Sour, Sour Summer | Non-Fiction
Already my hands smelled sweet like lemon juice: that smell that passed from contact point to contact point with ease, my favorite contagion. Blade through the rind, soft, too soft. Squish on the counter. I held serrated knife like a statement.
The citrus pinwheel of the lemon sliced in half was a deep brown around the rind, yellowing toward the middle to the shade of honeyed coffee. An unexpected revelation. A perfect centerpiece of decay. The peel does not convey the flesh.
So silly to expect the same sweetness from each fruit. I move this one to the trash. You are supposed to make lemonade out of lemons, but when even the lemons are brown, you should make better choices.
Branches of Association
There are things I used to associate with lemons. Lemon meringue, the tang-tart of lemonade, my mother’s iced tea she brewed during summers dotted with floating citrus, the dusting spray used to wipe down the tables and chairs in the living room with the old cloth rag from under the sink.
Lemon is the summer heat so thick you step out into that woolen water warmth, grimace, wait for it to glow after sun goes down.
My motivations are unclear to buttresses lemon to these concepts. Fruit are the classic symbol of fecundity, yet I am barren in most every sense of the word. I have been chaste for every lemon I have ever pressed to my mouth. Pheromones, cloying, my fingers seeking some understanding of attraction without, but intersecting with, biology. Lemons are mainly just a fantasy. I am nervous around bright citrus because I cannot conjure an understanding of interface with fruit. I am afraid of their texture, their sensation. What sweetness, but numbing tart. Chaste is not a moralization, just a condition, a shiver before the peel, a revelation of meat. It is so sharp on my tongue for never experiencing taste. People discuss certain everyday interactions with reverence and coarseness and frankness and metaphor, but consumption, mouth to object, savor of tongue, nose grazing… With fascination, I ponder how objects come so close together without losing their nerve. There is one association I have yet to juice.
Tartness into Tears
When life gives you lemons you should follow them to the source. There is always a tree waiting with bulging branches full of fruit. There has never been a malevolent tree on this planet. A trail of lemons makes it an oracle and you a soothsayer. This is not advice for metaphorical lemons, just physical. Large quantities of anything should be noted, rolled, squeezed, combined with sugar and water, and enjoyed poured over ice.
I volunteered for a creative writing program in Louisville working with 6th-grade authors at an all-girls public school. The first semester I had a regular cohort of six writers who sat in their assigned seats with me. As is the way of young minds, we stumbled onto the topic of identity. The girls wanted to talk about gender. I was shaking, barely out to anyone. A girl looked at me across the table and said “Even you could be trans.” She looked quickly around at the other girls to see how her remark affected them. “Are you?”
My mouth soured, I deflected.
Five months later, I was crying in my armchair while my friend sat on the couch because lemons have seeds and trees are oracles. Yes, maybe I could be, but I was unsure.
Remember? A tree helped me get here. Or at least started this journey. A little girl. The bright bruised skin of a lemon cut open, browned.
A History of Fruit
Lemons. I have always been a lemon. They called me Eeyore in middle school. My high school English teacher called me stoic. I was a warzone I didn’t want to fight. What euphoric dysphoria! A torturous paradise. A sweet little lemon I wanted to be. But lemons are not just tart alone. They are hairy, they are gruesome, they are hard and oozing, garish things with an inability to recognize themselves. In mirrors on closet doors, the shiny metal of an espresso machine, in every bathroom everywhere. Zest and citric acid and questions. Dysphoria, a bitter fruit. Aspirations of sweetness can be all added sugar. I felt I could only find myself in the intersections of my own disgust. At some point, I stepped atop the perforated cone of a juicer and never found my way back. The juicer squeezed and squeezed and under the pressure, I found the relief of not being human.
The heat was warm on the gray carpet. Lemony squares of sun glowing, the texture of bright yellow ottoman. This apartment was my canopy although it was hot. All the glass baubles of my Galileo thermometer had sunk to the bottom of their tube: meaning unfathomable summer inside. I had made my home here these past four months. In so many ways I was growing toward becoming. I had decorated the place by hand, selecting each piece, arranging and arranging. I said over and over again how the place would be perfect, and perfectly affordable, with two people living there.
Two humans coming to the point of existing in such proximity was something I had yet to understand. Or most times even why. Relationships and their formations stressed me to the point of overexertion. I gaslit myself on my feelings toward others and my perceptions about how they felt about me. I was so inexperienced and confused. I felt like when I reached out to them I was taking advantage of them. They knew what they were looking for. Always in my head, they knew what they were looking for. And I, not knowing and uncertain of how to reciprocate their desires, was scamming them somehow by superficially committing to common narratives of affection and sexual fulfillment while being asexual. Being a lemon was being different than a human. It was holding sourness within and hoping no one tasted.
