Eliot’s Banana Chapter 1
When Eliot offers Junie a banana, she pauses in the entryway to his kitchen. He squeezes past her through the doorway, lightly touching her shoulder as he goes. He is only a few inches taller than she is, but he is sturdy. Broad chest, thick arms, strong legs. Junie wants to wrap her fingers around his biceps, which she imagines solid but just a little soft.
The downward-sloping linoleum floor now separates her from where he stands by the cabinets. Coated in a slick patina of splattered grease over chipped and faded turquoise paint, the cabinets nearly gleam in the diluted evening sun. The countertops are slightly buckled. The color and texture of sand. A gently rolling dune. The walls have slipped from an optimistic yellow to jaundiced beige. Junie imagines the former tenant in these rent-controlled Brooklyn digs. An eager newlywed bride, perhaps, twenty-five years ago painting her happy beach-inspired kitchen that is now so tired and spent it makes Junie yawn.
She covers her mouth to hide the yawn then adjusts her blue vintage cat-eye glasses. Her hands are restless for something to touch. She smoothes her bright-red Louise Brooks haircut as Alfie, Eliot’s tabby cat, tiptoes across the sloping floor. He stops to rub the side of his mouth against Junie’s black-and-white saddle shoe.
Eliot grabs two conjoined bananas from the top of the refrigerator. She can picture him in twenty years, nearly seventy, when the few gray strands that meander through his hair have taken over and he shuffles around this same apartment, his burly muscle gone to fat. She’ll be forty-five then. Leon close to fifty. She wonders if she and Leon will still be together.
“I’m not going to eat them,” Eliot says. His brown eyes scan the bananas from behind wire-rimmed glasses. He cradles the fruit, then pulls it close to his face. The bananas are holding hands. Young and perfectly yellow from the tip to the top. Then green on the stem with no brown spots. He turns them over carefully as if they were delicate and rare and should be explored for hidden meaning. This is the look he gives Junie each time he sees her. The one that makes her want to peel off her clothes and stand before him shivering.
Alfie butters up to Junie’s pant leg and mewls softly. She bends down to massage his tiny kitty shoulder blades and scratch under his chin. The cat watches her intently, blinking periwinkle eyes. (Jacob’s favorite crayon color. All his skies were periwinkle.) Junie and Eliot met because of Alfie. Nearly three weeks ago, a few days before she moved in with Leon, she waited in the vet’s office with her roommate Katie, who had gotten a kitten to keep herself company once Junie moved out. While Katie was in with the doctor, Junie noticed Alfie’s piercing stare from across the room. The cat’s handsome, disheveled owner gazed out the window.
Junie walked over to get a better look at both of them. “What a pretty kitty,” she said and reached to pet the cat.
Alfie tilted his head toward her hand and sniffed, then licked her fingers. His tongue was smooth, not like the emery-board texture of most cat tongues. The feeling, as if a baby had licked her, lingered on her fingertips.
Eliot studied her. He didn’t look away when it would have been polite. She pulled nervously at a string hanging off her sleeve and wondered what to do with her face. Smile? Wink? Furrow her brow? Run her tongue over her teeth like the Pearl Drops girl?
“He must like you,” Eliot said, his voice a little ragged beneath mellifluous tones. A radio announcer who smoked too many cigarettes. “He’s usually very surly.”
“What’s his name?” Junie asked and patted the cat’s head again.
“Like the song? ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’” she sang.
Eliot frowned. “Absolutely not.” Junie pulled at the string, until she had a tiny ball of red thread in her fingers. “Alfie was the computer on Barbarella’s spaceship.” Eliot stroked Alfie’s back and continued to stare at Junie. “You do know who Barbarella is?”
“Sure,” Junie said when really she had only a vague notion of Jane Fonda straddling a missile, then thought that was something else entirely.
After the vet’s, Junie ran into Eliot everywhere in the neighborhood. At the bakery on Seventh Avenue where pierced and tattooed teenagers sell seven kinds of sourdough bread. Getting coffee at Ozzie’s on a chilly morning. Buying the Sunday Times at the Korean deli with the beautiful flowers. During each of those chance encounters she asked about Alfie.
“Why don’t you come over to see him,” Eliot proposed on a day when Leon was playing a gig in Philly. Junie, flustered and flattered by his attention, agreed.
She looks up at Eliot now. Uses glimpses of him to memorize tiny parts, like constructing a drawing one quadrant at a time. His hair is wild. Full of unruly curls. Dark-brown spirals that grow up and out, never down. Laugh lines like rays of sun reach out from the corners of his eyes.
“The bananas will turn black, you know.” He says this like he is mourning the loss of the bananas’ innocence. “You can’t refrigerate bananas.”
