Chapter 3: Lost in the Supermarket
June 24, 2002
There are few things I hate more in this world than cleaning. Which would explain why I only do it approximately once a year.
“Love me two times, baby… love me twice today… love me two times, girl… ‘cause I’m going away…” I sang along loudly with my stereo. I had the bass turned all the way up, and the walls fairly shook with the vibrations. Standing with my hands on my hips, I surveyed the wreckage that was my room. I’d managed to clean off my desk and dresser, but that still left the closet, the bed, my nightstand, and all the junk strewn intermittently all over the floor.
“I need to hire a maid,” I muttered. “A maid with a lot of patience.” Sighing, I threw myself down in the floor, preparing to organize the CDs that were scattered on the carpet in front of the stereo.
A voice, shouting to be heard over the music, startled me. “Oh my God! Are you actually cleaning up this dump?” I looked up from the floor.My roommate, Louise, was standing in the doorway, staring at me with a faux-shocked expression. “You might want to turn that down,” she said, beckoning to the stereo. “The neighbors will probably start calling any minute.”
I sighed, leaning up and turning the music down to the lowest volume setting. She was right about the neighbors. On one side of us was a crotchety old couple who thought that rock and roll was, quote, ‘the devil’s music.’ In the house on the other side was a giggly group of sorority sisters who worshipped boy bands and thought that Jim Morrison was the guy who invented the Muppets. Needless to say, they were a fun bunch.
Once the room was quiet, she grinned and spoke again. “I better stay around and watch! This is an event. Haley’s Comet comes around more often than this…”
I slowly stacked several CD cases and smiled. “Hilarious.” I groaned, standing up. “I’m sick of this. I need a break.”
“How long have you been cleaning?”
“Uh… twenty minutes?”
Louise rolled her eyes. “Figures.” She shoved a large stack of books out of her way and sat down on my bed. “So what brought on this sudden bout of cleanliness?”
I shrugged. “Boredom, and the fact that I can’t find my Quadrophenia album, and I know the damn thing is in here somewhere…”
She laughed. “Of course… I should’ve known.” She stood back up, stretching. “Listen, I’m going to the store. Do you, uh, need anything?”
I looked up sharply, a grin on my face. “Store? Which store?”
“Ah, I was thinking…. Kroger…”
Kroger? As in, Kroger where Jay, hottest guy this side of the Mississippi, was employed? As in, the boy who I had been stalking for months now, in hopes that he might one day actually notice my existence? I leaped to my feet. “Do I need anything? I think I need to go with you!”
“Somehow, I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”
“Just let me get freshened up a bit…”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, Alley. You look fine! You look cute!”
Ah, Louise. Always trying, with limited success, to boost my self-esteem. She would make a wonderful mother one day – and Lord knows I’d been perfect practice for her the past five years. I looked down at my old Yardbirds t-shirt and ratty blue-jean shorts. “I look gross. Like a homeless bum.”
“Alley! I swear. Only prissy bitches put on makeup and get dressed up to go grocery shopping.” She grabbed my arm, dragging me out the door. “Besides, looks aren’t everything. If he can’t see past that, then he’s not worth it.”
“If he can’t see past this? Louise, very few men have seen past this, if I must remind you.” I detached myself from her and ran into the bathroom. “At least let me put some jeans on,” I called to her. “To cover up these blindingly white legs.”
She responded with some mild cursing, which I ignored. I switched into my jeans, dragging a pick through my thick, unruly curls in an attempt to control it. God, why couldn’t I have been born with nice, tame hair, like Louise? Hers was gorgeous – shiny, thick, and black, always laying perfectly across her shoulders… Sighing, I left the bathroom and joined her in the hall.
“Are you ready now?” she asked.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
I am really pathetic. Really. I’ve always known it, but it’s moments like these where it just becomes screamingly obvious.
“What am I supposed to say to him?” I asked nervously. Louise, the bossy girl, had just informed me that I would be making conversation with this boy, come hell or high water. The thought of talking to him made my head feel light. I was, quite simply, no good with guys. I had an annoying tendency to clam up whenever testosterone entered the room. Who ever thought it would be so hard to just find the courage to speak to the opposite sex?
“Anything! Talk about the weather, or sports, or music… yeah! You love music… you ought to be able to talk his ear off about that,” she said, leaning over to turn down the radio.
