I first saw him when he was my checkout assistant in the local supermarket on my drive home from work on Wednesday. He was doing the late afternoon shift and the only one on cash register duty when I dropped in to pick up dinner ingredients ordered via text from my husband, Javier. He required mince and feta.
Jack. I assume the nametag was real, but it may be fiction. It makes good fiction.
How do I describe his eyes? Doleful? Large? Dreamy? Bedroom? Heavy-lidded under a sweep of hair that looks artful, though I suspect it may be his natural fall.
Dreamy. As in, the stuff of dreams, perhaps, but mostly as in shielded, unseeing, inward. I note that I am interpreting the expression of a young man whose job in this moment was to wave goods over a barcode reader and place them on the tiny shelf that is provided for purchases to be packed by the shopper.
When my turn came, I stood before him to look him full in the face for the expected eye contact and salutation. He looked up, registering my two-metre height, and gave me a half smile and a “Hey!”. He managed to convey the fact that he remembered he said “Hey” to me the day before yesterday under almost the same circumstances, except with beans and milk. I might be reading too much into it.
There was some underlying sadness (wistfulness, regret) I saw in the slump of his shoulders as he sat in his cashier’s cubicle. He would be trapped if some large aggressive customer were to intimidate him – there are plenty of the unhinged in the neighbourhood – which could affect one’s mood. Or maybe he was bored.
The still clear blue returned my gaze. It fixed, for a moment, a glimpse of him as others see him, to whom he is more intimately connected – a son, a brother, a good mate, a lover? A triangular face, broad brow, narrow chin, high cheekbones, a smile that barely arose. What do his teeth look like, I wondered?
He was unanimated, stuck in a glass box with a cash register. Now, I try and imagine him somewhere dynamic. Is he a surfer? Swimmer? Runner? I have never seen him standing, yet today there was something in the width of his frame folded in that small space, and in the healthy glow of forearm skin sweeping feta and mince across the scanner, that spoke of active outdoor experience.
He is beautiful, that is all. I want to see what joy could emerge.
He was on duty again this morning when I dropped by with Javier, who shopped for groceries while I did a run up and down the bargain aisle.
He was at a freezer stowing goods with a colleague. I was unseen, obscured by most of the pile of sugary Christmas goods on display, over the top of which I could observe him unseen. He was leaning as he helped to pack the chest cabinet.
I saw that he was slender and quite tall – I estimated a possible one eighty centimetres – I am generally good at guessing the height of someone slightly shorter than me. In the clumsy folds of the store uniform his body’s shape was barely discernible, which is to say it hardly touched the inside of the fabric. Definitionally “gangling”.
I know that feeling. The sense of vulnerability that can never be fully disguised. The idea of your own beauty not registered by yourself except, perhaps, in front of the bathroom mirror where you can work the lighting and angles and let your gaze rest long enough to feel disembodied and imagine yourself as another sees you – in that moment, perhaps, you see it. You may also look down to see a slightness of chest, shoulders and thighs, and perceive these as a failure, and you may not be able to see yourself for many years to come, or not until you have loved the one who loves you back, who gives you the sense of your charms amid the joy of beholding. Perhaps then. Perhaps you will allow yourself to linger in this new knowledge long enough to absorb this truth into your skin, down to your bones, down to where the heat resides, where all emanation originates, and all possibilities.
“Register three, please” said the woman’s voice from the loudspeaker.
When I got to the checkout, Javier was already loading the shopping onto the conveyer at Register Two.
To the left, he had been called from freezer packing to Register Three.
At Register One, cheery Thomas was looking over his shoulder to resume a flirtatious conversation with my husband, who had been camping it up with him for months now. For this occasion, Javier was wearing the big red Venice Beach Lifeguard t-shirt that one of his Los Angelean pals recently posted to him.
Before the captive audience queued at Registers One to Three, Woy Woy Boy hit on Cal-Mex Man:
Thomas: Look at you! Are you wearing that to the beach?
Javier: I’m not a beach person. And don’t go waving your hands at me if you’re drowning.
Thomas: You’re more of a pool person?
Javier: Something like that. Poolside, really
Thomas (to me): So, do you have to go by yourself to the beach?
Me (smiling): Yes.
Three times during this exchange, I looked left to where he waited for his customer to load their shopping onto the conveyor. Each time, our eyes locked and he snapped his gaze away. I could see the breath go out of him.
I kept my head down for a while and focused on the young woman assisting at my counter (noting to myself that I had not committed her name to memory), as she scanned our items and joined in the banter. She had been the voice on the loudspeaker.
When I came around to the end of the counter to tap my phone for payment, he was closing his register to go back to his former duties in the freezer aisle. For a moment he was standing next to me. With peripheral vision, I observed the flash of a smile to his departing customer and the fact that the shorter stature I had discerned earlier was the product of him leaning down to the freezer cabinet. Shoulders back, eyes forward, now moving into a rangy stride, he was as tall as me.
Skater? Basketballer? Unfolded, he was transformed by movement, swinging arms, confident and easy as he made his way back along the counter.
He turned back to me as he passed the far end of the counter, gaze resting on me for one moment, and then turned away.
I died a little.
I watched his retreating back and heard the conversation change behind me. I turned and saw that Javier had packed the shopping bag and was waiting to leave. Thomas was busy with his next customer.
From the door, as we exited, I could see him looming over a customer who was asking him something down by the cleaning products. Then we were outside in the heat of the carpark and the boom of weekend traffic in Woy Woy.