Met My Old Lover in the Grocery Store
A dark backstory to the Christmas song, Same Old Lang Syne, by Dan Fogelberg
Acid burns in my stomach. This desolate room is so quiet I can nearly hear the pink lining of my gut sizzle. The acid blazes like a blow torch, and when it finally breaks through, it seeps like hazardous waste to poison other organs. To poison my soul.
My undead soul. I carry a dead spirit inside me. A cold, undead soul, and my flesh just its coffin.
My soul died when she left. Nothing would ever be the same. This room will never be clean. Clothes and wet towels seem to spring from the ground like weeds. Dishes always piled high. Memories drip from the walls.
How often I used to be away from here traveling to a gig, Gibson acoustic in hand and dreams in my head.
Now the walls are my prison and I’m stuck.
It started when I came home and the rooms were emptied. She had enough, and left. I don’t blame her, I only miss her.
Now it’s Christmas Eve and I sit alone. Another Christmas Eve with just memories in my head and the stink of my rotting soul.
Bile rises farther up my throat. I wonder when I will explode like a volcano, but I don’t explode, I just burn.
I want to burst. To be blown apart. I want my body to dissipate and die and no longer be conscious of anything, just a black and eternal dreamless sleep.
Instead, I live on.
What was I now? Lifeless, not just in spirit, but in flesh. I’ve sliced my wrists many times, digging for the blue with the sharpest knife in the house. I sawed at my skin ferociously, but it was just a tough piece of cheap meat—rubbery, plastic, and when I do break skin, blood refuses to spill. If I squeeze where the slice is, I can get just a few drops, pancake syrup coming from the bottom of the plastic bottle, instead of a geyser spraying the walls.
It won’t work, I can’t die, because I’m already dead inside.
A gunshot to the head. That will work and that is my next plan, because living is such pain. Emptiness. Shattering my skull with a bullet seems the only thing to let my dead soul escape its prison.
Tomorrow is the time for saviors, but Christ will not save a wretch like me. There will be no North Star in the sky to guide me.
It was time to go out. Not just go out, but go out, and go out big. This bile in my gut will be shared with the world. The acid will shoot forth and others will feel my hurt.
If I must suffer, then someone else should know this pain.
The snow was falling Christmas Eve, and I stepped outside and walked underneath. Each white drop fell from a frozen, Godless sky.
Cold car seat leather makes me shiver. My breath fogs from the frigid air. I would breathe fire and bullets soon enough.
Hiller’s grocery store is open. It’s a lit-up oasis in the dark streets of my tiny town. Last minute shoppers out for just one more thing to make the family meal look just right. Like in the commercials. The warm steam rising from turkeys out of the oven. The smiling faces in the kitchen. They make that shit up in commercials. It never happens in real life.
The electric door swings open, and I feel like a gunslinger walking into a saloon. The lights of the store make me squint. Nobody notices me. Nobody can see the dead spirit inside me, and nobody can tell I have a pistol in my waistband.
I wander through the produce section looking at fruit. Green bananas would brown and rot. Apples unpurchased would bruise and be tossed. Milk cartons tagged with expiration dates I would never live to see.
A woman leaned into the frozen food section eyeing the packs of corn and broccoli, picking through as if anyone was different from the other.
I study the hair flowing down her back. Each curl on her head looks busy, alive, vibrant. Speaking to me like snakes, mocking my misery.
She’s the one. I’m going to kill her.
Time doesn’t exist in that moment, the present is an illusion, the future already here, and I can see the explosion from the gunshot in the back of her head. The crackling sound of the pistol, the skull fragments scattering on the ground in a pool of blood.
Clean up, aisle 5.
I reach for my pistol. I feel the cold metal. Nothing has ever felt more real than my gun at this moment and the promise that it holds. True salvation on Christmas Eve, no need to wait for Christmas morning. It was time to go out.
To make her burn.
My finger is tense on the trigger. I decide to wait. I want her to see me before it happens. One person, at least, should see the pain in my eyes. The last image flashing in her brain before her death will be my suffering.
With one hand on the gun, I touched her on the sleeve. She turned. Her eyes flew open wide.
Synapses shot. Memories explode instead of gunfire. My God. It is her.
My old lover in a grocery store on Christmas Eve. My soulmate.
The bile in my gut resides when she wraps her arms around me. Such love. Such joy. I embrace her back hard as I could. I feel undeserving. I try to be my former self.
I breathe in the scent of her hair, the flesh of her neck. We hold each other intimate, swaying slightly to a song only we can hear from a radio frequency emitted long ago.
She was warm, safe, and if I hold her long enough, the dead soul inside me might come To life. Hark! The herald Angels sing.
I would stay here forever but the sound of clutter and something bouncing at our feet. Instead of her fractured skull spilling, it was her purse that spilled. I tucked the pistol deep into my pocket and bend down to help her. A blue leather wallet, a package of band aids, a small bottle of ibuprofen.
She laughs hysterically at the fallen content, not embarrassed one bit, her eyes full of joy, full of laugher. She is just as I remembered.
I breathe deeply, hoping to inhale the air exhaled from her lungs into my own.
God, I could never harm her, never. But in my self-indulgent, self-pity bullshit I almost ended her life. We are both in tears, mine sad and tragic, hers happy. It was a mess.
