The muffin aisle alone, they said, could make you believe in God. They told us it was a wonderland, a Mecca among supermarkets, the last word in grocery stores—possibly the last word, period. “I mean, it’s Fairway,” Liz’s friend said, as if this were an irrefutable fact, like aging, or the existence of water. She pushed a small container into my hands. “These olives, they’re from Fairway. So good, right? They’ve got barrels of them.”
“Mm,” Liz said, chewing. “Mmmm!”
They told us it was so vast, so all-encompassing, that if you took every aisle, lined them up, and clapped them together like railroad tracks, they would form a tunnel longer than the distance between New York and Boston. They told us the employees were friendly and generously compensated, swiping credit cards and slicing deli meats as if they’d been training for it their whole lives. As for the muffins, they were said to be excellent.
“Barrels?” I asked.
Liz’s friend only nodded, grinning the conspiratorial, thin-lipped grin of the initiated. “You guys have to go,” she said. “Like, you have to have to go.”
I tried one of the olives. She was right: they were very good, and stuffed with something spicy, maybe sausage.
“Oh, we’re going,” Liz said. She glanced at me, but I could tell she’d already made up her mind. “We are definitely going.”
We woke up early Saturday, hoping to beat the crowds we’d been warned treated the aisles like the streets of a bull run. We printed out recipes, made lists of ingredients both familiar and obscure. We wanted to buy something called dabberlocks. We’d heard rumors of a cheese room. By 7:30 we were in the car, pulling out of the space in front of our building.
“Make a left here.”
Liz was looking at the map function on her phone, following the blue dot of the car as it wove and stuttered around the neighborhood. By the phone’s estimation we were about 15 minutes from the nearest Fairway, which had been built last year and had its own fan club.
“A slight left or a hard left?”
“A hard left,” she said. “Or wait, just kidding—”
But I’d already turned down a one-way street, headed toward some grim industrial zone surrounded by chicken wire. We could see the city in the distance, shimmering indifferently.
“Sorry,” Liz said. “It looked like a hard left.”
I glanced over my shoulder before I turned again, dropping my free hand on her knee. “How will I ever forgive you?”
A minute later we were back at the first intersection. The blue dot pulsed steadily, and as I waited I could feel my own pulse raising a notch, clicking out in tandem.
“I am going to seriously buy a hundred pounds of those olives,” Liz said. She folded her arms behind her head in reverie. “I’m going to buy them, and then I’m going to take them home, and then I am going to eat them.”
It wasn’t like we were huge foodies, or even particularly active home cooks. We ordered Chinese from Wok Win, Indian from New Vishnu II, and usually stretched our meals over a few lunches. If we cooked at all it was inevitably simple, dorm room-type fare, largely reliant on the microwave as a vehicle of preparation. The last time we’d used the stove I’d had some trouble with the burners and singed off part of an eyebrow; for a week Liz had penciled it in before work, telling me I looked like a Bond villain while I sat still for her.
Now, though, we imagined vast medieval spreads, our small table festooned with mismatched plates, silver serving dishes, ladles dripping with rustic gravy. Liz brought home a cookbook called The Refined French Kitchen. “Can you make beef bourguignon in a microwave?” she asked. I didn’t see why not.
The cookbook was still open next to her when she fell asleep that night. Already the pages were dense with Post-It notes reading OOH or WANT, or rendered stiff by notecards wedged in the binding. Her hand was resting on my side; I carefully picked it up and set it back down on the mattress. She turned over, mumbled something about chard. I waited until her breathing steadied. Then I went out into the kitchen and made Pop Tarts.
“I think we might’ve gotten turned around here.”
I’d pulled over by a freeway ramp somewhere north of Fairway, having missed all four of its street entrances and lost sight of the shuttle bus that had briefly, tauntingly skirted through an intersection and vanished. Cars bleated murder as they veered past us onto the freeway. Liz tapped at the screen of her phone.
“It’s saying we’re still five minutes away. Look.” She showed me where we were on the map, then scrolled over to Fairway, which was set off in some kind of modernist cul-de-sac that had formerly served as a used car lot. “We just need to take the highway back an exit, hop on the connector, and shoot over across the avenue here.”
