He’d pushed his cart along three different aisles of the grocery store, through personal hygiene, paper products and crackers, and she’d appeared every time in the same aisle to look at items on a shelf right next to him. He felt sure the woman was stalking him.
It was Tuesday. His wife had gone away for the week with her book club. He’d driven to the store just before noon, when no one but old-age pensioners went grocery shopping. He had a list with him. He’d scribbled it on the back of the note that his wife had left yesterday on the kitchen counter while he waited outside in the car to drive her to the airport. “I love you,” she’d written. On the other side of the page, his grocery list began with broccoli.
He saw the woman for the first time as he was deciding whether to buy broccoli with stems or broccoli without stems, wondering if the inconvenience of slicing and disposing of a stem was worth an additional twenty cents. He saw her from the corner of his eye, examining carrots.
She had a mane of black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, dressed in black. Black stockings drew his eye to her legs. She looked fit, competent, probably good at her job, whatever it was. Judging from her appearance, he thought she might have come from a nearby office: run in, run out, so she wouldn’t have to waste time at the end of the day.
Moving past the apples, he reminded himself, as he did often these days, that he was twenty years older than he’d been the last time he’d become casually involved with a woman, and now he was married. Though he flattered himself that he was still endowed with a remnant of sexual credibility, he also knew that no woman would feel transported by the sight of a geezer of his vintage unless she was his wife or thought he was rich. On impulse, he dropped a six-dollar basket of raspberries into his cart. They weren’t on his list.
He advanced with his cart past slabs of cod in a freezer and turned into the personal hygiene section in search of hair and body wash. It came in a container that resembled shampoo, but he remembered from the last time that he’d done the grocery shopping that he’d found it, after a long fruitless search, in another section altogether, with the soap. His wife mocked him for buying it. She said it was hard on his skin and left a film on his hair. He said it was cheap and convenient; she said it was lazy. There were only three choices, and today one of them was on sale. One of them was always on sale, always much cheaper than shampoo or soap alone, probably because the store couldn’t get rid of the stuff unless it reduced the price. His wife was right. His skin felt dry, and he was losing his hair.
He looked down the aisle toward the deodorants, and there was the woman again, studying the top shelf. He wondered if she’d misinterpreted the raspberries in his cart as a symbol of disposable wealth. Perhaps in her mind, such lavish extravagance distinguished him from the poor economizing grunts in cheap nylon jackets who calculated the cost of broccoli stems. He reminded himself that raspberries weren’t on his list. Women go for spontaneity, he thought.
In recent years, he’d had a hard time telling a person’s age with any accuracy. He was often astonished to learn that men and women who hardly looked old enough to drive in fact were high-school teachers or partners in law firms, with children in the third grade. When he walked through the university campus downtown he wondered if he’d wandered into a class of visiting high-school students. This woman certainly looked older than that. She also looked as if she might have listened more than once to Marianne Faithful’s album, Broken English, in which the singer directed a compelling torrent of bile at the unscrupulous men who’d contributed to her suffering. Albums, he thought. Kids at university wouldn’t know what he was talking about. But she would.
He imagined their conversation as he fixed his eyes on the three brands of hair and body wash. He considered deviating once again from his list so that she wouldn’t think he was penny-pinching on his personal hygiene. He looked at the vast display of soaps and reminded himself that the companies that peddled these products spent a fortune on advertising. How much were you paying for the product and how much were you paying for the woman up to her neck in bubbles telling you to buy it? Of the three brands of hair and body wash, he grabbed the cheapest, tossed it into his cart and moved on. Decisive, deliberate and without hesitation: women liked those qualities in a man, too. He drove onward into paper products. The woman hadn’t been pushing a cart or even carrying a basket, and she was already holding a bag of carrots. With a tube of deodorant, her hands would be full. He’d likely not see her again.
Through the store’s sound system, he heard a song called Happy Together by The Turtles. He’d first heard that song in high school, driving in his mother’s car with a girl named Joanne, whose salesman father traveled every week to Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was the first time he’d heard of Kalamazoo. His sixteenth year was a good year. Whatever happened to Joanne?
He could have gone directly to the next items on his list. He’d shopped here enough times to have memorized the layout of the store. But today he wanted to break free of old routines, explore new worlds, live on the edge, cast his fate to the wind. Buoyed by the happy melody, he sailed through paper products and headed into cookies and crackers, grabbing a package of Oreo cookies to compensate for all the wasted years when he’d allowed caution and convention to suffocate his spontaneity. He placed the cookies in his cart, looked up and saw the woman in black, studying the Saltine crackers.
From her features and the way she was dressed, she might have run her own business or managed the loans department of a bank. He sensed that she was single or at the very least, available. Her features seemed composed like a model’s, with no deeper purpose than attracting a man’s attention. He sensed no foundation of commitment that would lend gravity to her flirtatiousness. Was she flirting? Or was she seeking revenge, Marianne Faithful of the Saltines, waiting for a chance to drive a pair of nail clippers into his eye?
