A long florescent light at the store flickered above her head, and a popular song Gianna couldn’t name quietly humming from a far-off speaker. She just wanted to come inside, get her groceries, and leave. A prepared list allowed her to spend no time wondering what food she would need for the next few days. She could still feel each stare burning through her like lighted cigarettes pressing deep within her tender skin.
Back at home, post-it notes were scattered throughout the four-by-four feet kitchen. She would never share an apartment but by herself she couldn’t afford anything larger than a two-room studio. Her bedroom was just a twin-sized bed and floor lamp. School work was done on the dining room table, also now covered with reminders and memos.
She would have used the self-serve after quickly finding everything she needed, but the sole one seemed broken. It probably could be fixed easily, but she was not going to go and bother some employee. She arranged her weeks’ worth on the table. The cash register began scanning the labels and dragged Gianna’s groceries across the end of the metallic table, slowly dragging each yogurt container and vegetable destined to rot alone to a full stack of plastic bags. She could feel him looking from her large head of cinnamon-colored curls down to the black flip flops she rushed on this morning.
“So, do you come here often?” he asked, taking a few minutes to weigh a bunch of bananas. Gianna looked up in surprise. Anxiety flooded through her veins. She came for necessities, not social interaction.
“What do you mean?” She gestured towards a cereal box, “I have to eat and I like this store. So, I do come here,” she cut herself off before she started rambling but the sentence wasn’t finished, “often.” She ended with a sharp blush and started shuffling her feet. Was her voice too loud? Were people staring? God, was she overreacting again? What if the man could read her thoughts and-
“Well, I can tell you I’ve worked in this store for quite a while and I’ve never seen you here. I try to remember each customer’s face, and I’d sure know yours. Mind if you tell me your name? Get to first-name basis,” he let his last word stretch and grow, perhaps a bit too long, sort of like his hairstyle. Gianna really didn’t want to let anyone know her name, much less a cash register she’d rather have never met.
“Um, thanks? But I’m good and I need to-”
“Name’s Austin. Austin Harringson. But you could probably tell from my name tag,” she looked down and indeed, Austin H. was written in a small tag on top of the standard white and blue shirt.
“So, you are?” he stretched out his arm across the register waiting for a handshake.
Gianna snapped back to a perfect posture, but meeting with Austin’s eyes shifted her sight quickly to a plastic container of mashed potatoes. “Um. I’m Gianna.”
Austin let his hand hover in the air for a while before slowly retracting back to his side. Gianna looked at the pattern on his jacket while an awkward silence filled a good five minutes.
“Gianna, huh? That’s a pretty name. Exotic. Where are you from?” Austin rested an arm over the register. This didn’t feel real.
She was born and raised in Miami, but she knew what he meant. “My parents are from the Dominican Republic.”
“Sweet. Hey, you want to go out sometime?”
“You’re staring at me a lot. I can tell if someone wants my number. Here, lemme give it to you. Wait, where’s some paper?” He started shuffling around.
She had to think fast. “You know, I have to come here to grab some stuff for this party next week. So whenever your next shift is, I can just come then and we can have some more time to talk.” Her face felt like it was boiling, words bubbling out of her mouth. Nice, she thought, now I’ll know when to avoid him. She hadn’t gone to a party since her old high school forced everyone to go to that dance senior year at art camp. If that could even be considered a party.
“Cool, I have Mondays and Fridays from twelve p.m. to four p.m. and the rest of the week from nine in the morning to one. Party sounds nice. So when is it? I want to come,” he said, finally finding a discarded receipt and a worn-down pencil.
Her heart beat quickened. “Oh, it’s a thing hosted by a student at the community college. You probably don’t know them. It’ll be awkward. I’m only going for a friend.” On the one hand, he would notice that she was obviously lying. Or he wouldn’t get it and another hour would pass before she could leave. She looked behind her. No line still. It was Saturday afternoon. How was this possible?
