There was no light in the road, no epiphany. But then, I always assumed love was something pulled from the pages of a textbook in its fifth printing. We know how it goes, we’ve been tested on it. Was it love? I don’t know, or I’d be busy writing a new textbook. I’ll just say she was beautiful, extraordinary and that I’ll always miss her. Maybe that’s not the same thing.
It started on a summer afternoon- July, I think. I was itching to make a change. I get restless when the weather’s nice, claustrophobic about my life. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not complaining. I was a successful VP. I made good money, married well and owned a magnificent house. I would have been glad to show it off to you, custom kitchen cabinets, and an actual library room. My stereo system was capable of shattering bulletproof glass, though I never turned it up past three. We entertained a lot so I could hear about what a nice place I had.
Graham Parker and his wife Judy were due for dinner later. He was visiting from our office in Toledo. While I never could stand him, we’d been friends for years and I always had him over when he was in town, not to miss a chance to be gracious. I had taken the day off, just didn’t feel like going in. Joyce was at work of course, she can’t stand being home for too long.
So I was hanging around in my boxer shorts, deciding whether to take up racquetball or join a sect of Buddhist monks. I couldn’t get excited about racquetball and I didn’t know of any monasteries close by so I watched some television. One of those biography shows was on. I watched them frequently because I could pass them off to myself as educational. Some rock star was talking about how his agent ripped him off. I couldn’t really get into it. How can you feel bad for a guy when you already know he’s a rock star? Drug overdoses and stolen royalties are part of the territory. My boredom led me to the refrigerator, where I discovered that we were out of bottled water. I was parched.
I tossed pants and shoes on to go to the convenient store, and once outside, the sun kind of hypnotized me. I felt like driving to the beach and staying a week. I’ve always wanted to disappear somewhere for a while without telling anyone where I’m going. Mostly I want to see what they’ll say when I get back. I think they would just laugh and tell me how worried they were. They wouldn’t be mad. You can’t be genuinely upset with someone who only disappears for a week. It’s not like skipping town for good or anything.
On the drive I was craving a cold beer, but at the store, I realized I had no idea what kind I wanted. That was okay I thought, new adventure. I’m hardly opposed to drinking, but it had been a long while since I’d gone to the store to pick up a six pack. It had been many years since I’d even wanted a beer. I stick with the hard stuff mostly, vodka and cranberry juice usually. It seems to work. I couldn’t believe how many different kinds of beer they had. The glass wall of coolers was like a shrine to the brewing industry. The different colors and packages made me feel like a kid in front of a toy store window. I grabbed a six pack of Molson. I liked it when I was younger and I was feeling a little nostalgic. I had to look a little harder to find my brand of water.
I saw her for the first time as I set my things on the counter. Her back was turned to me, as she put sandwiches together on the deli table. “Just one minute” she said, sensing me there without turning around. She spoke with such pleasantness, as if talking to an old friend who had come to pick her up ten minutes early and found she wasn’t quite ready to go. I didn’t mind waiting. I had hours to kill and making a sandwich couldn’t take long anyway.
She threw out her disposable gloves to ring me up. “Thanks for waiting” she said through a convincing smile. Convenient store clerks always say the same things. This was different though. I could tell she meant it. She wasn’t worried about upsetting a customer. She was honestly sorry to keep me waiting. I acted like it was no big deal, as if I understood the pressures of her job. I considered telling her what great work she was doing, how the store was lucky to have her there, something like that. I decided against it. It would have sounded degrading. I could sense that she was a smart girl, and I didn’t want her to take it wrong. She wasn’t being pleasant for the sake of her job. It was her nature. I gave her the money. “Have a good one” she said. Not “Have a nice day” like any other given cashier. This girl was for real. “Yeah you too” I told her as sincerely as I could.
I felt bad for not saying anything. She deserved some notice for making my visit so pleasant. I knew that it was better to say nothing than to sound condescending though. I drove home and had a beer. Only one, and I didn’t care for it. It was nothing like I remembered. It only left me thirsty. I waited for Joyce to come home.
We had a lovely dinner. Joyce was always an excellent cook. I sat at the table, talking shop with Graham and I was relieved when they left early. Graham can talk all night once he gets going. I turned in a little early that night and Joyce asked me about the beer in the fridge. “Just curious,” she said. She’s always looking for signs of an impending mid-life crisis. I told her that I just wanted to see if I still had a taste for it.
Tuesday was a good day. I can work miracles when my head’s in my work. Occasionally I forget not to like it there. The week flew by, back to business as usual. Leaving Friday night, I had an urge to pick up a Newsweek. I used to have it delivered, until my subscription ran out and I forgot to renew. I hadn’t missed it until that night. I stopped at the convenient store on the way home.
