Wheezing and slightly dazed, I inched down Wisconsin Avenue trying to remember something that I was supposed to do. I didn’t need to go to the bank. I had already checked and made sure my damned student loans had been paid. I had sent that thank-you note…oh, right! Peanut-butter. At home, there was no more of the goopy goodness I couldn’t live without. At work, my disastrous experiment with shite I.M. Healthy Honey Creamy Soy Nut butter (Peanut-free!) left me craving the real stuff: JIF. Well, Skippy would do, in a pinch. I know-- I'm a terrible vegetarian, but I am starting to think life is too short for soy. *Shudder*
I swerved a sharp, last-minute left in to the parking lot of the "social" Safeway and lucked out in that way which Californians adore most: I sailed in to a stellar parking spot. As I got out of the car, a somewhat elderly woman with a slash of fuchsia lipstick started speaking to me as if I were someone familiar.
”You can have my cart, dear!”
“Thank you.” I smiled at her as she delicately pushed her wheels towards me.
“Oh dear, where is my purse?”
I felt awful for her—forget advanced age; we all know that dreadful feeling, that sense of panic which burns as dozens of negative "What if-?"s race through your thoughts.
“Maybe you dropped it in one of your shopping bags? I do that all the time.”
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stood there uselessly while she talked to herself, wondering what she had done with it and then—
“Found it! I put it on my seat, so that I would see it before sitting down, so that I wouldn’t lose it, isn’t that funny? I’m just so glad that I didn’t misplace it, there are all kinds of terrible people who will steal your identity and have you seen that commercial where—“
I was studying her more intently than I was listening. Pale grey cashmere twin set, even in this near 80 degree heat. Well-cut black trousers, sensible, classic Ferragamo pumps with grosgrain bows. Her hair was short and carefully set, brushed out curls reminding me of very fluffy clouds, because of both their color and their shape.
Would I be like this one day? Lonely? She hadn’t paused to take a breath. She was still speaking, and hurrying through what would be normal pauses in conversation in that tentative, slightly fretful way a person does when they want to keep you. My exhaustion was replaced by sadness as I wondered who she was, where her children lived, if she had grandchildren, if they kept in touch with her. I hadn’t moved. I was suddenly in no hurry.
I continued to listen to her and as I did, I wanted cashmere; my skin prickled as if I were in a freezer as I thought of my Mother, alone. I know she was shy, that she wouldn’t talk to strangers as this woman had, but she was growing older. Perhaps fifteen scant years separated her from the person before me. She already had the silver hair and if my sister and I would let her, I’m sure it would be this short. My eyes started to water and I felt so guilty, for being 3000 miles away, for not being “settled”, for not giving her grandchildren to dote on.
“Well, I should go. Don’t you be like me and lose your purse now”, she admonished. I forced a pathetic smile and visibly pushed my right hand through the strap of my pink framed wristlet for all to see.
“Good girl.” She closed the door to her White Volvo and fastened her safety belt with shaking hands. I think I’ve been happier after listening to my Smiths records. I felt sick again, but not because of what ailed me; I didn’t want to accept that my sole parent would look like that, perhaps feel like that, some day too soon.
I walked away, melancholy pulling me down like gravity.
I’ve always loved Safeway. When I was a toddler in the bay area, we lived a few blocks from one and every day when my mother took my then-infant sister for a walk in her stroller, that’s where we’d go. Unlike the hulking, cup-holder equipped, SUV-like behemoths of today, you couldn’t carry a full load of groceries via your baby transportation back then, so it was both practical and fun to go so often, especially since everyone at our local store was so nice. It didn’t hurt that it was next to Walgreen’s (still my favorite drug store/chemist, natch) AND my local Sanrio shop.
Like all good sugar-fiends, my favorite department was the bakery. Safeway’s brilliant outreach strategy for toddlers is what keeps me going out of my way to shop with them to this day, as a wizened 31-year old. I’m especially partial to their glazed donuts, which are superior to oily, noxious Krispy Kreme in the same way L’oreal mascara bests Great Lash: the latter may be more popular, but that’s all it has going for it.
During those walks which took place while it was still the '70s, I was the proud carrier of an Official Safeway Cookie Card, which entitled me to one cookie a day from the glorious, sparkling case where they also kept cupcakes and tarts. I developed both my preference for the archetypal chocolate chip variation and the store in general during those critical early years, especially after those not-so-rare days when they made a huge show of looking both ways before slipping a gleeful-me two cookies instead of just one.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of that halcyon time on the peninsula as I walked in yesterday. I have always remembered it briefly, whenever I’ve Safewayed. It’s one of my quirks, it connects me to home. I really must not be feeling well.
