Missed Connection by Megan Steilstra
Last Friday, Trader Joe’s check out aisle. You: red hair, freckles, blue Hawaiian shirt, your nametag said Ted. Me: five- seven, blond , I handed you my groceries so you could scan their bar codes. Coffee. Bleep. Oranges. Bleep. You didn’t look up at me, just kept working. Hummus. Bleep. Pita. Bleep. “How are you tonight?” you asked. Gouda. Bleep. “Paper or plastic?”
“Paper,” I said, and you scanned the grapes. Bleep. The pretzels. Bleep. The eggs, and this is where everything slowed down. You picked up the eggs and looked at me—quick at first, like any retail guy looking at his customer, no big deal, right?—but then something changed, and I know this might sound stupid but it was like in that movie Big Fish: Ewan McGregor’s at the circus and there are all these clowns and midgets and dancing poodles, and then he sees this girl, and everything freezes. He walks towards her and she’s all beautiful, blonde hair and big eyes and blue frilly dress, and he just stands there, staring at her and it’s like Yes. This is it. This is the moment that will change my life forever. I’m staring at this girl and I don’t want to know what will happen next because it can’t possibly be as great as this—which is when you dropped the eggs, all of them spilling out over your scanner and cracking, oozing gooey yolk all over your hands but still, you didn’t look away. You stared at me and I stared back and it’s been a long time since a man has reacted to me that way. The last time was at a baseball game in Humboldt Park. Gary was playing right field and I was walking my dog. I passed him at the exact moment a line drive shot along first, but Gary was watching me so he missed the ball. His teammates started yelling at him and he ran back to collect it outside the chalked baselines, and as he jogged back he stopped to ask for my number. I lent him a Sharpie and he wrote it on his glove. That was three years ago, and we just broke up. He moved everything out last month, but he left that goddamn glove. To torture me. Every night I stared at it. Every moment, I thought about it, right up until you dropped the eggs, Ted, and then I wasn’t thinking about anything but you.
That’s when Daniel came up behind me and you broke the stare, mopping up the egg yolk with paper towel and apologizing like crazy. I understand why you did that: you thought he was my boyfriend. Of course you would think that! Look at our groceries! Wine. Two steaks, two sweet potatoes, breakfast food for the morning after, and Daniel is not one of those guys you can tell is gay just by looking at him. I mean, he’s not very flashy. He had on jeans and a Cubs T-shirt—aCubs T-shirt! Like he’s a Cubs fan!
“What do you expect me to wear to Trader Joe’s?” he asked later. “Pink pin stripes?”
“No,” I told him. “But you could’ve been—”
“What? A little gayer?” he said, like I wanted him to sing show tunes in the middle of Trader Joe’s, which is totally not the case, Ted. I just wanted you to know the truth. It’s not like I could jump on the check out counter and yell, “It’s not like that! He’s my friend, you don’t have to stop looking at me like you want to high-jump your cash register and take me behind the stacked Rotini boxes!"
“Long night?” Daniel said to you, bagging up our groceries, and you said, “Not so bad, I get off in an hour”—and then you looked at me like what you really meant was Do you want to ditch this bozo and meet me at the Leopard Lounge? and I tried to look back like Yes, Ted, I will meet you at the Leopard Lounge, and that’s when Daniel turned to me and said, “You’ve got my wallet, sweetheart.”
You broke the stare and went back to the groceries. “Looks like you two have a nice weekend planned,” you said, and I heard the sarcasm in your voice—don’t think I wasn’t tuned into it, I was tuned into everything about you by that point: the muscles in your forearms and your freckles and your mouth, and Daniel said, “Yep. We’re getting out of town,” and you said, “Isn’t that nice! Where to?”
“Michigan,” I said, and you said, “No way! Where in Michigan!”
“Holland,” I said, and you said, “I’m from South Haven!” and I know that here in Chicago we run into people from Michigan every day, holding up our palms to make the mitten, but in that moment, Ted, it felt like something special, something rare, and we just stood there staring at each other for forever, maybe, until the woman in line behind me started clearing her throat in this super -obvious way, and I didn’t know what to say so I said, “Um, have a good night,” and you said, “Have a good weekend” (i.e., a good time having romantic wine and sex with your boyfriend who is not as cool as me), and I picked up the paper bags Daniel wasn’t already holding and we left.
“Are you crazy?” he said, once we got to the car. “Why didn’t you give that guy your number?”
