I need to eat this fruit. My fragile recovery depends on it. Sweet and bracingly tart, its ample juice a golden tonic flowing down my throat, nearly overwhelming my senses with its flavorsome poetry of swaying groves and bright Floridian sun. (Let’s not talk about the bad oranges right now; dry and fibrous, they’re the stuff of nightmares).
The orange. Warmth in winter, once such a luxury that little kids in cold climates would get one (one!) for Christmas, a rare and madly desirable treat. Now they’re commonplace, taken for granted. But still, they’re special. Nothing in English rhymes with its name.
When I was thirteen, I was sent to a wilderness therapy program for troubled kids. Was I troubled? I suppose. Mostly by the lack of opportunities to sate my voracious mind and delve into the foolhardy richness of experience that I imagined adult life to be. (Joke’s on you, thirteen-year-old self! It’s all just as rich, and as mundane, as it ever was. But – I do like being able to make all my own decisions, regardless of the frustration and strife they often engender. So there’s that.)
Anyway. At this program in the high desert of Southern Idaho, in the winter, we ate the same thing every day: Breakfast was oatmeal. Lunch was pita bread, peanut butter, and dried apricots. Dinner was lentils and rice, cooked by us, in our own 32-ounce aluminum can, over the fire.
Even though I was a “bad” kid, I was never inclined towards thievery. The same couldn’t be said of many of my colleagues in the program, one of whom (let’s call her Andi), got into the coveted apricot stash one afternoon. She shared her provender with me (unwilling to do the dirty work, I was still perfectly happy to feast on the spoils), and by that evening, we were both making frequent trips to the latrine. In thigh-high snow. A little background: Toilet paper was among the modern luxuries we were learning to do without. Snow makes an excellent substitute (it gets you squeaky clean), but does have its drawbacks, chief among them the fact that it’s really, really cold. Dried fruit-induced runs + snow as toilet paper = 😦
There was a thing at this program known as The Billy Can Club (we called the tins in which we cooked our nightly gruel “billy cans;” I’m not sure why). Its membership was comprised of gluttonous and determined youngsters who successfully ate an entire can – 32 ounces – of rice and lentils: no small feat. I tried, came within two measly bites of the prize, before I felt the food pressing upward through my esophagus and had to admit defeat (vomiting spelled automatic disqualification).
Point is, we had to make do with a pretty repetitive diet. We got points for being good little delinquents, and if we saved up enough we got to buy ourselves things: plastic spoons (many of us made do with bark and sticks), packets of Top Ramen (which we’d crush, mingle with the accompanying salty power and eat raw, like chips) carrots, and, best of all, oranges. Have you ever spent seven weeks outdoors, eating pretty much the same exact thing, day in, day out? If not, you simply cannot imagine the sheer orgasmic bliss of biting into something as juicy and fresh and vivid as an orange. The joy of eating an orange in that environment was worth all of the (manufactured, carefully calibrated) hardship.
I’m on day five of a nasty illness and I just want to eat oranges. Fortunately, my sweet mother brought me a whole bag of them.