He puts down two cans of coconut milk and a carton of strawberries on the counter and gives me a stern look. Michael Bublé laughs at me personally over the loud speaker and the heat is making the back of my polyester blend shirt stick to the back of my neck. He tells me something, something about keeping the cans upright, but it’s like someone yelling at you from behind the rail at a theme park and I can only help him to leave the store as fast as I can. I assume it is in both of our best interests.
His bag is full, his credit card is out, and I am desperately trying to tell the girl next to me that they’ve changed the code for mangos two days before Christmas because they hate us and she needs to swap the two last numbers around. When I look back, his look of mild irritation has transformed into utter contempt; his upper lip is curled, his nose is crinkled. The line behind him grows.
“I told you to keep the cans upright, Christ.” I stare at him, and look down at the bag. They are upright. I look back up at him where he is in the middle of demonstrating my fumbling like a lost juggler. “Jesus Christ,” he says again, shaking his head, taking his bag, slamming down his credit card. Indifference sets into me like an arm being slung over my shoulders, realizing suddenly that his lack of patience and empathy is not my problem and never was. So I apologize, put the receipt in his bag, and tell him to have a nice Christmas and move on to the next customer. Because whatever his issues were, they’re none of my business.
I am but an obstacle to him.
But I go on thinking about him, him and his coconut cans. I remember telling my dad a few days ago about another customer who had behaved like a child to one of my youngest coworkers. I told him about my fury that she was being treated in this way and just had to grin and bare it. He had shaken his head sadly like a veteran being informed of another war, and said:
“Something real bad must have happened in that lady’s day.”
I guess so.
The car shudders up the slope in very much the wrong gear, other cars changing lanes, speeding up to move around us. We are a rock in a river, but I imagine us like a boulder on the top of a hill, the front wheels lifting off the tarmac, and the moment when the center of gravity shifts to the backseat, followed by the crunch of the metal, and the shattering of the windows. But it doesn’t roll back because that’s not how literally anything works, and I know that. Traffic streams indifferently around us, and with my hands gripped to the wheel, dad’s hand gripped to the door handle, we push on. I fumble for the right gear and there are only so many and somehow none of them work.
He tells me that I should move over to the left-hand lane when I can. The terror of the situation is like a heartbeat, firm and steady, and in that way it is conquerable, but in the moment all I think is “well fuck, I’ve got no more evidence for anything else, so at least this is a clear instruction.” So I do what he tells me like catching a ball thrown at you with no warning or reaching out for the ground when you fall. But I was so worried about a physical impossibility that I didn’t even have time to worry about all the other possibilities.
I nearly take out the rear bumper of a neighboring car, but as it speeds away, away from me, a hand is extended from the driver’s side window and I swear it’s the most serene gesture I’ve ever seen. A kind of “no worries”, a kind of “it’s okay, welcome to the world.” It kind of looks like a wave.
The terror subsides, because it always does, because there’s only so long that terror can exist without going anywhere before it dissipates, leaves you with nowhere else to go but up. And the right gear is found, the mirrors are checked, and the corners are taken not yet with grace but with diligence. And I go on thinking about that gesture, I go on wondering how he could have known.
It’s late and no one’s in the store.
It’s hard to comprehend, like even when it’s quiet it’s not this silent, even when it’s six thirty in the morning it’s not this silent. But there is nothing and no one, just the empty aisles. The town has retired, a retreating tide and left us be, us ambling staff members, down to single digits, an archipelago that used to be a continent. Even though the lights don’t change and the windows are all painted over, it feels darker than it did during the day. The music of the loud speaker has become a toneless drone to me and on my break I went through my bag and found a list of goals I had ripped from a schoolbook, written at the beginning of the year.
I went to kindergarten with one of my coworkers. Her face hasn’t changed but she likes me now. And the afternoon is pleasant with her there and when she sends me back to finish doing the books, she gives me a big smile. The floor manager comes with, and it’s nice. He’s kind to me, he’s always been kind to me, but now it’s a confident sort of kindness, comfortable. He runs the grocery floor like a band manager or a navel vessel manned by toddlers, content with other people’s fuck ups.
Our shifts are too long and we hang out like old men on a porch, the bug zapper buzzing quietly. Together we unplug the iPod belonging to the shop and plug in his phone; play the requests over the loud speaker, louder than usual because there is no one here but us. But it’s not loud, more meandering. We discuss our favorite bands, his girlfriend, the weekend, and we sing along.
And I think that this is how I want 2018 to look.
As I’m walking out, not worried, pretty calm, I’m thinking that this time last year. When I thought those goals were worth the paper I wrote them on. But looking back, they are alien to me, written by someone else, someone younger; someone as consigned to oblivion as I myself will soon be. And I’m less crushed by my failures than I thought I would. Perhaps because I know what this year has been like. Things have been accomplished, not the things I had planned, not the things I thought I wanted. But not nothing.
I wonder if I would understand if I didn’t know that all of these things had worked out, if I only had this piece of paper and the knowledge that I hadn’t done any of these things.
I wonder if I could look back on myself and think ‘it’s okay,’ considering all that there is, ‘it’s okay, you don’t have to be so worried all the time.’ I hope that I would be able to, because with nothing planned achieved I still found myself listening to this music with a good friend and the quiet air. And that’s something, that’s worth something. If it would have taken a year to get here, it’s worth it.
And I will give myself this allowance; I will give all the allowances I can.