“Well,” I hedged. That was true… maybe I could manage that. But still – Jay was a great-looking guy. He could just look at a girl and she would fall over at his feet… and with so many options for him to choose from, why would he waste his breath on someone like me? A skinny, clumsy geek with wild hair. Not exactly a thrilling combination. “Maybe,” I finally answered.
I leaned down and messed with the dial to switch stations. What the hell was wrong with radio stations nowadays? It was like they only had 20 songs in their repertoire, and 19 of those songs were total crap. I pushed the ‘seek’ button. 104.5 was playing Britney Spears. Oh, HELL, no. 103.3: Blink 182. Nah, I wasn’t a Blink fan. 101.5: the Righteous Brothers-- an oldies station. Hmm... that had potential… Finally, 100.1. I grinned at Louise as AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” tumbled out of the speakers. I left it there, raising my hands in a devil sign.
”I think I’m doing deaf,” she said dryly.
“What?” I asked loudly over Brian Johnson’s shrieking voice.
“My point exactly.”
I laughed, finally agreeing to turn it down, and we continued cruising down the street. Finally the enormous blue Kroger sign appeared within our view. I tapped my fingers nervously on the steering wheel as we pulled into the parking lot and looked for a space.
“You should park pretty far away,” Louise suggested. “That way, he'll have to walk with us even longer.”
“You are an absolute genius,” I drawled as I reversed my Jetta and backed up about 30 feet. I pulled into an isolated space close to the road. As we got out of the car I had to laugh at how ridiculous we looked. There wasn’t another car within at least 20 spaces or so.
“Well, I admit, this is a little excessive, but it’ll do,” Louise said. She grinned wolfishly at me. “Shall we?”
We quickly walked towards the front door. The warm summer wind whipped around us, much to my chagrin. Well, shit, there goes my hair. I vainly attempted to keep it intact until we reached the building, cowering with my arms folded over my head. I scuttled towards the entrance and ran inside. Once Louise caught up with me, she gave me a once-over and chuckled.
“Shut the hell up,” I mumbled, trying vainly to straighten out my hair, “and help me with this, will you?”
She produced a mirror and a comb from her purse, and I quickly yanked the comb through my curls to get rid of the tangles. Finally, I was satisfied and handed them back to her with a quick smile.
We grabbed a cart and started pushing. I glanced to the right, and my heart leaped up and thumped hard against the inside of my chest. Jay stood over by the checkout counters, leaning lazily against the end of one with a relaxed smile on his face.
“Damn, he looks good,” I murmured to myself. Dark hair, dark skin… a hint of a five o’clock shadow covering his jaw… that broad, strong body…
“Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s hurry before he goes on break, or something.” I agreed, and we took off down the aisle. I watched as she filled our cart with raw ingredients for her dinners – fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, whole milk, butter… I looked down at the stack of frozen pizzas in my hand. Well, maybe not exactly fine cuisine, but it was about all I was capable of handling.
Finally, we finished up the last aisle and made our way to the checkout. There was one person in line at Jay’s counter; the rest of the checkouts were empty. So, of course we filed in Jay’s line.
“Excuse me! Miss? I can get you all over here,” a woman’s voice called out. I turned around to face the cashier. She gave me a strange look when I shook my head.
“Uh, no, uh… we’ll just stay here. It’s fine, we’re not in any hurry, really… y’know… ” God, I sounded like an idiot. My elementary grammar teacher would have probably shot me on sight. I fidgeted in place as our line slowly moved ahead.
Finally, the person ahead of us emptied out all his groceries, leaving room on the conveyor belt to put ours up. As I emptied our cart, I kept sneaking glances over at Jay. The way he lifted each item and carefully placed it in the bag... how sexy his hands looked as they tied the handles of the bag together so that the groceries wouldn’t spill out... I exhaled deeply.
Pathetic? Yeah. Definitely.
“Alley! Turn back around!” Louise suddenly hissed at me. I looked up from our cart to see Jay bending over to pick up a bag of chips he’d dropped. My eyes widened as I observed the way his baggy jeans hung off his legs and butt in an appealing way. I mentally reminded myself to thank his mother, if I ever got the chance to meet her. As I gaped, open-mouthed, at the eighth wonder of the world, the can of spaghetti sauce in my hand suddenly leaped from my hand and onto the floor into a watery, red, smelly mess. Okay, well maybe it didn’t really leap, but that’s what I like to think, anyway.
