I think I fell in love with my husband because of an apricot. He was sitting outside the library, long legs folded up, reading a book on a submarine disaster. I said to him, for no particular reason, “I’m terrified of deep water.”
He had looked up and said, “Jesus, so am I. That’s why I’m reading this. A reminder of why I’m scared. Makes me feel rational.”
I’d sat down next to him and he had an apricot in his bag that he cut in half, sharing it with me. The taste so sour, yet sweet.
Apricots hold poison inside them, not so unlike that apple that Snow White bit into, tightly encased in their hearts. That’s something to remember.
My husband, Mark, ended up going into the Out. I’ve always thought space was like water: so deep and dark and cold. I wondered why that didn’t stop him, then. His fear. Sometimes, I think we’re all liars at heart, we just don’t know why we’re lying.
“Mira. Mira.” The voice at the other end of the phone repeated my name. Only after the fourth time did I realize it was because I was supposed to answer. “Wait, what happened?” It was a routine landing. Mark’s co-pilot, Troy, had pulled up too fast or too slow or too something.
It took a year before I could go to the wall. The one with the names of everyone who had died in the Out. So many names. Mark’s name was one of the newest. I traced the letters with a fingertip, closing my eyes and imagining that it was the line of his hip. The indentation in the stone felt cold.
The phone rang one morning and I thought of ignoring the call. Such sharp trills.
“Mira. I have something I’d like to run by you.” It was Devin. He had been Mark’s colleague. A botanist, working on growing plants in lightless facilities. He had some grand plan for green houses on cold planets or something like that.
“What do you need me for?” I asked, playing with a dice I kept on the counter. Sometimes I just liked to roll it and see what numbers came up in a row. One. Two. Three. If it rolled out all six in numerical order, then maybe like a magic spell, it would change the past.
“I thought you might be interested in being a tester on some fruit I’ve grown,” he said. An attempt to get me out of the house.
“And I’d be the perfect tester because?”
“Please, Mira, everyone knows you’re the genius of taste.”
It was true. My degree was in botany, as well, but my particular specialty and dissertation had been on the perceptions of taste in modified foods. I used to do it as a party trick: one taste of jalapeno and I could tell you where it came from, what had been altered in it, what season it was grown in. Uncanny, Mark had said, half joking and half confused.
“Fine,” I said. I knew that there would be more requests, more reasons made up to get me out of the house. If I just gave in once then they couldn’t say that I was stuck, depressed, whatever.
Devin’s lab was tucked away in a suburban area. It could have been a cheese processing plant. Only once inside, was it easy to realize that something important was being done here: I had to go through different check points, flashing my ID, having Devin called to confirm that I had a meeting scheduled with him.
His office was cramped and Devin didn’t seem to fit in it. He had always been gangly, a word that seemed too fitting to be mean. He jumped up when I walked in, his face shifting from concentration to an over-acted happiness. “Mira!”
“Devin,” I said. Mark had once called Devin a cross between an ostrich and a golden lab. He hadn’t meant it as a cruelty, just a statement of fact.
“I’m so glad you agreed to come in. I can’t wait for you to try this!” He scurried out from behind his desk, beckoning for me to follow him back out of the office. I followed. We walked down the hallway and into a side room. It was a pristine lab with a fridge in one corner and a metal table in the center of the room. Walking up to the table, I marveled at its shine: my reflection gazed up at me. Was my hair that long? My skin that ashen? I’d spent months avoiding looking in mirrors.
Devin walked to the fridge, opening the door and removing something small. He came back to the table and set the object down on it. A small fruit, some kind of stone fruit I guessed by the look of the skin. It was the color of an over-ripe peach. Holding it in one hand, he used a thin knife to deftly cut the fruit in half. Juice dripped down onto the table. Devin handed half of the fruit to me.
“You going to tell me what it is?” I asked.
He shook his head, smiling. “I want you to try it first.”
I sniffed at the fruit. Sweet, a little like a cantaloupe mixed with the sharp tang of an apricot. Squeezing the flesh between my fingers, it gave slightly, the texture of a well-chosen avocado. I took a small bite. Flavors flooded my tongue: sour as an apple picked too early, then sweet as cotton candy, almost sickly but just enough not that I’d never been able to stop eating it as a child, then the flavors pulled backwards leaving a sticky taste like pine sap. “What is this, Devin? I’ve never tasted anything like this.”