I know better than to shop for groceries when hungry, but I did it anyway and suddenly a simple PB-run exploded in to a shopping cart filled with munchies. Honey-roasted peanuts, popcorn, “healthy” oatmeal raisin cookies…and Oreos, just because I freaking felt like it. My lust for products from Safeway’s bakery is, after the last few paragraphs of this post, now well-known and though I tried to stay away from that corner of catastrophic carbohydrates, as soon as I sniffed the slightest whiff of sourdough bread, I was its bitch. I floated towards the fake bakery cart in a trance, my heart lifting for the first time since depression kicked it with extra-pointy Fluevogs in the parking lot. My favorite words danced across the simple paper sleeve each baguette was sheathed in: “San-Francisco Style”. Awww, yeah. That’s the STUFF. I don’t think it’s possible to spend under two dollars and make me THAT happy, no, not even at the Sanrio store.
Once I delicately placed the pungent bread where a baby would go, in the little seat which had previously only contained my wristlet, I looked down with dismay. How did I end up with so much crap? I started to feel weak and inefficient but then I reminded myself that more accurately, I was weak and ill. Situation reframed, I happily strolled onwards, replacing my Oreos with double stuff. I’d probably only eat a few of them, but they would be glorious. As my mother reminded me the other day, I never recover when my diet is restricted.
“I want some too, Mummy”, a very small voice implored.
To my left, an absolutely gorgeous little girl sat in a hematite Maclaren Volo.
Interlude: I know, I know. I’m pitiful for knowing the difference between that and a MaclarenTechno XT (and a Stokke Xplory…and a Bugaboo frog…) when the only coupling I do is via the BBC. You may also consider me impossible and pretentious, since though I’m partial to the first two brands and not the third, my favorite stroller is from a fourth company which makes all of the above look like econoboxes. Of course, if by some miracle I do get knocked up and I continue to live somewhere urban, I think the Maclaren is the way to go. You can pop it open with one hand. Solid. Are you done heckling me? Good. I will probably never procreate. Therefore, it makes PERFECT sense that I should know about such things which are useless to me. Mmm, tastes bitter!
So anyway, the very small voice belonged to a very beautiful baby in a very sturdy, respectable stroller. Bounty Bar that I am, I still experienced that inward shiver when I realized she was possibly desi. I looked away, since it’s the “staring” our people do which I tend to mock most strenuously, but I wanted to focus on her, she was so cute. In a pathetic attempt at being casual, I contemplated something random on one of the nearby shelves which put her in my peripheral vision.
“No, beta you may not.”
“They are bad for you, Meenakshi.”
“Come on, don’t make Mummy’s day hard. We will be here for five minutes only, then we are going to the park, won’t that be fun?”
“Nooooooooooooooo,” howling only made her prettier.
To me, the name conjured that most holy of fictitious texts, the tome which named my empire. I could’ve sworn that the name also meant something about fish-eyes, but I wasn’t certain. Ah, Meenakshi, you stunning, heartless vamp of a character. Only another Bengali beauty could out-bitch you, but Moushumi did that and did it decisively.
I loved the little girl’s name. I loved her twin pigtails, too, sprouting from the top of her head like silken handles. I wonder how old she was…three? Four? Four felt too old for a stroller, but I’d seen desi parents coddle more egregiously. I couldn’t stifle my curiosity; I wanted to see her Mother, so I did an awkward three-point-turn with my cart o’unhealthy junk and smiled when she pulled the stroller back slightly to ease my tortured attempt at flipping around.
Meenakshi's parent was pretty, not as pretty as mine was at that age, but like every decent child, I am biased. Medium hair in a neat ponytail (I’d call it short, but my standards are ridiculous it turns out, after having hair down to my knees for all of my teen-aged years), reasonable diamond studs, sleeveless collared shirt, Capri pants, comfy sandals…I could see the “Made in India” spot on her upper arm. That’s how I always thought of it, the old, jagged, slightly round, puckering scar where people over there get some horrific shot (I’m terrified of needles) in order to come over here.
“Meenakshi, I will call Deddy and he will not be pleased. Stop it or not only will we go straight home, you will get punishment.”
Meenakshi sulked, now a balled up bit of baby in her Volo.
Soon, she was out of my sight and I could no longer hear the sound of Mother-toddler bickering. Well, bargaining, really.
Now is the part where I should wax on all Bradshaw-esque, like so: “I couldn’t help but wonder—will that ever be me? Will I ever have a Meenakshi? Sorry to disappoint, but instead of becoming that cliché, I headed to the produce section to snag a few flawless bananas and one random nectarine before rolling to the register.
Look, Ma…no line. Figures. The one week I want to read about Shiloh Nouvel Jolie Pitt, there would be no delay to justify it. I unloaded everything which is the antithesis of “clean eating” on to the slightly soiled conveyor belt. I’ll resume construction on my abs when I don’t require cough medicine with codeine, thank you very much.
“Ma’am, do you have a Safeway card?” Indeed, I have one from so long ago, the number associated with it belonged to my alpha-numeric pager of 1998. I punched it in violently on the touch screen and silently said what’s up to the sad sack who has to analyze my purchase patterns. Would he be bothered at all that a “530” was shopping in “202”? I think too much, you know that?
