I’m shopping for groceries when I smell that smell, or rather her smell: lavender, fruit, and sandalwood. The smell of the most beautiful girl I’ve ever been with. And I just freeze. Right in the middle of aisle six holding a plastic green grocery basket filled with chips, salsa, and vanilla ice cream.
“Can I help you?” A young woman asks. She has sea green eyes, and long, thick brown hair.
I point to the large selection of soap in front of me.
She gives a little laugh and reaches towards a pale, creamy green looking bar of soap.
“I like this one.” She says, and hands me the bar of soap. Its label is written in French, but I can make out the word lavender.
I bring it to my nose and inhale. It smells like lavender, lavender wrapped in almonds, cocktail cherry and spice.
“So what do you think?” She asks.
“Is it strong?” I can smell the soap through its plastic wrapper.
“No, but that one is.” She says, pointing toward a row of soap on the bottom shelf. “Besides, I’ve used this one my whole life. My mom used to buy this soap when I was a little girl, here–”she pulls up her shirtsleeve and holds out her bare arm. It’s practically hairless and smooth, the color of summer wheat—“smell.”
So I lean down, close my eyes and smell.
She’s right. It is mild, sort of soft and clean smelling too.
I open my eyes and look up.
Her big green eyes widen. And I can see goose bumps running up and down her arm.
When I leave she’s out gathering shopping carts in the sun baked parking lot. I hold up my grocery bag, “Thanks.” I say.
“Elizabeth.” She says.
“Hey,” She says, looking down at the ground. “I was just feeling like a cup of coffee.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Coffee sounds good.” I toss the groceries in the back seat of my car.
There’s a diner across the street so we go there. After the waiter takes our order, she starts talking right away about how she likes her coffee. She says three packets of sugar are perfect. I tell her I like mine black with no sugar, but I’m not sure she’s even listening, because she’s looking down at her fork the whole time, like she’s checking if it’s clean, but we didn’t order any food. And that’s when she comes out with it, looking down at her fork, she says, “I’m married.”
I take a sip of coffee.
She checks my face and continues, “At least for the moment. I filed for divorce last week. Something I should’ve done over a year ago when I first realized it wasn’t going to work. Or not first realized, but actually believed.”
“That’s why I’m not wearing my wedding ring. That’s why I’m working weekends at the grocery store. Trying to make a little extra money. To pay for the lawyer, to give my parents a little now that I’m living there until I’m not.”
She asks if I’m ok with that.
I tell her I’m all right, that if I seem a little uneasy its not because she’s married.
She says, “You don’t have anything to worry about. I just want someone to talk to. Actually, I need someone to talk to, and I thought it’d better if I talked to a stranger, because the people I know aren’t helping. Is that okay?”
I say that’s fine. It’s okay. I don’t know why I say that but I do. And from the corner of my eye I catch an old man staring in my direction. He has a large forehead, and wild, unruly hair.
“Mark,” she says, “that’s my husband, my soon to be ex. He started sleeping through the day, and I mean all day. Of course I didn’t think much of it at the time. He said he was fine, and I figured why wouldn’t he be.”
“We were both twenty-one when we married. We had our friends. At least the most important ones, the ones we were closest too. And our families were a short drive away.”
“Naturally we talked about having children. We wanted children, two or three in fact. But we opened a restaurant first and it got in the way. It ate up all our time. Turns out, that was the only good thing about opening that restaurant.”
“Excuse me,” I say, as I slide out of the booth, “I just remembered the vanilla ice cream. I’ll have the waiter put it in the freezer.”
“More coffee?” She asks.
“No thanks, I’m all coffee-d out.”
As I head for the door, I think about just driving away. I’m not certain what I’m doing here. And by the time I reach my car, I still haven’t decided if I should stay or go. Normally, I’d go for a nice long run to clear my head and think through a situation.
Short of a run, I start to do jumping jacks, right there in the sun baked parking lot. I’m on number ten when I hear someone ask, “What in gods earth are you doing?”
I have to look down to locate the voice. It’s the old man from the diner. He’s in a wheelchair and he has no legs.
“Jumping jacks.” I say.
“I can see that. I’m not blind. Now get over here and help me. I dropped my keys under my car.”
He turns and begins to wheel away.
Somewhat surprised, I ask. “You can drive?”
I get down on the hot pavement and reach for his keys.
“I can do anything I damn well please. I’m seventy-four years old. Besides, my legs are in there. I don’t like to wear them all the time. It gets tiresome. It hurts sometimes.” He says, pointing to his left thigh. “But it sure feels good to stand-up. To be able to move around without a chair strapped to your ass, but I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about that. You married? Have any children?”
