Hearts Like Lemons in Fists of Dew
June in Ventura is a gloomy month. The fog creeps in from the ocean and stretches its fingers inland, settling in the creases of the hills, the spaces between office buildings, the narrow yards of houses. Cars maneuver slowly down Foothill Road, their headlights on even in the middle of the afternoon. The fog makes seeing difficult. It seeps down Main Street, covering the shops and restaurants so only the heads of the palm trees and the arching buttresses of the movie theater stretch above it, peering over the fog like tall people peer over a crowd. At Poinsettia Elementary School, in these last days before summer, recess becomes a giant game of hide-and-seek, children slinking through the fog-covered soccer fields, refusing to come back inside when the bell rings. The fog sinks down over the lemon orchards like a thick blanket, catching in the branches of trees and wrapping the small, unripened lemons in fists of dew.
The air is chilly and damp. Sweater weather.
A heavy midmorning lethargy persists throughout the day. But at night, the fog lifts, and people go outside in their backyards and driveways to gaze at the stars in the crisp, clear sky. At bedtime, anticipation flutters across the city. People close their eyes, hoping to wake up and find California sunshine, warmth, summer.
Michelle returns to Ventura on a foggy day. She’s forgotten how, in the fog, even the most familiar streets seem cloaked in secrets. The entire town feels quiet, under siege.
She turns into the driveway of her house—her parents’ house, the house she grew up in—and cuts the engine. The blinds are slanted closed, all the way closed, even in the upstairs bedroom windows. The rosebushes have been recently pruned, beaten back to thorny stumps, and the jacaranda tree that Michelle and Rae climbed as children has been uprooted. Diseased, Michelle’s mother told her over the phone. Michelle tried to prepare herself for its absence, but she is shaken to see the tree gone. Even the stump has been removed, and the spot where it used to be is now patched over with sod. Without the jacaranda tree, her parents’ house looks naked, vulnerable. Like a ship that has battened down the hatches, floating unanchored in a roiling sea of fog.
When Michelle was fifteen, Rae’s family moved away. Michelle sobbed in the bathroom, her cheek pressed against the cool tile. Her mother came in with freshly laundered towels and found her lying there.
“Honey, oh baby,” her mother said, coaxing Michelle off the floor and onto her bed, stroking her hair.
“I loved her,” Michelle sobbed. “I loved her so much.”
“I know you did.”
“No, I mean I loved her, Mom. I still am in love with her.”
Her mother smoothed Michelle’s hair away from her forehead. “Oh, honey. You don’t know what love is. This is called grieving.”
“She was my soulmate,” Michelle said.
“Dr. Lassen says it’s normal for you to feel this way.” Her mother reached over and plucked a tissue from the box on the nightstand. “Shelly, listen to me. You’re a strong girl,” she said. “You’re going to be okay. Someday this will all feel like a long time ago.”
Michelle climbs out of her car and stretches. The fog is so thick that Rae’s old house across the street is just a shadow, like the beginnings of an idea before it is fully formed.
On summer mornings like this, she and Rae would escape into the fog after breakfast and race down the block, across El Dorado Street and into the lemon orchard. Their favorite tree was an old, gnarled beauty seven rows up, far enough from El Dorado that traffic noise didn’t reach them. The lemon orchard was their place, their Shell and Rae Hideaway, and on foggy days its mystery was amplified, its solitude more pronounced. On foggy days, anything could happen.
Rae disappeared on a foggy day.
“In here,” Michelle’s mother calls from the depths of the house. Michelle shuts the front door behind her and abandons her duffel bag in the entryway. With all the blinds shut, the living room is dim, but a light blazes from the kitchen. She finds her mother elbows-deep in a bowl of ground meat. She smiles at Michelle and wipes a strand of hair across her forehead with the inside of her wrist.
“Well, if it isn’t my world traveler,” she says. Michelle moves in to hug her, but her mother steps back, studying her daughter’s face. “Look at you,” she announces after a few moments. “You look great.”
“Thanks, Mom. You too.”
“You look healthy. I’m glad. I’m always worried you’ll come back all bones. Supposed to be the food in England’s terrible.”
