Automatic grocery store doors were fascinating to Darin. At least in that moment. The way they sensed a presence (sometimes a ghostly one) and flung their arms open. The way the mechanical doors made just enough noise – enough to let you know they were spreading and yet not loud enough to startle you. The cool breeze from the overhead air conditioner above them blew off your sweat droplets, cleansing you before you perused the vegetables. Most importantly, the doors opened to exiters just as quickly as they opened to newcomers. It was that simple – in and out at one swift pace. Sometimes, the cart-gatherers would force the doors open for two, maybe five minutes, to replenish the shopping cart supply in the store. That was more of an anomaly, though. Darin wished everything was like those doors – buttery smooth, easy, rarely incorrect. Open and close. One or two little bumps along the way. How difficult could life be if it resembled the well-oiled machine that was the automatic door?
The charcoal-colored, semi-rusty bench Darin sat on was dusty with months of filth. He blended right in with the rough digs. He was still wearing the paint-smeared clothes he put on…Monday? Maybe Sunday? What day was it? Shit, he didn’t know. Didn’t matter. He had a sparse list of potential groceries crumpled in his right hand, which was torn from a personalized legal pad that Amelia left. It was one of the only things she had left in the kitchen. It was sitting on the island, yellow and beckoning like a sun ray that hits your eye the wrong way and leaves you with a pounding migraine. Darin had crossed out the name of her firm from the top, but Amelia wasn’t that easy to erase. It was as if her name bled through the paper more than the pen ever could. Darin glanced over at his left ring finger, which he had drawn a ring-shaped circle on with permanent marker. The band was yellow, and the stone was blue. His real ring was somewhere in his art studio. Maybe he’d find it later.
The other shoppers felt like he had spent too much time on the bench. Families made up of women with dyed blonde hair and designer purses toting their fat-cheeked, drooling babies and fat-cheeked, drooling husbands had already completed their shopping and stared at Darin with a concerned and pitying(?) eye as they walked to their SUVs and drove back into their perfect suburban lives. All the women reminded him of Amelia. But Darin didn’t look like their simple, dawdling husbands. Darin was not a good example of the classic American husband – he was well aware of that now. Amelia had told him as much last weekend when she dropped her wedding ring into the garbage disposal and ran it. Seeing these ignorant families in the bliss of their meaningless, idiotic errands was like metal to his ears. A ring in the disposal. Circling and crunching and searing with ominous energy. The mechanical grocery store doors grunted open next to him in agreement.
What else did he have to do today besides work up the courage to pretend to be buying ingredients for two? He surely wasn’t going to waste away inside a half-empty house with a master bedroom that echoed like a dark cave. Darin assumed being out of the house would help with the weird things that were going on inside him. He had been churning with discontentment like a fully loaded washing machine. Nothing seemed to help so far. Painting wasn’t helping him. It had always helped him until now. This past month, he had just painted Amelia. And her blonde hair and that blue necklace her parents bought her when she was sixteen and her snakelike, omniscient eyes. Amelia. Amelia and her law degree and her accomplished partner at the firm that she was definitely sleeping with even though she wholeheartedly denied it. How did she still not realize that her eyes always told the truth that her mouth hid? Fuck her. Fuck her for all of it.
Darin had been trying, but he couldn’t fight the idea that every woman he saw entering that damn store was Amelia. Amelia had seeped into his veins like a lethal injection – and Darin was fading fast. Every fake blonde housewife that stepped over the store’s threshold and every brunette that walked out of it looked just like her. Every woman. And he hated each and every one of them for it. Darin began to grind the shopping list in his hand as if he were a human paper shredder. He wanted to stop breaking the list apart – it was the only reminder that he had something to accomplish that day. Darin moved the list to his left hand, which felt limp and deflated. At least that hand could protect the list. That was the hand he needed to control.
The automatic doors opened once more to let in a group of teenage girls in private school uniforms, all blonde, who giggled about something (were they laughing at him?) and chatted with gargantuan smiles. Darin decided to get up. No children were about to laugh at him for being alone on the bench, and certainly not ones that looked like Amelia. Darin stood up, noticing that his thighs felt stiff and robotic. Maybe he had been sitting on the bench for a while. He shook out his left leg, then his right, and glanced down at his paint-smeared sweatpants. The grey, well-worn pants looked like a baby had finger-painted all over them. But Darin knew it was all him. Alone in his studio, wiping paint on his legs when he got too lazy to wash his hands. Sometimes art requires laziness, so the mess never mattered. That’s what he always said.
