Part 17 - Meals, Restrooms, Noises, and Failures
Because of Allison’s cake, the topic of recipes came up at the…tail end…of the evening. I typically ate whatever stuff I could buy in bulk, stuff in the freezer, and heat up in the microwave when needed. I sometimes made things, but my stove had been gathering dust ever since I moved in. It didn’t take Allison long to notice the first time she visited. I swore her to secrecy about it. She kept her word (and the others out of my horrible kitchen) but she did occasionally email me recipes.
Mira’s curiosity about my favorite foods turned out to be my undoing. But I let her do it. I could’ve rebuffed or deflected her questions like I knew how to do so well. Blame the sweetness of the evening still percolating in my thoughts, but I revealed my habits. Much like with the book list, I soon had Allison coordinating the best things the girls knew how to make into a folder I took home with me.
I would’ve let it sit there on my table, but Allison put a lot of work into it. Of course, reading it made me hungry and eager to try things. Sure to be a complete failure, but it might be fun to discuss next week at the tea club.
That Monday, I was about halfway through my work when I heard about the addition of a temp worker for the late shift due to the heavier seasonal load of documents. It wouldn’t really affect me since I’d be finishing my shift around the time they arrived, but I’d started to talk more to my coworkers. Just politely, but it did leave them in suspicious silence for the first few times till they got used to it. It was something to discuss though, when the work started to get especially mindless.
At the end of my workday, I went to the men’s room. I was washing my hands when the door squeaked open and someone entered. Through the mirror, I saw a fair-skinned young man with dark blond hair. It was combed back neatly, and he had on a nice gray suit. It looked a little big on him and he rubbed at the cuffs as he entered. I turned to dry my hands when I heard him ask, “Can I help you, miss?”
I jerked my head over in surprise. His light eyebrows arched up and he gave me a look back. It wasn’t a mean look, but it was a steady one. I had to think of something. I glanced over to the urinals and drew my mouth open. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry! Must not have been thinking…”
I let him do the rest of the work. He did, but with a slightly raised eyebrow as he remarked, “Yeah, I’m afraid you have the wrong one.”
With a careful bow, I snagged some paper for my hands and said, “Right right. Sorry!”
I was nearly out the door when he asked, “Do you work here?”
Oh, the desire to lie right then. I should’ve lied, but I knew he probably would’ve seen me again at some point and I would’ve been caught in my lie. So, I quickly told him, “Yeah. Just heading off. Sorry again!” I was able to hide my face, as though in embarrassment, and he didn’t persist.
I didn’t breathe till I was back at my desk and finishing up my stuff to leave. I lingered a little too long as I saw him coming around the corner and into the work area. I gave him a nod and was almost ready to go but he said, “Hello, again.”
I really hoped that would be it as I returned the comment with, “Have a nice evening.” But he pointed out, “That’s really some outfit, miss…” His eyes went the usual places to my head and behind my shoulder and then all over what he saw me wearing.
If I’d just managed to avoid him, if he just hadn’t said that last word. Most of the people in the area were far enough away not to notice our conversation but a few were watching and listening. Their attention soon turned to me.
I could’ve just turned phantom tail and left, but I faced him. “I said I was sorry. Do you have a problem with me?” I tensed my face and bent my arms. From my perspective, I loomed in his face. Hopefully blond and cute me was giving a comparable display.
After a quiet moment, he lowered his head with a concerned, nervous frown and said, “No. I’m sorry too. Umm…my name is Nathan.” He bent an uncertain hand which almost seemed to tremble.
For a multitude of reasons, I refused his hand but I tried not to make my tone too harsh as I walked away with the words, “I have to go.”
He didn’t grab for me, and he didn’t say anything else I could hear. Only when I finally got to the nearest empty bus bench did I relax. But with that quiet moment came the creeping realization I would have to deal with him again when our shifts followed one another. I didn’t want to ask for a different shift because I was happy with this one and who knew what he was going to ask the others while I was gone. It wouldn’t take many questions or pronouns for his confusion and theirs to mount. I slapped my legs and shook my head. Shit!
Nothing I could do about it. Still, I kept my phone off because of fear that the boss would call about his new temp worker saying I was dressed up like a catgirl. Well, I didn’t realistically fear it. What I really feared was, because of no fault of his own, they could fire him as swiftly and irrationally as Steve had been fired. I didn’t want that to happen, no matter how our first impressions went.
The trip back to my apartment only lessened my stress a little bit. I had to play dodge with all the random people on the bus with their headphones moving from seat to seat. I was able to distract myself with the recipe list when I got back. I resolved that before my next shift I would head to the store and gather together all the stuff I needed to cook at least something on the list (and maybe dust the kitchen a little…).
I didn’t go to my usual store because I thought it might be interesting to check out a new place. Plus, it was a place that Allison said she used. I liked the layout. Not too intimidating. A bit cozy but with more than enough selection for my needs. There was only one problem. As I turned to look down aisle three, Nathan was about twenty feet away examining a container of nacho cheese.
