Tonight, I am following Corinne's lead and linking up to The Red Dress Club's friday fiction meme.
Here's the prompt:
For this Friday, write a short piece of fiction about seeing an ex in the grocery store from the first person point-of-view. Instead of writing from the female perspective, we want you to write from the male perspective.
Road Well Traveled
When I see her in front of me in the cereal aisle, I feel like a dirty old man for reading the writing on her sweats. Pink, they say, of course, like the asses all of the undergraduates in my English classes, girls who have rolled from their warm beds to the cold tables in my room with their bright bra straps showing in the wide v-necks of their white t-shirts. Sometimes when I am scanning the room for a face to call on, I wonder where they find these t-shirts that cling so well and are so thin I can see the softness of their skin and the ridges of the elastic in the waistbands of their sweat pants. You know, so I can buy one for my wife.
Like my rumpled students, the woman in front of me in the cereal aisle has her long, brown hair piled high on her head in a blob, tendrils escaping to slide down her neck and tickle her ears. She's wearing dark Ugg boots, too, and the three inches of leg showing between her pants and the cuffed sheepskin is tan like the backs of her arms. From behind, panty-lineless with a thin strip of green bra stretched tight beneath her t-shirt, I think she's about 18, and I feel like an asshole.
She stops to contemplate a row of Kashi boxes, and I swerve to avoid running the wheels of my cart over her heels. I glimpse her profile before I whirl to stare at the oatmeal on the opposite side of the aisle. I notice large sunglasses perched on top of her head, a bangless forehead with tissue-paper wrinkles, and creases around her mouth. In the baby seat of her cart is a bottle of red wine, a bottle I inspected at the beginning of my trip and rejected in favor of a $9.99 cabernet because I only have $60 in my wallet, and the only thing on my list more expensive than organic chicken is the quantity of organic peaches my wife has requested, and if I get regular peaches or factory-farmed chicken or milk that is, say, not organic but RBST-free, and spring for the better wine, my wife will purse her lips at me when she unloads the bags. And if this were the only consequence-- a moue-- then I would buy the wine, but I will get emails all week with links to stories about children with behavioral disorders and early onset puberty caused by pesticides and antibiotics and poorly treated livestock.
The woman in the t-shirt so thin I can make out the hollow of her navel when I glance over my shoulder and see her plunking her cereal next to the brie and 3 granny smith apples in the basket of her cart must be at least 21, I revise. I remember the wrinkles around her mouth. 25 then, I adjust, maybe 27. But she's tan, so probably 25. In any case, I am a 35 year-old lech shopping for a family of five , and nothing on the list organized by the geography of my kitchen cabinets, fridge, and freezer that my wife emailed me just before the end of my graduate seminar, and email that made my BlackBerry buzz on the table and shook my students out of their Foucault-induced stupor, lurks in this aisle-- I was cutting through on my way to snag frozen bagels and some $5 cage-free eggs.
I throw a cylinder of oats in my cart just for the hell of it and treat myself to one last look at the Kashi woman who is using lipliner to scribble through words scrawled on the back of a receipt. I notice the way she chews on her bottom lip in concentration, her teeth white against a thick layer of plum gloss that bleeds into the lines around her mouth, and the gesture makes me nostalgic. She looks like a woman who used to arrange her lips around the thin barrel of a cigarette, at least 20 times a day. Only smokers and perpetual frowners get wrinkles like that, and this woman with her tousled hair and toes bare inside her fur-lined shoes and cart full of food for one doesn't look like she has anything to frown about.
Under the florescent lights of aisle 11, I want to be in my freshman dorm room with its filthy beige linoleum tile floors and its stained eggshell cement-block walls. I had a futon, a roommate in the marching band who was gone almost every weekend, and a space on a smoking floor. I miss the Natty Light cans full of backwash and ash that lined the wall under the window. I miss falling into sheets my mother washed once a semester whether they needed it or not, sometimes alone, but more often not. I miss being delighted at $1 rail nights and ecstatic for $2 you-call-its.
No one called me Daddy. No one called me Dr. Miller. No one called me by my full name, even though they know me better than anyone in the whole world and if every other fucking person on the planet calls me Nick, why do they-- why does she-- always call me Nicholas in a voice that falls on the third syllable like she's disappointed because she is disappointed. Always. No matter how closely I follow the list. Sometimes the only way I can shuffle down another aisle is to park myself behind a great ass or to imagine how disappointed she'll really be the day I wad her list into a tiny ball and throw it in her lemon-sucking face. Metaphorically.
At first, I think I am having a stroke in the cereal aisle and that my last view of earth will be a row of brown Honey Nut Cheerios boxes and the dirty wheels of my cart as my potbellied body splats on the black and white floor. My name floats around my head in a throaty cloud.
"Nick Miller? No way!"
It is the Kashi woman in the teenager's sweat pants, and she is smiling at me, and if her nipples have anything to say about it, she looks happy to see me.
I don't respond, and she frowns a little, sticking out her sit-com star teeth to chew on that plum lip again, and the gesture makes me step back toward the oatmeal, grazing the shelf with my khaki-covered ass. If the two of us had met 2 years ago, say, in this very aisle, standing this very distance apart, I could have taken at least two steps back before rubbing the merchandise, but girls are not the only ones who eat their feelings, and I feel trapped. Publish or perish is academia's Sophie's choice, and some days I am one pound of organic peaches away from choosing the latter.
This woman in front of me who will go home and drink expensive wine and nibble soft cheese, I know her. Knew her. It was our second semester in college, and we knew everything about the world and about each other and about how to get the most out of our parents' money. She left her ash in my Natty Light cans, and we spent spring break on South Padre Island, and I remember she was sweet to my band geek roommate, and she always called Absolut for her $2.
I want to ask her if she's an urban planner like she'd urbanely planned to be or if she still likes U2 and pizza with mushrooms, if she bought herself the heavy diamond studs in her ears, if she always dresses like a sophomore English student, if she's read my book.
But then what? We're FaceBook friends, and she tells me how cute my daughters are?
Two paths diverge, I tell myself. My BlackBerry is buzzing in my front left pocket. My list is long.
"Nick?" she asks, her earlier conviction gone.
If I walk away, I think, she won't confuse my bloated self for the kid she used to know. This fat old tweed-covered man here. He couldn't be that kid, she'll think.
He shouldn't be, anyway.