“Just like you can’t teach an old dog or lead a horse or make a silk purse?” Junie asks.
A perfect comma sprouts in his left cheek as he grins at her stupid joke. “Come here,” he says and waves her over with the fruit. “I’ll show you what to do for Alfie.”
Junie has agreed to take care of the cat while Eliot goes out of town to interview some actress for an article he is writing. They stand side by side in front of the open refrigerator. It is empty except for a jar of sweet pickles, two Chinese take-out cartons, three beers, and several boxes of insulin. Her mother kept Jacob’s medicine in the fridge. All of the concoctions meant to save his life became mundane next to the milk and orange juice. “How’s it taste?” Junie used to ask him after their mother spooned some liquid into his mouth. “Purple,” he would say.
Eliot inserts the tiny syringe into a vial. Junie watches him closely. “The key,” he says, “is to get Alfie eating so he doesn’t really notice you.” He reaches into an overhead cabinet. “The secret weapon.” He holds up a tin of Fancy Feast salmon dinner.
“Perfect, darling. He’ll have Salmon Chanted evening,” Junie quips. Eliot grins the comma again. Their shoulders nearly touch.
“And don’t use the electric can opener,” he tells her. “It makes him nuts.” He dumps the soft food into Alfie’s ceramic dish. “Kitty, kitty,” he calls.
Alfie darts across the room and winds between Junie’s legs before settling in front of the food. Eliot squats down beside him. “I usually pet him a little so he knows I’m here. Then you just pinch the scruff of his neck like this.” He holds a fold of Alfie’s skin between his left forefinger and thumb. “You try,” he says. Junie grasps Alfie’s neck gently. “That’s right. Hold it while I put the needle in. You have to get it just under the skin. He’ll let you know if you go too deep.” He slides the needle in expertly. “Hold it so you can feel the right way.” Junie takes the syringe in her right hand. “Now push the plunger quickly.” She does. Alfie doesn’t twitch. “And pull it out.” Eliot watches. She likes his eyes on her. Wants to take his glasses off and gently kiss his eyelids. “Perfect,” he says.
They stand and she trades him the syringe for his keys. While he throws away the trash, Junie drifts into the living room jumbled with old typewriters and dusty books. The first time she came over she stood in front of the shelves filled with science fiction novels. Eliot told her he had written a successful book in the seventies called Liberty Voyage about an impotent astronaut stranded on an all-female planet. She confessed she’d never read any sci-fi. He lent her Fahrenheit 451 and The Left Hand of Darkness, just to get her started.
She rented Barbarella and found a used copy of Liberty Voyage at the Strand. The back cover hailed Eliot as the Aldous Huxley of the New Wave for his combination of wry social commentary and titillating plot. While Leon played in smoky bars, Junie devoured Eliot’s novel, turning down brittle corners to mark the most erotic parts. What fun to know the author! She and Eliot were on the planet. He was inventing sexual devices for her pleasure. She laid the book across her belly and snuggled down into the warm and twisted sheets with his words pressed against her tingling skin. She dozed with libidinous thoughts of Eliot and herself. Then woke suddenly, afraid Leon would return to find salacious passages tattooed across her midriff.
Now, she can’t wait to stop by while Eliot is gone, dope up the cat, and explore his apartment. She wants to pick up the framed photographs to see who is important to him. Rummage through closed desk drawers to find secrets among broken pencils and old receipts. Smell his towels. Curl up on his bed. Maybe even try on his shoes.
She looks back at Eliot, who waits in the kitchen doorway with the bananas. A tiny stitch of guilt crosses her brow. Such scheming can’t be right, she thinks, then tries to seem engaged in the conversation about fruit.
“Won’t you eat them later?” she asks. “Before you get on the plane? You could take them with you.”
“Bananas don’t travel,” Eliot tells her. He holds each one in his fingertips, gently pulls them apart and breaks the stem with a swift crack. “Anyway, I can’t eat both of them. Here, you take one.”
He lays the fat part onto Junie’s outstretched palm. She wraps her fingers around it and considers the ingenious curve, then wonders if accepting phallic fruit from a man other than Leon would be considered cheating.
“They’re still a little green. I don’t think you can eat it yet,” Eliot says.
“That’s too bad. I’m hungry.”
He opens the nearest cabinet. Saltines peek out. Packets of ramen noodles. Instant oatmeal. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Jim, Jack and Johnny stand at odd angles among the other half-empty bottles of hard liquor.
“You don’t have to feed me,” Junie says and turns to leave because if she really came over just to get the key and not to let her imagination flounder through illicit touches and pilfered kisses, she would be going now.
Eliot follows her to the door. “You sure you want to leave?” He asks her this each time she goes. “You could stay. Let me show you my stamp collection.” He wiggles his eyebrows and grins.
