His hands hurt. In one hand, he held a bag of P.F. Chang’s Chicken Fried Rice. In the other, a rack of Lloyd’s BBQ Ribs. He’d been standing like this for who knows how long, head going back and forth, studying the packaging, the nutritional facts, the details and minutiae, killing time until the right choice revealed itself. This is why he hated grocery shopping like a root canal, this painful yet necessary duty he knew he must endure. It always came down to a choice between two options. Choosing was something he’d never been good at.
“Will Dennis please report to the express line checkout?” the intercom said. “Dennis, please report to the express line.”
The regular din of Stop & Shop on a Sunday afternoon: couples strolling past the organic coconut oil and skinny popcorn, families arguing over which brand of whole wheat cereal to buy, an old lady wheeling her groceries past shelves of mixed greens and bottled smoothies. There was always one old lady, eyeing the vegan protein shakes like a bad omen.
When he was a kid his biggest fear was getting lost in the grocery store. He made nightmares out of the imagined sounds of his name on the intercom. It was like being called out by God himself for something you didn’t know you were doing wrong. A fate just as bad as death. He didn’t know then that his fears would multiply with age, that there were all sorts of everyday fates even worse. He saw friends run into these fates all the time. Like his college roommate, who’d sent him an invitation to a party at the house he’d bought with his fiancé. He had gotten it in the mail. The last time he received an invitation in the mail was in third grade to Mary Ferranti’s birthday party. He felt like an old man or a kid, he couldn’t decide.
A woman had to edge by him, side-shimmying her way past his cart. He hadn’t realized how much space he’d been taking up, standing in the middle of the aisle like a statue, or an asshole. He tried to pull his cart away like a failed apology: the wheels wouldn’t turn the way he wanted them to, leaving his groceries more or less where they started. He smiled a sorry as she went by. If she noticed it, she didn’t show it. She was blonde with a soccer-mom bob, and she moved slow and confident. In her wake he felt awkward, he felt less-than.
It was just another rainy Sunday afternoon. A no-nothing kind of day. A day rutted with headaches and hangovers. He could barely think straight. He could barely choose which frozen dinner to buy. The air-conditioned oxygen goosed his arms.
Isolated Soy Protein Product. He read it o the P.F. Chang’s, like this would help him reach a decision. What exactly constituted isolated soy from, what, included soy? And how did the protein become a product instead of just soy? Product. It was a word he used every day at work and eroded its meaning with every repetition. It could mean anything and everything. Let me give you a product comparison with our other options, he’d say. Or, Here’s our premium product, I think you’ll see the value. It had become the linguistic equivalent of white noise.
His phone buzzed twice, but he didn’t look at it because he knew who it was.
Of course, there were other fates just as bad as his old roommate’s. There was his, which wasn’t any better: his name was Ben Croteau and he sold life insurance to shmucks who’d be better off investing in a beach house in Idaho. It was essentially the adult-version of selling knives door-to-door. Except now he was old enough to know better, or at least he should. The insurance part was unavoidable. It was what everyone did in this part of Connecticut—the last place he wanted to end up, but some things were unavoidable. When he wasn’t shilling life insurance, when it wasn’t Monday through Friday, it was another same-shit Saturday night where he’d meet up with the same friends from college to go to the same bars to see the same girls who all wanted the same things: a husband, a family, security. Not that he found any problems with this—who didn’t want these things?—but it was as if West Hartford had put their urgency into hyper-speed. When had these needs become so pressing? He was 25 and the pressure was already set to explode, the pressure for white picket fences and beautiful children and all the things he’d never decided if he actually wanted.
He could still see The Woman out of his peripheral. She was maybe mid-thirties, and there was a soft wag to her ass, nyloned and compact in her Lululemon yoga pants, that he wanted to ignore but couldn’t. She probably toned it several hours a day with her personal trainer in a gym he couldn’t a ord. He saw her pick up an expensive-looking carton of Talenti gelato like she was a jeweler trying to suss out a fake. Her cart over owed with chicken, steak, artisanal potato chips, bottles of truffle oil, and multiple packs of La Croix, all coming together in a gaudy explosion of colors and plastic and glass. He imagined the family she was feeding: four hearty children, all boys, with blonde hair and blue eyes and straight white teeth, growing up careless and full. He hated them and he hated her or was in love with her and really what was the difference.
