by E.K. Ota
I was twenty-two when I first saw you at the cafe in the old part of town. It was one of my favorite places to eat and had a pleasant little patio, ensconced though it was in an alley between two tall brick buildings. There was a fig tree in one corner that provided shade from the midday sun. The tree’s branches were strung up with white Christmas lights which, when lit at night, gave the place a romantic atmosphere; a feeling akin, one could easily imagine, to a restaurant on the coastline of the Mediterranean where they serve tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves fresh from the countryside.
The patio was tiny and only about five small round tables could fit comfortably on the uneven bricks. I sat on the side that didn’t have the fig tree, along the little white fence that partitioned the patio off from the alleyway. Overhead, two large umbrellas, also strung with lights, veiled me in a swath of diaphanous shadow. You sat at the other end of the patio in a corner next to a few potted plants with long wispy leaves and a row of hollyhocks that filled the air with sweet, pungent nectar and the thrum of bees.
Though I had never seen a Peach Boy before, the instant I saw you, I knew you for what you were; your features were unmistakable and the stories I had heard about Peach Boys were numerous, for your existence is something everyone seems to know about but never mentions in polite conversation; instead, it is a topic reserved for intimate settings, like hot tubs or late night conversations with friends around the kitchen table, imparted with more than a little reverence, the same way a round of ghost stories will start up, shared one by one like communion wine.
Even without the stories, however, I think instinctively I would’ve known you were different – the same way you can feel the lick of sunshine when your eyes are closed and you pass from shade into light and back into shade again. Your cheeks, rubicund and lush, swelled heartily in a pleasant face that was smooth and flushed a slight pink, and your hair was finer than human hair, downy and luxurious, by no means sparse, the color of morning mist. Your eyes were big and as glossy as loquat seeds and you looked young, though from what I knew about Peach Boys, you could never tell how old one is from his appearance. At the time, you were about twenty-six, I believe, though with that first glimpse I could’ve easily mistaken you for not much older than a teenager. You had short, plumpish limbs and fingers that were graceful despite their stubbiness and which, at the moment, were tapping the table in a languid rolling motion that started at the pinky and ended on the thumb.
That day under the fig tree you looked sad, which seemed a strange expression for the gentle curves of your face, and I wanted more than anything to go over to you and get to know you better, but I was waiting for my then-boyfriend Jason to show up. Also, I felt shy about asking you personal questions, and so I let you be.
By the time Jason came, you had ordered a gyro and taken out a paperback book, and I spent the rest of my lunch wavering between two trains of thoughts – the conversation that I was having with Jason and the one I yearned to have with you. Did you remember your time in the peach? I wondered. What was your childhood like? Was it true that you could hear plants’ thoughts? Did you think of the months in colors or on a pinwheel? This last one was merely because I hoped to find some solidarity in the world, for this was how I thought of the months – both in colors and on a pinwheel – and I had yet to find someone who did as well. It was one of my favorite conversation starters.
When we left, you were still sitting under the fig tree, leisurely sipping a glass of iced tea and flipping through your book, alone and touchingly thoughtful.
That was Friday.
The next Monday, I returned to the cafe, hoping to see you there. I waited for over an hour, savoring a glass of lassi and a cup of lentil soup then ordering several rounds of pita and hummus and finally a chicken kabob in order to prolong the meal. At the table next to mine sat a dignified older couple dressed as if they had just come from a formal function. The man reclined easily in his chair, one arm draped over its back, the fingers of his other hand toying with the stem of a wine glass; the woman sat upright and prim, her heel-clad feet tucked side by side on the floor. Neither of them spoke, their gazes sliding past each other to rest on some distant object.
The afternoon dragged on and inevitably I was obliged to return to work. When I left, the couple still hadn’t spoken a word to each other and it seemed as if they would continue on in this state forever, constantly denying the other’s tidy existence, willing each other out of reality through the force of their minds alone.
