http://www.albany.edu/offcourse
 http://offcourse.org
 ISSN 1556-4975

   

Since 1998, a journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays edited by Ricardo L. Nirenberg.


 

"The Taste of Strawberries Today" by Meeah Williams

 

The strawberries lay on the cutting board, side by side, like a row of little hearts. She sliced them lengthwise, hesitated, and then decided to slice them lengthwise once again. Behind her, at the kitchen table, Walt was reading the morning headlines off the internet.

The president was declaring the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, just not yet. Another shocking bank scandal of the kind that had happened so many times already it had lost the power to shock anyone. Shock, in this case, was just a figure of speech used in headlines to get your attention. Unemployment was down, not counting, of course, all the people who'd yielded to the hopelessness of ever again finding a job, who'd fallen off the unemployment rolls altogether.

Sarah turned the strawberries on their little hunched backs. They revealed, like so many severed fruits reveal inside, a pattern suggestive of female genitalia. Why is that? It’s not a surprise, but then it is. In this case, with their tiny seeds embedded in the outer red flesh, they even bore resemblance to the plump shaved mons veneris of current pubic fashion.

Some mornings, this being one of them, Sarah is struck with such a rising-out-of-nowhere sorrow she can almost feel her knees buckle against the sheer weight of it. An immense, heavy-bellied gray wave of sadness rose above her in the face of which she stood paralyzed. She could almost feel the sand slipping away beneath her feet.  She can imagine herself gratefully surrendering to the inevitably of it and letting herself be dragged out to the sea of oblivion. Peaceful oblivion.

 Walt, used to the look that came over her at times like these, would ask what the matter was, usually knowing full well. She found herself speechless, unable to account for it, she imagined it to be akin to the emotion that overcomes one standing before one of those great Easter Island heads, or an Aztec pyramid. Something too big for human comprehension.

“It’s the girl again, isn’t it?”

She nods her head, unable to speak, unable to meet his eyes.

Only moments earlier Walt had scrolled down the screen, reading randomly from the first paragraph or two about another missing woman. It seemed women were vanishing into thin air all the time lately. This particular woman had disappeared in some hardly imaginable state, one of those places that existed in one’s mind only as a vague shape on maps that she'd seen. Idaho, maybe?

Someday, if things got desperate enough, Sarah comforted herself (this is “comfort?”) with the idea that she could escape to a place like that. She could replace the woman who’d vanished. Maybe she'd get a job in one of those windblown diners they’re always depicting in films, the ones built at the side of an interstate cutting through the middle of miles of nowhere. The kind of place where they didn't ask you questions about your past. Did places exist like that anymore?

"Listen to this," Walt said from the table, looking to change the subject in as outlandish a way as possible, "the cops shot to death this naked guy on a bridge in Miami eating the face off another man."

“Oh Christ,” Sarah said, taking extra care that she didn’t slice her thumb open dealing with a mutated looking strawberry, a kind of double hunchberry with another whole strawberry growing out of its back, “I don’t want to listen to that.”

One problem about the internet, she decided, is that they brought the worst news from every corner of the world together in one place. It was all there on your computer screen, stuff you would never have heard of before, not even twenty-five years ago, because it would have been reported only in the local papers where it happened. Now everything happened everywhere at once. As a result, the world seemed a lot nastier a place than ever before since there was always something nasty happening somewhere and now you heard about it instantly and ad nauseum.

“How is it that it could have come to this?”

She starts out this way and she ends right here, too. She can’t say anymore because all the rest is too big, it sticks in her throat. She had the best of intentions. She tried hard, and repeatedly, to make things work out. She was intelligent, compassionate, always ready and willing to make amends, offer apology, reconcile, compromise, forgive, start again.

Walt takes her head in his hands and tells her to look him in the eyes. He tells her what a wonderful and special person she is. He orders her to believe him, makes her repeat the words he’s saying to her, literally verbatim, but they feel like a foreign language on her lips and all wrong to her ears. She can hardly understand them. She certainly doesn’t believe them.

It’s not her fault, he tries to assure her, that her daughter abandoned her, chose to break off all relations, virtually disappear. But how could it not be her fault, that’s what Sarah wants to cry out, but if she did the words would rip her apart right down the middle, like a knife slicing into a strawberry, so she doesn’t say them but it rips her, anyway, but silently, invisibly. That’s what it’s like: like she’s bleeding away inside.

What was it with strawberries nowadays? She and Walt had discussed it often. They used to seem a lot sweeter than they did today. Was it a result of the way they farmed nowadays, force-growing crops for maximum yield, spraying them with poisons, and harvesting them before their time to speed them to markets thousands of miles away from where they were grown? Was it that the soil that was growing depleted, the planet exhausted, running out of sweetness? Or was it memory that was at fault, making the strawberries of yesteryear bigger, redder, and sweeter than they actually were. Were strawberries ever that good? Had Sarah ever really tasted the strawberries she remembered?

There is a Tarot card that describes the way she's feeling. It depicts a heart floating in empty space among the clouds and it's run through with three swords.

