By Barbara Miller -
At Food Fare, a shiny red and silver box beckoned all the way from the toiletries section to the produce bin. Beth stopped squeezing the last rusty fennel bulb and hurried to the hair color rack. She had tried Vidal Sassoon last time and thought it might work better than her usual. Either that or the low humidity lately had worked in its favor. Anyway, here were several boxes of light ash brown. She reached for one, double-checking the sticker, $8.99 You Save $2.00! She studied the back of the box. It might be a step in the right direction, and her Food Fare card did save money if you could get yourself to pay attention.
She was avoiding that man in the deli department who called her Mommy.
But what if her friend Joanne was right, what if he was calling her Mami instead? She had Googled it and been astonished to find sexy among the definitions. With her younger child now away at college, Beth was finding her empty nest difficult to navigate—she’d tripped on a water sprinkler in the backyard and broken her knuckle several weeks ago. But she wasn’t giving up. She was in her fabulous fifties. There was still time to take stock, do what she could in the self-improvement department. She’d dug out her exercise video yesterday, her hand still in a brace.
She wandered down the toiletries aisle. She had plenty of Replens, not that it did much good. Should she try some of the tooth-whitening strips? She examined a box, debating. What about going all out with a subtle face lift? But that was an idle dream. She was pinching pennies with her Food Fare card so they could get Jack through school, and the school’s idea of financial aid was a far cry from her own. Anyway, it would have to not look like a face lift, so that she’d even look her age, fifty-six—except really good for her age. Anyone who knew her would know what she’d done, though; she was trapped inside her sagging skin.
What about these whitening strips? It would help to have nice teeth, but the thing was she probably wouldn’t use them. You had to wrap them around your teeth and then wait for a half-hour, and the idea that you had to do that every day for two weeks was complicated. You had to time it so you weren’t drinking coffee, or wine, and it wasn’t dinner or bedtime.
Her phone vibrated with a message from her husband.
Don’t forget beer.
OK. How’s the yard?
The whole idea had been that she’d do the shopping and Ric would mow the lawn; it was so small, it should take five minutes. Beth was reviewing her list, heading for the amazing Buy-One-Get-One-Free coffee in Aisle 6, when she nearly collided with Gracie Kiernon, the mother of one of Jack’s grade school friends, a woman she hadn’t seen in ten years. It was too late to turn back.
“Gracie—wow! It’s great to see you. But what a coincidence.”
“You too!” She sensed Gracie checking her out, registering her decline. If she’d known anyone was going to see her, she’d have done something with her hair: she was her usual one week late coloring her roots. Gracie was perfectly groomed, tall and willowy, pale blonde hair and a pouty mouth.
“You look just the same,” said Beth.
“How’s Jack?” Gracie asked, her eyes widening hungrily to take in the answer. She had a competitive streak.
“Oh, he’s fine. Enjoying school. What about Gershwin?” Beth asked, forcing his crazy name out of her mouth for the first time in years.
“He’s, well, he’s fantastic. He’s at Reed. You might have heard, he’s a sculptor?”
“Gee, no, I hadn’t known.” How would she? Gracie was probably on Facebook, or even Instagram. Beth had to get with it. “Wow.”
“The head of the department spotted him immediately and took him under his wing. He’s mounting a show of his own work next month. Quite unusual for a first year.”
Beth’s memory was of a psycho-in-the-making by third grade. He had once stabbed a pencil so deeply into Jack’s elbow that graphite was permanently implanted. Another time he had poured Jack’s pet guppy, Colors, into the toilet and Beth had to scoop him out with a net.
“Well, he was always multi-talented,” said Beth, guessing at what Gracie needed to hear, wishing she didn’t always seem to detect people’s uncertainties and then reflexively assuage them. “Oh, I remember. Very musical, fencing—so many activities, and good at all of them.” He had been a child run ragged in her opinion, on a schedule that might explain a simmering resentment. It was wrong for Beth to pass judgment, though, when no one knew how to be a good parent.
“Well, he had to choose, you know.”
