Z. K. ABRAHAM
I Dream of Produce
I am a part of a regular prompt writing group; we often generate bizarre and unexpected ideas from our prompts. The idea of a woman turning into an orange popped into my head. I thought of such great books as You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I wanted to embrace body horror as well as complete isolation. I embraced the weird, unlikeable, and tragic aspects of my character and the visceral, sensory details of her transformation. It was so much fun to write, but also deeply sad.
Sophomore year I fell in love with Theresa. She wore maroon lipstick, faded black T-shirts that fell short of her belly button. We grew close after meeting in English class. She was the only one who talked to me. I listened with an acute attention. She told me no one had ever listened to her the way I did. I found myself consumed with her, consumed by her. Theresa was a fan of video games and orange gin liquors and was ashamed of her sexuality because her mother would accuse her of promiscuity as a young girl.
She was perfect.
In being around her, I started to become perfect. At night, I woke up from foreign dreams and was confused if I was her or myself. I soon loved the same video games, understood the operatic beauty of distant planets and the plights of ancient alien species. My jaw became larger in the mirror, although I could only see this in certain lights. My hair began to curl, just like hers, tendril by tendril.
When I was a child, I tried to remain separate and distinct, but inevitably, I absorbed the other kids’ habits and mannerisms. They thought I was weird, an unwanted presence hovering at the edge of the school yard. I embraced this process with Theresa. My brown irises were flecked with lighter shades, closer to her hazel. I felt lighter and warmer as I shed myself and absorbed her details. Biting my lip just like she did whenever she concentrated. Daydreaming about places I had never been but Theresa had visited; remembering the trickle of Amsterdam’s watery channels, the charcoal-damp of Oregon air.
Like the others, she began to sense something she didn’t like. I wanted Theresa, all of her. I wanted to jump out of my skin and become her. Spring semester, she stopped answering my texts and calls. It was over. Sinking, I collapsed back into myself.
Three months later I got a late-night text: I hope you are well. I see you around campus all by yourself. I want good things for you. I was sad you stopped coming to English. I always loved your insights, like what you said about dramatic irony, or was it transcendentalism? I think I wasn’t ready for what you wanted, or maybe it wasn’t for me. I’m just trying to have fun and figure out my own thing. Our friendship was a lot. You were always telling me how much you understood, that you felt just like me, but did you really? Or was it what you thought I felt? I just chugged two jager bombs at this terrible party.
I didn’t know how to respond. She wanted understanding, she wanted affirmation, and I provided what she craved and was therefore indispensable. It hadn’t occurred to me that what I knew in my heart about her might have been wrong.
After dropping out of college, I rented a studio in the northwest outskirts of the city, taking the rickety QR train to the suburban supermarket I work in. I manage the fruit and vegetable section. With sheer gloves, I monitor the produce for freshness. Nothing softened or browned, no breeding grounds for the fruit fly larvae. Useless, disgusting insects, burrowing to the core of things and multiplying their tiny bodies and frantic wings.
The QR is unreliable, so I make sure to take the earliest train available. On the cracked leather seats, I watch other commuters in their morning silence, heads nodding to music from tiny earbuds, legs jiggling. My ears perk up, trying to hear their music too. My vision blurs as I briefly see through their eyes, slip out of my skin and into theirs. Sometimes I have the urge to grab these strangers, scream in their faces, reach inside of them and discover what they are made of, so that I can be as real as they are.
There are weeks in which my own body doesn’t feel real at all, like these hands are someone else’s hands, my face a video game, an alien thing in the mirror. I yearn for the sights and smells of my produce. I am so lonely.
It’s easy to slip out of my skin. I am fascinated with the idea of transformation. Alchemy. Tin willing itself to become gold. The alchemist imagining the very properties of gold itself, understanding it cell by cell. Learning each chemical reaction required, the right variables and catalysts. Combustion and synthesis and decomposition.
Theresa told me I was like a ghost. Sneaking up behind her without a word, observing silently from corners. Before she stopped talking to me, she claimed she didn’t know me at all; what to get me for my birthdays, what movies I liked. I’m not surprised. If we hadn’t hung out for a few days, she might pass me on campus without recognizing me, as everyone else did. I am difficult to remember, to notice, to pin down.
Maintenance of the produce section is not just a matter of appearance. It is about understanding the truest form of the produce. I recheck everything throughout the day. Produce should be not just edible, but bright, bursting; it must perform on the tongue. Temperatures need to be logged, moisture maintained and deterred. There is a constant rearrangement of shapes and colors. These are scientific variables.
I hold the canary yellow lemons, the bristling bloom of broccoli. I am always hungry during my shift, always forgetting to eat breakfast in my rush to get to the store. I hunger for the vibrancy of the produce. Their curves, their feel. Glossy and fuzzed, firm and spiked. Substantial. A furtive sniff of the day’s fresh oranges. I want to grow into someone juicy, the best of the crop, something to be painted in still life, consumed, ripe but not yet rotted. Something not human, but grown and plentiful.
I have been buying out all the reduced-price oranges, spending my evenings feeling their textures and topography. After peeling the fruit until my fingertips prune, I eat dinners of citrus. I am enjoying the peace of being away from others. I can focus on beauty and form and physicality. The orange’s round, dynamic globe seeps into my consciousness.
My flesh is becoming ridged underneath my fingertips. The underbelly of my arm polishes to a slick shine. My pale brown is now imbued with shades of auburn and ginger and canary-yellow, sometimes like jaundice, other times like the pulsing of a sunrise from within my core. Night after night I stare at the bowl of glistening oranges on my kitchen table, under the single lightbulb, the buzz of the AC unit behind me.