After paying, I walked away from the cashier with my bags, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a very grumpy, frumpy woman who didn’t even have the courtesy to apologize. Whatevs, I have two kinds of peanut butter and two kinds of cookies. If I were six, I’d be in heaven. The thought made me smile.
A slightly familiar, very small voice pleaded, “Pleeeeeeeeeease, Mummy, please, I want to!”, though it was difficult to hear over the bustle of checkout lanes.
Turning the corner towards an exit, I saw her. Each entry/exit of Social Safeway has a small lobby of sorts, with double-doors opening up to a small room with…another set of double-doors. I’m assuming it’s done to protect their heating and air-conditioning bills.
In this lobby, you will find copies of free local newspapers (does anyone actually read “The Georgetowner”?), assorted potted plants, charcoal and what Meenakshi was unsuccessfully lunging towards—gumball vending machines. Except her perfect, delicate little finger wasn’t outstretched in a vain attempt to touch candy or even my childhood weakness, super rubber bouncy balls (oh, the ones with glitter…sigh), no, Meenakshi was struggling to touch the sticker machine. Her little grunts made me want to nickname her piglet, but I was the only one who was listening. Her mother was paying consummate attention to the receipt she held in her hand. I broke in to a wide smile at this. Gang recognize gang and whatnot. Repeat with me the brown mantra: I will NOT be ripped off.
I remember exactly what that felt like. To pass those machines and think that priceless treasures lay inside. If only someone would give me a dime (Ha! Told you I was old), then I could possess something which came in a plastic capsule and then, then my life would be improved by this new acquisition from the forbidden red metal dispenser. I don’t think I was ever allowed to get anything from those ubiquitous vending machines as a child. I do recall going through a viciously obsessive phase where I constantly pumped quarters in to them as a nineteen year-old who had her first job, exacting vengeance for a childhood spent denied. I wore all those stupid rings and fake chains and candy necklaces too, but hey, I also wore docs and carried a Makita case for a purse.
I suddenly had the urge to do it again, to buy a sticker, but I looked at the lust in Meenakshi’s perfectly huge eyes and realized what an asshole that would make me. Solidarity, my tiny sister. If you weren’t getting an “I love bloggers” sticker, neither was I.
Was I hallucinating? I had been feeling dizzy on and off for a few days, especially when I was feverish over the weekend. I felt like my brain was possibly cooking again. I screwed my eyes shut and shook my head, a cartoon character clearing her mental etch-a-sketch.
“I love bloggers”
Are you shitting me? I almost didn’t notice that Meenakshi had been hauled away, her mother hunched around the side of the stroller arguing forcefully with sniping beauty.
Since when do kiddie machines dispense stickers that had to do with blogging? Talk about jumping the shark.
“I love geeks”
Again, wtf? What parallel universe did I suddenly inhabit? What other choices were offered?
“I love dancing”
Ah, that’s more like it.
“I love soccer”
Hell yes! I can wholeheartedly get behind that. Excellent timing, too.
“I love music”
“I love reading”
Whoa. We’re not in 1982 anymore, that’s for damned sure.
Walking outside, I realized that Meenakshi had pointed to two stickers in particular: “I love bloggers” and “I love geeks.” Oh yes, little one. Of course you do. I fought the urge to go back in like a freak and either try my luck at purchasing one (I’m sure I would’ve received everything but “bloggers”, which is what I really wanted) or worse, take a picture of the whole setup, to use as proof. Well, that and to garnish the blog post I suddenly had the overpowering desire to write.
Traffic on Wisconsin was moving smoothly. Good. I dropped my bags behind the driver seat, got in, locked all the doors, belted and carefully pulled out of my space. As I prepared to make a left turn, I eased out of the lot so that my front end wouldn’t smash in to pavement. Once safely on asphalt, I accelerated slightly, until I reached my rightful place, just behind a car waiting for the red to change. Lazily, I looked out the driver’s side window, at that random Japanese restaurant which, though it is the only joint in Gtown to have its own parking lot, seems haunted. The decrepit wooden sushi place that time forgot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car park there or a human go near it, except to walk past it on the sidewalk like that woman with the stroller was doing. Hey…wait a minute. Meenakshi, you’re not done with me? She was staring at me intently and her mother was on her mobile; they both waited to cross the same intersection I needed.
Awkwardly, I waved to her, using my left hand, which had been resting on the door. Maybe she couldn’t see me? It was still rather bright out. Her face was scrunched up because of it. I sensed movement in front of me and looked up. The light had changed. I took one last look at her (it’s in my DNA, I can’t help it) and my heart skipped the tiniest bit; she was waving back at me, in that way little kids do, hand opening and closing again and again. Barreling down Wisconsin, past the shops at Book Hill, I inhaled deeply while telling my ovaries to STFU.