crackers by Christina Rich

They're just boxes. Six sides made of flimsy cardboard. Some are bigger than others, and they probably have the same basic ingredients; flour, water, oil, salt. Pepper. The logos declare them brand names. Their names give them identities. Ritz, Nabisco, Cheez-Its. If you are familiar with the cracker aisle you know the list goes on, and if you're asked to get Ritz, you’d know exactly what to place in the cart. Ritz has an identity.  

Standing there, staring at those crackers, the identity I had been accustomed to, the one I had been conditioned to know as solely mine,  slipped into the cracks beneath the store shelves like flakes of dust from dirty sneakers as customers strolled the aisles.  

For the first time in twenty-some years, I had a grand opportunity. An opportunity to pick the kind of crackers my tastebuds wanted. To actually purchase crackers without a large can of premade chili beans and a five-pound roll of hamburger. I wanted comfort food. I needed comfort food. And for me, microwaved mashed potatoes in a little cup and crackers were what I needed. But I just couldn’t commit to the grabbing of the box.  

All I could think about was him. All I could hear were his objections to my ridiculous purchase and the ever-constant question whenever I attempted to place something in the shopping cart. “What do you need that for?” 

I couldn’t shake the ghost hovering over my shoulder, judging me, condemning me for my craving. For not snagging the ones he would have chosen. Splurging on crackers and potatoes weren’t exactly within my Ramen noodle budget, and he would have been quick to point out that fact, but I didn’t care. I needed to feed the craving. He wasn’t there to tell me no. 

“Are you okay?” 

It took me a moment to realize the question was posed to me. Standing in Walmart in the middle of the cracker aisle, there’s bound to be a bunch of customers. There were, but I was oblivious to them. I was numb. For my sanity, I had to be numb. I couldn’t adult, not for other people, not after I’d spent the last week making the necessary arrangements and comforting our kids and my mother-in-law. Customers strolled down the lanes, pushing their buggies, tossing items from their lists into their carts. As far as I knew, their lives hadn’t been upended with a big bold exclamation point, like mine had. I didn’t want to smile at passing faces, and I sure as hell didn’t want them to read anything in my eyes and offer me pity. I didn’t need pity. I didn’t want pity. I wanted crackers. I wanted instant potatoes.  

I didn’t want to talk. To anyone. I think I had five dollars to my name, with no idea how I would eat tomorrow, and I didn’t want that to be discerned through conversation.  

I looked toward the voice, asking me the same question I’d heard at least a thousand times in the last week. She was tall, skinny, blond. Young. Did I know her? Should I know her? A few blinks and I finally recognized her as a friend of my daughter. I nodded. Then the tears fell.  

“I’m sorry,” she said as she hugged me.  

I cried more. I’d heard those words too. A lot. It seems I’m sorry is the pat answer when someone you loved dies. But hers seemed sincere. Not given because it was the customary response or given because there was nothing else to say. She was genuinely sorry.  

Dang it, though. I wasn’t crying for the reasons she expected. Well, maybe I was a little. If she knew the truth, if anyone knew the truth of those stupid tears, they’d think I was a horrible person. I mean, I thought I was a horrible person, and guilt ate at me, because for the first time in a long time, for as long as I could remember, I could eat what the hell I wanted to eat and there wasn’t a soul there to complain or tell me no. My identity as one half of a couple was slipping through my hands, and although I never once wished for the demise of that other half, I couldn’t help but sense a bit a freedom in the loss.  

I grabbed the crackers I wanted and made my way to the check-out. I’d deal with my guilt later.