Alyssa Colton

Summer 2002

Five Ways to Eat a Grapefruit

1.

Your grandmother slams down a small wooden bowl. A funny-looking spoon clatters inside. You’re seven years old and you can just barely eat at the kitchen table without a booster seat. The spoon reminds you of the plastic utensils at school. Yesterday your age was 128, the number on the rounded fork, according to the game you and Katie play.

Inside the wooden bowl, which has been the object of your grandmother's anger (among others) because really she is mad at your mother, who has left your father again--"and I really mean it this time"--is a round, pinkish-yellow fruit. It looks like an orange, but yellower and larger.

Your grandmother spoons fine, white sugar out of a small glass bowl and sifts it over the fruit. You're never allowed to put sugar on anything. When your grandmother turns to the refrigerator to retrieve your milk you scoop the sugar from the fruit and lick it off the spoon. It tastes slightly wet and sour, and the jagged edge of metal scrapes your tongue.

Your grandmother pours your milk into a small purple plastic cup with a small lip. You resent her using the same cup you used when you were a baby and didn't know how to hold it yet. Last time you were here you pouted until Mom gave you an adult cup. Grandma apparently doesn't remember this.

Grandma sits down and sees you staring into the bowl.

"It's grapefruit," she says. Her tone smites you. You feel like it's your fault your mother has left your father again. Perhaps, if you had been good--if you hadn't drawn a lady on the TV screen with your purple crayon (though you had tried to explain that you were tracing, like you traced in the book your uncle had given you for Christmas, and anyway, Harold did such things, why couldn't you?)--perhaps your mother wouldn't have left your father yet again.

You dig into the grapefruit, the way you see your grandmother doing it. You try not to show your distaste as you eat. You will be good. When Grandma gets up, you spoon more sugar onto the fruit. You don't dare do it in front of her. Surely you are only allowed a small taste of sweetness.

You wonder why it's called grapefruit. It has no resemblance to the clusters of green globes your mother leaves out on the seat next to her to pick off while she's driving home from the store. Real grapes are sweet and have a way of cleansing your mouth. Eating the grapefruit is like coming to Grandma's: it sours the mouth, but the sugar melts it down.

2.

When you are thirteen your father comes on Sundays to take you and your brother out for brunch. Your father lives across town in what Aunt Lorraine calls his bachelor pad. It is a large apartment with two bedrooms and it smells like paint and wood. There is a small yard in back where your father keeps his collection of broken-down cars. He says his neighbors don't like it but that they should just put up a fence. You try to tell yourself the same thing in school whenever the girl who has the locker next door to you complains that you take too long and it's hard for her to get her books out when you're there. If you don't like it, you should just put up a fence, you think to yourself as you walk away. It doesn't really make much sense, because really how can you put up a fence between two lockers, but, still, it makes you feel better.

You don't know why, but one morning you order grapefruit with your pancakes. Your father raises his eyebrows at you when the waitress brings you a half of a grapefruit with a spoon exactly like the one Grandma has.

"She's on the grapefruit diet," your brother smirks. He's fourteen.

Your father merely nods. "How's school?" he says.

Every Sunday after that you order grapefruit along with your pancakes. Sometimes you can't finish it, but you force yourself to eat the sour-sweet pieces of juiciness. They feel cooling as they slip down your throat.

"Have a little grapefruit with your sugar," your father says after you have put three spoonfuls over the fruit. You wish he would say something meaningful.

You continue to order grapefruit until you go away to college and the brunches with your father stop. You are glad: you are sick of grapefruit and its acid taste on your tongue.

 

3.

At college, midway into your second semester, you wake up with small, painful sores in your mouth. You complain to your roommate, who wants to be a doctor.

"Canker sores. You need vitamin C," she says, after searching your mouth by the bright lights of the bathroom. You do not question her confidence.

You try to drink the orange juice at breakfast but it is too thick and sweet. You only drink a few sips and then leave the rest in the child-size glass on the tray.

That night you go to see a movie with Eric, who lives upstairs. You feel a pleasant chill every time you're with him. After the movie you hang out in the dorm lounge. You stay up and talk until two a.m. You draw close to each other, intertwining your legs and holding hands. You don't acknowledge the physical closeness. You pretend that the physical bodies of your selves are somehow separate from your minds.

"I've got to go to bed," you say, though you don't really want to. There is a lull in the conversation, but you are loathe to disentangle yourself from him. You believe you are in love.

He leans over and kisses you. When he opens his mouth and presses his tongue inside yours, he lashes against your canker sores. You try not to wince. You try to enjoy the kiss. You wonder if he can feel the sores. What if he thinks they're from herpes?

You pull away and smile. "I've got to go to bed," you say and leave. You hope you haven't ruined things, but there is also a small part of you that wants to run and hide, to pretend that someone named Eric doesn't exist.

