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Poisonous Fruit by Erin Harte

Outside there are berries and shadows and strangers. Once when Meredith walked out the door, she heard screaming and crying from the broken window above her head in the neighboring brick building. She paused, uncomfortably eavesdropping. But what was she supposed to do, she wondered. Was it really her business? Tonight, there’s no screaming, nothing to be afraid of, nothing to feel. She’s numb, the way she likes to be when she leaves someone, someplace. Of course there are all those berries and that odd boysenberry bush. Meredith hates those berries, the way they squish under her feet, leaving permanent purple reminders of this night that she will try to forget over and over again.

Shayegan will stick with her like a long fleshy scar. Meredith used to dream that he would shrink during the night, his arms slowly loosening their grip on her until he was gone. She would search for him, tearing the sheets off the bed, panicking that he had left forever. She always found him in her reflection in the mirror, trapped on her hip in a Shayegan-shaped scar, ensnared on her skin forever. In the morning, she would touch her hip where the scar had been, then reach out for Shayegan. He often slept curled up in the pillows against the wall. She would place her palm in the center of his back, then trace her fingers over his freckles and moles, the parts that made him particular, that made him hers.

Meredith’s foot squishes a berry, creating a purple hydroplane underneath her slick soles. “Damn berries,” she says, after regaining her balance. She used to wonder what a pie made of all the berries on the sidewalk would taste like, even offering to make it for Shayegan. “You’d eat it if you loved me,” she said.

“They’re probably poisonous, Mer.” Shayegan never seemed to slip on the sidewalk the way she did. His legs were long and heavy. Each step he took rooted him, somehow.

“They’re not poisonous, for chrissake. They’re boysenberries. You can eat those.” Meredith remembered the boysenberry bush in the backyard that was the entrance to the fort she had made with her brothers. Where, on the weekends, they used to escape from their parents fights, where they had their own private kingdom.

“I still wouldn’t eat your pie made of sidewalk berries,” Shayegan said firmly, turning toward her after unlocking the front door of their apartment building.

“You don’t love me.Ó” Meredith pouted, following three or four stairs behind him.

“I don’t,“ he said at their apartment door, sticking the key into the lock, then turning abruptly, the keys jingle-jangling in the stale air of the apartment stairwell. “Let’s not play this game right now.”

“I knew it,” she said, then reached around his waist, unlocked the door and slinked into the apartment, still riding on her boysenberry slide.

Now, Meredith’s feet crunch the gravel in the parking lot. Thank god those fucking berries aren’t mixed into the rocks. Then she turns around, walks back to the sidewalk and puts her cigarette out on a juicy berry. The berry rolls to the edge of the cement where Meredith leaves it oozing and bleeding over the edge into the gravel.

“I’m a goddamned fertility goddess. Yes, again. I don’t know how it happened this time, you know, how these things go. No, no, of course not. What? Well, maybe you should leave for a while. We’ve got to get the hell out of our lives anyway. Oh, hey, I’ll call you back later, Mer. I’ve got to run. Love you. Bye.”

Tova hung up the black receiver of the payphone and leaned against the wood paneled wall, next to the men’s bathroom. She looked at herself in the mirror on the opposite wall, noticing the bags under her eyes and the pallor of her skin. She smoothed her long straight hair with both hands, then slid her right hand into the pocket of her dirty black waitress apron where she kept her cigarettes. She lit the match with one hand, the way Pablo had taught her to do last year the weekend they drove the coast and got high and slept in his car and never got around to getting anywhere. Inhale, exhale is supposed to be so damn easy, Tova thought.

She’d wanted to keep the last one. She really had—the baby, not the boyfriend. In fact, at the time she wasn’t even sure it was Mike’s; she’d already met Pablo then, but it was probably Mike’s. He was shit anyway. She was only really scared once with him, scared enough to leave and hide and cry a bit when she finally got to Meredith. She had deserved that baby, deserved something good from that man.

