My real estate agent emits a tropical smell. He stands too close to me in the empty apartment and gestures at the crown moldings by flinging his arms outward, as if he learned human expression from an instruction manual. “Ladies go crazy for these ceilings,” he says, thwapping me on the shoulder. His hand slides down my blouse, leaving dampness in its wake. We proceed to the master bedroom and our footsteps ring out on the wooden floors. At least, my footsteps ring; his make more of a squish. “Now I know this one’s a little out of budget, but you can’t deny that view. Mind if I crank the thermostat?” My agent takes off his jacket, revealing a Hawaiian shirt so bright it sears my eyeballs. “I can’t stand New York this time of year. Come December I miss Florida.” He grins, teeth as white as price stickers. That’s when I start to suspect that my real estate agent might be something less than human.
My suspicions deepen as the apartment heats up. My real estate agent unpacks a pair of forearms that look ripe and store-bought, the color of Tang. “Had to get a spray tan just to feel more at home,” he laughs. I do not join in his mirth. I suspect his flesh is naturally that shade of orange.
On his way to the bedroom my agent misses the half step and trips, grabbing hold of my waist. He apologizes but his wink misfires. The closing lid sticks and his expression warps into a gummy half-blink. I’m not fooled: I know my agent’s pupils are actually seedpods devoid of vision. This isn’t the first time that I’ve encountered a Fruitman.
The Fruitmen started appearing several years ago. Scientists hypothesized a natural mutation on the Y chromosome, the activation of a survival mechanism that urged macho sapiens to devolve in times of trouble. Progressive newspapers claimed that Fruitmen were formed through social conditioning. Conspiracy theories detailed how a herd of hybrid creatures had escaped from a top-secret lab in Canada, tasked with reconstructing modern masculinity. But whatever their origin, Fruitmen are decidedly more slippery than their human brethren. It’s difficult to spot one unless you know what to look for. My real estate agent, for example, reeks of Parfum de Papaya, and his gelled hair resembles a severed stem. He sidles past me into the bathroom, grinning.
“Excuse me,” he says, “Gotta take a leak.”
“You mean release the juices?” I ask.
His humanoid face simulates confusion. “Um. Yeah. Juices.”
When I moved out of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, I felt raw – both from the emotional pain and the rabid vaginal yeast infection left behind by his overabundance of the enzyme bromelain. Now here I am, searching for a one-bedroom in the dead of winter, confronted with another of his kind. Except this time, I have a plan.
When my real estate agent emerges from the bathroom, he places his sweaty palm on my lower back. He steers me towards the front door, his lip peels twisting upward as if on the edge of a glass. “I really enjoyed this week,” he says. “Call me sometime. Maybe we can hang out.” His breath smells like the inside of refrigerator plastic. Yet when my real estate agent moves closer, I root to the spot. I force myself to resist the temptation of simple carbohydrates, the sweetness of shallow love, my despicable propensity to fall for bruised fruit.
My real estate agent kisses me. I kiss him back. Our mouths meet softly at first, then harder as our lips chew and suck, wet and pulpy until I finally get a good grip and bite down with all my strength, tearing my face backwards and ripping off a hunk of his flesh. My real estate agent screams. I chew his skin. Masticate and swallow. The sample is juicy but tastes of disappointment – the flavor of being plucked before peak ripeness. My real estate agent runs around in circles, unhinged and rudderless, his eye-pods panic-stricken. A lump of sympathy moves through my gut. I start to see my own devolution in the Fruitman. Maybe I, too, am unable to grow back that which I have lost.
I feel sick. I think I might hurl, but it’s my real estate agent who actually bends over and pukes, hands on his knees, lips oozing red juice onto the hardwood floor. In his vulnerable position my real estate agent looks more like a papaya than ever: green shirt, orange skin, chest hair erupting out of the labial folds of his popped collar. It’s tragic really, this little orange man who–when cut open–epitomizes the vaginal shape of our all-too-human desire to crawl back into the womb, to recapture the maternal real estate of the only loving home any of us ever knew, the primal loss of which lends life its relentless, indefinable bitterness.
Shelby Wardlaw is a writer, teacher, and translator from Austin, Texas. Her fiction, nonfiction and Russian poetry translations have appeared in Drafthorse, Interim, Northwest Review, Hunger Mountain, iō Literary Journal, Philadelphia Stories and Neon Door Literary Exhibit. In the spring of 2020, she won Honorable Mention in the Pigeon Pages Fiction Contest. She was a Finalist for the 2021 Salamander Fiction Prize and the 2021 McGlinn Prize for Fiction. She was selected as one of the top five finalists in The Writer magazine’s 2020 Fall Short Story Contest, and is currently working on her first novel. You can find out more here: https://www.shelby-wardlaw.com/