Ten Items or Less

Back during the aughts, I became (and still am) friends with two of my co-workers.  We became inseparable — lunch together everyday, margaritas at Mucho Mas after work at least once a week, and a trip to Virgin Records every Tuesday to check out the new releases bin.

Every Sunday we would gather at Jess' house in Encino, around five in the afternoon, to listen to and argue about music, drink good red wine, and cook.  I would get to Jess' first, around 3 in the afternoon, so we could do the shopping run to the local Ralphs supermarket.

“Jess, I think I’ll do an endive and watercress salad with red grapes, blue cheese, and almonds tonight; do you have blue cheese dressing?”  “I have Ranch, Matt.”  “Oh yah, sorry, I forgot you are straight.  Why don’t you go pick us out some ribeyes.”

It’s not that I have anything against straight people.  Really, I don’t.  It’s just that they are so unimaginative when it comes to dining.  I love cooking, especially for friends; it is one of the things I miss most since becoming disabled — spending hours in the kitchen and watching a meal come together.  And then the reveal — laying it out on the table, it's like the crescendo of a symphony that’s been building in my head all day; each dish a movement that comes together in the end as a satisfying experience I can give to my guests.  But straight people — seems all they want to do is eat, not experience, their food.  A steady stream of monosyllabic items — chips, dip, wings, and hey… maybe if it’s a special occasion, some ribs!

So Jess and I would fill the cart with stuff to prepare the evening’s feast and a couple of bottles of wine and head to the checkout lanes.  Now one thing I forgot to mention is that Jess was madly in love (lust?) with Shannon, the manager of this particular Ralphs; and on Sunday afternoons Shannon would work the express checkout line.  My weekly challenge was to devise a meal that only required the purchase of ten items, or less, so that Jess could… I don’t even want to think about what he got up to in his mind as she slid our groceries past the beeping infrared scanner.  It was bad enough that I was enabling a stalker!

Every Sunday afternoon, Shannon would see Jess and me with our cart full of meat, vegetables, a baguette, several bottles of wine, and various and sundry seasonings I had selected to compliment the evening’s meal; Jess' kitchen conformed to the regulations regarding unmarried heterosexual men and consisted of peanut butter, Cheez Whiz, buffalo sauce, salsa, and a drawer containing unopened takeout packets of assorted condiments and soy sauce. Jess would stand and stare at Shannon when it was our turn to check out; I kept telling him, “ask her out, I’ll wait outside,” but his love remained unrequited as he could never bring himself to do more than smile at her.  “She looks right past me Matt, it’s like I’m not even there,” he’d tell me on the drive back to his house.

Then one Sunday, just as it was our turn to check out and she’d begun scanning our purchases, I suddenly remembered I was almost out of cigarettes — yah, I used to smoke, what’s more, I loved it… the way the cigarette felt in my hand, the having-something-rather-than-nothing-to-do of it, the thrill of sticking a tube of leaves in my mouth and lighting them on fire with a pocket-sized flame thrower, the smell (okay, maybe not the smell so much), the instant camaraderie with the other smokers as you huddled together in a group outside under an awning in the pouring rain while all the sensible people enjoyed a coffee after their meal inside the restaurant, the excuse to get away for ten minutes from all the sensible people enjoying a coffee after their meal inside the restaurant, pretty much everything about it but the lung disease, the cancer, and the emphysema.  So I said to Jess, “oh shit, I need smokes.”  Shannon stopped what she was doing, looked up, and said to me,  “you need cigarettes?”  Jess responded before I could.  “Yah, he’s gonna need two packs of Marlboro Lights 100's.”  Shannon grabbed the cigarettes from the display case, ran them across the scanner, and then handed them to me.  As she did, Jess turned to me and said, “hey, I got Abba’s greatest hits remastered for Super Audio CD and it sounds great; wanna listen to it tonight after dinner?”

On the drive back to Jess' house, he was once again assaulting my ears with whining about his unrequited love for Shannon and all the mad, passionate heterosexual sex (ewww!) they would have if she would only see him as more than just a customer.  Then it hit me.  Every Sunday, two guys come in shopping for fru-fru greens and high end wines.  They know each others’ preferred brand of cigarette, and one is even excited about a reissue of Swedish disco icons Abba’s greatest hits.

There’s a reason she looks right past you Jess.  She thinks we’re a couple.

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