The Candy Aisle
By Joanne Merriam
Illustration By Dag Jørgensen
My first impression of Phillip is that he is blessed with ignorance. Ignorance of the importance of a good first impression, not to mention the finer points of fashion.
My netting is tight and full-body, designed for under street clothes, and looks chic where it drapes over the sweet little pillbox hat I always wear now; he’s taken his off, apparently lulled by the airlocks and security sweeps and dragonflies into thinking he’s safe inside the mall, the idiot. That kind of thinking can get you killed. Instead of frowning at him — wrinkles, you know — I relieve my feelings by giving him a level, unsmiling look, which he doesn’t notice.
“That’s the best chocolate,” he says to me, pointing at the bar in my hand. It’s square and foreign. I had picked it up because I like the smoothness of foil wrappers, and then I’d tried to read the German and French on the back, to keep myself in practice, and because it was reassuring to think that people in other countries, who spoke other languages, were still alive.
I’m in the grocery store. The grocery store is my place: the rows of leafy vegetables and carrots and bell peppers being misted every few minutes, the shiny columns of cans, this week’s special at the end of every aisle, the pyramid of on sale toilet paper, the self-checkout’s soothing female voice, the astringent whiff of detergent, the candy aisle. The seasonal posters hanging in wooden frames from the ceiling twist slightly in the breeze from the air conditioning, which is always turned up to full now, to discourages the mosquitoes.
I can’t help stopping in the candy aisle. I’m not bad; I never buy any of it. I just look. I like the boxes of candy, their bright colors and tidy stacks. I like to weigh bags of hard candies and feel them slip over each other under the plastic like beans in a stuffed toy. I touch the wrappings, and my mouth waters, and then I go home.
I never eat sugary foods. You have to be careful. You’ve always had to be careful, of course; I remember a time when, if you didn’t watch yourself, you’d end up like my sister, plump and single, telling people you’re a lesbian when they ask you why you aren’t married yet. Now there’s an extra incentive: the rumors that people who eat sweets have more attractive blood. I read every label, note the grams of fat and carbohydrates, looking for saturated or hydrogenated anything, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and of course the sugar itself.
He seems to expect an answer, so I say, “I’m not very big on milk chocolate.”
“You like it dark?”
“Sure,” I say as I put down the bar and start to move away.
“You ever had Ghirardelli?” he says.
Why is he still talking to me? I shake my head and keep walking. He paces me, and his netting (which he’s draped over one arm) shushes against the floor. I imagine it catching on random particles of dirt and bits of broken glass tracked in from the parking lot, developing micro-tears he won’t notice until it’s too late. I imagine him bitten, dizzy, paralyzed, dead, but he’s still talking.
He’s saying, “They have real nice dark chocolate. You should try it.” He pauses and when I don’t respond, continues, in a somewhat desperate tone, “I could buy you a cup of hot chocolate there.”
I stop walking abruptly, jerking my arms a little to stop my grocery cart in its tracks. I look at him: doe eyes, wide mouth, ungroomed eyebrows, laugh lines, farmer’s tan. He looks pleasant, harmless, a little boring. Under my scrutiny, he smiles a little, nervously, as though he expects me to call mall security.
I’m going to say, “I don’t eat sugar,” but I don’t because I’m thinking that this guy, he’s really two people.
One is the guy himself and the other is his ignorant, groveling hopefulness, which is so huge it’s like a monstrous shadow hovering over him. I can’t decide if he really imagines he has a chance with me, or if this is just something he does to pass the time, and while I’m thinking about this I miss my opportunity to reject him, because he’s seen me thinking and he’ll assuming I’m thinking about having his hot chocolate, so I say, “Why the hell not,” making the question a statement.
His smile expands. For just a second, he is gorgeous with real joy, and he reminds me of somebody, perhaps somebody I knew once, in a simpler time, and then the moment is gone.
So here we are, sitting in Ghirardelli with our hot chocolates. I’ve removed the netting around my face so I can sip at my drink. We’ve done all the fuss of deciding on our orders (made with skim milk, please), and whether or not to get whipped cream (absolutely not), and settled ourselves in a booth, and traded names (Harriet for Phillip), and silence falls, and there’s this eternity when the ground threatens to open up and swallow us both, and then we both talk at once: he says, “How’s your—” and I say, “So what do you—” and then we both laugh.
He tells me a funny story about his job, which turns out to be medical research. “Naturally my research has been suspended so I can work on a vaccine,” he says, and I say, “Do you miss it?” not because I really care, but to divert him from saying anything about arbo.
It’s all my sister talks about these days, and I actually miss her rambling stories about nights out with her girlfriend. Not that anybody goes out anymore. The broadcasts over the tornado warning loudspeakers have grown tedious. We all know by now to wear protective gear, to empty out standing water, to avoid lakes, and to call 911 at the first sign of dizziness, before paralysis sets in. I mean, you lose a quarter of the population, you’re going to pay attention. It’s been years, and I’m so bored with it. I sigh, and when he stops talking to give me a look of concern, I realize I’ve missed everything he’s been telling me about his job. I feel bad about that, so I concentrate, and when he tells another funny story, I laugh, and even though he uses phrases like fixin’ to and mighta could, I laugh some more. I can feel my shoulders relaxing. It must be the unaccustomed rush from all that sugar, or the nostalgia of actually tasting chocolate for the first time in ten years, or something in his face, but I find myself telling him something I’ve never told a soul down here before.
