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Love in the Age of Losing

Finding happiness in the wake of personal, professional, and national loss

liz zaretsky
Sep 6, 2018 · 13 min read
Image: Jessica Siao

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The space at the end of our block was empty when I moved in. Nine months later, it was a falafel place that was already in the process of becoming a bodega; cardboard boxes of Haribo gummies and far-fetched flavors of multigrain chips were stockpiled along brand-new blue metal racks. I cannot tell you about the time in between, only that I looked up one cold, gray day and there was fog on the windows and a hand-drawn sign taped to the door that advertised free Wi-Fi.

My girlfriend Lauren and I frequented the bodega around the corner during our time working for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. It was open 24/7, and we’d shuffle in close to midnight to buy tomato paste and chickpeas and, for a brief spell, two or three plain grilled chicken patties — Marly the dog was on a strict chicken-and-rice diet after a string of brief yet disgusting illnesses, and I had quickly grown tired of standing over the stovetop in the dark, boiling the frozen chicken breasts that we had to trek to the Super Foodtown on Fulton to find. The blanched meat, tough and sterilized, reminded me of the Midwest and my sturdy, red-cheeked mother, whose evenings during my childhood seemed to consist largely of waiting for water to boil. Not mine, I decided, and back to the bodega we would go.

Every night, after the B26 bus finally rumbled to our stop, we would stand pale in the narrow aisles of the bodega and mumble our way through meal planning. The green bodega, as I called it, so cleverly named for the kelly green awning that hung outside, is operated by a rotation of handsome young Yemeni men, three of whom are brothers. The oldest, with the kind eyes and button-round nose, worked the deli counter overnight and would grin when he saw us come in, already folding our chicken patties in a neat package of wax paper and foil and sliding it over to the cash register, where his younger brother, Mo, watched boxing videos on his phone, pausing to ask in his most charming voice, “Well, girls, what are we doing tonight?”

For months on end, these brothers were the only people outside of the campaign who saw us often enough to track our health, our happiness, our eating habits. “You look tired today!” Mo would exclaim on particularly late nights. “You need to get some sleep!” On the rare occasion that I wore anything other than my uniform of high-waisted jeans and a T-shirt, or when Lauren wore lipstick after dark, he would smile and tell us that we looked pretty. Had we been close—really close, not just a facility of the millennial/bodega-employee relationship—I would have set him up on an email thread with my mother, tasking him with reporting in real time how far the circles beneath my eyes had dropped, how much weight I had gained or lost, and whether I was sick again.

Back then, I had a cold all the time, no matter what season it was or how many gummy multivitamins I chewed or how many cups of tea I slowly drank, inhaling the steam on my walk to the office. It follows that I always had, in every pocket and every purse, some horrid combination of used Kleenex and store-brand tissue and coarse coffee-shop napkins and those soft paper towels we bought at the bodega — Viva, I think — in various states of used and folded and crumpled and, at worst, damp.

Lauren had finally trained me to clean out the back pockets of my jeans before I threw them into the wash, but still, when she’d slip her hand into my coat pocket to hold mine on the walk home from the bus, there was always a moment of hesitation where she’d wiggle her fingers just to see if they’d brush against something wadded, something to be disposed. It wasn’t quite a game, but the hitch in her voice — oh-ho! — if she found one was almost victorious. And I’d blush and shuffle the cocktail napkin from one side of my coat to the other and think how lucky I was that she didn’t think me so dreadfully dripping in snot that I wasn’t worth walking with hand in hand or hand in pocket. You know? But it was horrible, the whole production of it, the pockets full of trash and the weekly Sudafed expenses and politely coughing into my collar on the train and sleeping propped up on pillow wedges like a stuffy, dripping queen.

The brothers were pleasingly disinterested in what we did for work — the few times we honestly answered the question “why do you look so tired, we were met with placating nods and hmms. It was the only place I went where political talk was neither expected nor accepted. Instead, we talked about late nights, about the weather, about the dog. They had been tickled to learn that, all this time, we had been buying plain grilled chicken not for diet-friendly salads but for a large pit bull/lab mix with a tender digestive system. “How is she doing?” they would ask without fail, months after we’d switched her back to dog food. “Big? Good?” Yes, we would say, she is good, she is strong, she is the only steady thing in our lives.

Even there at the end, the brothers persisted, a little world of normality. Two days before the election, I rummaged the shelves for a dusty box of Kraft-brand mac and cheese, knowing that when you are that close to the biggest day of your young life, organic cheddar bunnies will not soothe your nerves.

“Just you tonight?” Mo asked, and I laughed, “Yes, yeah, just me, no cooking tonight,” and he paused to swipe my card. “And your dog, she’s good?”

The 2016 presidential election was days — hours, basically — away. Lauren had gone to Pennsylvania to knock on doors, and I felt at all times like you could see my heart thumping wildly two feet above my head.

My dog was very, very good.

Until she wasn’t.

