“I can take you at this counter,” says a woman to my wife.
“We’re together,” I tell her. I take a credit card out of my phone case and wait to wave it over a handset as a cashier who looks like she’s a high school kid folds clothes and puts them in a bag.
The woman, glasses and curls of red hair, looks at me. Then at my wife. “Is that true, ma’am?”
My wife is white. I don’t know what else to call her. I don’t know what else she would call herself. I met her in a fish market. She’s vegan, but says that she likes the smell of fish that’ve just come out of the water. On our third date, she cooked me chicken without any seasoning. It was so dry that I had to choke it down with a liter and a half of water. I told her it was awful, and she said yeah, I know.
“Sorry?” My wife shuffles closer to me, as though this is what’s needed to prove that we’ve been married for twelve years. “We’re being taken care of,” she says, as the high school kid starts ringing in our purchases.
The store is mostly empty. Everyone is wearing a mask. The red hair woman has no one to serve. Nothing to do. She looks at me and my wife, the only people in line. “We don’t see a lot of couples like you in here. It’s noticeable.”
“Is that so?” I tell her.
She shrugs. “Just trying to make conversation. Where did you meet? How did you meet? Are you married?”
I hold up my hand, and show her my white gold wedding band. The high school kid is taking discounts off our purchases, now. One-by-one, tapping them into her tablet.
“You don’t have kids, do you?” says red hair woman. I can’t see her mouth, but I know what it’s doing behind that polka dot fabric.
“We have two,” says my wife. “Two boys.”
“I’m sure they’re beautiful,” she says. The high school kid puts the handset in front of me, and I wave my credit card. A receipt starts to print. The red hair woman leans toward my wife, and drops her voice. “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
The four of us stand there, in an empty store, wearing masks. It’s 2022. January. The coldest month any of us have seen for several winters. That’s why we’re buying sweaters. I hate wearing them, but my wife likes to keep the house cool. Says it’s a good thing for the environment, that it’s eco-friendlier to wear a sweater than it is to burn natural gas. Cheaper, too. Twelve years later, she cooks me and the boys East African chicken sometimes, coconut milk and turmeric with lots of fresh coriander. No matter how cold it is outside, that dish will always make you feel warm.
The mall is empty, too. In the middle is an escalator that goes up three floors, but we have to take the stairs down. Just outside the store, a voice. “Hey,” says the high school kid who rang us in. She’s got square glasses.
“Hey,” I say back to her. She just stands there, staring at us. “You on break?”
“Shouldn’t you go back in, then?”
“There’s no one in there.”
“Do you need something?” asks my wife.
She shakes her head. And just stands there.
“We’re going to go get lunch now,” I tell her.
“At Avion’s? That’s a good place.” She looks around, as though wondering why there aren’t more people in the concourse, or on the escalator. “I’m seventeen,” she says, then opens the door and goes back in.
My wife takes my hand and leads me to lunch. I have a terrible head for directions. Can’t even find my way through a mall.
At the restaurant, we get a table near the bar. I order a beer. My wife, she doesn’t drink, even though beer is vegan. The plastic bag full of sweaters is on the booth seat next to me, the receipt flopping through one of the handholds. She’s staring at the menu as I drink my beer.
“I think I’ll get the steak,” she smiles. “Steak frites.”
“You won’t like it,” I promise her.
“By the time we get home, the plough will have blocked the driveway. We’ll have to shovel to get in.”
I shrug, wondering if she means for me to do that work. “Maybe the boys went out and took care of it. Maybe they saw the plough and know that we can’t get in.” On the speaker, an eighties song is playing. I decide not to finish the beer.
“For sure,” says my wife, staring at the menu. Her foot is playing with my calf, nudging it back and forth, but all her attention is on the menu, as she tries to figure out how to order something vegan. She’s still concentrating on that, foot on my leg, when the waitress comes to take our order. We hear about the lunch specials. The weather. How hard it is to get driveway salt anymore, do we ever have that problem? I nod, and tell her yes.