by Leah Peterson
© 2003 Leah Peterson
All Rights Reserved
Originally published on Writer’s Monthly
Words overheard in the line at the grocery store: Mid-Sixties Lady in polyester leisure suit, “That looks like a wonderful lunch! So healthy!” pause and then “Strawberries and crab salad. That sure looks good!” And then I realized that whoever she was talking to was having the same lunch that I was. I turned around slightly to look unobtrusively at the person that could be my lunch twin. It was just me and the lady. Then it dawned on me: she was talking to yours truly.
This happens to me quite frequently. I’m not sure why strangers make a point to converse with me. Perhaps I need to rethink my outgoing signals. I try to be friendly but distant, aloof but aware, present but unavailable for any small talk beyond the weather. I just say hello like other people do. But, somehow, I end up with way more personal information than I needed to know.
I could try to wipe off the smile that seems to invite people I’ve never seen before to confide in me. I could wear a sign around my neck that says, ‘Please just let me purchase the items in my basket. I don’t want to hear about the cyst removal from your abdomen last winter that no longer lets you fit into a size 10. I just came here for plastic wrap and cheese.’
But if I changed my frequency, I wouldn’t really be myself anymore, would I? And I wouldn’t get so much great writing material.
A cleaning lady at the McDonald’s bathroom talked to me the entire time I was using the facility. She told me about her daughter coming over from another country, how she thinks someone might have stolen her liquid cleaning bottles when her back was turned and that she wanted to go see the new George Clooney movie. All this verbiage when I really could have used some quiet time and privacy.
Speaking of movies, I had a guy ask me if I liked snakes ( ! ) and then actually follow me from the hall into Theater 18 while he told me he had just bought a five foot boa constrictor and it was in his car. I’m not sure if he wanted me to go out and see the serpent or report him to animal cruelty or to the police. I did none of those. I watched the movie. After all, that’s what I went there to do. I hope the snake was okay.
In the dressing room at Macy’s, a lady kept knocking on my door to ask my opinion on her outfits. “And what do you think of this one? Do you think I look pretty?” In my head I replied, ‘Lady! I don’t even know you! Why would I care?’ Out loud I replied, “Looks great!” When she went in her little door for the fourth time to put on a different blazer, I ducked out.
At the gas station, a guy from the next pump over kept trying to carry on a conversation with me. He was smiling a lot and looked nervous. Wait. Maybe he was flirting. I won’t count him.
Back to the lady in line at the grocery store. She’s the most memorable from the past few months.
She finished putting her two 24-packs of soda on the conveyer belt and told me, “Yes, well, I can’t eat stuff like your crab salad anymore. You don’t know what kind of creamy crap they wipe all over it. It could kill me. Now, the crab itself?” she paused for emphasis, “Yes. But that creamy crap?” another pause, “No.”
I smiled at her and kept shuffling towards the checker lady.
“I’m a diabetic, you know.” No, I said to myself, I didn’t know since I don’t know you, but that certainly explains the case of sugary soda you’re buying. Out loud I muster a “No, really?” But I’m getting interested despite myself. She’s going to be a character in an upcoming column. I can feel it.
“Yes, I am. And since they told me that a few months ago, I can’t eat just anything I want to anymore. In fact, I’ve lost 84 pounds in the past five months!”
“Well, there’s the upside, then!” I replied in my Pollyanna voice. I’m happy for her unexpected weight loss. I want that to happen to me. But I don’t want to be a diabetic. Is there a happy middle ground?
“Oh, no. You don’t understand. My man likes me heavy and now he thinks I don’t look as good anymore. And I can’t eat all the food I really like. Stuff like fried chicken. Pretty much anything fried….” Her voice trailed off wistfully and I remembered how she was envying my ‘healthy’ lunch of strawberries, crab salad and water. At what point did she start liking healthy food?
I couldn’t help myself from getting sucked into the conversation. That lady was really just too great. I decided to plunge in. “Well, if you’re diabetic, why are you buying all that soda? Isn’t sugar a big no-no?”
“Well, yes it is.” She sagely agreed with me, “It’s terrible. I’ve had to restrict myself to just two cans of soda a day, now!” She really looked very sad about it.
I realized that I was standing in front of the checker lady and pulling out money to pay for my lunch. I felt a little bad. I was almost out of there — it would have been fun to continue talking to her.
“I hope I didn’t ruin your day!” she said a little too exuberantly, “What with all that talk about me dying from fat and sugar and everything. It’s not a pretty conversation. And now we’re bombing people on the other side of the globe!” She shook her head slowly and cluck-clicked under her breath. I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of her drinking only two cans of Tab a day being compared to people dying in a war in Iraq.
Instead, I picked up my plastic sack and walked outside to eat my crab salad covered with creamy crap. After all, that’s what I went there to do.
I wonder who will talk to me next. I hope it’s someone like the guy that removed his dentures once just to show me how fast he could pop them in and out. That guy was great, too.