Self Portrait of Mangoes
WRITTEN BY ZOHA ARIF
In a hotel resting in the highlands of warped mountains and valleys pooling like corn syrup, I forgot to take my socks off before bed one night. My feet burned like the sachets of the Orthodox Christians and their saint ceremonies, but there was no ice bucket in the mini-fridge to comfort my feet. So in lime pajamas stitched with carnivorous dinosaurs, I ventured to the Italian ice machine in the breakfast bar. There, we met offline, shaking with left hands, right hands cradling ice or green sencha tea. I looked at your collar buttons, pins of some oceanic mammal, noticed your empathy, and thought, no, this being comes from a shrine more sacred than natural selection. God. You said that you didn’t believe in horoscopes and personality tests, yet besides the oatmeal packets and popping waffle toaster, you took a few anyway. One told you that you were an introvert, a diplomat, a little analyst, and you shook it off, explaining that your dad was a diplomat for Iran once, before firecrackers from rioters through an embassy’s glass turrets, high fuel prices, and some foreign radio propaganda about Sadam and Khamenei put a lit end to that marvelous stunt. Suddenly nothing belonged to anyone anymore. You and your father floated across the North Atlantic to Staten Island, Jesus in your socks, nuclear reactors splitting behind your backs, while your cousins fought cancer and democratic dictators melting nomadic tribes who speak a fake Arabic, or a fake Persian, or a little bit of both.
These resort slopes did not belong to us, but we still snowboarded like nerve cords down their splindly spines. Spinal nerves petted our nostrils, spinal nerves tickled our root canals, spinal nerves assaulted our motor controls during breakfast bar conversations that began with hey, you again? or watch out, apparently scorpios and leos don’t get along. The Day of Judgement, the promised meeting with my Lord, has always felt like tomorrow. I knew that we wouldn’t last forever, so my heart dared to wander somewhere. I don’t know where. It felt like you. Because we are salesmen, you said, let us be salesmen. The bank opened on Tuesday, we presented our elevator pitches to a senate of musty men and women who’ve been yelling boomers since the Vietnamese popped into offense in the central highlands. Like acrobats, we spun and squeezed a halal relationship out of carrot juice. God hates adultery, God hates divorce, God hates bickering husbands and wives, God hates oppression, which he hates more, I can’t say, I still wipe my cheeks on the prayer mat asking.
One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that mimic the anatomy of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut like frozen twizzlers from the rounded waist—it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the squatted overpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this contraption, no blunt resemblance to the human experience, just a loaf of steamed clay constructed to spare our Chevy truck from the dribbling plops of rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the overpass, you said, pay heed to the trees.
Now, I don’t understand what mortal sin this Garden State overpass has committed to be titled the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two beings, one a believer and the other an atheist, rope ourselves into a white wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, so we exchanged bands on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man.
The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your tender fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your pink tongue to melt, water syrup forming tributaries through the lace of your fingers like poetry. I was shocked when you did this. The mango was nothing more than a complicated collection of bonded molecules to you, but I saw that it was the offspring of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the yellow taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on this holy day.
But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with fragments of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink. In the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and vanilla shaving cream, with mouths foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any cremated fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to drain down a sink pipe some days. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to squish solid fructose flesh down a drain or to be flushed down a sink as nothing more than regular bathroom water. You spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and said that you didn’t understand. And I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the celestial beings of the messiah so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast.
Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but harem pants and a stretched Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the sofa and missed a flight to retrieve. You never bothered to fix that brake lever, but even New York City traffic couldn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your skin pores do with oil. wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this:
Dear Bob the bicycle,
I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.
