I seem to be writing a lot of poems lately
about people standing behind me
in line at grocery stores.
(I must be one of those people
who’s always forgetting that one item —
paper towels, butter —
and running back to the store.)
Today, it was a young woman, alone.
I kept stealing
glances at her ghostly face
and expressionless eyes.
She was buying two boxes of crackers.
Salt crackers but not Saltines —
I didn’t recognize the brand
and it didn’t matter. What mattered
was the matted fur
on her black wool peacoat,
and how heavily it hung
on her concave frame.
She wore corduroys the color
of cat vomit
and though the coat came to her knees
I could see her legs
were stick thin.
when my wife was so sick
we feared for her life,
how horrifically thin she’d grown
after living on rice
alone for months,
not by choice, because of disease.
But there was something
about this girl-woman;
it was eerie and sad,
how I could hear her thoughts
as she caught my backwards glimpse:
I imagined her thinking I thought
she was gross for buying
two boxes of crackers.
I imagined she intended to make
those crackers last a week.
That she’d dole them out
in painstakingly tiny bites,
not allowing herself more
than three a day.
I was making this up. I know
not all thin people are sick. But
everything in me — my younger self
swinging wildly between anorexic
and bulimic behaviors —
my older self, a bona fide Jewish mother
who no longer self-abuses
(at least not physically)
wanted to say something to her,
to gently say, “Excuse me”
as she exited the store
behind me. To say, “I know this
is none of my business, but –”
at which point, maybe
she would have cut me off,
deservedly so — “You’re right,
it’s none of your fucking business.”
Or maybe she would have listened.
Maybe her black, marble-like eyes
inside those deep sockets that looked
like she’d sobbed for hours
before cleaning herself up
to get the ritual crackers
would have filled with tears.
But I didn’t. Instead, I paid
and she paid. I walked to my car
and she walked to her car.
We will probably never see
each other again.
Maybe tonight she’s staring down
one of those boxes,
and the salt crackers are taunting her
but she tells herself she’s stronger.
Her cat nudges her calfs,
weaving figure eights around her ankles.
She reaches down to pet him,
flashing back to the woman
ahead of her in line at the grocery
who was lousy
at hiding her concern.
Keep your concern, the girl
says out loud. Leave me alone.