One weekend, I drive to an orange grove and sneak through the gates at night. It is right before the harvest. There is a buzz unlike anything I have heard before. Lying down on damp ground, surrounded by fallen oranges, I shiver in unison with the tree and its fruit. Water is being sucked from iron-rich soil, seeping through cell walls, up the flesh of the tree, inside the branches and into the dangling spheres. I lie there all night, twisting and expanding. When I wake up, a farmer is screaming at me. I am naked, my belly rounded and firm, and my hips widened. As I run, I reach up and touch plump cheeks. I am light as air, as if my body is made up of tendrils of fiber and sweet juice. A sound like waves pulses in my ears.
Customers require my assistance. I can imagine their lives as they meander through the bright aisles. Hair still damp from a hurried shower; a shimmering, treasured bracelet; an anticipated call taken; a harried scramble to reel in a child. I believe I can discern if they want cauliflower or peaches, asparagus or zucchini, spinach or a particular apple in the cacophony of varieties.
Garlic, onions, and potatoes fall under my purview. Durable. Earthen. Fingernail underneath the purpling flakes of red onion skin, and I am reminded of my family home. Brittle flakes fall, a slice and a sting in the air, my own tears dripping down into my mouth, salt-wound on my tongue. I back away. Onions last for ages. I should enjoy their layers, demanding to be opened, but there is a brutality to them.
In the early hours, I am amongst the first workers. Shipments arrive from their long journeys. Picking up yellow-tinged orange, I imagine the produce blooming within its seed, its embryonic expansion; breaking through its shell, towards its tender unripe innocence, unbrushed, unkissed, still on the cusp. Eventually, the fruit is plucked. Sometimes before it is ready, sometimes a bit too late, sometimes just when it is yearning to be separated from itself. Then the long journey elsewhere, waiting to be consumed or discarded. This is the cycle I observe amongst produce and people. People are ripe objects; they eat or are eaten.
It is while repricing produce, saving them as they teeter towards their demise, that I notice the orange blush radiant across my full cheeks in a reflective surface. Usually, these changes rise when I am consumed, then fade after a few hours. Now, I find the orange’s qualities lingering within me. The orange is a symbol of something holy, a fertile joy, a citrus complexity. At the end of the day, I usually carry the various scents of produce, but now, I smell only of oranges, bright and sharp.
My belly softens. By my next menstrual cycle, something sticky and fragrant comes out of me. I am more pliant, and plump, looking healthier than ever.
I’ve started wearing sunglasses at all times, as my eyes are tinted translucent shades of reddish orange. Too many comments about being ill or high. Perhaps I am pushing it too far. My breath is citrus. My joints feel more supple, as if my cartilage is squishy and porous, and I wonder if I can bend my arms in new directions. I sit still all evening, waking up in the early hours of the morning with a gasp. I push myself further, to an edge I didn’t realize was there. It is getting harder to move within this strange rind. My insides squelch, my organs now circulating juices and pulp.
Theresa steps into the store. Theresa, her frizzing curls and long neck and now dark green lipstick, roaming before the spinach and kale and celery. The fine mist turns on over her face. She hops back and gives a blank smile. My juicy pulse reverberates through my eardrums. What is she doing here, in this grocery store miles away from campus. A man, broad-shouldered and wavy haired, lingers in the background.
“We’re looking for okra.”
“Are you?” I whisper.
I sidle closer. Despite the summer heat, I’m wearing the long-sleeved version of the grocery store uniform to cover my rippled orange skin. I sweat citrus. In the hollow light of the grocery store, I see Theresa looking more beautiful than I remember.
She turns to me. “Making a new dish for my boyfriend. Forcing him try something new. What do you suggest?” She smiles. It’s a smile she reserves for strangers. She doesn’t recognize me.
Her smile fades as she squints, as if recalling a childhood dream, deciphering a moment of deja vu, trying to see if the dark shape in the corner is shadow or ghost. I am nothing to hold onto, as I have always been. Dizzy, I lean on the nearest display stand. She peers down at me, confused. Turning, I look at the oranges which seem to sing out their presence.
My vision blurs as the world is covered in an orange sheen. I’m ripened, ready. My clothes feel tighter and tighter, then rip at the seams. Stumbling back, Theresa’s mouth opens and elongates into a wide, open O. Her cry is violin-sharp, then muffled as I hear only the squelch of pulp in my head. Inside of me, things stretch and distend; membranes are pulled, cavities are filled.
As the world wavers, figures gather around, their details blurring. The edges of Theresa’s hair seem to flare and coalesce, just so. Green? I’ve missed her so much. Yes, her hair is green. There, the fanning emerald leaves of the orange tree. Her neck grows longer, longer. Her boyfriend stands still, so still, skin hardening into a bark. I can no longer make out expressions, or features, just familiar shapes. Theresa’s arms bend outwards into supple branches. I bloom out of her. Customers and employees hover nearby, transforming into roots and branches and this sacred fruit.
I shudder and pulse. I cry citrus.
Z. K. Abraham (she/her) is a writer and psychiatrist. She completed a Master’s in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. She has been published in/has work forthcoming in FANTASY Magazine, The Rumpus, Podcastle, Apparition Lit, Barren Magazine, JMWW, Necessary Fiction, FIYAH, and more. She is a full member of the SFWA. She can be found on Twitter @pegasusunder1, bluesky @pegasusunder, and zkabraham.com.