It was one of those sticky summer afternoons when Tommy and I first challenged each other to eat lemon slices. We’d been trying to kick rainbows—a skill he’d learned at U9 soccer tryouts—in the backyard when his mom called us inside for a snack.
Tommy and I sat at the pale wood corner table in his kitchen where big windows flooded the space with life. I had to use all of my might to push Tommy off the bench so I could get the seat in the corner.
It turned out the ‘snack’ was already sitting in the middle of the table. In front of our wide eyes sat a ceramic plate covered in juicy slices of lemon.
“I bet you’ll squirm if you bite that lemon,” Tommy said to me. I stuck my tongue out at him. He always found something to tease me about—my legs still dangled in the air at the dining table, I couldn’t do a cartwheel yet, and he could run from the big oak tree in the back corner of his backyard to the swingset by the porch in five seconds when it took me at least seven.
My mom said I was good at things, too. I was the first one in our class to read a whole chapter book on my own and the teacher has started writing me some multiplication problems on my homework sheets to try. Tommy didn’t like things like school much, so my mom says I shouldn’t tease him about this like he teases me.
I picked up the slice on top of the bowl and squeezed it between my thumb and pointer finger so
the juice ran down the edges.
“Bite it,” he jabbed, pushing on my shoulder. “You’ll squirm. Girls always squirm.”
This earned him the hardest kick in the shin that I could muster—which, honestly, probably hurt my toes more than his leg. I was deciding if I should just take the gamble of potential squirming with a bite when Tommy’s mom reappeared from somewhere, sliding a small ceramic bowl full of granulated sugar onto the table next to the plate of lemon slices.
“Sorry darlins, I almost forgot the best part,” she said, winking at me. Tommy’s mom had this voice I really liked. She lived in Texas as a kid and had this drawl that’s sweet and smooth like warm honey. Every time the sky would turn grey she’d say it was “fixin’ to storm.” I smiled a little despite the nervous ache growing in my stomach.
The sugar looked like white sand in a bowl, and the way sunshine peered through the window made it sparkle. Tommy rolled his own slice into the sugar, coating the inside of his wedge in grainy sweetness. I watched his mouth closely as he ripped the citrus from the rind with his teeth and swallowed. No signs of squirming.
His teeth were white and straight and shiny but also I could see that little pieces of fruit had gotten up by his gums. He tossed the lifeless peel back onto the table, reaching for another and handing it to me.
I shifted my legs up so we faced each other entirely. His eyes were trained on my face as I raised the lemon to my lips. I could focus on nothing else, not the fact that the sun was making me want to squint or that the bandaid on his scabbed left knee had half come off and stuck to my leg in our closeness. Nothing mattered besides telling myself not to squirm.
Don’t squirm or scrunch or squeeze anything. Don’t you dare.
I bit down, and…
It was sweet at first, juicy and cool and different than anything else I’d ever had. But then something much stronger—tart and difficult—came through. It invaded my taste buds and I knew the instant the flavor registered that my face betrayed me.
Tommy spit out a laugh. “Girls always squirm,” he giggled and reached for another lemon. I felt heat rush to my cheeks as he downed another lemon, this time a chunk of fruit sticking to his chin.