Sunday, November 03, 2013

This Hallowed Orange

By Michael F. Mercurio

Trevor Malthow hated going to the supermarket.  The refrigerator sitting at home in his studio apartment which consisted of little more than a box of baking soda and an ice cube tray was a testament to that fact.  His complete lack of even the most basic sundry items was the only event that ever prompted him to go.

It was something about being in crowded buildings.  Then again, open spaces bothered him too.  Either scenario was apt to trigger an episode which his logical mind simply had no explanation for.  He would become dizzy.  He would feel short of breath.  His heart would race.
He had seen numerous doctors about the condition, and the majority of them offered him the same diagnosis – that he had an anxiety disorder.  There was that one other “specialist” who said otherwise, but he came off as a total quack to Trevor.  He had sounded more like some kind of new age guru rather than a practitioner of medicine.  So, by rule of numbers and probability, Trevor was resigned to start taking medication.  It had been a month, but his condition hadn’t changed.

And thus, here he was, in a supermarket, inspecting various grapefruit as he desperately tried to ignore the spinning sensation he exhibited in the produce section.  A woman bagging oranges next to him smiled at him, which only made him more nervous - which of course made him dizzier.  He vaguely remembered one of the doctors mentioning social angst to be a possible trigger.  Then he wondered if he would still have been affected by the smiling girl had the doctor not mentioned it.
Actually, he probably would have.  Dating had never been much of an option in his life.  He was barely making it as a sculptor as he hadn’t had many orders lately.  His tiny, box-like apartment in the upper west side of Boston, cluttered with newspaper, bits of unused clay, and an ancient kiln that most likely violated his building’s health code – would that his building followed such codes anyway - was sure to drive away any potential prospects.  His sanctuary from the world definitely lacked a woman’s touch, and would surely remain that way if the roaches had any say in the matter.

And yet the woman bagging oranges continued to smile at him.  Said smile turned into a furrowed show of concern however, when Trevor appeared he was having some difficulty standing.  Rather than silently excusing herself and quickly walking away like most pretty girls would have when a random stranger standing a few feet next to them begins to exhibit signs of potential drug use, she addressed him by putting a steady hand on his shoulder.
“Are you alright?”

Embarrassed, he stammered in reply.  “Y-yes, I’ll be okay.  Sorry.  I um…I know I must sound pretty silly, but I just sort of get like this in super markets sometimes.”
She arched her eyebrows in question.

“It’s um…well, I don’t really know.  Maybe it’s the lighting or something, but I get sort of dizzy.  My doctors say it’s an anxiety thing.”  Before he even finished the sentence, he mentally chastised himself for that.  Why the hell would he mention doctors to a random stranger in a supermarket?  As if he wasn’t weird enough in public.  Now he had to list his mental deficiencies to a woman shopping for oranges.  In mid abasement, he also wondered if he should add that the oranges she was bagging was also freaking him out for no particular reason.  Something about the oranges was setting him off more than the supermarket itself.  Should he have mentioned that as well?  And why the oranges in particular?  Why not his own grapefruit that he himself was bagging?  Perhaps he should have interrogated her about it.  That was sure to go over well – a stranger you just met ranting about your oranges.
The logical part of his brain screamed at him to stop.  It also yelled, “Stop staring at her, you basket-cased freak,” which in turn led him to look at his feet instead.

And yet she still didn’t run away in fear for her life.  Her hand was still on his shoulder, and she nodded almost in understanding.  That freaked him out too, but in more of an embarrassing way, laced with a touch of unwanted and unwarranted heart-flutter.
“It’s okay,” she reassured him.  “I think I get it.”

Huh?  He blinked in confusion.  “You…you do?”
“Yes, I think I do.”

“Well, um…that certainly makes one of us then,” he forcibly chuckled, which somehow lightened the atmosphere a little.
But then she inquired, “It was the oranges, wasn’t it?”

His atmosphere did a complete 180 and was now in the negatives, with the surrealism of the question now threatening to invade what little sanity his fragile mind clung to.
“W-what did you say?”

“The oranges I was bagging.  They made you nervous, right?”
She asked it innocently enough.  She took her hand away and inspected one in her bag.  How does a person answer a question like that?  How do you tell a random girl you just met that you’re scared of oranges?  How do you explain to her the oranges remind you of something no sane person should be terrified of?  And how long would it be until that fear spreads to your grapefruit?  Or your apples?  Or any and all remaining produce you once favored?

She held an orange in her hand, looking down at it, pondering.  “You…mentioned something about doctors?”
Trevor shifted uncomfortably, desperately wanting to leave the store.  He was glad that, at least, there was no one else shopping for produce at that particular table.  Although he did jump nearly an inch off the ground when another woman came up and loudly tore a plastic bag from its stand.  Why the hell couldn’t she use the bags at her own table?  Were they out?  He looked at the adjacent produce stands, confirming that every one of them had a full roll of plastic.  What in blazes did that woman need with “their” roll then?  Was she eavesdropping?  Was she judging whether or not she should call the cops on this strange man who was clearly harassing the pretty girl who was bagging oranges - shaking her down for money so he could get his next high?

