“We’d like some lobsters, please.”
I stood behind a group of four middle-aged people, three men and one woman, at the seafood counter of my local grocery store, holding my empty basket and waiting my turn. A fresh-faced teenage boy wearing a hairnet and long white coat spent several minutes fishing live lobsters out of a tank behind the counter, and stuffing them still wriggling into a clear plastic bag. When he was done, the boy placed the bag of lobsters on the scale.
The same man who placed the order glanced at the weight readout, and adjusted the thick pair of glasses leaving big red divots in the sides of his nose. “Oh no, that’s about a pound too much. We’re going to need to find some smaller lobsters, then.”
Unshaken, the attendant went back to the tank and started the process over again. I watched this for a while before fishing my phone out of my pocket, and choosing to spend my waiting time by scrolling through unread emails. While balking at going over a projected lobster allotment by a measly pound seemed a bit odd to me, especially since it looked like at least four adults would be participating in the meal, I didn’t think much of it. Some people are just picky that way.
I am the official shopper of my household. I run the bulk of the weekly errands for my wife and I, including the appropriation of foodstuffs. This is because I possess both an inexplicable knack for supermarket efficiency, and the uncanny ability to remain calm in a wide spectrum of frustrating public situations. I’m also pretty good at organizing the shopping lists based on how the layout of the aisles. My wife, while infinitely more intelligent than I am, would sooner tear her own eyeballs out and re-stuff the tender sockets with Warheads sour candies than navigate a crowded grocery store. Me? I rather enjoy it, and since I can go shopping in the middle of the day when it’s less busy, I’m the go-to grocery guy.
“Oh sheesh, would you look at that. Still over.”
“Um, do you want me to see if I can get you some even smaller lobsters, sir?”
The man consulted with his bespectacled colleagues like it was a question on a high school quiz show before hamfisting his buzzer. “Yeah, I think that’s best.”
Slightly peeved but not even close to upset, I exhaled out of my nose, and returned my attention to my phone’s screen. I’d been standing at the seafood counter for close to ten minutes at that point, and while I’m responsible for my own work schedule and could afford to be patient, I certainly didn’t want to spend the remainder of my afternoon watching Milton from Office Space dicker over $3 worth of lobster.
“Should we get some salmon?”
“We could do that. How much do you want? Half a pound?”
“What do you think? Three-quarters of a pound?”
“Gosh, I’m not sure. Maybe two-thirds of a pound would do it.”
I found myself abandoning my phone to eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in front of me. Two-thirds of a pound of salmon? Were they shopping for an OCD support group pot luck? One of the shoppers turned and looked at me, and then quickly looked away. I took that as a good sign, because that meant they knew somebody was waiting behind them, and that had to speed up their ordering. I heard mumbles about the price of crab legs, and then “oh look at those swordfish steaks. Neat.” I went back to my phone, and noticed I had to wipe a little palm sweat from the screen.
The seafood counter attendant brought the newest bag of lobsters to the scale, and briefly darted his apologetic eyes over to me before returning them to Rain Man’s scrutiny.
“That’s perfect. Let’s do one more bag exactly like it.”
I squeezed my phone like a $600 stress ball as the young man in the hairnet filled a second plastic bag, noticeably choosing the smallest lobsters left in the tank. I turned around and thought about abandoning the line to get the rest of my shopping done, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d invested too much time in the seafood counter at that point, and no matter how much sense it would have made to leave, I would have felt like I’d given up; like I’d let those people win in some small way. I took a deep breath, placed my basket on the floor, slid my hands into my pockets, and waited some more.
“Alright, that bag looks great, too.”
At this, I wanted to celebrate. I wanted to kick my basket to the side and do the Cupid Shuffle right there in front of everyone. “Nowww walking with my fiiiishhh, nowwww walking with my fiiiishhh”. Thank Christ. I could finally finish my shopping and get on with the rest of my —
“Excellent. Can I help you out with anything else?”
“Yeah, I think we’re going to go for two-thirds of a pound of this salmon. No, not that piece. Take the piece toward that top. No, not that one. That one. There you go.”
