now for then

Posted on: January 14, 2013

She was sobbing. It was otherwise quiet now that the yelling had stopped. I glanced up at her, but became distracted by the bowl of clementines set in front of me. I remember the nostalgia that used to overwhelm me at the sight or taste of clementines, but now they were just a bowl of clementines. I stood there staring and wondered how it had come to this.
           
I was aware my memory was flawed.  The first year was flawed by passion and its attendant haze typical in the first months of sex and shameless flirtations.  The banality of habit and ritual returned in the subsequent years, collapsing the months into what felt like a massless blur of days.  Yet, the summers always stood out vividly.

I, like generations of my family, was born and raised in Kings County.  I was a loyalist, and had never found occasion or desire to step outside the five boroughs.  My father was a shoe repairman or a cobbler, as he would have it, just like his father had been and his father before him and so on and so forth.  We would often have lengthy discourses about the propriety of using modern-day industrial glues on certain leathers and the lost art of cordwaining—these conversations were almost always soliloquies.  I began working part-time as a shoe salesman at an Allen Edmonds boutique store when I went off to college in the city, well aware that I had failed to escape the destiny of my predecessors.

She was the proverbial city girl, raised in a West Village brownstone by a Wall Street lawyer father and an art director mother.  Her family, and therefore she, was never wanting, which afforded them the luxury of sating a wanderlust she had caught early in her privileged life.  She was well-traveled by the time she went off to college, but ironically, she lacked the escapist urge characteristic of girls her age and settled with Columbia University.  She was a dancer and she was infinitely interesting.

She was the girl on my morning commute.  The girl I had admired at a distance and who had been a constant distraction from whatever book I happened to be reading at the time.  If she ever noticed me in those first few weeks, she gave no indication of it.  No, our love affair began as a solitary endeavor.  Reveries of our encounter played out in my mind, and my heart rate jumped at the thought.  My face would flush from embarrassment as I jostled from my daydreams.  Maybe it was the quiet romance of The Great Gatsby, which I was rereading, but I became convinced that we were fated to be together. 

The reality was far less literary, but only in hindsight.  We chatted that first time, about what I can’t recall, until the train pulled into her stop in Morningside Heights.  We had passed my stop twenty minutes prior, but it didn’t matter.  It went on like that for several weeks before I gathered the courage to ask her on a proper date.  She smiled broadly and nodded.  Even Fitzgerald couldn’t have written a narrative more beautiful. 

I was invited to her family’s ancestral home in Florida that first summer.  There were no beaches or theme parks, only a citrus grove.  The grove, which had been in the family since the turn of the twentieth century, was once famed for producing the sweetest clementines in Florida and was a wellspring for the family fortune.  That fortune, along with most of the property, was largely lost in the Great Depression.  But the vestiges of the citrus grove and the plantation-style home remained in the family as a source of financial strain until her father was able to save it with the early success of his law practice.  The burden of maintaining an unsustainable grove persisted, but her father refused to relinquish his childhood memories for the sake of stability.  It became their summer home where they would spend six weeks every year.  It was their annual trip to Florida that she would anticipate the most—not Italy or Fiji or India, but Florida.

The idyllic greens and oranges and yellows were a startling contrast to the gray of the only city I had ever known and loved.  The first days were disconcerting, but I soon became enthralled by the early morning walks through the grove, a fresh cup of coffee in one hand, her in the other.  There were late afternoon picnics with wine and a basket full of freshly-picked clementines, when she would reminisce about her childhood.  Though she had spent the majority of her life in the city, the setting of her stories was almost always Florida and I remember realizing that I knew very little about her childhood in any other context.  We made love, isolated among the trees and we would doze off in the shade, her face pressed against my chest with only a layer of sweat separating us.  Eventually, the prickling of the Florida heat would get the best of us, and we would meander back to the house and join her parents for dinner.  And so it went for six weeks every summer at that clich├ęd pace that often accompanies pastoral life.  Back in the city, we carried on our individual and sometimes joint existences.

She was yelling again.  I was still too distracted by the bowl of clementines to listen to the content of, what I presume was a verbal assault of anger, sorrow, and regret.  I deliberated on the appropriateness of eating a clementine at that moment.  I looked at her, then beyond her through the window I was facing and at the rooftop landing on the neighboring building.  A view of the skyline was visible and the early evening lights were flickering on and I was reminded why I loved the city so much.  Clementines would be my only reminder of Florida and those summers.  I wondered when I had stopped caring.




Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: James Mo

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