I try to look away from the cheerful orange, yellow, and tan plastic containers so innocently perched in the dairy section. Averting my gaze as if from a wound, I escape nothing. Olivia’s love for rice pudding slows my pace, as if my parenting autopilot still runs me. Since she left, her favorite dessert is a food I cannot eat. I aim my cart toward the yogurt section as if about to make an important decision. Through tears, my vision sharpens. Here I go again. Not now, damn it. Not here. I laugh out loud—an abrupt exhale. A man glances in my direction and I smile at my private joke—me, running from pudding. I’m ridiculous.
Over the years of countless shopping trips, I’d slow the cart’s forward movement just enough to swoop to my left, reach and grab one or two containers for Olivia and us just as she’d text “rice pudding pleez” and then “thank u mama!” She called me “Mama” when she wanted something, which was fine with me. And “Mom” when she just kind of wanted something but knew she could live without it. Other times, she called me by my first name or “Mother”—enunciating it the way some might reprimand a dog that’s annoying them.
Olivia was never a particularly demanding child. With the exception of stuffed animals, which she collected as if preparing to populate a small planet, she’d asked for very little, really, and what she asked for was usually quite reasonable. Her father would likely disagree, especially as she became older, for she grew to appreciate quality. For example, she’d pick out winter boots that actually kept her feet warm—which usually cost more but last longer. Yes, he and I couldn’t even agree on a pair of boots. But through the years, I took a distinct pleasure in giving to Olivia, whether it was something big like a coat or musical instrument, or something small, like a finger puppet puppy.
She’d dip a spoon into her bowl and lift the thick, creamy, bumpy plop of pudding toward her lips. Once the spoon’s cargo was safely secured in her closed mouth, she’d close her eyes and slowly remove the spoon, and even more slowly, savor the pudding as if it were her first. As if she was happy.
What I wouldn’t give to make her happy.
Aisle by aisle, I make my way through the store thinking of Olivia’s rare expressions of happiness—at least in front of me. There was that late summer into early fall just before tenth grade, after she finished her outpatient program, when she fell in love with life, when she wanted to garden, read, and learn to play a new instrument. She wanted to live so much that she wanted to do everything all at once. For pleasure, she’d be reading two books at the same time—comparing and taking notes—with a stack of ten more beside her while listening to my vinyl. Or she’d be lying in the grass writing in her journal, walking along the river, or designing a peace garden for herbs and flowers. And then the weight of a new school year would settle onto her shoulders, her heavy backpack literally weighing her down, my ball and chain she’d say, her shoulders caving forward as October and November marched her toward winter.
I arrive at the check-out counter without tears. Almost out of here…
And then I look over and see two tubs of that damn pudding directly behind my groceries—literally the front line of this stranger’s groceries, aggressively pushing up against the divider and my Greek yogurt.
I look up from the pudding to the woman who's just set the tubs down. She smiles. Instead of breaking into tears, I smile back at her in surrender. Trying to spare this shopper and the elderly checkout clerk an awkward moment as the person in front of me strolls away, I turn away to grab a pack of gum and clear my throat.
“How you doing today?” the clerk asks.
“Good. I mean well. Thank you. And you?” I manage and clear my throat again.
“Can’t complain,” he says without looking up, his hands working fast, even the one with a metal brace from wrist to elbow.
Not wanting to continue the farce of little lies we politely tell each other, I start bagging my groceries so he won’t have to do this too. Of course, if Olivia were here, or at least the person she’d become when I last saw her over five months ago, she’d already be quietly bagging for him. I don’t look back at the pudding, even as the conveyer belt slides it closer.
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