“Oh, shit!” I yelped as I hurdled backward away from the mess, running straight into the cart, which rolled and smashed Louise in the stomach, who in turn reeled backward and knocked over a display of M&M’s. The brightly colored packets spilled out all over the floor in a crazy kaleidoscope of colors. Louise sat on her butt in the middle of them, looking slightly dazed. I hiccupped with laughter, trying unsuccessfully to keep it in. Finally, I started to walk back to her, giggling. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry!”
“I’m fine,” she said dryly. “I’m used to this sort of thing.”
“Hey, are you alright? You took quite a spill there.” I turned to see Jay standing behind us, with a lazy smile on his face. I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing there for a second. Oh, God, he saw all that… he thinks I’m a moron… He walked over to Louise, holding out a hand, which she hesitantly accepted. His eyes never left her as he took her hand and lifted her to her feet. I felt a small pang of jealousy. Louise looked worriedly at him and then at me.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine! Um…Alley Kat, are you alright?” she asked me pointedly, sneaking a glance at him from the corner of her eye. “You didn’t get a scratch or anything, did you?” Yeah, way to go, Lou, turn the attention on me, when my face is red as a beet and I have spaghetti sauce on my shoes.... Jay switched his gaze from hers and looked me up and down.
“She looks alright to me,” he commented.
Girls overanalyze everything. We can’t help it – it’s programmed into our DNA. My mind reeled, churning out possible interpretations of that phrase. Was he being sarcastic, and saying that I was obviously unhurt and unfazed because I was standing there staring at the two of them like a fool? Was he saying that I looked “alright” as in hey, maybe I wasn’t such a bad-looking girl after all, and maybe, just maybe, he’d like to ask me out sometime? Was he even aware of what he’d just said? Was I losing my mind? Was I just desperately in need of therapy?
“But what about you? Are you sure you’re okay?” he immediately switched his focus back to her. I quickly realized that his definition of “alright” fell into the first category. I lowered my head in embarrassment, and was greeted by the bright red monstrosity that covered the floor around me. Bright red, but surely not as bright as my face right then.
A middle-aged man, who I assumed to be the manager, scooted towards us. He was wearing a forest green Kroger vest. Pinned on it was a ridiculous-looking yellow button that had a picture of a chicken with a caption that screamed “Ask about our Eggs-traordinary Poultry Deals!” I would have cracked up had I not been so mortified by the situation.
“Oh, we’ve made quite a mess here, haven’t we?” he remarked cheerfully. I groaned inwardly at his merry tone. “Well, dear, don’t fret. We’ll just get some towels and a mop and we’ll be right as rain!”
I briefly wondered what his obsession with the word ‘we’ was. After all, I was the one who created this entire predicament. I was the dumbass around here… I kept my mouth, shut, however, instead opting to give him a pitiful smile.
A few minutes later, one of the resident Kroger peons arrived with a mop bucket and some towels. He scowled as he bent down to clean up the mess and I caught snatches of his mutterings, including but not limited to, “damn work hellhole”, “damn nasty spaghetti shit”, and of course, “damn stupid blonde bitch.” The latter, naturally, pertaining to me. I narrowed my eyes at his tone but said nothing. Once he’d scrubbed the floor spotless, he stood up, facing me with a hideously fake smile. “There you go ma’am, all cleaned up,” he chirped sarcastically… and then his expression changed to one of supreme irritation. “Hey, aren’t you the girl who broke the shelf in the bread aisle last week?” he asked suspiciously.
Jeez. My philosophy is, if they want to try and sell you bread that’s out of your reach, they damn well better include a stepladder so you don’t have to climb on the shelves. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I mumbled. He scowled, but said nothing else. I watched as he trudged towards the back of the store.
Finally, back to the matter at hand. Jay was still gazing at Louise, who looked increasingly uncomfortable about the whole situation. She stepped back up to our cart and began placing more items on the conveyor belt. Suddenly she looked up.
“Hey, I’ll go get us some more spaghetti sauce,” she said quickly. She turned to Jay. “Why don’t you help Alley here unload our cart?” It wasn’t so much a question as a thinly veiled demand, but then again, Louise was a pretty demanding person.
“Yeah, sure, I guess,” he replied. She flitted off, leaving us alone. I nervously fidgeted with the hem of my shirt as he finished unloading and walked back around to the end of the counter. Screw Louise’s ‘looks aren’t everything’ theory. Why didn’t I wear better clothes? Why didn’t I put makeup on? And why couldn’t I just make normal conversation? I couldn’t think of a single intelligent thing to say to him. Hell, I couldn’t think of a single un-intelligent thing to say either. The girl behind the register scanned our items and Jay began bagging them. I watched intently, waiting for him to look up so I could smile at him. The opportunity never came.
