The doors whooosh open, inviting me in.
Every time I go to the grocery store, it is an odyssey of optimism, a chance to renew my New Year’s resolutions: This week, and I will eat purely and healthfully and gluten- and dairy-free; there shall be no fats or added sugars and no red meat; and I will go rock-climbing and kayaking after each meal. Here goes nothing.
I grab a cart. The entire store sparkles before me, a food Oz. Intellectually, I know how to navigate this wonderland of flavors and tastes, but it still takes fortitude. I once had a crush on a guy who bought a supermarket. Why don’t you just own Disney World? I thought. I try to imagine myself as the proprietor. The morning after signing the papers, shoppers would arrive to find the store gnawed down to the studs. Only the cleaning supplies aisle would be intact, like the lone house on the block untouched after a tornado, and I’d be passed out in the candy aisle.
A few steps inside the entrance and I’m plum in the middle of the produce section. It’s pretty, a landscape of greens, reds, yellows, and purples, of peppers, apples, eggplants, and onions. It’s also nerve-racking. The unspoken pressure to eat healthfully is palpable. I tentatively throw some broccoli in the cart. I’d probably be more enthusiastic if it were deep-fried. An old roommate swore you could hear broccoli scream when you put it in a pot to steam. Today is this broccoli’s unlucky day.
I push the unwieldy cart up to the deli counter. The older woman who waits on me is so short she can barely see over the glass case filled with Jell-O molds and macaroni salads. All I see are eyes and a hairnet. The piped-in music is playing hits of the ’80s and “Billie Jean” comes on. “Such a shame about Michael Jackson,” the woman says in an Eastern European accent, hoisting a ball of turkey into the slicing machine. Did I know he had seven doctors? Seven! She wraps the turkey and pushes it over the glass. “And the little boys?” she sighs, as the hairnet wags back and forth. “They are wrong. That is not how he rolled.”
Just as I reach the butcher’s counter, a woman in a scooter zips up to the display of beef and fish. She jockeys to and fro, trying to parallel-park. She says loudly, “Don’t worry, I’m not budging in line in front of you.” I wasn’t worried. She explains to me that she often gets overlooked from her low vantage point. She hollers to the butcher, “Here I am! I’m next!” Something about her reminds me of my Aunt Marlene, who died last year. I have to look away. I don’t want to cry at the meat counter; I don’t want my Proustian memory to be over pork chops.
I steer clear of the frozen foods. Too much salt, too many additives, too much cooking involved. But it’s mostly about bad memories: One day, after I’d had a frozen entrée for lunch, my husband came home from work and I remarked, apropos of nothing, “Lean Cuisine has come out with a new entrée and I really like it.”
We stared at each other. We’d been married maybe a month. Mortified, I finally croaked, “That could be the dullest thing I’ve ever uttered to you.” Now, after almost two years of marriage, it begins to pale by comparison, and I suspect there will be all manner of uninteresting things said to the poor man in the next 50 years.
Finally, I’ve reached the dairy aisle, where the sun never sets on the empire of creamy delicious delights. Here are the cheeses, the butters, and, for whatever reason, the crescent rolls and packaged cookie dough. Here is where I could wait out the apocalypse. Some people are lactose-intolerant, but I am lactose-celebrant. I once had a dream I was walking down the street eating a stick of butter like it was a Popsicle. I have food issues.
I check my list. It’s the compass that helps me navigate the shoals of the candy and chip aisle, where M&Ms and Cheez-Its lurk like Scylla and Charybdis on either side.
Have you ever seen the ’70s movie The Other Side of the Mountain? It’s about a skier whose Olympic dreams are dashed when an accident leaves her paralyzed from the neck down. The only scene I remember is when she attempts to pick up and eat a single potato chip after months of arduous physical therapy. That was the most heartbreaking part of the film for me, a seventh-grader at the time—the fact that she might never again taste potato chips. Worse than her fiancé leaving her. I still think the film belongs in the pantheon of great food movies like Babette’s Feast or Big Night.
Resolutely pushing past the two-for-one Doritos display, I arrive at the checkout lane. I wonder what, if anything, the clerk will discern from my purchases. What will she make of the snapshot I have laid on the moving belt? Will she take me for a murderer of broccoli and other foods? Will she glean that I am a poor conversationalist? Is she impressed at all my nutritious choices?
She barely looks at me—or the groceries. She gazes into the distance, perhaps planning what she’ll do when she gets off her shift. I wonder if she hears the beep beep beep of the scanner in her sleep.