Once we get beyond the easy yes/no questions, it’s all over for me.
If the sign says “Ten items or less,” I check my basket and don’t start a pedantic conversation about whether it should read fewer. Carton of milk, box of Cheez-Its, brick of cheddar, two kinds of cereal, bag of popcorn, jar of extra crunchy Jif, yet another dog toy, and I’m good. My phone is at the ready, waiting to Apple Pay. I will enter my PIN when it says to enter my PIN. I try to follow the rules. I try not to be a jerk.
I live alone – well, with the shameless possessor of too many dog toys – and grocery shopping fills me with fear and trembling. I roam the aisles hoping I will turn into someone who cooks, or at least into a grownup who has an idea of what to eat for dinner, besides breakfast cereal or Cheez-Its. When the fuel tank of my love life gets stuck on empty and I’m forced to dine alone, my imagination founders. Popcorn is a grain and grains are good for you, right?
After too much angsty wandering, facing the vegetables and deeming them demanding and oppressive, fearing the vagaries of meat, knowing better than to invite the stink of fish into my home, and passing on the frozen meals as somehow déclassé, I always leave with the same handfuls of items. Then I take a big breath to handle what I know is coming next.
Paper or plastic?
I’m ready for that one.
Did you find everything you were looking for?
Oh, when will I ever? So much looking, so much seeking.
Instead I answer with a polite nod, an awkward smile and a hurried “Yes, thank you.”
Then I brace myself. We’re finished with the binary questions, those I can and will answer.
I try to remind myself that these workers have hard jobs and are no doubt instructed to engage customers in conversation to build rapport. I’m sure plenty of people like me, who live alone and spend much of the day solo, welcome the opportunity to chat with a smiling stranger when out doing something that for most is a mundane chore.
But once we get beyond the easy yes/no questions, it’s all over for me.
What are you up to today?
Please don’t ask me that unless your aim is torture. Don’t make me account for my time. Part of what it means to be a grownup, especially one whose work life involves spending hours in coffee shops writing and afternoons lying in bed reading, is that you don’t have to answer to anyone. The way I support myself can make me look and sound like a flaneur. I don’t want to admit that I’m going to pass the afternoon with a novel because if I have to have a conversation about a book I’m pretty sure the other person hasn’t read, I’d rather it be with a student in my class.
When forced to confess that exactly nothing exciting is going on in my life, I can fall into despair. On the other hand, if tell the grocery store checker I have a new book coming out this fall, or that I’ve just done a 20-mile run with my dog, or I’ll be traveling to give a speech, will hearing my news make her feel worse about her own life, whatever that is? Will I sound like a bragger?
It seems the higher up you go in the food store chains, the more likely and intrusive the questions. My life changed for the better when Spokane landed a grocery store I love. Prepared food as inexpensive as it is good! Frozen meals that are delicious and nutritious! Vegetables that know they’re headed for the microwave and dress accordingly! The employees, savvy and kind, offer help if you look even a little perplexed, which, apparently, I often do.
They also probe the deepest with their questions and I face the check-out line there with dread. What am I doing this weekend?
It’s weekend? I hadn’t noticed. I have no plans. I’m a big fat loser.
How am I liking the weather? I’m not. No one wants to sound like a grump, even if you are one.
Plus, they comment on my purchases, which makes me twitchy. If I’m buying 15 bags of dried persimmons, it’s probably safe to assume I think they’re good. When they tell me to enjoy my snacks, do I correct them? Peanut butter-filled pretzels are dinner. Yes, I have a dog. She’s a mutt. Want to see a picture? I have eight thousand photos of Helen on my phone, but I’m not sure the people behind me in line would appreciate it if I flip through them for you.
What am I up today?
Trying to figure out how not to answer that question without sounding like a jerk.
Rachel Toor is a professor in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her most recent book is Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever.
This originally appeared on The Spokesman Review. Republished here with permission.