Alice stood in front of a display of broccoli, waffling over whether or not to buy organic. It cost almost a dollar more, and once she'd found a plump, green caterpillar nestled in the florets like something mildly obscene. She peered into the warren of fleshy stalks and dropped a head into her basket when she was jostled from behind.
"Excuse me." Alice turned to see a woman whose hair was elaborately wound round her head like a pillbox, lacquered in place and secured with bobby pins, her jeans tight and new. Compared to Alice's purple velvet pants, which were rubbed bare in patches, and what she could only imagine to be her windblown hair from walking up from 115th Street, the woman was a sight to behold.
"Excuse you for bumping into me," the woman said.
"What a pleasure. I hope you bring the same level of charm to the rest of your —"
The woman disappeared into the next aisle, leaving Alice stranded on a slick of linoleum, her nerves prickling from the force of the woman's words as if ions had been displaced, cans and boxes threatening to tumble from shelves, the sound of a bruise — the snug — smug?— membrane of Alice's anonymity rent (for hadn't her own words been no less offensive than those of the woman with the pillbox hair?).
The shoppers who had witnessed this exchange surreptitiously stared at Alice, and she glared at a woman who was all blonde hair, tanned limbs and pale-blue judgement. Squeezing her cart around an employee who was restocking the shelves with dozens of brands of olive oil, Alice continued past displays of English marmalade, Smarties candies in their lavender cardboard tubes, kosher rugalach, cassava, or pink, Tibetan sea salt for customers who traveled from the neighborhoods of Harlem and Columbia University, but also points north along the Henry Hudson Parkway and west across the George Washington Bridge, a swath of the greater New York diaspora jammed into this one overstocked store.
She glanced furtively into the deli section before lining up her cart in one of two front-to-back rows, as if the shopping carts were parked along an invisible curb with less than a breath of space between them. Last week she had left her cart momentarily unattended to go riffling through the bagel bins, only to return to find the cart gone. Ten minutes later she'd discovered it impounded in the deli section like an illegally parked car.
She waited for the neon sign to blink her number.
"Lennie," an elderly woman said to a man with a mane of gray hair, "who's going to eat all that gefilte fish?" Her eyes were lively behind huge, round glasses frames. "You think it's too much?"
Such careless intimacy, Alice thought, all these people, all these lives brushing up against one another, none less bewildering than her own. Touch me. Get away. Fuck you.
She was halfway through her PhD in stratigraphy and mineralogy, and days could go by without her talking to another soul other than the cashiers at Fairway. Her most recent boyfriend had faded from her life like a photograph left too long in the light, and after he had gone she would lie in bed beneath a pallid sky that seeped through her windowpane, wondering if she wasn't happier by herself. Now fuck you smarted like a slap against the insides of her eyeballs.
Maple-glazed ham in hand, Alice wrestled her cart free and headed to check out down an aisle stacked with transparent plastic containers filled with dried fruits and nuts. They shimmered like a mosaic, or a promise, sugar-coated disks of ginger glistening beside tiny, onyx-like cubes. When she reached out to drop a container into her basket she was pushed from behind, and she turned sharply.
"Oh my God," she exclaimed. "It's you!"
The woman's eyes were lined in mermaid blue against the dark palette of her skin, and as she flicked her gaze over Alice's cart strewn with milk and broccoli, honey and ginger, she started to laugh.
"I guess," she murmured, "this is our lucky day."