On his way back from a tutoring gig in the far northern part of Edison, Mike decides to grab some groceries at the Stop & Shop on Inman Avenue. Mike remembers when it used to be called Grand Union about fifteen years ago. His mother had shopped there for weekly groceries and his family lived about a mile down the road. The shopping complex has changed considerably. The Great American Video Store, where Mike came monthly with his parents to rent videos, has been replaced by a pet store. The Hallmark gift store, where Mike used to pick up Valentine’s Day cards, has turned into a Walgreen’s. Burger King and Taco Bell seem to be in good shape, and the ever-resilient Golden Dragon Chinese Take-out Restaurant looks unchanged.
Knowing that an uphill bike ride awaits, Mike decides to pick up only what he needs for dinner. He is in the mood for chicken and remembers a recipe involving chicken breast, lemons, and mushrooms. He’s sure that butter also plays a part and picks up a box just in case there’s not enough at home. For a snack, he picks up a ripe banana and knows he’ll eat it as soon as he gets home.
It is in the poultry section that Mike notices a young woman carefully examining the packages of pork belly. She exhibits an intensity in reading the labels, presumably comparing prices or maybe even discerning the quality of the meat. Looking carefully at her profile from the corner of his eyes, Mike recognizes her. It’s his high school sweetheart, Laura Lin.
He is presented with a choice. Say hello or walk away. Mike instantly remembers the last time he saw her. It was in New York at a subway station. The F at 34th Street heading downtown. She was with some friends — another girl and a couple of guys — wearing makeup and dressed to go out. He was heading home from his office, tired and stressed out. At first he walked by without even paying attention. Then, as he waited and casually scanned the platform, he spotted her. The makeup on her face reminded him of the time they took the train together to New York as high school kids, nervously dining out on their own at a fusion restaurant near Union Square. Eight years later, they stood twenty feet apart, practically strangers. Mike was tempted to say hello, but he considered his appearance — wrinkled khakis, an old t-shirt, and unkempt hair — and was discouraged. On his back was a large backpack containing his laptop, notepads, and a book to read on the subway. He felt like a school boy heading home. He turned around and walked further away as to not be noticed by her.
This time around, they’re both alone and in no hurry to be elsewhere. Laura is wearing a white t-shirt, faded jeans, and orange flip flops. She has her hair in a tight ponytail. Mike has weighed several options and is sure that saying hello has the most upside.
Hi, Laura, he begins. She looks up, scans his face, and opens her eyes wide.
Oh. My. God, she says. Mike!
She steps forward to give him a hug, a quick and friendly embrace.
What are you doing here, she asks. Are you visiting?
No, I moved to Metuchen about half a year ago, he says. He goes on to quickly explain that he’s decided to switch up careers and focus on writing.
I always knew you’d be a writer, she says. He remembers the copy of Jack Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz that she had bought for him right before he went off to college. Inside, she had written: One day, I’ll be reading you’re semi-autobiographical novel. For at least the first year of college, he seriously believed that he would become a writer, in large part to Laura’s encouraging words.
Laura talks as they roll down the canned food aisle towards the checkout lines. She works in the finance department of Macy’s, which has a huge warehouse facility and operations office in South Edison. She lives with her chocolate lab Charlie in one of the townhouse developments off of Grove Avenue. She loves to cook and has been taking Baking and Pastry Arts classes at Middlesex Community College. She recently went to the Bahamas for a short vacation with some girlfriends and absolutely loved it. Mike both enjoys and is wary of Laura’s energetic aura. She talks quickly and incessantly. Mike realizes he has not said a word about himself since he mentioned his move to Metuchen.
He lets her go first at the checkout line, noting the abundance of greens, vegetables, meats, and fruits being passed through the scanner. He takes a good look at her as she puts away her groceries. She’s retained her figure from high school, still trim and athletic. Her face, a couple years away from thirty, looks smooth and youthful. Her tan reminds him of their summers together, when she would seize every moment to bask out in the sun. He could easily see himself attracted to her again, at least physically.
It takes almost no time for Mike’s items to be scanned and put away into his backpack. He walks out with Laura and says a couple of things about where he lives and how he rides his bike everywhere. Laura points to her car about a hundred feet away. A Toyota Camry from the late nineties.
It’s been nice seeing you, Mike, she says. We should meet up sometime and catch up some more.
That would be great, he says. But in his mind, he wonders if they can ever go beyond pleasantries. If not, there will be no reason to meet again.
There is no farewell hug, just a quick wave of the hand from both sides. She walks off to her car and he unlocks his bike. He begins the four or so miles back to his apartment. It’ll be a quick ride, in which he imagines himself joining her for dinner, playing with her dog, sharing her exquisitely prepared pork belly dish, finishing a bottle of wine, talking about their various failed relationships, and finally moving on to her bedroom, where they would show each other the things they’ve learned since they last shared the night together.