Christine did a double take as she looked at her receipt from the grocery store. Your cashier today was self, it read. A mistake? Little did she know that it was an indicator of the newly installed self-service check-out stations. Was it a joke? she wondered. Otherwise, everything was more or less as she expected: the milk, the beans, pinto and green, the chicken and the eggs, all cost about what she’d expected. Her coupons hadn’t worked on some items; they had expired already. She’d have to take the bananas to the express check-out, wherein there was a moment of self-disgust as one of the coupons was again rejected. Stupid oversight, she thought, turning away briefly from the surly teenage girl at the check-out stand. Christine flashed on the girl’s face as she left the store. As she passed the receipt, there had been a stifled yawn, preceded by a slight grimace. Surrounded by food, this girl exuded contempt for the product. She was tall, enabling her to look down at people; and she was thin, painfully thin. The glance she made at Christine’s over-stuffed basket was fleeting. She passed the items over the screening device like someone holding their nose as they held at arm’s length a soiled diaper.
Christine showed the receipt to her mother as she returned home. Christine’s mother, also bemused by the phrase on the receipt, made a gruff, bemused sort of noise. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked incuriously. Mother’s questions often seemed like that: dismissive, judgmental rather than interested. “It’s…never mind,” sighed Christine. “She reminded me of Erica, though”. Mother was nonplussed. “Who did, dear?”. “The girl at the check-out stand,” Christine replied with a hint of impatience, thinking her mother obtuse; “The cashier, see?” Mother mouthed perfunctory acknowledgement, and then set the receipt aside. The two of them began planning for the evening meal. Christine’s sister, Fatima, was coming over, mother said, so they’d have to watch what they said about Erica, Fatima’s daughter. After finishing an inventory of ingredients, Christine said, “Actually, I think we should say something. After all, it’s not getting any better.” Mother gave Christine an evil eye, and performed her idiosyncratic motion wherein her forehead appears to recede to a lower angle. It was an effective illusion; a warning of imminent disapproval. “I don’t think so,” Mother decreed. “I do wonder what happened between her and that nice young man, Derek,” she instead proposed. Christine rolled her eyes. “Please, I think he decided to date someone who fed themselves properly.” Mother disputed the premise: “No dear, it was Erica who didn’t want to call him back. “Whatever,” said Christine rudely. “Sorry,” she immediately said afterwards.
Fatima arrived just as the meal was ready. As usual, Christine and her mother had prepared too much, and both had the habit of dashing back and forth between the kitchen and the dining table, ever looking to perfect the eating experience. “Want some more chicken?” mother kept asking of her daughters, despite the repeated refusals. “We should have added sour cream to this,” Christine would moan halfway through. Fatima, the cheerful younger sister, indifferent yet indulgent of her family’s obsessive ways, just smiled as she placed an obstructing hand across her plate. “How’s Erica, darling?” Mother asked, following the main course. Christine was “dear”; Fatima was “darling”. Why? Christine always wondered, thinking “darling” was preferable. She never said so. “She’s fine,” Fatima replied pleasantly, yet with deliberate shortness. Christine’s knife hovered above her plate; she was behind in her meal, having barely sat down in the last hour. She looked tentatively in her sister’s direction, and peripherally caught the eye of her mother. “Is she going seeing that Derek again?” Mother asked. Fatima paused, and was about to say something when Mother interrupted. “He’s such a nice young man, quite good looking.” Fatima’s face flattened slightly; her head tilted to an angle, as it often did when she was about to say something a bit patronizing. “That’s not what’s important to her, Mother. I don’t think she found him that interesting.” Mother’s eyes widened, like she was incredulous. “Well, I don’t understand. He seemed like a perfect choice to me. Maybe she should speak to Father Lopez.” Christine nodded, but touched her hand to her Mother’s wrist. “Maybe, but I think an expert may also be a good idea.” Mother’s expression narrowed. Confused, she thought: what did Christine mean by an expert?
“She’s not seeing anyone,” Fatima said succinctly. The placid smile remained, along with her shortness. She looked at her plate, which was empty finally, after several attempts by either her mother or her sister to re-fill it. She felt stuffed; fighting back nausea. “What’s for dessert, dear?” Mother asked. Christine licked her fingers clean of gravy, and skipped into the kitchen. In the freezer was her prize, the item she’d spent the previous day baking, and which she’d most looked forward to sharing: an almost two-foot wide, four-inch thick apple pie. “Looks great, dear,” said Mother as Christine delivered the pie to the table. Fatima inwardly groaned. Then Christine lovingly sliced two over-sized pieces, and set them down on plates for her mother and sister. She left her own plate clear. Fatima, with her fork dithering over the crust, asked “what about you, aren’t you having any?”. Christine rubbed her stomach, gave a beatific smile, and said, “Not for me. I’ve had enough.”
**photo by Helnwein