift, leaving her with sand in unmentionable places, with fingers pruned, and lungs full of water. But finally, finally she did not care.
The boy said ‘See ya around.’ He said, “I have a lot on my mind.’ He said, ‘We can still be friends.’ She didn’t say anything. She threw the half-eaten pork chop in the trash and yawned to hide her tears.
Did she miss him, or miss what he did for her? He called once and awhile but she never answered. Eventually he stopped. The phone was silent; her days were mummified, shrouded. She had spurned the world, if not for him, for what he did for her. Now she had nothing.
The fall came crept up that year. The leaves only half orange and red, the air warm yet crisp. The grocery store stocked rows of apples, cases of cider, and caramel kits. She touched them, let her fingers linger, squeezing, finding the ripest and then dropping them back into the bins. She ate fish and seaweed, foods that came from the sea. Her lungs were still swollen with water, her fingers still wrinkled, her skin still itched with grit. Long after the boy was gone she clung to her drowning.
She immersed herself in books, in papers, in print. Her voice was hoarse from disuse. She wrapped herself in sweaters, scarves, knit caps, her well-worn puffer, muffs, mittens, and aloofness. Boys smiled, winked, cajoled. She ignored them. Eventually no one looked her way. She felt safe in her loneliness.
She sat on a wall, watching the boy. He had just arrived to work, a little late. He was carefully peeling an orange and jogging down the street. He almost ran into a couple leaving a near by convenience store, but swerved, all while methodically peeling the orange. He stopped by the door, about to go in, out of sight, when he glanced over at her. She blushed and looked down, fiddled with her bag. When she looked up he was gone. She slid off the wall and lit a cigarette. She twirled, and glanced into the shop’s darkened windows. She took a step forward, then shook her head and turned, taking the long way home.
She came everyday and soon figured out his work schedule. She waited on the wall three days a week at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It took him a week to notice her, ensconced in fluffy scarves and layers of thermal and knits. One day he came early, orange in hand. He stood in front of the store and carefully peeled his orange. He stared right at her, but she could not look away. His fingers were swift and precise. After the orange was peeled and the rinds scattered at his feet, he paused and admired his work. Then he tore the orange into chunks and devoured them with an almost lurid joy. Juice dripped from his lips, trailing down his chin. When finished he calmly licked his fingers, sucking down to the farthest knuckle, his tongue flashing in the tender valleys where they joined. He cleaned his palms in the same fashion, wiped his face with the back of his hands, and stared over at her with a curious and defiant air. He turned and walked inside.
She sat on the cold wall, acutely aware of the tickle of her scarf around the lower half of her face and neck. The perfect squares of orange peel gleamed in the sun. Without realizing it, she scooted off the wall, grabbed her bag and walked towards the store. She hesitated at the door, wavering, ready to turn back. She closed her eyes and stepped inside, walked right up to the counter, and stopped. She slowly opened her eyes and he was standing there, his cheeks still sticky.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked.
That was nearly two years ago. She could never remember what she had said that day, and often asked him to repeat the story. It had all been like a dream. Now they were visiting her parents in early autumn. It was the weekend of the apple festival. She had not been since she was a teenager. She and the boy held hands, took turns bobbing for apples, split a funnel cake, smudged caramel on each other’s faces. Her parents sighed, like they were too old for that, but she didn’t care. They must have felt this way when they had met, before children and mortgages had laid heavy on their minds. The day was winding down, and the breeze had a sharpness to it. She shivered in her short sleeves. As they stood in the thinning crowd, looking for her parents, she caught sight of a young man. He was eating an apple with eyes half closed, nearly at the core. He pulled the last bits of flesh from the core and without hesitation bit right in, crunching and snapping. People stared and giggled but her boyfriend did not seem to notice. She felt her heart swell, over reaching. She was astounded. Then the boy looked over at her, from under the shaggy locks that obscured his eyes. His teeth gleamed huge, monstrous. He smiled and she stepped back, almost falling. The boy’s grin looked more like a snarl, like a hyena crouching over a carcass. Is that what she had wanted all these years? To be torn to bits, assimilated, and ultimately forgotten? She tugged at her boyfriend’s hand and pulled him down the street. Once they were out of sight, she sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder. She preferred a gentle and meticulous unveiling. A joy in the process, in the flavors, in each moment. And ultimately, she realized, she wanted something left for herself.