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The Chat Locker

On this shrunken globe, men can no longer live as strangers. — Adlai E. Stevenson

People think time is fixed, an immutable truth like the laws of mass and energy. They’re wrong. Seven days of vacation are over in an instant, while 20 minutes in a dentist’s chair are an eternity. To the other shoppers it appeared that I simply and swiftly entered Trader Joe’s, but for me, time was moving Neo-in-The-Matrix slow. Before my second step had landed on the linoleum, I’d already made a survey of my surroundings, spotted a threat, and formulated an avoidance strategy.

The hazard was standing near the veggies, so I veered from my normal route and beelined to the bread, leaving David to fend for himself like a fawn in a forest clearing. I grabbed a package of mini wheat pitas and stood there, paralyzed with indecision. Backtrack to David, who’d seemed puzzled by my sudden flight? Or proceed around the corner of the aisle? So preoccupied with keeping myself out of sight while tracking the source of my trouble, I wasn’t aware that I’d taken cover behind two employees until they paused in their box-stacking and raised their brows at me as if to say, “Yessss…?” Proceed, it is.

I ducked around the corner and grabbed four containers of yogurt with the haste of someone snatching up rolls of duct tape before the hurricane hits. Balancing the tubs of yogurt with the pita in my arms, I determined my next move would be to reconnect with David, carrier of the basket.

It wasn’t that I disliked the person I was avoiding — she’d been a great coworker, one of my favorites. We even hung out a few times outside of work. She was always complimentary, funny, and easy to be around. But it had been a handful of years since I’d last seen her, and this was supposed to be a quick trip to the market. I did not want to get trapped in an awkward grocery-store catch-up session, the kind that never ends gracefully.

It was during my CIA-esque scoping of the store (Operation Surgical Strike) that I detected her profile, half hidden by a wisp of hair, and then the matching profile of the little girl in her cart. The kid was the clincher.

Like a clairvoyant, I saw the potential conversation unfold before me in a vision: “Wow, Rose, is that you? No way, how have you been?” Listen to superficial answer, nod and smile. Must acknowledge the child. “Is she yours? That’s what I thought, she looks just like you!” Force enthusiasm over the kid’s cuteness, then engage kid directly — make a crazy exaggerated grin and hope she smiles back because if she cries at that freaky face, you’re obligated to stick around until she’s been soothed into silence. Then, eyes back to the mother. “What’s her name? Oh, that’s a beautiful name.”

She’d ask me what I’ve been up to, and I’d have to decide what to share. “Not much” would be rudely vague, but anything positive or negative could be perceived as bragging or complaining. I’d settle on “You know, working, having fun, same old.” She’d ask if I had kids, and I’d have to select a mother-friendly explanation for why I don’t — something like “They’re great, just not for me.” The whole time, I’d be worrying about our respective perishables, calculating how long each item could survive without refrigeration. She’d say we should hang out, and I’d think, Why, but I’d say, “Totally.” And so on. Time would crawl.

I’d prepared myself for the polite chitchat with the checkout person, the “Fine, thank you. Yes, we found everything we needed, thank you.” But I did not have the energy for a whole catch-up sesh, especially with someone whose world revolves around a different sun.

David found me shivering by the frozen foods, pretending to read labels. “What are you doing?” He had a bemused, slightly irritated look on his face.

“Can you go back around that corner and grab two more yogurts? I could only hold four,” I said. He turned to leave, but I stopped him so I could unload my arms into the basket. “Rose is around the corner,” I explained. “I can’t let her see me. I don’t want to get stuck talking. I don’t want to have to be on right now.” David sighed, rolled his eyes, and set off on his mission. I envied him as he passed the free-samples booth at the far end of the aisle I dared not tread. I wondered what they were offering up this time. I imagined it was something I hated and wouldn’t want to taste anyway, something with lots of mayo and cilantro.Ew.

David returned with a full basket. “Is that everything?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, distracted, my eyes darting left and right. “Come on, this way.” I led him on a circuitous path to the checkout line I’d scouted earlier, safely tucked behind a pole and a kiosk full of impulse buys.

Compensating for the guilt I felt for avoiding the acquaintance, I was super-cheery with the checkout guy: “No, you have a great weekend!”

We’d been in the store for no more than ten minutes. For me, the seconds had stretched, each minute dragging like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Whew, that was a close one,” I said, once we were in the car. “I was worried she’d see me; I really wasn’t up for the whole charade of pretending like I care what preschool her kid goes to when all I want to do is go home and chillax.”

“I could tell,” David said. He seemed to be stuck deciding whether to take the path of censure or consolation. I was hoping he’d settle on the latter. “You acted like they had just vented radioactive gas in that part of the store,” he said.

“I didn’t want to deal,” I whined. “There should be some societal rule about how long you have to maintain polite small talk when you run into someone — you know, like the five-second rule for food on the floor. We’re all in the middle of errands, not at a bar. Forced pleasantness takes too much effort.” At this, David widened his eyes, as he waited for me to catch on to the ridiculousness of what I’d just said in light of what I’d just done. “Yeah, well, it’s a different kind of effort,” I said.

David guffawed and said, “The world is a scary place for you, isn’t it.”

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