After the bus came to pick up my son, Owen, for school this morning, I stood in my bright, empty kitchen and I fought the same feeling I’ve had everyday for the two years since a drunk driver blew a stop sign and killed my wife when she was out picking up dinner for us. And that was to chase down the bus, pull Owen out and bring him home, then lock the door behind us, safe and sound and together.
Instead, I poured a cup of coffee. Then I dropped the spoon I was going to use to stir the creamer and rather than simply bend down and pick it up, I slid down on my knees and curled up on the cold ceramic kitchen tile, clutching the utensil the way Owen used to clutch Momo, the stuffed fox he slept with every night from the time he was a baby until a little after his mother died and he abruptly decided he never wanted to see another stuffed animal again.
Finally pulled myself together enough to stand up and rinse the spoon off. That alone felt like an accomplishment, and I considered just crawling back in bed where I might wait out the rest of the day. But I've been doing that too much lately—not leaving the house, I mean. Besides, we were out of food.
Decided to go to a different grocery store than my usual one because I didn’t want to run the risk of seeing anyone I know, of making small talk, of answering the terrifying question everyone always asks: how are you?
On my drive over, I was stuck behind someone in a bright blue Toyota who had their left blinker on, but who wouldn’t make their move. You could tell they weren’t sure of which street or shopping complex to turn into, so they just crawled along, blinker blinking, brake lights glowing, the lens of one of which was cracked. Very frustrating because right there to the left of us, there was one of those center turn lanes. But the driver wouldn’t get into it. They just stayed in the passing lane, riding the brake, signal flashing. After about five blocks of this, I lost my cool. Started honking and yelling “Get over! Get the fuck over!”
It wasn’t like I was in a rush; except, I guess I was. Hadn’t even gotten to the store yet, and I was already desperate to have it over with, to be home again. Laid on the horn, but the more commotion I made, the slower the person went, like it was just making them more indecisive. And, still they wouldn’t get into the center turn lane.
You know what they call those center turn lanes? The suicide lane. A person can get into it going one direction, and someone else might get into it going the opposite direction. So they call it a suicide lane.
I used to call it that, too. Not anymore. Not in the last two years. I try not to even think about that word, suicide. Now the word scares me, like the sound of it could be enough to inflict pain or injury. Conjures up images of some kind of lethal poison—a glass of some kind of acidic liquid that looks like red wine vinegar and that slices up your insides like liquid razor blades.
One time, about a year ago, my son—he was eight years old at the time—heard the word in a movie. One of the heroes was trying to convince another hero to help them defeat a villain, and the second hero said, “Are you crazy? That would be suicide!”
Soon as I heard it, I knew my son would ask me. That’s just the kind of kid he is. Curious. He’s such a curious boy, his teachers used to always say. He just loves to learn. They haven’t said that in a couple years. Now they mostly tell me how quiet he is. Thoughtful, they call it. Introspective, they call it. He sure does like to draw a lot, they say. Grief is especially complicated for children, they say. They’ll be silly one minute, sullen the next. But I haven’t seen him silly since his mother was alive. What I’d give for a second of silliness.
Anyways, I heard the word, and I knew right away he was going to ask.
“What’s soo-side?” he asked me.
“What’s what, buddy?” I asked, just trying to buy some time as I figured out how the hell to answer.
“What’s soo-side mean?”
These were the questions his mother was much better at answering. Sandra would have had some creative way of answering it without getting overly detailed or dark or scary. Or she would have just said the word was off-limits, inappropriate, not up for any sort of discussion. She always had clarity. She was good at drawing lines. At making choices.
“Soo-side?” I repeated.
“Well, uh, it’s a thing that some people do. Like, you know when you scrape your knee or something?”
“Well, that hurts, right?”
“Or, like, you know when you get really sick? Remember when you got so sick last Thanksgiving?”
“When I had stwep?” Owen pronounces his Rs like Ws, and his teacher at school tells me they can fix that right up by sending him to the speech therapist three times a week, but I make excuses and put it off. If you want to know the truth of it, the thought of him pronouncing his Rs like Rs breaks my fucking heart. Like when he’d told me to take Momo away. He said Momo doesn’t make him feel better. Momo doesn’t do anything at all, he said. Momo’s just a fake fox, he said. Fake. I asked him if he was sure, but the more I asked, the more emphatic he became. He never wanted to see Momo or any other stuffed animal again. So, I took them all away. Put them in a box. Put the box in the attic.