Of course now there’s this, Tova thought, stomping the butt of her cigarette into the dirty wooden floor with the soles of her red tennis shoes. There’s this and I’ve got to go back to it and smile and pretend there’s nothing growing inside, nothing bothering me, nothing more that I want. I’m not resigning myself to this place.

At the upstairs bar she slithered up behind Jack, her boss, slid her hands into the right pocket of his jeans until she felt him respond, saw him smile. “I’m leaving,” she hissed into his ear. “Fuck this place.”

She untied her apron and threw it onto the beer cooler. She slipped out the door knowing the other waitresses already hated her, knowing it was time to do something.

Tova went straight to Meredith’s apartment. Shayegan was home, like always, and Meredith wasn’t. Unfuckingbelievable.

“You okay, Tova? ”

Meredith was really lucky with this one, Tova thought, looking through the long tufts of hair to his eyes. I hope she knows its good here, I hope she knows this is the kind you stick around for.

“No, I’m not. I’m not okay at all.”

And this is what she thought to herself again later when she climbed on to the cement railing over the river.

Shayegan is playing the mahogany upright piano he bought when he was sixteen, the year his father died. It was a pain in the ass to move. Especially painful now, when there’s not much time to play. When you’ve got to pay the bills. He hasn’t been playing at all lately, anyway. But she’s gone, he let her go, and maybe now there will be time for the other stuff. Another piece of the carved wooden vine on the face of the piano falls off while Shayegan plays. It’s been falling off slowly since before he bought it, leaving a viney shadow of unfinished wood.

The knock on the door startles him, because Meredith is gone and he’s thinking about music.

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s me.” Tova’s voice.

Shayegan opens the door with his left hand propping his right on the doorframe. Tova walks under his arm and down the wood floor of the hall. She’s frowning and walking through every room in the apartment.

“She’s not here. You okay, Tova? ” Shayegan closes the door and walks to the kitchen, feeling the cool of the tile on the bottoms of his feet.

“No, I’m not. I’m not okay at all.”

“Do you want a beer? ” Shayegan asks from the kitchen, already opening one for Tova. She looks bad, he thinks, though in all honesty, he doesn’t want to hear what she has to say.

“Yeah. Is she coming back soon? ”

“Don’t think so. Here.” Shayegan hands her a green glass bottle.

“Where is she? ”

“DonÕ’t know.” Don’t care right now, Shayegan thinks, then drinks.

“What the hell good are you? ” Tova falls onto the couch, sinks, looks sick.

“Do you mind if I sit here for a while? I’m trying to make a decision.”

“Go right ahead. Want to talk about it? ”

“Nope.”

“Great.” Shayegan is relieved. He knows he’s not very good at this stuff. That’s probably what got Meredith so upset in the first place, but he can’t really help it and doesn’t feel like changing. Shayegan thinks about how his dad was the same way: distant, then dead. He decides to play while Tova is on the couch thinking. After all, she’s just trying to make a decision about something.

He smiles when she sits on the bench next to him. She looks little and sad, like his niece did the last time he visited his sister. It’s been too long since he’s been there, he thinks. These are things he feels bad about. Not Meredith. He was tired of her anyway, things were static, they didn’t laugh enough, he felt suffocated. He was glad she left. Or mostly glad.

“Sing something,” Tova asks. When Shayegan begins to sing, she touches him. He lets her. This is not cheating, he thinks. It’s not cheating because Meredith is gone and I don’t love anyone. I’m glad she’s gone, he thinks again.

Tova climbs into his lap. Shayegan has always wondered how it would feel to fuck Tova. Their sex is loud; the piano plays a Dada symphony.

Later, her tongue flicks into his ear. “Don’t tell,” she whispers. Her breath is warm and hot. She still looks sad when she leaves. I don’t understand women, Shayegan thinks, then opens another beer and bangs out a song on the piano for Meredith.

Meredith stirs her coffee with the tiny red straw until it turns light brown. She’s waiting for Tova’s shift to end, but she can’t wait in the bar because she hates it there, the way it makes her feel grimy and dark and angry. How can Tova spend so much time there, Meredith wonders.

