Illy designated the next day Homemaker Day. She knew that sounded sexist and old-fashioned, but she didn’t care. The point was that her new job started in two days and she needed to make sure her apartment was in order. This mostly meant sweeping under the couch, which she hadn’t done in months and which she suspected was giving her itchy eyes, and grocery shopping. Although if she was feeling ambitious enough, might also involve calling her mother for plant care intervention. She decided to get groceries first, since she assumed the lines would be shorter in the morning. Illy had a grocery line phobia and always started to panic when the line behind her grew too long. She’d end up trying to hurry so no one would be impatient with her, but then would drop her wallet and forget her debit card pin number and end up sprinting out of the store, her groceries still piled by the cash register. And then she had to wait at least three months before returning to that particular store, which left her with few viable shopping options at any given time. So she usually skipped the bigger supermarkets altogether and just picked up what she needed from One Happy Stop, the little convenience store on the corner, where there were never any customers and the smiling lady behind the counter didn’t speak English. It limited her meal planning to meals found in a can or a box, but so far had never involved a panic attack.
Today, though, Illy wanted to stock up and had even scribbled out a meal plan for the next week, so she would have to brave the supermarket and wanted to get there as early as possible. She considered picking out a sporty outfit like celebrities were always wearing when they were photographed getting groceries, but decided she didn’t have time. Instead she pulled a hoodie from the laundry hamper, gave it a quick sniff, and threw it on over her pajamas. Her pajama pants were beige striped cotton, which she figured could pass as real pants, and might help her to stay relaxed throughout the process.
The only part of the whole grocery shopping endeavour that Illy enjoyed was her shopping bags. One of her colleagues at the library had started a little sewing business in her basement and sold homemade shopping bags made from retro upholstery fabric that you could roll up in your purse. She had brought them for the Christmas party gift exchange and Illy had been the lucky recipient. It was the first time she’d gone home with a gift that wasn’t porcelain or cross-stitched, and she was thrilled. Plus of course she knew that it was trendy and environmental to not use plastic bags. The only problem with that otherwise noble trend was that she no longer had plastic grocery bags to use for her garbage, and so she ended up having to buy new shiny garbage bags, which didn’t seem any more earth friendly. And it was definitely more expensive than just re-using the ones from her groceries. It was another one of those situations where she wondered if she was living life out of the general knowledge loop—like how she didn’t discover till her early twenties that you could pull that little red string to open up packs of Dentyne. All those years spent clawing at the foil with her fingernails, and no one bothered to share that helpful piece of general societal knowledge with her. And now the plastic bag dilemma. Were all those smiling canvas-bagged shoppers just pretending that they were living plastic-bag-free or was Illy missing something obvious? Cloth garbage bags? Loose garbage? She couldn’t figure it out. But her reusable bags were definitely hip, so she stuffed them in her purse and walked to the store.
Illy had decided on one of the big shiny chain supermarkets with the wide aisles and sushi bars. There was another independent supermarket that was closer to her building, and theoretically that was the one she supported. She liked that it was locally owned and sold mostly organic food and that the cashiers all had dreadlocks. But the truth was that it smelled funny, like vinegar and incense, and felt a little cluttered. It was sort of like how she theoretically bought her clothes from the thrift store, but really preferred the crisp, organized rows of khakis at the Gap. It was rather demoralizing to realize that most of her principles were theoretical, but when she walked into the air conditioned supermarket with all that open space and those self-check price scanners, she cheered up. Surely there were other areas of life in which to be principled and socially conscious. She’d brainstorm with June sometime soon.
After she found a cart, Illy pulled out her phone to consult the meal plan list she had downloaded from one of those online planners that give you your meals for the week, the ingredients needed and where to find them in the big chain stores. The first free menu she found was a kid-friendly sample option, so the meals weren’t exactly gourmet, but it felt great to be organized and not have to come up with her own meal ideas. She felt like a Homemaker after all.
