On Groceries (In the Style of Didion)
Back then my mother would pull me from school to go grocery shopping. She might have come in with a doctor’s note or excusal of some kind or let me sleep in for an hour to announce we’d be buying food for the house. Of course, these were not the groceries of our neighbors, the Wonder bread and canned tomatoes and generic brand peanut butter of women who worked as nurses’ aides and came home to raised ranch houses filled with snotty children and impatient husbands. What could those people know of organic produce? My mother would drive forty minutes to the Whole Foods because, should she someday find wealth in a man who was not my father, she needed to know the intricacies of sprouted wheat bread and hemp meal and those green drinks made from celery which sell for over eight dollars apiece in some markets.
Maybe the night before had been good. She worked at the sort of restaurant where businessmen would often hold regional meetings and after ordering two or three bottles of good wine might slip a crisp hundred into her waistband and wish her the best or whistle as she ended her shift. These are the businessmen who could shop at Whole Foods consistently and drove nicer cars than us, who could go away first-class to Bali and fuck women besides their wives and come back some time later to a sexless marriage. This was standard of living my mother craved like cigarettes.
It is easy to see the ways in which groceries shape our lives. I could look through the cupboards of our working-class neighbors and see tinned soups or kidney beans delineated on shelves to suggest tidiness in spite of low income. The pantries of people who summer on the Cape might reveal a ceiling rack for pots and pans or spices imported from India or Japan or a shelf that exists exclusively for cured meats. But it seems these pretenses are laid out in order to bury the truth of the situation; the gaps in my mother’s own marriage could be filled in this way, with granola replacing strange men on Facebook and couples’ counseling. I am unsure when organic frozen yogurt took the place of loud fights after dinner, but I know that the infidelity and arguing and quiet pleasantries over breakfast stopped almost altogether after some months living in such a way; all the while the refrigerator was stocked with almond milk.
It is maybe too simple to blame my mother for the way things were handled, when, on her twentieth anniversary she left my father at home and went to dinner and the movies with a man I didn’t know in a town near the shoreline with brick sidewalks. Hundreds of dollars had been spent on nice things and gasoline to travel from here to there, and then years thereafter the divorce attorneys and new cars had taken away from retirement plans; though she insists the lawyer cut her a deal.
The lawyer came to our home once to deliver an oriental rug he had purchased as a house-warming gift for her, and he spread it in the foyer on his hands and knees, with his gut dragging along the hardwood like a goiter. My mother was out buying something for dinner at the time so it was my duty to watch him and send pictures of the final product and to ensure he didn’t go snooping around her room or see the dirty laundry in the hamper. But he didn’t. After a while he stood up to admire his work and wiped his hands on his trousers. “Boy, your mother is really quite the lady,” he said. “Tell her I said thanks.”