Strange Fruit

She was reminded of a joke.

How do you eat a pomegranate?

Wobbly and orange-red, they were piled up like cannonballs selling for two dollars apiece. Persephone's accidental ticket to the underworld, spring stolen away by the dark god who lived underground, all available under the clean bright lights of the produce section.

In high school, there had been a boy who brought half a pomegranate to lunch every day. She could remember its strange fleshy innards, the bright red seeds against the inedible yellow. Such a strange fruit, all that flesh and you only ate the seeds.

He had kissed her once. She remembered that too. It had been the last day of school, that aimless open marvelous day where all you had to do was clean out your locker and throw away old lunch bags and find enough change to buy a soda on the way home. The halls were covered with discarded French quizzes, old math worksheets and crumpled notes that said: "I called Eli and he says Jeremy likes you" and "I'm cutting bio -- wanna come?"

Scully's notes had said things like that too. She had been frivolous and silly. She was capable of those things still. Few people saw that in her now, though Mulder sometimes did. He knew there were days she wanted to turn around and skip work, go to the zoo instead, stay outside in the sun instead of squinting in the dark of the basement. Sometimes he would look at her and almost say "let's go," but she always turned away before he did.

The kiss had been red and bitter and juicy and sweet just like the pomegranate seeds that always stained his lips a dark red for hours after lunch. It was a half-day, and she had never really noticed his locker was just next to hers, but as she tossed homework assignments and old lab reports to the floor, she noticed him doing the same right beside her. She could tell by the pile of purpled ditto paper that he had been in first-year German as well. It felt so good to toss the sheets of irregular verbs. Next year she would need to know how to conjugate fliegen, but today, and for the rest of the summer, she would exist without that knowledge, free from umlauts and shifty vowels, free from any tense but the present. She must have smiled then, because the boy next to her had grinned.

Scully picked up a pomegranate from the display, put it in the basket she carried in one hand. She had come to the store for yogurt, for lunch tomorrow. There were cookies in her basket, and a magazine, but those were unplanned indulgences, things she had not known she needed until she passed them. The pomegranate too fell into that category, unknown but needed. It rolled against the magazine, kissing the glossy face of Gloria Steinem.

She had no time to shop during the week so she always scheduled her grocery shopping for the weekends. Still, occasionally she found herself running out of shampoo or cranberry juice, and she would have to make a special trip to the store. She would make up excuses: She was tired, she didn't really need toilet paper, she would go without coffee in the morning. But her lies were unconvincing.

Sometimes the trips surprised her. A favorite song would come on the radio during the drive over or the older couple standing by the oranges would remind her of her grandmother and grandfather. Small things. She told herself she hated going to the store at night. She didn't. There was a certain peace to a late-night grocery store, humans doing human things, checking their lists, buying lunchmeat, moving through their world. It was peaceful, unhurried, and held a sense of trust she could find nowhere else, a simplicity.

She put her groceries on the passenger seat of her car. In the white bag, the pomegranate's redness was still visible; pressed up against the thin plastic it was almost obscene, a lusty red breast, jiggling each time she stopped the car at a traffic light. She wanted to reach over and nudge it away from the plastic, stop it from staring at her. She pulled it from the bag and let it ride free, sitting on the seat.

The boy had been cute, with light brown hair and a nice smile. Melissa would have howled at him had he been waiting at a corner to cross the street when she drove past in the family station wagon. Melissa did things like that. Scully mostly scrunched down in the passenger seat, unsure if she wanted to be associated with this howling, catcalling sister of hers. A sister that just wasn't afraid.

The boy had half a pomegranate balanced on the middle shelf of his locker. It swayed like a boat each time he reached past it to retrieve a pencil or a stray dime. More papers fluttered to his feet, chemistry, English, a sketch of what could only be the band instructor--a tuba sprouting from his ear, each of his fingers a perfect flute, two fermatas for eyes, his mouth an oval whole note, treble clefs dotting his tie like twisty spots of ink.