It was finally Darin’s turn to enter the store. This time, the automatic doors would spread for him, gliding on their preset, predictable, mechanical path. He walked to the entrance and triggered the sensor. The cold air from the fan above the doors sent a chill down his spine – he didn’t realize that he was soaked with sweat until the breeze hit him head-on. It wasn’t that hot outside, was it? He decided to stand underneath the blowing air for as long as possible. He needed to dry off before he stepped fully inside. People were going to stare if he was covered in sweat droplets and his shirt was dark and discolored with soaking wet stains. He couldn’t have these women who looked like Amelia staring at him with disappointment or pity or whatever that look on their faces meant. They should mind their own business. They weren’t going to stick around to deal with his problems, anyways, so why stare? They all looked like snakes. Darin thought that he’d be able to catch a forked tongue slip from one of their mouths.
The automatic doors started making an angry, monotonous noise – a “click-clack-click,” then silence, then a “click-clack-click.” Over and over again. Darin realized they were trying to close on him. Shit! Darin, the man who had so admired the accuracy and swiftness of the grocery store door, had been the agent of its failure! Ashamed of himself, Darin pinched the skin on the back of his left hand as punishment and walked briskly into the market. For someone who so admired the simplicity of quickly entering and leaving a store, he sure held up the entrance! Damn it!
He wandered aimlessly towards the center of the store, berating himself for causing chaos and nearly forgetting about the crumbs of the yellow list that was clenched in his left hand. The linoleum floor was mesmerizing. The off-white tile with the flecks of grey said something to him…Something about how a pure life is always speckled with dark moments. It was probably bullshit, but maybe it could be the background for one of his paintings. Someone had just mopped – there was a yellow wet floor sign propped next to the canned goods section. He looked forward down the aisle and saw two Amelias, a mother and a daughter, discussing vibrantly. Their green eyes were animated with Amelia’s signature intensity. He knew they were clones, but they copied her look so perfectly. Darin shuffled towards them to hear their conversation better.
“The school said that the classroom that donates the most cans gets to join the pizza party,” The daughter explained, “So we should probably buy at least twenty.”
The mother frowned.
“I’m not spending twenty dollars on canned green beans. I’d rather just buy you and your friends some pizza,” She argued.
“It’s not going to be twenty dollars! And pizza’s different at school!” The daughter whined.
The mother stared at the display, doing mental math. Amelia was always slow at counting off the top of her head.
“Ten cans,” The mother stated firmly, “And no more than that.”
The daughter didn’t seem happy about her mom’s stingy final offer but started picking out cans anyways. Darin felt like he should say something to them. He approached slowly, clearing his throat.
“Cans,” Darin stated matter-of-factly.
The Amelia-mother gave Darin a strange, wild stare. Her eyes lost their fiery intensity – now they were cold and slick.
“Excuse me?” She asked.
Darin didn’t know where to go from here. He had just noticed that the Amelias were buying cans. He paused, then spoke.
“You both look like my wife. Like big and small versions of my wife.”
The woman and the girl gave each other a glance, then gave Darin that strange look he had been accustomed to receiving recently. The daughter grabbed armfuls of cans and tossed them into the cart, denting a few of them in the process. Why was she suddenly in such a rush? Amelia was usually so precise in her movements and careful in her decisions. If Amelia was anything, she was meticulous and proud of it. She would never dent a can. Amelia was very serious about contracting botulism. Darin always had to inspect cans before buying them because Amelia would make him throw them away if they were dented.
“Well,” The mother started, slowly shuffling her daughter and their cart away from Darin, “Nice to meet you.”
