Growing up, calamansi was my favorite little fruit. My mom used in so many Pinoy dishes — in our house, there was always a bit of calamansi steeped in some soy sauce, or sprinkled over garlic rice. The fruit was so sweet, the pith so tart and slightly bitter. When we didn’t buy it from the Filipino grocery store, my mom would just pluck some kumquat from our backyard tree — deceptively similar but different. It didn’t matter; I loved how either would explode with electricity upon biting into them. The kumquat tree didn’t fruit year-round, but eventually it would and I’d happily grab the little fork-caged fruit picker and collect some of the thumb-sized, oblong fruits. We even had tangerines, and a lemon tree, which only ever produced one sad lemon in the entire decade we lived in that house.
Scent is a time machine. Every time I smell a kumquat or a calamansi, a part of me returns to that bitter little house on Pepperwood, where I played with my brothers outside and talked to clouds, running under the citrus trees and squishing fallen suns beneath my feet. During grayer times — El Nino weather, getting grounded, puberty — I was confined to the dull little rooms, separated from my beloved tree, the outdoors, the sky. There, I wrote plaintive little stories about being a lonely little boy who liked other boys, or others about a lonely little boy who wanted to be loved by his dad on the other side of the wall. Zest and pith — they are inextricably linked in my mind.
But mostly, I remember the zest. I especially loved squeezing the little hearts of fruits between one finger at a time, my sharp, feral fingernails capturing a bit of sunshine under the claws. Later, I would sniff my hands to relieve myself of sadness. When it was citrus season — the only discernible season in Orange County — our kitchen housed sunshine, but that only meant the shadows elsewhere were cast in sharper relief.
I haven’t lived in California for 15 years, and I still think about those citrust trees, especially when New York’s grey, dishwater days of winter creep in. Luckily, I now have a slowly growing sweet little thing of a calamansi tree inching skyward in my bedroom; I’ve named her Clementine. The morning light is hers, and I can’t wait to taste it.
*Not my calamansi tree. Photo by Paul Hanaoka via Unsplash