For just a moment we stood parallel to one another in checkout lanes four, five and six at Henry’s Foodmart, our grocery carts lined up in front of us in perfect rows.
Three women getting a little shopping done for the weekend on this late Friday afternoon in August. Three very different women, if looks were anything to go by.
I stood in the middle, a forty-three-year-old real estate agent in a slim charcoal business suit, black heels and real diamonds on my earlobes. The woman on my left was nearing her eighties, but looked a good decade younger. Tall and thin and elegantly coiffed, she was thumbing through a Better Homes & Gardens, pursing wrinkled red lips and flicking matching manicured nails. The woman on my right was young, younger than 25, but she was short and fat and stood with shoulders stooped, her cart overflowing with groceries and three small, squirming children all whining at the same time.
I wondered about them, these two extremely different women standing on either side of me, waiting like I was for the lines to move ahead so we could unload our cans of soup and bags of cat food and jugs of milk only to load them up again on the other side of the scanner. So I waited and I wondered.
I named the woman on my left Estelle because it is a graceful, old-fashioned-sounding name and seemed to fit her perfectly. I watched Estelle return the magazine to the rack, her wedding ring glinting in the bright overhead lights, and I wondered if she was one of those old ladies who still wear their wedding rings long after their husbands have passed on and who insist on being called Mrs. Harry Smith their whole lives, as if they have no given names of their own. Poor Estelle, I thought. She was probably quite well-off but lonely, living all alone in a house that was so big it echoed with silence.
The short, fat one with the kids I named Patricia because it is a frumpy-sounding name, especially if it is shortened to Patty. Or more likely, Patti, these days. She is trying to keep her kids quiet, but the baby is wailing at the top of her lungs, tears and snot running into her mouth. Patti’s other two kids are boys, about two-and-a-half and four years of age, both dressed in hand-me-down jeans and dirty t-shirts with pictures of dinosaurs on them. She takes the baby out of the seat and jiggles her up and down on her hip, hissing at the boys to put back the chocolate bars they have been busily pulling off the rack. The smallest of the two starts to whine again and soon his brother is joining in. It strikes me all of a sudden that none of the kids look alike. Three different dads, each a bigger deadbeat than the one before? Poor Patti, I thought. She had probably dropped out of school and lived on welfare in some shitty little apartment, alone with three kids to raise.
I was starting to feel sorry for both of them. Estelle, because she was a lonely old widow with nothing but a couple of hours of bridge to look forward to every week. Patti, because she was a struggling young mom with no money and nothing but whiny, snivelling kids to look after all day.
The nights must be the worst time for both of them, I thought. Estelle, because loneliness wouldn’t let her sleep, and Patti, because her children wouldn’t. I imagined Estelle wandering the halls of her drafty old house in the wee hours of the night, her face white with fatigue. I imagined her stopping to gaze at photographs hung on the walls, her finger caressing the outline of her dead husband’s smiling face through the glass. I imagined Patti trying to put her kids to sleep, the baby crying, the boys still running around well after eleven o‘clock. I imagined she cried herself to sleep when her kids finally went down for the night, too exhausted to get undressed or even brush her teeth.
Both of them knowing tomorrow would bring nothing but more of the same.
How could people go on day after day with so much pain in their lives, I wondered. Tears sprang to my eyes and I had to look down into my cart to get myself under control.
When I looked up I caught Estelle staring at me, a puzzled look on her lined face. Was she wondering about me, I wondered, and glanced over at Patti. She, too, was looking at me, the baby now asleep on her shoulder. What were they thinking? Were they both wondering about me like I wondered about them? Had they picked out a name for me? Imagined what my life was like?
Well then, I thought, they probably named me Susan because it sounds business-like and stuck-up, a little. They probably thought I worked as a lawyer or an account executive, clocking in 70-80 hours a week and coming home every night to an empty apartment. They probably figured I had never been married, never had children and probably never would, being a middle-aged workaholic who only had time for my career. They probably imagined that I was lonely and drank too much and that sometimes, I even picked up strange men in bars and took them home to my bed.
There we were, three women in three different check-out lines in a grocery store on a late Friday afternoon, our carts perfectly lined up in front of us. Three very different women. And yet, we were all the same.
On the inside.
Three women trying to make the best of it. One day at a time.
Just then, all three check-out lines started moving ahead. Averting our eyes from each other, we all stepped forward at the same time and started unloading our carts.
Many of Sonia Suedfeld‘s short stories have won awards and prizes, placed in contests, and been published online and in print. Her work has appeared in two of the Tall Tales & Short Stories anthologies, on spinetinglers.co.uk, fishpublishing.com, firstwriter.com and in Frontier, an anthology of new Canadian fiction. Visit her website at www.soniasuedfeld.com.