It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’m picking my cuticles to the Muzak when in walks Lube Guy. I haven’t seen him in almost a week. Five minutes later he’s at my register, with two heads of lettuce this time and—naturally—a big tube of personal lubricant.
“Gonna make a salad?” I ask.
He’s mid-forties, fattish. Bald with long, floaty hairs around his ears like streamers. Like streamers after the party’s over and everyone’s gone. Still, there’s something mysterious if not semi-cute about the way he buys an economy tube of lube every few nights and tries to hide it among other purchases.
His shame is what’s endearing, like old-timey manners. Like if he tipped his hat, I’d think that was cute too. Except he isn’t wearing a hat. I toss my hair and start to ask if he wants to get together after my shift, but I’m not supposed to say that to strangers anymore. Doctor’s orders.
“Eleven-seventeen,” I say instead. He digs out his wallet and tears it open. It’s the velcro kind, red. A kid’s wallet. Something about this proves irresistible; I can’t stop myself. I say, “Four-thirty.”
He looks confused.
“One is what you owe. The other is when I get off. You can meet me behind the store.”
He hands me twelve dollars. I give him his change. He snatches his plastic sack like I’ve insulted him and leaves.
At four-thirty I clock out. Lube Guy is not waiting behind the store. Part of me is relieved. Part of me is disappointed.
When I get home Mom is snoring in her recliner. In the bluish, wavery TV light, she looks like a woman sleeping in a recliner at the bottom of the sea. I jingle my keys.
“Morning, Ma. I brought hot dogs and peaches.”
“What about cigarettes?”
“They only discount stuff that’s expired.”
“Cigarettes expire.” She crab-hoists from the recliner and rummages crap on the floor with her feet, looking for cigarettes. “Make some coffee,” she says. “I have to be at work in an hour.”
I start the coffee and lie down in my room still fully dressed. My work apron feels like one of those lead aprons they make you wear for an x-ray. For the second morning in a row, I don’t take my pills.
There are two ways to be: good or alive. The pills help me be good. I don’t feel sad or happy or horny or anything. Medicated, I am just a cashier at the all-night groccery. I work, I go home. I sleep, I eat, I poop. It’s like someone blew out my pilot light, and I can’t turn on. The seeping gas puts everything inside me to sleep.
Unmedicated, I can respond to stimulation. I touch people and they touch me. When I’m cold, they let me cozy up to them. Together, we are ugly and beautiful at the same time, like a trash fire.
My doctor says the pills are key to one day having a normal life. She has high hopes that I’ll find a different hobby. Decoupage, or scrapbooking. Then I’ll get married, buy a van, become a cadaver.
When I clock in, my boss Mickey says the stockboy called out sick and can I please unload six pallets of milk in the cooler. He puts a little bell beside my register in case of customers and lends me his jacket.
His jacket smells good, like another person. Like scalp and bathroom spray.
I’m in the cooler when I feel Mickey’s moustache on my neck. My theory is that the pills I’ve quit taking were supressing my pheremones. For three months no one has even looked at me, including Mom. It’s like, if you can’t smell someone, they’re invisible. But now I’m fading back in.
Mickey’s like, “Mmm, yeah.” Our breath-clouds comingle. On his goosepimpled right pec is a blurry tattoo of the Virgin Mary. When I touch her foot the bell dings up front. I hurry out, tugging down my apron.
It’s Lube Guy again.
I say, “How was the salad?”
“Four thirty?” he says quietly. I nod.
I start to ring up his stuff, but there’s nothing. He’s walking away. My eyes feel like ants are biting them.
I want to yell: My name is Jessica! I love fudge! I used to have a dog named Dooker! One time when I was eight I snuck into the boys’ bathroom and flushed the urinal! I hate popcorn!
The doors slide open like a sideways mouth.
“I’m serious!” I say. He lifts a hand above his shoulder: wave or dismissal.
I go finish the milk.
At four-thirty I refresh my Chapstick and clock out. Behind the store a big, granny-style car idles beside the Dumpster. Before I can knock, the window comes down.
I smile. He flicks the electric lock and I get in the passenger side.
We drive without talking. He’s got smooth jazz playing. I am for sure the best thing that has ever happened to him, sad fucker. He’s probably already hard. I put my hand in his lap, but he takes it and puts it on the seat between us where it rests curled and unmoving as a dead crustacean in the greenish light from the dash.
He says, “I’m not what you think.”
I say, “I am.”
He pulls into the empty Park & Ride lot. “This okay?”
“For what?” I say in my sexy/innocent voice.
He gets out and opens my door. The hand he offers me is underbelly-soft.
He folds me against him and clumsily smoothes my hair back from my forehead. We aren’t really dancing, just kind of swaying to the saxophones. Bugs dive-bomb us.
He says, “This is so romantic,” and I wonder if he can smell Mickey on my neck and hair.
He says, “I’ve wanted to do this for so long.”
Then: “Are you real?”
And I don’t know, I don’t know.