“Oh! I know some guys who go there. I’ll invite them, too. And now I can meet your friends. This is great!” He readied his pencil, looking right up. With the additional eye contact, Gianna was about to cry. “So, address?” He leaned in an inch.
“Um, it’s on my phone.” She took her Android out of her jean’s back pocket, went to Notes, and wrote Austin’s schedule in a frenzy. “17630 North West Sixteenth Court. It’s on Friday at 12 o’clock at night. You got it?” She started feeling a little guilty, but even more desperate for escape.
“Yeah. I’ll see you there!” He looked behind Gianna, “Wait, there’s no line? That’s great! So, you say you’re in school? That’s cool. What are you majoring in?”
Patience was sinking fast. Unknowingly, Gianna started tapping her foot, “Computer Science.”
“Nice! Learning all that techie stuff. My laptop’s actually broken. You think you could come over and help fix it? I can tell you what’s wrong with it here. Basically the battery won’t-”
“Sure, but I really need to be somewhere right now. So could you just finish scanning my items and I could just leave?” Gianna paused. She was being rude now, wasn’t she? Just calm down, she thought, taking a deep, long breath. Just let him finish his work and then you could go back home and take a nap. Oh, but the school work. An ache started at the back of her neck.
“You okay?” He actually sounded sincere.
“Yeah, long day. That’s all,” she said as she checked the time. 2:47 pm. If she could leave in ten minutes, she’d only have 2 hours to do her overdue classwork. She might even have enough time to calm down and emotionally prepare herself for the 5 hours of lectures, sitting next to hundreds of students. With that fleeting thought, she was already drained.
“I totally understand. Today, my boss, Mr. J, was trying to make me do some stocking and I’m saying, ‘You can’t just start making me do stock, Mr. J. I came here to ring groceries.’ Now this guy is real buff so I don’t tell him this to his face but let me tell you as soon as summer ends, I am going to quit so fast.”
Gianna looked down at her watch as Austin continued to ramble. 3:00. Gianna began praying silently in hope that could somehow get her home immediately. She paused, realizing that she hadn’t gone to church in a month because of that old lady who wouldn’t leave her alone. Perhaps this was punishment, a deserved payment.
“So then I go to Daren and I…” Gianna looked like a mess. Her feet, stomping and shifting, gave no support to wobbly knees. “You okay, there? You seem weird.”
“I’m fine. I just have to go somewhere, and I,” she opened her mouth and took a breath, “I’m fine,” she said with a blow of air.
Austin looked down at the counter. “Oh, did I have this much left to do? Sorry.” He quickened the pace, filling brown plastic bags. There was no methodology, or at least none apparent, to how he was packing up the food. Gianna could accept a smashed egg carton at this point if it meant she could ditch him.
“Thanks.” She started to help with the bagging. The watch showed 3:15. One thing stood clear in a tidal wave of confusion, there was no way Gianna could finish her work and Prof. Baker was going to kill her when she’d have to ask for yet another extension. But she finally got to leave. And she never had to talk to Austin again.
“You need help with them? You sure you can carry these?” Austin said as he handed two plastic bags. They weighed, at the most, two pounds together. She had an urge to argue and inform him of her history in martial arts but there was no point.
“I’m alright, thanks.”
“So, Friday? I’ll see you then, right?” he said, handing a crumpled receipt.
Gianna stood for a moment, looking down at her feet. Austin wasn’t exactly her first choice of person to hang out with, but she had to make friends eventually. She’d lived there for a year now and not a single person had gone to her apartment besides herself. She was an adult, and hiding in her room studying seemed childish and cowardly.
“Hey, I have to tell you something.” She looked down at the receipt nervously and noticed writing on the back: His phone number and the words “call me” and a smiley face, winking. Something snapped inside her and she started walking to the door.
“What did you want to say? Gianna?”
She turned around to a confused Austin. “The host is a big snob so could you bring some nice drinks? She hates guests who come empty-handed. Weird, I know. I’m bringing some wine so you can figure something out by then.”
She was fine all by herself.