When I was a teenager, I ate like this all the time. Hot chocolate, ice cream, everything. When he saw me eating, my father called me, affectionately you understand, his little piglet, and I could have stood that if the kids at school had called me anything, or even known my name, but I was invisible. My sister was the popular one. She wasn’t a cheerleader or anything like that, she was just likeable and pretty. She knew when to be funny and when to shut up; it came naturally to her, when it was something I had to learn: to watch one’s companion for a wandering gaze, or rolled eyes, or fake laughter, or for that little shrug that’s supposed to be self-deprecating, but really means they’d like to take their turn at talking now thank you very much, or for the undercurrents in their voice that signal derision, or boredom, or indifference. I still get it wrong, although not as often or as nakedly as when I was a child.
And I can tell I’m getting it wrong now, because this nobody sitting across from me is giving me the strangest look, and then he says, “You’re Harriet from Mrs. Davenport’s English class. I thought you looked familiar,” and I freeze, because I suddenly realize that this is Phillip, Phillip from drama club and that one night at the movies and yes, from Mrs. Davenport’s English class. Phillip who has turned out not to be so ignorant after all.
Well, he sure has changed. He’s gone native, for one thing; I couldn’t tell him apart from any other random Tennessean, for all he grew up in Pittsburgh like me. For another, he looks different. Now that I know it’s him, I can see his beautiful teenaged face hidden under all that pudge, but only barely. He’s got laugh lines now, and horizontal wrinkles across his forehead when he frowns. His hair is starting to recede. He’s still the height he was at sixteen. And he must be smart, to do the kind of research he does, but he isn’t that smart, I think, looking at the netting still dangling across his arm.
So I look at my watch, make an excuse, give him a fake number, and go out to the parking lot to find my car. It’s just too embarrassing.
I was sixteen, and my boss had pushed me up against the freezer in the back, and held my shoulders firmly enough that even I could figure out submitting to this, whatever it was he was about to do, was not optional. He had told me I was pretty, and then he’d told me to calm down, even though all I was doing was standing there, paralyzed. His face had hovered over mine for a horrible moment while he looked at my lips and I wondered if I should say something, and then he’d kissed me. I’d closed my eyes because looking at him so close to my face was making me a little dizzy. I didn’t try to get away, and I didn’t return his kiss: I just stood there, like I used to when my great-aunts hugged me and pinched my cheeks.
His hands slid from my shoulders and felt my breasts through the thin fabric of the pizzeria’s scratchy uniform. It was red and white checks with blue piping, and the skirt was designed to look like an apron. Up until that night, I had thought it was the cutest uniform ever, and before I left for work I would pose in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom I shared with my sister. My breasts felt like part of somebody else’s body. I couldn’t stop thinking of what my braces must feel like under his tongue. That had to be gross, right? Why would anybody want to feel that? Then he squeezed a nipple, and it was like he’d flipped a switch and I tried to move away at last. I thought he wasn’t going to let me go, but somebody was ringing the bell by the cash register, so he lifted his hands just the slightest amount, and I wriggled away from him and went to ring up their pepperoni and extra cheese.
I’m distracted thinking about this, and I can’t remember where I left my car. I am walking around the parking lot in the 110 degree heat, and I’ve forgotten to rearrange the netting over my face. I feel something on my cheek, and before I can think about it, I swat it. My hand comes away with the broken body of the mosquito plastered to my index finger, and a little blotch of blood around it. I wipe it on my pants, and fix my netting, but it’s too late. Some people get bitten and survive. It happens, and it could happen to me. It’s not likely. Phillip could probably tell me exactly how unlikely it is.
Later that night, after my boss came out to sling pizzas with me as if nothing had happened, Phillip picked me up to take me to a movie. It was our first date. I’d been excited about it, because I didn’t get asked out very often, and because Phillip was so cute, and he was always so funny when we did improv in drama. He wasn’t as good as a jock might have been, but he was a step up for me. I had walked home from work and changed out of my uniform into the first dress that came to hand. I still don’t remember what I wore that night, but I remember he looked a little too well-groomed in an Oxford shirt under a gray sweater. He bought our tickets and a big bucket of popcorn to share. He tried to hold my hand in the theater, and at his touch I started to cry and couldn’t stop. He patted me on the back, as though I had the hiccups, and suddenly I couldn’t get away from him fast enough. I walked out on him. I just stood up from my seat in the movie theater and left, without a word. He probably thought I was going to the lady’s room to fix my face, or something; I don’t know. I never asked him what he thought.
I never thought before about what that night may have looked like from his point of view, but I think about it now. I wonder if, when the picture was over, he realized right away that he’d been dumped, and left, or if he looked for me. I wonder if he asked the staff if they’d seen me leave, and if he’d been laughed at for his trouble. I never told him about my boss, or explained. He never spoke to me after that night. I found out later that before our date, he’d told his friends he was going to ask me to go steady.
I see my car at last, and then I’m standing next to it with no memory of having walked over to it, and I get inside. I’m dizzy, but it has to be from the heat. The arbo takes at least fifteen minutes to set in. I should pray or drive to the hospital or something. I should dial 911 on my phone and tell them I’ve been bitten, but the world is wobbly and unsteady. I turn on the car and the air conditioning is such a relief I just sit there, waiting for it to pass. I should go back inside and give him my real number, I think, but it’s too hard to move.
I try to reach for my phone, and my hand just twitches, and then it won’t move at all, like I’m back in the pizzeria, trapped between the freezer and a graying Italian. God, poor Phillip. He was such a beautiful boy. That’s just what happens sometimes — love comes to you trustingly, like a child, and you’re too stupid to take its hand.