My mother used to peel oranges with a butter knife, separating the rind from the plump globe with rhythmic efficiency. Bursts of citric acid would rest on her fingertips and knuckles, looking like ash. When she finished, she’d brandish the vivid peel, a continuous whorl, unbroken. Then she’d remind me what this tiny triumph signified.
“Back home we used to say if you can peel the orange without breaking the rind, you’re gonna get a new dress.”
I have a tattoo of an orange above my right ankle. Or a grapefruit, depending on my mood. It’s a juicy one; three droplets spurt from it. The tattoo artist, Erica, inked me on a muggy summer evening in 2018, three seasons after The Breakup, two months before I changed jobs, several weeks after my thirtieth birthday. We talked about her upcoming trip to Italy with her mother, how long she’d been saving up for tickets, her exhilaration at the prospect of abandoning the bloated city for a little while. I didn’t mention that I’d started teaching myself Italian with a workbook a few years back, then I’d downloaded DuoLingo, and then abandoned the effort altogether. I chewed on my grin as the needle plunged in and out of my skin, Budweiser sweating in my hand, staring at nothing, feeling everything.
An orange. A grapefruit? The tattoo doesn’t need to mean anything, unless I want it to.
Sometimes I miss the rugged indignity of childbirth. I don’t remember the last time I felt so uninhibited, so untethered from shame. Naked in the garden, and I didn’t give a shit. I was barely aware of the two a.m. Uber ride, the check-in process, the conversation with the admitting nurse, anything. The day my daughter’s dad and I learned we’d created a wriggling promise of a person, we went to Barnes & Noble and I bought a book that told me one shouldn’t think of labor as painful. Almost a year later, I did, because it was. The pain was incandescent: a sticky, piercing heat that felt a knife’s edge from ecstasy; it sent spasm after spasm through my limbs as I clung to the hospital sheets, straining toward the ceiling, yearning for the sky beyond it. I was half-gone, floating up to the cosmos, desperate for the frigid vastness of space, for my body to shatter into pieces and just float undisturbed, finally, finally. Back on earth, I was tethered, spread, split decisively open. My daughter slid from me, indignant, slick and firm as a plum, and stopped wailing as soon as they nestled her on my chest.
I didn’t cry, no cameras flashed. I looked down at her in bewilderment that splintered into terrified awe. The tiniest face. This was my child? I was her mother?
A few months after I was born in 1988, a blood orange was discovered hanging from a Valencia tree in Ventura County, California. Mrs. Smith placed a frantic call to police upon cutting her fruit open and discovering its burgundy flesh. She thought, perhaps, a neighbor had tampered with her fruit, injecting it with actual blood, or even poison. I wonder if a part of her wasn’t curious about how it tasted, even as a police officer reassured her, maybe dropped a comforting pat on her arm, trying to calm her down. I wonder if she didn’t eye the tree from her bedroom window hours after the police cars faded from sight, feeling betrayed by the foreign pigment in her fruit, and imagining the flavor on her tongue—sweet, sour, or something else entirely?—before turning away with a slow shiver.
For some time, I shared my childhood home with a contractor. Cedric. I remember the tan crust on his jeans, the way his boots clunked as if on the verge of falling off his feet, the way he always appeared sort of sloppy and larger than necessary. I remember the constant negotiations and renegotiations, achingly boring to a twelve-year-old. The yellow hardhats. I hated the disruption of it, the visible clutter and wreckage of construction. It’s always been my least favorite aspect of home improvement shows: the drills. The sawing. The noise. The dust and guts. Things didn’t have to be pretty all the time, but I preferred them whole.
Our house was broken for a long time. Longer than it was supposed to be, my parents’ arguments told me. Incompetence. Fraud. The roof and an entire wall wrenched apart, exposed, the upper level uninhabitable, blue tarp flapping in the wind. I learned the varying melodies and inflections of eyesore. Embarrassment. It was—I thought sometimes, lying quiet in the dark of my bedroom with the purple walls—kind of stupid. Like, stupid-funny. Certainly funnier if it wasn’t happening to us. Our home, agape. As if in shock. Cedric had ripped off my aunt and uncle too, who lived about seven blocks away from us. I found the ineptitude and resulting vitriol of adulthood absurd, trapped as I was within it, cushioned by the immaturity of ignorance. What do I know? I’d wonder, undulating nonexistent hips in front of the TV, our VHS playing back the music video for “Baby Boy” by Sean Paul, feat. Beyoncé. I was just a stupid kid, in my stupid house, peeled open, beam by beam, from the very top.
A full adolescence later, my parents split apart too.
