I see the mangoes, as soon as I step inside the quaint grocery store. Past the floral department with its sea of orchids, ginger blossoms, and bonsai trees, the bold sign advertising that the mangoes are from Haiti pulls me toward the bin. I can’t wait to hold one in my hands, draw its sweet smell into me.
A closer inspection reveals a heap of bruised fruit that reeks of a sickly sweet smell. Some of the mangoes show signs of rot. The moisture covering them tells me they were frozen for the passage from Haiti to Maryland—like little corpses, so they would keep until someone could arrange them under the fluorescent lights for viewing.
I start to walk away. But the familiar twinge of melancholy pressing down on my chest won’t let me. Anytime I see something from Haiti, I must stop and look and touch and buy this little piece of home that never quite lives up to my memories.
$1.99 plus tax is an awfully steep price, considering the fact that these mangoes are a ridiculous excuse for the lush Madan Francis I used to feast on back home. Our house was surrounded by mango trees. When it rained and the wind shook the branches, I would stand in the grove with a basket to catch these presents falling from heaven. Then I would eat until I was out of breath, and my brown face was sticky with mango juice.
No one in her right mind would buy a mango from this bin, especially a Haitian woman who has savored a perfect Madan Francis. But since I don’t want the store manager to think no one wants Haitian-grown fruit, I place a couple in my cart. It’s my civic duty.
A clerk arranging beets on another bin eyes the mangoes in my cart, and says: “Don’t waste your money on those, baby. They half dead already. We got better ones coming in tomorrow. From my country, baby.”
I shoot her a “who asked you?” look, thank her half-heartedly, and try to get on with my day, but the woman is not through. “The ones in your cart is no good, believe me. Tomorrow’s mangoes will be sweeter and prettier”
“These are just right,” I fire back.
“Believe me,” she persists. “The only thing these mangoes will do is ruin your taste buds.”
“There’s nothing wrong with them,” my voice was a couple of octaves higher. “They’re from my country, Haiti.”
“Ay,” she sighs, as if I had confessed to a crime.
“No kidding?” She puts her hands akimbo and cocks her head, staring with her wide tamarindo eyes. The woman throws her head back, as if she’s about to laugh, but what comes out of her mouth is: “I’m from Santo Domingo, baby.” She says it with a smile so wide you’d think she’d been crowned Miss Universe.
My heart tightens when I hear she’s Dominican, a neighbor. My side of the island is better known as a seven-word cliché. Her side is a tourist attraction that despises anything Haitian. “Small world,” I admit.
Now, I’m self-conscious about the old shirt I’m wearing, the tattered jeans that make my thighs look bulky, and the straw bag slung over my shoulder like a peasant farmer crossing the border separating our countries to work for insults and pennies.
I didn’t come to the grocery store to make a political statement, but I wish I had worn one of my good suits that scream intelligence and status. The only border separating Haitians and Dominicans in this country are employee uniforms and currency in the customer’s wallet.
“You speak Spanish?” she wants to know. Her voice is softer than before. I can tell in her eyes she wants me to say yes. How nice it would be to chat in a language that doesn’t feel so clunky!
“I don’t speak Spanish. Do you speak Kreyòl?”
“I don’t.” The words come out like an apology. We look at each other and smile like two diplomats on a critical errand.
“Take care,” I say and walk away.
“Don’t forget to come back for the mangoes tomorrow,” she pipes up like a TV commercial for the tourist-crammed beaches on her side of the island.
“No thanks,” I mumble under my breath.
At the checkout counter, I contemplate leaving the sorry mangoes. Why blow good money on something I won’t eat? I am about to tell the cashier to keep the mangoes, when Miss Dominican Republic starts waving at me like we’re long lost sisters reuniting after years of absence. The last thing I want is for a Dominican to catch me rejecting Haitian-grown anything. I pay for the mangoes.
“Are these mangoes any good?” the cashier asks.
“Yes. They’re wonderful.” What else could I tell her?
“I’ve never had one,” she utters pensively, hinting she just might allow the strange fruit to touch her Strawberry-Point Iowa lips.
“You should try them,” I advise, as the register ka-chings away. “They’re the best in the world.”
Katia D. Ulysse was born in Haiti, and moved to the United States as a teen. Her writings have been published in numerous literary journals, including the Caribbean Writer, Meridians,Calabash,Peregrine, and Smartish Pace, among others. Her work has also appeared inThe Butterfly’s Way and Haiti Noir. Her first children’s book, Fabiola Can Count, was published in 2013. Ulysse lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter. When she’s not reading, writing fiction, gardening, or teaching, she blogs on VoicesfromHaiti.com. Drifting is her first book of fiction.
“Mango” was originally published in 2002.