Joyland

Vancouver |

Safeway

by Claire Matthews

edited by Kevin Chong

There is something to be said for sucking dick in a freezer. Between the rack of uncooked blueberry muffins and the ice cream, his pants are around his knees. It’s minus twenty-three degrees, minus eighteen when the door is open. And the door is open. We’re toward the back, past trucks of back-stock and cakes. If the seafood manager were to walk in for her skid, those wooden palettes that orders are stacked on, she wouldn’t see my feet. The product settles with the changing temperature, fissures in the otherwise silent freezer. This is what Safeway employees do when they’re finding those Eating Right Cinnamon Raisin bagels that you had to have. I’ll check in the back is synonymous for I’m going to fuck around for the next ten minutes. Literally. This freezer is deep enough and always overflowing with racks of product, skids, and dollies. It’s one of the only places illicit activity can happen in, where the chances of getting caught are slim. Gavin likes to walk this fine line. The exhibitionist thrill is addictive and the freezer proves to be the safest way for us to have fun and keep our jobs.

 

He has subtle cues. The number of times the bakery manager has to make trips to the department’s back freezer is so frequent that it’s practically unnoticeable. Unbeknownst to most customers, a large percentage of bakery and deli products come in frozen or are made then frozen until needed. That he chooses to walk by the deli instead of through the aisles, the shortcut, is understandable. Not only is he avoiding the barrage of customers searching for Rice Dream or sauerkraut, he gets to flirt with the deli girls, the notorious bitches and sluts of the store. It isn’t only our store with this reputation. This is all Safeways. Store 1, 47, 62, 109. It doesn’t matter. All the women here are the same. The degrees of slut-like behaviour and rudeness vary from flirtations with every half decent male customer to Danielle allegedly having sex in the men’s washroom. The deli is the equivalent to the engineering faculty at most universities: we work the hardest, we play the hardest. Our parties are exclusive and, therefore, the talk of the whole store. That the bakery manager wants to flirt with some young girl in the delicatessen surprises no one. I’m nineteen, he’s thirty-three. What matters is we’re both consenting adults. Whenever he walks by the department, what we call “walk-bys,” it’s a signal. He’s going to be in the freezer. Waiting. Most of the time I have an excuse. A dozen deli workers in the middle of the afternoon. If one goes missing for five, even ten minutes, no one will notice. I can always say that I got stuck out on the floor. The trick is to come back to the department and loudly complain about one customer looking for tahini and then another stopped you to reach the tampons on the top self. It happens more often than I like. Once I even stood in aisle thirteen and compared maxi pad brands with an older woman, read the labels with her, and discussed the merit of wings versus no wings. The walk-by is the cue. He could take the short route, but rarely does. When I see that he goes the short way, I’m frantic. He knows this. I search him out, look for his short light brown hair amongst the greys and whites. I attribute his strut to his stature, but know he likes to be watched. He teases me, and then blows me off. He has work to do. He’s a manager.

It starts in the bakery freezer. He lifts me off a small truck that I use as an oversized skateboard. I skateboarded once before in my life when I was thirteen. My best friend, Shaun, tried to show me how to steer. I almost ran into a parked car, too scared to jump off the board in case I slipped. Like Shaun had plucked me from the board, Gavin wraps two arms around me to help me off. His embrace lingers. This action emphasizes yet another reason why I’m attracted to him: he’s almost a head taller than me. Or maybe it’s the stubble. Guys my age still grow hair on their jaws in patches. This is a man with hair on his chest.

“Do you know what day it is?”

“Wednesday.”

I’m not sure why I play along with his games, but in the moment, it is necessary.

“And what’s Wednesday?”

“Commando Wednesday.”

Drawn out, increasing tension. About the game and nothing else.

“And are you playing by the rules?”

“Maybe.”

Noncommittal answers are the best responses. They’re not an affirmation or a disappointment. I like to keep him guessing for as long as possible.

“I think I should check.”

My consent is lost in my memory. I don’t remember agreeing, but I know that I didn’t disagree. So when he turns me around, I let him. When he hooks his finger into one of my belt loops, untucks the shirt of my uniform and peeks down the back of my pants, I let him. When he releases me, I shake and act like the freezer really is cold. I’ve been too long away from my department so my sudden exit is expected. Eleven minutes later, I am upstairs at my locker in the beginning stages of a panic attack. I rarely carry gum on me, let alone store it in my locker, but I have to check. The chewing is distracting. It’s completely psychological. I think it takes my mind off of panicking, so it works. Really, I’m swallowing milligrams of aspartame that may never leave my digestive tract. The panic attack could be for any number of reasons: we could get caught, we could both lose our jobs, he has a wife and kid.