Except for Momo. I keep Momo up in my closet. And sometimes, sometimes, the worst times, when I’m too afraid to sleep because of the nightmares, or when I do something like drop a spoon on the floor and it feels like the thing that’s going to break me for good, I take Momo down from the closet, and I hug the stupid fake fox and I ask him to make it better. But my son is right: he doesn’t do anything. Except he does—he smells like Owen. And that’s not nothing. That’s something. That’s real.
“Right, when you had strep throat. Well, remember how bad that was?”
“Well when you get sick or hurt, you don’t do it on purpose, right?”
“No,” he said, confused.
“Okay, well imagine being even more sick or scraping your knee really bad. Like really bad. But doing it to yourself because you want to get sick or hurt?”
“Soo-side is when you try to get sick?”
“Kind of. Or hurt. But worse.”
“Like weally sick?”
“Yeah but worse.”
“Oh.” He looked down at his fingers, and I could tell he was comparing this explanation to what the character said on the screen, but it wasn’t really making any sense. “Okay,” he said a little sadly. It used to be that when things didn’t make sense, he wouldn’t stop asking questions. Now, he’s come to accept that there are just some questions with no good answers.
But I guess that’s just something that happens when your mother goes to pick up dinner and never comes home again.
The cereal aisle was filled with boxes bearing such bright, neon colors, it was disorienting. Bold, capital letters proclaimed their textures and flavors and chief ingredients: CRUNCH! BERRY! SHREDDED! TOASTED! POP! JACKS! I felt as if I’d stumbled into a comic book. The produce section was no better. I wandered through it, feeling like I was in some kind of a jungle. It was too lush, too abundant. Surrounded by all the food, I couldn’t figure out what to buy. There were oranges and tangerines and pears and nectarines and plums and a hundred different kinds of apples, it seemed like. There were cherries and blackberries and strawberries and raspberries and grapes and bananas. I thought I’d made a list ahead of time, but when I looked down at it, all I’d managed to actually write, unhelpfully, was “fruit.”
You’re not allowed to buy fruit, Sandra used to tell me. It was one of those joking-but-not-joking things. The fruit I brought back was either overly ripe or hard and dry and flavorless. I could never get it right.
Well you’re not allowed to buy cold cuts, I’d say. She’d come back with a pound of ham, but it would be cut so thick, there’d only be six slices. No one wants to eat deli meats as thick as cables, I’d say.
Fine with me, she’d say, I don’t like going to the deli anyway. And didn’t. She thought the people who worked deli counters were intimidating. Not me. I was never afraid of them. I’d ask for a taste, tell ‘em I didn’t like it and sample another. I’d tell ‘em to slice it thinner so it was just the way we liked it. Sandra hated doing that stuff. I was fine with it. I used to even like it.
Anyway, those were the rules. I was in charge of the cold cuts and she was in charge of fruit. It was an even partnership. But now I’m in charge of the fruit and the cold cuts. And everything else, too. All the meals. Paying the bills. Administering medicine. Calming and soothing after nightmares. Cleaning the litterbox. Doing the laundry. Mopping the floor. Deciding what movie to watch on our family Friday movie nights. Choosing clothes for school. Choosing clothes for social events. Guessing when it was time to buy Owen a bigger pair of shoes. Scheduling dental appointments. Scheduling haircuts and helping Owen choose how he wanted to have his hair cut. Running the dishwasher at night. Putting the dishes away in the morning. Figuring out what fun activities to do on the weekend. All of it. Everything. And it all feels like picking fruit, and none of it feels like getting cold cuts, which is to say it all feels nearly impossible, and like Sandra could have done it much better than I do.
This is why I wish it was me who went to pick up the takeout that night. I mean, of course, I really wish we just cooked that night. But now that two years have gone by and it’s become clear that this isn’t some extended nightmare that I’ll finally awake from, it somehow feels like maybe we were destined to be reduced from a happy trio to a damaged duo. And if that’s how it was always going to go, then it should have been me who went to pick up the food. Me. Not her. Me. Owen would have been much better off if it was. I wonder when he’ll realize that. Maybe he already has, poor kid. God, sometimes I think I’m no better than Momo, the fake fucking fox.
Felt like I’d been in that store for hours, but I didn’t have much to show for it except for way too much fruit. Four different kinds of apples, a bag of those little clementines called Cuties, a carton of strawberries, mangos, a pineapple, and a container of kiwis. Christ, to anyone who saw my cart, it must have looked like I was shopping for a tiki-themed party.
