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November 8, 2000
I'm unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to writeto you. But since we've been separated, I may most miss coming home todeliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice atyour feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging inseparate backyards. Were you still installed in my kitchen, slatheringcrunchy peanut butter on Branola though it was almost time for dinner, I'dno sooner have put down the bags, one leaking a clear viscous drool, thanthis little story would come tumbling out, even before I chided that we'rehaving pasta tonight so would you please not eat that whole sandwich.
In the early days, of course, my tales were exotic imports, from Lisbon,from Katmandu. But no one wants to hear stories from abroad, really, and Icould detect from your telltale politeness that you privately preferred anecdotaltrinkets from closer to home: an eccentric encounter with a toll collectoron the George Washington Bridge, say. Marvels from the mundanehelped to ratify your view that all my foreign travel was a kind of cheating.My souvenirs -- a packet of slightly stale Belgian waffles, the British expressionfor "piffle" (codswallop!) -- were artificially imbued with magic by meredint of distance. Like those baubles the Japanese exchange -- in a box in abag, in a box in a bag -- the sheen on my offerings from far afield was allpackaging. What a more considerable achievement, to root around in theuntransubstantiated rubbish of plain old New York state and scrounge amoment of piquancy from a trip to the Nyack Grand Union.
Which is just where my story takes place. I seem finally to be learningwhat you were always trying to teach me, that my own country is as exoticand even as perilous as Algeria. I was in the dairy aisle and didn't needmuch; I wouldn't. I never eat pasta these days, without you to dispatchmost of the bowl. I do miss your gusto.
It's still difficult for me to venture into public. You would think, in acountry that so famously has "no sense of history," as Europeans claim,that I might cash in on America's famous amnesia. No such luck. No onein this "community" shows any signs of forgetting, after a year and eightmonths -- to the day. So I have to steel myself when provisions run low.Oh, for the clerks at the 7-Eleven on Hopewell Street my novelty hasworn off, and I can pick up a quart of milk without glares. But our regularGrand Union remains a gauntlet.
I always feel furtive there. To compensate, I force my back straight, myshoulders square. I see now what they mean by "holding your head high,"and I am sometimes surprised by how much interior transformation aramrod posture can afford. When I stand physically proud, I feel a smallmeasure less mortified.
Debating medium eggs or large, I glanced toward the yogurts. A fewfeet away, a fellow shopper's frazzled black hair went white at the roots fora good inch, while its curl held only at the ends: an old permanent grownout. Her lavender top and matching skirt may have once been stylish, butnow the blouse bound under the arms and the peplum served to emphasizeheavy hips. The outfit needed pressing, and the padded shouldersbore the faint stripe of fading from a wire hanger. Something from thenether regions of the closet, I concluded, what you reach for when everythingelse is filthy or on the floor. As the woman's head tilted toward theprocessed cheese, I caught the crease of a double chin.
Don't try to guess; you'd never recognize her from that portrait. Shewas once so neurotically svelte, sharply cornered, and glossy as if commerciallygift wrapped. Though it may be more romantic to picture thebereaved as gaunt, I imagine you can grieve as efficiently with chocolatesas with tap water. Besides, there are women who keep themselves sleek andsmartly turned out less to please a spouse than to keep up with a daughter,and, thanks to us, she lacks that incentive these days.
It was Mary Woolford. I'm not proud of this, but I couldn't face her.I reeled. My hands went clammy as I fumbled with the carton, checkingthat the eggs were whole. I rearranged my features into those of a shopperwho had just remembered something in the next aisle over and managedto place the eggs on the child-seat without turning. Scuttling off on this pretense of mission, I left the cart behind, because the wheels squeaked. Icaught my breath in soup.
I should have been prepared, and often am -- girded, guarded, often tono purpose as it turns out. But I can't clank out the door in full armorto run every silly errand, and besides, how can Mary harm me now? Shehas tried her damnedest; she's taken me to court. Still, I could not tamemy heartbeat, nor return to dairy right away, even once I realized that I'dleft that embroidered bag from Egypt, with my wallet, in the cart.
Which is the only reason I didn't abandon the Grand Union altogether.I eventually had to skulk back to my bag, and so I meditated onCampbell's asparagus and cheese, thinking aimlessly how Warhol would beappalled by the redesign.
By the time I crept back the coast was clear, and I swept up my cart,abruptly the busy professional woman who must make quick work of domesticchores. A familiar role, you would think. Yet it's been so long since Ithought of myself that way that I felt sure the folks ahead of me at checkoutmust have pegged my impatience not as the imperiousness of the secondearnerfor whom time is money, but as the moist, urgent panic of a fugitive ...We Need to Talk About Kevin
Excerpted from We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
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