Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fool's Errand (fiction)

I love a trip to the market as much as I loathe a trip to the mall. For some reason, buying groceries has become a sort of psychoanalytical errand for me, while clothes shopping remains a torturous, demeaning experience at best.

Some might call my interest in strangers’ shopping habits intrusive, but I would assure them that I do a great deal of self-analysis and would invite anyone, with the proper qualifications of course, to carry out the same study on me.

That afternoon I had finished my last session of the day and stopped by the market to buy some mandarin oranges and a few other necessities. The store smelled of freshly baked bread and human suffering. I knew it would prove to be a fruitful visit.

A few feet ahead of me, a tall, young woman with dark hair jerked a cart out and rolled away. I recognized but couldn’t quite place her. What’s her name? Sara? Sophia? Probably a former patient. I exhaled with relief when she took no notice of me. To my right stood a middle-aged man in a training suit and tennis shoes. He gazed forlornly at the glass that seemed to safeguard him from the dessert display. Poor man. He’s obviously trying to get in shape but he seems fixed on that red velvet cake. Poor fellow. Eternal is the struggle between man and his desires. What weak-willed souls we humans are.

As usual, my analysis proved true. He called out to the man behind the counter to box up the cake. By now, I had grabbed a basket and decided to pick up some mini muffins before leaving the bakery behind. As I turned into the cereal aisle, I caught a glimpse of Sara/Sophia (my mind was in a civil war as to which one was her name) tossing a box of Trix in her cart and gliding off again. I’d seen it a hundred times: fully grown adults buying children’s cereals. I pitied her. I can’t remember her case, but what a regression. I sense she’s feeling lonely, but trying to perpetuate her childhood won’t help. So many people walking around with unresolved issues from their youth these days…

I scanned the shelves and claimed three boxes of Cheerios. (One must never find himself with a cereal shortage.) My next stop was for hand soap and laundry detergent. Already browsing the aisle was a young boy of about 9. Further down stood a discreetly elegant woman around my mother’s age. The boy stared perplexedly at the sea of detergent brands then, as if defeated, settled on the nearest one and walked away, dragging the bag behind him. Too heavy for him, both in a literal and a figurative sense. Parents these days either give their children too much responsibility or too little. I’ll probably see that poor kid buying Trix when he’s 40 years old.

After securing my soap and detergent, I was able to get a closer look at the woman and her items, thanks to her preoccupation with choosing just the right air freshener. (You see, I may be excessively curious, but I am nothing if not professional.) Her selections were typical: canned tomatoes, flour, eggs, whole wheat toast, a pack of butter, yoghurt, a selection of fresh fruits. These items, along with her dedication to choosing the perfect air freshener, confirmed my first impression. The domestic life has subdued many a passionate woman. Headed for a meltdown she is. No doubt about it.

My last stop was the produce section, where I went straight for the oranges. Once again, I spotted Sara/Sophia. Oddly, she seemed to be scouting the least desirable apples. One by one, she examined them, pondering their brown spots, pressing her fingers into their soft exteriors and tossing them into the plastic bag. This is too much. I wish I could remember her case, though I don’t think anything could explain such abnormal behavior. Oh well. I guess I can’t save them all.

Puzzled, I bagged a week’s worth of oranges and headed for the checkout. My professional interest urged me to steal one more look into Sara/Sophia’s cart, but she was now following me, apparently sharing my peculiar habit of paying for groceries.

I stood in the line next to hers, trying not to look suspicious. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her grab two bags of Gummi bears. A touch of sympathy threatened to interrupt my study, but I persevered. I stared down at her items: Trix cereal, a bag of nearly rotten apples, sugar free popsicles, gourmet cat food, bubble bath and Gummi bears. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It was clear she had serious childhood and insecurity issues. Still, something didn’t add up.

Before I could delve any further, it was my turn. Synchronized to the last minute it seemed, Sara/Sophia’s turn came too. I made a decision: I would speak to her. In general, I didn’t acknowledge patients outside of my office, but I simply had to know who she was and, more importantly, her case.

We both finished paying and she turned towards the door. I sped up my typical leisurely pace to catch up with her before it was too late.

“Excuse me, but haven’t we met before?” I asked.

“Well, yes, actually. I don’t usually speak to patients in public, even former patients. But I suppose it’s been a long time, and you’re sort of a colleague, too. How have you been, Ali?”

“Of course!” Of course. It had been about five years. We only had three or four sessions. We had gotten along pretty well, almost like friends. Her name was Dr. Sophia Laurel – I should have remembered that because it always reminded me of Sophia Loren. “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” 

“Oh, I’m good thanks.” 

My senses of curiosity and politeness were at odds. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but why have you picked out the oldest apples?

She laughed: “Oh, that? Well, I guess it does look strange. My nephews and I have a fun, little science experiment planned.” We exchanged smiles as I tried to make sense of this unexpected explanation. “What about you? Still living off Cheerios, oranges and dark chocolate? Breakfast of champions!...And lunch and dinner, for that matter.” If I hadn’t been so charmed, I might have taken offense to her candor. Instead, I laughed with her, shoving down a vague sense of irony I couldn’t define.

I watched her pass through the sliding doors before I turned around and walked back into the store.

I had almost forgotten the dark chocolate.

The Forest

In the forest where none may pass but you, the stillness envelops you and you embrace it in return. This embrace courses through your blood; it is neither a pulsing nor a pounding, but a steady stream of warmth making its home in your veins. 

The trees provide the peace you have craved and by simply receiving it, you have thanked them. As you breathe them in, you defiantly exhale your fears, reclaiming the quietude that once fed your lungs.

Your body has been stirred awake. Breathing and circulation can no longer be overlooked as ordinary life processes. They are your guides through this enchanting new setting. However, curiously, there is nothing magical or supernatural about this place. The fallen leaves you walk upon are no path of gold, nor is the chirping of the birds akin to the Sirens’ song. Its allure lies in its commonplace existence. It is a forest like any other. It is this authentic, lackluster quality that draws you in, cries out to a part of you that even you have never really known.

You kneel down tentatively to feel the earth and reassure yourself that your other senses have not deceived you. The slightest brush of your lined fingertip against the cool, yielding soil sends a jolt through your arm and you can no more deny your surroundings than a bird its wings. No longer inhibited by suspicion, you carefully but resolutely follow a path you cannot see but your legs seem to have sensed. Conscious of the solidity of your feet upon the fragile terrain, you take gentle, apologetic steps, not wishing to damage the place that has taken you in so graciously. 


Tweet…Just one. Tweet…A trivial two. Tweet…Now three. It was a sound that should have been as natural and as rejuvenating as the birds outside her window. Instead, it assaulted her ears mercilessly. It taunted her now. What nature had made a sweet melody had become a nightmarish refrain. Tweet…Only four.

She had promised herself peace. She desired this elusive tranquility despite her unwillingness to silence the source of her agitation. Tweet...Five messages seemed to beg for her attention now. It was a nagging sound, echoing in the depths of her consciousness, usurping her reason. Still, she endured.

Tweet…Six. This was not her first attempt to unshackle herself from the grip of this device. Tweet…Seven. However, the sound pursued her with the relentlessness determination of a cheetah stalking its prey. In an unsuccessful attempt to weaken the gadget’s hold, she had modified its voice, from a beep to a ping, a ping to a pop, a pop to a click and finally, from a click to a tweet. 

Tweet…Eight. The sound consumed her. Tweet…Nine. With a sigh of defeat, she gave in.