Made an effort to get some more stuff, but all I could think was tonic water. I knew I needed tonic water because something I do every night is put my son to bed, and then I make a gin and tonic, and I read. I read a book. Or I read the news. Or, usually, I go into my email and I search for my wife’s name and I read her old emails. The later ones are mostly just administrative stuff—a forwarded message from the health insurance company or a utility or the school, headed off with a request for me to put something on autopay, or to get a form filled out, or to look into whether we want to sign our son up for some activity. But there are older ones. Ones where she would email me from work, talking about how she wanted to travel more. Emails with links to cottages and cabins that can be rented by the month, not the week. Let’s go to Scotland. Let’s go to Japan. Let’s go to Chile. There are also the emails from when we were trying unsuccessfully to have another kid. Long dissertations trying to decide if we should spend our savings on fertility treatments, or if we should adopt, or if maybe we were just meant to be a happy little trio. That’s what we’d decided on. Being a trio. And it was happy. It was. We were a happy little trio.
Until, of course, we weren’t.
Anyway, the tonic. I looked up at the signs suspended from the ceiling and saw that Aisle 4 was Soft Drinks, Soda, Mixers. Tonic water was all three of those things, so I headed down that aisle and passed the root beer and colas and Sprite and 7-Up and ginger ales and then moved into the sections of the iced teas and lemonades and iced-tea-lemonade. And then beyond that there was margarita mix and ginger beer and pina colada mix and grenadine, but I couldn’t find the fucking tonic, which was crazy becase it should have been right there. That’s where it was at my regular store, and that’s where it should have been according to the fucking sign, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t right there. I doubled back to the sodas and then the iced teas and lemonades and iced-tea-lemonades and then to the mixers again, but I still couldn’t find it. And then a young man pulling a cart piled high with twelve-packs and cases of Snapple and Pepsi and Mountain Dew entered the aisle and I stopped him.
“Excuse me,” I said. I was trying to sound calm and friendly, but I could hear the quiver in my voice, and that only made me feel even more frustrated and anxious.
“What’s up?” he asked, a little too loudly, and then I saw he had little earphones in. White, bulb-shaped things. Earbuds they call them. I could faintly hear the music they were pumping directly into his brain. Couldn’t make out a melody, but could hear the steady synthetic thump of a kick drum and strike of a synthesized snare.
“Tonic water. You have tonic water?”
“Tonic water?” The beat of his music was constant, unchanging, unrelenting. Not at all like a heartbeat.
I nodded in confirmation.
“Yeah. One aisle over.” He pointed to my left.
“Yeah,” he said.
“You sure? This aisle says mixers.”
He sighed and pulled one of his earbuds out. The music was louder now, but I still couldn’t pick out a melody. Just the endless crack and thud of the digital drums. “Huh?” he asked.
“I said, the sign over this aisle says mixers.”
“Sparkling waters. Next aisle,” he said and was about to stuff his ear with the plastic piece again, but I wasn’t done yet.
“Right. Aisle three.”
“Tonic’s a mixer, though.”
The kid got a look on his face like Oh Jesus Christ, here we go again, another person who wants to argue about how the shelves are stocked. “Yeah, man, I don’t make the rules around here. It’s the next aisle.” He replaced his earbud. Conversation over.
I hated it there. I just wanted to be home. Hurried off to the next aisle, where I found a six-pack of Canada Dry. Then I hurried through the rest of the trip, bought whatever came into my line of vision that seemed good or appropriate. My wife would have had us make a menu for the week, and she’d have organized the list by types of food and whether they were kept in the refrigerated section, the freezer section, or in the regular aisles. There would have been the staple items for meals, for snacks, and drinks. And then there would have been the special ingredients for that week’s menu. Me, I wrote one thing: “fruit.” And so I wound up with a bunch of tropical fruit, tonic water, some cereal, three different kinds of crackers, eight boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, two boxes of some weird shit that’s supposed to be frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cereal (but no milk), six cans of chicken broth and as many packages of chicken thighs, reasoning I’d just make a lot of soup, I guess.
Turned down an aisle full of cleaning supplies, of caustic chemicals designed to wrest scums and stains from grouts and ceramic surfaces. Powerful chemicals that you should always use with proper ventilation. Dangerous chemicals that you should never mix, lest you create chlorine gas which can burn your lungs. Or worse.
The registers were straight ahead. Sped past all the white plastic bottles of peril.
What’s soo-cide, mean?
We don’t talk about that, sweetheart. We never talk about that. Never. Go back to watching your show and never ever think about that word again.
That’s what she would have said, I know it.
I was third in line when I got to the register. But the person checking out was pretty much done, and so I decided to just stay in that lane rather than figure some other, potentially faster one. I gripped the handle of the cart until my knuckles turned white, willing the cashier to move it along so I could get home.
“Okay, next,” the cashier called out. He was middle-aged man and he said it like he was the conductor of a fucking Amtrak. “Step right up, thank you very much,” he said theatrically.
