You are behind the counter, wearing the blue drug store smock, speaking into your cell phone.
I approach. Wait.
You raise an eyebrow. I take it as permission to speak
“Luden’s?” I whisper. “In the box?”
You point. White box, red letters that say LUDEN’S, right in front of me.
I place two boxes on the counter. Then three. Luden’s are my favorite. Wild cherry. In the box. The boxes are hard to find, especially when they are right in front of you on the counter and a girl about 1/3 your age in a blue knit smock rolls her eyes at your temporary cough drop blindness. She doesn’t actually roll her eyes, but you can tell she wants to.
I add another box.
You stay on the phone, your voice low. You turn your body slightly away from me.
I push away my annoyance. Maybe it’s an emergency. Sick kid? Boyfriend fight? Car trouble, overdue bill, work schedule problem? I am not in a rush, so I try to be patient.
I step back to give you privacy, and when you continue to whisper, I walk away. I find a few more items I could use. Bread. Peanuts. A bag of chips. Marshmallows for my hot cocoa. Hot cocoa.
Six more items. We’re up to ten.
I put them on the counter. You are still talking.
I wait, again. I call upon my patience, again, but then you giggle and I see there is no emergency. Nothing as serious as my achy throat. Which I clear, because while I try to practice patience and I am not in a rush, I do value my time. If I don’t value it, who will?
You look at me, and hold up your pointer finger in the wait position, and then you go back to your phone call. Back to ignoring me.
I step back again. I breathe. So this is what it means when someone says, when you reach a certain age you become invisible.
I get a basket. Go to Aisle 1 where BOGO flags fly under the makeup. In Aisle 2, Seasonal, I find an owl planter and ladybug candle. Aisle 3, baby food, though I don’t have a baby to feed anymore. Aisle 4 for a holiday card, 5 for a half-price ankle brace. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, I find something to buy in every aisle.
I stop at 37 items. I count as I line them up on the counter. I wait again. Aggressively. My eyes, narrowed, on your mouth as you speak.
You sigh. You say, “I have to go,” as if you are at Auschwitz instead of a drug store in a mid-sized college town.
You ring up my 37 items. As you do, I question if I am being petty or in a pique. I’m not here to be hostile, I’m here for cough drops, but I’ve been the patient person who waited my turn when someone else—my husband the breadwinner, my child who sought my attention, my aging parent who needed me—got in front of the line, ahead of me.
But it’s my time now. And my throat hurts.
After item 37, you stop tell me a price in a flat-lined voice.
I look you dead in the eye and say, justly as flatly, “Never mind.”
I step back. I turn toward to the door. Behind me, the first “Ma’am?” is questioning. Confused. The second “Ma’am!” is sharper. Disbelief. If there is a third “Ma’am” I don’t hear it, because I’m out the door. I wonder if that last “ma’am” would hold an apology, or the verge of expletives.
I get into my car with a euphoric rush. I imagine your face again glued to the phone as you reshelve the 37 items and complain about the crazy lady who walked out of the store. Or maybe you put down the phone because you realize you should have hung up, and you vow to be more attentive next time. There’s no way of knowing. That’s the downside of walking out. You make a point, but you don’t know if it was taken.
My euphoria tamps down, but it doesn’t deflate. I pull out onto the street, and I know one thing. It may have been a small moment in a drug store, but I made her see me. That feels like victory.
But I swallow, and my victory becomes a Pyrrhic one. I never got my cough drops.