But he couldn’t say he was far o from her, could he? His cart had the same organic fruits and vegetables that she had, just like everyone else, like this was some secret fountain of youth—all you had to do was fork over some cash. He was careful about what he bought but he didn’t skimp, not anymore. And he’d finally reached the point in his life where he could get double chocolate Milano cookies without worrying about sending his checking account into the red.
He was no longer the poor boy he’d always known. He wasn’t sure what to make of this. It was like he’d lost something he never knew he needed. There was a murmur of paranoia always running in the back of his mind that he’d sold out, that he was stuck in the usual narrative: settle down, go full yuppie, and never turn back.
He was jittery and unfocused. He was convinced his head had been hollowed-out by every Mojito he drank at Bar Taco last night. He believed his soul had transubstantiated into helium overnight and would oat away if he didn’t keep it on a tight leash.
His phone buzzed and he knew it was the same person as last time, that it was Laura, and again he ignored it.
She placed the carton of Talenti on top of her bag of baby carrots. Her cart was so full of food he thought the gelato would topple to the floor at any moment. She looked like the kind of woman who would call it a carriage, not a cart.
Just another rainy Sunday afternoon. He could believe it, because it was just another rainy Sunday on the continent of Ben Croteau.
“Dennis, please,” the intercom said. “Come to the express checkout. Thank you.”
The aisles and the shelves were filled with products. Everything was a product. He was a product —a product of his childhood, as people said. He grew up eating the same dinners all kids of single moms know: the overcooked, rubbery penne, the scrambled eggs and ketchup, or usually just a microwaved frozen dinner with the center still hard and iced over. Now here he was buying the same shitty meals.
The Woman turned the aisle and he was alone again. He thought, yes, now I’m free of distraction, now I can decide which item to buy, but he couldn’t. His soul was floating away. It was leaving him behind to wrestle with this decision forever.
He couldn’t concentrate. His mind was like a pinball, bouncing o the food in his hands to anything else it could land on—his life, his relationships, his career. All of it was losing its meaning, like the way the words he said at work, said so often that they would get stuck in his head like the hook to a pop song. “It’s never too early to secure your future for your family and your retirement,” he’d repeat until the sentence lost any significance, an endless stream of sound that filled his mind like a trickling brook. It was a living, it paid for the groceries, he couldn’t complain. He was staring down two frozen dinners, telling them how it was never too early to secure their future.
A rainy day on the continent of Ben Croteau. But it was not so much a continent any longer as it was a small island. Getting older had a funny way of doing that: with every year, every day at work, he felt his sense of self diminish like land falling into the rising ocean. He figured this was what it meant to grow up, to become a fully-functioning adult. Eventually he might stumble into having a family and there’d be barely anything left of him above sea level.
The beep of food items scanned, the staccato of cash registers clanging. Here was every item you could possibly want on a daily scale: pineapples and broccoli, kleenex and kombucha, hair spray and condoms. Everything you could want, and he couldn’t make the simplest decision.
His phone buzzed again and he didn’t have to think about it to know it was Laura. It was the standard Sunday text about dinner tonight. Just another point of monotony in his weekly routine. She was maybe his girlfriend but he’d made no voluntary actions that could prove this. Why don’t we go out somewhere nice, he knew she’d text him. He didn’t have a reason for or against. He just didn’t know what constituted nice; it wasn’t even something he would’ve considered. But she would ask and he would have to consider—nice, a word he used so rarely it might as well be a different language. He was ne as long as he had enough food to fill his stomach, but what was nice, and how could he figure it out? How could he understand something he didn’t understand? And that was his biggest fear, that was the worst fate: not knowing what he didn’t know. There was a whole world out there of places he’d never been— Paris, London, LA, even New York City. All he knew was where he’d been. His world had only expanded as far as his hometown state and that was it. How could he make a choice on anything without more information, more experience?
“Please come back to checkout,” said the intercom. “Dennis, I’m sorry, but we need you again.”
Some people knew their whole history through food. There were whole clans of people that distinguished themselves from the rest of the world by their love of roasted garlic. His heritage was frozen dinners. You didn’t get to choose these things.
Or Laura could be texting him about something else, one of the countless things he’d done wrong. There was always something. She was not shy about letting him know.
The older he got, the more he understood the appeal of going out for the proverbial cigarette and never coming back. Not that he had a family to abandon—just the impulse to get up and leave everything behind, start fresh, do it better the next time around. His phone buzzed again.