I immediately squeaked the wheels in reverse before he had the time to glance in my direction. Camping against the wall of bread down another aisle, I clutched my head and sighed. This was absurd. I just wanted to buy some groceries. Stroking my head, I crept back to the aisle I’d seen him on. The cart’s wheels gave a spastic cry every few feet and one in the back and front twitched crazily. Too much noise. I moved ahead of the cart to peek down the aisle at the nacho cheese. He wasn’t there anymore. Some older woman with poofy hair. Great…
I kept a watch on every other shopper in my area, but he wasn’t out in the open. It wasn’t until I didn’t see him anywhere near me that I could start thinking about my list again. The vegetable section was too exposed, especially when I looked like a catgirl in a dress to him. I crouched like the area had suddenly become a war zone and disregarded the funny looks I got.
It wasn’t until the freezer section that I caught sight of him again. He was roaming. I dashed along the other side of the freezer row. I was blind to his position, but I tried to visualize his speed on the other side.
A hustle left me near the end before I realized what I needed was back in the middle. I caught the tip of his cart creeping along the other end. I held the frosted door open like a shield. I could only see a blur through it.
I stayed there and froze my phantom tail off till I saw his wheels roll past. I darted back to my cart and…there was probably a better term for it which Mira would know…circled around to where he’d been before. I took care of things in that area until I realized he was doubling back.
Fortunately, a large display between the deli section and the freezers provided enough cover if I crouched. More funny looks but at least I was almost done with my shopping. I had to make a circle of the entire perimeter to get the last things without getting too close to him. Fortunately, I found some sweets which I thought might be good to share with the tea club.
When the last thing on my list settled into my cart, I rocketed right for the checkout. All the lines were at least five deep. Groaning, I knew this area was too wide open to stay for long, especially with several aisles parallel to it. I made a few more slow circuits of the store and considered picking up some milk each time. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t find Nathan anywhere and decided to make a run for the checkout again. I picked the quietest section and took a risk. I didn’t see him on my way over but there were a lot more people. I moved through quickly and with my eyes darting everywhere. I paid, took my cart, and was about to leave when I nearly collided with his cart as he was leaving too. I slumped and narrowed my eyes at him.
He looked pretty shocked. I turned to the door and hustled along, barely hearing, “Hey…wait…” from behind me. Despite my hurry, there was really no chance I would get away. The bus stop was down the block and I still needed to put my groceries into my reusable bags. I tried though and only got a little ways before he caught up to me.
He looked over and said, “Hey. Umm…I wanted to talk to you.”
I gave just a little turn of my head but slowed my cart. I inquired tersely, “Yes?”
Nathan slowed to a stop and looked me over. “I have no idea what’s going on. You…it doesn’t make any sense. What are you?”
I let him have a long look this time as a car passed around us. I responded, “What do you mean? I’m just Josh.”
Slowly, he shook his head and clenched his neck. “That’s what the others said when I asked. I asked about how you…looked and they had no idea what I meant. Like…they didn’t see what I saw.”
I knew what I should’ve done right then. I knew I should’ve relaxed. I knew I should’ve put aside how he reacted when we met and explained it all to him. But I just wanted to get away. I shook my head and said, “Leave me alone…”
He persisted. “You know it. I know you do. You’re a woman with cat ears and a tail. You’re even in the same outfit. In the restroom you said I was right to point out you were in the wrong one. What the hell is this?”
I persisted too. “That’s what I’d ask you. Why are you bothering me? Are you following me? What do you want?”
He stared ahead and swallowed. “I’m not. I just feel like I’m losing my mind. I don’t understand what’s going on.”
I struck back, “I don’t have any answers for you. I’m no one. I’m just some guy. All I’ve ever wanted is to be LEFT ALONE…to work and do whatever I do in peace!”
I could feel the tears seeping out. I turned away before he could see me cry and pushed the cart down the row. I heard a quick stammer behind me, but he didn’t say anything, and I didn’t hear his wheels clatter after me. Instead, they receded and crossed into another row of cars. I made my way to the end of the parking lot. I didn’t like leaving the cart so far from the store, but I didn’t want to go back. I packed up everything and waited for the bus.
I was afraid he might pull beside the stop with his window down and even more questions. But I didn’t see him again that day. Looking back on it from the quiet of my couch, I felt ashamed. I felt like the ‘me’ before Gloria and her friend and all the girls. I felt sick.
Even making a bit of stew from one of the recipes didn’t lessen that feeling. In the cold night with my mind racing as I stared at the diamond shadow of the light above my bed, I played through so many versions of our conversations. Every single one of them came out better than what I’d said and done. In the quiet, I told myself that come tomorrow, when he showed up at the end of my shift, I would make things right…somehow. I’d pull him aside, I’d answer his questions and I’d try to get him in contact with Allison. It was what I should’ve done in the first place and what I should’ve done in the parking lot. I would do it quietly and everything would be okay. I would be stronger and braver than I felt.
Despite this reassurance, I slept very little.
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Bio: I'm MajorKerina and I love to collaborate creatively with a group of friends to make tales where people have their genders, identities, and very realities questioned, contorted, and turned upside-down. I like slice-of-life with a spicing of the supernatural, strange, or surreal. Reality with a scent of the impossible. You can find me on DeviantArt, Twitter, ScribbleHub, and other places.