Gavin finds me in the first aid room at the back of the store, ten paces from the freezer where we stood less than half an hour before. He sees me through the blinds of the closed door on his way into the bathroom that shares a wall with the room I’m in. His soft knock lifts my forearm from my eyes. My lungs start to contract unevenly. The second assistant manager steps out of the bathroom at that moment. He is in charge of looking after me. Gavin has to move on. He’ll ask me later if he went too far and I’ll brush him off, blame it on a customer that got under my skin.

After six months of incessant flirting and two months of freezer trysts, each encounter escalating from the last, it ends in my bedroom. We share a bed once and only once, yet we were in the freezer more often than I care to remember. It is his idea to walk me to my front door one afternoon and invite himself in. I don’t think he’ll care for a tour so he sees from the foyer to the stairs to the short hallway to my bedroom. It may have been the first time it occurs to him that he is sleeping with a teenager: my walls a collage of posters, the bed unmade, clothes strewn across the floor. Bits and pieces are memorable. What is memorable is that there are no other freezer meats, no drives home. Only countless walk-bys.

Later, he manages to corner me in the meat department freezer, where I’m unpacking our order. My manager requested it so I couldn’t refuse even though I’ve been avoiding the back of the store for weeks.

“You’re avoiding me.”

He’s a step inside the freezer, the door ajar behind him. With his arms folded over his all white uniform, he’s not happy. The slight wrinkles around his eyes and in between his brow are noticeable.

“I’m actually doing work for once.”

I back up my statement by grabbing another box from the pile and dropping it unceremoniously on the dolly. I try not to look at him again. If I do, I’ll cave into whatever he wants.

“So what, now that the chase is over, you’re not interested? You got what you wanted and that’s it?”

I’m glad Gavin knows what I want because I don’t.

“I feel used, not that I’m complaining, but I’d at least like to know what’s going on,” he continues.

“Now you know how I feel.” I say it to the boxes of chicken strips and wings, but he hears me over the refrigeration.

“You know we can’t be more than this.”

I’m too young – barely legal, – you’re manager, blah blah blah.

“I know.”

I promised myself I wouldn’t get too emotionally involved because we would never amount to anything. He can’t take me home. How does he tell his friends that for the past few months he’s had little trysts in the coolers and freezers at work? That’s not food-safe, might I add. And how does he tell his wife? When he’s supposed to be an adult with his family and all that domestic nonsense, I don’t fit in anywhere. I’m that variable that’s not supposed to occur and when it does, it’s an error. I am an error.

Gavin leaves the store for Ocean Park, store 109, for some time. Then he’s back when his replacement has to take a leave. In this time, he’s stepped down from management and is now a floater. This means he travels from store to store every week. For weeks, I look for his car in the underground parking lot. I like to be prepared. The first time I forget to look for his charcoal grey Mazda 3 is the day that he walks around the Pharmacy, past the Grab ‘n’ Go Table, and struts past our whole department. He’s giving me the look. The come to the freezer so we can fuck look that I used to anticipate. It’s been months since our last time. I’m back with my previous boyfriend and last thing I feel like doing is cheating on him. And helping him cheat on his wife again.

Gavin is there the next day too. When Paul, another baker, asks me to join him and Corey for coffee, which I normally do, I can’t say no even though Gavin will be there too. If I refuse, everyone will know that something is up. The last few minutes of our break are tense. The four of us are lined along the cement curb at the side of the store chatting amicably. I look ridiculous in black, burgundy, and tan next to three men in their thirties, dressed completely in white. Paul and Corey inhale the last few drags of their cigarettes and I pretend as though I don’t like the warmth of Gavin’s thigh against mine. We head back in twos. I’m paired with Gavin and we trail behind. Once Corey and Paul are through the front doors, Gavin stops to drink the last bit of his coffee. He’s in front of the garbage can. The perfect excuse to have a moment alone with me.

“So I’ve been thinking we should pick up where we left off.”

On my bed? I donated those sheets last week. Maybe he means the freezer. I don’t think I can admit that I cringe whenever I smell frozen cardboard, and it does have a smell.

“You think so, eh?”

Not only are noncommittal answers great, but repeating the previously spoken sentence in a question is easy too. In this case, I’m not trying to rope him along, I’m wanting to get out of this conversation. I could keep walking through the front doors, but his shoulders are square to me. To walk forward would be to walk into him. I’m not that desperate to make a fool out of myself.

“You don’t want to?”

“I’m back with James.”

As he laughs, he looks away from me. If I don’t know any better, it seems like he has scoffed, then rolled his eyes at me. This look gives me the chance to stare at his stubble-covered jaw and remember the roughness against my lips.

“But for how long?”

