"I'm beginning to think this was a bad idea."
She held her phone up with her shoulder as she struggled to maneuver the heavily laden shopping trolley around a corner--she never failed to select one with a wonky wheel--and nearly collided with a small boy who darted into the aisle between handbags and children's shoes. "Sorry," she said, genuinely apologetic. He stuck out his tongue at her and ran off. She returned the gesture.
"What?" asked Abby.
"I said I'm beginning to think this was a very bad idea."
"Well, it's too late to change your mind now. I already changed the locks."
"And are you ever going to pick up the rest of these boxes? Because I can call the Salvation Army and--"
"All right, all right. I'll get them tomorrow. I've just bought shelves." The flatpacked boxes jutted out dangerously from the bottom of the cart.
"And you signed the lease, right?"
"So there's no turning back."
"I'm afraid so."
"It's not going to be that bad. He's not so bad."
"I know. And we'll hardly see each other. But I've been there a week and I've already met two different girls named Nikki. I didn't think about having a front row seat to the--"
"Neverending skank parade?"
"Exactly. I guess it's not sleazy, really, it's just...oh, whatever."
"Uh huh. You don't have a crush on him or something, do you?"
She stopped in her tracks, and used her right hand to switch her phone to her other ear, not noticing when the cart drifted into an endcap on its own momentum and knocked over half a dozen bottles of Listerine. "What? That's ridiculous. He's ridiculous."
"I was just making sure."
"He's sloppy, and lazy, and irresponsible, and now I've lost him in the Target. He's like a four year old."
"You don't have to babysit him, you know."
"No, I just have to share a bathroom."
"Yeah, good luck with that."
They wrapped up their call on that oh-so-encouraging note, and Neela continued pushing her way through the Saturday afternoon crowd. She finally found him in cosmetics, chatting up a--well, she didn't want to say 'skank,' but those cheap platform wedges were a podiatric nightmare, and the skirt was so short she didn't think she’d seen that much of another woman's inner thighs since her ob/gyn rotation. They were probably comparing favorite brands of eyeliner.
"Oh. There you are. Wow, you got a lot of stuff."
She reached into the trolley, pulled out two packages, and held them up for his perusal. "I'm getting us a new one. Striped or plain?"
His new friend saw the shower curtains and tottered off into the next aisle.
"I did you a favor."
"Hey, she could have been a grad student in comparative literature, you don't know."
"Spare me your feminist manifesto."
He came over to examine the contents of her cart, and made a face. That one where he tilted his head, quirked up one side of his mouth, and a little wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows. "Do you own anything you're not planning to store in a plastic tub? Or is Sterilite going out of business?"
"I like to be organized."
"If you're that worried about my stuff contaminating yours we can swipe some biohazard containers from work."
"Oh, shut up."
"We could swing by office supplies and get you a label maker, so you can put 'property of Neela' on everything. Or we could just get a big roll of tape and make a line down the middle of the living room..."
She rolled her eyes at him, tossed the plain shower curtain back into the basket and left the striped one under a row of Maybelline, and began the increasingly laborious procedure of turning the wonky-wheeled trolley one hundred-eighty degrees.
"Need some help with that?"
"I can manage." She gave a hard shove, and stumbled forward a little as the cart veered to the right. Her shelves slid off the bottom rack with a depressing thwack.
She sighed, and stepped around to retrieve them, but bumped into him on his way to do the same. He balanced the boxes under one arm, grabbed the lame corner of the trolley with his other hand, and together they made their way to the nearest checkout lane.
"Here's your half of the list." She handed him a sheet of paper with about a dozen items written in her small, precise penmanship. "I made sure everything on it was on the opposite side of the store from the Juniors' department."
"Ha ha." He nodded at her tiny smirk. "You been saving that one?"
"I'm just trying to help you stay out of trouble."
"How long are you going to rag on me about that?"
"Just a little longer." She glanced at her watch. "Meet at the Starbucks in forty-five minutes?"
He looked at the list. "I can knock this out in twenty."
"I have to stop and pick up some photos, I don't know how long it'll take. I finally got my pictures developed from the wedding." She smiled broadly with anticipation.
She raised her perfect eyebrows at him. "'Neat'?"
"Yeah, can't wait to see 'em. Have you, uh, thought about dinner tonight? I was thinking lasagna..."