A hefty, white haired woman was working. She looked respectable enough, but there was something about her that bothered me. I wouldn’t eat a sandwich she made. There was something unclean about her, nothing obvious, like she was carrying secret filth under her fingernails or something. She was content to move the people traffic in and out as quickly as possible. “Have a nice day” she said handing over my magazine. I left disappointed. My whole trip felt empty because she wasn’t there. I missed her. Foolish, I know, but I was really disturbed at not seeing her.
Joyce wanted to go to the beach for the weekend. I agreed, mainly because I couldn’t think of a good reason to stay home. She invited her friend Trish to come along. We rented a little cottage where I stayed most of Saturday. Joyce and her friend drove around town without me. They returned that evening with colored paper bags from every gift shop known to man. Joyce showed me all of their wonderful finds. She’s quite fond of useless trinkets.
On Sunday, they left the cottage early, to get all the sun they could from their day. Joyce didn’t ask me to go thinking I hate beach days. You can’t go to the beach with just anyone. I’d tried it with Joyce a couple of times. She would just lie there worried about her sunscreen and getting sand in her shoes. I could watch the ocean roll in and out all day. I forget my whole life staring into the surging waves. Until that voice inevitably breaks up my reverie to request my assistance putting sunscreen on her back. You shouldn’t go to the beach with someone who doesn’t understand how irritating that is.
I stayed in bed until ten that morning. I sleep soundly in strange places. The beds are always more comfortable than mine. The window promised perfect weather, which to me is any day you can walk around in a T-shirt without fear of chill. I dressed sloppily for a walk. We were close to the boardwalk. I strolled around peeking into shops, laughing at the people waiting in lines to buy authentic beach souvenirs. I swear they can sell anything if there’s a beach within twenty miles. It seems ridiculous to me that anyone would pay for a decorated seashell or a T-shirt showcasing bad art work.
I ducked into a mini-grocery for junk food. There had to be at least ten people in the line ahead. The guy in front of me was smoking a cigarette, holding a can of tuna fish. He smoked blatantly, as if daring someone to complain. I didn’t care. I know it’s odd, but I’ve never been bothered by cigarette smoke. I’d never indulged in the habit myself, other than maybe a week in high school, but the smell of this guy’s cigarette infected me. I surprised myself when I asked the old man at the register for a pack of Marlboros.
I wasn’t seized with an irresistible compulsion or anything. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time, and, why not? Tucking the pack in my pocket, I hit the boardwalk again. Tiring of people, I resolved to seek out a secluded stretch of beach. I had to look for half an hour, but it was a nice spot. I climbed atop a tranquil formation of dark rocks and pulled out the cigarettes. Amateur that I was, I had forgotten to pick up a light. I wasn’t too bothered though, I put the cigarettes away and for three hours I sat there, soaking the sun into my skin, inhaling the breeze, and following the patterns of the breaking waves. My thoughts turned to the girl in the store. I wondered if she always tied her hair back or if it was just because of store policy. I was wishing that I’d read her name tag. It didn’t seem fair to think about her in such an intimate way, without knowing her name.
When the rocks started feeling cold and uncomfortable, I returned to the strip. The first thing I did was buy a lighter. The cigarette felt very natural in my hand. Anyone who had seen me earlier in the day would have an entirely different perception because of the cigarette. In the movies when someone first tries a cigarette they always hack and cough for twenty minutes. It wasn’t like that for me, but I didn’t try to suck the whole thing in at once either. It was surprisingly smooth. Not orgasmic or anything, but alright.
Hunger set in as I reached the cottage. I wasn’t going to wait for Joyce, having no idea when she was due back. To avoid putting my shoes on again, I ordered a pizza. They must have been right next door, as the delivery guy was there in less than twenty minutes. I watched some action flick about a plane hijacking. Other than some good crash scenes, it was really cheesy. I would have been disappointed if it wasn’t though. I felt like a bachelor again, living high on greasy pizza and trashy movies.
They came in after dusk, as red as live lobsters. Seeing that their backsides were hardly tanned, I guessed that they had fallen asleep in the sun. Not that I needed to guess. The two of them must have talked about it for hours. “I can’t believe we fell asleep” Joyce would say. Then Trish would giggle “And both of us, at the same time, what are the odds of that.” They probably only went through this once, but I heard so much about it they may as well have repeated the routine a hundred times.