At this, I start to make my way back into the store. He moves so I don’t have to shoulder my way past him. I’m headed for the deli, the opposite direction of the bakery. He follows me, contemplating whether or not he wants to continue this conversation where our coworkers can hear. Even though we’re from different departments and Gavin is no longer a manager, I was his subordinate when we began our affair. The backlash from our coworkers would be more than enough for me to quit and him too even though he would need a job for when his wife sues him for any money that he has. I’d be labeled a home wrecker. So it goes. In front of the Advil and Tylenol, I go left and he goes right. We don’t speak on the subject again.

But I speak about Gavin again in one of the last places I expected to. I’m out for dinner with Sarah, James, and Dan. My boyfriend has no idea that I slept with someone else while we were broken up. It would bother him to know that I have the ability to have meaningless sex. He would likely think what was between us could be meaningless to me. If I can endure his immaturity, James will be the perfect husband material. He has wonderful family values, which is more than what I can say for myself; he loves me unconditionally and demonstrates this by taking me back the last two times I broke up with him; and his parents are like my own. If I want a cushy life, I’ll get it with James.

Sarah works at the Ocean Park Safeway in the bakery so we start to chat about work without even meaning to. Dan and James are too busy discussing their next four-by-four excursion to pay any attention to us. We should have sat together so we wouldn’t have to talk across. I ask her about her job since she was last in Produce, but then quit because she hated it. Desperate for workers, Safeway reasoned with her and she transferred to the bakery.

“It’s going really well. There’s this floater that’s been there for a couple weeks. He’s really good-looking. Huge flirt.”

Has to be Gavin.

I lean in over my plate of salmon and yam tempura rolls to hear her better. Between the din of the restaurant and James chewing with his mouth open beside me, I can just hear her.

“Yesterday, he told me I would be the perfect wife for him. He’s so funny. Totally joking though. I told him I would love to stay at home and be a housewife if I could.”

“What guy wouldn’t love that?”

James’s hand rests on my thigh and squeezes. Even through the denim of our jeans, I can feel the warmth of his well-muscled thigh. The gesture reminds me of Gavin for a moment, but it doesn’t stick. Gavin and James are completely different. Where Gavin is tall and average build, James is short and stocky. I’ve told James on more than one occasion that he’s got the body of a prop, minus any fat. 

“So you talk to him a lot?” I ask, not quite finished my mouthful of rice and seaweed.

“Not really. This was all on the phone.”

“He called you?”

“He called the store and we talked for an hour.”

“That’s productive,” Dan chimes in, blowing the steam from his udon. Sarah punches him in the arm and he only laughs.

“I was packaging and talking on the phone. It’s not hard to multitask.”

“Is his name Gavin?” I blurt out.

“Yeah, how’d you know?” The smile on her face is quickly replaced with a frown.

“He used to work at my store. Total player. I’d stay away from him.”

“He’s, like, thirty-five. I have no interest.”

“I’ve seen him smooth talk his way into girls’ pants before. He’s trouble.”

“Like who?” James wants to know. He has a met a lot of the women I work with and is somewhat intrigued with the gossip mill at my store.

“It doesn’t matter. What does is that Gavin is all talk and out for a conquest.”

I don’t believe that Sarah would go for Gavin. I do believe all the bullshit that he whispered into her ear over the phone. He’s told me similar things. On numerous occasions, he identified with me as his female counterpart and it’s nothing to do with our blue eyes. I’m equally as perverted as he is, we have similar senses of humour, and we’re both “incredibly attractive.” I never disagreed. To be told that I am someone’s counterpart is about as romantic as it gets. Especially when the other half is a man. I mean, a real man. Not the young men I’ve dated, who are immature and would drown without their parents’ funds and support. This guy has a mortgage, a house, a car, a real job. He makes twenty-nine dollars an hour. And this man wants something to do with me. How could I ever say no to that? Yes, he has a wife and child. I don’t know them. Neither does Sarah. That distance between them and me is where Gavin and I happen. I understood the excitement in Sarah’s voice. It’s the same feeling I exuded when I spoke to my best friend about him. I couldn’t keep it back. Absolutely thrilling. And then add in all the flirting, rendezvous, and the chase. Perfection. What more could I want? For a brief period of time, I did want more than the chase and the frivolity. I needed a relationship, some sort of commitment. He couldn’t give it to me. What kept me coming back for more was the regret he spoke of. He said he wanted more, but there was no way it could ever be. And I acted like I understood, pretended like I was content with what it was.

A friend told me that the reason why meaningless sex fades after a couple months, a couple of lovers, is that we only remember information that matters, that means something to us. But I remember a lot. I force myself to believe that it was only fun, insignificant. It probably continued for longer than it should have. Maybe it shouldn’t have happened at all. But it did. I can’t ignore the memories and those months showed me exactly what I’m capable of and that I’ll get whatever I want regardless of whom it may hurt.  What I didn’t want from Gavin was the overwhelming compulsion to change my sheets, flip the mattress, and have a shower. I did all three.