It only took him fifteen minutes to pick up everything on his list--dryer sheets, coffee filters, sandwich bags, and other idiot-proof items--and he killed the other thirty just wandering around the store, filling his basket with random odds and ends. A few t-shirts; her favorite cereal; some disposable razors; a pack of those gel pens she liked to use; four cds for himself, and one of a new band he kind of hated, but thought she might enjoy.
She wasn't there yet when he made his way to the Starbucks counter, so he ordered a tea and a grande white chocolate mocha, flirted perfunctorily with the barista, and grabbed a table to settle in and wait.
When she showed up, she was carrying at least six bags. It looked like one of them might be filled entirely with flip-flops.
"Get everything you needed?"
"Think so." She dropped her bags to the floor. "Is that mine?" she asked as she sat down, not waiting for an answer before she picked up her mocha and took a long sip.
"Get your pictures?"
"Mm hmm," she replied, excited, and reached into her purse for the envelope. "Want to see? I've got the digital copies to send to Michael, of course, but I thought I might as well get some prints."
It was stupid, but sometimes he actually forgot she was married. It had been such a crazy--well, okay, he didn't want to say 'crazy.' It had been surprising. Not that it was any of his business anyway. But here was the proof. There were Chuny and Haleh. There was Abby, giving a toast. There was Pratt with his arm around a grinning, spit-polished Gallant.
And there was the bride, his pain in the ass roomie, radiant in her white sari, beaming into the camera.
Oh, and there was his left arm in the background. At least, he thought that was his arm.
"What’s the matter?" she asked.
He looked up. "What?"
"I--? What? No I didn't." Did he? "Just breathing." He handed the stack of pictures back to her. "You look really…happy."
He stood, picked up his bags and a few of hers, and started toward the exit. She threw away their cups and followed.
"So. Lasagna, right?"
She was fifth in line at one of only four open registers when she heard the familiar voice over her shoulder.
"Hey. Fancy meeting you here."
"Hi!" she greeted him, surprised but happy. They smiled at each other. A moment passed that could only be called an awkward pause, and she found herself the first to break eye contact. "So...doing some shopping?"
He laughed. "Yeah, how'd you guess?"
"Right. Sorry. Me too." She looked down at her cart, suddenly mortified. A dozen frozen dinners, a dvd of While You Were Sleeping, and laid right on top, six pairs of plain cotton panties. It was like she'd picked it all up in the Pathetic Single Women department. "Just...needed a few...things."
He held up his basket and showed her the contents: a six pack of white Hanes crew socks, a two pack of boxer shorts, and Alien Vs. Predator.
"You think I should go with the briefs?" he looked into the basket instead of at her when he said it.
"I meant the movie."
"Are you kidding? It's an action-packed interspecies love story. Quality stuff."
"I'll take your word for it."
They chatted with increasing ease as they progressed through the line, and ended up loitering near the exit, uncertain. "So, do you want to, uh, get a coffee or something?" he asked, hopeful.
"I can't," she said, and his face fell. "It's just..." she gestured to her Lean Cuisines. "I should get this stuff home to the freezer." She wondered if she was as bad as him at hiding her disappointment. "Sorry. I'll see you at work, then, I guess..."
"Right, sure. See you at work."
"We should hang out sometime, though," she blurted.
"Yeah?" His head popped up, and he looked at her like...like...
"Yeah," she nodded. "Get a drink or something. Like old times."
"Great," he said, working hard at nonchalance. "Yeah, like old times."
They parted after a few more 'see yous' and 'okays', and she watched him for a minute as he walked away, noting he was wearing that jacket she'd always particularly liked.
Her phone sounded from inside her purse. When she finally dug it out she saw 'Tony Gates' on the caller ID.
She let it ring.
He had just left electronics with the cart when she came around the corner from bed and bath, a voluminous white object under each arm. "They've got pillows on sale, so I picked you up a couple."
"So you're telling me I need new pillows."
"I've been telling you for weeks you need new pillows. My neck can't take it anymore." She tossed him one, and he gave it a test squeeze--yeah, definitely better than his--while she went to put the other with the rest of their shopping.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me."
She looked awkward with her arms crossed like that, still holding the pillow, but it didn't make her glare any less effective. Adorable, but effective.
"You're buying an Xbox?"