I yawned, thinking again of Pop Tarts. They had been S’mores flavor. Liz squinted and asked if I was okay.
“Yeah, just tired. I didn’t sleep much.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“I don’t know. I had a really weird dream.”
This was a lie. I hadn’t dreamed about anything the night before, but when pressed I found myself stammering lines about getting lost in a giant gymnasium, where someone I couldn’t see kept asking if I had any coupons for freezer burn.
Liz shifted in her seat. “Do you not want to go?”
“No no, I’m good.” I gestured vaguely out the window. “I mean, we’re almost there, so.”
“It’s fine, I can go with Becca this week. It’s not a big deal.”
“No.” I shrank as a school bus shuddered past us and the car filled with the smell of exhaust. “No.” My voice sounded whiny, like it belonged to a child resisting a strange vegetable. Dabberlocks, perhaps. I put the car in reverse.
One time Liz brought home an empty birdcage she found in the street. Someone had set it out with the trash, a big, rusted, cambering thing suitable only for a mutant cockatoo, or maybe a burlesque dancer on a swing. Liz had hefted it six blocks and up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, where she dropped it in front of the television, gasping.
“Isn’t it great?” she said, washing the rust off her hands. “We can put it right next to the bookshelf. It’ll be like . . . ” She reached. “An objet.”
It had been snowing earlier, and beneath the birdcage a dark stain was slowly spreading over the carpet. I peered over the edge of my laptop. “Could we at least dry it off first?”
She tore off a handful of paper towels and started wiping it down. Ominous dark streaks came off of the frame, revealing a reddish under-layer that looked slightly less likely to give you tetanus, but only in the way that a cleared nuclear catastrophe site is slightly less likely to give you radiation poisoning.
“Also, I got you this.” She took a small white box out of her pocket and handed it to me. Inside, two acorns were sitting on a piece of cotton. Both of the acorns were painted white and had pinched, stenciled-on faces—faces that, upon closer inspection, appeared to be our own.
“Did you find these in the street too?” I asked, unnerved.
“Lourdes makes them, from work. Sort of like a wallet photo. Or acorn. A wallet acorn.” She reached for the acorn with my face, which I took as a cue to slip the one bearing her own into my pocket. She nodded at the birdcage. “Just give it a week, okay? Let’s try it for a week and see how we feel about it.”
But two weeks later it was still there, blocking the bookshelf and part of a window. Each time I passed it I cursed inwardly, as if it was some new, living thing that had taken up residence in the apartment. I would make a show of reaching around what I’d come to think of as its hull, or attempting to feed my hand through the bars—suddenly it was of great urgency that I read The Charterhouse of Parma—and ask Liz where we kept the flashlight. One time I tripped over it on purpose, banging my toenail and howling until Liz came running from the bathroom. She reached for the fire extinguisher, glancing at the stove, then my eyebrows, but I only shook my head. It’s nothing, I said, cradling my foot. It’s nothing.
After getting off the connector we realized that we’d overshot Fairway, which was now, impossibly, six minutes west of our current location, hidden behind a strip mall that was itself hidden behind an elastic factory, which occupied a whole block and could be bypassed only by a series of narrow streets designated Trucks Only. I nosed the car around a corner and past a shuttered garage, onto a road consisting entirely of potholes and chunked pavement. Two men in overalls watched us as we rattled along, slowly turning their heads.
I took us back the way we came, past laundromats and nail salons, past a birthday party with a bouncy house, past banks and bus stops and New Vishnu II. I cut off UPS trucks. I skipped red lights. I nearly ran down a woman hauling a blue picnic cooler, who pegged a snowcone at the trunk before collapsing to the sidewalk.
“What the Christ!”
We were back at the original intersection, no more than a few blocks from the apartment. Behind us I could see familiar buildings, high-rises and a dollar store with a guy sitting out front in a folding chair. Liz stared hard at the road, as if she were trying to see through the metal and poured concrete to Fairway as it hovered, mirage-like, somewhere beyond them.