She found an English paper she had shoved into the very back of her locker. The locker was only a foot and a half deep, but she had pushed that paper back there, as far as it would go, to hide the C cut into its front pages, to hide it from herself, to hide that she hadn't understood the assignment, hadn't understood what it wanted from her. She gave, but what she had given wasn't good enough.

She tore this paper in half down the middle of the C and then both pieces went into the trash can behind her. The hallway was loud, filled with the chatter of eager sophomores--near-juniors, really--and no one heard the rip her essay made as she pulled it apart.

She thought maybe the boy heard, but he said nothing. He was spitting pomegranate seeds into the trash. She knew you sucked off the pulp and didn't eat the seed, and it struck her again how ridiculous this fruit was--all that effort put into picking out the seeds from the pulp, and then you could only eat their jelly-like skin. So much work went into so little pleasure.

She was staring, she knew she was, it was mostly the question of what kind of boy would put that much time into finding the sweetness inside such a funny fruit. It made her wonder who ate the first pomegranate, who had decided to cut it open, hunt around in the yellowy foam of its insides and extract the seeds. Someone must have done it wrong at the beginning. Someone had tried to eat the yellow part and spit out the seeds.

Melissa would be the one to try strange fruits. She would pick them apart and test each piece, waiting to see how it tasted, if she had found the right part, if it was edible or poisonous.

Sometimes she worried Melissa would get herself into trouble, and so she acted extra cautious herself, as if her own care would protect her reckless sister. She looked both ways before crossing the street, she didn't smile too long at strangers, she didn't stay out too late, and she didn't eat strange fruit, not even if she knew how, not even then.

Scully couldn't carry her purse, her keys, the grocery bag and the pomegranate to her apartment - she didn't have that many hands. Slipping the fruit back into the bag, she locked her car and crossed the street to her building. The front door never opened on the first try but she knew just how to bump it with her hip to get it to open on the second. In her apartment, she put the plastic bag down on the kitchen counter and the pomegranate immediately rolled out, coming to a stop before it could reach the edge and fall to the floor.

She put her yogurt away, enough for the rest of the week, a sure sign that Mulder would take her out to lunch tomorrow or maybe even fly her out of the state. She would return and find her refrigerator the site of an advanced biological experiment. The lettuce would be near spoken language, the milk almost capable of using crude tools. This was part of her life and she had resigned herself to it. Her cheeses had achieved marvelous colors of mold and she'd learned that after a certain point all leftovers begin to look the same through cloudy Tupperware lids. At this point there was really nothing her food could do that would surprise her.

Except the pomegranate. It sat on the counter and asked if she remembered.

Her locker was almost empty, summer was almost officially there. She would go to the pool, she knew this already. She would rush home and put on her bathing suit and beg Melissa to go with her. When she was with Melissa no one noticed her, and maybe this was okay. Melissa mostly ignored her too, but not entirely. Melissa kept a good eye on the ones she loved, she didn't let them get hurt.

There was a small ball on the floor of her locker. Maybe from a leftover physics project. It bounced from her fingers when she reached for it, bounced to the floor and against the foot of the boy next to her. She was sure she would know his name if she saw it on his papers, if he whispered it to her. It was something simple, it fit him, she could almost remember.

He handed the ball to her and she tucked it into her backpack. She threw away an entire handful of hall passes. There had been a month when, every day, she would find an excuse to leave health, and she would walk down the hall and around the corner and past the gym where the band practiced. She would linger there, getting a drink of water and peering out the corner of her eye until she spotted the sax player in the second row. She had wasted too many hours thinking of him, but she was helpless in that dreamlike way where you can't run. Of course, she had not wanted to run. But that had passed, and now, as the papers on the floor shifted and she saw again the sketch of the band conductor, she knew this boy was in that class as well.

