It was a kind of sex.
For over a week the sunsets had been glaring neon from forest fires up north. It was late in the afternoon and the sky still hung ozone across the parking lot, the char suspended in the dry air scraping inside my nostrils.
Every week I bring tote bags here to buy groceries. The avocados spread themselves before me, charcoal-black and lime, creamy and pale. Grapes cruise past—Cabernet red, Tyrian violet, spring green globes of icy glucose. Nori and kombu, Mendocino and Japanese and Icelandic, machine-cooled air feathering my face. You cannot smell anything in here—air conditioning is anesthetic. My friend who got an abortion last year told me they gave her fentanyl instead of a general. She said, I understand those addicts now. I wear makeup when I go to this grocery. Food is theater. The produce men build the stage. I push the chrome cart ahead of me through the aisles toward the vegetables, expecting to see that one wiry man.
Years ago I stole small things I needed from the drugstore. Chapstick, Benadryl, like that. I had food stamps then, but no money. There was no Advil when I was growing up. You were just in pain. It was good education. I looked for the store dicks. I could identify them. They’re mostly men, usually white. They dress in drab clothes, carry handbaskets, rarely push carts. They move along an aisle, gaze at shelved products as in a daze. Put an item in the basket. Take an item from the basket. Put it back. They perform the desire fugue of shopping. In those years I’d recognize the semblance of trance and realize he was a dick, and walk off.
In the pay line, a checker I’ve seen many times was wearing a lei around her hair and large fan-shaped brass earrings. Hi hi, I said to her, and my chest opened. She curved her lips, her smile passionflower-creamed for the public. Then I moved toward the exit and though I hadn’t yet gotten my glasses out, I saw the blur of the fruit man driving flats back in.
Pears blushed at me. I reached for one, and juice sprayed my tongue. The grocery guy gritted his eyes. I pulled my sweater around me and my shoulder away from him and walked through the silver sliding panels.
Outside, the chilled air scanted away, and I let the knit slip. The pear smelled soft, like September. I thought of the other kinds of pear there are, that I did not get. There is Bosc, which means “forest,” and has mottled rough skin. Like strong black tea, it resists the tongue. I leaned against a wooden bin of watermelons and rooted in my purse for a napkin, drawing it across my wet lips. If I could, I’d live on nothing but this, rising and falling on sweetness.
I wrapped the broken pear in a napkin, lapping over one side, then the other, until I saw only the white paper. The napkin was wet with ooze, the flesh already losing itself. The fruit man looked down when he saw me. He knew. I twisted my face from him, thinking of him knowing this about me.
Then I set out across the parking lot. Asphalt potholes sheared off loose pebbles. My toes grabbed my sandal soles to keep me upright.
Voices from further down the cars. A melon hung and spun in the air. It flew up and sank and my fists hitched around my bags. I made it fast to behind the chain link fence and squinted through the morning glories snarled through the wire. The vines were ratty and sharp but alive with green tips. I was wondering if they would be easy to grow, when fire cracked against the concrete. Colors blinked behind the scrim of fence. My lips dropped into an O, and I fumbled for my glasses and slitted my lashes. The voices came from a man twisting in a wheelchair and another man who laughed, whacked his own wheelchair arms, and jabbed a stick—no, that sound again—straight up. The stick was a gun, and the two men swung and jangled words I couldn’t separate and the gun man doughnuted a tight circle around the thrower man, who looked to the sky where the melon flew, and he shot.
I jerk-walked quicker past the myrtle edging the path, the grocery bag slamming my leg, and my heel caught a jut of sidewalk. Then I was falling toward the fence and flinging my hand out.
And was stopped hard. Concrete against my hip, pain knifed from the bone. I spat into my fingers, dug into my nose and pulled against the insides, wetting and peeling out dirt and stems. Opened my eyes by cracks. Ahead was a black landscape of wood chips, a cigarette butt, the angry odor of asphalt, and the wheelchair tires. The fence still thrummed from when my palm hit it and a shape that might be the gun man lifted an arm in front of him, toward where the metal links quivered. My glasses were somewhere in the chaff.
I stayed smashed, letting my outline blend behind the fence until the shooter no longer saw my shape. My breaths pulled in big shocks, out in short scraps.
In the shadow of the grocery fence I dragged my thighs against the concrete, an inch and then another inch. Bits dug into my hands. I smoothed my pants and jammed on my glasses. Silent heel then toe steps, dampening the sandal clacks. The sun glowed like an orchid.
Once a month I go to a building where a woman draws blood from my arm. Her hair is sleeked back like a swimmer’s. Behind her company badge, clipped so no one can read her name, the bulge of her breast presses out against the stiff uniform pleating. I can’t see her eyes well, but her cheekbones are free of lines, her skin without blemish. Or maybe she is just really good at covering acne with makeup.
