“Hidden Fruit” is a short piece of brilliant writing. The writer chronicles the poetic misgivings of a girl piecing together her place in the world in terms of gender and heritage, through the few facts and misinformation that society provides her with. By combining both stream of consciousness flights of fancy and didactic scientific models, the writer creates a portrait of a young girl as budding genius, in wonderful images and frank hilarity.
—Heather O’Neill, Thomas Morton Memorial Prize Judge, 2017
You have the good genes—spotless dental records, flawless report cards. And those same genes are what make you learn that singular measures are unreliable indicators of anything, let alone something as complex as fitness. When you say fitness, you don’t mean cardio or kale salad. You don’t even mean marriage or babies. You mean something bigger than all that. You mean out-smarting chance and global warming.
Someone enters the dental office with a machine gun and anger management issues. Once you are in a reclined chair, muffled by a mouth tray filled with sickly sweet fluoride, the dentist makes jokes about your early-budding breasts. These things happen, and there is no explanation for them in your mind, except unluckiness or corporate greed. Which of course are only different manifestations of chance and global warming.
You are proud of your generation for popularizing recycling. You saw a sign once in a natural area: “I litter because: A) I’m an idiot, B) I don’t care for natural areas, C) My mother still picks up after me, D) All of the above.”
D is for your dentist, and he is from the other generation. Unfortunately, he avoids natural areas altogether. Instead, he makes you watch natural history videos on the ceiling. He asks if you want to change the show, but you just shake your head because you can’t even. His gloved fingers in your mouth make you smile like the bonobos.
You decide early in life that even though you have the good genes, you should improve yourself, because the environment is so unpredictable. It’s hard to tell what will be beneficial in the long run. You spend your waiting room time wisely. You read Cosmopolitan and Flare—otherwise banned from your life because of all those quizzes on how to have better sex. And while your mother procures deeply-discounted packages of Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear from the BiWay at the other end of the mall, you sit and quietly do your research on gender relations. Your mother learns from a neighbor never to buy anything at full price in Canada, since it’s guaranteed to go on sale within a month or two. Nothing in the present is worth what people tell you.
You take those quizzes and you pride yourself on scoring high on your ability to perform fellatio. Repetition, alteration, pause for breath. So academic that you don’t need a boyfriend to practice on. But you will have boyfriends. You pour through the pages and absorb the raw data, knowing that only a small fraction will turn into information. “It’s all about the accessories,” you read on page 60 of an August issue. That, right there, will seem useless, but you will be proven wrong.
You do your duties. You do your thought experiments. Having your teeth cleaned is akin to wearing lipstick, you conclude. Whiter, redder, both equally desirable, and dependent only on what body parts are being considered. The air conditioning, florescent lighting, and beige carpet make the dentist office feel like your basement, where you keep your face out of the sun to avoid getting dark. How long have we been doing this? you think. It’s not a real question, but it does elicit an answer in your mind. Forever.
You think about those before-and-after images of the pepper moth on your dentist’s ceiling. Before the industrial revolution, black-bodied ones were rare. It didn’t take long for them take over the population. You learn this from him. And you think, as you often do: One must adapt. All those soot-covered trees. One day, you put some of your mother’s brown concealer over the large black mole on your left cheek. Your beauty mark. The effect in the mirror is disturbing. Later, your mother compliments you on your complexion.
Your mother has a single negligee. It’s white, and you take it to your room to try on, over your clothes. When your mother inevitably finds you in it, you say you want to be a bride. But that’s of course not true. You both know you will wear red at your wedding. Your mother tells you to never touch it again. But she does not say to stay out of her walk-in closet.
The drama of darkness mixed with the luxury of plush blankets. A good place to form your hypotheses. There are gorgeous leather bags covered in elephant and peacock prints brought back by hand from India. You will use them to carry your tuna sandwiches and Red Delicious apples. Your father’s belts fit you at the hips and, therefore, his shirts evolve into dresses. An assortment of sequined chunnis could pass for “unique” scarves, if worn with the right pair of jeans. You get through a few Sweet Valley Highs in there. By the time you have to read A Wrinkle in Time at school, you will wonder how it’s possible that 13-year-old Meg never got her period in all that time-travelling.
Finding Playboy magazines hidden under a stack of neatly folded sweaters is like finding a dead litter of squirrels under snow. Just a matter of time. Your father isn’t home, and your mother is making dinner—either dal and roti or Kraft Dinner mixed with fried ground beef and tomatoes. They both smell the same because of that New World habit of frying everything in cumin, onion, ginger, and ghee, the quickest way to make everything taste desi. Here is what you will never unsee: portions of women’s bodies, fruits, and vegetables. The latter two are mixed up in visual metaphors: there is one photograph with a carrot stick forced into a slit green pepper. There is another of two eggplants with a banana emerging from the middle. Here’s what you can’t unthink: this is the stupidest thing I am not supposed to see. You feel an inexplicable anger start to develop. You realize the anger is towards yourself. How stupid of you to miss the correlation between food and sex in your magazine studies. In retrospect, everything makes sense. It explains all those recipes tucked in between half-naked models.
You are so angry that you forget the law of ultimate consequences: that when you hide in a closet with the door cracked open looking at girlie magazines, you will be trapped in there when someone comes into the room. That’s how you overhear a conversation: I have a really sweet piece; I can cut it for you and give you a good deal. It’s the best, man. There are several reasons why you know your older sister is not talking about female body parts or fruit. But mostly it’s induction: the sweet-smoky smell that lingers on her Ralph Lauren shirts even after they are laundered, the day she and her best buddy put all the Juicy Fruit you carefully stored in your top dresser drawer into their mouths and did not stop giggling. You sit there, frozen. The turn of a page could turn her head. You stay in the closet for much longer than necessary. Until your legs fall asleep. Until the third time your mother calls you down for dinner.
Sometimes you get angry at something, like a photograph of pornographic fruit or a sister who hides who she really is, or both, but it’s only a symptom of something bigger. And you may never understand that anger, because you will never understand that bigger thing. There are other consequences, and they will spread themselves out intermittently throughout your life, leaving only the illusion of continuity. Fifteen years later, you will describe perfectly the theory of punctuated equilibria during your PhD qualifying exam in evolutionary biology. That same night your German boyfriend will lodge a small section of a tangerine into your private part, only to take it into his mouth seconds afterwards. You will find it strange, unnecessary, but not unwelcome. You will envy him for being able to satiate his appetite so easily. He will give you a ring, which you will keep locked away in a safety deposit box. It will be unseasonably warm that winter. The citrus smell will remind you of Christmas and home.