The next morning at breakfast in the dining hall you begin to eat grapefruit. It hasn't been cut up, though, and there are no knives sharp enough to do it.

"I guess they're afraid we'll stab each other in our sleep," you joke. Your roommate looks at you as if she's wondering if she should refer you to counseling. Next year she will be a Residential Assistant.

You peel the thick skin off the grapefruit and tear it into small chunks. The juice runs down your fingers. Later, in Philosophy 121, you will feel the stickiness between your thumb and index finger. You pour some sugar onto a small plate and dunk each chunk into it, rolling it around like you do corn on the cob with butter. You decide you like eating grapefruit this way: it seems more natural, more fun, more primitive. And you're getting your vitamin C.

You continue to eat grapefruit every morning, even after your sores have gone. You have been meeting Eric in the lounge a lot lately, and you don’t want the sores to come back.

 

4.

You are twenty-five and working for a literary agent in New York City. You have dreamed of moving here for a long time. You imagined sipping wine at art openings, dancing to drummers in Washington Park, brushing elbows with Madonna and Susan Sarandon, living in a cute little walk-up in Greenwich Village, and running laps around the reservoir in Central Park.

You have lived here a year and so far you have only done the last, though your roommate Candy has promised to take you to an art opening. You and Candy live in what amounts to a closet on the edge of Alphabet City. On Friday nights you go out for drinks with your co-workers. Sometimes you and Candy go out to the movies. It's not very different from home, or college; there are just a lot more choices, and a lot more people.

You started out in New York as an editorial assistant in a behemoth publishing house. Your college English teacher helped you get the job. But you hated it. You stuck it out for a year, figuring that it would look good on your resume. Then you got a job with The Laurie Perkins Literary Agency. (Once, you dropped the "The" in a letter and the secretary admonished you.) It's better than the publishing house, but you still feel you don't know what you're "doing with your life," as so many people you know put it. You think about going to graduate school, becoming a teacher in Belize, bumming around the States, moving out to California to write and make money as a waitress. But for now, you've got a job for a literary agent, which makes you feel a little bit important, and you live in New York City, the capital of the world. You just get lost in all its energy and you figure hey, I'm young, I've got plenty of time to figure things out.

Tuesday is garbage day. This is a time when you hate New York. The stench of spoiled food, old clothes, and ashtrays melting into the stretched plastic of the trash bag. The smell follows you all the way to the subway station. When you descend the stairwell, the garbage smell mixes in with the stench of urine. Once, you saw a woman get up from her bed on the concrete floor, pull down her green lycra underwear, and take a piss. You try to hold your breath but when you gasp for air the smell only seems to get worse. You try to distract yourself with reading a manuscript for work.

The Laurie Perkins Literary Agency specializes in how-to and self-help books. This manuscript is by a man named Charles Walker. It is called How to Meet the Man of Your Dreams in Six Easy Steps. You don't know why you are reading this manuscript, other than the mandate from your boss to review anything that comes in that has to do with dating or marriage.

"HIV has turned the clock on us," Laurie says, picking out pieces of cashews from her can of mixed nuts. She is always eating nuts. "People are becoming monogamous again. They want books to show them how."

Still, you doubt this book is going to make it to your boss's desk. First of all, you wonder, why is a man writing it? And why would a woman buy a book by a man on this subject? Maybe the MD, Ph.D., and MS after his name will convince them. Or perhaps they'll figure that a man will know better than a woman. You yourself would never buy a book called How to Marry the Man of Your Dreams in Six Easy Steps, no matter who wrote it. You are suspicious of this idea of marrying the man of your dreams, because you know that as soon as you marry him he will turn out to be just a normal everyday guy who farts in bed and leaves pieces of egg on the counter. If he weren't, you would begin to worry that you've married a Stepford Husband. And six easy steps? If you wanted to follow an easy formula, you'd listen to your mother, who despite her own two divorces thinks she’s got it figured out.

As you stand on the platform and wait for the train to come screeching in, staking out your small bit of space in the midst of crowds of commuters, you stare at the manuscript. A manuscript is not an easy thing to read on the subway, unlike a bound book. It is large and unwieldy, and it's awkward to turn the page because you have to either lay it down on your lap, where it's bound to slip off, or you have to maneuver it underneath the pile of papers, which usually means elbowing the person sitting next to you. Standing up with it is even worse, because you don't have your lap to act as a shelf.

So even though you've already read the page, you don't go on to the next one. You have no desire to read on to the second step, at least not enough to put down your bag and shuffle the papers.

You have already decided to not recommend the manuscript to Laurie, though you have visions of the book becoming a bestseller and she saying to you, "Didn't we take a look at that?"

There is one thing Laurie hates, and that is to pass up a golden opportunity. You can understand; you often feel the same way.

When you arrive at the office the secretary is eating her breakfast. She smiles at you and lifts up her spoon. She is eating grapefruit.