Oh, that. "Xbox 360."
"And..." She noticed the long, flat box resting contentedly next to the console, and tilted it to read the garish logo. "Guitar Hero?"
"Guitar Hero III."
"Don't you have an actual guitar? Several, in fact?"
"It's a game. You know, for fun. You've heard of fun, right?"
She ignored that, for now, and examined the box more closely. "'Legends of Rock.'" When she looked up at him, her eyes were full of exaggerated pity. "Miss the glory days, do you? One last shot to live the dream? That's very sad, Ray. That makes me sad for you."
He shook his head, exasperated, but as always, a little impressed. "How did you get to be such a smartass?"
"It's a coping mechanism."
"For dating you."
"Yeah, well I'm glad I could help you grow as a person. But I'm keeping the Xbox."
"Don't these things cost hundreds of dollars? Where's the money for this coming from?"
She scowled. "That money's a bribe, Ray. You should use it to pay down debt, or give it to charity."
"I'm stimulating the economy."
"That's the only thing you're stimulating." The second pillow hit him in the chest--but only because her aim was off. She'd probably been going for the face.
"Great," he muttered, and watched her march off. Past housewares, past sporting goods, past automotive...either she could turn around, or he could follow, but one or the other had to happen.
He had her purse.
He caught up with her at the far side of the store, in the grocery section. She held open a glass door taller than herself and stared with intense focus into a row of Haagen-Dazs.
"Cookie dough," he suggested.
She reached in and grabbed a pint of Mango and a pint of Sticky Toffee Pudding. The freezer door swung shut so hard it bounced.
He tried the friendly approach one more time. "I'll let you play with it anytime you want."
She gave a little snort. "Believe me, that's not quite as big an incentive as you'd like to think it is."
Ouch. So much for friendly. "Okay, seriously? Are we seriously fighting about a video game?"
"I'm not fighting." She moved on to the next freezer case and began gathering an armful of Amy's Breakfast Burritos. "I'm shopping."
"I'm an adult, you know," he asserted, stacking her burritos in the cart's child seat. "I have a good job. I can balance my checkbook. If I wanted to buy myself a sixty inch plasma tv to go with my Xbox--"
"Fine, why don't you go do that? Enjoy it. You're allegedly an adult. Buy all the toys you like. Do what you like. Talk to whomever you like. You don't need my permission." She made sure she retrieved her purse this time before she left him to fume at her back. He lost sight of her when she took a sharp left into women's wear and disappeared into the maze of racks.
Talk to--? That's when he realized--not for the first time, and not for the last--that he was an idiot.
He must have passed her three times before he spotted her. She was almost hidden behind the corner display of Isaac Mizrahi separates, flipping through them without really looking. They were a little too fifties housewife for her, in his opinion, but he didn't think this was the right time to offer his opinion. "You're still mad about last night, aren't you?"
He trailed her to an overflowing shelf of solid color tees. Her brow furrowed as she searched futilely for her size. "I'm not going to do this here."
"I was just talking to her! Talking isn't flirting!"
"Oh, you know the difference?"
"I don't--" She glared at him again--it was not adorable this time--and he realized he was raising his voice. "I don't get jealous every time you have a conversation with Crocodile Dundee," he whispered fiercely, "or one of the sixteen other guys at the hospital who want to get in your pants."
"A ha! There it is!" She even pointed at him, for extra emphasis. "There. Yes you do."
"You do. You get jealous, and insecure, and for the life of me I can't--" Her voice was low and calm, but there was a slight quaver in it. "Do you think I'm going to all of a sudden change my mind? It's been a year, Ray. I..." She kneaded at the fabric of a purple tee shirt. "I bought you pillows." She was suddenly tiny and vulnerable, arms folded over her chest to protect herself, gaze cast down and to the side. He watched her hand flicker up to tuck her hair behind her right ear, and his anger instantly deflated.
He made a decision.
"I'm the world's biggest dumbass."
She nodded in agreement. "Kind of." But she looked at him, and almost smiled.
"Thank you for the pillows."
"I'm not going to change my mind, either."
"I know. And I'm sorry I mocked your Xbox. You can teach me to play Guitar whatever."
"I'll even spot you a few levels."
"I don't think that'll be necessary."
"You think you can take me?"
"I think I can kick your ass."