My nostrils flared involuntarily, and my left eye twitched like a dying chipmunk on a stretch of country road. I looked to my left and right, half-expecting to see cameras for TLC’s “Extreme Couponing”. There weren’t any cameras, but an older woman standing behind me let out a conceding sigh, and walked away to parts unknown. The four people in front of me knew they were blocking other customers from ordering; they just didn’t care. They were shopping as if they were the only people in the entire store; as if their combined neuroses somehow trumped basic human decency. I suddenly wished all of them developed a severe shellfish allergy and dropped dead at dinnertime.
“OK, there you go. Anything else?”
“You know what? I think we’ll go ahead and get some steamers while we’re here.”
I stared at the seafood counter attendant with the vehemence of an unsatiated serial killer, hoping he would see the molten rage pulsing through my face, and ask the foursome in front of me to momentarily step aside so I could order a simple, painless, polite pound of tuna steak. My attempt went unrecognized as the attendant went over the price of steamers, and helped the group order juuuuuuust the right amount.
“Alright, here are your steamers. Is that going to do it for you?”
No. No. NO. NO. NONONONONONONONO. Stop it. You are done. You are done, and you need to leave right now. Take your fucking lobsters, and go die in a forest fire.
“…We’re interested in these mussels, but they look pre-bagged. We don’t need two whole pounds of mussels. Could you sell us just one pound? Is that possible?”
“I’d…I’d have to ask my manager about that. Hold on a second.”
I tried to do the math in my head, as I buy mussels rather frequently. What was a pound between four people? Four mussels a piece? Five? Could you even consider that an appetizer? Just as the frazzled attendant turned to find his manager, he met my gaze.
“Hey, are you with these guys, or are you separate?”
“I’m separate, actually.”
“Oh yes, he’s separate from us.” The lobster-ordering man with the thick glasses turned to acknowledge me before his tone turned hard. “This young gentleman has been waiting very patiently, too.”
It was perfect, given the situation. The man, in a perfectly distilled state of delusion, actually tried to shift the blame for my delay on the poor kid earning a lousy minimum wage. I instantly drained the dregs of my restraint reservoir to keep from choking him unconscious with his own Croakies.
“OK, I’ll get somebody to help you in a second. I just have to find my manager first.”
The attendant found the manager, who explained about how all the mussels were all pre-bagged, and that no loose mussels were available for purchase.
“Well, gosh. I just don’t know, then. What do you think, guys. Should we spring for the two pounds, or should we — ”
The Four Horsemen of the ShopPocalypse turned around to face the man who just swore at them, and that man, even to my surprise, was me. Apparently there was so much raw hate pressure built up inside me that what was meant to remain a thought was forced out of my body through the nearest hole, subconsciously converted into the words “HOLY SHIT”, and fired directly at the source of my misery; all without me having any say in the matter.
They looked at me as if nobody had ever spoken to them like that in their lives, and I looked at them wondering how they made it to middle age in that state of perpetual disregard for the world around them. People like that are the ones you typically find lying dead next to a blackened wall outlet with a butter knife sticking out of it. There was only a spit second of unspoken recognition between us before they broke eye contact, and continued discussing the pros and cons of splitting a $3.99 bag of mussels among themselves.
“Hi, can I help you? I can’t apologize enough for the wait.”
A woman with a red baseball cap stood next to the young seafood counter attendant, and by the grace of baby angels and sleeping kittens, she was actually speaking to me. I placed my order, and was on my way in less than thirty seconds, the sound of four shrewd adults attempting to renegotiate an already failed loose mussel transaction growing blessedly fainter in my wake.
I laughed as I walked out to my car in the parking lot, thinking about how the events of the day made me feel even closer to my wife, who, had she been in attendance, would have thrown folding chairs like a WWF wrestler in a heated interview with Mean Gene Okerlund. Being forced to spend some time in her shoes, I finally understood her aversion to shopping, and her unyielding hatred of bad shoppers. More than understood, even; I shared that hate with her, and was exited to tell her how awful my time at the supermarket was when she came home from work. Shopping rage was one more item on an ever-growing laundry list of things we had in common, and having things in common with the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with feels amazing, even if a few of those things are maybe just a little emotionally untethered.
Love is the primary binding agent in any relationship, I thought as I started my car, but the family that hates together, stays together.