Beth nodded, unsure now what Gracie was talking about, what was needed on her end. The drape of Gracie’s blouse was lovely. Had she ironed it? Casually, Beth rearranged a few items in her cart, nudging a bag of potatoes so that it slid over the hair color, hoping it wasn’t obvious.
“It came down to three subjects: art, music, or philosophy,” Gracie was saying.
“Oh. Well, so soon?” It was only his first year. “I guess he could—”
“His talent kind of announced itself. Frank and I began to sense a calling. Philosophy not quite as compelling in the end, you know? A bit irrelevant, even.”
“Oh. I hadn’t . . . anyway, that’s great.”
“It’s fabulous to see you! You’re still so cute,” she said with unsettling amusement. “You were always so sweet. One of the few nice moms,” she added darkly, eyes narrowed.
What was that supposed to mean? Gracie must harbor resentment over the more secure moms who hadn’t put up with her—it might explain her family’s move to Westchester after third grade.
“Always doing the bake sale! Those gingerbread houses at the Holiday Fair!” Gracie giggled at a seeming absurdity.
Beth stifled her dismay, but what was funny? She had been proud of her gingerbread. She had baked enough for forty miniature houses and then helped hordes of excited, fidgety, obstreperous kids decorate them, as they elbowed their way to the table, grabbed the icing bags and squeezed the wrong end, quarreled over the last of the M&Ms, while shoveling candies in their gaping, wet mouths. One child had fainted. It all came back to her. Had that been ridiculous?
“Well, you were the one on the Leadership Team. You look exactly the same, Gracie.”
“I was blessed with good bones,” she said, giving Beth’s shoulder a consoling pat.
“I’ve put on a few pounds since Jack left for school. I really miss our kids. Phoebe’s still nearby—”
“It’s the carbs. You know me, I’ve been following Atkins for years.” She surveyed the contents of Beth’s cart; there weren’t any chips in it yet, but realizing how relieved she was made Beth angry. Gracie was probably ten years younger anyway, it wasn’t fair.
“Ric and I kind of enjoy carbs.”
“I still run,” Gracie added with a smile, her teeth a dazzling white. “What about Jack? What’s he studying?” She was glancing at her phone, multitasking.
“But, why are you here?” said Gracie, gazing up from her phone. “Isn’t this Queens?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
“Oh, we’re still in Bronxville. My father-in-law just moved from Great Neck to an assisted-living place in Bayside. We were on our way to visit him, and he called while we were on the bridge and asked us to pick up a few things. ʻStop at Food Fare! There’s one in Whitestone!’ he kept barking. He’s getting very difficult. Frank’s waiting in the car.”
Oh, Frank, thought Beth, glad she had more shopping to do. He wasn’t a bad guy, really, but she’d always figured he was on some heavy medication. Or painfully shy. When you spoke to him, there was always that seven-second delay before he’d open his mouth.
“It was so fun to see you, Beth.” Gracie smooched the air by Beth’s cheek. Then she pulled back at arms’ length, her head cocked, holding Beth’s shoulders. “But why on earth are you here?”
“I live here.”
“You do? In Whitestone? Really?”
“Well, nearby. In Flushing. I shop here all the time.”
“Wait,” Gracie’s face fell, confused. “Isn’t that Chinese?” she asked, wrinkling her delicate WASPy nose.
“It’s a great place. People come from all over. We’re in a neighborhood called Murray Hill.” Why bother to explain?
“Oh. So, you are in Manhattan.”
“No, no, I’m not. There’s a Murray Hill in Flushing too.”
“But, when?” Gracie’s head wobbled in stupefaction. “I thought you loved the city.”
“Yeah, we did. We moved when Jack started high school. I wanted a yard. We have a small flower garden. And a vegetable patch.”
“That’s so charming! Say, what happened to you?”
“Oh this?” asked Beth, lifting her hand. “I fell down, speaking of gardening, and broke my knuckle. I just got the cast off, so now I’ve got this lighter brace for the next—”
“Let’s walk to the register.”
