He opened his eyes, already facing the alarm clock: 5:57. He frowned, and counted slowly backward from ten. At ‘4’ the clock switched to 5:58. He smiled slightly, shut his eyes, and waited patiently for the alarm. Two minutes later the clock clicked and the scratchy radio station came on, but only for a few seconds before he hit the OFF button. It was Saturday and he could sleep in, but he mostly dozed lightly or pretended before the clock (both alarm and internal) told him that it was 8:00 and he could get out of bed.
A moment later was shuffling into the living room, brushing his teeth. He picked up two beer cans, one-handed, and walked back through his apartment to the kitchen. He emptied one in the sink – he hadn’t finished both before going to bed – and threw them into the recycling bin, which was identical to the garbage bin, both neatly tucked under the kitchen sink.
He thought about breakfast and surveyed the inside of his refrigerator. Ten bottles of water, neatly aligned. Next to them were the four remaining cans of beer, two lemons, and a bag of romaine hearts. Condiments in the shelf on the door, cheese and butter in the expected places. No leftovers. There was one half-empty bottle of white wine, in the back and easily twice as old as anything else occupying the shelf. The freezer was more crowded, though also neat: frozen pizzas, frozen stir fry, frozen chicken breasts and hamburger, and two ice trays (full) next to a rectangular ice cube container (also full).
He wanted to get his laundry out of the way before he started his day; he had over half a hamper ready to wash, but something was nagging him. He wasn’t happy with the way his car was parked. Specifically, he didn’t like where it was parked. He had gotten home from work and parked on the street across from his apartment (he didn’t have a driveway, no one in his neighborhood did). He could have seen the car from his living room window if he’d looked, and though it was legally parked, it persisted to sit in the back of his mind. He liked parking on his side of the street. He made the decision to go to the grocery store. After all, there would be fewer people on a Saturday morning. “Well, OK then,” he said, not-noticing that he’d said it out loud. “That’s that.”
The roads were nearly empty on the short drive to the grocery store (he usually walked). He pulled into the parking lot and drove down his usual lane. The parking spots were numbered, and the first several, those nearest the automatic doors on the parking lot side of the building, were taken. He passed numbers 4, 5, 6…7 was open, but he passed it, settling on #10.
Inside, the air was bracing. It had been a hot week, not quite record-breaking, but hot, and the grocery store manager had decided to react accordingly. He didn’t have a list, but he didn’t really need one; he didn’t stray far from what he considered necessary. Nevertheless, he methodically made his way up and down each aisle, plastic basket in hand. He didn’t like carts and frequented the store enough not to need them. Often it was the only time (except for work) that he got out of the apartment, at least during the week. A half-gallon of skim milk, 2 fresh bagels and pre-packaged bags of ham and turkey, one each (the deli lady was probably busy). Two cans of black beans, two of refried beans. He hesitated over a 4-pack of toilet paper, but the grocery store was almost empty and he wouldn’t take the chance of running out. Tucking it under his arm, he contemplated getting more beer, but his basket was noticeably full and besides, he had four beers at home already.
The final aisle was at the end of the store, vegetables and the meat counter. He thought he might like to grill, even though it was still hot in the evenings. He’d smelled the grills of his neighbors’ for several weeks, and envied the dinners (parties?) that he envisioned them having. He liked the idea, and was a little envious. He aimed himself toward the fresh meat, contemplating how much he would need, ground beef vs. chuck, how much he really needed buns with an already-full shopping basket and bread at home…
“I’m sorry, what?”
He looked sharply to his right, startled. A girl (he reserved the term “woman” for people at least his mom’s age, though he didn’t realize it) was standing next to him, closer than he would have imagined she could have gotten without his detecting it. She was noticeably pretty, and pulling an oversized-headphone away from one ear.
For a moment, or maybe a little more, he didn’t know at all what was happening. She was his age, or so, and looking right at him, expecting an answer. He could feel his face starting to burn, faster, he was sure, than the majority of other people’s faces burned. He’d always been embarrassed with how quickly he became embarrassed.
She smiled, broadly, and looked down at his increasingly-heavy basket. He wished he’d gone with the beer instead of the toilet paper.
“Sorry, I guess I was talking to myself. Sorry.”
She let her headphone pop back on to her ear. For a moment (a second? Two?) she looked at him, in the eye, then turned back to the meat, randomly grabbed a plastic-wrapped bulge of ground beef, and dug in her basket for a grocery list.
“You do need buns, it’s not the same with bread,” she said, a little loudly. She smiled at him again; expectantly. He was again aware of how close she was standing in such an empty market.
She was pretty. She was wearing cut-off jeans and Converse all-stars (red), and he could see the tied strings of a bikini top over the neck of her t-shirt. He thought he glimpsed the bottom edge of a tattoo peeking out of her shirt sleeve. In her basket she had an old-timey box of animal crackers, a bag of rawhide dog bones, a bottle of vitamins, a bottle of whiskey, and a bouquet of lilies. He couldn’t hear the music in her headphones, and he wanted to know what she was listening to. She glanced at him, smiled friendily, turned, and was gone.
Well, he thought. That’s that.
He hated this feeling. He’d gotten used to it over time, sort of, but it still hung around him, oppressive, uncomfortable, and worst of all: legitimate. He pushed a parcel of ground beef (or chuck, or whatever it was) into his basket and set off purposefully to choose a couple of ears of corn. He would grill tonight, and he’d grill corn with the burgers. No one grills just burgers, he thought.
He very much wanted to be done with the store, and started to make his way to the cashiers. On his way, though, he thought of what the girl had said and detoured to get buns. Walking past the liquor aisle he picked up a bottle of whiskey (he didn’t know if it was the same as she had, but he thought maybe it was) and made a mental note to keep an eye out for animal crackers and flowers next time.
There was only one cashier working, and a short line. The automatic, do-it-yourself check-out stands were open, but he had alcohol now and that always seemed to screw things up, making him stand right out in front of everyone in line while he waited for someone to come over and card him. It made him feel like he was on stage. He avoided that.
At the front of his line, the only line, was the girl.
He could look at her now, ahead of him. She was chatting happily with the cashier (he couldn’t hear about what). He didn’t realize he’d been observing her (staring?) until she looked at him. He also didn’t realize that he was smiling. She smiled back at him – it reminded him of a secret – picked up her bag, and walked toward the door. Not the parking lot door, the door to the sidewalk. Putting her headphones back on, and without a backward glance, she left.
Backing out of parking spot #10, a little less carefully than usual, the thick, oppressive blanket settled itself around him again. He rolled down the windows, hoping the physical act would release some of the emotional pressure. He tried to distract himself with planning his day, but this made him feel worse – he had nothing to do, he realized, unless one load of laundry was something. He turned on his right blinker to leave the lot: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, he counted.
He was thinking what if I just drove somewhere? Not anywhere big – not the Grand Canyon, or New York City, or anything like that, but maybe at least the beach? Or a state park somewhere upstate, maybe? Down-state? Out-of-state? He didn’t have camping equipment, but he could get a motel, or hotel, he made plenty of money for that… He could go back to his apartment, research somewhere quick, or just pick a spot on a map like on tv, he could get there using his phone, or better yet leave his smart phone at home, get out of his apartment for the weekend, get out of town, get out of his life, his skin…
And there she was, waiting for him to turn out. He’d pulled into the sidewalk, blocking it. She was slightly stooped, looking through the open passenger window. For some reason (he didn’t know why) she’d pulled the earphone off her ear again. There was half a smile, and growing.
A second passed, but only one, as he laid his hand gently on the horn: Beep. Beep. Beep.