July 17, 2018 by The Citron Review
by Susan Bloch
In the pedestrian street of my local London market, I close my eyes and rub my thumbs over the crepe-textured tangerine skin cocooned in the palms of my hands. My fingers slide over the peel, caressing each ridge and wrinkle. I lift the fruit to my nose and breathe in, long and deep, hoping the sharp citrus scent might bring John back to me. Or at least some part of him—his breath on my neck and his warm palms over mine.
“Such a lovely man, we do miss him,” calls Bob, the vendor from our favorite stall. “I loved our chats.” Bob stands under a canvas awning behind his table, filling baskets with apples, pears, and oranges. He wipes his hands on a blue-and-white checked apron and looks up at me. “Gonna rain any minute … fed up with this grey. Got a brolly with you? You doing okay, Love?”
I start to tell Bob that I’m settling down all right, but I can’t find the words to pretend. The lump in my throat feels as if I’d tried to swallow a whole kumquat, and I can scarcely breathe, never mind talk. My fists clench the tangerine until I become aware of the juice trickling down my forearms and inside my shirtsleeves. Bob leans over the table and touches my wrists.
“It gets better, Love,” he says trying to look into my tear-filled eyes, but I can’t meet his gaze. Bob continues to pile apples, oranges, potatoes, and broccoli in baskets, tempting me to fill my own shopping bag, but then I remember—there’s only one of us now. I can’t be bothered to shop for myself.
On Saturday mornings, John and I enjoyed shopping for our fruit and vegetables at this Islington market together. We picked shiny Granny Smith apples, breathed in the aroma of fresh parsley and celery, and scooped handfuls of beans and Brussels sprouts into brown paper bags for Bob to weigh. But it was my John who always chose the citrus, rubbing the tips of his fingers over the dimpled skin. He’d describe the color each week as if it were sacred.
“The color this week is deeper,” or “it’s almost reddish,” or “almost lemony,” he’d say.
As a child, it was an orange that brought color into his life for the very first time. John grew up in Bolton, a cotton-milling town near Manchester, England. He described never-ending gray skies with smoke billowing from chimney stacks and soot smothering oak trees and privet hedges. Stray cotton threads—a soporific haze, dank and dim—infiltrated people’s lungs, causing hacking coughs.
“After the Second World War, food was rationed and everything we ate was pale: white bread with margarine the color of sickly school paste; beige Spam and sallow powdered scrambled eggs; boiled potatoes, cabbage, and turnips. When I was seven, I saw my first orange,” John said. “And it was as if I saw color for the first time.”
My childhood was nothing like his. In South Africa, I grew up with plenty of sunlight, purple jacaranda trees, and crimson and magenta bougainvillea. All kinds of produce filled the fruit and vegetable store: papayas, apricots, mangoes, and mulberries; tomatoes, pumpkins, broccoli, and zucchini. It was difficult to think of life with ashen skies and bland food. My heart filled with compassion for the boy John, deprived of such simple delights.
“One of our neighbors bought one orange,” John said. “It was a spectacle; we’d heard about it, but never seen or eaten one. They put the fruit on their kitchen table, and every day we crowded in to marvel at it. We could only stare at it, but no one was allowed to touch it. After a week or so, the skin turned gray and moldy. No one suggested peeling it to look inside, and worse, no one even tasted it.”
Decades later, every time we came home from our Saturday market shopping, the first thing John did was slice into an orange. Eating citrus was a divine experience, tangible proof that he was no longer that boy stuck in a polluted, war-exhausted town. Now, months after John’s death, I stand on the bustling market street holding that tangerine, as if John is here with me, cradled against my lips. I almost hear him and Bob discussing the Brexit shenanigans as he pays for our purchases.
Suddenly dizzy, I grab on to a canopy pole to stop myself falling over. Bob helps other customers, taking their cash and doling out change. Perhaps he’s still yelling, “Oranges, three for a pound,” but I don’t hear him. Nor do I wipe the rain off my cheeks. Someone pushes me into the stall table, but I don’t offer a dirty look or say, “No pushing, please.”
I place the squishy tangerine back onto the table and turn away to get back onto the street. Smells of pungent mushrooms, acrid onions, and garlic from a nearby stall follow me as I turn away. Back on the main street, drizzle drips down the back of my neck. My shopping bag is empty as I walk home.
Susan Bloch is a freelance writer living in Seattle. Her essay “The Mumbai Massacre” (Blue Lyra Review) received notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. Her writing has also appeared in Tikkun, The Huffington Post, Quail Bell Magazine, Entropy Magazine, and Secret Histories, among others. You can find more of her work at susanblochwriter.com.