He laughed, and backed the cart out into the aisle. "Can we get out of here now?"
"I'd love to, but I still need shampoo and things. It'll only take a minute." She stepped up beside him, and their hands met over a pyramid of frozen burritos. "I'll drive."
It took a little more than a minute. The ice cream started to drip condensation onto his expensive electronics, so he leaned over the cart and rearranged things while she picked up bottles of moisturizer or face wash, carefully read the labels, and then returned them to their shelves. He thought about that morning, and the tall white tube sitting on the corner of his bathroom sink next to his razor and a pile of her hair bands, the stretchy nylon ones she liked because they didn't snag, and eventually her hand landed on one that matched it.
"You know..." he began.
"You could, uh. I mean, if you really want to kick my ass at Xbox..."
"Oh, I do."
"Yeah, well you could get in a lot more practice if you, uh....If you, you know. Lived closer."
Her hand tightened around the bottle. "Closer."
She turned to face him, eyes wide. "Like...in the same neighborhood? Or...?"
"Or...in the same...apartment?"
"Are you asking me to move in with you?"
"I think so, yeah. I mean, yeah. Yes."
"In the Target?"
"I guess I probably should have waited."
"Probably? Weren't we arguing five minutes ago?"
"Yeah, but...you're right. It's been a year, and we're not changing our minds, and...you know." He shrugged. "Pillows."
"It's a big step."
"I mean it. There's a lot to consider."
"Right, like how do we even know if we're compatible?" he joked.
"I'm serious. It's not going to be just like before except--" She looked around, and paused until a passing customer was out of earshot. "Except with sex."
"I know. And I know that there's...baggage, so if you want to look for a new place, we can do that, too. Just...think about it?"
"We'll discuss this later."
"But you'll think about it." She was already thinking about it, he could tell. She'd think it to death, and then they'd discuss the crap out of it, but when it came down to it...
She took control of the cart and steered them back out into the wide front aisle. "Come on, let's go. Show me how to play this damn game so I can beat you at it."
He grinned. "I don't think that's gonna happen. It's not called Viola Hero."
"I'm so going to kick your ass."
"I just need to pick up one more thing before we leave."
"You're kidding. What else could you possibly--?"
She stopped, leaned in close, and swiped her index finger across his forehead. "Label maker."
Neela bit her lip and stared at the looming wall of greeting cards, indecisive and overwhelmed. She must have read dozens, some of them twice, and rejected each one as too sappy, or too jokey, or too tacky, or too...well. Maybe this wasn't the right way to go about this, after all. It had been a silly impulse, knowingly cheesy and sentimental, but now it seemed it might be excessively so.
Then again, if there was anyone who could appreciate a cheesy gesture...
She jumped, so absorbed in her stationery-related ambivalence that she hadn't noticed him approaching. "What?" she asked, momentarily confused. "Oh. Um. My med student. She already graduated, actually, but I was so busy..." She quickly surveyed the sparse selection of graduation cards, a category that was thoroughly picked over by now, and plucked one out at random, hoping it was satisfactorily generic. "Did you get everything?"
She peered into the cart and compared its contents to her mental checklist: toilet paper, mouthwash, an enormous bag of pretzels, a jar of organic spinach dip, dish detergent, Tampax... All in all, about a seventy-five percent match. Good enough.
"Yeah," he answered absently. He'd drifted past her to look at the next display over. "Do they have Father's Day in England?"
She was suddenly pierced by a little dart of guilt. She hadn't even thought of it. "Yes, actually. Thank you for reminding me. I would have completely forgotten." She selected something formal and polite, but then she turned and saw Ray, hands in pockets, standing away from the rack, a wide buffer between himself and the paper onslaught of filial devotion. The little dart of guilt was washed away by a wave of tenderness and empathy. She wanted to reach into his pocket and hold his hand. Instead, she put back the card she'd chosen for her dad and replaced it with something a little more familiar. When she looked up she found Ray eyeing her with concern.
"Hey, are you okay?"
The question took her by surprise. "I'm fine, why?"
"You seem a little off today."
"How do you mean? Off how?"
"I don't know, a little flaky or..." Seeing her reaction to that, he backpedaled into the right word. "Preoccupied."
"It's just work, I guess," she offered. "I've been tired lately."