The morning after we put Marly down, I wandered into the green bodega looking for staples — half and half, a bag of mixed greens. Mo was there, working a rare early shift. “Hey!” he said. “You’re here!” I smiled and said, “Yes, our schedules have changed, sorry!” and handed him a creased $10 bill, bracing myself for his next question. “How is your dog? She’s good?”

“Oh, uh. We actually — it’s very sad — we had to put her down yesterday.”

He frowned. I grimaced, wanting to apologize for saying anything unpleasant. I wanted to leave the change and bolt. “But where did she go?”

Oh. I tried again. “She’s been sick. She passed away yesterday.” He frowned again, then asked, “Did she go far?”

I could see the language barrier shimmer into place between us on the tile counter, and I knew that a third try, a blunt she died, would cross it. But it was lovely here; the three brothers had made it lovely, all warm lighting and clean aisles and a friendly face from which to buy a box of cereal. And he was handing me my change, and it was time to go, and I had the chance to not be the cause of someone’s momentary sadness at a time when everyone I knew was very, very sad.

“No, not far.” I said. “She’s good.”

When I tell our sob story of 2016 to heartbroken friends of friends looking for details, it is the fact that we had to put our dog down eight weeks after election night that causes people to put their hands over their hearts and call back an involuntary gasp. To have done all that work, to have come so close, to have climbed a mountain in the dark only to fall off the other side, leaving millions of Americans grief-stricken and terrified, well. It is the kind of story that emits a frown of obligatory empathy. My private, generous theory is that to engage any further scares them; they stop at the gate. But the loss of a dog affects people in a manner more manageably tender. They make sounds and faces. More than one person has cried. If I could have spared either Lauren or myself from this particular story, I would have. I was only able to spare Mo.

At home, Lauren sighed when I told her what happened. “I can’t go back. What if they ask me about Marly?”

By this point, the newer bodega on the corner, which was about 15 seconds closer than our usual place, had been fully converted. I manifested all the creativity I had left to christen it the blue bodega — the sign outside, as you may have guessed, is blue — and began making my way there daily for a half-gallon of milk or one peeling onion or a box of bucatini. The selection was more candy and chips than produce and dairy, but it was, again, 15 seconds closer, and, most important, the balding man with the very good smile who worked there during the day made a perfect cup of coffee.

A cup of bodega coffee is an indulgence, a gift to yourself. There is no better signifier for whether I will like a bodega than the absence of a stack of sugar packets and coffee lids by the checkout. It means that the coffee you order will be mixed for you, allowing you to pretend that the rich, sweet flavor comes from a splash of skim milk and sprinkling of Splenda and not a generous pour of cream and spoonful of sugar. Bodega coffee is simply the best way to spend a dollar in New York City.

When Lauren and I were in our earliest stages — back when I was waking up at dawn in her big green bedroom with the high ceilings to saunter back toward my apartment eight blocks away, already tapping my fingers against my thigh with the anticipation of seeing her hours later at work, where we would take turns carefully not looking in each others’ directions for long stretches of time — one of us would message the other, “Coffee?” And then we would separately make our way toward the elevator bank past the front desk. Once in the elevator, I’d lean against the side with my hands tucked safely behind me, and she would bite her lip, and the doors would open and we would file into the little bodega attached to the building, making small talk about our work and our days, how hungry we were and how tired. She’d tell me about the new education policy, and I would explain what I’d been reading that week on the train. And then we would take the same elevator back up to the 11th floor, each returning to our desks, unkissed and flushed, each carrying a paper cup of terrible coffee.

To invite each other on a walk or some other, longer venture would have cracked the facade of nonchalance wide open, leaving me self-conscious and terrified. There needed to be a task at hand. And we couldn’t have gone to the too-hip Gregory’s, or the Starbucks where you could usually spot an Orange Is the New Black cast member — it needed to be bodega coffee, so cheap and so hot that you would spend the rest of the day mindlessly feeling the burns on the tips of your fingers. I tell you this with complete sincerity: Bodega coffee is the reason I am getting married.

I started leaving for the train a few minutes earlier so that I could stop into the blue bodega on my way to the station, just to have something to keep my hands warm. As the weather got warmer, I switched to iced coffee, which cost $1.50 but would come wrapped in enough napkins to stop the condensation from dripping down my crop top. I learned that Ali had opened the falafel shop in January and added the snacks and supplies in February. That he had come from Syria with his family and lived around the corner from us. That his family owned two other bodegas on the way to the train, so my guilt when I bought my tomatoes at the “organic” bodega a block down was unnecessary. And one searing-hot day in June, when I asked what was new, he excitedly told me that his wife was about to have a baby, so he had been closing the store at noon every day to run home and check on her.

I grinned, giddy all the way to the train as though the announcement had come from a close personal friend. A baby!

Every day after that, I’d buy something — an iced coffee, a pack of gummy bears — and check in. “Any news?” “Nothing yet.” Lauren and I went away for the weekend, and when I came back, I bounced to the corner for a Coke to soothe her travel-induced migraine. “Any news?”

