by Jennifer Fliss
It wasn’t the first time April felt that way. The first time was when she pushed her chubby preteen fingers against the glass at the zoo and an orangutan did it back and they stayed like that for nearly a minute before the other kids laughed saying April didn’t have anyone but this animal. The orangutan dropped its hand first.
This time, April had pulled her hand away first. While Marco walked away, April was left in front of the bodega, resting her hand on a single orange in the middle of a pile of them outside the corner store. She felt the first drop of rain that she knew had been coming as she watched her boyfriend go. Marco’s body walked and walked and people heading north and south and east and west poured in around him and eventually swallowed him up. She imagined him skipping down the 96th Street subway stairs, leaning against a column, looking up and down the tunnel as if the train would come from either direction. It always only came from the one direction, she’d always said. She was obviously wrong.
She felt the cold dimples of the orange under the pads of her fingers. It was early in the season, October. The citrus from Florida would not be at peak sweetness yet, at prime juiciness. It would only be an approximation of an orange. It would taste like an orange but wouldn’t fill her mouth with the joy only a truly perfect fruit could. This was a Tropicana orange, a school lunch orange. It was one of a hundred oranges piled exactly so by Mrs. Han and if April pulled, she knew they would all topple down and some would roll into the street and rest in the gutter where beautiful rainbow oil slicks met with day-old newspapers. The gutters were where the city collected itself.
She lifted her hand and sat on the curb instead, head in hands. Through the open shop door, she listened to Mrs. Han banter with the customers. She asked how Ryan was doing after he lost his job last month. She told Leelee she’d seen her story in Vanity Fair and thought it was good enough. She discussed with several patrons a popular TV medical drama that April was familiar with. It was Marco’s mother’s favorite and they had all watched together on Thursday nights while eating dinner on folding trays created specifically for that reason.
April had spent most nights with Marco and his mom. Her own mother had died shortly after her birth. April’s father worked late hours and was driven home in black town cars around eleven every night.
Taxis snapped on their lights as the rain grew heavier and evening descended. Red and white shimmers reflected in the wet New York concrete. A splash of street water landed on April’s cheek and she wiped it away. Filthy, it’d be filthy, she knew.
She had met Marco at this bodega just over a year before. They had both been soliciting attention from Mustard, the store cat. Marco had been buying a buttered roll and a Mountain Dew and it was his first time in.
April knew this because she spent most afternoons at the bodega with Mrs. Han, talking about her children in college and April’s own school stories. Mrs. Han helped her with trigonometry and April helped Mrs. Han with some light shop duties — reshelving toilet paper and cereal, laying out a bowl of kibble for Mustard, watching the register when Mrs. Han had to step away. Eventually Mrs. Han set a chair out for April to sit. The chair was a rickety flimsy thing but April never felt so comfortable as when she sat beside the older woman as the store owner chatted with the neighbors, showing how intimate a corner shop in a big city could be. April found it beautiful and then fitting when her and Marco’s relationship began and then blossomed at the store and on the bus stop bench just out front.
But now April sat outside the bodega, not even bothering with the covered bus stop or the bench, feeling she was better suited to the dirty pavement beneath her. April heard the jangle of the bell; Mrs. Han was closing the bodega door in preparation for the downpour. Raindrops dripped onto April’s neck, a breeze chilled her ears. The M104 shuddered by and then another. The streetlights flicked on. Umbrellas came out, along with those selling them on the corner. April knew she’d been okay before Marco, but now, in this after, she didn’t know how to return to that former April.
She tried to force a tear, squeezed her eyes tight, thinking this was the appropriate reaction and instead just received purple crosses in her eyesight instead. Another rogue puddle streak landed on her face. She smelled bagels. Beneath that, she smelled that loamy scent so particular to the beginning of rain — petrichor — something she didn’t think she’d be able to smell in the city with its lack of soil, and yet, here was something unexpected.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up. It was Mrs. Han and she had an orange in her hand.
“Here,” she said as she offered it to April.
“Thanks,” April mumbled.
“Go on, the vitamin C is good for you.”
“I’m not sick.”
“I know,” Mrs. Han said. “But do you know?”
April dug in a fingernail and peeled. The orange was lightly colored, the pith dominated inside. She took a section and pushed it into her mouth. It was an orange, but it was bland and dry, slightly bitter.
Mrs. Han held her palm up. Rain bounced off as if she was waterproof. She waggled her fingers awaiting a high five, as if asking April to join in. April held her hand up too. “It will be winter soon,” Mrs. Han said. And then, April understood, the oranges would be perfectly sweet.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.
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