Junie smiles over her shoulder. “You don’t have any stamps.”
“Philately,” he says.
“Is that some kind of proposition?” she asks, playing the innocent to his randy older man.
He rubs his hands together and nods. He has been tossing out these puerile hints since the first time she came over. She knows they are half-facetious. Designed to make her stammer and squirm. The first time he did it she audibly gasped, then blurted, “But, I have a boyfriend.” He belly-laughed and Junie felt caught. The dumb rabbit that went for the carrot underneath the deadfall trap. She thought she’d cry and berated herself for not being a stronger woman. One who could dish it back or at least be offended and stomp out the door. And then what? Never return? No, thank you. Flirting with him was fun.
“So how about it, toots. Is today going to be the day?”
Junie knows if she says okay, the fun will quickly end. “You are forgetting about my boyfriend,” she says demurely.
Eliot rolls his eyes. “I wish you would.” He reaches for the doorknob.
Junie leans into him so that his fingers graze her arm, sparking tiny brushfires against her skin. She wonders if there is combustion of atoms when they touch. Her protons smashing against his neutrons, creating radioactive isotopes that glow in the dark for hours after they part. Or, if all this flirting is really just for kicks.
Eliot pulls the door open and holds it for her. As she steps by, she can smell him–soap and shaving cream. She leans against the jamb, facing him and he smiles, showing his teeth and the rays of sun around his eyes. The anticipation of an embrace tremors in Junie’s joints. Ball and socket. She imagines wrapping her arms around him. Dovetail. At least a friendly hug goodbye. Tongue-in-groove. But she knows her fingers. They are persistent. They would wind themselves into his hair. They would find the back of his neck. They would creep over his shoulders and pull him too close.
She thinks of Leon. Tall and lanky. Cleanly shaven head and a red-gold goatee. A little silver hoop dangling off the top ridge of his left ear. She fell in love with him a year ago when she saw him play the drums at a Mr. Whipple gig. She imagines him at home now, whisking salad dressing with fresh herbs, marinating portobello mushrooms, waiting for her.
“Junie,” Eliot says.
She stands on the threshold. Toes in the apartment, heels in the hall. It would be so easy to turn forty-five degrees, step into Eliot’s arms, and send her life on a different trajectory. “What?”
He stops and looks away. Runs his fingers through all that hair.
She holds Eliot’s banana against her sternum with both hands. “What?” she asks, a little smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
“Well,” he says. “I’ll miss you.” He shrugs as if it were no big deal.
Junie’s mouth blooms into a smile but she is uncertain. Is he serious? Should she step forward and pull him into a kiss, or run away before she gets herself into trouble, or stay cool and not react? Nothing seems appropriate but she has to do something so she tugs on the stem of the banana. The seams rip open to expose pale-yellow flesh. The smell is soft but momentarily overpowers the musty odor of the dank hall.
“Did you know that bananas break into three pieces if you squeeze them right?” she asks. It’s a trick she and Jacob discovered. She pulls off the top third of the banana and rolls it gently between her thumb and forefinger. It loosens vertically into three long, thin triangular sections. That’s how she and Jacob always ate their bananas. She hands one piece to Eliot. He puts it in his mouth. She does the same. It is dry and acrid on her tongue.
“Eww, gross,” she says and steps backward out of the door. “You were right.”
Alfie sits beside Eliot’s foot. A long purr, or maybe a low growl, rumbles in the cat’s throat. Eliot spits the chewed-up banana pulp into his palm. “See you in a few days,” he says and slowly shuts the door.
Junie stands on the other side with the rusty bicycles and the granny shopping carts leaning crookedly against the slanting banister. She considers knocking again but hesitates. Obviously, she can’t go back in. Eliot probably has the same flirtation going with lots of women. She is nothing special. In fact, she keeps waiting for this little game to wear thin. To see him not as an attractive accomplished artist who finds some spark in her. But as a sad sack has-been, flirting shamelessly with someone half his age. She wonders when the whole thing will seem trite and terribly embarrassing. That day has yet to come.
For now, though, she decides to go. Leon is waiting. And there will be more of Eliot’s attention later. She descends the creaking stairs with the half-peeled banana in one fist and the uneaten third mushy in the other. On the sidewalk, Junie looks for a place to toss the incriminating fruit. There is none but she doesn’t want to throw it on the ground. Visions of silent movie banana-peel gags float through her mind. Old ladies with small dogs. Fat men. Women in high heels. They endlessly slip and fall with their feet above their heads. She doesn’t want her indiscretion to cause such hazard. So, she carefully nestles the uneaten part into the open banana, then wraps the peel across its fleshy top. She pockets it in her cucumber-colored coat and walks toward home, banana on her breath.Eliot’s Banana Reviews