The woman in front of me, who looked to be approaching 90 years old, slowly pushed her cart to the cashier.
“How are you today, young lady?” the cashier asked in a raised voice, as if she was partially deaf.
I hate that, I really do. I hate when younger people call elderly people “young man” or “young lady.” It’s like, they’re trying to be charming, but they’re really being ironic. It’s like they’re saying holy shit, you’re so fucking old, I’m just going to call you young. It’d be like if some overwhelmingly obese person came rolling through in one of those electric scooter-carts they have, and the cashier greeted them with, How’s it shakin’, slim?
But of course, the woman gave him a demure little laugh. That’s what you’re supposed to do, I guess, when you get old: you’re supposed to just be in on the joke.
Why was she allowed to get old but Sandra wasn’t? I hated myself for having the thought, but if I can wonder it about myself, why can’t I wonder it about a stranger?
“Uh oh, looks like someone’s got a sweet tooth,” the cashier held up her Milano cookies before scanning them.
“They’re for my grandkids,” she said, giggling.
“Grandkids?” the man said with mock incredulity. “You look young enough to be my daughter!”
Christ, he was really laying it on thick.
“Now don’t tell me this is for your grandkids,” he said, holding up a bottle of chianti wrapped in woven straw. “I’m gonna have to see an ID, young lady!”
“Oh!” she said and reached into her purse in an effort to find her wallet.
He laughed and said, “Tell you what, I’ll let you off the hook this time.”
My god, this is unbearable, I thought. I’m going to be waiting in line forever listening to this guy crack a condescending joke about every last item.
Like she’d heard my thought, the old woman glanced back at me. For a moment, I wondered if I’d actually said it aloud. Maybe I had. She looked nice. She’d probably seen more loss than me, but she didn’t look the way I know I looked. She looked kind.
I tried to smile at the old woman, but I couldn’t. If I kept looking, I felt I might just burst into tears instead. So I looked down at the filthy, grey and maroon tiled floor.
“If only I could just give you all this free,” I heard the cashier say, “but the boss wouldn’t look too kindly on that.” Then he held his hand up to his mouth like he was telling her a secret. “He doesn’t want me playing favorites with the customers,” he stage-whispered.
“I wouldn’t let you buy my groceries anyway,” the old woman responded gamely. “I’m an independent woman!”
The cashier let out a loud laugh and clapped his hands together. “I gotta keep my eye on you!”
She pulled her card out of her wallet, and glanced back at me one last time.
I tried, and failed, again to smile.
“Well, thank you very much for coming in, young lady,” the cashier said, and he bowed down to her. “You have yourself a terrific day!”
The woman wished him well and started her long, slow journey to the exit.
I pushed my cart up toward the register, and for a fraction of a second, I could see the disappointment in the cashier’s eyes that I wasn’t a woman, not someone worth flirting with, whether in jest or otherwise. “Here ya go, I’ll take that,” he said in reference to my cart, and pulled it toward him.
I turned around and pretended to browse their selection of candybars and gum and breathmints so I didn’t have to look at the guy, didn’t have to speak to him, so that maybe he wouldn’t speak to me. But then I heard him trying to get my attention.
“‘Scuse me. Sir, ‘scuse me.”
I turned around somewhat timidly.
“What are these?” He was holding up a thin plastic bag full of fruit.
All I could think to say was fruit, but said nothing at all.
“These fruit,” he asked me again, like maybe I didn’t hear him. “What are these?”
I hadn’t been sure at first, but then it came to me. “Nectarines,” I muttered.
“Nectarines?” he said, punching in the code. “Aren’t nectarines supposed to be soft?”
He keyed in some more produce and without looking up, he asked me, “So, how’s it going today?”
I looked over toward the exit, where the old lady had finally made it to the exit. The sensor should have detected her presence and opened the doors, but they didn’t. So she just stood there, expectantly waiting for the glass to part. But the doors didn’t budge. She seemed puzzled. I looked to see if anyone else had noticed, if anyone was coming to help, but no one was.
I thought I saw the cashier glance in her direction, but if he did, he took no notice of her predicament or simply didn’t care. Instead, he cleared his throat in an effort to get my attention. “How’s it going today?”
The question I dread the most. I know I’m supposed to just say fine. I know that no one actually wants to know how you are doing when they ask that. And yet, it feels almost impossible to say fine or okay.
“It?” I asked, and I could feel myself breathing more rapidly.
“Yeah,” he laughed, “it. As in: how’s it going?”
“I—” started to say, but the lady was just standing there, trapped and I couldn’t think about anything else.
