December 10, 2006

The health-food market is packed.

I go in, see that it would take 30 minutes to pay for my wheat-free cookie - and just as I'm about to leave, a very tall Rastafarian man who works there spots me and a huge smile crosses his face. "Hey, I haven't seen you in ages!" he says.

I'm touched that he's so happy to see me. I used to go to this store a lot but haven't been there for years. It's rare that I encounter people that happy to see me. I'll take it where I can get it.

He's ushering me towards an empty register - where there is no line - and as I follow he asks: "How are the kids?"

Now the happy greeting makes sense. It was meant for someone else. "Good," I reply without even the slightest hesitation. "Going anywhere for the holidays?" he asks. All my life, this has been a question I hate.

Not just the part about going anywhere, because the answer is always no, but the entire line of questioning depresses me. But since I'm someone else I reply: "Vermont." Then I pause. "With the in-laws."

I tell him it's beautiful. "And Jack loves the snow," I add. It feels like I'm shoplifting. Only I'm stealing a life. How much can I get away with? Apparently, a lot.

"Should I put this on your account?" he asks. But before I have a chance to say yes, he's laughing because he's kidding. Who puts a single cookie on a charge account? I hand over a note and the chat continues. "How old is Jack now?" I guess Jack is my son. I'd intended him to be my husband, but it doesn't matter. It's not worth correcting him and I remind myself that I'm lying, so I don't need to worry about being accurate. I decide Jack is three. That's a good age. A friend of mine has a three-year-old who I met the other day and they're really cute.

I'm done with my purchase, free to go, but I can't. I have his undivided attention - why waste it? With the opportunity to continue, I do. "Someone mentioned ayurvedic medicine is good for rosacea," I say. "What do you know about this?"

He comes out from behind the counter for a more serious discussion. There is a lengthy explanation about the pros and cons. Then, for some reason, I start to talk about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and last year's M&M's balloon catastrophe. A gust of wind caused a giant balloon to hit a lamppost, knocking the light down, which fell on a disabled woman. So this year they've been training the balloon handlers like they're being sent to Iraq.

Parades in general, I say, are annoying. He looks surprised. Then his entire mood changes. "What do you dislike about a parade?" he asks, sounding defensive. Several things. They're usually all the same, marching bands are too loud, they tie up traffic - you can't cross the street and you can never see anything unless you're in the front row, and if you want to be in the front row, you have to get there a day in advance. His arms are crossed and I can tell I'm upsetting him. I hadn't meant to offend him. "I think parades are fun," he says. "What do you have against fun?"

That's a complicated question. I know it will take too long to answer it honestly and suddenly it hits me: even in my make-believe happy life, I'm a pain in the neck.