Chuck leaned his arms heavily against the shopping cart as he prepared himself for a long wait in line. No matter which line he ever stepped into at a store, he always found the slowest moving line. He found himself behind the old woman who has to write a check and fumble through thousands of outdated coupons, which will cause a debate and more problems. He sighed as he scanned the tabloid headlines, uncertain who most of the people were. Had he become that out of touch? He then looked to his right and checked out the candy offerings in case the snickers bars were on sale. When was the last time they were available as four for a buck? No matter what the price, he still considered buying a couple. His next glance went to the poor girl working the register. How often did she have to deal with these arguments about incorrect coupons and fine print and how she’s not trying to rip people off?
Chuck was startled when his eyes went from this young woman’s nametag (he liked to use the checker’s names when he thought of it) to her face. Not only was her name Sarah, but she looked so much like Sarah from back in the day! She couldn’t be one and the same Sarah. There’s no way. This girl’s too young and that was what 15 years ago that he last saw her? His thoughts immediately drifted back to when he last saw Sarah. It must have been during the summer of ’96. He had been on his way over to Gary’s place with a new mix tape. The tape was a break-up compilation with a bunch of bitter one-sided love/hate songs. On his way, Chuck, stopped at a bagel shop to grab a snack, knowing that he and Gary would lose themselves to conversation and most likely not get any dinner. That was when he last saw Sarah. She was a girl that he had had a crush on a couple of years earlier, but she had been living with her boyfriend at the time. But when she had split with that guy, she disappeared from the outskirts of his little social circle. Yet, here, after months of not seeing her, he ordered his plain bagel with plain cream cheese, and she seemed to be reciprocating his serious interest in her. She smiled and chatted and asked a lot of questions and then followed him to a table. She touched her hair lightly as he mumbled stuff that had happened to so and so. She bit her lower lip and grinned as he made self-deprecating comments and tried to bite through the tough bagel without spurting the spread all over himself. Later she followed him outside, touched his arm and told him how great it was to see him again after so long. He then headed to Gary’s place in a daze.
That had been a crazy summer. Work had been busy all the time. He had experimented off and on with working second and third jobs. He couldn’t really remember much else. Were they still doing the summer bowling league? What about that tape? What was on there? There was most certainly the Kitchens of Distinction song “Now it’s Time to Say Goodbye,” which later became Gary’s anthem from that mix. Oh, and Animals That Swim’s “50 Dresses,” and Whipping Boy’s “We Don’t Need Nobody Else” – a song with lyrics like a short-story detailing a clearly messed up relationship. Wasn’t that when he and Gary jokingly argued about the lyrics? Something about the woman in the story putting bees or beans in her hair? Maybe they made a joke out of mishearing the lyrics, because of the uncomfortable violence in the song and, at the time, Chuck was feeling too good to be the outraged guy who needs to tell his friend that his ex sucked and he would be better off without her. He was bathing in the possibilities that seemed to open up when he ran into Sarah earlier that day.
“Sir! Sir!” this new version Sarah was trying to get Chuck’s attention. “We can clean that up for you. Don’t worry about it.”
Chuck looked into Sarah’s beautiful brown eyes as he stood frozen over a broken container of salsa that he had dropped between his cart and the conveyor belt. He felt overcome with regret. Why hadn’t he asked for the other Sarah’s phone number? He was always letting these chances pass him by without ever realizing it until long after the events had happened.
“I’ll get someone to clean that up. It’s okay. Do you want us to get you another salsa to go with those chips?” this Sarah asked, as if she needed to talk Chuck down from a ledge.
He stared down at the pile of crushed tomatoes with juice spreading out along the tile below and saw his heart smashed on the floor. He suddenly felt old – like really old – and helpless. He was now the person holding up the grocery line because of incompetency. All of the Sarah’s were gone. That sense of possibility and hope and excitement of all the Sarah’s had been lost a long time ago and he knew it.
“No, thanks, Sarah, I don’t need any salsa,” Chuck quietly replied. “I’m so sorry. I’m really really sorry,” he emphasized as he swiped his cards and tried to hurry up the transaction.
“It’s okay! These things can happen to anyone!” Sarah smiled brightly.
“Thank you for everything,” Chuck said with emphasis as he stumbled away.