“Yeah, I hear you,” he said, as if I’d given him an answer. “Four hours ‘til quittin’ time. Then I’m outta here. Work hard, play hard.”
Didn’t answer. Just wanted to pay and be done so I could help the woman leave.
“Sixty eight sixty three,” he yawned. “Unless you’ve got a Safeway card.”
I did, but didn’t want to waste any more time so I jammed my credit card into the reader. The screen said PROCESSING... The three dots of the ellipsis kept appearing and reappearing to let me know it was, indeed, processing. All I could think was, Yeah, me too. I’m processing, too.
REMOVE CARD, the machine instructed. I snatched it out, stuffed it into my wallet, and slipped my wallet into my back pocket in one fluid motion. Didn’t wait for a receipt, didn’t say goodbye, didn’t give the cashier another look. Grabbed hold of my cart, that was now filled with my bagged groceries and headed over to the exit, where the woman was still just standing helplessly. As I approached, the doors parted. But I stopped next to her.
“After you,” I said quietly.
“Thank you,” she said. “I thought I might be stuck in here forever.”
“At least you wouldn’t go hungry,” I said.
“That’s a very positive attitude,” she chuckled. The sound of her laugh put me at ease.
“That’s me, Mister Positive.” I surprised myself with the joke.
Another little laugh.
“Have a good day,” I told her.
“At my age,” she said, “waking up at all is a good day.”
Got a lump in my throat as soon as she said that, and I did what I could to swallow it down. And then, I couldn’t help it, I asked: “Is that really true?”
She smiled, and she went on her way.
I stood there for a few moments, watching her make her way through the parking lot before I started on my way. But then I took one last glance back at her and saw the car she’d stopped next to. It was a bright blue Toyota with a cracked brake light. I was seized with some terrible feeling that was equal parts horror and humiliation, but without thinking I rushed to her, leaving my own grocery cart right where it was.
“Hi,” I shouted after her. “Hi!” I shouted again as I ran toward her. “Can I help you with your groceries?”
She looked at me, somewhat surprised, but not afraid. “I’ve only got two bags,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I said, somewhat winded. “Let me.” I grabbed the bags from her cart and placed them in the trunk of the Toyota, something she probably could have managed with one hand. “There,” I announced, stupidly, as if I’d done something major, something that merit a three-minute story on the local news. Local Man Saves Elderly Woman From Having To Lift Two Fairly Light Bags. All of a sudden, I felt like I’d become the jackass cashier.
“Thank you,” she said, sounding more confused than grateful.
I let out a big sigh, stuffed my hands into my pocket, looked back at my abandon cart, which was rolling slowly—almost imperceptibly—toward an empty parking spot. Finally, I looked back up at her and said, “Sorry. I just want to say sorry.”
A worried look came over her face. But the worry wasn’t for her, it was for me. “For what, dear?” she said soothingly.
“I was behind you on my way over and I was yelling and honking because you had your blinker—”
She stepped toward me and put her nearly weightless hand on my arm. It was unexpectedly warm. “Shhhh,” she soothed.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” I whispered.
“Shhhh,” she said again.
But I was helpless to stop myself. “I shouldn’t have pressured you like that. I frightened you or made you anxious, I know I did. Those turn lanes are dangerous. I don’t blame you—”
“My husband used to call it the suicide lane,” she said.
“Right! Suicide lane,” I said.
“He was the one who did the driving. But the few times I would drive, he’d always tell me: never get into one of those lanes unless you’re sure you can get out, and safely.”
“He was smart,” I said, ashamed of myself.
“I know,” she said and she stroked my arm.
All at once, I wanted to ask her who he was, what he was like, when he died, how he died. And most importantly, how she ever got through it. But she kept lightly stroking my arm and all I could do was stand there, my eyes welling up with tears, telling her I was sorry.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I promise, it’s okay.”
I nodded, and I turned away in an effort to keep myself from crying. But she squeezed my arm as if to say, don’t look away, and I turned my face back toward hers. She looked me in the eye like a parent, and she said seriously, but kindly, “Hey. Life’s too short. Even when it’s long like mine, it’s still too short. So don’t waste another minute feeling bad.”
“But how?” I asked.
“You’ll have to figure that out for yourself,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, a little disappointed. Though, I knew she was right.
She smiled and slowly lowered herself into the driver’s seat. “You be careful driving,” she sighed once she was seated and buckled in.
“I will,” I answered. And then I added, “Watch out for angry drivers. This town is full of ‘em. Or, one of ‘em, anyway.”
She started her car and she looked back up at me. “You do the same, dear. Mind you do the same,” she told me seriously.
I told her I’d try. And I did. I really, truly did.