“It’s not so bad,” Michelle says.
“Well, I hope you’re not too cultured for your mom’s meatloaf, because that’s what I’m making tonight.”
“No, that sounds great.”
“Your father requested it. And used to be you loved my meatloaf.”
“I still do.”
“You would have eaten it every night if you could.”
Michelle smiles, but the skin on her face feels tight. “Nothing beats your cooking, Mom.”
“That’s what a mother likes to hear.” She washes her hands in the kitchen sink and flicks them dry. Michelle glances around the kitchen. It looks the same—paisley patterned wallpaper, ceramic sunflower cookie jar, hand-painted plates displayed above the breakfast nook. But it seems smaller than the kitchen of her childhood. Across the room, still proudly taped to the refrigerator door, is the rainbow of ribbons Michelle won in youth track meets.
Her mother holds out her arms. “Come give me a hug.”
Michelle is a good three inches taller than her mother, and she hunches around her like a shell, as if shielding her from something dangerous. Her mother’s hair smells the same, a faint whiff of coconut shampoo and the hot metal of her straightening iron. After only a few moments, her mother disengages herself and turns back to the bowl of bloody meat. “Gotta get this in the oven,” she says. Then, her tone casual: “Your father’s upstairs, if you want to say hi.”
That summer, Rae’s face smiled from MISSING posters throughout the city. Michelle taped the posters to lampposts and slipped them under windshield wipers and stuffed them into mailboxes. If I give her photograph to every single person in town, then she will come home and everything will be Okay.
But Rae stayed missing.
Authorities combed the lemon orchard, but found nothing. Not a charm from her bracelet. Not a pink shoelace. Not a single strand of her dark hair.
A suspect was never named.
A funeral was never held.
That winter, Rae’s family moved away. Michelle never set foot in the orchard again.
When Michelle’s parents bought this house, it was a new house in a new housing development. Michelle was just over a year old. She doesn’t remember living anywhere else, doesn’t remember the fresh-paint, new-carpet smell of the big empty rooms. She has seen pictures, snapped on a disposable camera, of the house when it was brand new—vulnerable flower beds, the jacaranda tree just a sapling, braced with wooden stakes. Michelle cannot remember the tree as anything less than magnificent, its purple-blossomed branches stretching towards the sky, perfect for climbing. She wonders, if the tree were still there, if it would seem smaller too.
Rae’s family moved in across the street when Michelle was three. One of her earliest memories is sitting in a little red wagon with Rae, being pulled along the sidewalk by Rae’s older brother Jonathan. Rae had shiny dark hair and a moon-shaped birthmark on her right knee. She wore a silver charm bracelet and bright pink tennis shoes. She liked holding Michelle’s hand, and her hands were always cool and dry. Even as they grew older, even as they stopped holding their parents’ hands to cross the street, Rae would still grab Michelle’s hand when she was excited. As if she were trying to transfer emotion from her palm to Michelle’s.
As kids, they shared every shivery detail of their lives. Rae’s distrust of the ice-cream man. Michelle’s dream of drowning. Rae’s love of lime-green Skittles. Michelle’s fear of snails. They were born one year and one month apart, and Michelle often daydreamed that Rae was her sister, and that she, Michelle, had been given to her parents because Rae’s family already had Jonathan and Rae, and Michelle’s parents didn’t have anyone. Once upon a time they’d had another daughter—Laura—but she had died before Michelle was born. Her parents only spoke about her once, when Michelle had to bring in a baby photo for her fifth-grade yearbook and found a photo of baby Laura wedged in the front of an old photo album.
Michelle’s hair sprang up in tufted golden curls, and her compact frame was the opposite of Rae’s willowy height. But they had the same sun-freckled shoulders, and Michelle liked to imagine the same blood flowed through their veins. Until the foggy June Michelle turned fourteen, and suddenly Rae didn’t feel like a sister anymore. Inkling feelings leaking out, expanding. Like an overripe lemon, skin stretched taught with pulp and juice, ready to drop from the tree.
