PART TWO: Vidi
The passages of this fancy supermarket with the derelict name were decked in all sorts of exotic décor, from interwoven vines to bookend Greek statues. The owner had once interviewed with a 20/20 style television show, explaining that he wanted to give American shoppers the European experience, breaking them free of Wal-Mart culture and immersing them into a world of mythology while they quested for their fabled frozen pizzas. The interviewer challenged his vision, asking why the populace would care about such innovation. The owner responded that if people didn’t care about a different world, then filmmakers would have never made the movie Troy, or its sequel, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The interviewer, in turn, nodded and smiled.
After swallowing in precarious relief from his alleged boldness, Avery Ward turned the corner from the salad dressing aisle, nearly spearing himself with Eros’ heart-shaped arrow, which protruded from an endcap filled with generic vanilla-fudge cookies. Spinning away from the sudden Greek god of love and his deadly symbol of romantic bliss, Avery regained his balance, just in time to zero in on Melissa sauntering near the packaged meats island. He was once again gripped with nervousness as he considered how to tastefully reinitiate the conversation. But he couldn’t be deterred. This woman made Aphrodite look like kin to a homeless witch. Some risks just had to be taken. He needed a romantic win.
He had his share of problems, top of which had to be his inability to step forward. Physically, he moved just fine, but metaphorically he had an anchor tied to his foot. When he had first lain eyes on Allison the year before—a little blond candy store hottie that seduced him with a wink and a smile—he had wanted to approach her, but chickened out once he considered the number of outcomes that he could have potentially triggered: Would she smile? Would she cry? Would she kiss him? Slap him? Would it lead to them having babies? Would it lead to him having to file a restraining order against her? Would it lead to bliss? Would it lead to scandal? Was she even a real woman? Did she recently become a woman? Was she a dog person or cat person? There were so many variables to consider in such a short amount of space. He couldn’t bring himself to uncover the answers to any of those questions. He was afraid to find out the truth to any of them. It was she who had to talk to him. Fortunately, her initiation led them to an engagement three months later…
And a nasty breakup two months after that. She had met a lion tamer earlier that week and decided she was more interested in marrying him. Final answer: It had led to her filing a restraining order against him. Sometimes that roll of the dice resulted in a bad gamble. Avery Ward had been right to feel nervous over that initial step forward. It was unfortunate that Allison had rolled the dice on him.
The pain still ate at his heart—he had really liked Allison, and her betrayal of him had left a scar. But he couldn’t guarantee that Melissa, the brunette olive oil goddess, would destroy him, too, so he resolved to follow through with the potentially deadly risk. Besides, her slender legs begged for attention. Not that physical attraction was his main ploy, of course; he just agreed that it was a nice bonus, a really nice bonus. Sometimes even the dumbest gambler had to chance a roll for a million dollars.
Avery cupped his hand over his mouth to analyze his breath. The pepperoni pizza slice he had for lunch, a favorite twelve o’clock tradition, lingered. Even though he had already moved into close quarters with her at the salad dressing shelf, he saw the potential for greater disaster if he failed to neutralize it. Fortunately, the toothpaste aisle was close, but he was under time pressure—the young, brunette beauty was getting farther away and he didn’t want her falling out of sight—so he skipped his alternative option and continued forward. As long as he stood a safe distance from her, he’d be okay.
She had already rounded the corner into the produce section when he resumed course. That pleased him because the destination meant she took care of herself—unless she strolled through the vegetable aisle to reach the bakery. Fortunately, she didn’t look like a massive cake consumer, so he allowed himself to breathe. Deep, steady breaths. Deep breaths. A little shallow. Deep.