"I've noticed. You know, we don't have to go to this thing today."
"But you told Morris you'd bring the ice."
"He can get his own ice."
"And you made all that pasta salad."
"Yeah, but if you're not feeling up to it..."
"Really, I'm fine, Ray. All our friends will be there; it'll be fun."
He sighed. "It's just that I feel like we hardly see each other anymore, and now we finally have a whole weekend and we get to spend half of it listening to Morris brag about his deck and use the word 'escrow' every other sentence."
"Well, leaving early is definitely not out of the question."
"I still can't believe Morris bought a house. Think we'll ever be able to afford a house?"
Her chest tightened a little, and she replied quietly, "I hope so."
"God, that's a scary thought."
"Is it?" The tight feeling migrated down to her abdomen.
"Yeah, I mean a house...that's hardcore. Once you're in, you're stuck with it." He shuddered a little. "That's serious grown-up stuff. That's..."
He narrowed his eyes, bemused. "I was going to say 'a lot of work.' I don't know if it's worth it just for a backyard. Especially since I'd have to mow it."
"So you wouldn't want to go into escrow with me?" She tried to keep her tone light, but he'd picked up the signal to tread carefully.
"I'm not saying never. Just, you know...when we're ready. Anyway," he bumped her shoulder playfully. "You know I'd go anywhere with you."
He brushed her hand with his, briefly interlaced their fingers, and the knot in her stomach began to unravel.
They drifted through the store a while longer, mostly in the home section, idly debating whether they were obligated to buy some sort of housewarming gift. Earlier, she'd taken the opportunity to scout out other departments on her own, mesmerised by the staggering array of paraphernalia she'd hardly even noticed before. The sheer quantity and variety of it did nothing to calm the tiny flutter of panic she'd been fighting all day. And yet, mostly, the panic took a backseat to a sort of wonder. There was a whole world here that was utterly new to her. Of course she knew the basics, but there seemed to be levels and levels of accessories she never would have dreamed of. And how on earth did they make fabric so impossibly soft?
Now she lingered by the window coverings, thoughtful. Her hand swept down a white panel curtain and played over the tiny moons and stars embroidered at the hem.
"Do we have time to go to the Home Depot this weekend?" she asked.
"Why, are we building Morris a garage?"
"I thought we might repaint the spare bedroom. Clean it out a bit."
"Sure," he said with a shrug, "I guess tomorrow we could-- Oh, my god. Don't tell me."
She looked up in alarm. "What? Don't tell you what?"
"Are your parents coming? Is that why you're so weird?"
"No!" She laughed a little at the naked relief on his face, though she found it completely understandable. "God, no. No." Not yet, anyway...
"You'd give me some advance warning on that, right?"
"Why, so you could skip town?"
"We could both skip town. We'd be lying on the beach in Cabo before they even knew we were gone."
"I can't tell you how encouraging it is that your reaction to the prospect of a visit from my parents is to flee the country under cover of darkness. Not that Cabo doesn't sound tempting, but if they do ever decide to come over, I'm afraid we're stuck with them."
"As long as they know they're stuck with me."
The flutter returned, but it was something different from panic this time.
She reminded him about the ice, and when he met her back at the register he told her, "It's raining pretty hard out there."
"So much for Archie's cookout."
"Yeah, now we'll all be stuck inside while he gives the grand tour a hundred times. Do you know how many different kinds of tile he has? I do. 'Cause that's all he's talked about for a week. Ten. Ten kinds of tile."
"You know, I am really tired. We'll definitely need to leave early."
"Sweet. I knew I loved you. I'll go get the car, pull around and pick you up."
She watched him run across the parking lot through the downpour for a few seconds, and then excused herself from the checkout line, taking her chance to double back and pick up one more thing, and put the Tampax back on the shelf.
The rain never let up on the drive home, and she closed her eyes and listened to the sound of it pounding on the car, to the swish of the windshield wipers, to the radio, and to Ray quietly singing along. When she opened her eyes at a stoplight, he was watching her.
"You sure you're okay?"
She nodded. "I'm fine. There is something I need to talk to you about, though. It can wait until we get home tonight, but..."
"Shit, are you breaking up with me?"
She smacked his arm. "I'm serious."
"You're being deported."
"Oh, shut up and drive."
