Dairy Department

by Stephanie Wescott

She wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t hurt too much. Her or him. Although ultimately she cared more about the awkwardness and wanted to avoid that. She was, if nothing else, concerned for her own self-preservation. Selfish perhaps – a word she wasn’t keen to attribute to herself, for it reminded her of her father, a connection she actively sought to avoid at all costs. But as she grew older she realised that she possessed his worst traits. The things she hated most about herself, annoyances, behaviours she abhorred, were all reflections of her own father’s flaws. So the selfishness, the desire to commit the deed in a way that avoided any sort of prolonged discussion, tears, pleas – she believed, in a way, that this made her heartless. Not that she minded much, if she was honest.

He had a job at a supermarket near where he lived. He was in charge of a department. Dairy. It was fitting, somehow. He was proud of it.

Whenever they went to a supermarket he would spend a few minutes examining its dairy department. He would stand in front of it, staring. She would grunt and walk off. She imagined he didn’t really know what to think about it but thought he should look anyway. Would he consider stock placement? The tidiness of it? Comment on the cheese or yoghurt products? “I hate it when you do that.” She had told him once, after he’d jogged, puffed, to find her in another aisle. “It’s a fucking dairy department. Who cares.”

He didn’t say anything, as usual. But she knew her words stung him. They stung her, the meanness of them. She hoped her meanness would toughen him. Might make him into a man who stood up for himself, who wanted things for himself, other than control over a few shelves of cheese.

She hated how he called it ‘my department”. It wasn’t his. Her most malicious thoughts would surface when he mentioned it.

It mattered to him though. That’s what made her view him as pathetic in the first place. He would tell her excitedly about a new product – sometimes buy a sample for her to try. She would like it at first, because she considered it thoughtful.

He talked of graphic design, of freelance work, of his own agency, but for every dream there was an excuse.

She’d been preoccupied lately. Her world was widening, expanding. Things with him became smaller and duller. A new job in the city brought with it changes and growth. She had changed. Her old life no longer fitted her. She had outgrown it. It had shrunk.

She smoked cigarette after cigarette. Butting them in the console of her car or throwing them out the window when no one was watching. She’d drive for an hour or so, then return home. She played music that propelled her daydreams. As she listened and drove, she sucked on the butt of the smoke, inhaled it, imagined, felt the flutter in the stomach, felt the inevitability of change.

She had felt the gulf between them broadening. Gentle shifts at first, until the sight of him sickened her. His body sickened her. Pimples like craters on his back, doughy hips, thighs wide and a loose tummy that draped over his belts. She didn’t want to kiss him ever again. Didn’t know how she ever did.

It was probably a Saturday morning but now she can’t remember. Doesn’t matter anyway. She drove him to work. He lit a cigarette and wound down his window. Making small talk which she repelled with single word answers, annoyed and dismissive. He got the hint and remained quiet for the drive. It was only ten minutes but the time stretched. She kept her eyes straight ahead. Another thing that annoyed her was that she had to drive him in the first place. He didn’t drive and made excuses for it. She clenched her jaw.

She parked her car outside the entrance. A solitary trolley stood in front of her car, a receipt flapped under its wheel. The supermarket was painted red and had a yellow sign. The red was marked with black smudges. They advertised specials in the windows. Colby cheddar $6 for a 500g block. Not bad. Would’ve pleased him, she thought.

“I’m breaking up with you.”

His hand on the handle, ready to exit the car and begin his shift, he paused.

“Oh.”

There were white chalky stains on his pants, and a hole in the seam of one leg.

She looked ahead.

“We’re too different.” She used that old line because there was nothing else.

“Okay.” His voice was soft and accepting.

He nodded. And looked ahead, too. He wasn’t going to argue. There was a complacency about this that sickened her.

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Can I call you, though? Later?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

He stepped out of the car and walked toward the entrance. He completed his shift in the dairy department.