He continued toward her location, slowly, even hesitantly, but nevertheless with forward motion. When he touched the edge of the produce section—an area highlighted with wall depictions of maidens sucking on purple grapes—he stopped. Before he moved in, he had to know if he was making the right decision. The wrong move, or the right move played badly, guaranteed him a wealth of problems, so he had to ensure his position. He considered a couple of stories about outcomes Dexter had shared with him over a beer several months ago:
Story #1: When Dexter became infatuated with an “awesomely hot” lifeguard, a blond woman made of Baywatch-caliber substance, he came up with a plan to lure her attention to him through urgency. Since she wouldn’t give him a second look otherwise—he was pasty-skinned and absent of muscle tone—he decided to drown himself. He knew going into the water that he was taking a huge risk, especially considering that a fake drowning would’ve been smarter, but he really wanted this woman’s touch, so he inhaled some liquid after a wild display of panic, for love. The plan seemed flawless as he blacked out, for the woman had no choice but to rescue him. But it wasn’t until he awoke, spitting a fountain and some vomit all over his bare chest, that he realized his attempt had come with a major hole: He had drowned himself during a change in shift. When those luscious lips pulled away from his waterlogged tongue, he discovered, to his horror, that they belonged to a mustached muscleman in one-piece bathing suit. Immediately, he gagged, then begged to go back under.
Story #2: Not long after the lifeguard catastrophe, Dexter met a girl on a bus to Atlanta. She was a southern sweetheart, the kind of girl who walked around in checkered skirts and pigtails, but hid a nasty personality disorder. When he cranked up the charm through an exchange of phone numbers, he immediately regretted it. She started calling, a lot, while still on the bus. Even when they parted ways in the big city, she hounded him: ring, ring, message, message, ring, “Why aren’t you returning my calls, lover boy?” ring. It became such a problem that he filed a restraining order against her. But when he started getting lonely again, he canceled it. For her, that was a good thing, because she was primed to violate it. After another week of hounding him, the girl impressed Dexter with her determination. So he caved. The week after that they married.
At the end of the beer, and after several loose shoulder pats, Dexter had convinced Avery the outcome could go either way. Then Dexter left with a sullen look on his face.
As he mulled over the stories’ details, Avery considered his avenues. He knew Melissa wasn’t butch, and he didn’t think she was psychotic—at least not according to those precious sixty seconds at the party—but he was still unsure of what to offer her. He remembered that she had floated about the party without being introduced, that she had initiated introductions herself. Maybe, he thought, she was the independent type, flourishing from her self-will. If that were the case, then he wouldn’t know how to stand a chance.
He also wondered if he had violated her privacy when he tried to help her with the olive oil bottle.
But, because he thought she was unlikely to take notice of him otherwise, he resolved to overstep that line of concern. He had to search for any means necessary to win her over. That’s when it occurred to him that wine was the great mediator of all things relational. Anyone could love it, and most would swallow their regrets down with every glass. It was the perfect choice.
The wine aisle was the fanciest in the supermarket. Actual models posing as Helen of Troy offered samples of expensive grapes to passing guests. When he entered the area, he nearly passed out from the overpowering beauty. Avery Ward couldn’t remember the last time he had seen so many attractive people in a single location. Thanks to being the kid often overlooked in life—he had to make his own fate, as no one was willing to give him guidance until he had entered the psychology program at the university—he had made all the wrong turns, and often found himself in places where beauty had no existence. Striking lightning twice was something he didn’t think he could do, even today. Yet, here was beauty all around him. His heart started to race. It was possible his eyes would explode. But then he remembered his mission. He had to count to thirty to regain his focus. He was here for Melissa, not random beauty. Italian salad dressing, steak sauce, and Melissa. Oh, and wine. He had nearly forgotten his addendum to the menu for wine.
After taking yet another needed breath, he studied the bottle labels for standouts. Many famous names crossed his eyes from Cavit to Sutter Home, but none struck his fancy. He also had a budget to consider. A good Pinot Grigio might’ve run him under ten dollars, which was reasonable, but it would have also run him under a truck in the great first impressions department. To win the girl, he needed to show some balls, metaphorically speaking, so he had to spring for the Titan of Wines. He thought a 1995 Dom Perignon was a good choice, but the hundred-dollar price tag made him cackle—a good first impression still had to be sensible. The price deflected him toward the bargain section where dying ivy withered on the shelf. A fifteen-dollar nonalcoholic wine had to do.
