The smaller double-decker cart filled with what we needed, Dad, Meridith and I went to the emptiest checkout lane at the usual Sprouts in Valencia. Only one person ahead of us, and the last of their items were being scanned. Dad took up his post at the check-writing counter, watching the prices, Meridith stood next to him, and I wheeled the cart next to the bagging area, next to a bagger named Alex. I found that out from her nametag.
The employees at Sprouts range from indifferent (stockers) to friendly but guarded (those behind the vast meat counter) to they'd-move-in-with-you-if-you'd-let-them (checkers and baggers). It's not a disturbing friendliness, like they've been watching you for all the months you've been shopping there and know exactly what you're getting, just the kind of friendliness you know from those you're friends with.
After I stopped the cart, Alex asked "Paper or plastic?", and I immediately answered "Paper," before Dad started in on his well-worn question to Meridith and me: "Kill a tree or choke a pelican?" I usually don't have a reason to decide what the groceries should be bagged in since we have enough plastic bags for the garbage pails around the house, and enough paper bags to collect the full bags from those pails every Friday. But I knew we were getting low on the paper bags, so I got there before Dad.
What happened next, I'm not entirely sure. She first held up Dad's bag of pretzel nuggets, saying, "These look good," directed at me. I could only smile the smile of a guy who doesn't know what the hell is happening. Then she saw the book in my hand ("The Loop" by Joe Coomer, which I'm loving enough to cart around with me in places I don't usually carry books, including Sprouts. I brought it in on the off chance I'd have a minute to read a few lines), asked what it was and I showed it to her. She asked if it I liked it, and I said I did. Then she said she loves to read, and I should have chimed in, should have asked what she liked to read, who her favorite authors are, what her favorite novels are. Not really as an "in," since we're moving, but just to find out what kind of reader she is.
I didn't ask any of that, though. All I could manage was "I'm a speed reading nut," and I don't think she even heard that. I felt awkward. Her comment about the pretzel nuggets, looking at my book, the question about what I was reading and if I liked it, were not at all part of the usual bagger service. Other female baggers at that store just bag and move on. Was she flirting with me? Did I miss my chance by not following up immediately by asking her what her favorite books are?
I mulled this over after we left and went to Pavilions, and spent an hour there, then when we went home and all throughout this evening. I may have been flirted with, but I'm not sure, since my only experience has been in 11th grade when I know for sure that Stefanie Markham flirted with me while we were at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's school newspaper awards at an auditorium in the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art. She had the best pair of legs I'd ever seen, and put them against my pant legs. I was just joking around with her, didn't think that I was flirting, but I was wondering then what the heck was going on.
I still can't tell if Alex was flirting with me. But I do know that I don't know how to flirt back. Does it just happen? Is there a rhythm to it to be established from the start? I figure that if you happen upon a person that attracts you, then it comes easily. But I've had minute experience with that, and that's not really the focal point for me anyway.
If she was flirting, and even if she wasn't, Alex indirectly reminded me to always be open to everything. In Santa Clarita, you become set in your ways as a matter of survival. You have to go to work, you have to go food shopping, you have a set of chores to do on this particular day, and you only go to this movie theater in the afternoon because it's less crowded than the other one, and more pleasant. It's the only way to combat the ennui before it overwhelms you.
Alex showed me that in being able to reinvent myself when I move to Las Vegas, I need to open wide my heart and mind. There are books to read, those that will come from my new home library, books to write, states to travel to, experiences to have in my home city. What has always worked here in Santa Clarita as a matter of survival won't work there, and I'm ecstatic about that. I can become the person I was never able to be here. I need to go wider, be fully open to anything and everything that will happen in my life. I have my plans, but those plans should also be flexible. What I'm so sure of now, I might not be so sure of later depending on what happens there. Just go with it. I thank her for that because I needed that reminder. It's going to happen soon, we're going to move, and I need to be ready right at the start of what I've wanted again ever since we left Casselberry in 1992, when I was 7.
Besides all that, Alex was strikingly beautiful, sporting dirty blonde hair. If she was flirting with me, I was really lucky.