By Leigh Newman
How one woman got through the toughest, most soul-sucking day. And how you can, too.
Let’s pretend your name is Leigh. You’re 32 years old. You and your husband are mid-divorce. Like many newly separated people, you lose a lot of weight. It’s mostly because you live on cigarettes, the odd piece of beef jerky and guilt -- guilt about failing at marriage, about disappointing your family, about being so poisonous that everything you touch withers.
Each Saturday evening, you drive 45 minutes from your tiny rural Massachusetts town to a bigger rural Massachusetts town, the one with the highway, the multiplex and the fancy new Trader Joe’s. In that glorious supermarket, you walk the aisles filling the cart with triple-crème Camemberts and thick-cut steaks and vats of clam chowder, not mention a gallon or two of hand-squeezed orange juice; all foods you hope will fatten you up and make you look saner and more healthful and dateable. Only this has not been working... at all... and this particular Saturday, while midway through the dried pasta aisle, you have to physically pull your face together in order to not weep all over yourself. There is nothing intrinsically sad about a box of tortellini, and you are in the middle of a grocery store, for God’s sake.
Finally, with little-to-no elegance, you make it to the cashier, who whisks your items into a sturdy, flat-bottomed paper bag, then tucks the receipt in at top. You pick up the bag and trudge toward the rubber mat that opens the exit door. First you hear the rip -- then the explosion, as all that hand-squeezed orange juice and clam chowder and Camembert hit the floor and smash open, the bottom of the bag having fallen out.
Standing there, you recognize that in another time of your life, cream-based soup squishing through your tennis shoes might have prompted you to laugh, or to call for help. But tonight is this time in your life: You’re alone. You’re broken-hearted and self-loathing. You’re not able to move forward and you never will be and you’re stuck and you’re going to be all by yourself for forever. You are one of those people now -- the ones who not even the God of Grocery Store Bags looks out for; the ones who Love forgot.
You slump down onto the stack of charcoal-briquette bags positioned by the door. Looking over the events of your life, you suddenly understand you may have joined this group much earlier than you thought. Like the time in middle school when you believed your dad might somehow show up for the father-daughter dance, even though he lived 5,000 miles away, right up to the very moment of entering the gym and not seeing him standing there with a name tag and a sign reading, “Surprise!” Or the time in high school when you believed that guy (with the girlfriend) would (leave his girlfriend and) take you to prom.
On both those occasions, Love did not show up. Maybe it just got tired. Or, considering its vast responsibilities in China and Brazil, Minnesota and Rhode Island and Syracuse, it got stressed; and, as happens with all of us, it did not look at the calendar and failed to show up at the expected time.
You are not the only one this has happened to, of course. There was a girl you knew once when you were little -- Kimmy. She had a birthday party and invited everybody in the neighborhood. For hours, she hovered by the door with a stupid, hopeful smile on her face, delaying the cake and the candles; and, still, her mom never came home from work.
Love probably forgot Kimmy on her seventh and eighth birthdays, too. She just didn’t have a party those years, because, as we all know, it feels less like Love forgot you if there’s nobody there to witness it. This makes the time Kimmy turned 33, and went on vacation to Mexico alone, just to prove it was okay that her boyfriend didn’t want to get married, that she was strong and independent and could travel solo, all the more unjust: She slipped in the hotel shower, broke her arm, and then lay there weeping for two days before the chambermaid found her.
So it’s Kimmy and you in this crappy club. As well as a certain 43-year-old woman you know who bought an ovulation stick at Rite Aid, tried it in the bathroom there, then sat under the chain drugstore’s fluorescent lights realizing it was one of the last times in her life that such a stick was going to read positive, aka “ready to have babies.” Add to this: She wasn’t married. And she didn’t have a boyfriend. And she was officially, and scientifically, at the end of the dream of the biologically connected family, or maybe, any kind of family. (Applying for Ethiopian adoption was her backup plan, until she found out women had to be under age 40 to be eligible).
Not to mention the 26-year-old girl -- a friend of your aunt’s -- who went to the last call-back for that blockbuster movie, while still young and dreamy and hopeful and beautiful, only to have the casting agent suggest, kindly, that she think about real estate and liposuction. Or the middle-aged lady at your dentist’s office who had to sneak out of the waiting room after having a root canal because she had nobody to sign the form and pick her up, which the receptionist insisted was required after anesthesia.
Then there was the kid from your dorm, whom you saw sitting in the college library reading the letter from the health-insurance company stating it would pay for obvious and ineffective and ugly hearing aids, but not for surgery, to correct the problem. And no, there were no exceptions for first-job interviews And that preschooler down the block, who was not fast enough, smart enough, old enough or hardscrabble enough to find one stupid Easter egg in the neighborhood hunt.
Not to mention the web producer from your old job who was fired -- not laid off -- not because he did something wrong, but because he “didn’t fit the culture,” which we all know is code for, “maybe too boring and absolutely not at all interested in the annual office booze cruise.”
So yes, there are others out there -- people you’ve known, have heard of or sometimes randomly think about -- all of whom will not let you put a smiley sticker on a steaming pile of dung. Because Love has so, so not shown up for them -- or for you. Love has made harsh and multiple mistakes. And after that first crushing letdown -- or the 47th -- you put your head down and began studying the shag carpet. You went to the bar and sucked down a mind-numbing drink, or stayed late at the office, or fell asleep on the keyboard or went into the bathroom and bawled. This is when Love might have come up and tapped you on the shoulder. Except that you were fetal-positioned on the floor. You couldn’t feel it. It stayed for six months before limping over to another bathroom.
And by you, I mean me… and most of us out there.
All this was going through my mind while I was slumped over that bag of charcoal briquettes by the exit door at Trader Joe’s. It was winter; it was Massachusetts. Every time a happy, hopeful shopper entered, gusts of frigid air blew past me. All I could think was, “I’m just going to have sleep here. Because I can’t go back out to that parking lot, get in the car and drive home to that empty, dark apartment. Not alone.”
Love was not with me. Three hundred miles away, Love was probably not with my then-separated husband either. But Love was with the night manager of the grocery store, a balding guy in his mid-40s. He hustled over to me with a mop, and proceeded to wipe up the puddle at my feet. He then ordered the cashier to pick up the mess, and to go up and down the aisles, replacing “every single ruined thing” in my bags with “fresh new things.”
There are times in life when even the smallest words or actions are infused with the most exquisite meaning. I really needed “a bag of fresh new things.” And when the cashier brought it over to where I was, staring at the floor, unable to look this kindness in the eye, the manager stopped him. He took the bag, ran over to the flower buckets, grabbed the biggest bouquet -- an explosion of Gerbera daisies -- and tucked it into my bag. While doing so, he looked me in the eye. I’ll never forget the expression on his face because I hadn’t seen it often. It wasn’t pity. It wasn’t attraction; and, it wasn’t bland I’m-doing-this-because-it’s-my-job-would-you-like-some-socks-with-this professional courtesy. It was compassion. It was: You are not alone.
I had done everything in my power both to give Love total amnesia, where I was concerned -- and to allow myself to forget its existence. The night manager at Trader Joe’s, however, did something that only the wise and generous can do -- he did the remembering for me.
Leigh Newman is Deputy Editor of Oprah.com and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home.