He was pulling out a paperclip chain from his locker. It could have been a mile long. It appeared never to end. The tips of his fingers were dyed slightly red. He played the drums, she thought. She might have remembered drumsticks in those hands.

The bell rang, a remnant from just the day before when, at this time, she would have been hurrying to get her shoes tied after gym, hurrying to get her hair looking like it had before she'd spent 45 minutes playing volleyball. She thought of herself in two years, would she still be scurrying around, slave to a bell? She envisioned college to be a place where everyone was in charge of themselves, no bells, no hall passes, no one frowning at you if you had to use the restroom during the fall of the Roman Empire. She couldn't wait for that kind of freedom, that chance to prove herself.

She knew she was smiling this time. The boy had his pomegranate turned inside out, the yellow flesh splitting and cracked, exposing more red seeds within. She thought she must be mistaken about him having a pomegranate for lunch every day, he would be sick of them. Maybe she had only noticed him when he had been eating a pomegranate.

His locker was empty. He took the pomegranate from the shelf, shut the door then leaned against it. He was only slightly taller than her, she thought that if she stood on tiptoe just a bit, she could kiss him. He offered her the fruit, and she thought back to Persephone and her mistake of eating the seeds.

The punchline was that the way to eat a pomegranate was in the bath. Scully thought of this while she knelt next to the tub, watching it fill with hot water. It really was too late for a bath, ten o'clock on a Tuesday night. Most likely she would have to take a shower again in the morning. Her hair didn't tolerate being slept on and tomorrow it would look like it hadn't been washed in a week.

She let the tub fill anyway. Two autopsies in one day always made her feel old, tired. The early morning car ride to Quantico, the long traffic puzzle back. She could not imagine a life where all she did was cut people open and then sew them back together. But now the tub was filled, and she closed the bathroom door to keep the steam inside and the draft out and slid into the water.

Someone had started the kiss. There was even a chance it had been her. It was the last day of school and she was free from everything except softball practice and backyard barbecues. And he offered her the pomegranate and she pried out three of its soft juicy seeds.

They were tart, and she blamed the inner seed as if it had somehow leaked bitterness into the jelly, because anything that red and shiny should be as sweet as sugar water, as perfect as homemade strawberry jam. Instead it was a little unpleasant. She spit out the pith and put another seed in her mouth. Leaning against her own now empty and closed locker, she decided the seed was both sweet and sour and it was impossible to just take the sweet.

She and the boy seemed to be leaning closer together, as if someone had picked up the school and bent it between them, causing them to slip towards each other against their lockers. She spit out the last seed and glanced down at the papers near his feet. She was not going to do this until she remembered his name, until she had it there on the tip of her tongue in case she needed to use it.

There was a chemistry lab just under his right foot. He had gotten 110 out of 100. He must have done the extra credit question. His name was just as she thought it should be. She leaned in a little further and kissed him and he tasted like pomegranates.

Scully toweled herself off as the water drained from the tub. She'd washed her hair first and it was nearly dry by the time the water had grown cold. This shorter cut had a tendency to curl when left on its own and she almost laughed at her reflection in the steamy mirror. Tousled was the word and it rarely applied to her, though it most certainly did now. Tousled like the women trying to sell her bras in the Victoria's Secret catalogues, tousled too like the women selling Playmate videos and phone sex during late-night movies on cable. There was a distinction there, between underwear sales and pornography, or at least she hoped there was.

She put on her white terry cloth robe and went down the hall to check if the front door was locked. She found herself doing this at odd times. She hadn't yet unlocked and relocked the door, simply the sight of the deadbolt in its locked position was enough to reassure her, but part of her was afraid of the day she reached out to touch the lock and do just that. She was not obsessive, she told herself each time she glanced at the door, she was just checking.

Mulder was standing in her kitchen holding the pomegranate in one hand, his thumb smoothing over its skin in a small sweeping motion. She checked the door, locked.