He practically gleamed. “I’m calling it a cold-stone peach.”
“It’s one of yours? No light?”
“No light. No heat. Perfection in a fruit.”
I took another bite and was hit by the same swirl of flavors. I couldn’t taste the falseness. They tasted like they’d been grown, not developed. “How?”
“Magician’s trade secrets,” he said. He took a large chomp out of the other half of the fruit. I watched him chewing.
“What does it taste like to you?” I asked.
“Uh, like a peach?” he replied. “Maybe, an apricot.”
“What about that intense hit of sweet? And the pine?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Don’t get that. Maybe a sweet peach?”
Licking my lip, I tasted again the pine taste, like mint jelly if the sugar was burned away. So distinct. It was then that I didn’t trust Devin completely. “What was the process like for this? What is it a hybrid of?”
He half-grinned. “Didn’t I just say trade secrets? I think it’s ready, though, right?”
“It certainly tastes ready. Any effects?”
He shook his head. “None. Safe as houses.”
I licked juice from my lips. The taste spread across my tongue and then everything went black.
Veins. Roots. Something spreading up from the ground, pushing into my skin. Pain, sharp like someone running a pizza cutter along my body in concentric circles.
“Mira?” Devin sounded concerned.
I opened my eyes, still standing. I hadn’t fainted, at least. It had been a long time since taste had hit me so strongly. “Sorry, just thinking about the taste. Devin, could I take one of these home? I’d like to write up a proper taste-profile for you.”
He nodded, happy that I was becoming engaged in the project. A few weeks after Mark’s death, I’d overheard two friends talking about me. “She doesn’t seem broken. When do you think it’ll hit her?”
The other had responded. “No, no, I think she’s more than broken. I don’t think she’s ever coming back.”
Devin selected one of the fruits, placing it into the bag, which he then stuck a barcode sticker on. “This way they’ll let you actually go through security with it. When do you think you’ll have the profile worked up? I’d love to have one to present to the next board meeting!”
“Maybe a few days? A week at the most,” I said, taking the bag from him. The whole fruit was lighter than I expected, lacking the unexpected density of a peach.
“Perfect. I see the board at the end of next week. Thanks, so much, Mira. It’s always been a pleasure to work with you.” He led me to the door, and then paused before opening it. “How are you doing? Really doing? It’s been a while since anyone’s talked to you.”
“I’m okay, Devin. Thank you, though.” I pushed open the door and left.
At home, I photographed the fruit from multiple angles. Then weighed it. 3.5 ounces, which was about three ounces less than the average peach of a similar size. I weighed it twice. I peeled some of the skin off and looked at it under my microscope. The skin seemed to have patterns in it: spirals and whirls. It reminded me most of granite.
I cut off the tiniest morsel and placed it on my tongue. The taste spectrum hit me again: that pine, resiny, sweet lingered. It made my eyes water. We’d honeymooned by Lake Superior, hiking in the national park, all those trees, the smell of pine sometimes made me weak in the knees. I swallowed down the flesh of the fruit.
Pain. Something pushing its way up and out of the ground. It hurt so much to break free of the dirt, to grow. My hands were bleeding, skin cracking.
Eyes opened. I felt nauseous, the room spinning. Sitting down at the table, I stared at the fruit. Devin had not engineered it. There was no way. There was something wrong with it, something distinctly not natural. Everything he’d done before, that I’d tried, could be traced back to its component parts. The kiwi, light and tangy, or the Honey Crisp apple, tasting of sweet wine and autumn. This fruit was different. It tasted like it had no individual parts making up the whole. Like it was complete and its own.
What had Mark told me once about Devin? It was there in the tip of my memory.
We were lying in bed. His hand resting on my hip. There was always that between us, the constant need to be in contact with one another’s bodies. I’d only just met Devin. He’d had me try a new kind of apple. It was as tart as a Granny Smith, but with the crunch of an Ambrosia.
“Devin is a mad scientist,” I joked to Mark.
Mark smiled. I always knew when he was smiling, even if I wasn’t looking at his face. “He is, but less so than he wants to be.”
“What do you mean?” I reached out to touch his arm. His skin was warm, always so warm. I had wanted to open the casket, when they brought it out, in the madness of grief, I had imagined he would still be warm.