The green bottle clanked as Avery removed it from the shelf. He knew it was the one; it stood alone in a sea of black bottles. Blood red liquid churned inside as he swished it around, emulating a motion he had once seen in the hands of a connoisseur. Frankly, he didn’t know why he was doing it; he just remembered that people swirled wine to test its body, whatever that meant. Once he brought the bottle to a standstill, he glanced at the label to fully absorb his prize: “Welch’s.”
He figured Melissa would be near the end of the produce section by now, so he clutched the bottle tightly and worked his way there. When he entered, he spotted her thumbing a head of lettuce. Now she was caught.
His shoes began to stick to the floor as he took another step toward her. His tongue began to dry out. This couldn’t be right. Something seemed irrational about this decision. He was about to pick up on a woman he had met once, and he was doing it at a grocery store. It violated every rule about proper introductions he had read about in his psychology textbooks.
But every great move in history had started with a violation.
He took another step. She palmed a stalk of okra, lightly bending it to test its freshness. He took another step. She put the stalk in her basket. He took another step. She leaned over the peppers and tapped them. He took another step. His cellphone rang.
Avery Ward groaned as he checked the number. It was Chet, the head of the barbecue planning committee. As much as he wanted to forsake the call, he couldn’t. Every contact from Chet that he missed put his reputation on the line.
He stole another glance at Melissa as he hit the TALK button. She dropped a pepper in her cart, then glided to the melons. They looked so luscious.
“This better be a matter of life and death,” he said.
“Ward, it’s Chet. We have a problem.”
“Of course. What? And you know I prefer Avery.”
“Dexter’s wife just cheated on him.”
Avery stamped his foot against the marble floor and raised his chin toward Olympus where the lights hung down. He gritted his teeth. This was gonna be a hard call to shake.
“Gina? Already? When did this happen?”
“It’s been going on for a while, but Dexter found the proof a few minutes ago shortly after he and Gina got home.”
“Yuck. Who did he finally find her in bed with?”
“I’m sure that’s been going on off-campus, and no one. No, she had fallen asleep, er, in bed of course, but by herself, leaving her phone unattended on the nightstand beside her. Dexter was curious why she was acting so strange, which, I guess is always, but now he noticed, so he checked her texts. After he guessed her unlock code, he found a barrage of texts from this guy Brian, who was talking about how he would seduce her and steal her away from her husband, and her responses were encouraging to him, and kinda dirty, too. Apparently in the last text, Brian had sent her a picture of his junk. She responded with a happy face emoticon. We’ve got Johnny uploading the photo to Craig’s List now.”
“Didn’t we say this was coming?”
“Well it came, and now he wants to punch her. He’s trying not to, but he’s afraid of losing control.”
“Yeah, that sucks.”
Avery sidled up to the cold storage unit where he could easily grab for some broccoli. At the other end of the aisle, Melissa was feeling the shape of several melons. It would not take her long to find a ripe one. Most of them were undoubtedly ripe. Avery’s knees were turning to jelly.
“Yeah, it does.” Chet paused, clearly waiting for a response. Avery didn’t give him one. “We can’t lose his participation, Ward. He’s in charge of grilling the hamburgers.”
“I know. And call me Avery. That’s my name. Avery.”
“The barbecue committee thought you could talk to him, seeing as how you’re a counselor and all.”
“Studying to be a counselor. And yeah, I could see where you thought that.”
“So when will you talk to him?”
That was a good question. Avery had an agenda established already, beginning with a conversation with the beautiful woman in the produce section and ending with a movie about cyberpunks laying down the law against digital super agents. He hoped he could even combine the ends together and throw in some popcorn for flavor somehow. Spending an hour or more counseling Dexter would undoubtedly throw a wrench into his plans.
“I’m not sure I’m going to,” he said. “He’s gotta learn to control himself. If he had paid attention to her cues, like we all did, he’d already know this would happen. He should’ve been prepared to deal with it.”
“He’s threatening to punch her, Ward.”
Avery considered the importance of this statement. Gina was overly ambitious and not much of a supporter of faithfulness, but she didn’t deserve to be punched. Likewise, Dexter didn’t deserve having assault charges brought up against him because he sucked at finding true love. It was a dilemma because Melissa was done with her melons and was now moving toward the carrots and rutabagas. Not much time remained before she would vacate the section completely.
