Quarantine Thoughts: Lost in the Supermarket

When life gives you existential dread, bake muffins.

Each trip to the supermarket is a privilege and a perilous obstacle course. In search of strawberries, I left the house on Sunday morning without a mask. I turned the car around at the top of the hill after I saw a masked father out strolling with a newborn strapped to his chest. 

There are now more pedestrians than drivers in my neighborhood. I almost ran over a dachshund and its dark-haired ward and, on a different occasion, a mother racing after her daughter on a pink bicycle with training wheels. But my own fuzzy, distracted vision when I’m behind the wheel seems mild in comparison to what I’ve seen on the road lately.

There’s a palpable feeling of lawlessness on the highways and freeways and long thoroughfares that stretch past, through and across the city. Earlier today, a woman in a dented maroon Hyundai eased through her stop sign. The expression on her face was both blank and determined. She wasn’t going to acknowledge that silly little sign. Then she swerved left without signaling, only to dart down a different side street in the face of oncoming traffic.   

“Hurry home! Before you catch the disease, hurry home. You can outrun it!” Something like that, a primal chant, must have encouraged her to press the pedal to the metal. I’m thinking something similar, in the subterranean parts of my brain, when I leave the house to stock up on food. “If I get this done fast enough,” blustering to myself, “I won’t get it.” 

But that thought feels as absurd as my other ongoing inner dialogue that ambles along like this: “It’s inevitable. I will get it. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m not going to a concert anytime soon, a baseball game or even the mall. But chances are, on one sunny Sunday morning in the future, I’ll probably touch the wrong shopping cart along with a contagious box of crackers. Or the infected person in line in front of me will cough unhealthily in my direction. And that’ll be that. Welcome to my doom.

But I read online that the nearby farmer’s market is taking the necessary precautions. Hand sanitizers. Distancing enforced. Gloves. During the summer months, one vendor there sells the perfect strawberry. Always perfectly ripe. Last year, I bought baskets and baskets of them. My boyfriend and I lived on them. After retrieving my mask at home, I started to drive toward the street where the market is set up. And I kept on driving.  

I usually make decisions like that when I’m panicking. At the time, it didn’t feel like PANIC was in charge that day. The panic I’m familiar with used to make a show of itself, like a fluttering dove scared off by the sudden arrival of footsteps. Now it’s a fixture inside of me, an appendix that’s no longer of any benefit to the host. Ready to rupture without warning.

So I raced away from the thought of fresh strawberries, toward the packaged kind, with that ungainly, white discoloration near the stem — flavorless as the plastic containers they live in.

I drove past one market with a line of masked customers itching to get inside. I drove by another store with an even longer line of people shifting back and forth on their feet. Suddenly, and too quickly, I cut across two lanes. At the next light, I turned toward the food co-op that’s five minutes away from my front door. I wasted an hour driving around town, urged on by my new set of fears.   

There were only four people waiting outside. While I was standing on the sidewalk, I read the hand drawn sign announcing the new hours. The co-op didn’t open for another 20 minutes. But before I could scurry away, one of the employees stepped outside. He placed a flag in its holder and called for the first five in line.

During those startling first few seconds when I enter the store, the Clash is on a loop in my mind, “I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily.” I don’t know what I’m there for, what I’m meant to be buying. I’ve lost my appetite. There aren’t any strawberries so I grab blueberries, peanut butter granola, a loaf of bread. I circle the aisles, reach for items that I’ve never bought before and then think better of it. 

I’m the only one in the checkout line. As the cashier rings me up, a woman stands behind me. She’s in the wrong place. That’s not where the line is. What is she doing there? We stare at each other, back and forth for a few seconds. She’s as lost as I am. It doesn’t matter where she’s standing. 

Before I can leave, I have to wait until the cashier removes the wooden wedge that temporarily locks the door between customers. Outside, I run across the street, pulling the mask off my face so I can breathe freely. 

My boyfriend greets me in the kitchen. “How’d it go?” he asks. “Fine,” I say. We have flour on hand and he decides to make a batch of muffins. They are delicious but the crumbs get caught at the back of my throat. 

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.

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