By Katie Simon
On my first trip to Italy, I ate kiwis. They were soft as lips, the ones I wasn’t kissing—my boyfriend Michael’s back in New York. After three years together, I relished the feeling of a kiss from anything other than his lips.
The kiwis I ate in the morning at my B&B tasted tangy, enticing, unlike my breakfasts back home. The memory of their flesh slipping between my lips scratched at my mind for the rest of the morning and followed me as I went on long afternoon walks outside Verona.
One day I climbed a hill to a monastery and in its chapel I wrote myself a letter full of questions. Is it worth staying with Michael, despite my doubts? He was my first boyfriend, and I wondered what else was out there.
I wrote only questions; I already knew the answers.
My stomach grumbled. I walked down the hill.
I called the owner of my B&B for a ride from the bus station. It was hot, I was wearing jeans, unprepared for the heat of the trip.
“My son comes and get you,” she said.
I slid into the passenger seat of his car and felt a whoop in my stomach, like rushing sweet liquid.
I remember his eyes, green-blue, light as clear lake water, the kind where you can see all the way down. I remember talking about his oeneology course at university, and my life in New York, and vineyards in Italy. I remember driving past neat rows of gnarly kiwi vines, fiery under golden hour light.
Mainly, though, I remember the absurd effort it took not to unbuckle my seatbelt, wrap my small hands around his sinuous neck, and kiss him. Mainly I remember how I shocked myself with my hunger.
Around the time I started dating Michael, I began putting peaches in meals that neither required nor benefitted from them. I was sick, on a restricted diet, and my options were limited. I had never particularly liked peaches, but I got used to their presence and came to love their familiarity.
I made Michael peach tacos on one of our first dates. They became an anniversary meal for the next four years.
For the first three, the fruit tasted sweet.
A year into our relationship Michael and I went apple picking with friends, mostly couples. I walked between rows of heavy trees and counted myself lucky for avoiding the pitfalls I observed in my friends’ relationships: bickering, condescension, lack of respect. I climbed a rickety, sun-faded, V-shaped ladder into the murkiness of treetops on a cloudy day, and didn’t waver at the creaks that tore through the dew-filled silence.
“Watch out,” my friends said. “Pay attention,” as my forehead knocked against a tree, as my rain jacket ripped on protruding bark, as I scraped my hand on a rusty nail—as I made mistakes everybody else could predict, and therefore avoid.
Apples below me rotted on the ground.
Two years into our relationship, we went grocery shopping together. My fingers itched at the sight of plastic cartons of blueberries. But Michael pursed his lips when I reached for them.
“Why do you want the most expensive fruit? You can put something cheaper in your yogurt.” It was as if he had never noticed blueberries’ velvety bitterness, as if his tongue was blind to what tasted best to me.
After three years, I drank margaritas at parties. Michael was standing next to me, or waiting for me back home. I poured sour, fake fruit mix down my parched throat and counted myself lucky to have a person.
But eventually social drinking turned into two salt-rimmed glasses during silent dinners across from each other, out of the Crate & Barrel stemless goblets his mother bought us. I wondered if I would get to keep those glasses, no matter what—I wondered about the custody of things.
And I wondered about the nameless Italian guy, driving me through the kiwi orchard. I wondered, as I had on the hill in Italy, what else what out there.
I began to skip meals from anxiety over what I felt was coming, deep in my belly.
For months I went to sleep hungry.
There were the limes for the tequila I drank towards the end, on nights out I spent wishing myself out of my relationship, willing myself to imagine futures with the men I came across on rubber-streaked dance floors and chipped barstools.
One day I packed and left Michael. I emptied our fruit bowl of exactly what was mine: pink lady apples and avocados. I left what he had bought: mealy galas and blackening bananas.
Eventually I dove into kisses with orange- and lemon-stained lips, residue of garnishes for drinks the men drank to forget who I was, or what they wanted. Sometime during the years I’d spent with Michael, I had forgotten what I wanted, too.
My lips tasted sour and stale like theirs.
The year after I broke up with Michael, I lost my hunger. I lost weight. But every time I went to the grocery store I bought berries anyway. I let the bitterness of crushed raspberries settle into the crevices between my molars; or sometimes I let the whole package mold in the refrigerator til they were fuzzy and green, like mint. No matter what happened to the last package, I bought the next one. Each day I tried to eat one more berry.
In every fruit there is the seed of the next one. What matters is where it’s planted, and how it grows.
I regained my appetite in the second year. I sliced fresh bananas into coins and let them harden in the freezer, turned them into smoothies with flash frozen strawberries and chunks of freezer burned mango. I got hungrier, and added peanut butter, yogurt, flaxseed. I remembered what it felt like to feel full. I remembered that it felt good.
I wondered about fruit that wasn’t frozen. I wondered about fresh fruit.
Eventually I met another man. A man who lived in a town not too far from the Italian kiwi orchard from years before.
His name was Marco. The first week we spent together in Italy, before we were together, Marco and I went grocery shopping. Taller, he sped past me, towards focaccia and crackers and coffee. I lingered in the produce aisle, taking in mounds of grapes and seven types of tomatoes and piles of apples and grapefruits and figs.
I approached avocados in single-fruit plastic cages (protection from bruises; untouchable). I had no way of knowing if they were ripe, rich, ready. I left them sitting, waiting for somebody to check.
Marco and I ate nectarines.
The first day, when we circled each other, just friends, the nectarines were yellow and hard, nearly starchy in their not-ripeness.
A week went by. He made me laugh so hard that a pain dug into the space between my ribs like a blade. I flew on top of his shoulders in the rain; I had never been so tall. We went camping and left perishable produce unrefrigerated, but even after days in the sun, the food never spoiled. The nectarines that we ate slowly softened and the bananas went from green to brown faster than made sense—faster than I’d ever seen—but not too fast for us to finish them, satisfied.
Then something, once just a bud, bloomed between us, and we kissed. And the next nectarines I ate bursted with fragrant, floral juice, the skin unzipping itself between my teeth. My mouth was so full of juice that it dribbled down my chin, out of the corners of my smile.
All the nectarines that came after were like that.
One day I watched Marco’s best friend hack off the hard top of a watermelon. He scooped out and blended its meat, and strained juice from the pulp. Pure, pink, sugary. Cotton candy water in color and sweetness.
Later that night, Marco handed his glass to me and watched me drink it with soft, sea-sky blue eyes and a broad, thick-lipped smile. I smiled back, sugar slipping across the surfaces of my teeth. I windshield-wiped them clean with my tongue.
Over the following months, tomatoes found their way into everything we ate: the perfect pasta he cooked; the pizzas I bought him; the piadines with the single ball of mozzarella, split between us.
We bought olives with pits, so the jars would last longer. We took our time.
We cycled through the same meals each day, but with each bite, I tasted something new. With each new taste, I grew hungrier: what else was there here?
Maybe these fruits still leave me hungry because I am still hungry for him.
I am beginning to think the fruit tastes better here because it is.
Katie Simon’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Longreads, Lenny Letter, The Lily, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Entropy, Health, BUST, Women’s Health, Brevity, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir, titled PLAGUED, about a gap year spent traveling alone during which she contracted the plague bacteria, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Katie received her BA in Creative Writing and Marketing from New York University and is currently studying in the MA Biography/Creative Nonfiction program at University of East Anglia in England.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.