Afternoons, I worked at one of the many antique shops around the circle, shops which, once the mainstay of the old town, have become anachronistic in this day and age. The antique stores with their bric-a-brac windows are gradually being phased out in favor of more posh restaurants and, next to shops like the new boutique cupcake parlor and the tea room’s window display, they seem shabby and filled with dust.
To keep up the historic feel, however, a new breed of faux antique shops have started to appear; places that have bird nests with bright blue robin eggs in ornate white cages on display in the window, and which sell artificially, yet tastefully, weathered furniture with floral designs that give off the impression of cracked paint, but are as smooth as a sheet of computer paper.
At the western side of the circle there is an old bank building with tall white columns and decorative side paneling. A coffee shop long ago found its home there and filled the old vaults with the rich scent of grounds and baked scones. The place I worked at was not one of the new fancy places, but a sad remnant of the past quietly biding out the end of its days in the shadow of the bank-turned-coffee shop. It was owned by my aunt and I had worked there occasionally in high school. I was grateful for the job and the extra money it brought in, but more than that, I was grateful for the time it gave me to relax and settle into life after college before I started working full time. It was easy enough, for hardly anyone came in, and I spent most of the time reading behind a dusty glass counter that glittered with estate jewelry and old silver hair brushes.
For the next week before work I headed over to the cafe with the hope that you were there. It wasn’t until Friday, though, when I was sitting under the fig tree reading that my efforts were rewarded. So engrossed was I that when you spoke I think I may have jerked in surprise.
Your eyes were kind and shone even in the green shadows and a bemused smile flickered across your face. “Do you come here often?” you asked me, with a voice that was soft and warm and brought to mind lamb’s ears and floured dough. I told you I did, saying that I saw you last Friday too. You nodded, your head bobbing gently in the breeze.
“I remember that,” you said in your soft, wilting voice. Today, again, you had a book in your hand, which, by the looks of it was the same as the last week’s, and which I now could see was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “You came here the other days this week too, no?”
Surprised, I asked you how you knew and you pointed at a window above us, saying that you lived in the apartment across the alley and had a good view of the patio but could only see people when they sat under the fig tree.
Our lunch together that day was serene and we floated idly in the gentle ease and pull of conversation. We arranged to meet again the next day and the day after that, and it always seemed that there was something for us to talk about. Our taste in books and movies and music couldn’t have been a more perfect match, and I found myself thinking about you constantly, though not in a romantic way – I was in a relationship you have to remember – and also not in the way I thought of my very best friends. It was something deeper than that. I didn’t know exactly how to describe it, nor did I not have much inclination to peer into its depths for fear that I would ruin it with the weight of a probing mind. I was content just to let it be.
It became a routine for us to meet during the weekdays before I went to work, if I wasn’t meeting Jason. Sometimes we went to the cafe and other times we changed it up a bit – sandwiches two doors down, omelets at the bakery, tacos from the little cart stationed in the park every other day; occasionally, when I worked mornings and had the afternoons free, we’d go for gelatos, and once or twice you cooked for me at your apartment across the alleyway.
The first time I went to your apartment I was surprised to see the walls were painted a cheerful blue, the furniture and upholstery were cream and white; I had expected you to have earth tones as your décor – green, maybe, even pink or peach – but you laughed at me when I brought it up.
“Pink?” you said, “Peach? Just because I was born from a peach doesn’t mean I like pastels. No, I’m much more at home with blue. The first thing I saw was the sky you know, and my mother’s face. That’s where my memory begins, with her peering at me nestled in the soft white flesh of the peach, a boy instead of a pit, the sky arcing endlessly above her. She was so confused…
“Pink,” you shook your head, “What a thought,” then you rummaged through a stack of CDs and we listened to Miles Davis for the rest of the afternoon.
The summer slid forward luxurious and golden and sweet.
By the end of August, Jason and I had broken up and you took me to see your family. I was surprised to learn that they lived in the neighborhood around my high school, and, what’s more, that your mother and father were not only elderly (you were only in your mid-twenties), but they were also Hispanic – not that this was a problem or anything. It’s just, and perhaps this is wrong of me, I couldn’t imagine you claiming any sort of ethnicity at all. Even “Peach Boy” seemed to be more and more an artificial label that slipped away under your limpid gaze.