Cut it out…his brain warned him again, raising an imaginary hand to strike him with should the need arise.  He cowered in fear of it and behaved.
“Um…what?  Oh yes.  Doctors.  Like I said, um…they seem to think I have anxiety.  I don’t do so well in public settings.  Which…uh…is why I kind of come off like a weirdo right now.”  He rapidly added “Which I’m really sorry about by the way!  Normally by now someone like you would have run away in terror.  I know I would!”  He then began to laugh.  He was laughing way too loud.

Tone it down, his brain with the raised hand firmly told him through gritted teeth.  He then pictured a brain with teeth, and that image frightened him as well.
She responded with an uncertainty not pertaining to his aberrant social behavior.  “But…the oranges in particular?”

He laughed nervously again, but at a more calculated and controlled volume than before.  “Y-yes…I know it’s completely ridiculous.  You must think I’m a total nutter.”
“Well…no.  Not exactly.  I mean I get why it should be a little strange, but…” she trailed off, looking at the orange in her hand.

After a few silent moments, with Trevor shifting uncomfortably, she finally continued.  “Listen.  I want to show you something.  I know what I’m going to do is weird, but I’d like you to tell me if it means anything to you.”
Something in the back of his mind was pounding in fear – fear that he was losing his grip on reality.  There was absolutely no possible way she could do what he thought she was about to do.  The odds were insurmountable – too coincidental.  They-

She reached into her purse in the seat of her shopping cart, and took out a nail file.  Then, discretely, she began to cut away a piece of the skin, leaving a large, uncovered patch in the middle of the fruit.  She then held the damaged sphere up to him.
“Do you…recognize this?”

The room began to spin frantically.  For a moment, he had no idea where he was.  Panic was crashing against his chest and he had a great deal of difficulty breathing.  His mind flashed back to the quack - the one doctor out of the five that he had been to.
The one that told him he wasn’t crazy.

“It’s very common, Trevor.  More common than they would like you to believe.”
“’They’ doctor?  Um…no offense, but that sort of sounds like something someone like me would say.”

“Trevor, what you need to understand, first and foremost, is that there is nothing wrong with you – not chemically, and not mentally.  What you are experiencing is…well…people like us call it a ‘sensitivity.’  What you are feeling is actually perfectly normal, and should in fact, be expected.  But the social norms of today demand that the status quo should be kept forcefully intact at all times.  Thus, we are given labels that write us off as being neurologically unbalanced.  What you are exhibiting however, is not an imbalance of any kind.  In this case, it is quite literally the rest of the world that is unbalanced.”
Trevor retained only a segment of that.  “Wait…so…you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with me?  Because the other doctors…they-“

“Trevor,” he interrupted, “most doctors do not hold the sensitivity that you and I do.  Unfortunately, they are unwittingly part of a system that maintains business as usual.  As someone who knows what it is you’re actually sensing, I’m telling you, no – it’s not you.  You are fine.”
He continued, “I’m going to show you something.”  He reached into his desk drawer, and took from his bagged lunch an orange.  Holding it up to Trevor, he continued.  “Okay.  Let us say this orange represents our planet.”

“O-…okay…”  Why was this therapist talking about planets and equating them to fruit?  Should Trevor have also equated his therapist to a fruit?
“Now.  As you no doubt already know, the planet is always spinning.”  He turned the orange around and around in his hand to demonstrate the obvious.  “The gravitational force of the sun, combined with that of our  system’s other planets and moons,” he said with the orange revolving around his fist as though his fist was the center of the solar system, ”can be expressed in a mathematical formula.  This formula is a constant.  Never changing.  Are you with me so far?”

Trevor stammered.  “Y-yes…but um…doctor?  What does this have to do with psychiatry?”
“It has nothing to do with psychiatry.  That’s what I’m trying to get at, if you’ll let me.”  He put the orange down on his desk.  He then reached back into his drawer and took out a paring knife.  Trevor vaguely wondered if he was going to stab him with it for interrupting his lecture.  Instead, he began to make an incision, and cut a small section from the skin of the orange.  After a chunk had been removed, he put the knife down, and held the fruit up to Trevor once again.

“Okay.  What do you suppose happens now?”

“Well, that mathematical formula that I mentioned?  I said it was a constant, remember?  But look at the orange.  Something’s changed.”
“You mean where you cut it?”

“Yes.  What do you think happens to the math behind it though?”
“I’m not sure what you-“

He placed the fruit on his desk, and made it spin.  Within moments, it spun off the desk, rolling onto the floor.
Both of them remained quiet for awhile.  Trevor was baffled at what any of this had to do with anything, as intriguing as the therapist’s demonstration was.  He stared at the orange on the floor as the doctor continued.

“What I am trying to impress upon you is that what you are feeling is a direct result of that.”  He pointed to the orange.  He went on.  “We have had some very serious, man-made environmental issues over the last few years.  A lot of it has to do with global warming emissions, but there’s another aspect many people have failed to consider.” 
He paused, then continued.

