This Saturday, I made a poor decision.
I went to the grocery store.
On a weekend. On, in fact, a holiday weekend. On a holiday weekend before a holiday characterized mostly by food: bar-b-que and watermelon and coleslaw and the like. On a holiday weekend before a holiday characterized mostly by bar-b-que and watermelon and coleslaw when the possibility of bad weather in the form of Tropical Storm Beryl swirled just over the horizon.
Plus, I was hungry.
Despite these potentially disastrous decisions, I made it through the grocery store and even managed to purchase items from all of the food groups, including, miraculously, real and actual vegetables, for which I had real and actual cooking plans. Sure, there were the usual poor food decisions — Nutella, Cheez-Its, and the like — but I was still pretty proud of myself when I placed the contents of my cart in the obsessive-compulsive order in which I place the contents of my cart on the conveyor belt. I surveyed the items from various food groups, including the miraculous real and actual vegetables, and I felt pretty proud of myself for making adult decisions.
The thing is that I wasn’t the only one surveying my soon-to-be-purchased products. A kind-looking man stood behind me, watching me move the items into their proper order. He also kindly helped me lift the cat litter onto the conveyor belt, at which point he said, “Based on what you’re buying, I’m going to assume you’re a new faculty member.”
I admit: I was floored. What had given me away? The guacamole mix packet? The four sad bananas? The obvious stockpiling of products for an obviously multi-cat household? “It’s the cat litter, isn’t it?”
He laughed and nodded. “Well, yes. And the organic milk, and the Greek yogurt, and the amount of comfort food.” Nutella and Cheez-Its — my epicurean Achilles heel. I should’ve known.
As the conversation went on, I realized that my kind conveyor-belt partner — and, apparently, fellow faculty member — knew a lot more about me from my purchases than I’d thought. He knew I was in the liberal arts. He knew I was new to this tenure-track thing. He knew I was feeling a little bit lonely that day, and he knew I was single. Somehow, what I’d seen as a triumph of healthy grocery purchases was actually closer to a census report, broadcasting to everyone around me my age, employment status, economic status, marital status, and emotional well-being. I slid the cat litter back into its place under my cart, feeling somewhat exposed but also fascinated — who knew that a cart full of things could say so much about me?
The thing is, I should have known: I talk about this every day in class, anyway, when I drill my students about their characters, their selves, pushing them for the concrete details that will tell a reader who they are, beyond any doubt.
She was new to the area, without many friends, single and a little sad. Okay, we have some idea of who that woman is.
She stood on her tip-toes to reach the small bags of Tidy Cat, the ones she could easily carry by herself, and before she lost her balance, she slid three off the shelf and into her cart in quick succession, making sure they didn’t land on the Lean Cuisine microwave dinners or the squash she was so proud of picking out. Now, that’s a woman we know.
Normally, this kind of experience would result in multiple phone calls to friends and/or relatives, during which I’d make my way through the box of Cheez-Its I’d just purchased while rambling about how I am going to die alone, resulting in my cats eating my face. However, inspired by my colleague Neal Saye’s amazing blog about happiness, I decided to put the Cheez-Its in the cabinet and look at this experience in a different way. I mean, what better reminder of what we do as writers, and how we do it, than this? How we write to let others know ourselves and themselves, and how, in order to do so, we’ve got to make the people who inhabit our pages real: we have to give them toothbrushes and spatulas, litter boxes to clean, shower doors to scrub. We have to give them what we have to give them to make them real — even if those people are ourselves, even if it means showing the world what we don’t necessarily want to show the world — actually, especially if it means that, because only then do we become real. What better reminder that both God and the Devil are in the details, if you’re doing it right?