“The tree that bears a Peach Boy,” you explained to me once. “Grows in less than a month, and produces a single peach that is much larger than a normal peach, and more luminous.”
You told me this, actually, one of the days that we were in your apartment before I even met your parents. We had just finished our lunch and were staring at the people dining on the patio, the sunlight tarrying in fat golden medallions on their plates, when we started to talk about your life as a young boy.
You told me you had a difficult childhood and though you had been incredibly fortunate in your choice of family, there was no corresponding luck in friendships; thus, middle school and high school, hard enough for the average teenager, had been even more of an ordeal for you and you found yourself always alone, partly because you had the mentality of a mature man trapped in a boy’s body and partly because people could always sense there was something amiss about you as I had upon our first meeting, though often others were not as curious as I had been, or if they were, it was not with an appreciation of your differences but with resentment.
Once, you told me, some classmates of yours had snuck to your house during the night and thrown rotten vegetables and fruit at the front door, scattered refuse across the lawn – “As if this was the version of toilet papering suitable for a Peach Boy,” you said – or as if you were an incompetent actor on the stage they wished to push out of the limelight.
In the end, however, you suffered not so much for yourself, but from the toll it took on your parents. So late in their life, it was hard for them to comprehend the ire that was thrown at their sweet little boy, a little different, yes, but of the purest heart they had ever known.
I still pass your parents’ little pink house occasionally on the way to the supermarket, and when I do, I am reminded of the first time you took me to visit them.
The front yard is still hedged in by a chain link fence, but the orange trees and chickens are no longer there; the front porch has started to look a little worn lately, and the paint is peeling in jagged strips. I’m not sure exactly how it was before, but now the screen door is fortified by black lattice bars, and the windows, too, have bars over them; behind, lace curtains sweep modestly over the glass.
When you first took me inside, I remember how the house smelled like tortillas and the candied nuts they sell in wax packets at the market. Your mother was busy cooking up tamales and rice and beans like a little wizened fairy. She wore a crisp white apron over a blue dress and stood on tip-toe in order to stir the pots. Your father was outside in the garden busily watering rows of vegetables and fruit trees. Cucumbers, radishes, chilies hanging red and hot on the vine; corn still swaddled in green leaves, spouting silk streamers from their tops; lettuce, apples, grapefruit, lemons: it was the most prodigious garden I had ever seen and heavy with the scent of growth and renewal, the dew-laden earth.
After all these years, this is what I remember most: the way we left the busy street to pass through the cool of the house into the garden’s contained effusion, where tomatoes and squash peeped shyly between leaves glossy with mist and the dirt furrowed into fudge-colored mounds, damp and soft and rich. In the midst of this stupendous offering, the grey-hatted head of your father moved amongst the furrows, a sentinel armed with a hose and shears to protect the mounds of wealth before us. I could easily tell that it was his pride and glory, this garden, and the way that it flourished was evidence of his great ability – indeed his need – to nurture.
“I read an article the other day about a man in Russia who had a tree growing in his chest,” I remember saying as we watched your dad shuffle around the garden.
“Oh?” you replied.
“He went in for an operation because they thought he might have cancer and when the doctor opened up his chest, they found a five-centimeter fir tree rooted in his lungs.”
“Really.” You smiled: “Am I supposed to be surprised?”
I laughed. “A tree growing in a man. A boy growing from a tree. Nature is full of surprises.” The wet soil rose up, pungent and sweet, curtaining off the small plot of land from the desiccated, exhaust-infused air of the street. “You must miss this when you are in your apartment.”
I thought of the tiny industrial space you had made into your home – the walls, the floor, the windows, all hard, smooth and unyielding. Your father’s pale hat floated on the slippery surface of your pupils like a lily pad. You didn’t say anything in response, but the naked yearning in your eyes made me feel as if I had stumbled upon some intensely private and vulnerable part of you and I had to look away; it was such that I wondered what had made you move into an apartment in the first place, when you so obviously desired fields and orchards and gardens.
