My grocer looked different when seen away from his store — quite different even. He looked somewhat changed when seen on the street, when seen in his civilian clothes, away from his stiff apron, away from the silly placard announcing his name to everyone who came in through the door — whether such a customer cared about it or not — and away from his usual habitat: from the endless shelves tightly packed with groceries of all kinds and brands that were surrounding him there like obedient subjects looking up to their king and ruler.
I used to fantasize about him; I used to imagine things about him — with him in the leading role, as if I were a renowned casting director; I used to peek at him secretly from beneath my brows, keeping my head down, pretending to fumble in my purse for the wallet when at the checkout counter; I even used to hold up the line to be able to look at him a little longer.
I used to contemplate him furtively from behind this or that jam-packed store rack, from above an introverted can of peaches, or from behind a puffed-up bag of cereals.
I used to come to the store, to drop by, as if casually, as often as several times a day, like an obsessive health inspector, even if our fridge was chock-full, even if all the milks and canned soups and butters went rancid and sour and exceeded their expiration dates due to the stupefying abundance of all that, due to the sheer amount of all that which wouldn’t even have been eaten in time by a whole legion, by an entire army, much less by our little two-person family, and because of which majestic heap of food it was impossible to shut the fridge door completely, and make it stay closed.
My mother would go wild because of it, and I mean: jungle wild — like some undomesticated, savage, and furry beast. She would burst into the kitchen, like a stick-up man during his working hours; she would see that stale and rotting mess, see the putrid mixture of oil and fat and grease leak from the open fridge and merge and blend on the floor, on her beloved kitchen floor, and go wild — really wild, I mean; inhumanly wild, I might even say, just like an animal that has skipped a few grades of evolution.
Meantime, I would be able to focus on one thing; I could only think of one single thing: those hands of his; those large and strong and powerful hands of his. I could picture them grabbing a ketchup bottle, grabbing a cabbage, a lemon, a zucchini, and stuffing them into a shopping bag in one and mighty and potent move — the paper of the bag would only rustle faintly, overwhelmed by all this raw power it had to face now.
I remember seeing him once behind the store; I remember seeing him during his coffee break; I remember seeing him there as I was heading with my college friend to an all-day party after skipping the morning lectures; I remember seeing him there, tall, robust, slightly balding — yes, he was much older than me. I remember seeing him reach for a pack of cigarettes, without looking at it, without so much as ceasing to look at something in the distance with that stoic and solemn squint of his, like a perfectly composed officer surveying the future battleground right before ordering the first shot to be fired. I saw him slam it expertly so that only one cigarette slid out of it; I saw him tap that cigarette against the pack, as if he were a judge banging the miniature gavel, and deliver it to his tight mouth as slowly and coolly as if on the precision of this movement depended someone’s life. That vision: he; the cigarette; the fading match being nonchalantly flicked away; the bright little point flaring up near his lips only to die down an instant later, like a tiny lighthouse calling me home — it would be enough to keep me up for the next week or so.
That was why I was so upset, so shaken up, whenever I encountered him on the street, whenever I saw him stroll leisurely, flanked on the left by his two giggling, charming, little daughters, and on the right by his ever-smiling wife, who, because of all that grinning and flaunting her impeccably even teeth, looked more like a dentist’s spouse and a walking advertisement of his services than anyone else. After that, I wouldn’t be able to sleep, or even doze, for another month, if not more — yet this time due to the blend of anger and despair keeping my eyes open, keeping my eyes mercilessly peeled, like two skinned oranges.
Then it happened; then I finally met him. I can remember it quite vividly: it was in the bar, in that new bar at the end of our street. It was late — I remember that. It was in that bar, in that new place, filled to the brim with the din of conversations, of laughter, of dirty jokes, of even dirtier insults, of angry tirades, of drunken reconciliations, and of passionate political speeches delivered over spilled beer. It was there, where the din of all those words, of all those talks and chitchats, merged with the thick cigarette smoke hovering above us, hovering above everyone, hovering right under the ceiling, like a kind of insulation protecting us against the outside world or against the reproachful gaze of someone who might or might not be watching us from up there — though probably not.
Then I saw him; I saw him sitting hunched over the bar — a mug of beer in his hand — in the company of two or three other men. They were his age, they were also middle-aged, they were also sporting bald patches here and there, like the worn-out and molting old carpets — and yet I found them more repelling and disgusting than being anywhere close to his alluring manliness.
I couldn’t help staring at him; I couldn’t take my eyes off his wide and strong arms, off his mighty back and neck — I was unable to resist gazing at him, like a police officer who has spent too much time on a stakeout.
At first, my college friend noticed that something was wrong, that I was oddly distracted and wasn’t paying attention to the story about yet another of her childish heartbreaks, for I just thoughtfully sipped my drink through a straw and stared away. Then it was one of his friends who spotted me, who spotted me watching them, and communicated this revelation to him with the cryptic nod of the bearded head with the filthy oil-smeared trucker hat crowning it.
My friend only rolled her eyes, got up from her bar stool and glanced down at me pityingly, like when one meets someone being beyond any kind of help, even if a surgical one. In that single curt gaze, I could detect more sorrow, more sadness, and more compassion for me than she had ever been able to muster for the plight of all the starving and homeless people in the world.
Before I knew it, she had disappeared into the crowd, evidently disappointed — another heartbreak of hers. Those people — we just couldn’t live up to her expectations.
“Hey, little birdie,” he suddenly towered over me; his large left hand resting on the bar, right next to my still ice-cold drink — only now did I see the muscles lying dormant beneath his skin, like an intricate net of streets tangling and untangling on a city plan, only now did I see them, and him for that matter, in all the manly glory. “I saw you ogling me from here. My friend told me that. He’s just told me that,” he said. I looked up at him tentatively; I looked at him from under my lashes — too ridiculously long lashes, I realized it now; they curtained his face from me too much, as if I were a photographer hiding beneath the focusing cloth.
Then he leaned over toward me; I could feel the pervading warmth of his beer breath tickle the downy peach fuzz on my cheeks, like a gust of wind stroking and ruffling a wheat field or something as maudlin as that. He leaned over and then whispered: “So, little birdie,” he went on, slurring his words a little. “You’re a little birdie, and I’m the big one. So, why don’t we kill two stones with one bird? What do you say?”
I glanced down; I stared down at the wet crescent left by the glass on the counter before me, as if it were a half-obliterated footprint in the wet sand. I cleared my throat silently; I dropped a few coins on the bar; they danced on the wood, like a chorus line of tiny can-can dancers fluttering their skirts. I paid for my drink and slid off my seat.
“How about killing two stones with one bird, girl?” I could hear him yell after me drunkenly. “How about that, huh?” I could still hear him yell after me; I could hear him, even when already on the street.