She was the part of me chiseled out and made into something more perfect, more divine. We met at sixteen years old. It started with a nervous first kiss and terrifying backseat sex. We took adventures, like a long drive to Cedar Point to ride roller coasters and get caricature paintings. We backpacked the Appalachian trail the year before college because we thought we were going to different schools, but changed our plans around campfires where our deepest parts were smoked out. We decided not to separate and went to college together. We traveled to Chicago to see the Indigo Girls and drove back the same night. We spent days tangled up in bedsheets eating ice cream and watching movies. I was there after her procedure. When she was hurt.
And she was there in the front row, gig after gig, in the Ann Arbor coffee shops and intimate theaters.
School made her grow practical and strong, music made me flighty and erratic. When she finally left me, I had failed out of school, and worse, would never learn.
How do you survive when your passion and joy shatters?
I stopped living when she left, because my soul was ripped out.
I thought of what I looked like to her on this Christmas Eve in a grocery store. My aged skin and tired eyes devoid of hope.
“The years have been a friend to you,” I told her. “Your eyes are still as blue.”
What the fuck was that? I want to snatch the words back, but then she looks away and I
see something. A glimpse of disappointment, discontent, maybe? Perhaps she longs for the life we had dreamed about together but never lived.
My pistol. My God, keep it hidden. The safety was on. I pull my jacket down to cover the bulge. I walk with her to the checkout, me with nothing to buy, and her maybe suspicious.
The first bar we try had an open neon flashing sign on, but the parking lot was empty and the damn thing was closed. I know the place. Always a false open sign. Owner serves the morning auto workers vodka for breakfast to stop the shakes.
“Bars are closed Christmas Eve I guess,” she says.
But she was wrong. There were other bars open. I know of them and go there often, where lonely saps like myself drink slowly, trying to pretend they were with family. Bringing her inside would summon men off their barstools, men whose souls were also dead. They would flash their tobacco-stained smiles. They would talk to her with whiskey spitting from their lips, and she would curtly end the evening.
“Let’s get a six pack from a liquor store,” she says, “PBR. In a can, of course. You got a radio. We can drink it in the car. We’re good.”
She always loved my spontaneity. Did she realize that she was the flame that fueled it?
Soon, cold beer from even colder metal is on our lips. With each sip a little less to talk about, bigger sips to cover the emptiness. Underneath the dashboard, heat blew at our feet. The radio was tuned to Christmas songs.
We talk a bit of old friends. We held back questions we didn’t want answers to. The diamond rock on her finger but no ring on mine was obvious.
“I married an architect,” she says. “He keeps me warm and safe and dry.”
Of course. An architect. Someone who built things and didn’t tear them down. I didn’t ask any more questions but looked into her blue eyes which told truths.
“I’d like to say I loved the man,” she said, “but I wouldn’t want to lie.”
She could try to lie, but I would have known. She did love him once, I am sure, but it faded and emptied. Like our beers. Like my life.
Was she asking me to tell her that I always loved her? That I felt love for her right there, sitting in a cold car with snowflakes covering the roof of my Toyota, burying us alive together. For a second, my undead soul was in communion with someone else.
On the radio, Winter Wonderland played. Unmarried lovers wanted Pastor Brown to marry them in town. The vows would be broken, but the memories of building snowmen in the meadow would not.
“You still buy records, don’t you?” she asks. “Because I saw you in the record store. You were flipping through vinyls of The Velvet Underground. I almost said Hi. I heard you were traveling. You were getting gigs everywhere. I thought you must be doing well.”
“Do I look well?” I ask, but before she could answer, I add, “I miss it, I miss my music, I miss my audience.”
“Audiences loved you,” she said, and the words strum chords in my heart.
She was my audience, doesn’t she realize that? She was the only audience that mattered, but I spent so much time apart, going from small town to town, hoping for something bigger to prove to her my talent, my passion. My brain flashed back through the years, images scattered like puzzle pieces, none making sense on their own. If I had only stayed with her, instead of looking to the road.
“The audience was heavenly, but the traveling was hell.”
God, this was all too much.
She knew I had enough. That I couldn’t take it, so she leaned forward to kiss me. Not on
the cheek, but the lips. The sound of the soft smack was frozen in the car. I waited for any trace left of my soul to respond, to be brought to life, instead of a scream of agony.
“God gives us what we need, if we just look,” she said. “And I needed this, to see you. What we had together is proof of grace. Please be well and remember that. Please keep your music playing.”
Acid flames in my gut. I felt that old familiar pain. Now I had nothing. Just the sight of her red brake lights as she drove away. The taste of her lips on mine would soon fade.
Snowflakes dropped from the cold God in the sky. The bile in my stomach returned, sizzling like a steak on the grill. I reached for the safety of the gun in my pocket.
Something would have to give. I can’t handle life anymore, but I will certainly not harm another. She saved me from that.
Instead of boiling anger and hurting another, I wanted to die in a cold shattering of icicle tears. The gun to my own head was the answer. I needed to go. Let me out, I’ve had enough.
My chest heaved with anticipation. I started to pant like a dog. Lights all around me from strip malls full of people who would never know my pain. I can’t take it. Can’t take the coldness of life falling on me tonight. I will die if this snow keeps falling. Each flake of snow that froze my world is proof that this cold feeling is permanent. I say a prayer, softly, Pabst Blue Ribbon in my hand and empty seat next to me. ‘God show me you care. Show me some warmth. Make this snow stop.’
I had fully planned to kill myself that night, at home with as little mess as possible, but I changed my mind and spent Christmas morning alive and breathing instead. I even made it to New Year’s day.
Because as I turned to make my way back home, the snow had turned into rain.
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