She’d gone to the bar with Shayegan after they’d first met and Pablo had come too to see Tova. Shayegan liked Pablo instantly; Meredith could hear it in his laugh. Pablo had sat in the red booth next to Meredith. He had his hand on her right thigh the whole night, which she didn’t really mind because they had slept together before Tova had left Mike. She’d felt guilty about fucking him, but they had been drinking too much and swore they’d never mention it again anyway. Of course, she’d liked sitting there between Shayegan and Pablo, even though she felt a little jealous of how much they liked each other.

Meredith finishes only half of her coffee. The coffee makes her stomach hurt, churning her insides. Shayegan does the same thing to her when they fight and no one’s done that since that summer when her parents kept fight and fighting. One Saturday her mom was vacuuming and they were fighting and Meredith sat on the blue woven rug in her bedroom, clutching her stomach thinking, if they don’t stop I’m going to throw up. And then it stopped. Her mom walked out the door, slamming it, the vacuum still running in the living room, trying to suck the dust out of the carpet, then the tension out of the air. Meredith had gone to the balcony and called, but her mom drove away anyway, like she hadn’t even noticed Meredith on the porch. She threw up three times that afternoon.

Now I’ve walked out too, Meredith thinks. But it’s better, this way. Better than fighting. Better than him leaving me.

She signals the waitress and asks for her check. She’s been here for three hours, reading and staring at the pale green tiles on the wall. It feels longer than that, but maybe it’s just because of the fighting and the leaving and now the waiting.

In the doorway of the bar, Meredith scans the room but can’t see Tova. Her eyes land instead on Jack, the bartender, who smiles and shakes his head as he walks the length of the bar toward her.

“She left a few hours ago, kid,” he says and winks.

“Where did she go?”

“Who the hell knows. You know how she gets sometimes.”

“Thanks.”

In the car, Meredith rolls down the window and turns up the volume on the radio. Some sort of metal song is playing and it hurts, but that’s the way she wants to feel right now. She’d better get it out now. Tova’s upset even though she sounded okay on the phone. They’ll both feel better later, Meredith is sure of this.

The bridge is her favorite stretch of road toward Tova’s apartment. She and Tova used to go running on summer afternoons when they lived together. By the time they circled back to the bridge, the sun was always hanging above the river in that clichŽ happy way that always made Meredith that things might work here, they just might work.

Approaching the crest of the bridge at night is different. It didn’t feel like hers in the same way it used to. The headlights of Meredith’s car shine briefly on the cement railing and that’s when Meredith sees somebody dive, a swan dive right off the edge of the bridge.

Holy shit, she thinks. Slams on the breaks. Calls the police.

When she gets off the bus, Tova wants cigarettes or pills or anything that will take the edge of her walk home. She sits on the cement bench on the corner of the bridge and dumps out the contents of her pink corduroy bag beside her. There’s no one around and she doesn’t care if they do see anyway. She finds some pills and rolls them around in the palm of her hand, examining the blue and the orange and the white thinking, it’s a cocktail party in my hand. These goddamn little pills are the most vibrant thing around.

Tova wants to feel something. She tried earlier to see if the sex would outweigh this feeling that’s been sitting on her chest for a while. How long has it been like this, she wonders but can’t concentrate long enough to remember.

I don’t even feel bad for fucking him, she thinks. I want remorse or pain or pleasure. I want to feel good or bad or anything. Tova puts her hand on her stomach thinking of the miscarriage and the abortions and this little bit of stuff that’s inside that’s suppose to turn into life and how she really doesn’t care if Pablo did leave with that little blond bitch yesterday afternoon. Except that’s not true. Because this hurts and now I’ve got to go home to that empty apartment where I’m just going to feel more of nothing.

Tova slings her bag over her shoulder and walks over the bridge toward her apartment. She’s half tempted to walk in the middle of the road, to get hit by a car. No, that’s not the way I’d want to go, she thinks. I’d want exhilaration before I croaked, in that last little minute. I’d want to jump off a building or this bridge and feel some excitement. That would be the way to do it.