“The bouncy house,” she said. She put a hand over her head. “You were supposed to make a right at the bouncy house.”
“You didn’t say anything about the bouncy house.”
“We were coming up to it, and I turned to you and I said, ‘Make a right at that bouncy house.’”
“No. I saw the bouncy house. I remember the bouncy house.” I glanced in the rearview. “Although, technically, I believe it was a bouncy castle.”
She closed her eyes. “I know what I said, Scotty.”
We sat at the red light, not speaking. Instead, an image formed in my head of Fairway as Liz pictured it, or as I imagined her picturing it: miles of nut butters, towers of canned goods teetering like roughly stacked change. The aisles stretching off into the unseen, the infinite, the seductively uncertain. The whole staff smiling as we entered, bowing in their pressed uniforms, their starched aprons. I wanted to grab one of their matching hats and wing it into the nearest incinerator.
The blue dot blinked on Liz’s phone. She clicked it off and stuffed it deep into her bag. “Okay, then,” I said. I eased off the brakes. “To the bouncy house.”
There was a week or so when Liz’s mom stayed at our apartment. She arrived unexpectedly one evening, preceded only by a hurried phone call from the bus station, where she told Liz she’d taken the Fung Wah up from Greenville spur of the moment and was wondering if we’d let her darken our door. We gave her the bed and blew up an air mattress in the living room, next to the radiator. It was too wide for the fitted sheet so instead we used our thinnest bath towels, which bunched up in the night and by morning were soaked with sweat. All the while I could hear Liz’s mom snoring in the other room. I’d never heard a woman snore before. Liz’s mom sounded like a wet paper bag opening and closing.
We took her to a museum, a movie, asked a waiter to take a picture of the three of us, draped around the table at a Thai restaurant. She was supposed to leave after a couple of days, but on Sunday morning I found her sitting at the kitchen table, helping herself to Froot Loops and a glass of orange juice. “Sorry,” she said, refilling her bowl. “Oh, are these yours?”
It turned out, we soon learned, that she’d been evicted from her apartment the week before, had been late on rent three months running—“delinquent,” actually, was the term the landlord had used, which made Liz’s mom pickle with anger and ask us if we’d ever met a delinquent who took Coumadin three times a day. We told her that it was okay, not a problem; we repeated the words “of course” until they sounded alien. But instead of looking for a lead on a new place, Liz’s mom spent the next two days occupying the couch, watching Maury reruns and eating macaroni salad with a soupspoon. “That’s adorable,” she said, nodding at the birdcage. I grinned tightly and walked away.
“What do you want me to do, throw her out?” Liz whispered that night. We lay on the air mattress, listening as she snored on the other side of the drywall. “It’s my mom. I can’t just kick her to the curb.”
“No one’s asking you to do anything. I just . . . ” I paused. “No one’s asking you to do anything.”
We tried to make the best of the situation. Someone left an old copy of Monopoly in the foyer; I dusted it off and set it up in the kitchen, brushing the stray Froot Loops into the trash. Half of the pieces were missing, so Liz’s mom worked her wedding ring off her finger and used it as her stand-in.
“I knew I was holding onto this for a reason,” she said before dropping it at Go.
Liz looked at me. “You still need a piece.” She was playing as an old duck sauce packet.
“Um.” I reached into my pocket. All I had was my wallet and the acorn with Liz’s face on it, which had gone through the wash a few times and was now just a weird, grayish ball, like something you’d put in a musket. I parked it on the board. “Does this work?”
She stared at it for a moment, processing. Then, without meeting my eyes, she held out the dice and asked which of us wanted to roll first.
The next day Liz’s mom got a loan from her sister and moved out, leaving behind only macaroni salad and a faint old woman-y smell that never quite went away. We deflated the air mattress and folded up the bath towels, went back to sleeping in our own bed. “Goodnight,” Liz said before turning over on her side. I lay awake, waiting for her to say something else. A bug darted back and forth across the ceiling, then turned into a speck of paint that had always been there, maybe.
“In three-quarters of a mile, right turn.”