Upstairs in the master bedroom, Michelle’s father is propped up with pillows in the king-sized bed, dozing in front of the T.V. where Anderson Cooper broadcasts live from the Gulf Oil Crisis. The volume is turned down so low that his voice is an unintelligible murmur. Michelle hovers in the doorway. Her father looks much older than his sixty years—painfully frail, his cheeks sunken, a blanket pulled all the way up to his chin. Michelle tries to summon the memory of her father in the green windbreaker and bright yellow baseball cap, tries to reconcile that man with the withered man dozing before her. Despair wells up in her throat. She lets her eyes wander to the glowing T.V. screen, the images of the wounded ocean bleeding oil.
“A shame, isn’t it?” Michelle’s father peers at the television. “A damn shame,” he repeats, shaking his head.
“The news is always depressing,” Michelle says, searching through the layers of blankets for the remote control. “You should be watching something else. Don’t they play M*A*S*H reruns on one of these channels? Or there’s probably a game on somewhere.”
“I don’t want to watch television,” her father says, nodding towards the bedside chair. “I want to talk to my only daughter. You look beautiful. When did you get in?”
Michelle sits, hugging her belly. “Just now. Traffic was horrible on the 101.”
“But you made it safe. That’s what matters. It’s good to see you.”
“You too, Dad.” Michelle can’t hold her father’s gaze for long, so she reaches for his hand and holds that instead. His hand is a cold potato with shriveled skin. Instinctively, Michelle glances towards the window, but the blinds are shut tight.
That June day, the day everything changed, Michelle ran upstairs to her room and vomited once more into the toilet. She leaned against the sink, swishing mouthwash around and around her teeth. It stung her gums. She kept swishing. Finally, she spit it out. She spit it out and kept spitting, fiercely, rhythmically. Her eyes squeezed shut, as if in prayer.
“So how’s work treating you?” Michelle’s father asks.
“Fine,” Michelle says. “You know—busy as always.” She works for an advertising firm in London.
“Any opportunities for a transfer coming up, you think?”
“I’m just asking. I thought you said you’d think about it.”
“I really don’t want to get into this now.”
Her father draws his hand away from Michelle’s and coughs weakly into his fist. He wipes his mouth with a crumpled tissue. “I worry about your mother, after all this is over.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“I’m just telling it like it is. I know your mother. She hates to be alone.”
“Mom? She’s never struck me that way.”
“She’s more fragile than she lets on. She misses you. London is so far away, Shelly. Why do you have to be so far away?”
“It’s not that far. All I have to do is hop on a plane and I’m here.”
“There must be great advertising jobs in Los Angeles.”
“I like London. I’m happy there.”
Her father’s hand clenches and unclenches a fold of blanket. “I don’t know what we did wrong. You couldn’t wait to put an entire continent and an ocean between us.”
“Dad, it’s not like that.” Michelle reaches for his hand again. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
On the TV screen, a young man smiles to show his gleaming white teeth, free of coffee stains, and holds up a new brand of toothpaste. The commercials are always louder than the TV programs, and the toothpaste jingle fills the darkened room like a gust of wind. Michelle wants to crawl into the commercial and live there. She would marry the smiling man and floss every day and spend the rest of her life under safe fluorescent lighting.
“I should let you rest,” Michelle says, releasing her father’s hand and standing up. “I’ll come get you when dinner’s ready.”
Her father opens his mouth as if to say something, but then only nods and lets his head fall back against the pillows.
Michelle began running track after Rae’s family moved away. She ran the mile and the two-mile. She developed a habit of vomiting after races. Her coach said she pushed herself too hard.
Michelle’s father attended all her track meets. He was a firm believer in positive reinforcement and parental support, vowing to be different than his own parents, who had never attended a single one of his boyhood tennis matches or football games.
Michelle’s mother defended her in-laws. “They had five kids to worry about. We only have Michelle.”
Still, there were a lot of track meets, and her father did not miss a single one. He’d settle himself in the top row of the rickety wooden bleachers, wearing his green windbreaker and bright yellow baseball cap, giving Michelle a thumb’s up as she nervously jogged to the starting line before a race. There was something fierce and protective in her father’s devotion to her track meets, as if he were trying to ward off ever-lurking danger, control what was uncontrollable. If I cheer on my daughter at every single track meet, I will be a Good Father and she will turn out Okay. Driving home after the meets, Michelle’s father would put on his Best of James Taylor CD. Sometimes Michelle felt like talking about the race, and her father turned the volume down. Other times Michelle gazed out the window, silent and spent, and the only voice in the car was James’ crooning.
