I’m in the chips aisle when you tap me on the shoulder. I somehow know it’s you before I turn around. When I do, your face mask obscures your long nose, mustache, and familiar smile but above it I can see your friendly eyes and bushy eyebrows with the increasing gray in them that you can’t stand but lets me know it’s you.
“Weren’t you supposed to be swearing off Cheetos forever?” Your voice carries no trace of judgment, just the usual warmth. I can hear your relief that I haven’t changed since the last time we spoke. I say goodbye to Cheetos every few weeks or so.
“Yeah but these are just for our farewell snack session.”
“That’s a special occasion. Gotta take them somewhere nice for a last date. Not your couch.”
My couch is exactly where my beloved vice and I were headed before you found us.
So we pay for the Cheetos and I notice you don’t buy anything but I don’t ask what brought you to the store that ended up mattering so little that you left empty handed with me. We walk to the park down the street, together but apart with the necessary few feet between us. I wonder on this chance meeting if we’d have finally held hands had it been in another time and place. On a day with no pandemic and when one of us would be brave enough to risk our friendship for the potential of something more.
We sit in the shadow of a jacaranda tree, its purple leaves as vibrant and brief as ever. We talk nonstop. As you reach into the open bag beside me for a Cheeto, our fingers brush and I think, fuck it, we should’ve just held hands. We could still now but instead I draw mine back instinctively. You notice and wipe the orange dust all over your jeans before standing up.
“I should get going. But it was wonderful to see you.” You hold out your hand to help me up but I don’t decide in time to take it before you let it drop awkwardly to your side.
“You too.” I want to tell you the truth of why I pulled away from you without explanation so long ago, why our friendship couldn’t continue the way it had been, but like all things that need saying, the moment passes and everything goes unsaid. This moment between us somehow felt doomed back in the chips aisle—over before it began.
At home, I open Instagram and see you’ve posted new stories. I’m startled to find a video you took of yourself in the woods crouched beside a frog. You typed out the caption “made a new friend today.” The woods are near your house. In Minnesota. Where you live now. A whole time zone away. I’d thought that maybe you were back here in town today for a quick visit. It wasn’t impossible. But you’re not here. You’re there. And I’m alone.
I can imagine what my best friend would say if I admit to her that I hallucinated seeing you. Talking to you. Touching your hand. She doesn’t try to hide her irritation anymore. She used to but you’ve been gone for months and I drag her through the steps of the what-we-could’ve-been dance so often that I can’t blame her. I used to swear off and return to the what if of you as routinely as the Cheetos. She doesn’t hate you but she kind of hates you now.
Had I talked to no one in the grocery store if not you? Did I replace the cashier with you? Who else would’ve spoken to me indoors when we are all trying to stay as far from other people as we can?
Had I even gone to the park? Or had my mind lived another day entirely? One from the past or one yet to happen?
I blink hard, willing our conversations today to make their way across time, space, and distance to reach you. Wondering if my voice in your ears will sound like it did in reality or if it’s become distorted and generic—like every other or any other—as your memories of me inevitably fade. The way we loved watching the worst movies together, quoting the same ridiculous lines over and over afterward. The way you cried anytime certain songs played unexpectedly, whether we were in the car or a public place. The way our tempers flared whenever we misunderstood each other—which was a lot for our level of closeness—and how quickly we’d make up by sending whatever moment from our day made us think of the other. The way I couldn’t conceal my triumph whenever I made you laugh, loud and unselfconscious. You were always embarrassed of the volume of your laugh otherwise. You were embarrassed of many things about you. The things I liked most in fact, which isn’t so surprising. It’s what defines and separates us from others that makes us singular and terrifies us.
In some other life, the one where today did really happen, the one where you did touch my shoulder, the one where I did take you to sit beneath my favorite tree, the one where you laughed so loud the nearby birds were embarrassed for you too—in that one—what happens next? Do you text me tonight? Wait to call me until morning? Skip the cursed phone altogether and show up at my door?
I hope it’ll be you at the door. Since we’re pretending, I allow myself to picture you standing there in a time of no universal illness, masks, or distancing. I can see your face—all of it—and step into your tight warm hug that won’t endanger us or our health. Not in a way that a doctor would care about anyway. They wouldn’t find anything physically wrong with us. Just the unpredictable rhythm of our hearts.