The public tangerine trees in Tucson dangle bulbous fruit, lining sidewalks with orange balls of sunrise. The citrus is bitter, stinging tongues like sour lemon; it does well in the sweltering summers where temperatures soar into the hundreds, sweat beads gliding down pedestrians’ backs and making wet spots on t-shirts.
When I visited Tucson for the first time I did not know this, and reached up to pluck a tangerine, marveling at the touch of a cool peel in my palm against the heat. I dug my fingernail into the peel, releasing the zesty scent of rind mixed with the fragrance of white orange blossoms blooming, filling my nostrils with perfume. I began to rip into my tangerine when suddenly I heard a voice cry out “that’s bitter, you know.” I looked up. On a porch across from the tangerine tree a man sat in a rocking chair with fading floral cushions, moving like a miniature pendulum against the breeze that ruffled his white hair. “That’s a bitter tangerine. All the tangerines on the sidewalks are; they do better in the heat. The only sweet tangerines grow in peoples’ backyards, where walkers can’t steal them.” I felt something inside my body like my organs were shrinking, making my heart pump harder and my breath fast. I looked down at the tangerine in my palm, and bent down to the grass. I placed it there next to an earthworm tunneling beneath the tree.
“Thanks,” I said. “But how do the sweeter tangerines survive the heat, then?”
The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Just do.”
The man stared at me, rocking back and forth, mesmerizing and nauseating all at once. He nodded his head yup.
“Thanks,” I said again, and continued strolling down the sidewalk, feeling the absence of sour citrus tingle in my palms.
Now I know about tangerines in Tucson, illusions in wavy desert heat, golden gems promising something pretend. I don’t pick the tangerines anymore, letting fallen ones rot in the grass among earthworms and speckles of dirt. Now I know about tangerines and walk by them, letting sour citrus hang from flowered boughs as my breath steadies and my legs move like broken pendulums, taking me through the streets of Tucson where fruit lies like it’s done something wrong.
If souls exist mine is made of streaks of sunset, oil paint strokes in the sky, toxic when inhaled, bleeding rubies and topaz gemstones and slices of flesh orange picked from trees, pouring through my veins that give blood when I cut them, running it like rivers when I don’t. Once my poetry professor said “don’t use Latinate words,” don’t be dumb and abstract and say “soul” and “love” and “sadness” when there are so many words buried deeper in the Earth, like carrots, tops sticking out and waiting to be yanked from their gardens, crunchy vegetables describing what Latin cannot. Souls are sunsets and that’s it, there’s no soul at all, just suns falling from the sky and resting beneath my organs, flooding my lungs with golden hours of five. My not-soul is painted on my arms in maroonish lines, spelling sadness and hurt and anger and hatred and a pain that shakes in my heart like a tambourine, except there is no sadness hurt anger hatred pain, they’re too abstract, leaving readers reeling, scratching their scalps and waiting for vegetables harvested in the summer, carrot tops pulled and potatoes dug from dirt . My not-soul is pressed hard into my laughter that incubates in my stomach amidst acid and bread crumbs broken, erupting out of me in clouds of smoke that are fragrant like rosewater and cardamom, spicing my father’s childhood stories like the Iranian sunset he misses, scarlet orange and filling his soul, too, except not. My not-soul is my soul that I love and hate and love, abusing Latin and leaving my vegetables untouched. Peas lined against my butter knife hidden, avoiding eyeballs that scream “eat them,” though I won’t, for now.