Lemon in Mirror
If you are a lemon, you have thick skin. People call you sour if you don’t want to peel back a rind and expose your meats. There are some people who enjoy sex and some who don’t or don’t value it or seek it out. There are all sorts of spectrums. Let’s center those people.
We live in a world that constantly perpetuates specific narratives about sexuality and love. According to these forces, the height of human experience is being in a relationship with someone, that partnering with someone is much more intimate and vulnerable than any other relationship, that sex is a psycho-mystic experience, unparalleled. Love is gooey, sticky, close, hot heavy-breathing, hands going up and down. The pinnacle of being alive is being in L O V E. We see this in movies, books, art, stories, poems, music, gossip. Who is in love with who? Who is fucking who?
But that has never been easy for me to trace. Of all things I wished for in high school, I begged for my time when I would be given biological directives that set me fucking and kissing; that these things would come easily to me, that I could give them with abandon.
I never had a queer puberty, a queer childhood. All those years I could have been developing who I was, what I wanted from life, growing in understanding, I spent traumatized by a cis/heteronormative world, wanting to die, wanting to be different, wanting a different body, wanting to eradicate the things I knew marked me as other.
The tartness is hard to swallow. My apartment feels so empty sometimes no sugar can liven the silence. I am looking for someone to love me. That fact is lemon bright and transparent.
Yet, I only allow myself attraction to people moving away from me. The stakes are low and I can feel justified in the lemonness of their departure. Let me mourn another missed opportunity. My little stupid heart has a large shadow where I let many suitors sprawl. Lovers are my crop. They burgeon, overripe. I hold them until they mold to mush, crafting fantastical narratives with each one. One can be my Disney prince with that corporate money, another she will be the woman wrapped around my body in bed, her arms holding my chest, she, my big spoon, another they curly-haired tempest in gym shorts and sweatband and their wild mind, my aproned king. I have no concept of their stories. I am afraid to know their stories. Their impermanence eases me. Stir me up in the citric acid.
I Think We All Know the Difference Between Sour and Tart
I am so nervous about receiving love because I do not love myself.
I have always grounded myself with the solidity of inanimate objects and their arrangement. As a child, I had two Nola dolls who I loved ferociously. Until their lemony fur fell to pieces, the peach velvet of their noses I kissed bald, tussled and tossed until my mom was sewing on limbs and telling me to be careful.
Inanimate objects: you tell them I love you, you kiss them, you pet behind their ears, you suck on their glass marble eyes, you whisper to them, you smile at them. Their faces are well-memorized maps, unchanging, unreacting. Living things: you take a breath and they transform into particularly new creatures. To be more comfortable with the inanimate: what a hell to be living so singularly in your own head. Narcissistic, too. But when living things are constantly changing and unpredictable it can be difficult to perceive the development of friendships and relationships. But that vivacity is so lemon lively, bright, refreshing, juicy. There’s pulp all over the wall. We won’t suffer for it until we stop living.
Underneath We Could Be Rotten
Hell is a lemon cut in half. The vulnerability of being exposed. The bright wedges of fruit, the juice stinging fingers. If you want to interact with lemon, something must be done. Grate zest off the rind, smell it, lift it, slice. But hells don’t usually inhabit cursory elements. There is always something worse, something more true which makes it worse, lying beneath the shallowness of perception. And by this I mean people don’t wear their hells on their sleeves. They tuck them away, generally. Bury them in sugar or zip them in thick skins.
I often wonder if you can only know things by cutting them open. If we stay in our skins and rinds, unpeeled, the nature of our hells will be just one more mystery. Really, we would only live our hells individually and never know any better. Centerpieces of decay at least remind us that there are other states of being, other emotions, other avenues of life, we can pursue. We could all be rotten on the inside.
I want my hell to be over. I want to let people in and see my pulp, taste me on their fingers, smell me when I’ve gone and recognize that lingering presence.
We Are the Lemons Who Once Populated the Heavens
Lemons are inanimate things. But they come from a community of branches that hold them aloft. If I am a lemon, I once existed in a place with others like me. Some systemic force pulled me down and away. Specifically, you could call it gravity, but that is not its only name. In a world where large uniform forces carve dominant narratives, it can be easy to feel alone. Maybe I look different than I am supposed to, maybe I am bitter and unripe, maybe I am rotting on my twig. But see, every lemon has a moment of peak perfection. I have worked with enough lemons to know this. I can choose to invest in those moments of sweetness. To live for that euphoria and let the rest fall away when it will.
Justin Allard graduated from Centre College and currently lives in Louisville, KY. Their work has appeared in Entropy Magazine, The Aquifer, and Gertrude Press, among others.