"Would you like some?" she offers, because she is the type of person who always offers her food to you. When she buys a candy bar she goes around the office to see if anyone wants a piece.

You shake your head, but your mouth begins to water. You imagine biting into a juicy, clean, fresh-smelling piece of grapefruit. The more you think about it, the more you want it. You haven't had grapefruit since you moved to New York, and suddenly it seems like with one grapefruit you can regain control, you can remember who you are, who you were, and where you are supposed to be going.

 

5.

You are on a long-desired vacation with your roommate Candy in Florida. It is February, and you both delight in basking in the sunshine, dipping for short periods into the cool waters, drinking piña coladas in the bars on the beaches, dancing until four a.m., and forgetting for a short time your lives in New York.

Candy is a consummate flirt. You've been teasing her that she should write a book about the right way to flirt. Something light and funny, with stick-figure sketches. One night you and she come up with a series of flirting tactics, one more outrageous than the next, and soon you're laughing so hard you're practically falling off the bar stools.

Two women having fun is obviously the most attractive sight in a Florida bar. Men begin coming up to the two of you, wanting to laugh with you, offering to buy you drinks. You end up having a long conversation with a guy named Tony.

Tony is also on vacation from New York, and you both find it ironic that you meet here. He lives in Brooklyn and works in Soho as an architect. You talk and laugh together for awhile, and when he leaves, he gives you his hotel number and asks you to call him.

"Why don't you call me?" you ask, smiling at his unusual request. If you hadn't liked him before, you would like him now.

"Well, I have a younger sister, and if she were on vacation, I wouldn't want her giving out her hotel number to a strange man she'd just met," he says.

You nod, a little embarrassed for having even asked the question.

You wake up with a throbbing headache.

"The phone!" Candy yells, thrusting the receiver into your face.

"Hello?" Your voice sounds thick and groggy.

"Annemarie? Annemarie?" It's your mother. She is calling out to you the same way she used to call for you when you got lost in the grocery store when you were five. At least your mother thought you were lost. You always knew exactly where she was.

"Mom?"

"How's your vacation?" You can tell by her voice that she's not calling to ask you about your vacation. You sit up in bed and hold your head in your hands. Candy has wrapped herself back up in her blankets.

"What's wrong?" you ask.

There is a muffled cry. Then, "Grandma's gone."

"What? When? How?"

"Yesterday. She had a heart attack. Her neighbor found her. Thank God it wasn't too long . . . they think it was early yesterday morning."

"Oh, Mom." You don't know what to say. You know you're supposed to say "I’m sorry" when someone you know has lost someone, but what do you say to your mother when it's her mother, your grandmother? Your mind is a blank and your head is killing you.

Your mother goes on, saving you the necessity of having to figure out the right way to respond.

"Aunt Jenny is coming up tonight. We're going to plan the services. I'm not sure when yet . . . probably Friday. When are you coming back?"

You don't remind her that you've left her your full itinerary. "My plane is Friday morning. But I can come back now. Maybe there's some way. . ."

"Oh, no. Don't do that. You know how the airlines are. You'll never get your money back, and it will cost a fortune."

"Well, I'll need to see if I can arrange a connecting flight from New York so I can come directly up there."

"I'm sorry to have to ruin your vacation." It is typical of something your mother would say. Even when the most serious things are happening she is worried about your happiness. As if you were still a little girl.

"No, I'm glad you called."

You hang up.

"My grandmother died," you announce to Candy's still body. She stirs, gets out of bed and walks over to hug you.

"I'm sorry," she says.

You feel unmoored. After breakfast with Candy, you say you want to go for a walk on the beach alone. Candy nods.

The beach has not yet filled up with vacationers and families. There are a few clusters of people, but the stretch of sand along the water is blessedly free of multitudes of Frisbee-players and children building sand castles. The sun is already hot. For the first time you want to be back in cool, shady New York. Then you remember that New York in the summer is sweltering; the humidity gets so bad that sometimes you have to change a shirt when you get into the office in the morning.

You try to reassert your sense of the world. Your grandmother is no longer in it. It doesn't seem that different, really. And you knew someday she would die, though it has happened earlier than anyone would have thought.

You think of your grandmother home alone in her big house. After Grandpa died your mother tried to convince her to move into a retirement community, but Grandma wouldn't have it.

Grandma could not understand why your mother could not stay married. "You just can't haul off and divorce the first chance you get," Grandma said to you, more than once. As if you were the one contemplating divorce. As if you didn't know what it was like to be shuttled back and forth between your parents' house and your grandmother's. It had been something of a relief when your father finally moved out. You missed him, but you liked the quiet. Sour and sweet, you thought.

And then Grandma had died in that big old house, all alone. You try to imagine what it must be like, to feel a sudden compression of the chest, the flash of realization, and look around, and see only cupboards neatly stacked with dishes, a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table, a few dishes lying unclean next to the sink.

