'narrow spaces'

Kimberly Duncan-Mooney

      On this morning, unlike others only in temperature fluctuation, Beth felt fiercely claustrophobic. In order to get out of bed, she would have to climb over her husband, who slept without stirring, a lump beneath the goose-down comforter. The wall clock ticked noisily, as if under great stress. Beth lay there, half covered by the stark white sheets, paralyzed. It seemed she could not get up, could not muster the energy to hoist her body over his without disturbing him. This self-inflicted paralysis was heightened by this possibility of disturbance. If awakened, there would be unavoidable interaction. Her mouth was dry, her lips coated with hours worth of dehydrated, stagnant saliva. Staring at the patterns of the plaster on the ceiling, she eventually willed herself to move, crawling to the bottom of the bed, sliding past the edge of the sheeted lump.

      The snow that was falling heavily was a betrayal to Beth—the only reason her high-school-English-teacher husband was still burrowed under the comforter instead of backing down the driveway. Still reaping the benefits of snow days at thirty-six seemed somehow sacrilegious to Beth—an anomaly of life that should be reserved for those under the age of twelve. She was happy to be going to work, to avoid the awkwardness of a house encased in snow, a husband whom she no longer trusted and—perhaps worse—did not care that she no longer trusted.

      On her way out, after her morning routine, Beth drafted a note to him—grocery shopping after work, home at eight or so. love, b—which she didn't capitalize, as if a personal affront to her husband's strict rules of language.

      A curious thing had happened the night before, as Beth opened their well-stocked liquor cabinet. The rarely used gin had dark lipstick marks around the neck of the bottle, far enough down that a person would have had to encompass the neck with their lips, assumingly gripping the bottle with both hands; odder still, the cap was obediently replaced. Beth wondered first why someone would choose to drink gin directly from the bottle, when there was whiskey or even vodka available. It was not until later that she considered what stray lipstick marks, and such a ridiculous gesture could mean. Rather than bring it to his attention, she left the bottle in the cabinet, lipstick and all.

      After work, Beth drove slowly, considering the after-dinner drink she would enjoy when she got home. French martinis, she thought, are a rare pleasure in life—the delight of the tingly suspended feeling she experienced in her legs when drinking vodka, without the stinging aftertaste. To her, the pineapple juice and black raspberry liqueur masked it entirely, regardless of the ratio.

      The heat blew steadily on her feet as she watched the snow fall on the windshield in large, wet drops. The parking lot at the grocery store was only partly plowed, in a losing battle to the weather. Beth found a spot after some effort, and parked the car with the engine still running. She savored these moments. Unfortunately, this particular one was interrupted by the ringing of her phone and the voice of her husband.

      “A can of cranberry sauce?” she repeated back to him. “The canned stuff's horrible. I'll make some homemade this weekend.”

      “Just get a can,” he said. “I don't like it when it's homemade and chunky.”

      He insisted that she buy it, and she finally admitted defeat, wanting desperately to be off the phone.

      Once inside the store, Beth headed for a shopping cart. There was only one left, which she and another woman reached for at the same time. The other woman did not move, or offer to relinquish the cart she had placed her hand on.

      “You take it,” Beth said, pulling her own hand away. “I'll use a basket. I haven't got many things to pick up anyway.”

      The woman muttered sure thing, already pushing it toward the frozen food section.

      Beth's eyes followed the woman as she retreated; her tight, fitted jeans creased slightly above her thighs. She wondered if her husband lusted after women with tighter asses than hers, or those that engaged him in his one-sided conversations about grammar and usage dictionaries. She could assume that he preferred someone who wore more make-up than she did; she didn't even own lipstick, unlike the dark red lips that trespassed the gin bottle. Resting the basket on her hip, Beth readjusted the pocketbook on her shoulder and took out her grocery list. She flattened the creases and walked quickly to the produce section.

      Beth began in aisle one, gathering fruits and vegetables, smelling and squeezing when appropriate. As she walked by the grapefruits, a shopping cart struck her in the leg, the wheel scraping the tendon behind her ankle.

       “You'd better be careful. You don't want to hurt anyone,” she said to the children who were hanging on the back of the cart. They laughed and jumped back on, rolling toward the deli. Beth felt a surge of vindication in her choice not to have children.

       Twelve years ago, Beth had stared back at a small white strip that had turned blue. She had thought it noble somehow that her now husband had wanted to marry her, and for exactly three days too many she believed that she could have a child. In an early-twenties fit of self-consciousness about lacking maternal instinct, Beth convinced herself that she could be a parent. It wasn't until she was already hastily married that they found out that the blue strip had really meant to be clear, and Beth confirmed that she really did lack any capacity for maternal life.

      Had Beth not been a serial perfectionist, she would have annulled the marriage. Instead she took it on vigorously, a mission that was predestined for failure.

      In the beverage aisle, Beth found the pineapple juice on the bottom shelf, with the other canned juices that were not consumed for nutritional value. She frowned looking at the price—up forty-two cents since last time—and distantly thought about the bottle of gin. If they did have children would she have blamed them first? In this sense, her husband was an adolescent. He wasn't even very skilled at hiding his indiscretions. She decided that the juice was worth it, forty-two extra cents and all.

      Standing in front of the canned vegetables, she surveyed the shelf: canned peas, corn, asparagus, and beans. The closest thing to cranberry sauce were canned beets. For a moment, she considered buying them, feigning surprise at her mistake. But even that small thing, she knew, would be an admittance of failure. Frustrated, Beth headed for the dairy section. Regardless of setbacks she would complete this mission. She would find the cranberry sauce. If nothing else, she would strip her husband of any possible complaints regarding her performance.

