Puncture Skin To Prevent Explosion
by Kathleen Boland
Try going on a walk. You always hear about people going on walks, smart people, people who are haunted by things more important than this. A walk might make your brain stop buzzing and twitching, stop you from showing up at the grocery store where you first saw her red peacoat and ever since everything has shades of red. Walk around your block. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around the park and the school and the playground, walk until you’re standing in front of the potatoes. Pick up a potato and coldly realize you’re back in the grocery store, you walked all the way there, miles, went on a walk only to walk right to her, the place of her. There’s a guy by the peppers who’s doing restock and he gives you a half nod and asks if you need any help and you want to laugh because that’s exactly what you need but you just say you’re looking at the – you gesture with the potato in your hand – and you shrug and you realize you don’t have your wallet because who takes their wallet with them on a walk, so you can’t just go over and casually buy the potato, like this is something you do, go to the store in old basketball shorts and a fleece in the middle of a weekday and buy root vegetables. Leave the grocery store. Walk home. Get home. Realize you still have the potato in your hand. Realize you’ve been realizing too many things lately, that if you’ve been paying attention to anything other than her, it’s realization.
Put the potato in your jacket pocket so you’ll remember to return it to the store on your way to work the next day. You figure you’ve been messed up lately, messed up in a way that you haven’t been since you were a teenager, all lightheaded and cravings, crotch-aware and itching, but you’re not so messed up that you’d shoplift. That, at least, is only teenage you.
But the next day you spend your commute trying to find the perfect song on the radio to fantasize to and you forget all about the potato. Hours later you’re about to head to Subway for lunch and you pull your jacket out of your locker and out flies the potato, skidding across the break room floor, right into the feet of your new manager. He looks at the potato and he looks at you and he laughs and says what the fuck, like it’s a joke, like you’re some funny guy who’s playing a prank on the new guy. You go with it and laugh and say sorry about that, and grab the potato. But then you look at him and notice he’s wearing a red tie and holy hell that’s when you lose it – you start laughing huge belly laughs, laughing like this might be the best prank you’ve ever pulled, this potato and your new manager, and you’re standing there, doubled-over, the manager looking concerned, but you can’t stop laughing. He says alright, extending the first “ah” so it sounds like a yawn or a gasp. You choke back the laughter, your gut straining at the effort of it, and you shove the potato back into your locker and run out the side door and consider not finishing your shift, of just going home and getting back into bed.
Instead you gag down a six-inch turkey sub with fake bacon and too much mayonnaise and go back to selling televisions for the rest of the afternoon. Because it’s the sales goal for the day, you convince numerous people that curved TVs are not marketing ploys, absolutely not, those extra few hundred dollars are totally worth it, trust me, all while avoiding the new manager and thinking about the potato in your locker. You convince yourself that getting rid of the potato will stop the color red or the color pink or really any warm-colored thing within a ten-foot vicinity make you feel like you’re about to vomit. That you won’t eye customers wearing peacoats of any color and try imagining if the coat were instead red and the customer was instead her. That it’ll make you stop thinking of the way she leaned over, picked up one especially deformed potato, smiled and said, Isn’t this just the saddest looking thing?
Hours later the new manager lets you leave early because he still can’t look you in the eye, so you get to the grocery store just before it closes. You head to the produce section, potato in-pocket and in-hand, and it happens. You see her. She’s not in front of the potatoes; she’s in front of the pre-packed salad mixes. You’ve imagined this moment for over a week now, ever since you both walked around this exact store together, strangers meeting while jostling for plastic produce bags, the two of you joking about potatoes, and then eggs, and then frozen vegetables. It all felt like some bad romantic comedy, but that’s also what made it feel so completely real, a real that was realer than the everyday real you’ve shuffled through these past thirty years, because the real with her was so fake, so Hallmark and Top 40, the two of you flitting among the aisles, the jokes effortless, the eye contact lingering, the touches occasional but significant, that it had to be real. It was real. It was maybe the realest thing you’ve ever done, meeting her in this grocery store. And here she is again. You’ve thought about this run-in so often, what you’d say, the exact turn of phrase about vegetables that’d make her give you her number and then fall in love with you and then marry you. For days your entire brain has been dedicated to this very moment, this exact opportunity: her, that peacoat, this grocery store. But you weren’t ready for the one possibility that could’ve never been a possibility in any of your fantasies because this possibility isn’t a fantasy but a nightmare.
She isn’t alone. She isn’t waiting for your perfectly rehearsed line, isn’t waiting for you to sweep her off her feet, because there’s already some guy there. And he’s obviously done the sweeping, what with his hand at the small of her back while she inspects a bag of spring mix. And you’re standing a dozen yards away, your name tag still magnetized onto your shirt pocket and the fucking potato in your hand, and you’re so bent out of shape that in a wild, whiplashed moment you think there’s a possibility that this guy isn’t with-her with her, maybe they’re affectionate friends, those exist, of course they do, but then you watch as he kisses the top of her head and she grabs a kale mix instead and they move onto the dairy section, all together and in definite, abso-fucking-lute love, and you feel like your stomach is exploding and shrinking at the very same time.
Wish you could do something in that moment, something movie-worthy, like hurl the potato at the guy or catch her eye and wink, but you don’t do any of the those things. You do nothing. The next thing you know you’re back home and sitting on your couch and you’re staring at a very specific knot in your living room carpet. Stare at that knot for a long time. Stare until there’s nothing but the knot.
After a dazed day or two, things steady, loosen. Your head is heavy, but it no longer buzzes. You sleep better. Work is the same, though the new manager never does make eye contact with you, so you do him the favor of avoiding him whenever you’re on shift together. You go to a different grocery store across town. It’s an extra ten minutes in the car, but the produce selection is better. You soon develop an affinity for hatch chiles. You’re not sure why they’re called hatch chiles, but you like them so much that after awhile you try roasting them yourself. While they’re in the oven you look around and realize your apartment is messy, dust-covered and dark. Open the blinds and grab the old hand vacuum from under the sink. Get down on your hands and knees and go at your living room carpet. Find it when you prod the vacuum into the couch skirt. It’s the potato. Pull it out from under the couch and, yup, it’s that fucking potato. The thing has been under there for so long that it sprouted little white branches out of its eyes, tiny leaves curled at the crook of each small shoot. You sit there, the vacuum running, chiles roasting, and hold this hard gray lump with its delicate white arms reaching out in all directions, both firm and fragile, and you think, No, it doesn’t look sad at all.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review. A recent graduate of LSU’s MFA program, she was awarded the 2017 Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House’s Flash Fridays and is forthcoming from Paper Darts. When not tweeting at @kp_boland, she is at work on a novel.