At 8 p.m. or so on Feburary 13th, I flagged down a Stop & Shop stock boy with a bad haircut and asked, “What do you buy on Valentine’s Day for someone who doesn’t love you anymore?”
The hipster-haired young man identified by his name-tacky-tag as Hayden looked at me with sunken-ship eyes, incredulous yet uninterested. “Um,” he said, “that’s a trick question?”
I said, holding a cardboard heart full of truffles in one hand and a terrifying teddy in the other, “Why would I trick you?”
Hayden told me, “I don’t know,” and I believed him in the most implicit way.
“You don’t know what?” I pressed, stepping closer to the grocery boy, catching the questioning eye of a passing-by mid-forties mess and the babbling brook of children radiating around the cart she probably called a buggy. “You don’t know why I would trick you, or you don’t know what I should buy?”
“Neither,” he said, and he beamed, so glad to have gotten something right.
“Why not?” I held up the heart of chocolates, waving the damn thing in Hayden’s direction, attempting bamboozlement. “You’ve got a girlfriend, Hayden? You’ve got someone? You buy them a heart with little chocolates inside and there aren’t enough chocolates inside and she keeps biting into them and not liking the flavor, so you’ve got to eat all of those chocolates, and then you’ve gotta log all those calories, and the next day it snows too much in mid-February and they close the gym? Is that the story, Hayden?”
Hayden said, “Um.”
Beyond Hayden, in the vague store-space where I stared to avoid looking at his vacant-of-emerging-intelligence mouth, a familiar face with unfamiliar hair passed by our shared seasonal aisle and distracted me all over the place. I shoved the bear, Bronson, into Hayden’s chest. With two clumsy hands he clutched the creature to his person. Abandoning my cart, I escaped in warm pursuit of a big-banged platinum blonde from another part of my life.
She crept her way out of Aisle 9 Pet Food, Pet Toys, Pet Supplies, and Laundry Detergent just as I arrived, ever avoiding me, like in the old days, before grocery store visits at 8 p.m. in the snow. No big mess, she moved slow, weighed down by the cart she probably called a cart and perhaps some dog food, though I couldn’t picture her with a dog.
“Hey!” I yelled in the bread aisle. She moved faster.
“Yo!” I shouted in the aisle where they keep the paper products, towels and plates and toilet.
“Gloria!” I bellowed among the frozen food, between the breakfast section and the vegetarian options.
Gloria stopped, turned, didn’t smile, full lips hanging open, that one tooth still somewhat questionable. She wore thick eyeshadow and lipstick and a long, brown coat with big rustic buttons and I couldn’t see the contents of her cart but pictured them to be a divine window into her soul and the three years which intervened between my college graduation and the February 13th during which I screamed wild at a confused youth named Hayden.
“Gloria!” I said at a more civilized volume, crossing the physical gap between us and wishing I hadn’t thrown aside that box of chocolates. “You’re at Stop & Shop! You’re stopping, you’re shopping.”
She nodded, face still less than enthused. “Cyril,” she said with a distinct lack of an exclamation point, “you’re at Stop & Shop. After all these years, the world continues to astound.”
I could’ve kissed the girl, but settled for guessing the flavor of her lipstick. My mind went wondering if lipstick came in flavors at all, and I resolved to ask Anna about it later that night, or during our Valentine’s date.
“There it is,” I told her, pointing upward with my enthusiastic pointer, unsure what the gesture meant or conveyed. “That wit I missed. Gloria, Gloria, viva la Gloria. How’s tricks? How’s life? How are the dogs?”
She relaxed somewhat, but kept a noticeable amount of tension lodged in her hunching shoulders. “Tricks are for children and magicians,” she said, swinging her cart around to put the jangling contraption between us, then leaning on the handlebar. “Life is a theoretical concept, and the dogs are, surely, not owned by me, who owns no dogs.”
“Cat, then,” I said, and leaned on the opposite end of cart with my elbows, hoping she considered this an invasion of personal space. “You have a cat, two cats, three cats, you never really returned my calls and it made me feel bad about the way I am.”
Gloria’s shape, too, took the form of a lean-forward over the cart, and more and more the two of us became the kind of people all shoppers and retail workers and humans hate, those who take up half an aisle for the purposes of an unmoving, banal conversation. “A teacher’s assistant is not required to return personal calls, only those related to academic matters, and, even then, only during the semester. And perhaps, Cyril, you should feel bad about the way you are, though I doubt you do, considering.”
“Considering?” I said, narrowing my eyes for no reason, scrunching up my face. “Considering my shirt? My shoes? My lack of cologne or my audacity to call you out, I’m pretty sure we could’ve been in love, Gloria, or my haircut, because I think that looks pretty much okay?”
She picked at one fingernail with another, an old habit. “As I’ve told you in multiple Christmas cards, I do not think we were ever, nor will we ever be, in love.” She crossed one leg behind another, legs to die or kill or do extra credit for, and I regretted wearing a jacket, because grocery stores can never maintain a reasonable temperature for a place so entrenched in the business of walking around.
“Yeah,” I said, and tried my best to be chalant but with the common prefix, “well, I threw those cards away, and then I took out the garbage and I think they ended up at a dump somewhere, so, hey, when did you dye your hair, I liked it black, and talk to you next Christmas.”
“My boyfriend likes blondes,” she said, and grinned in a manner most imperfect. “He’s seven feet tall, teaches martial arts, rescues stray cats and repairs elevators for a living.”
“Good,” I said, wondering what Hansel—no, Hayden—was up to, “great, grand, wonderful. Are you giving him a Nobel Peace Prize for Valentine’s Day? Because, clearly, he’s very deserving of one.”
Gloria leaned closer still. “Cyril, seriously, all jokes aside,” she said, but let the sentence hang.
“Like I said,” I told her, “never mistake my refuge in audacity for mere jest.” I couldn’t quite remember if I had said any such thing.
“Are you doing alright?” Gloria asked, and put a hand on one of mine, and looked like a teacher. “Is there some I should call? What do they have you on these days?”
“Ah, Gloria,” I said, jerking my hand back, full of regret and hunger and a loneliness deep. “I’m sorry. I have to go. I’ve got to buy flowers for the girl who’s going to break up with me, but maybe, after all that, we can go out to dinner.”
“Whatever you say,” Gloria told me, turning to look at the TV dinners, and I doubt I ever saw the woman again.
The bear and chocolates together cost less than twenty dollars, so I used my debit card and forgot the PIN number on purpose a few times and clogged up the cash register real good and embarrassed the hell out of Jayden, my cashier, and his nice haircut. In the parking lot, I presented the unbeating organ full of chocolates to a pretty young thing walking to her car. Her boyfriend, after some provocation, dislodged one of my teeth. At home, I gave the bear to Anna and forgot its name. She said, “Oh, thanks,” and I fell asleep watching Netflix, my evening of audacity, as always, exhausting.