Traffic slowed down, and she closed her eyes again. Soon she felt the weight of his arm on her shoulder, his thumb at the nape of her neck. She was terrified, and happy, and terrified to be happy.
Tucked inside her purse was her one last item, her cheesy gesture, her silly, sentimental impulse in a folded piece of paper with 'Happy Father's Day' printed on the front. She didn't know what she'd write inside, but she knew her hand would shake when she gave it to him, and that she'd hold her breath while he read it, and when he looked up at her...
They'd go forward from there.
"No, that one!"
He moved his hand to the next box over on the shelf. "Oh, this one."
"Yes!" Her Abby Cadabby sneakers squeaked on the floor as she hopped with excitement.
"I don't think so, Al. Yogurt in a tube is one thing, but peanut butter in a tube...that's just gross. You're supposed to eat peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon. Uh, don't tell Mom I said that. Sandwiches. I meant sandwiches."
"But Hank at school has them and they're good!"
"Okay, I know for a fact that peanut butter isn't allowed at school, so I kind of think you're lying. And what's lying?"
She tugged on one of her pigtails and mumbled, "...Not cool."
"So what do you owe me?"
She looked pensive for a moment, and then looked up at him, her big brown eyes extra wide. "A hug?"
He managed not to laugh. "Nice try. What do you owe me?"
A sigh, another fidget with her hair, and then, "...A timeout." But she wasn't quite ready to give up on negotiation. "Hank's mom doesn't give him timeouts."
"Yeah, well, Hank still wears Pull-Ups. I don't think we'll be taking tips from Hank's mom anytime soon." In fact, he was pretty sure Hank's mom came on to him once at pick-up time. Hank was straight-up bad news.
"How 'bout we go for the Teddy Grahams instead?"
If she hadn't been caught fibbing--they really had to work on that--she might have lobbied harder for the squeezy peanut butter. "Okay."
"Great." As he took the cookies off the shelf he experienced one of those surreal parenting moments of hearing himself say, completely naturally, something incredibly ridiculous. "They can have a party with the Cheddar Bunnies."
It didn't get quite the laugh he was hoping for--last year that would have killed--but she did seem kind of interested in the concept, and there followed a brief debate about whether the Teddy Grahams and the Cheddar Bunnies would even get along, and could Goldfish come to this party, seeing as they live underwater, and what about Gummi Worms?
Sometimes he got nostalgic for her toddler days, when he could just pick her up by the back of her overalls and point her in the right direction, but being able to have an actual conversation with her...that was pretty awesome.
"C'm'ere, Al, your hair's all crazy. Hold the FruitaBu."
"…and now I've lost them in the Target. It’s like having two four year olds." Neela held her phone up with her shoulder as she pushed the cart up and down the aisles, searching.
"You love it," said Abby.
"Not right now I--"
Then she turned the corner into packaged foods and saw them, two aisles away. Her daughter stood next to an overflowing red shopping basket--she always liked to carry one of her own, until it got too heavy--and held the familiar bright green box of organic 'smooshed fruit', her lips moving haltingly as she tried to sound out the words on the back. Ray crouched behind her, attempting to realign two lopsided ponytails.
They wore identical expressions of intense concentration.
She turned before they could see her and circled round the other direction until she was right behind them.
"Alice Jasbir Rasgotra-Barnett."
The two of them spun around in surprise, and she swallowed her laughter as Ray nearly fell over before standing up. "Do you always have to hit that last part so hard?" he asked.
"Oh there you are," said Alice.
"What did I say about wandering off?"
"You said not to and not to let Daddy wander off but I didn't want him to get lost and you were looking at purses so we got Teddy Grahams. Can I eat peanut butter out of the jar?"
"Absolutely not." She made eye contact with Ray, who was doing his best to look innocent, something he'd never been terribly good at.
He picked up Alice's basket and set it inside the cart with the stacks of books and sheets and shoes, the Nickelodeon-themed bath products, a new set of cereal bowls, and a colorful stuffed elephant tentatively named 'Daisy.' "Didn't we only come here for a few things?"
"Don't we always?"
"That's it. This place is dangerous. You ready to head home, ladies? Al, you don't wanna walk all the way to the car, do you?" He hoisted the giggling girl onto his shoulders and she clasped her little hands on top of his head to get her balance.
"Right," said Neela. "Let's go home."