Illy stared at the boxes of frozen French fries in the freezer section. She knew her mother would scoff at all that packaging and marketing and tell her to pick up a bag of real potatoes like people had been doing through the ages. But the sample menu listed a 750 gram box and she didn’t know if that would be the same as 750 grams of actual potatoes. Plus her mother’s option would involve a lot of scrubbing and peeling, which Illy didn’t know if she’d have time for with all the writing she’d need to do before and after work. The rows of bright red boxes started to blur as she stared at them, paralyzed by her first big Homemaker Day decision. It was only when she heard a freezer door across the aisle slam with too much force that she was able to blink and look up. There, loading a pile of frozen lemonade cans into his cart, was Jay.
Illy immediately dropped to a crouching position behind the fry freezer. What in the world was Jay doing at a grocery store so early in the morning? Why was he buying so much lemonade? And how was Illy going to get out of the aisle without him seeing her? She lifted her head just enough to peer over the top of the freezer. He was still there, rearranging his drink cans. She ducked back down. Hoping that no one would come around the corner, Illy started to waddle down the aisle, being careful to keep her head below the freezer rim. She no longer felt like an authentic Homemaker. She reached the corner of the aisle and stood up. An elderly man with a cane was watching her with some concern, but she just smiled and started perusing the jars of baby food in front of her, peeking around the corner occasionally to track Jay’s location. He still hadn’t moved from the lemonade section. It was vital that she determine which direction down the aisle he was heading before she could plan her next move.
As she pretended to read the ingredients on a jar of pureed peas, Illy came to a number of worrisome realizations. She had left her cart and her phone by the French fries. She had neither brushed her teeth nor put on deodorant that morning. She wasn’t wearing a bra. And she had sworn on a box of donut holes to her dearest friends that the very next time she saw Jay, she would put Operation Give Jay a Chance into action. She put down the peas and picked up a jar of creamed asparagus. This was not unfolding as planned. She stared at the asparagus for guidance. Maybe she could make a run for the exit, go home, crawl into bed, and start over tomorrow, never telling her friends that this disastrous outing had occurred. Except then she’d still have no food in her apartment and would have broken her solemn vow to her friends and to herself, once again letting her insecurities keep her from the her goals. Maybe she could find her way to the deodorant aisle-
“Do you have a baby or something?”
Illy spun around. There was Jay, staring at her like he’d discovered her buying vials of blood in the vampire aisle. Apparently she had slacked on her location tracking. Illy laughed, but tried not breathe out too much stale morning breath, so it sounded more like a fierce nose blow. “Baby? No way.” Another nose laugh. “I just like the creamed vegetables. Easier on the digestive system.”
Jay was inching away. She wondered if it was the baby food thing or her various bodily odors. Regardless, her opportunity was slipping.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you-” She forgot to divert her breath. She thought she saw Jay grimace, although he’d been looking sort of uneasy the whole time, so it might not have been the breath. “There’s this little coffee shop near my place that has poetry readings on Thursday nights. I thought since you liked to write poetry, you might be interested in going some time. With me. Or without me. Or whatever.” Stop talking. Breathe through your nose. Put down the asparagus. She couldn’t figure out how to put down the asparagus without appearing like she was ending the conversation, so she continued to hold it near her face in ingredient-reading position and waited for Jay’s reply. At the moment she was actually hoping he’d say no, he hated poetry, and she smelled funny and was too weird for him, then push his lemonade cart down the aisle and out of her life forever. At least that would’ve been honest. And leave her to finish her grocery shopping in peace.
Instead, he seemed to be reveling in the moment—her awkward pose, her embarrassing outfit, her nose snorts. “Well, Spacey Lacy, are you asking me out on a date?” He grinned. She tried to grin back, lips closed, arms clenched to her side. “I never thought you’d ask. You always seem so snobby and preoccupied, which I thought was such a shame for someone so pretty. Sure, I’ll come to your weird poem night. What time should I show up at your building?”
“Um, eight, I guess.”
“Cool. Enjoy the mushy green stuff.”
Illy watched him push his cart down the aisle, then smiled. He thought she was pretty.
Continue Reading: Chapter Twenty-Five