After dinner, you showed me a small tree in the corner, and I knew without you saying a word that it was your tree, where the first tentative roots of your existence had anchored itself into the earth and declared this place your home. Around its base someone had placed a ring of stones and violets. “Did it bear any other fruit after you were born?” I asked. The tree, though healthy, showed no sign of budding fruit even though it was the right time of year.
“No, it only bears fruit once and that’s it.”
As we stared at the tree, the shadows started to lengthen and fill with the scent of dinner lingering in the air, and I was struck suddenly with a thought: “What about you? Will you be able to have children? Will they be born from trees as well?”
You looked at me then, a smile twitching at the corners of your mouth.
“Yes, we can have children and, no, they will not be born from trees. Should I have a child with a normal human woman it will be born the normal human way, knitted from flesh and blood and not earth and sunlight.”
I blushed. “I’m sorry. I guess that was a stupid question.”
We stood side by side quietly for a few minutes.
“So then, if you don’t mind me asking, where do Peach Boys come from?”
You paused a moment and your gaze flicked to the sky. The silence seeped between us, shivered only by the melancholy sound of cars rushing past the other side of the fence.
“Who knows?” you said finally. “Does it really matter?”
It was the closest to irritated I had ever heard you sound.
Once the summer ended, I moved out of my parent’s house. I found a nice apartment in a shady complex with a pond and a fake stream, and though I got along with my parents well enough, I enjoyed having a space that was mine and mine alone.
As the months got busier, I could steal less time away to spend with you, but when I could, I’d visit you at the bakery, the place where you had started working every day from four-thirty in the morning to five in the evening, and I’d sit at a corner table next to the window and the potted orchid with a dusty purple ribbon tied smartly around its stem. I ate bread pudding or cream buns and watched you move about in the back through the space above the espresso machine behind the cashier. Your white baker’s uniform was rolled to your elbows and your bright fuzzy hair was covered with black netting. It shook slightly as you rolled dough over a flour-covered table.
One day during your break, you came over and sat next to me. It was in the afternoon and so only a group of three women dawdling in conversation over empty coffee cups and another man, whom you called Mr. French Toast, sat at the tables beside us. You named him thus because he came in almost every afternoon and in a thick Slavic accent ordered an espresso with two shots and a plate of French toast. It was hard to tell his age, though I don’t think he could’ve been past thirty. He wore brown slacks and a tweed coat and had fluffy hair that would soon disappear with middle age. His face was long and gaunt and next to him, you looked fine and healthy and glowing.
“The first day I saw you, when you were sitting under the fig tree reading Anna Karenina, what were you thinking about?” I asked when you sat down.
“The pretty girl sitting across the patio from me, waiting for someone I hoped wouldn’t be her boyfriend.”
I tried to refrain from rolling my eyes.
“What?” you said and took the cream bun from my plate. “You have no idea how much courage it takes for a guy, especially a guy like me, who was born from a peach for heaven’s sake. Do you know how many times the word ‘fruitcake’ was thrown around at me in high school? Really…”
I raised my eyebrows. You chuckled, passing your hand over your face. From beneath your fingers your mouth looked sad.
“But if you really want to know,” you said, your voice growing quiet, “It had to do with gardens.”
“Oh. Moving where?”
“Somewhere where agriculture is big. I figured that agriculture would be up my alley. I mean, my background’s perfect for it, don’t you think?” You looked at me as if expecting me to nod enthusiastically, but for the moment, I was too surprised to respond; you had never mentioned the possibility of moving before, and it had never crossed my mind even though I had often thought the small confines of your apartment didn’t suit you.
“So why didn’t you move? Or, do you still plan on moving?” I asked as you toyed with the water glass on the table, moving it around so that the condensation on the bottom made a smeary circle on the tabletop.