One day in fourth grade, our teachers made all the boys leave the room before distributing pamphlets called “Growing Up and Liking It.” Everyone in the pamphlet was white. They wheeled in a TV cart and showed us a grainy video that featured a mother explaining the wonders of the female reproductive system to her daughter and her daughter’s friend over breakfast. Providing helpful visualization while demonstrating her culinary prowess, she performed a dazzling sleight of hand with the batter, the oil, the pan placement and burner temperature, producing a batch of pancakes that resembled the flat, pink diagrams that lay in our pamphlets, brazen as centerfolds. Fallopian tubes, but pancake. Uterus, in pancake. A cervical pancake. I was astounded, and kind of hungry.
I knew where my mom’s pads were; I’d studied the box, sometimes, while I was in the bathroom. Tampons could probably kill me, and were to be avoided at all costs, until my vagina matured and grew immune to their menace, or something. Pads were diaper-like, but we didn’t talk about that, and had sticky undersides that made a satisfying noise when you peeled them from the wrapper. Green, orange, white, purple.
My period came four years after the pancakes, on a Friday in April. I still had my pamphlet. It was raining, and I was watching a behind-the-scenes look at the video for Ludacris’s new song, “Saturday.” Every time I went to pee and wiped, something stained the toilet paper a different hue. Nothing hurt but I wondered, idly, if I was dying. My parents weren’t home yet and the house was silent except for that bedroom I was in, watching something I knew my dad wouldn’t approve of. I got a big weed stash, pockets full of cash, just seen a big ol’ ass. Saturday! Another trip to the bathroom, and this time the toilet paper came away crimson. The world tipped and blurred for two seconds, a lance of panic, before the bizarre biology of it slotted into memory. Not dying. It was my period! Growing up. I guess I liked it.
My dad gave me two supplements as a child. I already had regular vitamins, chalky Flintstone tablets that crumbled soggy and sugar-bright between my teeth. But apparently more was required. Scot’s Emulsion was in the tall brown plastic bottle. It smelled like paint and tasted like glue. Or maybe the other way around. I can still feel the way it coated my tongue, slimed down my throat. I would go cross-eyed glaring at the spoon. Dad always had orange slices waiting, sliced into sixths on a paper towel. They’d burst sharp and yellow on my tongue, a rapid reprieve from Scot’s Emulsion’s thick, medicinal aftertaste. If we didn’t have oranges, he would let us skip a day. (As a parent, I’m learning to be strict, but to leave room for these small indulgences.)
Cod liver oil was smaller, prettier, and meaner. I didn’t like swallowing pills and my young mouth struggled to repress the urge to chew on little round things. Nothing could be further from candy. It was unbelievable, that such a tiny dribble of oil could hold so much malice, in both taste and smell. Dad would drop one smooth, golden pill into a half glass of orange juice. I felt a little insulted that he thought I could be so easily fooled. I’d drink it slowly, heart racing, like I was completing a dare. Sometimes, if I was lucky, it would slip down without offense. A swig of juice could dispel the taste if I bit down accidentally, but only just. Physical oranges were better.
Truth be told, I was rarely sick as a child.
In high school, I confessed to a teacher that I was experiencing religious doubt. I remember the anxious way I stood there in my uniform skirt, words tumbling from my lips, a sinner’s gasping confession. It was a relief and a new burden all at once, giving voice to the heartbreak I glimpsed sometimes in my father’s eyes: “Carla, do you still believe?” It was so, so tempting to just believe. It was a choice, after all. But I prayed to the God he’d always clung to, and felt no response. No supernatural presence. Just empty air and a vague sense of shame. What did I expect, directing birthday wishes to my ceiling? It was made of wood, plaster, drywall, things so easily unmade, exposed. At least a candle’s flame will burn you, if you’re stupid enough to reach for it.
My teacher reasoned that I was less prone to extravagant displays of emotion, and more inclined to Biblical study and devotion. Academic Christianity. I still have all the books of the Bible memorized. I used to recite them in Junior Church to earn Bible bucks, which could be exchanged, on special Sundays, for colorful fripperies like corded whistles, animal-shaped erasers, slap bracelets. The literature of the Bible—bombastic, poetic, bafflingly contradictory—remains a formative part of my makeup, my morality. I didn’t know then, so smug in my adolescent skepticism, that belief in something so elemental doesn’t dissipate; it sublimates into hope, or despair, or joy, grounded in the knowledge of something greater. What form that takes, I no longer pretend to know.
Was Jesus real? Probably. Did he die? People do. For me, personally? Did he bleed for me, for my sins? It would be nice to think so.
At church, people stomped and clapped and cried and danced. I did these things too, sometimes, because it was expected, and encouraged, and the longer I performed the easier it was to believe. Most of the time, I watched the proceedings with a bored fascination that skirted the edge of jealousy. What are they feeling that I don’t? Why should I be left out? I would become a legal adult in a matter of months; I would leave my home, presumably forever, before the year ended. Approaching my teacher was the final coin tossed into the offering plate; a bended knee, poised to sprint.