Louise returned a few minutes later. She handed the sauce to the girl, who scanned the jar and added it to our ticket. I paid her with a check, and Jay held our loaded buggy out for us.
“Do you girls need some help out?” he asked.
“Y-yeah,” I stuttered.
“Sure!” Louise blurted. And with that, we set out towards my car, with Jay pushing the cart. He was just ahead of us, and Louise grabbed my arm. “Talk to him!” she hissed. “Say something!”
“I can’t,” I said faintly. “We’ll have to wait until another time. I can’t do it today, not after that.”
“I am going to physically hurt you if you don’t speak to him right now.” With that, she got behind me and gave me a gentle push. I found myself walking right next to Jay. Taking a deep breath, I finally gathered the courage to speak.
“Hi. I’m Alley,” I said bluntly. “Alley Krzyzewski.”
He looked at me from the corner of his eye and nodded. “Jason.” He didn't offer a last name. Well, it wasn't like I didn't know it already, stalker that I was, but still...
“Nice to meet you, Jason. So… you go to UK?” I asked nervously.
“Me, too!" I exclaimed, as if that was the most exciting thing I'd heard all day. "Um… so what’s your major?”
“Oh, cool, cool. I’m doing a double major. Chemistry, and art studio… weird, I know. I’ll be in school forever. I really wanted to do art, but my advisors are convinced I’ll end up unemployed and homeless if I tried to make a living out of that, and they suggested pharmacy, which is huge in the job market right now, and I’m good at science, so finally I just agreed with them, and--” I stopped, realizing that I was babbling. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear all that. So, do you like business finance?”
“Yeah, it’s alright.”
And so on, and so forth. I asked him a few more questions about school, work, pets, anything I could think of. He replied to each of them in bored, monosyllabic answers. Finally, I just gave up and remained silent until we reached the Jetta. Yet another failure in the potential-relationship department, great.
“Well, here we are,” I mumbled feebly as we began unloading the groceries. Jay grinned and nodded his head approvingly as he eyed the Jetta.
“Nice car there,” he commented. “I love Volkswagens. Nothing like German engineering.” I felt my spirits lift slightly as I returned the grin and replied.
“Yeah, sure is. She’s my baby,” I said proudly, patting the smooth silver exterior. Then I got brave, or stupid, depending on how you want to look at it. "We should go for a ride sometime." Louise grinned happily at me, apparently pleased at my newfound boldness. He nodded slowly, a thoughtful look on his face.
“You say you’re good at science?” he said suddenly. I felt my eyes widen. Wow. So he had been listening…
“Yeah!” I said excitedly, realizing that my enthusiasm made me sound like the world’s biggest nerd. “I mean, yeah, I guess.”
I waited for him to reply to that, but surprisingly, he said nothing, other than, “Cool.” Then, to my horror, he turned to Louise.
“So, Louise, right?” he asked. She nodded uneasily. “Yeah... I’ve seen you around. Hey listen, would you like to go out sometime? I have to work tomorrow but I was thinking maybe next Friday we could do something.. y’know... it’ll be fun.” His tone was soft, quiet – he was probably hoping I couldn’t hear.
I felt as if the breath had been sucked out of me. I was riveted to the scene in front of me – the horrible, unjust scene in front of me. I barely heard Louise gasp, “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend,” because my whole world was now just a jumble of emotions. I watched in disbelief as he shrugged his shoulders casually and turned back towards the store.
“Oh, and nice to meet you, Alice,” he said as an afterthought.
“It’s ALLEY!!!!!” I spat back at him venomously. I quickly whipped around and jumped in the car, slamming the doors as hard as I could. I stared straight ahead, my eyes unfocused and glazing over. What had I been thinking? That I actually had a chance? That someone as gorgeous as him would even give me the time of day? God, I was idiotic. Idiotic and naïve.
Louise had entered the car – I hadn’t even noticed. “Sweetie,” she said gently, sliding an arm around my shoulder. “Sweetie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t-”
“I know,” I said quietly. “Just… don’t say anything. You don’t have to.” I sniffled loudly. Great, was I going to start crying now? Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic... “I don’t want to talk about it.”
She smiled sympathetically and scooted back over as I turned the ignition. I’ll say this for Louise – she knows when to speak her mind, but she also knows when to shut up. We headed for home, both of us silent and lost in our own thoughts.