“Not at the moment.” You paused. “So when do I get to meet your sister? And the rest of your family?” you said when the silence stretched between us.
I hesitated in responding. Then I told you that perhaps you could meet them soon, at the next family gathering, which happened to be my birthday, because I was trying to be noncommittal as you could probably tell.
At that moment you said something more, but I don’t remember what your words were, because I became distracted by Mr. French Toast sitting a few tables down. The man kept stealing glances at us, not because of what you were saying, but because, no doubt, it was rare for the man to have seen a real live Peach Boy whose hand at that moment kept brushing lightly against mine in a gesture graceful with intimacy.
I became conscious of our proximity, then, and the way you had drawn in close to me, so close that I could smell the sugar in your breath and see the heat move in your eyes like molasses. From the back of my neck and all the way downwards I could feel a wave of warmth roll over me before it recoiled back and on upwards to my cheeks.
The man kept staring at us. It was as if you were a statue that had suddenly started to move and talk, or had skin that glittered like sequins, or some other preposterous abnormality that would strike wonder – or, just as easily, fear – in the heart of the casual observer, and for a brief, terrible moment, I could sense what would happen: the indignation that would meet us, the cold stares and suspicion from both strangers and family alike that would challenge your exoticism should things go so far.
I withdrew my hand.
It was a small gesture, one I’m sure a less intuitive person would have overlooked, but the moment I slipped my hand away from yours, so close had our bond become that I could tell you knew.
The words you had been saying dried up and curled into the dust floating in the slanting sunlight, and I watched your mouth stutter to a slow stop and then finally close. Your fingertips rested lightly on the table as if it was cellophane and if you pressed too hard, it would bend and warp beneath your hand.
“Well,” you said after a couple seconds, “I better get back to work.”
I nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, sure, come over to my apartment for dinner,” you said and gave me your usual smile.
After that, you asked only once more when you could meet my family, and I told you maybe at Thanksgiving when everyone was home again. But when it was decided that we’d be going to a relative’s house in Oregon, Thanksgiving passed without you and you stopped asking your questions.
As the seasons came and went, you went through a noticeable change. With the coming of winter you grew paler and your eyes looked harder and stone-like, and when it was full on January, your skin became wrinkled and papery – shriveled I thought to myself – and every part of you seemed to grow thinner; even your hair, which had turned a chalky white that matched the brittleness of your smile. He changes with the seasons I realized one particularly dreary winter day when it was raining and I looked out the window at the maple trees. They had lost their leaves and their forlorn branches silhouetted against the sky matched your grey pallor. Of all the things I had heard about Peach Boys, no one had told me to expect this; and I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any other secrets you kept hidden.
In May I met Kent. At the time, he was a graduate student at the university studying film and he gave me flowers and love notes and cupcakes from the fancy cupcake place.
After we started dating, I felt the need to distance myself from you, so that I wouldn’t hurt Kent’s feelings and because it seemed the proper thing to do. We still saw each other and Kent was well aware of our friendship, but, as I’m sure you sensed, our relationship was no longer the same. Our conversations were reduced to superficial matters – how is work? How’s Kent doing? Any plans for the weekend? – until the few times when I tried to probe the depths of your feelings like the old days, you would no longer yield your thoughts to me. You closed yourself off, dug yourself into the routine of pleasant inquiry, slowly disappearing behind the wall that I’d built, until one day you disappeared. Literally.
When I discovered that you no longer worked at the bakery, I checked your apartment, only to find the door locked and the windows drawn. The landlord said that you had left without a word; he didn’t know where.
At first I couldn’t believe you were gone. I couldn’t believe that you would leave without warning or without any effort to say goodbye, and so I waited for you to come back. During that time I visited your apartment constantly, sometimes even twice a day or more and every time I called I got your answering machine. I waited and I hoped until it was impossible to ignore the fact that you had in fact left me, abandoned me without a word, and I let anger surge into the vacuum created by your departure.