“I would always glance at the stands, hoping to see my parents,” Michelle’s father confessed once at the dinner table. “It would have been great to see them there. To know they were proud of me.”
“Of course they were proud of you,” Michelle’s mother said. “It was a different time then. People didn’t say ‘I love you.’ They didn’t need to. You just know love.”
Afterwards, Michelle vomited into a clutch of leaves while Jonathan looked away. He asked if she was okay. He asked her not to tell anyone.
“I think it’ll be best if this is our secret,” he said. Michelle nodded, standing up. Her legs felt hollow.
“Rae’s not in my room,” she said. “I was being honest.”
“I’m sure she’s at our house then. We probably missed her somehow.”
As they left the orchard, the fog was clearing. Michelle searched for the moon, but it was a new moon, only a tiny sliver of light in the darkness.
“It’s not like your father has the flu,” Michelle’s mother says, wrenching the knife into the meatloaf. She cuts a thick slice, which she spatulas onto a plate. “He’s not getting better, honey.”
“I know that.”
“We eat dinner in the bedroom now. He doesn’t have the strength to go up and down those stairs.”
Michelle grabs a tumbler from the cupboard above the sink and fills it with water from the tap. The same tumblers from her childhood, made of gauzy blue glass. Rae once called them mermaid cups, as if the ocean had been frozen into dishware, the ideal ocean blue of animated movies and coloring books. Different from the real ocean ten minutes away, closer to brown than blue and flecked with seaweed and tasting bitter, acrid—not the way water was supposed to taste.
“No, dear—use the Brita,” her mother scolds. “The tap water isn’t good here, remember?”
Michelle pretends not to hear, downing the glass, remembering the sting of ocean water up her nose, the sour vinegar of it in her mouth, spitting it out and spitting again and again and again, trying to dislodge the taste.
That June evening, Michelle led Jonathan through the orchard, exhilarated anger fizzing inside her, picturing the shock that would fill Rae’s face upon seeing her brother in their hideaway. She wanted to see hurt in Rae’s eyes. She wanted to show Rae that it didn’t matter, none of it—all their whispered confessions, their jokes, their promises—it was all just childhood stuff. Silly games. Pretending.
Michelle didn’t know she was going to kiss Jonathan until they reached the old gnarled lemon tree and found it empty. Unease clenched her belly, but she told herself Rae was nearby. The next tree over. Watching.
“It’s so dark here,” Michelle said. And it was. The trees were shadowy figures with outstretched arms.
“Is this the one?” Jonathan asked, nudging his foot against the lemon tree.
“Yep. This is our hideout.”
“Rae?” Jonathan called. “Rae!”
“Rae!” Michelle yelled.
Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted.
Michelle stepped closer to Jonathan. “It’s spooky in here,” she said, hugging her arms.
Jonathan looked down at her, and something shifted in his expression. “You scared?” he said, putting an arm around her. His arm was heavy and his arm-hair prickled Michelle’s bare back.
Michelle nodded and bit her lip. She was scared, suddenly. She and Rae had never ventured into the orchard after dark. Everything felt heightened. The rustling of the leaves, the shadowed trunks of the trees were like something out of a dream, a fever-dream, disorienting. Like when she conjured a place in her dreams and it was different from the real place.
“Don’t be scared,” Jonathan said, tightening his arm around her. There was something in his voice that Michelle had never heard there before. She knew what was going to happen and she imagined Rae was hiding nearby, watching. Defiantly, Michelle tilted her face up to his.
It was not what she expected. It was not sweet or gentle. His beard was rough against her face. He pressed her against the tree and Michelle felt her fear expand until it filled her completely.
“What about Rae?” she said. “We should find Rae.”
Jonathan grinned at her. “You and I both know why you brought me here, and it wasn’t to find Rae. She’s upstairs in your room right now.” He leaned closer. He smelled of sweat and cigarette smoke. “I could always tell you had a thing for me.”