I was granted permission, once, to help prepare the communion materials for First Sunday. We used a complicated silver instrument with multiple spouts to pour grape juice into many tiny cups at the same time. I held a wadded napkin to dab at spills, watched the violet-crimson stain grow. One day when I was lost, He died upon the cross, we would sing the next day. I know it was the blood for me. The deaconesses—including my mom, until she quit—wore all white. The juice was Welch’s, I think; the same plastic jugs I’d see in the supermarket. I asked for some when we finished and received a full cup, maybe seven or eight communion servings worth. The blood. I lifted it to my lips, an illicit thrill.
I never know when my daughter’s tiny voice piping up “Can I try?” will result in another sliver of separation. The coalescing strength of her synapses and coordination render some maternal tasks less and less urgent, until finally: “Mommy, I can do it by myself.”
Everything goes this way, and will eventually. I still call my mother—much more often than I ever did before, but not so much to seek plaintive help as because I crave the weight of her regard, her presence warm and solid, even transmuted across the miles through wire and code. But for now, here I am with my little girl: braiding her hair, tying her shoes, kissing her forehead and pillowy cheeks while she sleeps. I used to peel her fruit, the oranges and mandarins and clementines and grapefruit we share, until she’d seen me do it quite enough, and demanded to try it herself. Her little hands are a marvel, so clumsy until they’re not, deft with determination and softer than anything else in the world. She likes to slip her thumb into the globe’s split center once it’s peeled, the way she’s seen me do it, her triumphant grin a beacon. “Look, mommy.”
I can’t remember the first time I liberated an orange from its peel without breaking the rind, but I imagine I must have smiled at my mother the same way, my mind buzzing with fantasies of that new dress, and she must have felt her heart fracture just a tiny bit, the way mine does now, nearly every day.
The strange, bloody orange was arrested, basically: torn from its home and escorted by police to the University of California at Riverside’s Citrus Variety Collection. We can assume it underwent a fair amount of poking and prodding by curious scientists, who eventually discovered that its origins stretched back thousands of years to its genetic genesis in China. The potential for anthocyanins, which are responsible for the deep red pigment in blood oranges, exist in all oranges, but for whatever reason, it was Mrs. Smith’s, in 1988, that developed this mutation. Recapitulation, it was called. A biological reincarnation. These specific seeds, silently bearing this secret through the ages, just waiting to burst into vermillion bloom. I wonder if Mrs. Smith always looked at that tree a little bit differently after that day in September. If her horror was tinged with awe. Did she touch the tree’s bark and leaves with reverence, puzzling at the bizarre circuitry of time and photosynthesis? I would. I would think seriously about the presence and power of a God in that moment, maybe even for the first time.
On a freezing January evening just outside of Woodstock, New York, at 12:16 a.m., I stood beneath the Super Blood Wolf Moon eclipse. The next one wouldn’t occur until 2021. Naked trees swayed in the inky night, benevolent and menacing. I heard no one and felt everything in those few minutes, every wind whisper and snowflake kiss and far-off howl. The stillness was unnerving. I tried to absorb calm, staring up into the sky at the eerie menses-stain of the distant moon, but could only feel a muted terror. I slipped on the ice-slick pathway to the house three or four times, but I didn’t fall. Whispered a blessing, a curse, or maybe a prayer, and went back inside, shucking my ice-crusted boots, abandoning my coat for the soft bed of my Airbnb and its covers, once foreign, that now smelled like me. I felt relieved to be peeled away from the moon’s bloody, chaotic gaze, now blunted by layers of wood, plaster, drywall.
That same unease finds me whenever I return to my childhood home, each room diminished with the passage of time, the slow scrape of memory. Here, where I told my mother about my period. Here, where the construction finally ended. Here, where my father and I swept our orange peels into the trash. When my daughter visits, she sleeps in my old room. I hung posters of the Backstreet Boys, then of Lil’ Bow Wow and B2K, on those walls. Now I avoid staring up at the ceiling, once a galaxy of stickered glow-in-the-dark stars that absorbed every fervent, whispered prayer.
Here, my existence lies somewhere between interloper and prodigal daughter. The layers that we shed can illuminate or they can expose; a peel that has ripped, like a home that stood broken, was still once a refuge. I still find myself wanting that new dress.
Before the construction—before consistent, coherent memory—I remember sitting alone in my parents’ room, playing with a stray razor blade I’d found. One clumsy stroke and I felt the immediacy of my two-year-old body, once mere concept, now flesh. I watched my skin split, tender and pliant as fruit, and marveled at the red exposed, spilling from inside. And then, the pain.