“She’s here,” he told me, and we smiled at each other.

“Congratulations!” I exclaimed. “Is she your first?”

“She’s my first newborn,” he said.

“My sons were born when I was here and my wife was in Syria, so I didn’t meet them until they were three and five months old,” he said.

“She’s so small,” he said.

I tipped 1,000 percent and cried to myself on the way back to the apartment.

Like a lot of nice progressive white girls in Brooklyn, I often believe that I am hyperaware of the distinctions powering this city — class and race and nationality and all their intersections. But walking down Hancock Street, a can of Coke sweating in my hand, I was viscerally aware that I know nothing. That I am but a polite visitor in a much more interesting story taking place down the block. She’s my first newborn rang in my head for weeks.

In August, my mother came to visit, and we dragged each other back and forth across Brooklyn. August is the worst month to visit New York City; the stagnant heat and the trash piled on the street and the humidity of the long-short month congeal into a rotten haze that hovers in the air. The rich leave, and the rest of us avoid the steam coming from the subway grates. But my mother is the best person I know, and so I rallied faithfully, walking from sweaty park to sweaty park and getting up at dawn to catch the first ferry to Ellis Island.

In exchange, I took her to the soul food restaurant around the corner where they make a shrimp and grits you’re grateful for, and to the waterfront restaurant with the view of the Manhattan skyline, and, yes, to the bodegas. Buying orzo at the green bodega, the cashier took my card, and then paused and looked at me. “This is your mama?”

I nodded, and he flashed that charming smile and stuck out a hand to my mother. “Your daughter, she doesn’t come in so much anymore, but she’s one of my best customers. Always nice,” he said, and they shook hands as though they were the heads of two friendly, allied states. “I raised her to be nice,” my mother said solemnly.

That night, on the way back to her Airbnb, we stopped at the blue bodega for a six-pack of Diet Coke, and Ali, too, looked between us and then smiled. “This is my mom,” I said sheepishly, and he turned to her, “Your daughter is a very nice girl. One of my favorites.”

Two days later, waiting for a cab to the airport, she would recount these stories to me and cry, just for a second, leaning against the wrought-iron gate. “I never cared whether you were successful or smart. But to know that you’re nice to other people… ”

I blushed and hugged her, uncomfortable with her sincerity and caught in the urge to clarify that these relationships were likely not borne of anything other than the societal intertwining of goods and emotional services. That the interest of these men was directly tied to my purchasing a box of Frosted Flakes at a 200 percent markup. That while they were friendly to her, I would not have been invited to dinner, nor would I have asked them to hold my spare keys for a friend.

It didn’t matter, I supposed. She had come to New York and had seen the people who mattered most — my soon-to-be fiancee, my best friend from high school who now lives in Carroll Gardens with his cat, and the generous men who, whether they liked it or not, kept me alive. She had a good time. She was wiping a tear from the corner of one eye, trying not to embarrass me. Who was I to reduce the very real kindness I had been shown to a mechanism of capitalism?

And who’s to say it isn’t both? On paper, I am a twentysomething white girl who lives in Bed-Stuy and occasionally pays $8 for a green smoothie, and these men are small business owners working long hours in a harsh industry that provides me affordable convenience and, for some of my neighborhood, their only accessible produce, be it battered and picked over. In practice, we are all trying our goddamn hardest to hear each other. To be a community of neighbors. To acknowledge that we are present here together in this loud, whirring city in this moment in time. To congratulate each other and to worry over each other.

Months later, it turned cold again, and I was waiting for the bus to meet a friend for dinner. It was the kind of still, black night where the air feels tangible, like you could flip a light on and catch it trying to hide. The kind of cold that’s just noncombatant enough that you almost believe winter this year won’t tear at your skin and patience.

Behind me, the green bodega glowed, a hand-painted “Immigrants Welcome” banner that had been put up during the airport protests still draped across one entire window. I checked the bus time again, making a quick calculation, and turned on my heel toward the store.

Inside, Mo was at the register, watching boxing on his phone again. He smiled and paused it when I came in. I asked for a coffee, light and sweet, something to keep me company.

“Wouldn’t you know,” he said, “I just made a coffee like that, just now, for someone who came in and then left.”

I must have looked unsure because he added, “It’s still warm,” and handed it over to me. I nodded in capitulation and handed over two thin dollar bills from my pocket. “You doing okay?” I asked, and he shrugged, “Can’t complain.”

As I turned to go, he called after me, “You look nice tonight. It makes me happy. Are you happy?”

Grief is not linear. I had learned only enough that year to know that I would be sad for a long time, still. But I had put on lipstick for the first time in months, I had a book in my purse, and I had a cardboard cup of coffee warming my hands through my dollar store gloves.

“I’m happy,” I said, and went to meet the bus.

Written by

you haven’t seen the last of me. lizzaretsky@gmail.com

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