“I think Devin is a farmer, at heart. He’d like to be on alien planets, growing their native plants, raising them from seeds. I always thought he messed around with this stuff, in the hopes that they’d let him go on a mission, and then he’d just never come back, you know. Just live on the land.”
“It’s alien,” I said. The fruit seemed to shimmer for a second, as if pleased that I’d guessed. I touched it. Cool as ice, though it had been sitting out, unrefrigerated, for hours now.
The last mission that had returned had been coming back from a research trip to the Goldilocks that everyone had been talking about. Had they brought seeds of some sort back? They must have and Devin had gotten his hands on them. There was an idiocy there, a madness. There was no way to know the edibility, the long term effects of something that we’d never before experienced. Even with genetic modification, the start was from known components.
Without thinking about it, I had cut off another chunk of the fruit and placed it in my mouth. When I realized what I was doing, I almost spat it out. Except the taste was already overwhelming me. The scent of the fruit was nearly intoxicating.
Our first apartment had been above a fruit seller. The smell of cantaloupes, too ripe, often wafted up in the summer. I got annoyed with it, but Mark began to crave them. He’d bring up cantaloupes and cut them open for breakfast. We’d eat them in bed, juice dripping down our arms. So sticky. He used to lick it off my skin.
Ache. That was the only word to describe it. It ached to grow. The wind was sharp, pushing me to the ground. Had to keep fighting, struggling, aching. It was a feeling not so distant from standing in the kitchen, ear pressed to the phone, hearing that your world was cracked open.
I spent the rest of the night, eating the fruit in tiny increments. Each bite like a burst of remembering. Somethings were my own and some seemed to be the memory of the fruit itself. As if it held its ancestry in tastes. Always ending in that sticky pine and I’d be back for a split second by Lake Superior and Mark would be turning to tell me something.
In the morning, I woke with nothing left of the fruit, even the juice on my fingers I had licked clean.
I wrote up the taste profile. I wrote it in details, ones that said nothing of what the taste held. Just the facts. Sharp and to the point.
I called Devin and told him I’d love to drop off the profile in person.
At the lab, it had been almost twelve hours since I’d had the last of the fruit, and I already was forgetting what it had tasted like. Our senses are amnesiacs, in a way, it’s hard to truly remember something: a taste, a smell, the feeling of pain, when we aren’t in the process of physically experiencing it. Memory is like a discount bakery, where everything is just a little stale.
“Mira, that was fast,” Devin said, when I walked into his lab. He looked sad.
I handed him the paper with the profile on it. “That really was something, Devin.” I was trying to think how to phrase my request.
He barely glanced down at the profile. “It’s a shame.”
“What is?” I asked.
“Well, you did this great job and now I won’t need it.” Had he ever looked this sad?
“What do you mean?” My voice shook.
He spread his hands out, a universal gesture of loss. “They’re gone. They rotted. They fucking rotted.”
I shook my head. “But, you have…”
“The seeds, too. I came in and everything was a puddle of sludge. You know, I even fucking tried to taste that. But it was nothing. It was gone.” There were tears in his eyes. And then I understood.
“Devin, what did they taste like to you? Exactly? What did they taste like?”
He almost smiled, remembering. “Kind of like the peaches on my grandpa’s farm, and a little like apple cider. The way my mom…She used to put something in the cider when she warmed it. Maybe orange peel and whole cloves? I don’t know. It always tasted so good.”
I felt like sitting on the floor, like crumpling. Already the taste was so far gone from me. Just one last flash of pine, on the tip of my tongue, the tip of my mind, and Mark pointing to a tree and saying that it looked like it was the color of what he imagined was the water on other planets.
“I’m sorry, Mira,” Devin said. “I thought I was helping.”
I reached out and touched his arm. It was never his fault. I wondered why the fruit had dissolved, if it knew that we should never be allowed a second piece.
He walked over to the lab fridge and took out a fruit. “This is my newest experiment. Unoranges, I’m calling them. Do you want to try?”
A peace offering. I nodded. He cut it open, the smell of citrus filled the air. We both took half, biting into them in silence.
The taste of unripe oranges. Not unsweet but not right either. Closer to the flavor of canned oranges, dripping with syrup. Oranges that didn’t believe they were oranges yet. The taste on my tongue made my mouth feel dizzy. It tasted nothing like memory.