“A Compliment Can Change Your Life, Sometimes”

It was when I was leaning over the sticky packages of red meat that he came up to me and said, “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, I just wanted you to know,” and then he was gone in the direction of the produce. I didn’t notice I was smiling until I felt it linger.

There was no reason for him to say that. He didn’t tarry. And it was far from the truth. I honestly don’t know how attractive I am, compared to all the wild variations of human appearance, but considering that I can’t recall one person in my already lived life ever calling me beautiful besides my grandmother, I’m guessing it’s not very. Cute, sometimes. Pretty, rarely. Hot, sexy—only when the guy’s been drinking.

Justin called me Icy, in part because my initials are I.C., but also, he said, because I was sweet and red-lipped, angelic, always looked like I’d been drinking cherry ICEEs. But by the end, I sensed it was because I was cold. I’ve never felt comfortable expressing my desires, and so he devoted himself to figuring out what would thaw me, and when he couldn’t, and when I couldn’t either, he left.

I didn’t notice that I had been leaning my thighs against the meat case until I pulled away and saw a wet strip had darkened the front of my sweatpants. It was the only place I felt cold now.

I abandoned my cart and cut through an aisle to the front of the store, thinking I could lie in wait and watch for this man, this man who saw something in me that no one else had. I stood near the checkout lanes, surrounded by stacked cans of soup on my right and an overwhelming array of spices on my left, spices that had come from far-flung places that I’d never get to. Shoppers looped their carts around the ends of the aisles, swerved off to self-checkouts, chased wayward children. Every one in a grocery store is sad, bored, and beleaguered.

I still didn’t see him. I hadn’t seen him clearly in the first place, just caught sight of his graying brown hair—he was definitely older than me, but hopefully just by a little, hopefully prematurely gray. I hadn’t felt this hopeful since the day before Justin left.

He should have been paying by now, was just carrying one of those little green baskets. Which probably meant he was single. Hopefully. Of course he was, if he was saying something like that to a random woman in a grocery store.

I still didn’t see him, and I couldn’t wait for him forever. I had five servings of meatloaf to cook up and store in my fridge for the workweek.

But maybe someone who found me beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the world, was worth waiting for forever. Instead of the few self-involved slackers I’d attracted so far, guys who gave up on me too quick, before I’d gotten comfortable enough to stop worrying that I was going to turn them off.

Maybe this man had offered the invitation and was allowing me to follow my own longings, hoping I’d pursue him rather than passively wait until he returned to open me up.

I missed him. Somehow he’d circled back and ended up on the other side of the store, all the way over where you rent rug cleaners and get your coins turned into dollars, right by the exit. He had a shopping bag slung over his shoulder and, on his way out, stopped at the customer service desk, where a stout woman with a wide part in her hair sat hunched, twisting a finger in her ear. He said something to her, she looked up at him, he kept walking, and across a landscape of sad shoppers, bored cashiers, and beleaguered bagboys, I saw her grin, the grin of a fool.

I rushed out to the parking lot and spotted him biking toward the main road. Before I knew what to call out, someone honked at me to get out of the way.

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About Sarah Schiff

Sarah Schiff earned her PhD in American literature from Emory University but is now a fugitive from higher education. She writes fiction and teaches high school English in Atlanta. Her stories have recently appeared in Monkeybicycle and Cheap Pop, and her essays can be found in such journals as Modern Fiction Studies, American Literature, and Arizona Quarterly.