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the price of fruit -- creative nonfiction by Lily Lee

The kitchen hasn’t been renovated yet. A row of happy-face stickers is plastered across the cabinet, some of them drooping, some of them gone. Our feet are tucked up under the chairs, hiding our soles from the biting chill of the tile floor. A bowl of untouched grapes sits on the countertop, an ugly tortoiseshell jumble of colors. The bowl is small, pink, with a rabbit painted on its side. Such a bowl is never to be broken against the bottom of the sink, against the cold tiles of the floor. The shards of such a bowl could never be sharp, could never draw blood from scrabbling palms that leave them in the garbage, by the sliding-door.

When the kitchen is renovated--when the boards are torn up and thrown out--where do the smiley stickers go? Somewhere in a landfill, a sideboard clings onto them, pressed together hesitantly by unsteady kid fingers. Every so often, the rain washes one away, carries it into the ocean.

“Promise me something, 宝贝, my daughter,” my father is saying, before the floorboards are torn up. I’m the only one he calls 宝贝, a private affection. My mother uses the term liberally: when cradling a baby, when soothing the cat, in reference to the white rabbit from Homegoods, left over from the Easter display, bought as a gift in assumption that I could pass my skating test, that I could hold a camel-spin, do a T-stop. The rabbit’s propped up on the center console, head slumped, limbs splayed out. Falling, with every turn. My mother’s saying Give the rabbit a hug. I don’t want the fucking rabbit; the poor darling’s heading towards the floor. Catching the stupid thing, saving it, cradling it, like a teenage mother seeing her lover in her baby’s eyes.

“Promise me, whatever you do. When you’re a parent, a mother,” he says to the little girl in an I Love Mommy shirt with the elbows torn up, a Hello Kitty Band-Aid wrapped carefully around a paper cut from the princess book with the heavy pages. If my mother were here, she’d tell me to put on a pair of socks so I didn’t end up like her father: frozen sick, dying, dead. A story for her to tell of a man who lived just long enough for his life to beget hers.

“Promise you will never be anything like me, your father,” he tells me, head listing to the side, staring at the ugly granite countertop. Fingers stilling then, knuckles too thin to be swollen, eyes sunken deep into what was once a handsome face. His feet are bare, too, patchy-plaid indoor slippers discarded sometime during nine minutes on the foyer floor, only good for landing blows that won’t leave dirt on a worn white shirt with torn elbows. This, too, is embarrassing, how wiry his legs are, kid-skinny. If our skin was any paler it would be worth blushing over, how it feels to be a skinny man with a plump daughter, what it says about who you were.

In America everything comes easy, striped shirts and round toddler bellies, sobbing over spilt buckets of cherries and knees skinned raw, lying with a mouthful of dirt under the plastic trapeze two feet high, sinking to my knees on the bathroom tiles, mouth full of tears and the white cotton shirt with the torn elbows, the shirt that my mother is trying to tear from my big head, saying you don’t deserve this shirt you don’t love me, too young yet to wear a training bra, little long-fingered hands scrabbling to cover up that little-boy chest, I don’t care I don’t care. Give it to me. Everything comes easy but breathing, hunched over with a hand on the bedspread, panting, throat full but nothing in my lungs or my mouth.

There is an embarrassment that lives in suffering and in its absence, how it lingers on the smell of your breath. Perhaps the embarrassment of making 疙瘩湯, ge de tang, poor people’s soup, rolling balls of flour between your palms in a marble kitchen, flour that grows chewy in boiling water and distracts your throat from the thought of meat. Of coming all this way to be spat on by blonde women so wide that they jam themselves into the sides of the door trying to storm out, so appalled that there are no miracles locked away in the cabinets. Of sitting in a white coat that feels like a costume, knowing that a miracle was nothing but seven thousand miles, getting pregnant at thirty-five. Of scraping grains of rice from the sides of an empty bowl, of grocery carts piled so high with fruits that will mold in a week’s time. Only words are wasted here, where it’s easier to taste a word on your tongue and let it slip away.

There are things that nobody sees, tucked into corners and turning into fire, blue fire that tastes like who will care for me, who will love me when I am dying, like the dirt on the foyer floor. The swing of a hand that breaks rabbits’ necks against the bottom of the sink, smashes phone screens, god damn it, why can’t you listen. My mother, my brave mother, frozen in the middle of my room. Tomorrow my father will peel apples with a Swiss army knife and give them to me in a blue rabbit bowl. Always coming home and going away again.

“Why can’t you,” I’m saying, “why can’t you be someone else.” Growing up is easy, getting older is easier, leaving the crimson felt of the piano key cover stained with drugstore mascara, growing my hair long so it billows behind me running from the box scissors in my father’s white-knuckled hand, yes, being older is as beautiful as I wished. Lying turns from hiding a grape-juice mustache to please, I can’t choose, I love you both. To please stop bleeding. Fear is no longer monsters in the closet but watching your own palm spark red against your mother’s cheek, to be unable to meet your own gaze, taking down all the mirrors and laying them across your bed. Maybe in some world they could be proud that I have grown so strong in their absence.

“I don’t have the strength. 宝贝, not everyone can change.”

I learned everything I know from my parents. How to keep someone by breaking them down, telling them the pieces are beautiful. How to buy someone a bowl and cut them with the broken bits. How to go for the soft spots. Everyone looks so lovely in purple. I won’t let them take it off.

And yet. Seven, eight years old, knowing two languages, reading novels before they’re torn apart and flung in the trash with the pink rabbit bowl, unable to make something out of my words, something to cleave the past from this moment, lock it outside and let it grow wild. Saying if you can’t speak to me, then you can’t read. Dust chokes the kitchen when all the cabinets are broken down, the cupboard that once held seven copies of the rabbit bowl reduced to an animal without teeth. We eat out of white china bowls now; the rabbits are in a box in the basement. It’s so much easier to breathe when everything tastes sweet, like strawberries.


Lily Lee is a sophomore at Weston High School in Massachusetts. She enjoys poetry, physics, and Tom Cruise movies.

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