My head was ready to burst after hours of their banter. I decided to give them something to talk about. They were so preoccupied with each other they didn’t even notice me putting the cigarette to my lips. The sound of the lighter silenced them in two seconds flat. I just sat back on the bed as if this was part of my daily routine. They went into shock initially, staring at me like animals crossing the road halfway before noticing the cars. When Joyce’s wits returned, she started an elaborate coughing fit. Trish just covered her mouth and nose, bolting outside with the speed of an escaping fireman. Joyce glanced at me to see if I was buying it. I took another puff on the cigarette. As her fit miraculously subsided, she went to join her friend.
“Take us home.” Joyce said, stepping in the room just enough to block the doorway with her tightly crossed arms after several minutes outside discussing strategy. Trish was close behind her, offering moral support in this time of crisis. They cracked me up. To hear the tone of her voice you would have thought she was on a panel to convict war criminals. I knew that they would be upset. I’ve been out with the two of them enough times to hear their remarks towards those who smoke in restaurants, “Filthy, filthy habit.” and other such things. Taunting her self righteousness, I took another drag. Her face shriveled up, as she walked out again.
I’d had my fun, but knew I couldn’t hold off the showdown. After collecting my things, I started the car. They gathered their bags only after they were sure I was done with the room. Within five minutes, the car was loaded and we were ready to go. The entire ride was silent. Joyce sat up front next to me. You could tell she didn’t want to, but wouldn’t allow me to rob her of her customary seat. When we were fifteen minutes from home, Joyce broke the silence. “Don’t even think about lighting those filthy things in the house.” she said. I only nodded, not caring to spoil her moment of glory.
As I was shaving the next morning, I realized I had forgotten my cigarettes at the cottage. Either that or Joyce had taken them, but I think she was too disgusted to bother. I thought it would be nice to have a smoke on the ride to work. No big deal, I thought. I’ll just stop and get some more. She would probably be there too, if I had figured right. Judging by the last time I’d seen her, the odds were good she worked first shift on Mondays.
I checked my hair in the mirror before stepping into the store parking lot. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was. Pulling the handle on the heavy glass door, I saw her. My car could have burst into flames and I wouldn’t have known it, I was so ecstatic. I knew enough to play it cool though. It wouldn’t do to have her think of me as some deranged admirer. I walked across the shiny white tiles to the counter. “Hi, how are you?” she said in a tone of recognition. She remembered me. As many people as she saw in a day, and she remembered my face. I stayed cool though. “Oh, I’m good, thanks. How about yourself?” I said, trying for no more than naturally courteous. ‘Great. What can I get for you?’ she asked with her effortless charm. ‘A pack of Marlboros please?’ We made our exchange and she looked right in my eyes and said, “Take care now.”
“Margaret” I said to myself in the car. I had managed a glance at her nametag as she’d handed me the cigarettes. Knowing her name, I found it impossible to stop thinking of her. It was like a schoolboy crush. I spent the rest of the drive picturing her different aspects of her. I imagined the warm greeting she would have for me when I came home from work. I could see her straight brown hair freely spread about pillows in the low light of breaking dawn. I could see endless laughing conversations, untarnished by harsh words and frigid silences. She would understand me as no other, I thought. I could feel the change coming. For the first time I can remember, I knew that good things were ahead.
All day at work I couldn’t stop thinking about her. We had a Vice Presidents’ meeting that morning, and other than deciding to name Hal Breckenridge as VP of quality assurance, I don’t remember a thing that we discussed. I guess I was smiling a lot too. I didn’t realize it, but everyone else did. All day, everyone joked that I must have got lucky last night. I just played along, knowing they wouldn’t understand my reason for smiling. It was too deep for them. I drove by the store on the way home, hoping she would be walking to her car or something. I didn’t stop. I would have looked suspicious going to the convenient store twice in one day. I didn’t see her passing by, but then I hadn’t really expected to.
I wanted to be with Margaret so badly I couldn’t think of anything else. It was a tough problem. I mean, what do you say to get closer to a convenient store clerk? If I asked her out to dinner or something, she would have thought me a lecherous womanizer. Nobody falls for the convenient store clerk, much less leaves their wife for one. I was faced once again with the recurring problem. I didn’t know a thing about her. Still, I could feel something extraordinary about her. The situation was fast becoming unbearable. I resolved to do something about it. Not that I was in a mad rush to declare my undying affection. I would be happy with steady progress.
I started going to her store for lunch. I figured I could do that without making my true intentions obvious. She would just assume that I really liked their sandwiches. Just to make sure, I brought Hal along with me a few times. He assumed that springing for lunch now and then was my way of accepting him into the ranks of the Vice Presidents. I didn’t bring him too often though. He’s a pretty sharp guy, and I think he suspected my feelings for Margaret. He never said anything about it. I just didn’t like the way he grinned when I talked to her. I still hadn’t managed a conversation with her about anything more profound than extra napkins, but even in discussing such mundane subjects I was building our connection.