“He’s not interested in me,” I said, even though I knew you were, Ted, I could feel it in my toes.
“You didn’t even try,” Daniel said, which is something he’s been saying a lot lately what with Gary and everything, it was making me kind of mad, to tell you the truth, and I said, “I did try,” which is sort of snippy, I know, because usually I’m not like that.
Daniel studied my face. “Are we talking about Gary? I thought we were done with him—”
“I am! But—”
“Okay, then!” he said. “So go back in there and talk to the grocery guy! He’s really cute!” which you really are, Ted, especially if Daniel thinks so because he has impeccable taste in men, as most gay men do. It’s girls like me who run after the bad ones, bad ones. Like Gary. Who’s in a band. A kind of famous band, I mean, maybe you’ve heard of them, Ted. Maybe I’ll say the name and you’ll be like, Noway! I fuckin’ love them! and then I’ll have to die a little bit because whenever I think of his music now, I think of the show he played a few months ago in Madison. I thought I’d drive up and surprise him, you know? Like, Look how much I love you, I drove three hours in the rain—so much rain that I was drenched just from running between the car and the club. I walked in, paid my five bucks—I wouldn’t have been on the list. He didn’t know I was coming, remember?—and pushed through the packed, darkened, drunken crowd with their cigarettes and PBRs and earsplitting music, and then I saw him, at the other side of the room, with this girl. They were kissing. And there’s this thing that happens in your stomach when you see something like that—it freezes on the inside, like if someone punched you just then you’d hear breaking glass. I walked over to them and stood there, watching. They didn’t even notice me. So finally I said, “Hi, Gary,” and they both looked up at me, but he didn’t do anything. His girl looked back and forth between him and me, trying to figure out what was going on, so I said to her, “I’m Julie.” There was no recognition in her face, no This is Gary’s girlfriend. She had no idea, but she did have manners, ’cause she said “Hey,” and I looked back at my boyfriend. I thought of his stuff in our apartment. I thought of my Sunday afternoon conversations with his mother. I thought of the photographs of the two of us together on the fridge, but I saw none of that in his face. “Okay,” I said aloud, “okay, Gary, I get it,” and then I turned my back.
So when Daniel said, “Go back in there and talk to that grocery guy!” you can certainly understand, Ted, why I didn’t.
“Julie,” Daniel started, and I cut him off.
“I’m not ready,” I said, and then I started the car—away from the parking lot, away from you, and Daniel leaned back in the passenger seat and sighed, which in Daniel-speak translates into Fine whatever just ruin your whole goddamn life.
Ever since grad school, we spend one weekend a month at my dad’s place in Holland. It’s on the beach, so in the summer we can swim and in the winter sit by the fire and relax, listening to the lake’s winds pound the walls. Gary never minded that I spent so much time with another man—there is, after all, no chance of sex with Daniel. We share a bed and nothing happens. I walk around naked and he is not distracted. We go away together on the weekends and my fidelity is not questioned.
Whaddya mean you’re going away with some guy?
Okay, then, it’s cool.
It’s funny, Ted, how you boys are so threatened by who might be possessing my body yet concern yourselves so little with who might have my heart. Daniel knows everything about me—every hope and fear and dream. He knows the lies I tell people and why I tell them, he knows all the things I’ve never told. Doesn’t that seem silly, Ted? That the man I am not sleeping with knows everything and the man I am sleeping with knows . . . I was going to say my favorite movie but I don’t even know if Gary knew that.
It’s Big Fish. In case you’re interested.
“You have to be ready sometime,” Daniel said as we hit 94 East out of the city, and I didn’t mean to do it, Ted, I don’t know where it came from, but I started to cry. I cried so hard that I had to pull over on the shoulder and throw on the parking lights, and Daniel and I switched passenger and driver seats. Then we were moving again, toward the skyway, Daniel behind the wheel and me a floodgate with the windshield wipers on the wrong side of the windshield.
He let me cry for a while. Then he said, “What’s happening to you, honey?”
“I don’t know,” I cried, “it’s just that—” and then I brought up all these things that Daniel has long since known: my childhood, and past relationships, and too much time thinking too hard, and so much information that I don’t know you well enough to get into here, Ted, and maybe that’s why I’m writing this, I want to know if I can get into it with you. That look we shared? Over the cracked eggs? Was that about something more? If so, you can leave me a message at Box 5566. We can get some coffee, maybe. Or some breakfast. I’d love to scramble those eggs for you. Make something good out of all that destruction.