“No.” I say. I open the trunk and hand him his legs.
“Then you wouldn’t know the first thing about having something strapped to your ass twenty-four seven.” He puts on the right leg first, then the left.
“Maybe.” I said.
“You ever been constipated?” He asks.
“No sir.” I said. “Plumbing works fine.”
The old man shakes his head. He folds up his wheel chair. “Got your own legs and you can shit too. Must be nice.” He slides the wheel chair in the trunk.
“I’m not following.” I said.
“Just stop flapping around and get on with it … is all I’m saying.”
He starts walking away. “With what?”
His limp barely noticeable.
“What else?” He said, “Life.” And off he continued.
I look back toward the diner, spot Elizabeth in the window and wave. The heat from the car’s interior spills out as I open the door. It moves up my arm and across my body like a cat’s warm tongue. I start the car and idle my way through the intense afternoon sun. To the other side of the parking lot where shade falls from the tall building across the street. I park the car there, reach into the grocery bag for the ice cream and head back to the diner.
When I return she’s staring out the window into the parking lot. Without looking in my direction she asks, “What’s with the jumping jacks?”
“My foot feel asleep.” I say.
“And the old man.”
“Just an old man being an old man, I guess.”
“Well,” she says, “I don’t like working at the grocery store, but it gets me out from underneath myself. I’ve always been a hard worker. My father always told me to save. He said it was important, and he taught me how to save. From my first job on I’ve always saved. And so with everything going so well, I felt like I didn’t need college. I was happy. I had my job at the insurance company and I waited tables at night. Something I’d done for years. I had Mark and that was enough, and I put all that money away.”
“I left everything up to him, and he picked this little spot near the creek where the water drops for about seven feet like a little waterfall.”
“I don’t think he knew how much work owning a restaurant could be. How the work could be so grueling. So it’s hard to say if we would’ve made it, because we lost everything in that flood three years ago. You know when everything flooded everywhere.”
“What about the insurance,” I ask.
She opened her mouth at this. “We didn’t have flood insurance,” she says, “And you know what, I don’t know if the restaurant even qualified for flood insurance. I never asked. I never said a word about it to Mark after I found out. I never brought it up. I knew we were taking a chance from the beginning. That’s what the bank and just about everyone else said about restaurants – that most fail, but I never thought we’d lose it the way we did.”
“I knew we could loose it. At least I was prepared for that much. Still it makes me sick just thinking about Mark driving to that restaurant. I gave him a key ring from the insurance company where I work. It was a little red plastic truck with our logo, and he put all his keys on it. The keys he used everyday.”
“That’s horrible,” I say.
“Shortly after we lost the restaurant he began sleeping all day. When I’d come home from work. He’d still be in bed. The blinds would be down and it’d be dark. At first, I tried to cheer him up. Get him to go out for dinner or shopping with me, but that only worked for a few weeks. And when that stopped working, I’d come home and just make dinner, or get in bed with him.”
“I tried my womanly ways too. I’d undress and get in bed and eventually he’d come around. Get-up, take a shower, and we’d go out or visit family, but then that stopped. But I wasn’t ready to stop. I’d sit in the dark with the TV on all night and think it through with the sound off, in the glow of blue light.”
“I tried to be happy at work but the whole time I was thinking what the problem was. What I could do. I told him I didn’t care about the restaurant, but that only made things worse.”
“More coffee?” The waiter interrupts.
“No thanks.” We say.
“Just the check, please.” I say.
After, we lie wrapped around each other.
She asks about the soap aisle. Why I’d been standing there for so long and I tell her all about it.
She kisses me on the cheek and says, “I’m going to take a shower. I really need to take a shower. What, with the long day at the grocery store and the stuff from everything getting on me,” she peels her warm body away from mine, “But don’t you worry,” she says. With her right hand she reaches down between my legs and smiles. “I’ll be back on you in no time.”
I roll over and watch her walk down the hall. Life feels good for a change, like this huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there.
I feel light and free.
Weightless, I roll toward the open window and reach for the vanilla ice cream. Melted, it has the consistency of a rich milkshake. I dip my finger in the carton and bring it to my mouth. It’s sticky and sweet. I taste vanilla bean and the dried, salty sweat from Elizabeth’s body.
I can hear the shower running.
I can picture the window fogging, the mirror misting, the soap lathering, and everything around her becoming invisible.
I can hear her voice say over the running water…
“There’s just so much to wash away.”
CHAD BEVERLIN lives in New York City.