Nonfiction | Migrations

The Lemons of Pompeii

“We packed everything she owned into her 1995 golden Volvo station wagon and quietly departed a day behind schedule.”

There’s a lemon tree on my block. It’s wedged between a slatted double shotgun and an unmoving pickup. Its golden fruit collects in such dense clumps that one would think it had mistaken itself for a banana tree.

Another hides around the corner. Its branches peek out from atop a coral rampart. Adjacent, a creole mansion casts a triangular shadow across its width. Those lemons that grow in the sun shine with mirth. Those tucked under the house’s umbra remain green and immature.

And if you walk up Spain Street, a final pair of trees touch branches like leisurely lovers. One is lanky, the other short. Both are dappled with fruit that illuminates their foliage like stars across a night sky.

One evening, loitering along Spain, I came across the pair of lover trees. The moon was low in the sky and, over the past month, the lemons had turned from chartreuse to hornet yellow, begging to be plucked.

Wrap your fingers around a lemon’s firm, ellipsoid body, and you can pull it from the tree effortlessly. Bring its apical nipple to your nose and it’s odorless. But ferry it home, slice it in two and the scent will wake the dead.

Suddenly, as if possessed, I hopped into the air and snatched one of the orbs. Falling back to earth with the fruit in my hand, I felt a puerile delight.

On the walk home, I noticed a thorn had pricked my finger. A drop of blood swelled to the size of a scarlet ladybug, glowing under the streetlights. It scuttled down my wrist and across the lemon’s rind painlessly.

At the apartment, Anna lay on the sofa hacking away at Lucas Samaras’s digital catalogue raisonne. With delight, I showed her my bounty. Her response was swift. “Our neighbors already brought us some,” she said, pointing to two lime-green lemons sitting atop the counter.

Almost two months ago, Anna and I drove from New York City to New Orleans. We packed everything she owned into her 1995 golden Volvo station wagon and quietly departed a day behind schedule. Stopping at the battlefields of Gettysburg we watched a hawk fly across the sunset. We smoked in unnamed Memphis bars and woke to the sound of her uncle playing banjo in the hinterlands of Arkansas.

For those few days, we were outside of time and in a space of our own. We adopted muddled Southern accents that came out at inappropriate times. We patented a road-kill-identification game—the guerdon, a guilt-free shoulder punch. One hungover shot across Mississippi, Anna revealed her closeted emetophobia. The wagon jostled our stomachs and lifted our spirits.

Arriving in New Orleans with only a few friends, we huddled together for protection. Perpetual proximity turned to bickering. After ten years, Anna knows the exact tone to send my body into paralysis. My silent withdrawals cause her a hurricane of anxiety. Our manicured expectations no longer fit our reality and—in this new city—everything had turned bitter.

In the living room, Anna typed antagonistically as I moved into the open kitchen. I cut my lemon in two, squeezed its juice into a glass and over it poured a prolonged double-shot of gin. I tried to pick out the seeds with a spoon, but the shards of tiny and broken shrapnel evaded rescue. I retreated into my room quietly.

The origin of the lemon is vehemently debated. Some believe that the first lemons were cultivated in the Deccan Plateau of Central India. Others claim that crusaders found them in Palestine. Pre-Christian mosaics from North Africa depict what could be lemon trees, but researchers are unsure. The Arab scholar Qustus al-Rumi unequivocally describes them in his tenth-century treatise on farming, considering them an ornamental fruit.

Lemons migrated to Europe through Italy. They were first husbanded in Genoa and anthropologists would later find their remains in the ruins of Pompeii. Their popularity spread quickly throughout the continent. Christopher Columbus considered them essential cargo—as tough and adaptable plants—and ferried them to the Americas.

As a friend would explain, Meyer lemons are the most common variety in Louisiana. Part mandarin orange, they’re more cylindrical than true lemons. Their skin releases the spicy smell of bergamot when broken. And though less bitter than other varieties, they’re not as commonly used in cooking because of their seedy insides.

New York City wasn’t a place abundant with free-growing fruit. Yet it seemed an inevitable move after graduating from Chicago with a dual degree in Russian literature and continental philosophy. Not long after, I was offered a doctoral fellowship in the city and, with a sapheaded optimism, I accepted.

As the years progressed, my apartments grew smaller and the city farther away. My modest university stipend was stretched thin, and a doctorate in 20th century continental theory and Soviet literature offered limited prospects. So I alighted to the enigmatic South.

New Orleans, however, presented problems of its own—one in particular that Anna liked to articulate. Even living hand to mouth, buying booze with meager checks from writing articles, we were gentrifiers. Those who had lived in New Orleans for a few years, maybe even several, saw us as a blight. We had nothing to offer save pockets to be emptied.

Ignoring this ubiquitous opinion was myopic. Obsessing over it was corrosive. The winter was coming and we were not going back. We cleaned the cat shit out of the abandoned planter, scrubbed the mold from the bathroom and dug in, jaws-clenched. We could do little more than to weather the chill.

When I was young I hated the taste of lemons. It wasn’t the acidity. Grapefruits—sliced into pyramidal sections—were a gift. But I thought lemons loud and overpowering. Any food they touched was rendered singular and monotonous.

It’s strange what becomes part of your personal narrative. For years, I avoided lemons. I dodged maternal citrus teas, tossed fresh-scooped sorbets to the curb and, when living in Florence, turned down Limoncello as a habitude. I kept away from the flavor for so long that I forgot what it tasted like. And that was fine.

I didn’t try lemon again for years, until an ex decided to make her late mother’s carrot salad. I don’t remember exactly what was in it: grated carrots, parsley, mustard and lemon juice. I’m not a monster. I let her fill up my plate.

To my surprise, it was delicious. The lemon wasn’t tedious at all. Its bitterness complimented the sweetness of the carrots perfectly. Albeit not the discovery of the Americas, she had unearthed something new in a landscape I thought familiar.   

Back in New Orleans, Anna and I were invited to a friend’s for dinner. There would be a crack ham, whatever that was, and we were instructed to bring dessert. Anna suggested lemon bars. “We could pick the lemons from the trees,” she added. “No one will mind.” But inspecting our local trees, all the low-hanging fruit had been plucked. The thorny branches stared down at me provocatively.

After an unsuccessful trip to the market, Anna stopped her car under the pair of lemon trees. “I have an idea,” she said, opening the sunroof. She chortled as I wormed my way through the opening onto the top of the car. From the mobile summit, I reached into the high branches culling the loftier fruit that would be left to rot. Dropping them through the sunroof, she caught them, one after the other, in a Pelican Bomb tote.

How many did we need? Three or four would do. I hopped down through the roof and we sped off before the car behind had time to beep.

Looking back, as one should never do, I stared at the trees. How many years had they grown in parallel? Had one had to wait patiently for the other to be sown? And how long it had taken for their branches to grow together so their leaves could gently touch? My plaintive thoughts disappeared with the sight of the trees.

The lemon bars turned out to be mediocre—too much zest. But the ham was delicious. We drank wine and talked about the places where we had lived and places we wanted to go. Not even thirty years and I had lived so many lives. We called ourselves a generation of migrants. And chewing on one of the gelatinous bars, I wondered how many more times I would get to see the lemon trees in bloom.