I was at HarvestTime, the smallish and wonderfully stocked and also extremely reasonable grocery store where everyone in our neighborhood, from Viking stoves to WIC cards, loves to shop. Fresh and diverse produce, good organics, surprising treats like warm squares of spanakopita and fresh dolmades.
So it’s Sunday afternoon, so of course it’s crowded. I’ve just gotten my cart and started into the huge produce section. I’ve grabbed a pint of strawberries – $2.49! I see rings of dried figs, which can be either magnificent or too dry, and wonder if it’s worth the risk. There’s an extended line of carts along that side so I can’t get close enough to check them out. One of the carts belongs to a woman who was just ahead of me as we came in. Red hair, plump body that looks even plumper squeezed into tight black capri pants and some kind of fashion tee shirt. She was smiling so cheerfully when she extricated her cart that I assumed she was with someone, mid-conversation. But as we started through the store, her stretch pants jiggling in front of me, I realized she was alone. Something about her made me think Australian. The type that turns out to have this great, unfettered perspective on life and not taking it too seriously, that you feel you could appropriate just by becoming friends with her.
So we’re at the figs, and I could just wait until she or the Korean man next to her makes a selection and moves along, clearing the way. But instead I say, no preamble, just trusting my voice to cut through the shoppers’ din, “Could you just hand me a thing of figs?”
And she hears me like we’ve been friends forever and replies, in a British accent, “Certainly!” It’s almost too easy. My new international friend I met at the grocery store! She’s sexy and confident in her body and her easy breeze lifestyle. British can be as chill as Aussie if you get the right region, Suffolk maybe, or Cork.
She hands me the package of figs and I choose an appellation I sometimes use with my best girlfriends. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I say it with a slight Western twang, so it’s a sign of respect, playfulness, good nature, you name it. But also, I realize a second too late, just as her face changes from sunny look to closed book, it can sound like acknowledgment of an elder. I can’t add, “I don’t mean Ma’am like you’re older than me, because honey I’m sure you’re not,” ‘cause that’s just overkill for a package of figs. And maybe the frown is her just trying to remember what ingredients she needs for her Sunday barbie recipe?
But in any case, there is no more friendly interchange. Although we remain in sync throughout the deli section, dairy case, bread aisle, and even checkout lanes, each setting out our items on parallel counters in perfect time, there are no more easy smiles. I try to catch her eye as we leave with our bags full of food bargains, but nothing doing. Is she as sorry about our lost friendship as I? Is she wondering where the hell some middle-aged woman gets off calling her Ma’am? Should she have worn different pants? Was it cilantro or mint that went into the tilapia recipe?
We’ll never, ever know. My probably British or maybe even Aussie friend is lost to me forever. She’ll never know I kept the figs, which on closer look were definitely too dried out, in my cart as an homage to her. I will eat them as my penance. Next time, I’ll just say Thanks.