You saw me when I walked by. An almost-40 woman in a pink tie-dyed maxi skirt and a white peasant blouse. Layered, but not enough to keep off the October chill. A black brick purse cutting into one shoulder. Mouse-brown hair in straight lines down my shoulders and back.
Perhaps you saw a look on my face. Another person would take it as quiet contentment. Even serenity. Unlined, unthoughtful. Untouched. You smiled and greeted me. Doing Your Job.
But maybe there was something else. Maybe you looked at me and saw a room where all the lightbulbs had been broken. The resignation of a refugee. One whose contents had been poured out and picked through by hands with raised pinkies.
You could not know what made my bag so heavy, or what blank thoughts ran through my mind. You would not have picked my items from the shelves for me – a bar of oatmeal-aloe soap, Frankincense, and baking soda toothpaste. You never saw me stand in the aisle with one hand on the metal shelves, eyes closed, smelling until I could find something that made me feel human.
Adrift. Moments lost. I moved in and out, purposefully not considering anything but what it is to be alive in this moment. Not thinking about the harms of the past or the blank, grey page of the future. Allowing the pain of each current breath to guide my action. Like this, I slipped in and out of aisles like a ghost. A prop on the stage of the mothers with children, the woman buying lobster, a man in a tattered coat moving fast towards the bread.
I am a shadow. I am an echo of a person. I am a shifting image out of the corner of your eye.
Like a prophetess, you saw me move where no one did. Your brown hair pulled back in a pony-tail, your green apron tied haphazardly around your waist. Your legs rubbing against the cold and the fatigue of an 8-hour shift.
“Have a good night,” you said.
I stopped, turned. Even my words were shadows.
“Have a good night,” you said.
“Oh yes. Thanks.”
I nodded, those eyes to the ground. Yes, someone Doing Their Job well. I moved on, clutching my small bag, my chin raised as if I had somewhere to go, someone to go to. A good play. Nicely-dressed woman goes to grocery store and confidently picks out toothpaste. End scene.
But you saw something behind the scenes. Black holes that were once eyes. And you thought of something more.
“By the way, I love your outfit.” And you smiled like it mattered. Like I mattered.
This was a small thing for one who is Doing Their Job, to make a false compliment to pass the time. To tell one that they are beautiful or funny, to nod and open sympathetic eyes to the story of the dead dog or the cheating husband. But, you were not Doing Your Job. You looked at me, and you saw into me, and you made me into someone real for a moment.
You could not know that I chose this outfit specially. That it was the one thing that I owned that made me feel soft and beautiful and alive. It was chosen with a silent prayer that the color and white would make all the greyness go away, even for just enough time to buy toothpaste.
You will never know, Checkout Girl, that I need you. I need you every day of my life. Small, fat, short, Black, Asian, Mormon, heathen, rich, poor. I don’t care what form you take the next time I see you, but I will say thank you, somehow. I will look into your eyes and remind you that you are real, and beautiful, and I will help turn on your light.