I’m pretty sure Hal knew something. The last couple of times I asked him to lunch he turned me down. He said he had too much work to do. He was lying about that. I knew he didn’t have anything pressing going on. The last time he turned me down, just before I left his office, he asked me how my wife was doing. After that I didn’t invite him again.
I thought it was for the best anyway, better to keep my visits to myself. I was stopping there twice every day then, once in the morning for cigarettes, (I was up to a pack a day by then), and then to pick up my lunch. I guess I didn’t actually go every day, I was stuck with Joyce on the weekends, and I didn’t bother going in on Wednesdays after realizing she didn’t work them. It was working pretty well for a while, I wasn’t feeling so bored anymore. The weekends seemed to drag on forever, but they were bearable knowing I would see Margaret on Monday.
In hindsight, I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. Everything was happening so smoothly. I should have been watching for a bump in the road. I was sitting out on the porch one night drinking vodka and cranberry juice, when Joyce came outside with a serious look on her face. I knew what was coming. We hadn’t really talked since the incident at the cottage several weeks before. She had been going out with Trish most every night since then. The weekends we spent together consisted of finding creative ways to avoid talking to each other. It’s not that hard really, there’s always yard work, or something to pretend to do in the garage.
I didn’t say anything, hoping she would go back in the house without bothering me if I didn’t acknowledge her. No such luck though, she was determined to talk to me. ‘Still on the cancer sticks, I see.’ she said. I think she was trying to be cute, but Joyce isn’t gifted with a flair for cuteness. I just kind of nodded to humor her. I was half in the bag already and I really didn’t want to deal with her just then. She took a second to compose herself; she wanted to get the words just right. She really loves to be dramatic.
‘I just thought I should tell you that I’m leaving. Just so you know.’ she said slowly, listening closely to her own voice to ensure a sufficiently tragic inflection. ‘Yeah, okay. I guess I’ll see you later then.’ I said. She went back in the house. I think she stayed with Trish that night. She had her personal things cleared out by the end of the week. I’ve been pretty lucky as far as Joyce goes. We never had any nasty fights.
So I was free of Joyce. I thought it would be easier to get things rolling with Margaret. I felt unstoppable when I stopped in for my smokes the next morning. The sun was shining. The birds almost sounded as if they’d practiced a tune. I was a free man and I could see Margaret through the glass.
I was surprised to see she wasn’t alone this morning. There was this pudgy guy in store uniform behind the counter with her. He had a patch of thin brown hair sprouting from the back of his head. It was strategically combed forward so you wouldn’t know he was almost bald.
They were talking when I came in. As I approached the counter, he sent Margaret to the back room. ‘What can I get for ya?’ the pudgy guy said. He asked me so urgently I expected him to pull out a stopwatch. I took my cigarettes and left. There wasn’t anything I could say. I assumed he was a new manager or something, out to make a statement about efficiency to his employees. When he sent Margaret to the back again at lunchtime, I knew it was more than that. I didn’t even bother with a sandwich. I just bought a bottle of water and left.
I assumed he would be there all week. At lunchtime it had felt like they were watching for me. It couldn’t have been too hard to do. I had always gone at about the same time every day. Being a regular had become a disadvantage. I wasn’t completely sure that she was intentionally avoiding me. There was still a possibility that this was just some manager proving he could get his hands dirty running a register. Still, I had to know for sure. I didn’t go to the store the next day. I wanted them to think I wasn’t coming back. Friday afternoon I decided to find out. If she had been avoiding me, the manager wouldn’t need to be there if they thought I wasn’t coming. If she wasn’t, I doubted the manager would run a register the whole week. Either way I didn’t think he would be there.
I was right about that. He wasn’t there. When I walked in Margaret looked surprised, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t say much at all to me. It didn’t feel right. “Can I help you?” she asked politely, professionally. I asked her for a pack of Marlboros. She didn’t look me in the eye, just handed them to me with a flat “Have a nice day.”
I took a few weeks of vacation time. They owe me months of it anyway. I finally staged my disappearance to the beach. I’m renting a nice house on the water. I know taking vacation time defeats the whole point of disappearing, but I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. There’s still a chance that people will try to call me and worry when they can’t get a hold of me. At least I can watch the waves from the picture window. Sometimes I get lost in them and I forget Margaret. At least until I have to run out for cigarettes. It’s funny how every little store reminds me of her. I may disappear for a while after all. I mean, who’s going to stop me from staying longer?