For hours after peeling a clementine, I used to take pleasure in the lingering scent of the rind on my hands. At school, I would peel the fruit and eat one or two segments. This way I could honestly tell my mother I had eaten fruit. I threw the rest out or gave it to someone who had forgotten their snack. I did not like the taste. I craved the citrusy perfume, far more satisfying than the fruit
My son is nine. His name is Collin and his father doesn’t know he exists. It happened at the end of my study abroad semester. My friends and I were staying in the same youth hostel. He was Eastern European and his name started with a B. It may have been Boris. That sounds like an old man’s name and I convince myself it wasn’t Boris.
I’ve been telling Collin that his father is an international spy and is forbidden from revealing his true identity. Naturally, it’s impossible to contact him. I suspect Collin is starting to see through this embellishment, yet I think for his own sake, he accepts this version for now.
In return, I have spared him the myth of Santa Claus. Once he asked why the other kids believe a fat man in red brings them presents, and I responded that Santa is for families who need magic in their lives. I asked if we have enough magic in ours, and he said yes, but it would be better if we ate more cookies, specifically snickerdoodles. He argued that since he gets good grades and behaves himself at school, I should let him eat at least five a day. He is not usually allowed to have snacks with added sugar. Also, we don’t have dental insurance.
We eat a lot of fruit in our house. After Collin was born, I made a real effort to eat fruit regularly, though I never grew to enjoy it. I wanted him to develop healthy habits without being hypocritical. Adults often are.
Collin says I’m weird because I’ll eat the gently bruised bananas. I laugh and make a show of biting off a mushy part. He grabs at his neck with both hands, his eyes rolling back in his head, his mouth in an open frown.
His skin bruises easily, like mine. Though all kids get marked by falls they can’t remember.
I’m being lazy cutting my pork chop. My knife slips off the bone and screeches across the plate, startling Collin. He looks at me and giggles. He tells me I need to sleep more.
The next morning, we are driving to school and I realize I forgot to pack him lunch. We don’t have much in the fridge anyway. We stop at the deli on the corner and I let him get whatever he wants on his order, even processed meat.
I send him into school with a brown paper bag and half of a thick sandwich inside. I put the other half in my purse and decide to eat lunch at my desk. Most paralegals at the firm do.
I watch Collin run his hands under his nose at our small, thrifted kitchen table. In front of him are a dozen pieces of orange peel.
My instinct is to tease him about it — he can be so observant and relentless with his criticism. It’s as if I’m one of his cartoon characters and he expects me to falter, to unknowingly sink my teeth into a rotten, wormy apple for his amusement.
I surrendered to bad luck. Giving birth felt like being harvested. It was invasive, somehow unexpected after nine months of pregnancy to have this rooted growth torn from me. As a balm to my trauma, I tried seeing it as a transaction. I was giving him life, and he was supposed to give me a sense of purpose.
I was drawn to new mothers as a child. I watched their expressions as strangers fawned over their firstborns and threatened to gobble them up. I thought I always saw a flash of ego across the mother’s face, a sense of pride in her pristine, magnetic extension of herself.
It’s easy to hide behind a ripe, shiny baby. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps it wasn’t pride, but disappointment.
Alexandra M. Matthews is a teacher and writer living in the Hudson Valley. This is her first published short story.
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