He wanted to fall in love. Laura was not love. But love wasn’t really what he wanted, was it? He wanted the short-breath frenzy, the heart-race oblivion of potential that every night used to have, when a new girl was as easy as breathing and you could plunge as deeply into her world as you could into the ocean, if even for an hour. Laura was not that either. What was she? She was maybe that, once, but that had changed. When did it change? Who decided these things? He felt the cardboard from the Lloyd’s BBQ ribs getting rubbery in his hands, the numbed synapses in his fingertips sending signals to his brain to hurry up and choose already.
And then it happened, something out of the norm. He almost kicked out of shock. It was like some animal had latched onto his flesh for a meal while he was choosing his.
But it wasn’t an animal. It was just a kid. His arms were wrapped around Ben’s shin.
“Not dad,” the kid said.
Ben wasn’t sure what else to say. He looked at the kid. He had a buzzcut and a crooked incisor that stuck out of his chapped lips.
The kid’s face drained of color, got all pasty. He took a step back.
“Where is he?”
They stared at each other. The kid put his thumb in his mouth. Ben didn’t like the way he looked at him, like he was expecting something he couldn’t give. There was the hum and buzz of the grocery store and they stared at each other.
“Are you old?”
When was the last time something had happened outside the scope of his weekly routine? He couldn’t remember. It woke him up a little, pulled him out of his haze of last night’s drinks, brought his helium-soul a little closer to planet earth.
“You look old,” the kid said.
It was like a punchline. The kid was done with whatever exchange he wanted—he bolted down the aisle, his tiny legs pumping, stopping at random intervals to open the refrigerator doors and peer at all the flavors of ice creams. He grabbed a gallon of Baskin-Robbins, then kicked it up into a higher speed, taking a left out of the aisle without looking.
How the kid ran at a breakneck speed, unthinking and slapdash, without any concern that he might be doing something wrong—it should have annoyed Ben, the way parents let their children run wild in grocery stores. But it didn’t. It made him wistful. It made him regret. It made him wonder how he’d managed to grow old enough to be mistaken as a father, something he never thought he was qualified to become. He remembered when he was the same age as that kid, when he used to do the same thing, when his mom would buy them the same Lloyd’s BBQ ribs he held in his hand. When he looked at the ribs, he wasn’t in this grocery store; he was eight-years-old and he was begging his mom to get these sickly-sweet slabs of meat.
Some people, they get nostalgic about their grandma’s mythic sauce—the fabled stories, the lengthy epics that involve hours of slow toil and simmering onions and garlic sliced so thin it practically liquefied in the pan, the sauce that involved not hours but days of sweat and work, like this was a religious rite, like a pot of it should’ve been hanging off of Jesus’s outstretched arm.
He didn’t have that, he didn’t want it. He craved his own memories. He had Lloyd’s BBQ ribs, and that was plenty. You could get sentimental over anything, and this was what he chose: those nights, once-in-a-blue-moon, when his mom would return, back to their quiet and tiny home, and she’d have Lloyd’s BBQ ribs—this surprise, this splurge, this tiny piece of decadence. They didn’t really talk: she was too tired from work and he was too shy to try. But he would watch his mom take the ribs out of the oven, hot and steaming, and he would smell it, the meat crisping on the pan, he would taste them before they were on the table, imagining the way the meat would melt in his mouth like butter, and he would have this sense of complete satisfaction before the act even began. If there was anything wrong with the ribs—if they were below some kind of universal standard of what constituted as nice, he didn’t know and he didn’t care. It was a small reprieve from his wants and needs of everyday life that he always went without. He had wanted something and his mom had gotten it, and he was grateful.
But he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was a guy with a steady paycheck standing in aisle nine at Stop & Shop, remembering who he was, the food growing soggy in his hands. His phone was ringing now. Of course it was Laura, who else would it be? He wanted to choose a dinner already and place it in his cart, to check out of the grocery store and get in his car and drive to her apartment, the apartment they spent their nights entwined in front of her TV watching Net ix and living a relatively contented life, to take her out, anywhere she wanted to go, to keep living the same life he’d always lived in this world that kept changing in ways he barely noticed. He wanted to pick up the ringing phone and tell her about the boy racing through the grocery store, how he had run as fast as he could, that this was something you missed as you got older, that eventually you reached an age when you realized you couldn’t run anymore. But he wasn’t sure it would work. He wasn’t sure he could make her understand.
He let the phone ring, wondering how that conversation would go.