On foggy days, anything could happen.
It was Rae she thought about as he held her to him there, his hands pulling at her hair. She thought of Rae and she felt angry and panicky, like the order of the world had fallen away, and she knew it was her fault. She was the one who had started it all. She had blurred the line between them, and then she had left Rae there alone. Michelle knelt in the dirt of the orchard, at the base of their lemon tree. She kept her eyes closed. She fought the impulse to gag. She offered this as her penance.
Then, the taste of the ocean, bitter and acrid. Jonathan released her and she spit it out and spit again and again and again, trying to dislodge the taste.
“This tastes delicious, Evelyn,” Michelle’s father says, a napkin tucked under his chin. He used to be a fast eater, sometimes even burning his mouth because of his impatience to fill his stomach. Now his chewing is delicate and painful.
Her mother smiles. “I’m glad you like it, Frank.”
“Yeah, Mom, this is great,” Michelle chimes in, feeling like she missed her cue. “It’s good to be home.”
Her mother raises an eyebrow. “I’m surprised to hear you call this home.”
“What I mean is, I’m glad to hear her say it. I’m glad to hear you say it, Michelle. I just thought maybe you’d outgrown this place.”
“Well, yeah, I grew up. But this house will always be home.”
Michelle catches a glance between her parents and the knowledge hits her. Still, she asks: “What? What was that look?”
“Nothing,” her mother says.
Michelle’s father sighs. “We’re selling the house, sweetheart.”
“We had our first meeting with the realtor last week.”
“Where will you live?”
“I’ll just get a nice little apartment in town,” her mother says. “Or a condo. It doesn’t make sense to keep this place. It’s too big.”
Michelle nods and takes a bite of meatloaf. Her mouth is dry. The meatloaf is hard to swallow. She chews and chews. Her father chews, her mother chews. The dim room is filled with their chewing.
That June day, Michelle hadn’t wanted to answer the door. She thought it was Rae, wanting to apologize, to explain, to talk. She couldn’t handle seeing Rae. Not for a while.
But the knocking persisted, so Michelle undid the latch and yanked the door open. Rae’s brother Jonathan stood on the front porch. Behind him, the sun sank blearily through the fog. Jonathan was sixteen, with Rae’s dark hair but a thicker build and curling, sarcastic lips. He was growing a beard and it shadowed his jowls in patches.
“Rae’s supposed to come home. It’s time for dinner,” he said.
“She’s not here.”
Michelle shrugged. “Sorry. I don’t know where she is.”
“Bullshit, you two are attached at the hip. I know she’s hiding in your room or something. It’s her night to do the dishes and I’m not letting her push it off on me again.”
“We were hanging out earlier, but then I had to leave. You can search my room if you want. She’s not there.”
“Well, she hasn’t come home,” Jonathan said. “It’ll be dark soon. You know better than me where she could be.”
Michelle and Rae were eight years old when they first ventured into the orchard and claimed the gnarled lemon tree as their hideaway. “I have an idea,” Rae had said. “Let’s promise never to show this place to anyone. It’s our secret.” Michelle promised. Rae stole a paring knife from her family’s cutlery drawer and they carved their names into the tree trunk.
“I think I know where she is,” Michelle told Jonathan. She hollered to her parents that she was going over to Rae’s for dinner, then stepped outside and closed the door behind her. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”
Michelle kisses her father goodnight and helps her mother with the dishes. She reclines on the living room couch and tries to read, but can’t focus. Her mother rifles through stacks of junk mail on the end table.
“Have you seen my reading glasses, Shelly?”
“This is what happens when you get old. You start losing things.”
“We all lose things.”
“Please don’t take that tone with me, Michelle. Please don’t start.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just—I can’t believe you’re selling the house. Is it because of finances? I can send more money if that’s the reason—”
“No, it’s not. Your father and I are managing just fine. Thank God the firm gave him good health insurance.”
“Then why are you selling it?”
“Like I said before, it’s too big. Too big and too empty.”
“Maybe if you opened the blinds it wouldn’t feel like such a morgue in here.”