      A woman with a plastic nametag and a red smock stood near the eggs, talking to a man about yogurt. Beth enlisted their help, only to be sent back to her original destination.

      “I'd try looking with the other canned vegetables. Like the canned peas and stuff,” the man said, pointing with his yogurt.

      Beth thanked the man, but headed to the alcohol aisle instead. It seemed to her that a fresh bottle of gin was appropriate. Her husband was the usual purchaser of alcohol, insisting that he was more knowledgeable; though he would not admit he felt that way directly. It was clear in the way he offered to go to the liquor store instead of her; the way he said “honey” when describing the subtle differences in nuance when picking out a smoky syrah to accompany dinner.

      As if on cue, Beth's phone rang again, and again she answered to the voice of her husband.

      “I can't find the cranberry sauce. I don't think they carry it out of season,” she said, leaning her shopping basket against a shelf.

      “I didn't know that canned items could be ‘out of season',” he said. “I'm sure it's right there will the rest of the canned vegetables.”

      “Oh you know what I mean. It's not Thanksgiving. No one eats cranberry sauce at any other time of the year,” she said, hearing him breathe on the other end of the phone.

      “Well that's a pretty blanket statement, Beth. I hardly think that no one eats cranberry sauce in January—”

      “Never mind,” she said, surrendering again. “How were the tests you graded?” Beth picked up the basket and walked out of the aisle.

      “I kind of have to go,” he said in a way that made her flinch. “I'll see you when you get home.”

      She removed her coat and hung it over her arm above the shopping basket. In a matter of seconds she was back in the canned vegetable aisle, moving cans and assuring herself that she had not missed the cranberry sauce.

      “Can I help you find something?” a voice behind her said.

      “Cranberry sauce,” Beth answered. “All I can find are beets. Sliced beets, mashed beets, pickled beets.” Her back was beginning to ache, pulled down on one side by the basket. Her coat was beginning to slide from its resting place across her arm. The man said nothing, but smiled a smug sort of smile. He looked upward, in an exaggerated manner, to the sign that said canned vegetables.

      “Here, let me show you something,” he said. He was the type of man who believed his sense of humor was an asset. Walking one aisle over, he said, “Welcome to the canned fruit aisle.”

      “Fruit,” Beth said aloud, feeling the muscles in her back tighten more, her neck stiffen.

      “Cranberry sauce isn't even a questionable fruit, like, say a tomato or something,” he said, laughing. “It's just a fruit.”

      “Yes, I suppose it is,” she said.

      He did not hesitate to add, “Are you celebrating Thanksgiving early this year?”

      Ignoring his comment, Beth muttered, “Thanks.”

      “Hey, no problem,” he said, smiling again before disappearing into the dairy department. Beth continued to stare at the cans and cans of fruit, from peaches and pineapples, to cherries and kumquats. The cans of cranberry sauce were relegated to the bottom shelf, nearly hidden by a display of caramel apple mixes.

       Beth felt claustrophobic again, in the same way that sleeping between her husband and the wall made her feel; as if the store was getting smaller around her, as if any move that she made required some greater task or feat that she wasn't certain she could accomplish. Breathing deeply, she bent down to retrieve the can. As she closed her hand around it, a woman in a skirt too short for her age reached over Beth and picked up a can of peaches. She bumped into Beth, throwing her off balance slightly. The can feel out of her hand while she grabbed the shelf to steady herself.

      “Oops,” the woman said in a way that was, at that point, enough to make Beth's shoulders tighten and shoot upward. She reached down and picked up the can again, standing slowly.

       The can had left Beth's hand before she realized she had thrown it. She looked down at where it was originally on the shelf, then back up to where it was sailing through the air, on a rapid trajectory. They say that things such as this happen in slow motion; in Beth's case it was happening in real time, but never ending. The can continued, on and on, and she watched in strange absorption.

      The basket was still on the floor next to the shelf, and Beth picked it up slowly and began walking toward the front of the store. She heard nothing—not the clang of the can as if finally hit the back of someone's carriage, not the risen voice of the woman with the peaches as she asked what the hell Beth was thinking, not the music that had incessantly played throughout her shopping experience. Her coat remained on the floor in the canned fruit aisle, where it had slid from the basket; her pocketbook was loosely draped on her shoulder.

      “Ma'am,” said the clerk, a skinny boy with lanky arms. “Ma'am, you have to pay for those…Ma'am?”

      The basket dropped from Beth's arm as she continued walking. There was a piercing crash as the bottle of gin shattered from the fall. The liquor streamed from beneath the groceries, a puddle forming. The eggplant that was propped on top of the groceries bounced out, coming to rest against the wheel of an unused cart, covered in gin.

      In the parking lot, Beth was the only person not bundled up in hats and gloves. Coatless, her shirt was spotted by large, wet drops of snow. She made no effort to brush them off. Once at her car, Beth methodically placed the key in the lock and opened the door.

      Beth drove slowly, knowing the way only because she had driven it so many times. The radio station went in and out of static; she made no effort to change it. At home there was a plate in the sink, dirty, which she could see without turning on the light. It was clear that her husband had given up waiting for the cranberry sauce, or for dinner.

      Walking to the liquor cabinet, Beth picked up the tainted bottle of gin. She placed it in the middle of the kitchen table. Then she made herself a drink in the dark. She didn't care that it wasn't technically a French martini without the pineapple juice. She poured the vodka in first, followed by the black raspberry liqueur. Swirling the glass, she watched as the two reluctantly melded together, the dark red dimming to a more diluted pink.