At the crest of the bridge, Tova drops her bag and climbs up onto the cement railing. I just want to see what it would look like from here. I just want to see.

She stands with her legs shoulder length apart, arms spread wide. She closes her eyes and breathes before she looks down at the water. I wonder what it would be like, how it would feel. I wonder if I’d know at the bottom that I’d done it at all. Oh boy, Tova. You are not okay at all.

Tova thinks about her grandfather teaching her to dive at the pool behind his house. They drank lemonade and ate chocolate chip cookies and he told jokes that made her laugh. I took a wrong turn somewhere. It used to feel good. I used to be good.

She thinks about her grandfather again, remembering the way her feet were supposed to be together on the edge of the diving board. He’s says her name with a heavy Russian accent that she wishes she could wrap herself in like a blanket. He tells her to bend her knees and to do it the way he taught her.

“That’s my girl, Tova. That’s my girl,” her grandfather says as Tova swan dives into the pool, sunshine warming the bottoms of her feet as she floats down, down, down.

Shayegan is angry when he hears Meredith’s voice on the other end of the phone. I don’t want to fight anymore tonight, he thinks. I’m tired. I don’t need this. I don’t need her.

“I need help.” She never asks for help. Never after they’ve been fighting. But this is the game she plays, Shayegan thinks. She’s trying to get me to feel bad for her so I’ll tell her I love her and to come home. To promise that I’m not going to leave her. I don’t like the games, he thinks.

“Shayegan, please.” Meredith’s voice quivers and cracks. She is crying.

There are voices and sounds in the background Shayegan can’t quite place, sirens or something. He thought she was going to say I need you, but she didn’t and he doesn’t know if that is good or bad.

He recognizes the quiver from his mother’s voice the day his father died. “What’s wrong?” Shayegan knows it’s bad. He knows it’s very bad.

“I was a minute too late. I can’t do this. I can’t. I need help. You’re all I’ve got.”

“What’s wrong? Where are you?” Shayegan is pacing in front of the couch, rubbing his beard. The wooden floorboards creak under his feet.

At the bridge, Shayegan sees an ambulance and police cars. He can’t find Meredith in the mess of people walking up the hill from the river and by the side of the road. He sees her car, but can’t construct an accident from the scene. Something is very wrong, he thinks, because he can’t grasp onto any of the details.

Meredith is shaking and crying when he takes her in his arms. This is the feeling he hates: the fear, the love, the needing of another person. He hates it because it’s coming from his stomach, radiating through him like a knife slicing each of his veins from the inside.

Shayegan remembers when his mother called and he felt this for the first time. He collapsed on the floor when she told him. The car and the hospital and the old woman who didn’t even know she had taken Shayegan’s father from him without asking.

“Meredith, what’s happened?” He cannot bear her tears.

“Tova. She jumped. I didn’t know it was her. I was a minute too late and she was jumping and I didn’t even know it was her. They found her bag, the pink one I gave her last summer and I recognized it with the patches.” Meredith screams and Shayegan winces.

They stand on the bridge where she had been, holding each other, aching.

Meredith is asleep when they pull into the parking lot of their apartment. Her head is leaning on the glass. Shayegan leans his head against the back of his seat. He stares out the window at the brick wall of their building.

“Mer, we’re home.” Shayegan touches her arm softly. “Mer, wake up.”

Shayegan opens the door, unbuckles her and takes her in his arms. She snuggles against his green sweater, her forehead crinkled. She’s dreaming about an operation that’s going to leave a long purple scar on her stomach. The gravel crunches as he walks. On the sidewalk, Shayegan crushes purple berries under his feet.

About the Author

Erin Harte is a passionate southern feminist and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. When she’s not hitting the streets of New York City in search of the perfect shot of espresso, Erin passes her time working in product development and acquisition for a children’s publishing house.

Misty Ericson
Misty Ericson holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from San Jose State University, California, and an MA History of Art from University of Leeds, UK. In addition to her work on HerCircleEzine.com, which she founded in 2005, Misty enjoys painting in her studio and restoring her home in the English countryside.
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