They’d stopped in front of the frozen tater tots display. Above them, one of the fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed. She hadn’t said anything to him since the cereal isle. He didn’t look over at her, but stood studying the many tater tot options arrayed before them.
“So.” He paused, shifting the grocery basket to his other hand. “You don’t want to be my girlfriend?”
She leaned toward the case, peering at a package. “Fiesta tater tots. Because regular ones are just too fucking boring.”
He laughed in spite of himself. She was still dodging his question.
“How old are you?” She had this way of asking direct questions from unexpected directions, and for an instant he was thrown off balance.
“I’ll be thirty this year.” He managed to sound as if he meant it, knew what he was talking about.
“I’m looking at thirty-three.” She commented, her voice taking on that distant note that meant she was thinking about something else. He waited. “So why do I feel like I’m in high school all over again? And who on earth needs this much choice with their tots?”
He took a deep breath. “You don’t want to be my girlfriend.” The disappointment was oddly crushing. He could feel it, an elephant sitting on his left lung.
“No. Yes. Maybe.” She still hadn’t looked at him. “A little. But how long have we been friends?”
“Three years?” ‘Four months, and sixteen days, not counting today,’ his internal voice finished silently.
“You’re seeing people, right?” She studied him out of the corner of her eye. He pretended not to notice.
“Sure. Every day of the week. Why?” He baited her, trying to get her to turn and look directly at him.
“Because I don’t want to hurt you.” She said in a rush. “And I think I would, because that’s how I am.” She’d closed her eyes, which was never good.
‘Make her laugh. Do something, Stupid. Not good. Not good.’ He felt a little panicked, because he’d been so sure.
“I just–” she broke off, her sentence hanging there between them, something jagged. Without touching him, she edged closer and laid her temple against his shoulder. “Why do we need to put a label on Us? Aren’t things good–free, open, whatever?”
He didn’t answer right away. A middle-aged woman had pushed her cart up close next to them, its front, left wheel spinning and squealing in protest. He had an impression of chubby forearms and a beflowered tee shirt, denim pants stretched tightly over her generous midriff. She opened the freezer door next to them without speaking, her plump hand reaching over to grab a bag from the case they were blocking.
“Fiesta tater tots.” He observed, once the woman had wheeled her cart down the isle. He felt her laughter through his shoulder and tried to shift the elephant off his lung.
“I don’t want to feel trapped.” Her voice was small, as it always was when she was admitting something difficult. “You want me to belong to you.”
So that was it. “I actually had it the other way around.” He said, debating on whether it was safe to touch her. “I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“I don’t want to be what stops you from going after your goals, you know? The clinging girlfriend. Needy.” Her words were muffled as she turned her face into his shoulder, still the only point of contact between them.
“Somehow, I don’t think we’d be like that.” He took a chance and put his arm around her, lightly, so she could still move away from him if she wanted to. “But I, personally, have no interest in pretending like I want to be with anyone else at the moment.” All-in, now.
“Oh,” she lifted her face to look at him, finally. “That’s alright, then.” Her smile took on a wicked cast. “We were totally cock-blocking that woman’s access to the tater tots.”
“Fiesta tater tots.” He amended, solemnly.
“Because she wants to spice up her sex life? Her face reflected a horrified fascination.
“Can I make two confessions?” He laughed and quickly sobered.
“More?” She teased.
“Yes. First, I never, ever want to speculate on how that person would use fiesta tater tots to spice up her sex life, assuming she has one.” He shuddered, and she laughed. “And second, I hate tater tots.”
“Me, too.” She put both her arms gently around his waist. “But I kinda think I’m going to be fond of these particular ones for a while.”
Perhaps it’s true that the most important turning points of life occur in impossibly understated circumstances.