“And look out the window at what? The fog? You can hardly see across the yard. It makes you father anxious, and I don’t much care for it either.”
“C’mon, Mom. I know how much you love this house.”
“Love changes. Now I just want a fresh start, away from all these memories.”
“You say that like you hate it here.”
“Michelle, listen to yourself. It’s not fair for you to act like you suddenly care about this place.”
“This is my home too.”
“You’ve visited three times in eight years. The only reason I could get you home now is because of your father.”
Michelle stands up, feeling claustrophobic. “I’ve missed it here, actually.” She crosses the room and takes a jacket from the hall closet.
“Where are you going?” her mother asks.
“Just out for a short walk.”
“It’s dark out. Be careful.”
“I will,” Michelle says, stepping outside into the night.
Michelle knew as soon as Rae pulled away. She wasn’t smiling. Shame lurked in her eyes. She untangled her hand from Michelle’s and wiped her mouth, the charms on her bracelet clinking softly against each other. Neither of them spoke. Michelle’s hands shook as she swung herself down from the tree. Leaves littered the ground. She ran.
Rae called after her, tears in her voice: “You’re my best friend!”
Michelle kept running.
It is a clear night, cool and quiet. Michelle breathes deeply. She heads out in the opposite direction from the orchard, but soon doubles back, feeling drawn towards the darkened trees.
She counts seven rows up and plunges in, heart racing, the dirt packed hard under her feet. The trees do seem smaller, the gaps between their branches wider than she remembers. Or maybe there is more moonlight tonight. Once, she stumbles over a root, but she catches herself before she falls.
She slows down, examining each tree, knowing she is close.
For the first time in years, she tries to summon Rae’s face. She can picture her dark hair, she can hear her laugh, but her features have become a blur.
The trees all look the same. Michelle thought some part of her would know when she found their tree, but now she’s not so sure. It’s been years. The tree was old. Maybe it died. Maybe it was yanked out and a new tree was planted where it used to be.
Michelle hoists herself up onto a branch. She sits there for a long time, swinging her legs in the dark. She expected Rae to be everywhere in this orchard, but this orchard is not their orchard anymore. This tree is not their tree. Or maybe it is. She has no way of knowing.
Rae’s lips were chapped. Her tongue tasted of bubblegum toothpaste.
When Michelle returns home, her mother is still awake, reading a magazine in the deep-seated armchair that used to be her father’s favorite sitting place. Her small frame is swallowed up by the overstuffed cushions. The house looms around her, dark and cavernous.
“Mom,” Michelle says, switching on another lamp. “Remember that day, a long time ago, when I told you I was in love with Rae?”
That June day, Rae and Michelle perched side-by-side on a branch of their lemon tree. The fog curled around them. Rae’s hair glistened darkly in the shadows. Her bare shoulder leaned against Michelle’s, a warm steady weight. Their legs dangled, their thighs touched. The moon-shaped birthmark on Rae’s knee winked up at Michelle, as if it knew her secret.
Rae whistled a few notes. “Is that how the song goes?”
“That one we heard on the radio. I can’t remember the words.”
“I don’t know,” Michelle said.
Rae whistled the notes again. Her voice sounded loud in the stillness of the orchard. Then, abruptly, she stopped, turning to Michelle with wide eyes.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered.
“I swear I just heard a footstep.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Someone’s out there,” Rae said. She nestled her body closer to Michelle’s. Beneath them, the tree branch shifted. A lemon fell and thumped softly on the ground.
“There,” Rae said. “What was that?”
Michelle laughed. “It was a lemon. You’re such a dork.”
“I think someone’s out there.” Rae reached for Michelle’s hand.
The dark leaves whispered to each other. The fog pressed close.
Michelle met Rae’s eyes. She leaned in, lips parted, knowing that nothing would ever be the same.
Dallas Woodburn, a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, has published work in ZYZZYVA, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. Her debut short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress (Yellow Flag Press) won the 2018 Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award and is available at http://bit.ly/womanrunninglate. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Dallas won first place in the international Glass Woman Prize and second place in the American Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org.
Originally published in American Fiction Volume 13 (New Rivers Press) in October 2014.