Your Santa Cruz hoodie
I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, pasta strainers, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in relation to the diameter and squared hypotenuse of the Earth’s ovular orbit. Think about Hooke’s Law, you said: the force needed to compress a spring by some linear distance scales proportionality with respect to that linear distance. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue prodding water through the tube of your throat after dozens of push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who chops a pecan pie with the knife tilted at a right angle, instead of a flat straight angle, or the symbolism behind the methodical way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce bowl with white eggplant and zucchini cubes. I really tried to pay no heed to ordinary material for about fourteen hours before rolling into defeat and accepting the fact that a cream pound cake represents the natural birth of a child. (A cream pound cake is dense on the pancreas, buttery, and kind to the taste palette, firing neurons like a woman’s emotions will do after a child’s scratchy cry.)
Every year, on the anniversary of the iconic day the Israelites slaughtered the golden calf because they were tired of their manna, the sky looks like dyed purple plums in a raw cheesecake to me. Yet sometimes, on these anniversaries, I wish that the world would tilt, spilling macho coffee and cheesecake on the floor as the atmosphere collides into the soft earth, as the dirt from cemetery gardens fall like icicles into the magma core beneath the splintered mantle, as sleeping bodies are pushed from their beds and forced to leap from the balcony of one terrace to another, as the wind slaps fruits from their crates. Otherwise, the world is boring.
When I thought of you one day, I felt like bursting a can of zero calorie diet pepsi onto the balcony and somersaulting, cartwheeling, as the planet explodes into chaos around me. You rolled home. The first thing I asked you for is an opinion on my future petition to rename tomatoes “goobers” just for the comedy of it because can you imagine boiling pasta one evening and saying “pass the goober sauce” or assembling a salad and “cutting goobers.” You didn’t think that was funny because you never cared about the mango from the tree of the unsuspecting fruit farmer, or the rooster windbreaker, or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three ginger-nut Moroccans who stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in the gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember how the dust from the toddler’s chalk doodles floated through our window that morning we built a cardboard aircraft out of cereal boxes in our pantry. I told you one night that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you pulled Jesus from your shadow and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. Sire, 2 + 2 = 4 only when the value of 2 means having a pair of things, like a pair of hamsters, and, in the same way, two microwaved grapes only make plasma if the two things microwaved are, indeed, grapes. If you had cared about the mango since our holy day, then the domes of the world would have leaned closer to you and hugged you like syrup with the gentlest thighs.
But the world and its things never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The tribes vomited mortal and venial sins and you spat back in the name of the holy scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and, barefoot, without dentures, thrown us both with the complementary threats and curses into chlorine swimming pools for drinking his property’s pure air.
In regards to the overpass, My Lord, as we drove underneath the loaf of steamed clay, somewhere in that expanse of time, I grew up. That overpass is our marriage. It is how we spilled Ferraris and Mercedes into each other as if humans are able to stand straight, shoulders plucked back, feet seven inches apart, with a fleshy hole simmered through their belly buttons. As we ate the mangos and beets, the things of this world pumped through our throats and esophagus and pancreas and out, though the difference is that my tongue savored it and you forgot to chew with your adult teeth. You and the overpass are one. You couldn’t tell me how many motorcycles have slapped you. You push every droplet of rain into bowls of blue infernos to burn Abraham. No one will care when that Garden State Parkway overpass is torn into pebbles and sculpted into a stable road. Perhaps that’s why it’s so bitter. The overpass breathes, My Lord, the mangos breathe, the world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries the human experience, we won’t last forever, so let’s at least agree that mangos matter when it comes to the diameter and squared hypotenuse of the Earth’s ovalular orbit.
Zoha Arif will graduate from the Academy for Information Technology in the spring of 2021. As someone with persistently shifting interests, she's not sure if she will ever develop a particular literary style but is excited to continue to indulge in literary experimentation and hybrid art. Her quarantine works have been on the beat of South Asian and Middle Eastern cultural history as she has spent the past frail, wobbly year rediscovering her family and thinking about why culture matters, if it really matters. She melts away her free time breathing peanut butter, eating autobiographies of sailors, drowning in questionable food science experiments, chasing squirrels, and learning how to sew. Her work has been published in Polyphony Lit, the Blue Marble Review, Oddball Magazine, Up North Lit, and others.