“I’m not, I’m not quite finished shopping,” said Beth, unfolding her list with her good hand, hoping it wasn’t rude.
“But won’t you walk me? So we can chat some more?”
“Oh. Well, sure, why not? I’m, I’m glad Gershwin is enjoying Reed.” Maybe he’d sort things out as he matured, get some therapy.
They were passing the incredible Fage Yogurt, 10 for $10, but she could come back for that.
After all, Gracie had ridden her son rather hard, but she had tried. That was often the way. And the thing was, Beth had a feeling Gracie liked her. Her competitiveness was unconscious, and for all her refined appearance and peppy personality, she’d always struck Beth as rather sad underneath it all, insecure. Beth should let go of her own vanity—that’s what it amounted to—nobody cared if she’d gone to seed.
The check-out line was mercifully short. Gracie pulled a big head of lettuce, some cheeses, and prosciutto from her cart. And a package of Depends. Beth recognized them instantly, from caring for her own father, and her throat constricted. Everyone knew hardship. She looked away. Above the tabloids, there were Dove bars on display. She’d read dark chocolate was good for you, but it was probably still fattening.
Gracie was watching her. “How’s that husband of yours?”
“Ric? He’s supposed to be mowing the lawn.”
“He was a doll, always on those rollerblades. You know who he looked like? Kevin Bacon.” You could tell it puzzled her still, his devotion to Beth.
“Oh yes, yes.”
Gracie was placing the last items, some olives and nuts, on the conveyor.
“I hope you have a good visit with Frank’s dad, and that he’ll like his new place.”
“He’s not that happy about it, but he’s getting sooo forgetful,” Gracie added.
Beth’s heart opened a sliver more. She herself had felt a bit displaced when they moved to Queens, after years in their rent stabilized place in lower Manhattan. It had been so nice knowing so many people in the neighborhood, whoever they were, and when the kids were little, she’d been friends with practically every parent at PS40. For some reason, Beth thought she might be about to cry, so she pulled out a rumpled tissue and blew her nose.
Gracie’s eyes widened, marveling at the sight.
“Well,” Beth said hurriedly, “maybe next time you visit Frank’s dad you could stop in Flushing and have dinner with us? It’s kind of on the way.”
“We’d love that. It’s a date,” said Gracie. They exchanged numbers.
Ric would kill her if they actually came.
“Bye, sweetie!” Gracie said, placing her hands about Beth’s waist, as if she knew just where to clasp the little roll of flesh that pillowed over the back of her jeans.
Gracie had a citrusy, powdery scent.
Suddenly Beth wasn’t certain she’d brushed her teeth. She was pretty sure she had, but sometimes she forgot on weekends. Her T-shirt had a salad stain. What was wrong with her, a few years shy of sixty, unable to dress herself? And now she’d invited Gracie when she was pretty sure she didn’t like Gracie (who was smiling back at Beth, waving goodbye as she jogged off with her groceries).
She meant well. There were worse things than narcissism.
Afterward, Beth felt depleted. She took a bite of her Dove bar, then wandered through the aisles for several minutes, pushing her cart, finally coming to in front of the tooth-whitening strips. She reached out and took a box. Thirty-six dollars! Were they kidding? But the bright yellow tag was insistent: Buy 1, 2nd half off with your Food Fare card! Let the savings begin, she thought, tossing two boxes in her cart. She had to do something.
Her world was shrinking.
She should try jogging, since the weather was warmer, and her cast was off. Or get contact lenses; Ric might like that. She pressed on, unable to focus on what she was doing until she arrived at the yogurts—but there was no joy when she collected them.
Barbara Miller has been a member of bestselling author Jennifer Belle’s writing workshop for several years. The workshop meets at the Writers Room in New York City, and Barbara lives in Queens. Her story “The Igel” appeared last year in Mudfish, and "A Midcentury Man" was recently accepted for publication in The Brooklyn Rail. She is at work on a novel and majored in English literature at Manhattanville College. When not writing, she enjoys freelance editing.