Avery hooked his elbow over his eyes and knelt in thought. He had to block out all sensory stimulation in order to properly think this through. Melissa was his dream girl, and she was less than fifty feet away from him, and he had been waiting months for the opportunity to speak to her again. Even though he had savored those precious sixty seconds with her at the party, and the ten seconds he had with her in the salad dressing aisle, he wanted more—needed more. Time was a beast that had no restraint on its appetite for loss. It would consume and consume and consume some more until no one left on earth had any time left to better themselves. To risk losing her again, over someone else’s ignorance no less, was unfounded. There was no way he could allow that. But, Dexter was his friend. He was also an ignorant fool, but he was Avery’s friend. Avery growled into the crook of his arm. As much as he didn’t want to be bothered, Avery still realized he had some responsibility to protect those he cared about.
“Fine,” he said into his cellphone. “I’ll head over to his house and talk him down as soon as I leave the store.”
And then, he clicked END to finish the call.
He slid his phone into his pocket as he attempted to stomach his resentment. Loneliness had tormented him for the last two months and he wanted out. How he could make time for everyone, he didn’t know.
Then the solution popped into Avery’s head: Dexter was analytical; therefore, he could wait a few minutes, maybe even an hour, for his emergency counseling session to resolve this conflict. Sure, he was ignorant of the truth, but at least he was the kind of guy who would keep searching back alleys for ideas that justified, or loosely supported, the lies he believed in. He would need at least an hour to come up with his stupid thoughts and another hour to rationalize them. But, with his penchant to outline his actions before going through with them, three hours was even okay. His fists weren’t even that forceful. Four hours was plenty of time.
Avery returned focus to the slender brunette, only to discover that she had slipped out of the area when his eyes were briefly turned away.
He searched for her frantically through the aisles before finally discovering her passing through the bakery. The sight of her shoulders gyrating calmed his fears, but the calm was short lived. When he examined her closer, he realized it was her turn to flirt with a cellphone; unlike him, she was laughing, then talking, then laughing some more. Whatever her conversation was about, it was welcome to her, and there was no telling when she would end her call.
He steadied his breathing first. This was not the end of the world. Chances were that she was calling someone for information. Might’ve lasted a minute or less. The smart play here was to continue following her travel path in case she disconnected quickly. There were still other aisles for her to visit, other Greek gods and goddesses for her to ignore. He just needed to wait her out. It was rare that anyone on the phone ever had anything important to say, certainly important enough to warrant more than a minute’s worth of conversation. Whatever this call was for, she would have to end it soon by reason of value.
But then he remembered that the important calls were usually the short ones. Everything else was about the caller hearing him or herself speak. This call actually could take a while. Avery latched on to the hope that she had more aisles to walk than she had minutes to talk.
Hope, of course, is one of the ingredients that comes with rolling dice.
A moment of desperation shot through Avery Ward’s soul when he followed her past the paper towels. Time was running out. Melissa’s shopping cart squeaked as she turned the corner and dodged Aphrodite’s clamshell. She was heading for the checkout line.
Desperation had a potential exit, however. She carried in her cart a pile of groceries, so she would be stuck at the register for several minutes. Avery hoped that her cashier was an incompetent who couldn’t get prices right or abide by the laws of basic customer service, which was to get shoppers checked out as quickly as possible. But Melissa’s phone call seemed pretty involving. The speed of her checkout may not have mattered. His success really came down to whether he could steal her attention away, and Avery wasn’t sure how to do that. The important thing was that he tried to do something. If she had left without him saying a word to her, then that might’ve been the curtain call on their relationship. She might not have offered him a third opportunity for serendipity to work its best magic on them. But if he just jumped in and ruined her conversation, he was likely to blow his critical impression.
He didn’t know which decision to make, so he threw reason out the window and decided to check out, too. It was the only chance he had. If she were polite enough to end her call in an effort to give the cashier her undivided attention, then Avery could catch her. Timing was everything.