She looked perplexed, as if she couldn’t make up her mind whether to buy crackers with salted or unsalted tops. He noticed that her hands were free. Whatever she’d carried from other sections of the store, she’d abandoned. She must be one of those people, he thought, who fill a bag with cashews in the bulk section and then, when they see in the confectionery section cashews in a jar at a lower price, simply discard the bulk bag on some random shelf, relying on an underpaid, beleaguered shelf stocker to retrieve it and put the nuts back where they belonged. He felt disappointed in the woman. He had little respect for people who make life difficult for others.
In the yoghurt aisle near the far end of the store, he realized that, in his moment of liberation from the tyranny of his list, he’d forgotten to pick up paper napkins. The price you pay for freedom, he thought. He parked his cart in front of the six packs of single-serving yoghurt. He figured no one would mind if he left his cart there. He’d never seen anyone buy those things. They were too expensive for most people’s budgets. He hurried back to paper products. When he returned with the napkins, the woman was standing near his cart, examining kefir through the glass doors.
Even then he resisted jumping to conclusions. She could be following a path similar to his through the store. It happened all the time. Two people entered the store, started their expedition in fruit and vegetables just inside the door, passed each other at the canned tuna, reconnected by the spaghetti sauce, made eye contact near the soda water and, by the time they reached the yoghurt, they felt as if they knew each other. They might not be friends, but they’d shared intimate details about their preferences and tastes that remained unknown to all but a few other people. Maybe she had her own list. He glanced again at the woman’s empty hands. She could have kept it in her pocket. Her hands looked sensitive and experienced.
He told himself to get a grip. Women didn’t dress up in attractive clothes so they could wander around a grocery store picking up strange men. He’d heard of men and women having casual encounters, but they happened in bars, not in the dairy aisle. Years ago, on a trip to Chicago to attend a medical convention, his friend, a doctor, had encountered a woman and her mother on a hotel elevator and ended up minutes later having sex with the daughter in a linen closet. When his friend told him the story, he hadn’t known exactly what to think. It sounded adventurous, spontaneous, kinky, unpromising, pedestrian, desperate, thoughtless, cavalier, aberrant, indulgent, perfunctory, silly and rather dog-like, all at the same time. Complicated, he’d said. “Complication’s all in your head,” his friend said. Such occasions had never presented themselves to him, or perhaps they had, and he hadn’t recognized them. Maybe this was such an occasion.
He pushed his buggy all the way to the back of the store, past the meat counter and the fresh fish, to the far corner where fresh-baked bread was stacked on wooden racks in front of a swinging metal door. The door opened into a dimly lit storage area. He seldom went to this part of the store. He didn’t eat much bread. He lingered for a moment beside the pumpernickel, feeling mildly disappointed that the woman hadn’t followed him. He turned and chugged past the over-priced organic produce and the shiny green root vegetables that cost less than a dollar and would feed a family of six. His wife once brought a durian home, where it sat for days on the kitchen counter like an organic brown Sputnik, until she finally hacked it apart and baked it in the oven. It smelled like a smoldering gym bag. He dropped a durian into his cart. A woman would have to be truly interested in a man who bought one of those things.
He made his way to the check-out counter. He’d loaded far more items into his cart than he’d put on his list, but he’d forgotten sparkling water. The store wasn’t busy. The cashier told him she’d wait while he went to fetch it. He returned quickly. After the conveyor belt transported the last of his groceries past the cash register, the cashier helped him stuff them into the canvas bags that he’d brought with him. He hoisted the bags into his cart and went back to the cash register to pay the bill. And there again was the woman in black, waiting for him to insert his credit card into the terminal. He tried not to look at her, but he noticed on the rubber conveyor belt a solitary bright green package of sugarless gum. She looks after her teeth, he thought.
Years ago, in the third grade, he’d ridden his bicycle up and down the street outside the house of a girl in his class named Oksana, hoping to draw her outside with the sheer force of his animal magnetism, but even then, he’d known that his magnetic force extended no further than his own imagination.
He took his groceries to his car, imagining that the woman was nearby. Perhaps that was her SUV in the parking space two away from his? He pushed his empty cart to the buggy corral and returned to his car, resisting the urge to survey the parking lot. What in the hell did he want to happen? He was a married man.
He drove away feeling relieved, disappointed, unadventurous and foolish. He couldn’t count the number of times in his life he’d felt the same way. If Oksana had burst out of her house when he was nine years old and pursued him down the street like an intoxicated groupie chasing Mick Jagger, he wouldn’t have known what to do. Now, as always, he doubted that he would ever find out.