Darin stared at the tile floor and listened to the sound of the shopping cart’s wheels skidding out of the aisle. He had probably been in the store for too long. Maybe it was time for him to take a look at the list. He opened his left hand and attempted to smooth out the now damp paper. His clammy palms had smudged his writing to the point that it was almost unreadable, but luckily he could catch the ghosts of words here and there. The first item on the list was “butte-.” Butter, he guessed. That was in the refrigerated section. Darin looked up towards the ceiling to gather context from the aisle markers and realized just how tall the roof was. The store was like a giant circus tent, and every single Amelia inside it was his acrobat. They would come down from the rafters on metal hoops and make effortless circles. Circus acrobats always spun so rapidly on those hoops. Their dance would be for him – Darin was both the ringleader and the audience.
Butter. He needed to remember butter. Darin somehow got himself to the dairy section and was confronted by the multitude of possibilities of butter brands. Why was there so much fucking butter? Bright yellow butter, light yellow butter, butter that wasn’t even actually butter…What the hell was he going to choose? What was he supposed to choose? He was almost ready to not buy any butter at all until he saw her: Amelia. There she was, sitting placidly on the front of the butter container. Since when did she get a contract to be on a logo? Brunette butter Amelia was staring at him. Darin kneeled to her level and stared at her, mesmerized.
“Amelia,” He said, grinning ear-to-ear, “I didn’t know you were on the butter container!”
Butter Amelia smiled back.
“They put me here so you could find me,” She stated simply.
“Why did I have to find you here?”
“Because I won’t be coming home, Darin.”
This statement flustered and angered Darin, who rubbed his eyes with his fists to erase the talking butter Amelia from his sight. When he looked at the butter container again, his vision somewhat blurry and cloudy, she was still there, staring calmly with a smirk on her face.
“I’ll always be here,” She taunted, “But I won’t be at home.”
She was right, and he knew it. Amelia had packed up all her shit. She was gone. He couldn’t stand this blatant confrontation.
“Fuck you, Amelia!” Darin shouted, grabbing the butter container from the refrigerated shelf and slamming it on the ground with full force.
The butter splattered out of the container and painted the floor. Normally, Darin would have thought it was quite pretty; it was a buttercup shade of yellow. Soft and spreadable. Looked slippery. Darin could feel the heat of his ire rising from his toes to his forehead, which was already simultaneously burning red hot and ice cold with sweat. He stuck his head inside the butter section to cool down, resting his scarlet cheeks on the plentitude of butter boxes. He was finally surrounded by yellow, almost as if he was being covered by Amelia’s golden hair. Like a field of sunflowers. Like he was wearing a wet floor sign as a hat. Like sun rays that cause migraines. Darin could sleep in the field of butter flowers. They were so soft and smooth, so cold and soothing. He knew that some part of Amelia was here. She was different here. She always lived here. There were automatic doors here, and they were simple and mechanical, and they never made mistakes. They only got jammed and made “click-clack-click” noises when Darin disturbed their flow. He had ruined the quickness of the entrance. Soon he would have to exit. He didn’t want to exit – the Amelia he loved was here. And there were so many of her.
Darin was sobbing, and his tears felt yellow. They were sizzling like flames, like fatty meat dripping on a barbecue. His Amelia was gone, wasn’t she? The thought made his throat burn. He wanted to cough it out, to throw it up like poisoned food. Darin wanted to scream. A young employee was behind Darin talking on a handheld radio. He was surrounded by people, and none of them looked like Amelia anymore. It was women with dyed blonde hair and fat babies and fat husbands. It was blonde private school girls in uniforms who weren’t smiling. It was the brunette girl on the butter. They were giving him that look. Pity? Pity at his loneliness? Pity nonetheless.
“Sir,” The employee said, “Let’s get you outside of the store so that you can calm down. We’ve called for some people to help you. Alright?”
Everyone looked afraid. Uneasy. Did he look afraid? He got up, and his knees wobbled, almost like he was a baby deer just born in a meadow of daisies. He just needed to make it to the automatic doors where there was air conditioning and certainty. To the bench outside the store where he could hear the families going in and out, in and out. Entering and exiting with ease. They had nothing to be attached to. They got what they needed and left. They got back to their lives. They knew the sun shone yellow if they just stepped outside.
Lydia Pejovic is a writer, lecturer, and current dual English MA/MFA student at Chapman University. She received her BA in English from the University of San Diego. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has a soft spot for British Victorian studies. Check her out at https://www.lydiapejovic.com/.