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Thirty-six (Short Fiction Contest 2019)

What? Didn’t I just buy..? Well, sh- I slam the fridge door closed and make my way outside. 

I’m skimming through articles, flicking my thumb impatiently over the cracks in my phone, while trudging to the corner store. I’m in desperate need of milk. People like me run the risk of shrivelling up into lost revenants, curled up listless in the living room if our supply of strong, milky tea begins to dwindle. It’s been hard to get off the couch lately.

My feet are encased in two pairs of thick socks, sweatpants stuffed into hiking boots. Parka on, I’m looking pretty disheveled as I randomly click through bright type and dazzling graphics: a rainbow lighting up my screen, promising to distract me from the present landscape. I don’t want to focus on the frigid shift in temperatures. Oh, the poor habits of an impatient Millennial. Then one sparkly headline catches my attention, like a piece of silver catches a magpie. Thirty-six questions that lead to love. 

Thirty-six? Seems like a pretty scant list if you ask me. If a meager catalog of thirty-six questions could guarantee me love, I’d have tattooed it on my upper thigh. That way, every date I could check it inconspicuously in the bathroom, like a teenager taking a trig exam. For a second my mind wanders to what that would be like, having spells scribbled beneath my jeans. I picture them like latin incantations, “Tu es cat person? Es dog person?”

I reach my destination and push open the door. A gust of warm air greets me, the smell of stale coffee and the faint, sugary scent of plastic wrapped baked goods. I quickly make my way to the refrigerator section and swipe the first blue cardboard carton from the shelf, gaze still locked on my phone. I manage to expertly navigate my way past the potato chip aisle, the paper towels, and cough drops to the cash register, without ever looking up. I read through the first few inquiries. Set One - ah hem: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? Wow, original first date material. Would you like to be famous? In what way? Nope, never giving up my anonymity. Unless I cure pollution. Could warrant an exception. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why? Okay, but isn’t this the equivalent of asking someone if they can string a sentence together? How is one supposed to answer thought-provoking questions with a stranger if they can’t think on their feet?

I’m standing there, carton under elbow, for a solid three minutes, lost in cyberspace until - what is taking so long? I finally glance up. 

A pair of friends are buying slushed ice drinks. Isn’t it a bit of a cold day for those? The heart wants what it wants, I suppose. And today the heart appears to want cherry. Both cups have a thick base of flossy fairy dust pink, with a few other swirls of green and blue peacocking on top. I wonder if they’re from the assisted living home down the road? It’s for adults with developmental delays. Their speech is broken and hard to understand. Their movements are stiff and shaky as they painstakingly sift through mountains of change. 

The cashier is a young kid, probably college-age (my age?) with a lopsided grin. He’s got a dimple, just the one. He’s cute. He isn’t reaching for coins or trying to rush the pair along. He is just smiling at them, brightly, offering words of encouragement as they push forward through their labors. When they’re finally finished stacking pennies, nickels, dimes, he exclaims, “Awesome guys! That’s exactly right!” 

I hadn’t even noticed this kid when I walked in, but here he is emitting warmth that could melt layers of early morning frost on windows with one bat of his thick, dark lashes. How had I not felt it? Damn, those are great eyelashes. The friends turn to each other, grins ear to ear. They’re not making a sound, but watching them, their joy is loud. How had I not heard it? They throw each other a thumbs up, quickly followed by a high five. Mountain. Conquered.      

I admire the male creature before me. His curly hair is a little overgrown, and he has a healthy amount of facial stubble. But what is most striking can’t be seen - it’s a gentle sense of calm, but it’s powerful, I want to know more about him. I wonder if the roles were reversed, if this were my job, would I have been so patient? It would seem so easy and harmless to pull the pile of change toward me, quickly thumb through a few quarters, send the pair on their way - they got what they came for. Or worse - would I have moved the pair to the side, assisted the next customer while they counted their change? But then, why would I? It seems so heartbreakingly cold now, having witnessed their sense of accomplishment. Why does everything have to move so damn fast? 

Maybe I’m giving him too much credit? Maybe he’s just lazy and couldn’t be bothered. No, he’s intentional, and there’s something about his hands… I redden and quickly glance back to his eyes. There’s wisdom in those chocolatey depths. I can feel sentiment growing in my stomach. Equal parts doubt in myself, and appreciation for this sweet mop. I want to tell him, I think you’re wonderful.

For a moment, running out of milk feels like fate. The fluttering in my abdomen continues to stir, picking up momentum. For a moment, I wish I’d put on makeup, or at least a pair of jeans. A smile can go a long way, I tell myself. For the right person. My teeth are clean. Had I remembered to brush the apple muffin crumbs from my top lip? At least I put deodorant on. For a moment, I can be brave.  

As I reach into my pockets for change, I find a wad of folded up napkins. Yes. Cheeks burning, I pay for my 2%, and muster up what I can only hope is a bright, genuine smile. I reach for the plastic ballpoint next to the register, scribble my number down hurriedly. I glance up at him, purposefully, from underneath my own, mediocre eyelashes - Is this coy? “So, you seem nice…” What? Overkill. Too much, too much. Cut and run, girl. 

“Thanks,” he begins to say, somewhat taken aback. He reaches for the napkin, but I’m already halfway out the door. I try to laugh, but it gets stuck in my throat and instead I choke out CO2 like a dying engine. Bow out gracefully, I tell myself. Wait, did I just literally bow?   

I sprint to the sidewalk. When I’m finally far enough away, I burst into laughter. Giggles hiccup their way through my chest. I’ve never so unceremoniously dropped my digits. 

It’s dusk and the cityscape is beginning to soften, fading into a blur of warm colours. Auburn and yellow leaves, pink skies. I inhale deeply, try to steady my breath. Something flies past my cheek, brushing it like a fingertip. First snowfall of the season. I look up at the sky, not remembering the last time I had done that. A smile breaks across my face, cracking through my day spent indoors, fresh air to my soul. For the first time in a while, I feel truly small, in the most glorious sense. But there’s something quickening in my chest, burning at the edges, letting me know it’s bigger than my body. The Earth is shifting - can you feel it? It’s pulling up its soft white blanket over my home, tucking it in for a rest. 

I float home. The snow continues to fall lightly, circling about my feet. I feel like a wild animal hibernating in reverse - my neighborhood is at peace. I should be settling, but inside I’m roaring, greedily devouring detail. I’m realizing how much I love red brick with glossy black trim, how the house a couple doors down from mine has the most lovely, delicate wind chimes. They whisper hello in silver prose.      

I pull off my coat and put the kettle on before glancing back down at my phone. Thirty-six questions, ranging from small talk to real heavy, hard-hitting inquiries. There’s nothing subtle about asking someone when was the last time you cried in front of another person? By yourself? Or, what’s your mother like? Or - yikes - of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why? 

Divulge. How terrifying. How unifying. Panic.

I want to tell him: I could love you. It wouldn’t even take me to thirty-six. If you’d keep these three dozen truths about me. Hold them tight to the core of you - would you let me do the same? No guarantees of romantic inclinations -  but love, powerful and simple. 

My phone buzzes; electricity skims my skin. I’d like to tell him: Ask me anything. 

Unknown number: Do you always curtsy in sweats after gifting someone your number? Teach me your ways?