by Blair Campbell
my father, an otherwise normal man, snacked on entire sticks of butter as a child. I learned this not from him, but from my disapproving Aunt Sandra in the context of a story about her courtship with my uncle. Sandra recalled dutifully shaking hands with three of her suitor’s four brothers and recoiling in horror at the proffered hand of the butter-smeared youngest child.
When I confronted Dad with the truth, he deflected, quickly changing the subject with a story about his grandfather, who used to feed salted nuts to chipmunks straight from his mouth. During family vacations in the Poconos, Grandpa Goetze would sit on the back porch and let the rodents scurry up his arm, giving him what amounted to a little nut-stealing kiss.
Thankfully neither the butter-snacking nor the nut-sharing got passed down through generations, but as a child I did inherit another of my father’s quirks of the palate—eating lemons whole. Following Dad’s lead, I would halve the fruit, suck out the juice, then peel it like an orange and swallow the remaining flesh. Battling through the tartness made me feel bold, and I ignored all warnings about losing the enamel on my teeth.
My clearest lemon-eating memory is of a crisp late afternoon one Labor Day, when I was eleven or twelve. My family spent summers in a small seaside town, and we had the strange fortune to live across the street from a croquet court—a nod to the neighbors’ Anglophilia. Over the long holiday weekend, the mixed-doubles tennis tournament was the hottest ticket in a town where your social standing depended on the strength of your forehand. Mixed-doubles croquet, on the other hand, was not such a draw, but for me it had the advantage of proximity. So on that Monday afternoon I grabbed half a lemon out of the refrigerator and headed across the street to watch the finals.
There was one other spectator—a boy we’ll call Elliot B., my best friend’s older brother. Elliot B. was not the cutest boy in town, but he had that fourteen-year-old-boy version of je ne sais quoi—a certain tanned, lanky ease—and he was by far the best tennis player in his age group. He had never spoken to me, so I sat down on the white-painted bench a respectful distance away.
A few minutes later, an incredulous, puberty-deepened voice asked, “Are you eating that lemon??”
“Yeah,” I replied defensively before I’d processed the fact that the speaker was Elliot B.
“You eat the whole thing. Like an orange,” he said, as though getting the details straight to later share with his friends.
“Yeah!” I said, with what I hoped was a tone of pride.
“That’s so weird.”
Suddenly Elliot B. scooted down the bench to sit next to me, as though my freakish behavior had earned, if not quite his respect, then at least his curiosity. We sat like that for over an hour, talking. I can’t remember a single thing we discussed, but I know that that Labor Day, a day that has always made me catch my breath a little, was particularly beautiful and sad. The sky was a deeper shade than the bird’s-egg blue of July and August, turning the green of the leaves and grass even greener. You could feel a hint of autumn chill and smell the smoke of the town’s few year-round residents starting their first fires of the season. Kids with solemn faces took slow, final bike rides down the block, and station wagons loaded with trunks, bicycles, rafts, and coolers pulled out of driveways for the trip back to the city.
Add to this the feeling of awakening to a crush you never knew you had. Our talk continued until dusk, until shadows had fallen over the field and the croquet players had all gone home. Finally, with a “bye, see you next year,” Elliot got on his Schwinn and rode away. I walked home, and when my mother saw me and asked where I’d been, I had to fight a smile.
The following summer, Elliot B. ignored me for three solid months. Unfazed, I believed there was a secret agreement between us, and on Labor Day, two hours before sunset, I walked across the street with half a lemon. No one else sat on the bench, so I bided my time, feigning interest in croquet.
When dusk fell and the players had packed up their mallets and gone, I was still alone, stood up for my first, albeit imaginary, date. I walked home and opened the refrigerator, hanging limply on its door. When my mother asked me where I’d been, I said “nowhere,” then put the lemon back and searched for something sweeter.
“Lemons” originally appeared in the anthology Literary Lunch (Knoxville Writers’ Guild, 2002).
Blair Campbell is a senior editor at On the Page.