I Saw My Ex at the Grocery Store
It went really well even though Booze and I haven’t spoken in four years
Tuesday is my favorite day to go to the grocery store.
The aisles are empty, and the music is lazy and floats over the shelving, like it’s calmly accepted its destiny is to entertain the backs of people’s minds as they think hard about calories and money and feeding their families or about sex, because I assumed everyone who thinks about her grocery list while in flagrante delicto does the opposite while shopping.
I walked through the automatic doors with a sense of purpose — vegetables! People seem to be interested in them so maybe I should try them out! — and into the fluorescent-lit dreamscape of food.
“We should also have protein with our vegetables,” I mused as I walked along, my basket hanging on my forearm, without realizing I was sauntering into the beer and wine aisle.
I realized my mistake too late, because there she was: My ex, the one who stole my heart and made me believe we’d be together forever, only to end up destroying me and forcing a nasty breakup.
It had been four years since we’d last really seen each other, and I was unexpectedly shy.
“Hi, Booze,” I said, not sure my voice was loud enough for her to hear, and not sure if I wanted it to be.
But of course she did. She was always like that, Booze, could always tell when I was thinking of her or near her. When she heard my tiny salutation, she turned, her luxurious barley hair twirling as she swiveled her head, sparks of carbonation shooting from every strand.
She looked good, I thought to myself. Goddamn it.
“Oh hi, Molly!” she said, her voice the crisp snap of a can popping open on a perfect summer day. Her eyes danced, but perhaps they were also swimming, I was never really sure. “Where have you been? It’s been forever! I have so many new flavors to show you.”
I shifted the basket on my arm, my face flushed at the realization that she recognized me so easily, and at how happy it made me. “Remember she broke your heart remember she ruined your life remember she isn’t what you think she is,” my brain screamed at me as I smelled Booze’s intoxicating perfume.
“Oh my god, hi!” I said breathlessly, only because I couldn’t find my lungs at the sight of her. “Yeah, it’s been a while, how are you? Is that a new label? It is so flattering, wow, your bottle looks amazing!”
She turned to face me fully, and she was right, she looked good. I watched a bead of condensation drip down her long neck, and shivered at the memories of us alone together on the porch, or in the house, or those late nights when I couldn’t sleep and my anxiety and depression were undiagnosed and Booze had convinced me she as my only friend.
We had been in love, or so I’d thought; our relationship would set the world on fire, or so I’d thought. For the first few years we were together, it was fresh and exciting and new; I was in college, and she, an old hand at introducing college kids to new parts of themselves, took me under her wing immediately.
She’d flirted with me a bit in high school, but I was less interested in her then. But when I was out on my own, without anyone except me telling me what to do or where to be, Booze became a regular in my life.
And I liked it! Booze made everything a little more fun, a little edgier, a little less like the reality I was living in and more like a fiction I could tell myself was the truth. She made me forget to be self-conscious and made me think I was interesting when she’s around, that I’m a good dancer, that I’m attractive, that I’m worthwhile. She even convinced me that she was a requirement of any serious writer, that we had to have a complicated but necessary affair if I wanted to succeed.
But every relationship, if it lasts long enough, moves beyond twitterpation. By the end of college and into grad school, Booze was a constant in my life, but she and I were getting a little messy.
“I don’t feel so well,” I’d say to her. “I don’t feel like I belong. I don’t feel like I’m worthy of time or attention or love. I worry all the time. And it scares me.”
“Shhhhhh, sweet one,” Booze would respond, filling me with warmth and a momentary respite from all my troubles. “Just hang out with me for a couple hours, and I’ll help you with all of that.”
For a while, I thought our relationship worked. I depended on Booze to numb me while at the same time give me permission to vomit my emotions on whoever happened to be joining us that evening. She made it easy to be emotionally uninhibited, providing a sweet pressure valve I could release, but one I regretted opening the next morning.
We started fighting. I don’t remember the exact first fight, but it wasn’t pretty. I accused her of not having my best interests in mind when we hung out, and she yelled back at me that I’m the one who always seeks her out, I’m the one who daydreams of pulling her top off, of getting lost in her, letting her take the reins for a while.
Problem was, Booze is a notoriously bad driver. My life was starting to crash and burn, and I was lucky enough to be seeing in slow motion — there was still time to try a different way.
On April 4, 2013, Booze and I broke up.
We’d spent the previous day together on the ski hill, but we both knew something was amiss. Despite the fact that she and I were spending so much time together, I wasn’t happy. I was the opposite, in fact — I wound up crying over a big pile of drunken nothing, and all my coworkers got to witness it. Then, when I got home, my actual human girlfriend took the brunt of it, with tears and snot and misery and a bit of a blank spot in my memory because Booze took that with her.