She points the needle, and I think of the months I spent in an anatomy lab, slicing skin off a dead person with a scalpel. She tells me to make a fist, and I push weight into that hand. I’m afraid the vein will feel the needle coming and dodge out of reach, and that when she hits again, the vessel will dive down where she will never find it.
But the needle slips in, and blood seeps viscous into the tubes. When one fills, she pulls it out with a sucking pop. She doesn’t smile, and she’s not unkind. The room is made of ivory-colored plastic surfaces, and I miss the leisure and wood of medical rooms years ago. I tell her to wrap my arm tight.
No, you don’t need that, she says.
I say, I’ve had the vein split and my elbow flood all purple.
She looks up and to the side, to the corner of the ceiling, as if someone is watching.
This is how we are trained, she says.
On one of those days I was back in the waiting room jamming my left thumb against the bandaged elbow, sealing it until the gush slowed into a solid chunk and plugged the hole. Across from me a woman in jeans sat with her knees spread, taking space.
She said, I’ve seen you here before. I’m staying with my mother for a while, but I direct plays in Boston. I tell actors what to do.
The tech called out and the woman hustled up and disappeared. After ten minutes of squeezing the vein I picked up my bag and moved into the lobby, and just then the woman came out behind me. We walked past the pastel collage paintings and together pushed the heavy glass doors apart. Hot light hit a truck at the curb, the maroon doors flaked to a pale blue undercoat. The open bed was snarled high with bicycles, their chrome glittering. Rust smoldered around the edges of the fenders.
She said, I’ve probably got something here your size. Have you ever done stage acting?
The ends of her lips twitched, just barely.
Her plaid shirt looked faded from washing many times, her temples and hair scuffed like yellow grass.
I did some theater once, I said. But not for a long time. These bikes are all pretty new looking, huh.
She said nothing for a few seconds, and then she smiled. She hadn’t brushed her teeth.
Then she said, They are, actually. Well, almost. Maybe one person has ridden them. My website’s on the door there, you can decide.
I walked back through the office park. The concrete walls were pocked with impressions of the plywood grain from the forms they pour the liquid slurry in. Afterward they throw the slats away. The hedge leaves shone like holiday plastic.
Standing behind the grocery store chain link next to the bushes, I waited for the wheelchair men to get tired. I waited until I didn’t hear yelling. The empty lot across the street was full of weeds grown tall and brushy between the light poles, their lamps shimmering sallow for evening. One engine gunned through the twilight and away, and then the lot was scraped of cars and voices. Ocean air moved in on cool gray moth wings. Seaweed perfume swept the smog off my cheeks and east toward the hills.
I switched my head like a bird and looped around where the men had tossed and shattered their target. My thumb and first finger shook at my car door and fumbled the key and jabbed the paint. Inside I sunk forward and leaned my head on the steering wheel. Dust and burn smells rose from the dashboard and pear crystals swooped like shooting stars along the softness inside my mouth. I tasted sugar, the sugar I stole.
I pinched the key and let it move the way it wanted. My eyes came to the spot where the arc of shots had ended.
Chunks of melon flesh lay dashed against the asphalt. A shadow darted from under a spiky planting toward the broken bits. It snapped up a shred and jumped back under leaf cover. Ahead the silhouettes of the men trotted away laughing, slapping their legs, their calls swallowed by dark. The chairs twisted empty on the blacktop, no one telling them where to go. My tongue still held the fruit juice.
That day in the afternoon heat outside the lab I had moved back into the shade next to the wall. The theater woman walked toward me. She drew her gaze along my neck and hips, my bare calves.
Those are beautiful shoes, she said. But of course, you would wear beautiful shoes.
I asked her name. She didn’t want to give it. Then she stepped close and planted her boots. She stood almost grazing my body.
She said, May I touch you.
She placed her hand on my shoulder, and a small breath slipped my lips. She pulled her fingers along my collarbone where the skin is thin and blooms with nerves. I felt intelligence in the palm scudding through my dress. I couldn’t move. No, I didn’t. I wanted to rise into her. She lifted her hand. When a plum ripens the skin splits.
Susan Nordmark‘s writing appears in New World Writing, The Los Angeles Review, Heavy Feather Review, The Long Island Literary Journal, Wanderlust, Sin Fronteras, Entropy, Draft: The Journal of Process, Porter Gulch Review, and elsewhere. Her work is anthologized in The Shape of a Poem: The Red River Book of Contemporary Erotic Poetry (2021), and in Peacock Journal’s 2017 collection. She lives in Oakland, California.