There was a period when I refused to even mention you and, much to my shame now, I said that Peach Boys were inconsiderate, unreliable, and that I would never trust one of them again. But eventually, after your absence and your silence persisted, even this resentment simmered away until all that was left was a sadness which I could share with no one, as I had slandered you so terribly when you left; even then I think I knew I would never have the same sort of friendship with anyone again. After I realized you had gone for good I think I may have even cried a little. More than a little.
But that may just be sentimentality speaking. In truth, even though I missed you terribly, underneath my fluctuating displays of emotion I was conscious and a little scared of the fact that I wasn’t as remorseful as I knew I should have been, that it was all a display of the proper feelings that I thought I was supposed to be going through, rather than what I really felt. In truth, it was a relief to be with Kent and to immerse myself in work.
It’s been 7 years now since I last saw you. Kent and I married and started a family; we have a little girl who is in kindergarten and another baby on the way. Though I’ve given up my job, Kent has given me all I’ve asked for and more – a beautiful family, stability, comfort. I am happy; there’s no reason why I wouldn’t be.
After you left, I must confess that I tried your parent’s house countless times as a last resort, but they never seemed to be home and gradually my visits became more and more infrequent until they stopped altogether. I came to expect the silence that answered my knocks – maybe even accept it a little – and knocking on your door became a ritual more than anything else. So it was a surprise to me, naturally, when I went yesterday and finally got a response.
It’s true that it’s been several years since I last went to your parents’ house with the intention of finding you, though I pass by it often, but it would be a lie to say that just yesterday I had the sudden urge to see you again, to hear your soft, reassuring voice and to see your smile. This was an action that had slowly been taking form in my mind for quite some time, ever since I saw your face for a fleeting moment as I was carrying a bag of groceries in the market’s parking lot. It turned out not to be you, of course, but someone who could’ve been you – who had all the features of a Peach Boy puckered with age. Nevertheless, he aroused a vision of us as we used to be with an intensity that astonished me after all these years, refreshing my old regrets and bringing new doubts, ultimately leading me once more to your parent’s doorstep, heart stuttering with electricity as I listened to the sound of footsteps and the click of the door being unlocked.
It was a stranger who answered. A woman I didn’t know and a dark-eyed, soft-haired child clinging to her pant leg. Somehow – perhaps it was the telling swell of my stomach or the look of longing I cast over her shoulder – I convinced her to let me into her backyard, but I shouldn’t have bothered.
The garden was gone. A smooth lawn and a slab of patio with chairs and a fire pit had replaced it. There was no sign of the fruit or vegetables that had once grown in such profusion, and, worst of all, the little peach tree in the western corner with its ring of stones, its spray of violets, had been uprooted and replaced with grass. There, with the woman watching me from the doorway and all trace of you expunged by the lawn spread at my feet like a banner, I wondered if you and all the time I had spent with you had been a dream, and I realized I never asked you what would happen if your tree was uprooted.
But I guess it doesn’t matter now; it’s too late, and even if I see another Peach Boy – and I have seen a few since you left – I don’t think I’ll ever ask.
“Thank you,” I told the woman, “Thank you. This meant a lot to me.”
She closed the door.
The days go by slowly, the nights even slower. When I got back home Natalie asked me where I had been for so long. Sometimes when I look into her large, bright eyes, I get the feeling that she is peering straight into my soul.
In the bedroom my husband breathes softly in sleep and from Natalie’s room comes the restless sound of bed sheets stirring. I shiver; the dawn is cold. The scent of the morning mist has descended upon the treetops and a pale blue gathers on the distant horizon. Somewhere out there, I like to imagine, you are sleeping in blue-painted rooms, reading books under fig trees, running soil through your hands, feeling the pulse of leaves beneath your palm; and in the fertile land of some luscious valley you have found, at last, a garden to call your home.
In the meantime, my womb grows plump and sweet, and far away, in another region of my body, your memory grows. It is a dark and feathery shadow lodged in my flesh, a five-centimeter peach tree: a secret swelling in dense thickets of blood and light.