The floor is old linoleum and the mats I don’t think have ever been cleaned. But here we are, kneeling down on them anyway, rubbing our palms on our pants and mopping up a puddle of glass cleaner. The shift is coming to a quiet end, the steady stream of customers is no more, and I ask her what she did at university. I pull it out of my mouth like I’ve only just thought to ask, hoping that interest can pass for sincerity. She hands me another parcel of paper towel, and tells me like she could see the question boiling in me the whole time, and had been preparing an answer.
We are actors, reciting lines to each other.
I want to ask her questions that she doesn’t have prepared answers for. I want to sit with her on this floor and ask her what she’s scared of, I want to ask her where she went to high school, how she flies in dreams, what she wanted to be when she was four, where she grew up.
But I don’t.
Instead I wonder if she thinks about me when she’s at home. Because I think about her. I think about all of them. I imagine their lives. I wonder who’s living with their parents, I wonder who’s in love, I wonder who is terrified of the future, I wonder who’s cleaning their kitchen like I am right now. My coworkers are like inherited, unfinished scrapbooks. I try to finish the run-on sentences, scribble updates in appearance onto the photos in permanent marker, but I can never seem to find anything isn’t skin deep.
I attend to customers and she balances the books beside me. And she’s not even two feet away from me, but it feels like an ocean. I feel like if I just reach out I could feel the cold pane of glass that keeps us separate. I feel like all we can do is sit beside it. All I can do is gesture and mouth comfortable words in hope of a response.
But I want to take the chair and smash it. I want to tell her things like “lets go get a coffee” and “lets be friends like when we were kids” and “text me sometime, tell me about yourself.” But I don’t and she doesn’t. And instead we pretend to be the interviewers and interviewees of a job that doesn’t exist. And then we go home.
I’m sitting in the backseat of a car in Virginia. We’ve just gotten off a flight from Heathrow, it’s dark outside, and I don’t recognize the trees. These are not my trees. This is not my highway; this is not my land. So I rest my head against the windowpane, and listen to mum unravel the driver. She receives her scrapbook like a detective receives a case file, she studies it’s contents and finds a comfortable space to begin.
He’s young, he’s got kids, he wants to go to war, he probably won’t vote in the coming election, he’s making ends meet, and he loves his wife. They lead each other like a curator leading an interested attendee through an art gallery. Questions are being asked and answered, and they go in directions he might not have thought to venture. But venture they do. And it’s an education in humanity.
I ask a woman what she did this morning. I fiddle with her bags, and negotiate with her mandarins. She smiles. She tells me that she’s been cleaning. Her hair is short, and her earrings are artisanal, and she tells me a story. It worms out of her mouth and she offers it to me like an inadequate, but heartfelt gift. She tells me how when she was a child her mother worked full time like she’s following a trail she left for herself so that she wouldn’t forget.
She smiles as though she sees though me and into her past. She tells me how every Friday her mother would clean their house for the weekend. Every Friday, without fail. She describes how her mother would scrub the floors by hand; she describes coming home from school to find her mother weeping into the floorboards. And we laugh sadly together at how far she has come.
I tell her about my parents, about my sisters. It spills out of me like an overflowing glass and I let it. So I tell her about how when I was little mum would go on business trips and dad would feed us hotdogs, and pies and chips, and spaghetti. I tell her about how the day before she came home he would always clean the house so that she came home to a fresh start. It’s like walking together for a time, wandering though uncertain streets.
And it’s almost like friendship, this exchange.
She invites me to lean over the wall of her register in the last hour of my shift. And I do. She tucks her hair behind her ear, and we chat. Someone is looking for the director of floor staff over the loudspeaker and we offer each other simple words. We pass them back and forth, collecting them, hoping one day we’ll have enough to make a meal.
We talk about who’s coming in tomorrow, who swapped their shift with whom, and who can’t come in. She tidies her register and I rock on my heels. And it’s nice. We don’t tell each other stories, don’t know any childhood nostalgia or family heirlooms, but there’s poetry here. In this supermarket on a quiet Thursday night there is poetry, between the lines.