Yet it was a fact of life that, statistically, women outlived men. You have read this in a book you worked on called The Woman's Guide to Planning for the Future.

You have been walking along the beach, almost unaware of what is around you. The beach is beginning to fill up with people, like ants to a leftover sandwich. You are glad in a way to be surrounded by all these people. It makes you feel less lonely, just a little.

 

You decide to call Tony. What the hell. You ignore your mother's advice to never call a guy. For a second you feel annoyed that her voice even intrudes on your plan, casting doubt. What does she know? The next moment you feel guilty. She just lost her mother.

Still, you call. Tony invites you to go out to dinner, and you agree. You make plans to meet up with Candy after dinner at the bar. Candy is also supposed to meet a guy there.

At dinner you tell Tony about your grandmother. He puts a hand on your hand. "I'm sorry," he says. You wonder if he's a little sleazy. It's hard to tell. He dresses well and has a nice smile, but is he just a little too smooth? Why does he wear a beeper on vacation? You wonder how often he's given out his number to a woman, confident that she'll call.

"Let me call the airline for you," Tony says. "I mean, if you want to go back sooner."

You shrug. "It will be only a day sooner, anyway."

"At least let me reserve your ticket to Rochester. I'm sure that's the last thing you want to do right now."

"Okay, if you really want to." You wonder if he's running some kind of scam, if he's trying to get your credit card number for illicit purposes.

When you arrive at the bar Tony excuses himself, gesturing his head towards the bathroom. He's gone for nearly twenty minutes. You spend most of the time staring ahead of you. Candy is deep into a conversation with the guy she's met, who you think is too nerdy for her. You try to recall some good memories of your grandmother, but you seem to be drawing a blank. All you can picture is the photograph you have of her and your mother that sits on your dresser at home.

When Tony comes back, he tells you that he's booked your ticket to Rochester. "A two-hour layover in JFK," he says.

"But how did you pay for it?" you ask.

He smiles. "Don't worry about that."

"Oh, Tony, really, you didn't have to do that." His generosity makes you uncomfortable. You also feel a little bit guilty that you thought he was trying to pull a scam. Maybe he's just a nice guy. Or really desperate.

But looking him over, feeling his touch on your hand, letting him kiss you softly on the lips, you think maybe it wouldn't be so bad to sleep with him.

The four of you stay out, drinking, talking, playing pool and dancing. Then you and Tony go back to his room together.

 

The next morning Tony takes you to a restaurant in one of the posher hotels. They have an all-you-can-eat-buffet.

"This is the best breakfast buffet around," Tony says. "I've been coming down here for five years, and I didn't discover it until last winter."

You feel a little dizzy by his kindness. You have spent the whole night with him, throwing yourself into its momentum, getting caught up in an ecstasy of touching and talking. You do not stop to think that maybe you should take things slow. You do not stop to think about what will happen when you leave on Friday. It doesn't really seem to matter. You had fun, even if you’re still not sure about Tony. Even though you just spent the last twelve hours together.

Tony orders grapefruit with his breakfast. "Have you had the grapefruit down here?" he says. "It's so sweet."

He is the first man you have ever seen eat a grapefruit. You don't know why men are so against eating grapefruit. They must think that eating fruit with a funny-looking spoon is some kind of threat to their masculinity.

"The first time I ever ate grapefruit was at my grandmother's," you say as you tear the strands of pulp with the jagged edge of your spoon. The memory comes back to you now: the force with which she slammed the bowl down in front of you, the delight you felt from being allowed to eat sugar.

The grapefruit is indeed sweet. You have long ago stopped putting sugar on your grapefruit, but even if you still did, you wouldn't need it now. After you eat the chunks, you drink the juice from your spoon. With a smile Tony slurps directly from the bowl. An old woman at the next table frowns at him and you can't help but laugh. He seems to like to make you laugh.

 

Tony comes with you and Candy to the airport. He stays with you until your plane is called. When you stand up to board, he slips a brown paper bag into your carry-on. He presses his fingers to his lips. "It's a secret smuggling operation," he whispers. You laugh, wondering frantically what it could be, maybe a stash of heroin or something. Maybe this was his plan all along.

Why can't you just stop being so suspicious, you think as you board the plane.

As you sit and wait for the plane to take off, you pull out the brown paper bag. Inside it is a perfect, yellow globe, a fine specimen of a Florida grapefruit.


Alyssa Colton is a writer and lecturer in English. She lives in Albany, New York with her partner, Dan, daughter Emma, a dog, and two cats. She has published creative nonfiction in Iris: A Journal about Women, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, and in the book Surviving Literary Suicide. A cross-genre essay, "Manifesto for a Feminist Narrative Poetic," and book reviews have appeared previously at womenwriters.net.

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