Come to think of it, did she ever remember strawberries being sweet, or was it really someone else’s memory that she repeated, even took to be her own? Maybe that was just another thing people said to explain why they felt so disappointed and dissatisfied with their lives. It was the kind of thing you expected older people to say. She was growing older, surely, but was she really that old? It seemed to her that people were growing older sooner nowadays even as they hung on to their youth longer than ever.

What did it mean, then, to have a daughter here, an ex there, another ex somewhere else...to have a past populated with people to whom you were an ex, an ex-person, who never wanted to speak to you again?

X marks the spot. X’s marking off days on the calendar. Where is the buried treasure? What did it mean except that you'd made quite a few mistakes in life. You could keep on making them the way you could keep on eating when you've already blown your diet, figuring what more harm can an extra piece of pie do anyway?

But it does do more harm, no matter how much harm has already been done. It was time, she figured, to stop doing harm. Even if she couldn't make things better, she could stop making them worse. That was something, after all.

Sometimes it hurts so badly you simply want to die. You want to admit that everything bad they've said about you is true, that their reasons for wanting to hurt you are justified. Whether it is or not isn't the point.

Not when your heart is impaled in three places. You just want the pain of it to be finished. You want them to stop hating you for whatever reasons they've given themselves to hate you.

She won't kill herself, though. This much she knows by now. She can't even convince herself she is as bad as they say. She feels stupid and melodramatic even trying.

And then there's Walt. He loves her. And he is the only thing she's ever done right in her entire life. Finding him, that is, or allowing him to find her. Recognizing that he loved her, that he wasn't just blowing smoke up her ass, believing him instead of arguing with him until she convinced him that she was right, that he didn’t really love her, after all. She gave up. She surrendered to the idea of it.

Sarah picked up one strawberry half and placed it against the tip of her tongue before biting. What part of the tongue was it that detects sweetness, anyway? It's startling to realize how many things you don't know, or, sometimes even worse, only half-know. If you confined yourself to saying only the things you really knew, you'd hardly say anything at all. That might not be such a bad thing, after all. That might keep the mistakes from coming, slow them down at least.

She took a little nibble but couldn't taste anything sweet about the strawberry no matter what part of her tongue she put it on. Could it be that we were sold a bill of goods, that we were told that strawberries were sweet so many times that we came to believe it? They certainly looked like they should be sweet. Was that what made it so easy to believe it? For her part, Sarah wanted to believe they were sweet. Why else did she keep buying them even after being disappointed so many times? Even after all those discussions with Walt about how the strawberries nowadays were never sweet, not like they remembered them, she still bought them. What was that all about, anyway?

They say that if the Three of Swords comes up in a reading reversed it can mean the end of what is troubling you, the swords falling away seemingly of their own accord, drawn out by gravity. The heart healing itself. She was in the shower a month ago and thought about cutting her wrists. They were in a hotel in Florida. Walt was in the next room, reading. And the urge to kill herself passed over her the way it does sometimes, like a sudden chill in an otherwise comfortable room, as if a ghost walked through you. And it surprised her, the reason she couldn't do it, being the problems it would cause Walt, the overall hassle, the embarrassment with the hotel management, the explanations at the hospital, and the police, can you imagine, the police, not to mention ruining his whole vacation.

She shuddered to imagine it, even standing there under a caul of steam and scalding water. She couldn't do that to him especially because all the problems it caused Walt wouldn't be the important thing to him, wouldn't matter to him at all. What would matter would be the grief she knew she’d cause him by killing herself. She could all too vividly imagine him weeping over her broken body, calling her back in vain, blaming himself, shocked and uncomprehending because he was so certain that he’d made her happy.

It would be hell, literally hell, in those last few minutes of life as her blood drained away, to imagine that Walt would think her ungrateful, that he would think he’d failed, that he hadn’t made her happy after all.

She’d clamp her hand over her wrist, stop the blood herself, stagger to the phone to call the ambulance. Because he loved her, that was indisputable, as badly as she felt, as badly as her heart was damaged, as much as she wanted to surrender and plead guilty even to crimes of which she knew she was perfectly innocent, as skillfully and eloquently as she might argue herself into believing that she was guilty in order to make an end of it all, not even she could convince herself that Walt didn't love her.


Separator

She set the little parfait glass of cut-up fruit in front of Walt. He pushed the laptop aside, closed the cover, and leaned up to give her a kiss. He placed a big warm hand on her ass; it felt good through the thin material of her nightie.

"Thanks baby. This looks fantastic." He picked up his spoon. "How are the strawberries?"
Sarah shrugged. "I don't know. It's hard to say." She plucked a paper packet from out of the hollowed out back of the ceramic cow where they kept the artificial sweetener and placed it by Walt's cup. "Just in case," she said.


Meeah Williams is a freelance writer and graphic artist. Her short fiction and poetry has most recently appeared or is forthcoming from Per Contra, The Milo Review, Blank Media Collective, Vagabond City and The Stone Highway Review. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Hank. Her story "Still Life with Adultery" appeared in Offcourse #54.



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