Suszynski: I offer you this orange |

Suszynski: I offer you this orange

Last Sunday, I had my friends over for our first gathering in six months.

I love cooking for my friends. I take the whole day to prepare, slowly, with the doors flung open. Sunday was nice enough in the morning to go for a walk, drive to the grocery store, then start marinading the main course. I chose one recipe from an Ottolenghi recipe book and another from a French soiree recipe book.

At the grocery store, I was immediately attracted to the oranges — so many types. Satsuma mandarins with the dark green leaves still attached, the blood oranges, like a geode waiting to be cracked, and those somewhat homely navel oranges that are always so juicy. I got them all.

I have a soft spot for oranges. I love their burst of color, promise of tart sweetness and the fact that they’re naturally prepackaged. When I returned home, I couldn’t help myself and immediately sliced into the blood orange. The inside was a crystalline mélange of deep reds — the cell walls like the veins on the inside of the wrist.

There is this special poem by Mary Ruefle called “Kiss of the Sun,” in which she meditates on an orange and the end of the world. It begins: “If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something / among people, then let this be prearranged now, / between us, while we are still peoples: that / at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry / (and wheat and evil and insects and love), / when the entire human race gathers in the flesh, / reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold / and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge / of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you … ”

When I was in college, I made a friend because of an orange. I was taking Introduction to Poetry, which was a required class for literature majors. It was taught by a kind but incredibly boring professor. He certainly liked poetry, but his droll was enough to put me to sleep. Since our classes ran for three hours at a time, I often fought the urge to close my eyes. During one of our breaks, the student next to me made a small scratch in the top of an orange and methodically pulled back the skin. As soon as he tore a half into sections, I finally felt awake. I could smell the citrus in the stale air of the classroom, and I picked up my head in time to notice the clouds had parted outside and there were birds in the tree by the window.

“That smells really good,” I told him, then left to walk around outside.

After I returned, he had left me two sections of his orange on my notebook. A prepackaged offering.

In the afternoon, I started preparing the marinade. I cut into the oranges and let the juice run down the cutting board and onto the counter. I threw the oranges in with the chicken, quartered fennel bulbs, painstakingly removed thyme leaves from their thin arms, and tipped over Sambuca into the bowl. Those smells, the anise and the citrus bite made the kitchen brighter. It had been a while since I held that posture, with the stereo turned up, waiting for my friends and the oven to reach temperature.

The poem continues with a description of the orange: “reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected / by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which / does not at this time seem like such a wild guess, / and though there will be no poetry between us then, / at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas … ”

I love this poem because Ruefle offers her readers an orange, as did my friend to me all those years ago in college. And there I was again on Sunday, waiting to take the chicken from the oven wearing the scent of that perfect fruit. I still have yet to pin down what Ruefle means by poetry as “a sign of something among people.” Some days I believe her to be talking of the residue we leave on each other as occupants of the same world — the kind that lets you know there are people who care about you. When you peel an orange, some of the scent stays on your fingertips: the textured kiss of the sun in your palm.

The poem ends: “I hope you will take it, and remember on earth / I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw, / and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd / or anything else so that I am of it, / I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.”

This is one of those poems in which meaning shifts with the wind, but I am certain of how I feel in the end: uplifted, just like an orange ascending into the sky like the sun. Like an offering of two citrusy sections left on my notebook, and of me accepting them, a friendship to continue until the ends of time. If poetry is a sign of something among people, then let these words be the residue.

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