Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Love Notes

The stairway and break room both were decorated in cheap faux wood paneling and lit by long commercial fluorescent bulbs that buzzed and occasionally flickered. Employees retreated upstairs in staggered shifts for brief respites from the public. We hovered at the one-way windows looking down at the supermarket floor, gossiping furtively about management or flirting with our co-workers. Everyone had a locker too small to be useful; in winter coats and boots piled up in the corner.

I got a real job as soon as it was legal; answering phones and filing at my mother’s shop was somehow less alluring than sacking groceries. The money was good for a high school kid and the managers kindly worked around my school schedule. My shift ran from six p.m. 'til close. Small towns shut down early; I was usually home by 11. I worked the deli sometimes, until my age came up — state law forbade employees under eighteen from working the meat slicers. They put me in charge of the salad bar instead. There is a scar on my right palm from the night a vegetable knife cut my hand almost as effectively as a slicer blade would.

The work was drudgery but I liked my job. Perhaps it was the knowledge that it was short-term — I was a year from college and already looking at schools a thousand miles away. There never was any question that I would leave our little town; back then I had dreams of politics and the presidency. I sparked with joy and a hope that most of the lifers at the store would never have.

I sang as I stocked the milk coolers, frosting the glass doors with goofy renditions of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and anything else that came to mind. At the end of the night the sackers would have contests to see who could mop fastest, thwapping heavy cotton strands across the floor in carefully regulated arcs. If we goofed around too much, more ambitious managers ordered us to double mop. Between customers we had to pretty-up the store, facing the aisles by bringing products to the front (two tall, two deep) so the shelves looked full. Even now I re-face the shelf after putting canned goods in my cart.

We were a small team, and the camaraderie led to a couple of dates. The first was with a Mormon from the next high school over, who found me baffling. We went to a movie that had me in tears and he took me home right afterward, saying he had church early the following day. I asked the hot guy from produce to prom. My best friend danced with him the entire night, while I alternated sitting with her date and crying in the bathroom.

It was at the store that I learned girl power. Not the trendy rah rah girl! kind, but the deeper, scarier, primal power of flirtation, attraction, and manipulation. I helped the stockers just so I could bask in their attention. One grown man (in his twenties!) who worked the night shift was in a serious relationship, but I electrified us both with casual touches, drawing the connection out with over-the-shoulder stares as I walked away. At sixteen the entire world revolved around me and I sucked the energy from the men around me, shining ever brighter, like a star pulsing toward supernova. I was feral with power and too young to know shame.

* * * * *

The paper perched delicately inside my locker. It looked like parchment, and the words were printed in a thick, black gothic script that was almost unintelligible.

On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat
to the wolf with the red roses?

Nothing else. I couldn’t breathe. I clasped it melodramatically to chest, then tucked it into a pocket and biked home. Over and over I pondered who could have covertly slipped it between the sharp slats, thrilling to the idea of a secret admirer, savoring the mystery so much that I actually didn’t want to know. This was romance — dark and secret and just a little scary.

For the next week every young man in the store was especially intriguing (I was still child enough to blithely overlook the Lolita potential of the three middle-aged managers) and worth a smile. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to look at the schedule to narrow the list. Perhaps I preferred to think of everyone as suitors. With the next  letter my excitement bubbled over and I enlisted the help of a more sophisticated friend from the deli. Together we analyzed the paper, the words, the delivery. She watched the lockers on her breaks; we reviewed every candidate and discarded most. Our small town was suddenly more interesting than we’d ever thought possible. The intrigue grew with every delivery.

I don’t remember how I learned that the notes contained lyrics from a song by Meatloaf, or that they came from Simon. I do know he was exotic enough to satisfy all the drama. He was smart and intense, bitter and aloof, older and English, complete with accent. Nothing happened after the unveiling, except we managed to spend more time together at work. We shared tidbits from our classes (he was attending the community college) and had long pseudo-philosophical talks while prepping two different kinds of lettuce and laying out the six dressing options. I had already reached escape velocity — I would leave for an international boarding school in two months — but his path out of the valley was slower. We both were stifled by the mundane routines of small town life.

In the end, Simon and I never even touched. We did exchange addresses before I left, and for months maintained our connection through the mail. We were studiously friendly. He offered advice and support, encouraging me in everything. I wrote down every detail so he could live vicariously.

Simon was sort-of dating Paige from the deli, and she was infuriated. She had despised me from my first day. After numerous attempts to befriend her I gave up and sealed the deal by correcting her grammar. "That humors me!” she would say when someone told a joke. I lost patience and privately suggested “amuses” instead. Paige didn’t believe me, but a council of Bakery employees ruled that I was correct. She blamed her public humiliation on me. When his letters stopped not long after they moved in together, I imagined her finding a cache of our correspondence and making a dramatic ultimatum that ended our friendship.

I don’t know why Simon left those notes. I never asked, and though I came home for visits, I never saw him again. At the time the relationship made sense, given my careless abuse of girl magic that summer. Listening to the lyrics of that song now, I wonder if he was declaring more than I could then comprehend. Regardless, I am grateful. Those first months away from home were much easier with his words wrapped around my heart.

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