I fell in love and then I went shopping for groceries. We were out of everything. There was milk and cold cereal. Bread. Boring. But my heart was eating images of him — paint on his legs, his tongue in my ear, the vibrations of his voice moving through the rim of the hot tub.
The first time I ever met him, he came late to the AA meeting. I saw him suddenly, a luminous apparition in the doorway. He smiled at the roomful of strangers.
I was drawn to the strawberries, red peppers, and radishes. They pounded away on their grassy shelves under the pretty light, waiting to be adopted. The thumping in my chest got louder as I approached them, and I heaped them into my cart.
The first time he called, the day after the meeting, he said, “I’d like to see you tonight, or this afternoon, or this very minute.”
On the way to Safeway, I drove by a young man shuffling barefoot along the dark street, his pants hanging in tatters, a dirty blanket around his shoulders. He hunched his shoulders just the way my son, moving his body down a dark street, thinking, hunches his shoulders. And where was the body this body came out of? In the moment that I drove by, he spun around, flapped his blanket, and jumped sideways into the street. I missed him by inches. In the rearview mirror I saw a hand dart from under the blanket to give me the finger.
I bought an avocado so ripe the curve of the skin reversed itself when I peeled it from the soft meat.
He asks me what words I like for certain parts of the body, and I tell him. We agree that certain words are boring, and don’t make much of a contribution to love. “I think penises and vaginas should just go off somewhere and do something together,” he remarks.
I bought an eggplant. When I was in college, I went on a date with a dark-skinned, heavy man from New Orleans who, when he came to pick me up, brought me an eggplant. Ever since, I’ve thought of eggplants as vegetables of courtship. I like how mushy they get if you cook them long enough.
Let’s say eggplants are bodies. Strawberries, too. Then you have your bodies of water, and your heavenly bodies, burning themselves up. Are people bodies, or do people have bodies? Everybody has one, every body is one. Whose body do I have? I have a body of water, 98 percent. Water’s body, earth’s body, air’s body. He has a body of fire, a heavenly body.
Time to get some brie cheese. I’d leave it on top of the refrigerator, so it would be warm and gooey by supper.
His body has a life of its own. It does things. It says things. All the while, the heart beats against the bars of its cage. It pounds so hard it shakes me. The skin glows, the legs step lively, the eyes shine, the breath moves past the larynx and is shaped by the mouth and tongue into words: “I love you, darling.”
My knees were weak with desire. I clung to the handle of my shopping cart. Turning a sharp corner to the cheese case, I knocked down a tower of paper towels. Forcing myself to work slowly, I piled them back on top of each other.
My body is happy. They say the body doesn’t lie. But my body lies in bed beside him. His back is to me. I tuck my knees behind his knees, put my hand over his hip. Later in the night, he turns so he’s facing me, and gently turns me on the spit of my spine, so that my back is to him. Now he fits his body to mine. I feel him tuck his knees behind my knees and put his arm around my waist, gathering me to him. Our long bodies lie together. Long together. “I adore you,” he whispers into my neck. He lies by me. He lies.
Brie went into my shopping cart on top of the strawberries. On the way to the raisin bran I had to pass the seafood. I saw all those slippery bodies. Shiny fishes were not on my list; neither were little pink shrimp, nor scallops gleaming in their viscous juices. I saw a rainbow trout between his legs.
Late at night he calls. His body’s at a pay phone, in the rain. His voice is in my ear, in my kitchen. It says, “I love you, darling.” He pauses, but I say nothing. I’m putting away groceries. I hear by the challenge in his voice that he’s drunk. I put the box of my son’s favorite cereal in the cupboard. He says, “Say, ‘I love you, darling.’ ” I can hear the hiss of tires on the wet street behind him.
“I love you, darling,” I repeat.
“Say it with feeling.”
I suddenly feel cold. I say it again, only louder and faster: “I love you, darling!” I tumble the bright oranges into the fruit basket.
Perhaps he’s satisfied. He says, “I wish I could smell your sweet neck right now.” It doesn’t matter what he says on the telephone. His body isn’t here.
At Safeway, I wanted something special for my body. Food is for bodies, and shampoo, and toothpaste, but they aren’t special. Most things at Safeway are for bodies, but not everything — not batteries, for example, or People magazine. Flowers are for bodies and flowers are special; I wanted sweet-smelling flowers. But the flowers with fragrance at Safeway that night were ugly — the carnations were an impossible turquoise color, the blooms brown at the edges. The other flowers didn’t smell — not the daisies, not the iris, not the Peruvian lilies. I had a vulgar thought: I love him with my twat. But it’s the mind that’s vulgar, not the body. The words vulgar and twat mean nothing to the body.