Somewhere between the bouncy house and the second highway we decided to remove the human factor, driving in silence as, every few blocks, the GPS blurted directions in objective, Midwestern tones. There was something soothing about the computer voice, something indomitable, as if no tension could distract it from its navigational duties.
“In half of a mile, right turn.”
“In a quarter of a mile, right turn.”
“In 500 feet, right turn.”
Liz was scribbling frantically against her knee, adding something to the shopping list. “We might need to make another stop,” she said.
She clicked the nib of her pen. In a voice as certain as the machine’s, she said that she’d just remembered she needed to buy Epsom salts.
“Epsom salts? Why the hell do we need Epsom salts?”
“I need them.” She paused. “For my feet.”
“For your feet. And would Fairway . . . ” I looked at her hopefully.
“I doubt it.”
Her words hung in the car, floating, almost tangible. In a heartbeat, the endless aisles and smiling porters vanished. They were replaced in my mind by a bland, slightly larger-than-average supermarket, with the same fluorescent lighting and distant soundtrack of Top 40 turds they played at the local FoodLand—which was a block from our apartment and didn’t have dabberlocks, but was clean, well maintained, and happened to stock Epsom salts.
“You doubt it.”
“I can check the website if you really want.”
“If I want. A-ha.” I paused. I felt my thumbnail sinking into the faux leather of the steering wheel. “Kind of like how I wanted to wake up at 6:00 and drive around in circles for two hours. Kind of like that.”
She closed her eyes. “Fuck off, Scotty.”
“Kind of like a lot of things, come to think of it. Like how I’m less your partner than some distant, rarely acknowledged roommate. Or actually, not even a roommate—I’m like your random Craigslist subletter, just this weird guy who’s always there, using up the toilet paper and messing up the couch, and you can’t wait until the lease is up so you can—”
A few yards ahead of us a truck was backing out of a warehouse. The trailer was splayed across both lanes, giving me just enough time to read the dairy advertisement on the side before I slammed the brakes.
“Sorry,” I said, pulling over. I tried to disguise the shaky note that had come into my voice. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. Are you okay?”
Liz said nothing, only cried quietly as the driver of the truck looked at me from across the berm, holding up his hands as if he agreed that yes, I was an idiot. I turned to Liz. Her head was tilted against the window and her cheeks were soaked, reflecting the dull light of the sky. The GPS pinged again.
“Your destination is on the right.”
“Your destination is on the right.”
“Right turn ahead to your destination.”
A week after Liz’s mom left, Liz put the birdcage out on the street. She did this with no indication or warning; one morning it was simply gone, and when I went downstairs I found it sitting in a puddle between two garbage bags and a busted television. It had snowed earlier and the cold soaked up through my shoes, rising. For a moment I had an urge to bring it back inside, like it was a pet that had gotten locked out and spent the night whimpering. But instead I continued on toward the train, and when I came back that evening it was gone.
We pulled into a vacant lot about the size of a soccer field. Grass and an odd, scrubby plant that looked like cabbage pushed up through the pavement, while nearby, birds and shreds of plastic bags drifted lazily above a strip of corrugated steel. According to Liz’s phone we’d arrived—FAIRWAY, the banner announced—but when I looked up the only sign was a faded placard reading WE BUY LEAD.
I parked the car. “Well,” I said. “I guess we’re here.”
But Liz was already out the door. In the distance there was some kind of squat cinderblock building, and past that an ancient, out-of-service streetcar covered in barnacles. Liz started walking toward it.
Beside me, she’d crumpled the grocery list into a ball and partially wedged it into the cushion of the passenger seat, which still bore her impression. I reached for it. Last night, I recalled now, Liz had stood by the fridge calling out items at random while I busily transcribed them, barely able to keep up as she reeled them off like rap lyrics: edible flowers, Sichuan pepper, pork rinds, marrow bones. Each one, her tone said, waiting to fill whatever unnamable thing it was we lacked.
She was a few feet from the streetcar now, and the water’s edge beyond it. The city shone on the other side, looking closer and brighter than it really was. I watched as she grew smaller and smaller, became a part of the landscape as she made her way toward the water. I folded the list twice, neatly, and put it in my pocket.
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