The Juice and The Flesh

Another NYC Midnight short story jam. This was so far out of my wheelhouse. I loved writing it, have no idea whether it’s any good, or remotely authentic. Let me know what you think. Required elements were: romance / fruit shop / nail clippers.

The two lovers sat at the counter, raucous and impolite. Whenever the frutero turned his back, the boy would mock his movements with a sneering unkindness. The girl would giggle behind her fingers, appalled and yet undeniably charmed.

“To be that young and stupid again”, said Ben. “Jesus. Not for all the money in the world”.

Ron said nothing.

“Oh! I didn’t mean to cuss around you, I just …” he sighed and smiled, and shook his head, “some people”.

The frutero returned with a tall glass of green froth, an apple and melon concoction with fresh sprigs of mint. Two straws. With a pantomime gratitude, the boy bowed and scraped, the girl openly laughing while telling him to stop.

It didn’t matter. One day all this would wash away, and it would just be them. And the fruit stand.

They’d been coming here long enough to see the landscape fall and rise again, factories turning to eateries, then recast as blocks of glass and steel. And through it all, this same bench. And that same fruit stand, handed down from parent, to child, to idiot nephew.

“I hear it’s a franchise now,” Ben said as he clipped another nail, catching it carefully in his palm. “Remember Max? That would have been sixty-odd years ago. No blended juices back then, just fruit. But ah! The colours”.

Ben closed his eyes, recalling the brilliant hues of red and green arranged in blocks on Maximiliano’s cart. No skin-waxing. No GM farming. Just rows and rows of imperfectly round apples, oranges, and shiny pimienta, freshly plucked from the local estates, each mouthful crisp and wet and refreshing.

Ben sighed.

Ron said nothing.

They first came here as work colleagues. Things were different in those days, of course. Ron took Ben under his wing, showing him the best lunch spots in the city. Back then, Ben was a nervous kid in an ink-stained knitted vest. Ron was the confident one. The nurturer.

Their friendship grew like a weed, beyond their time at Minto’s. Ron’s savage humour, his roaring laugh, his prim dislike of swearing, born (Ben suspected) out of his Baptist upbringing. And still they would come here at least twice a week, to eat pineapple chunks or carrot sticks and catch up on each other’s news.

And boy could Ron talk.

Whenever they pitched a project to a client, it was Ron that spoke for both of them. Whenever they went out to meet girls, it was Ron that broke the ice with his buttery tongue. And when Ben tried to confess that his feelings were more profound, more raw and vulgar than a friendship, his throat prickling and choked with shame, his newspaper twisted into rope, it was Ron who talked, calling him awful names, shredding his heart with a cruel precision, the butter on his tongue turning sour and brutal and black.

And then, Ron didn’t speak to Ben again.

Not for a long time.

Years passed. It was late in the evening. It had been storming, of course, like some dreadful cliché in an 80s romance. Ron had been walking the streets for hours, and when Ben opened his apartment door, he marched straight in, ranting and pointing, half at Ben and half at the ceiling. Ben struggling to make any sense of it.

He’d had a health scare, it turned out. Nothing serious. At least, not yet. But it had sent him into a spiral of self-reflection and lead him back to Ben’s apartment, back to that day on bench at the frutería.

And years of lost conversation came flooding out of him like a busted drain, until they kissed, Ben’s warm mouth stemming the flow of words to a gentle trickle. One hand on his back, the other in his thinning hair, all distance between them gone, their souls blended, their bodies squeezed down to the very rind.

Beep.

The girl tapped her phone to the EFTPOS terminal to pay for the drink, and the boy shook the frutero’shand. No harm done. Then the boy swung the girl on to his back and the two of them wobbled down the footpath, young and stupid and free.

“She’s too good for him,” said Ben, clipping another nail.

From that day to this, the two of them had shared everything. And when Ron’s health scare came back to bite him, the rot in his brain eating away at his gross motor skills, slurring his speech and then stopping it for good, locking him into his own vegetative body — well, they’d shared that, too.

“There you go, sweetheart. All done”, said Ben, putting the clippers away and admiring his work. Despite the essential tremor in Ben’s hands, each nail was a perfect arc.

These moments were golden. Who knew how many they had left?

Ben tenderly thumbed away a little moisture from Ron’s eyes and, lifting his freshly manicured hand by the wrist, set it over his own. Their soft and crumpled skin interleaved, like the scales on a pineapple. Then he laid his bald head on Ron’s shoulder, riding the rise and fall of his chest like the lapping waves at the evening tide.

“I love you”, Ben whispered.

Ron said nothing.

But he felt everything.

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