Most days I find the taste of mango between your legs, but other times it surprises where I least expect it, lingering on your fingertips or behind your knee, on the end of a sun-burnished strand of hair. Some days green and self-protective, plaintive and tart or sharp and haughty, other days almost rudely overripe, tender and gushing over my teeth. I take you into my mouth so often but still manage to be surprised by the unfamiliar tingle of a new variety.
If this makes me sound ravenous, it’s only partly true. I explore the world mouth-first because I’ve found it’s the easiest way to live. To not trust a thing till I’ve questioned the truth of it with my tongue. Too many people lied to me before I learned to plan my moves based on taste, turning over every invitation and story between my molars. I’ve known more tastes than most people can boast of by the time they die, but it’s the pain that always lingers too long. All the other things most people tuck away in their bellies, in their journals, in a headache that comes suddenly on a parched dry day, I taste constantly. The flavor of betrayal wakes me in the morning, memories that dont properly fade until hours after breakfast. I’ve tried to drown these painful tastes with sand, with lies, with the best wine my money or quick hands could buy. Nothing did the trick till I tasted you for the first time. You tasted of champagne mango that night, I believe. A creamy and full sweetness that left me gasping toward the ceiling, hands braced against your thighs.
When you first told me about the market, I thought it was the kind of story cobbled together from wishes and desire. I repeated the words back to you and waited for the familiar acrid taste of a lie. But none came, and you were pulling me through the streets of our city, your gold septum ring gleaming below every streetlight as you looked back at me and laughed. When we reached the pothole in the soup shop alley, you told me to close my eyes. I didn’t know how to tell you that I hadn’t closed my eyes in front of another human being since I was five years old, hadn’t slept with the lights off in almost as long. That I’d learned too early you can’t trust others to be kind to you in the dark. I held your hand to my lips and closed my eyes.
Like most things, the taste hit me before I knew what I was looking at. I stood there for a while, adjusting to the creamcolored glow of tiny strings of light bulbs and the thousands of mangoes they illuminated, laid out on every possible surface in the smooth wooden room around us.
Tables of dried mango packets burnished with chili powder, firm whole mangoes stacked in cheerful pyramids, a stall with fresh mango juice. We stopped by one stall with purple Sensation mangoes neatly arranged on a threadbare sheet. As you chatted with the owner of the stall, I closed my eyes, steadying myself against the taste of the air. You slipped a piece of dried mango into my mouth, and I kept it there as we kissed. I smiled as I recognized the taste of you, realizing what had been haunting my tongue those past months. It was mango, this fruit I had only seen until now in children’s books and old movies. When our growers had been tasked with creating the most nutrient-dense fruit varieties, ones that could sustain us through months of fighting government forces, we had abandoned things like mango. Instead we were taught to cultivate blueberries the size of our hands, thick-skinned avocado hybrids, plants we would harvest in each place and then leave behind for the next group that would pass through. Even afterward, in the shaky first years of something like a different world, we stayed cultivating those varietals, reassuringly hefty and bitter on the tongue. I never questioned where the other fruits had gone, whether memories of frivolous sweetness were trapped in the dense underground libraries of the seedkeepers.
I once asked you jokingly if all the other orchard farmers tasted like their fruits, too. For a moment I imagined fruit field orgies on summer nights, and the spirits that would roam among piles of moaning bodies, relishing the taste of sugary fruits that had been too tender for their lifetimes. You said yes about the orgies but no about the fruit taste—as far as you knew, you were the only one who carried proof of their orchard-tending deep within their skin. When I asked you why you thought this was, you went quiet for days. I was remorseful at first, begging you to speak, until I realized you were answering me a thousand different ways. I listened as deeply as I could to the lines you traced down my chest, the way you held me in the mornings, the things you released into the dishwater before washing it away.
You had begged for a scent that was all your own, that would stay with you no matter what was done to your body. You had buried yourself in a hole once for seven days and nights, asking the earth to cleanse the touch-memories that still lingered around you like an aura. You had poured water on the ground and asked for the blessing of a new skin. What came was not a new skin or a new scent, but this—a life of tending fruit whose only purpose was pleasure, a taste that lived in yours and every lover’s mouth. Late-night touches in the orchard, a ripe sweetness that could turn green and haughty at your will. I knew you had to leave before you did, felt the unspoken condition sliding down the roof of my mouth. Much had been taken, rearranged on the strength of your prayers and your ancestors’ bargains. You were alive today and you tasted of mangoes. A debt was owed.
The last night under the Alphonso tree, I stood trying to decipher constellations between the thick waxy leaves. You had planned to feed each of your loves a piece of your newest mango varietal as a goodbye gift. As you reached the tree where I was waiting, you held out a pearl-handled paring knife and a gleaming mango half. I squatted against the tree trunk as you stepped out of your sandals, your linen pants, the blue harvest-season shirt frayed at each elbow. As you lowered yourself onto the earth, I silently prayed for it to hold you well. I placed the mango midway down your back, turned so that the soft wet part was flat against your skin. I began carving off the peel, grazing you with the knife’s edge at regular intervals. Tucking the spiral of peel between your thighs, I started to cut the mango in long, paper-thin slices, letting the knife whisper patterns over your skin. I didn’t realize I was crying until I saw the tears pooling in the small of your back. You turned over and you were crying, too. “I’ll be back,” you said, trying to smile. “You’ll taste me, and you’ll know.”
I was never good at business, but I’ve tried for your sake. I apprenticed to a local bookkeeper, and now I spend hours each morning recording the mango market’s accounts after the last stall has packed up. I try to chat and flirt with the sellers the way you did, and I know they put up with my awkwardness because of you. There have been two new cultivars created in the orchard since you left. Each time I taste one, I imagine putting it in your mouth, watching a combination of assessment and delight spread across your face.
This morning, for the first time since you left, I woke up with the taste of mango in my mouth. It was a kind I’d never known before, rich and shot through with a sorrow that doubled me over in bed. I caught my breath and put a dish of rice and peas to warm in the oven. I sat on the porch and started writing to steady my mind, chewing through a bowl of fennel seeds to distract my yearning tongue. The pits I’ve tucked away behind my stomach stir uncertainly, raucous and ready to green.