A tall, slim middle-aged woman reached for a can of spaghetti-os with a heavy sigh. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had something to eat. It might have been two nights ago, before Mark had come home, and had insisted that she cook all the chicken for him, “because he paid the bills, and she needed to tend to Alison in her crib.” She hated the cold gray floors of the A&P, as they reminded her too much of home. She didn’t like buying fresh fruit, because the plums were always extra juicy and had once spilled all over her black business suit, the only one she owned. She was able to recall better times, when Mark had been senior executive of his advertising firm, and hadn’t skipped work to grab an extra shot of gin. But, now Kristen was crying in the cart and Alison was pointing to different kinds of noodles, instructing her mother to “not get that one, but that one.”
“I’m sorry hun, I don’t know which one you want,” said Karen. She tried to grab a container of Krafts Mac. and Cheese, but her feet hurt her so much that she almost fell over.
“I’ll get that,” said an elderly voice. Karen turned to face an old woman, dressed in a cerulean blue mini skirt and a pink strapless polka dotted tank top. She had a small ID tag hanging around her neck, stating her name and the number ten, indicating the amount of time she had worked in the store. “No, that’s quite alright,” said Karen, attempting to be polite, but also afraid of this eclectic creature.
“It’s okay,” responded the woman, indicating that she understood the origin of Karen’s concern. “I won’t hurt you. You really shouldn’t let your children boss you around like that though. You’ll drive yourself crazy.” Karen, obviously offended, took a step back.
“I wasn’t letting my daughter boss me around. I was simply trying to figure out which kind of noodles she wanted.” The woman looked at Karen with an indefinite smile and placed a package of linguini in the cart. She then grabbed a can of tomato sauce and added it to the load.
“I don’t need this,” said Karen sharply. “I was perfectly satisfied with the pasta.” “Well, you can’t eat pasta without sauce,” retorted the old woman, as if her reasoning was the final word. “You need them together for a family meal.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t afford to buy this,” said Karen, as she looked at the price tag on the bottom of the can. $5.99 was too much for a condiment. She placed the tomato sauce back on the shelf and condescendingly looked at the woman in her shabby outfit, with a mixture of pity and disgust. “Thank you for your help,” she said and walked on.
But the woman wouldn’t stop. “What happened to your leg?” she inquired, as if it was her right to know.
“YOUR LEG,” said the woman. “Don’t worry…the same thing happened to me.” Karen cautiously glanced at the woman and then at a dark scar surrounding a hideous bruise slightly below her own pants. She’d almost forgotten about that one, since she had so many others in places that were not revealed in the public scene of the supermarket.
“Uhhh…I have to go”, stuttered Karen, more embarrassed than she’d been the time Mark had removed his wedding ring after an argument they had had in the middle of the night, and still refused to wear it, because he said that she wasn’t good enough for him. She headed towards the checkout line, her foot now hurting more than ever before.
“Wait, Mommy!” yelled Alison. “I want to ask that funny lady where she got her skirt!”
“No, sweetie, we have to get home, so I can fix dinner for Daddy,” said Karen, more resentful of that fact than she could believe.
“NO! NO! I want to play with her.”
“Fine,” said Karen, and she slapped her daughter across the face. Alison was too stunned to say a word. Her mouth hung open in surprise. As Karen turned the cart around, Alison asked, “Why did you do that Mommy?” Karen saw a new sense of fear in her little girl’s eyes and immediately regretted her impulse.
“I’m sorry honey, but see…”
“No, wait a second,” said Alison. She carefully touched her forehead where she had been hit and then bent down to look at her mother’s wound. “You didn’t do anything to me,” she reasoned. “Daddy broke your spirit.”
Karen starred at her child in awe, wondering how a five year old could come up with such a concept. She hurried back to the spaghetti aisle, to see if the old woman was still there. And, indeed she was, waiting by some multi colored pasta shells, as if no time had passed at all.
“Please forgive me,” begged Karen. “I really didn’t mean to be so rude.” But, the old woman who had witnessed the entire scene with Alison from around the corner, stared blankly at the lost mother standing before her.
“I hope you learned something from your daughter” she said. “Sometimes children are our greatest teachers. I didn’t always look like this. I used to be president of the local realty company, but after my husband hit me for so many years, I lost confidence, stopped going to work, and eventually was fired. Now I work at this supermarket, because he refuses to pay child support.” Karen looked around, trying to imagine working in such a chilly, inhumane environment.
“But, if you work here, why are you dressed like that?” she inquired.
“After I lost my job, I grew tired of trying to look like a businesswoman when I really wasn’t. So, I wear these clothes, ‘cause over time I’ve come to realize that it’s more important to wear the ‘real you’, than throw on something you think society would approve of.”
Karen rolled up the sleeves of her suit, suddenly feeling constrained.
“Well, I was never a professional,” she explained. “But, I always wanted to be one. My husband wouldn’t allow me to have an income, because he thought that would be an insult to his ability to provide for his family.” The woman looked at Karen, her eyebrows raised in concern, and then smiled at her children who were sitting quietly in the cart.
“You need to get away from him,” said the woman. “Do you want your daughters to hurt their children ten times harder than you just hit her? Do you want your grandchildren to have scars on their feet?”
“No, of course not,” said Karen emphatically. “But, I can’t just leave him. I never went to college, so I can’t support myself and my kids. And there aren’t many companies that will hire someone in their mid-forties without a B.A.”
“Well, then for Christ’s Sake, DO SOMETHING about it,” said the woman. “You’re like a lost bird at sea with a broken wing. I’m sixty-five and am in the fourth year of my bachelors program as I speak. When I finish my degree, I plan to get a decent paying job which will support myself and my daughter who just left an abusive husband.” Karen contemplated the words of this maternal figure, trying to take it all in. She looked at her watch, realizing that Mark would be home any minute now and would be infuriated when he discovered that there was no meal on the table.
“I have to go,” she said apologetically. “But, it was nice talking to you.”
“I’m Charlotte Roberts,” said the old woman, extending her hand.
“I’m Karen Johnson. It’s been a pleasure.” Karen grabbed the can of tomato sauce she had earlier put back on the shelf and hurried over to the Express line.
When she got home, Mark was by the door, waiting for her and the girls to arrive. “Where have you been”? he yelled, his fists clenched in her direction.
“At…at…the A&P…there was a long line and I couldn’t figure out what Alison wanted.”
Well, we all know the reason for that, don’t we?” said Mark. “You’re so stupid.” It looks like I’ll have to take over your household duties, in addition to working, since you can’t seem to do anything on your own.” Karen knew better than to contest this claim. She was fully aware of the consequences if she attempted to defend her ability, but this time she didn’t need to.
That night, Karen packed a suitcase. She started with some old cotton underwear and added a few striped turtlenecks. After putting the kids to bed, she drove to the nearest TJ Maxx and bought a pair of purple sweat pants, a blue V-neck top, and a feathered hat for only $10.75. Upon returning home, she changed into her new gear and carefully laid her business suit on Mark’s side of the bed. She then gathered the children’s sparse clothes and made some chicken sandwiches. “Come on darlin’…we’re getting out of here,” said Karen, as she woke up Alison and carried Kristen to the door. She left a note on the kitchen table:
I won’t live like this anymore. You are now free to do the grocery shopping. You’ll do a much better job anyway.
With that, Karen left with her girls, her feathers flying in the wind.