Writer Max Graham.
I like to remember when life was simple. When you could go out to a restaurant. See a movie with friends. Hug an acquaintance, or shake hands with a stranger. I remember when it wasn’t such a big deal when you wanted to buy one grapefruit.
I’m not at the grocery store right now for a bag of flour, roll of toilet paper, jug of water or anything necessary. Sometimes you just want a grapefruit. In the old days, you’d run into the store and get one. Back when we thought this couldn’t happen. The last trivia night I went to on March 20, our team was jokingly called Coronavirus with Lime. I picked the name myself. What a naïve fool I was at 35 years and one month instead of the older, wiser person I am now at 35 years and six months.
Yet here I am, wearing a mask, waiting in line at a grocery store like it’s a new nightclub. I’m standing in a six-foot gap from those around me. Some people are looking over shopping lists to last till the End of Days. I can’t think of anything I missed on my shopping trip the other day. Nothing but one thing, the one stupid grapefruit.
The line moves forward. The essential worker, who wasn’t “essential” just a few months ago, looks at the line with numb detachment. We are an invading army to his stoic, lone sentry. The tension in the air has grown since the very first COVID threats. We thought it would just be one month in quarantine. There was a fun sense of novelty to it. During the entire month of April, the only time I put on jeans was to wash my sweatpants. I had a full-time job working from home and I never felt like more of a bum.
It’s my turn to enter and, when I do, my brain goes into survivalist overdrive. Am I really here for one thing? What else could I possibly need? I grab a hand basket. Easier to get around than a shopping cart, which I don’t need for one grapefruit anyway. But who knows what else I could use? I spot a bag of cashews. I never buy cashews, I don’t know what I would use cashews for, but at the moment all I can think is “Oh my God, what if the world runs out of cashews and I’ve missed my chance?”
I pick up the bag of cashews and immediately feel dumb. I have no desire for cashews, but there’s no way I can put them back now. Sure, I cleaned my hands with the jug of sanitizer in my car, but people don’t know that. They’ll think “Look at this jerk, picking up food and putting it back, as if this is grocery shopping in normal times.” But it’s also a $6 bag of cashews! Money is tight right now. That $6 could go to something important, like one single can of limited-edition craft beer.
People are behind me. They apparently know exactly what they want in this particular aisle, and there’s a six-foot forcefield of social decorum preventing them from approaching, so I buy the cashews like that was the plan all along and not at all a panic buy. Like a hamster running on a wheel, I start thinking about what I can use cashews for, and it strikes like lightning: Stir-fry! Great, I’ll just buy a whole bunch of stuff to make stir fries, and bury the one impulse buy with half a dozen others. They’ll never suspect a thing. (Who are they, you might ask? No one. Doesn’t matter. I gave up on rational thinking somewhere between toilet paper hoarders and the president saying we should inject Lysol into our veins.)
I see the aisle for Asian ingredients. The aisle is marked by an arrow pointing the wrong way. Suddenly, the aisle is a one-way street, I’m a reckless driver who thinks he can get away with it. No one is in the aisle, so I go for it. If I can make it to the teriyaki sauce and stand in front of it, who’s to say I didn’t enter the aisle from the correct side? It’s at this time I note security cameras on the ceiling and I wait for the grocery secret police to put a black bag over my head and I’m never seen again.
I get the teriyaki sauce. Duck sauce sounds interesting, so I get that too. I have no idea if I have teriyaki sauce at home, I didn’t check my kitchen before shopping, so now I’m going stir-fry stir crazy. I get a frozen bag of mixed vegetables, since if fresh things go bad, I’ll have to come back again. I get some chicken and jasmine rice, and soon, that $6 bag of cashews has multiplied several times by items I didn’t want, but now desperately need.
At last, I make for the checkout counter. There are several lines of people, each with a shopping cart piled high like this was the last time any of them would set foot in a grocery store again. This could be the last time any of them set foot in one for a long time, depending on the pandemic’s inevitable second, third, fourth wave. They glare at me, with my one basket of reasonable purchases, as I head to the express line, which I’m surprised to see is moving quickly.
I make my purchases, offer a smile to the tired cashier, which he can’t see behind my mask, and leave the store. I feel tired. The constant knowledge that there’s a deadly virus out there with no end in sight has left me drained. I understand why states have said “screw it” and decided to reopen. I feel that way myself. I get home and change back into my sweatpants. Seriously, why fight it? Then, I begin to unpack my groceries, when it hits me.
I still forgot to get that one silly grapefruit.
. . .
My mom, sister, cousin and aunt went on a trip to Ukraine when I was 8. It was a surreal experience, going to a Third World country, when I was so used to the luxuries of living in the U.S. I did speak the language, but it was still an incredible culture shock.