He was still in his suit, trim and fashionable, and next to him Scully felt swallowed by her robe. It seemed to add fifty pounds to her and if she needed to run it would simply be impossible. Her hands barely cleared the cuffs and the robe itself almost wrapped around her twice. Nervously tightening the belt around her waist, she cocked her head at Mulder, reluctant to break the silence of her night apartment.

Mulder looked back at her, still holding the fruit. She assumed he knew what it was. Mulder knew things like that, like the Latin name for the common squid and the history behind eating pancakes for Shrove Tuesday. Obscure and wonderful things. It was who he was.

She took the pomegranate from him and cut it in half. And it reminded her of that joke again because Mulder took off his jacket and he was wearing a white dress shirt, and she thought that eating pomegranates in the bathtub with Mulder would be a very reckless thing to do, so she drew him over to the sink and he knew because he rolled his sleeves to his elbows and she tried to push up the sleeves of her robe and it worked to an extent, and she gave him half of the pomegranate and they both leaned over the sink and started to pick at the fruit, their heads close, their arms brushing as they moved.

And someone kissed her and at first all she could taste was pomegranates, the bitterness that overshadowed the sweet that you could never quite reach, even if you ate a hundred seeds. And then it was Mulder and he was kissing her, two fingers pressed against her cheek and she wondered if she wouldn't have red fingerprints there tomorrow, Mulder's whorls and loops pressed into her skin, dyed there in a tattoo of possession. And that was why you ate pomegranates in the bathtub, to prevent red fingerprints on white dress shirts, there at the shoulder where her hand rested, her thumb streaking red crescent moons into the cotton.

She knew he'd never be able to wear that shirt again because passion didn't wash out, it made tiny fingerprints instead, just the tips of her fingers as she went up on her toes, she was too short for kissing in the kitchen barefoot, too short to be kissing Mulder who was too tall to be kissed, but Mulder's other hand was behind her almost lifting her up, supporting her, leaving red fingerprints on her robe. They would match like the coastlines of two continents once pressed together, one piece, one country, but then split, each retaining the memory of the other, the places where they once connected.

This would be easier sitting down or even lying down and she suddenly remembered the sheets on her bed were clean, but that would be very dangerous and the kitchen was safe for the moment while she licked Mulder's ear and tried to remember how that had happened, when she had decided to do that. She found her hand wrapped around his neck and her fingers tucked into the back of his collar. Was this a total loss? Stained red from the pomegranate, had they given up on propriety and all those excuses that started out But-- But-- But-- and all the seven years between them that consisted of days and hours not clutching each other in her kitchen and sometimes yelling instead and slamming doors and throwing things, not this which was breathless and human and honest, and she was getting a cramp in her foot from being up on tip-toe just to reach his neck.

Sinking back down she looked up at him, at her fingerprints on his shirt, at his smile, which was stained red, curved with delight. Mulder, who had come out of nowhere and now stood in her kitchen seven years later. She wanted to say something, to ask a question, to have him make her a promise she knew he'd never break. Something like "I will always tell you if I use the last stamp" or "I will never borrow your car and change the preset stations on the radio." She wanted a promise from him, or maybe another kiss, but she was too short for unplanned kisses in the kitchen. She wanted to say something. She said, "Mulder--"

And he kissed her. Took his name from her lips and replaced it with her own name, the Scully he had always called her, replaced it with his tongue and a little of his breath and a mumble that sounded like, "Yes."

"Mulder," she said again, just to say his name, to put him in this context of just-kissed and waiting to be kissed-again. Usually they talked so much about everything, cases, theories, tox screens, airplanes, lunch. And now nothing, no talk, no plans, just his white shirt under her hands, the wool of his pants, the short hair of his sideburns. Again she wanted some promise from him, something that she could depend on no matter what happened.

She wanted to say, "Promise me." She said, "Mulder."

And he smiled, and kissed her, and said into her ear, "Yes, I said, yes."