“We have been drilling.  For a long time.  Very long.  We poke holes in the ground, trying to get at those precious fossil fuels.  But it’s more than just the fuels themselves that are dangerous.  Sure, a bit of carving here and there wouldn’t be nearly enough to affect the gravity formula.  But massive drilling?  For almost two hundred years?”  He lowered his voice, looking directly at Trevor.  “What do you suppose happens to the mathematical equation when just one of those numbers is changed?”
“Um…what number?”

“In this case, it’s the mass of the earth itself.  Our mass is lower now.”
“So…that changes the equation or whatever?”

“If the equation defines our planet’s orbit, and the equation is changed…what do you suppose happens then?”
“I guess our orbit would change too then, right?”

The doctor motioned to the stray orange on the floor.
“Wait, are you saying we’re spinning out of control?”

“I am.  And what’s more, you’re actually feeling it.  That is why you’re scared all the time.  And why you have your dizzy spells.  You - and a large percentage of others who either don’t come forward about their symptoms to anyone, or are ‘treated’ and swept under the carpet of ‘disorder’ – are feeling the physical prelude to our planet’s eventual destruction.”
Trevor couldn’t believe his ears.  He was dumfounded.  Clearly, this guy had had one too many nut jobs in his office, and they finally started to rub off onto him.  Maybe his last weirdo was an ex-physics professor who went on a mass shooting spree after discovering life on Earth was pointless and mathematically redundant.

“Um…okay.  Doctor.  No offense, but uh…I came here because of anxiety.  The pills I’m taking haven’t been working, and I was hoping you would write me a different prescription or something.  But…instead you’re talking about the world ending and stuff.  That’s not helping me!  It’s making it worse!”
He stood up abruptly, visibly shaking with anger.  On his hand, he began ticking off his issues on each finger as he paced.

“Going outside my house scares the crap out of me, and when I do stay home, I’m afraid the ceiling is going to cave in for no reason!  I can’t sleep!  I can’t socialize, because I think people are looking at me funny every time I feel like I’m about to faint - as though somehow my falling over would threaten them…them!  I feel like they’re judging me, silently calling me a freak!  I can’t connect to anyone or anything - not even my art anymore!  It’s interfering with my life, and I want it fixed!  But here you are, instead, telling me the world is literally spinning out of control?  What the hell kind of a doctor are you?”
The doctor took a breath and tried to respond.  “Trevor, I know it’s difficult to accept, but-“

Trevor stood up abruptly.  “Sir.  No offense.  But I think YOU need help.”  And with that, he stormed out of the office.

Back in the supermarket, the girl was still holding up the orange.  The store was still spinning.  So too was the fruit, allegedly - albeit erratically.

Trevor tried to catch his breath as he responded.  “D-did…you have the same nut job doctor or something?”
“You recognize this then?”

“The…the planet, right?”
“Yeah.  I didn’t have a doctor tell me about it, but it was something I read online.  I was having dizzy spells.  Kinda like you, only not as bad.” 

She laughed as she lowered the orange to her hip, casually running her thumb across it.  “I can’t tell you how many diseases the self-diagnosing sites convinced me I had.  And that only made it worse!”
Her light-hearted manner helped to calm him down a little, as well as the familiarity of her experience.

“Yeah…I um…kinda learned the hard way not to read too many of those.”
“I know, right?  At the end of the day, you think you’re dying of prostate cancer or something.  Which is kinda hard to do if you’re a girl.”  She gasped but laughed at her own joke.  “I can’t believe I just said that!”

For the first time in a very long time, Trevor let out a genuine chuckle.  It felt good.  The damaged orange in her hand still made him nervous though.
“So…you…believe in that stuff?  About the planet being like an orange and whatnot?”

“Well sure.  I mean…it makes sense, right?  I was getting scared and everything like you were, and I had no idea why.  But then I read that, and it all clicked.  I think…maybe deep down we all know what’s happening.  Like on a subconscious level, you know?  I think we try so hard to ignore it that it keeps coming back to haunt us and make us crazy.”
Trevor blinked.  “So there really are other people out there who agree with this…this thing?”

“Oh yeah!” she exclaimed.  “Lots of people!  It’s actually pretty funny.  The whole orange thing has kinda become this big internet meme now.  There’s this entire community out there that shares pictures of carved oranges.  Some of them are incredibly artistic!  I saw one that this one girl made, where she carved a picture of what looked like a bustling city into the orange.  I laughed out loud when I saw it, but at the same time I was really moved by it.  It’s almost like she was saying, ‘even though the planet is dying, there’s still so much life here.’  Ever since I saw that one orange carving, I haven’t really been scared anymore.  It was so beautiful, and it made me feel so much better.”
And then she added, “…or maybe it was another orange that had a picture of a Satanic cat carved into it.  Either or.  I know at least ONE of them made me feel better!”

Both of them started laughing.  Trevor had tears streaming down his face from the sheer relief of it.  Other people in the store began looking at them funny, and for the first time in his life, Trevor didn’t notice them looking.  Judging.  Spinning.

He bought oranges instead of clay.

Copyright 2013
Michael F. Mercurio
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