You can have a body for a long time without noticing it. And what is it doing all that time? Is it noticing you? Hoping you will buy it flowers? So you can bury your nose in their sweet neck. I get to know my body over and over again as I get older. I get to know a different body. Every seven years the cells replace themselves. The cheese ripens. The hands wrinkle.
At Safeway, I imagined crawling down the aisles on all fours. I wanted to steal almonds off the shelf. I wanted to bring the man something that would make his body happy, to thank him for pouring so much heat into me. A dry salami. He likes spicy things. And I’d bring him mustard, hot mustard. And something to put it on. My legs are long. I didn’t crawl, I walked. My long legs took me around, from place to place, from aisle to aisle, like a pair of scissors cutting through the thick air.
Where is his body now?
Alone in my bed, something makes me stir in the middle of the night. I get up to turn down the thermostat in the front hall, my pajamas damp with sweat. I have been dreaming that I suck his cock, and that it grows longer and longer, unreeling off his body like a garden hose.
At the seafood counter, I took a number, longing for scallops.
I step into the hall, groggy. I see him suddenly, a wild man, standing stock-still, just inside the open doorway, a statue of himself, and behind this body, a cold wind stirring up the darkness.
“Oh my God!” I exclaim, as my hand flies to my heart.
“Don’t be scared, darling. I came to get my jacket. It’s a cold night.”
“Are you all right?” I ask. I know he’s drunk.
He nods. He doesn’t kiss me, because of his breath. He takes his jacket from the hook by the door. He says, “Goodnight, baby.” He turns unsteadily and goes. I lock the door behind him. I turn down the thermostat.
My body is pinned to the present moment by desire, like a butterfly to a board.
Maybe the man will come over later on. He’ll reach his big hand through the bars of my rib cage to cradle my heart. He tells me stories. He sings me songs. He reads aloud to me, a sad story I have chosen, by Chekhov, a story of deceit and disease and ill-fated love. I turn on my longing, pivot and spin. He says, “My darling,” over and over and over and over again. I impale myself on my desire. I wheel like a bird, I soar above him, I dive like a kite. I rise again, and the string pulls tight between us.
We dress ourselves in our bodies. We eat, we sleep, we touch each other, we walk, we talk. We spend a pleasant weekend in the country. We do these things together. He washes the dishes, I dry them. He breaks a plate. I don’t care. He doesn’t have any shoes, so I give him my son’s old basketball sneakers. They fit like a glove, he says happily. I imagine gloves on his feet, and Converse high-tops on his big hands. Head over heels. I tore my body away from his body. Fingers from fingers, toes from toes. I went to Safeway, and he went to an AA meeting.
In the early morning I go for a walk with a friend. In Live Oak Park we pass a body, asleep or dead, in an old sleeping bag, in a nest of leaves. The wind blows so hard it tears off the leaves. The body turns. Suddenly I see him. There’s a pair of Converse high-tops by his head. He reaches through the bars of the cage with his big hand.
I am always at Safeway. To get to the bathroom, I walk past all those fruits and vegetables, ripening, waiting, through the swinging double doors at the back of the store, past dollies holding big boxes of cauliflower, into the ladies’ room. A disheveled woman lies on a couch, pressing raw knuckles into her cheeks, moaning softly.
“I was out all night in the cold,” she says. “I’m trying to get warm. Don’t make me leave.”
“I’m just a shopper,” I explain. “I came in here to use the bathroom. I don’t want you to leave.”
It’s not warm in the ladies’ room. But I don’t offer her my red flowered scarf from Moscow, because my red heart clings to it. When I come out of the toilet stall, I see in the long mirror a long body with flashing hair, a body that flickers with longing, a body getting older and colder, but flaring up in the wind. My eyes see my pretty hair. The woman on the couch doesn’t have pretty hair. She doesn’t have shampoo, she doesn’t have a shower. I am living in the body of a shopper, a person with shelves and cupboards.
But we both have bodies wracked with desire. Perhaps she has a son. Perhaps her son is the young man in the flapping blanket and tattered jeans. Perhaps her son is my lover. She will take my groceries home and put them away on the shelves, and I will stay in the Safeway ladies’ room, waiting till they make me leave. On my way out I will take a handful of almonds from the open bin. The store security officer who is ushering me out will force my hand open. The almonds will fall to the floor. Under his breath, like under sheets and blankets, he will call me a cunt.
My son is gone. I find the man with the big hands in the bushes. I find him by following the sound of his singing. I see him suddenly — his face is on fire. We curl up together in the sweet-smelling leaves. He tucks his knees behind my knees. He gathers my body to his body. I breathe the wind. I sink into his warmth.
The spirit crouches inside the food, the blood, the juice, the secretions of desire, the pounding heart. Biding its time. Love lives in bodies. There’s no place else to live. Without a body to live in, love is homeless.