I woke up with what would be my last hangover, and I went into the bathroom before my girlfriend woke up. I looked in the mirror and talked to Booze frankly, for what seemed like the first time.
“We’re over,” I said, though my shaking hands and queasy stomach belied the steel in my tone. “I can’t do this anymore. You always say you’ll help me figure this out, but I know you’ve been lying. I’ve known it for a while, but didn’t want to believe it of you, not after all that we’ve been through. I have to start being honest in my life, and the truth is, as fun and delicious as you are, we can’t keep doing this.”
I cried a lot, and Booze just smiled. Didn’t I know so many people had tried giving her up before, she said smugly, didn’t I know that she’d be everywhere I looked, at every party I attended? Didn’t I know she was part of nearly every important social and religious event I’d go to, that she was on TV and in movies and so easily accessible in grocery stores and gas stations? She’s sells sex, she sells exercise, she sells sports, she sells baby showers, she sells getting through the day, she sells quiet, she sells solace, she sells the American dream, she sells the answers.
What makes me so special, she sneered, what makes me think I can break up with her when so many have failed? She would be everywhere, Booze said, and there was nothing I could do about it.
It felt like a slap in the face, that she didn’t believe me. But I knew why she acted that way, and it was because I wasn’t strong, not really, not without her. I’d built all my defenses with her in mind, thinking she was an ally when she didn’t really care about me at all.
“This is really the end,” my pale reflection said in the mirror. “This is the last time.”
My girlfriend was thrilled to learn she would be the one and only in my life from then on, that Booze was out of the picture, but I knew I’d have to prove myself. And for a long time, months and even a year maybe, it was just as hard as Booze said it would be. She really was everywhere, and I would think of her when I sat next to a cold lake after a long hike, or when something went wrong at work and my anxiety and stress got to levels I felt uncomfortable with.
Feelings of incompetence ruled, because I figured I must be broken. Everyone else seemed to be capable of having a great relationship with Booze, so what was my problem?
But somehow, I ignored her. I watched from a distance as people fawned over her at parties and in general, slowly realizing that without Booze in my life, I could see how she’d made it seem like I was the only one who couldn’t handle her. Clear eyed, though, I could see that wasn’t the case — many of my friends and acquaintances clearly had their own relationship issues with her, and suddenly I was less jealous they were still together.
I made new friends, who introduced themselves as Coping Skills and Therapy, and they showed they really cared about me. With their help and without Booze in my life, my girlfriend and I managed to work out our issues with respect and honesty and we got married, I became an EMT, I started writing well again, and I found I could be alone with myself without Booze.
So why was I blushing now that Booze was staring at me? Oh god, she looked good too, with her fresh outfits for spring evoking the return of warm weather and easy days.
But then I realized those memories weren’t mine anymore, that Booze and I hadn’t been like that since our first years together, when we respected our boundaries and didn’t abuse each other.
I could tell she was also traipsing down memory lane; Booze walked up to me, her perfume almost overpowering, and she put her lips near my ear.
“You look good,” she whispered, her seductive voice raising goosebumps on my arms. “If you ever want to change that, you know where I am.”
I didn’t watch her go — I didn’t need to. I let the moment pass over me, which Coping Skills taught me, and I grounded myself in reality. It was getting easier to forget the good times with her and remind myself of the bad, but I couldn’t help sneaking a glance over my shoulder as I walked off.
She was already in the next guy’s ear, touching his shoulders and guiding him away from a six pack to a twelve. As they walked toward the checkout line, she also looked back and winked at me, giggling. I could never stay mad at her, not now that I knew she wasn’t really the problem, that the problem had been me.
I can’t say we’ll ever get back together, but if we did, it couldn’t be like it was before. I know myself now, and Coping Skills and Therapy are here to stay. There’s no more room for Booze in that space, and I’m not sure if I want her back at all.
Still, there are days when I miss her so much, when I think “Why try copin’ when I could just open,” because twisting the cap off some whiskey sounds easier than taking an honest look at my feelings. But no one, not even me, believed I’d make it four years without her, and that in and of itself is fuel to keep me going.
I finished my grocery shopping and left once again without Booze, another small victory to add to my list. I saw her getting into another guy’s truck in the parking lot and hoped they’d both treat each other well, and realized the bubbling feeling in my chest was one of pride and joy.
I could be near and around her, but I didn’t want her inside me.
“Huh,” I thought. “I guess I can be friends with an ex.”
Follow Molly on Twitter @mollypriddy, she’s fun even though she doesn’t drink anymore.