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Blind Box

by Jenny Jaffe

If you’re not familiar with Lil’ Brands, basically they’re these little plastic balls, and inside is a teeny tiny plastic version of a bigger product, like, a little jar of Blinky’s Peanut Butter the size of a thimble, or miniature bottle of soda, or something. You never know which one you’re going to get. Some are super rare, which is what makes it fun. The first one I ever opened was super rare, a rose gold tin of Iceberg Mints, which has a resale value of $28. I didn’t sell it, though; I kept it in my car’s cup holder and played with it during traffic.


Before support group meetings I’d sit in my car with a pile of a dozen or so Lil’ Brands and open them so fast one right after the other that the dopamine barely had time to hit. I’d shove the spoils in my pocket and count and re-count them while the other survivors talked. Then when it was my turn I’d spew some bullshit about meditating, which I definitely wasn’t doing, and the importance of keeping up with my healthy morning routine, which didn’t exist, since I hadn’t been awake before 1pm in weeks.


I did sort of have a nighttime routine, but it wasn’t healthy. I’d do a whole bunch of skincare and get into bed next to my then-boyfriend Patrick. I didn’t realize it but I was in the process of getting him to break up with me. I’d needle him til I hit a nerve, then we’d fight and I’d cry, then he’d hold me until he fell asleep, and I’d wiggle out of his arms, throw on a bathrobe, and amble across the street to CVS. I was there not only to buy Lil’ Brands, but to bathe in sublime normalcy. Cheerful comforting cereals. Rows of soaps, as though choosing a soap was your biggest decision. Magazines. Magazines! I’d flip through them and enjoy the colors even though my brain wasn’t super processing written words again yet. Anyway. One night I loitered so long considering starting vitamins a clerk in a vest and a name tag that said Arnaz approached me to ask if I was okay, like emotionally. I wasn’t but I really appreciated it.


Oh the other thing about this time is that Patrick was feeling pretty guilty about everything I was going through so he was okay bankrolling me. Lil’ Brands were like $7 a package and i was buying a dozen at a time. The resale on most of them was less than that because really it was the packaging you were paying for, and the experience. Patrick never made me feel bad about it. I only asked him about it once, during couples’ counseling, and he said he was happy to do it. I was doing individual therapy twice a week, couples’ once a week, and support group twice a week. After each I needed a solid two hours laying horizontal and staring at my phone. So I really couldn’t have held a job anyway. Besides, the survivor’s fund was taking care of my basic bills. But they weren’t covering Lil’ Brands.


I was pretty blindsided, then, when Patrick announced he couldn’t do this anymore. I wasn’t even that upset, since I was pretty sure I would have broken it off myself a few years earlier if it hadn’t been for, you know, whatever. But I was surprised. If I was disappointed it was mostly that more stability was gone, just like that. When you see pictures of polar bears sitting on the last little ice patch they can find, they don’t look angry or scared, just defeated. I was just defeated.


Patrick let me keep the apartment, and I let it go to shit pretty quickly. I told support group I’d started practicing minimalism as a form of self care. I never slept in the bed after Patrick left, so I sold it. If I wasn’t at therapy or CVS I was on the couch, rewatching Good Days on Netflix. I had stopped listening to music a long time ago, had no attention span for books and movies, and any show made in the After ran the risk of referencing It. Good Days was all the media I could consume. I’d let myself open a Lil’ Brands as a reward for getting through each episode. When I reached the end of the series I’d start it again. There are 273 episodes of Good Days. I watched it through probably six or seven times. That’s something like 732 hours of my life, if I did my math right, which I probably didn’t.


The other thing that felt okay to me, activity-wise, was browsing Craigslist, which i got into after I used it to sell the bed. I wasn’t looking for anything but I liked to know what I could get for free if I really needed, if it came to that. A lot of mattresses, which like I said i had no use for. Broken appliances. Someone was giving away a free bag of Lil’ Brands but I could tell from the picture there was nothing good in there and I didn’t really have room for more doubles. In the absence of a bed, the bedroom had become de facto Lil’ Brands storage. I had considered buying big plastic tubs for all of them but with the exception of my specials (anything rare or metallic, which was ultra-rare - most of those i kept in a ziploc bag) I just sort of let them hang out in the middle of the floor. They were ankle high.


It’s not like old friends didn’t reach out to me; they did. When I had Patrick it was easy to have him reach back for me and give them an excuse as to why I couldn’t do [insert activity i used to enjoy]. In his absence I started indulging in something I knew even then was very toxic, which I secretly called Friend Racing. I’d see how long I could ghost each of my friends and have them still reach out to me, curious to see who would be Last Friend Standing. It was Priya, who deserved better. She texted me once a week-ish for two months longer than anyone else. Long long after I’d stopped responding. I’m sorry, Priya.


My therapist was for sure concerned about me, but I think she knew if she pressed it too hard I’d stop coming to see her. All I really wanted from her was a supervised nap. I hated sleeping and especially sleeping alone. She said I could sleep for half my session if I talked for the other half.


She asked what i wanted for myself a year from now. I told her, the metallic Harlan’s Original Worchestire Sauce. She asked if there was anything else and I drew a blank. A year. I don’t know. Time was a defunct blob. I knew which episode of Good Days I was on but even that was nebulous, one time I watched the Christmas special like 3 times in a row and each time, half way through, I remembered I’d just watched it. I asked my therapist if I’d talked enough and if I could take a nap now.


The money from the bed was starting to run out. The Lil’ Brands were partially to blame but really it was all the take out. The most I ever kept in the apartment food-wise was graham crackers from CVS. Cooking required focus, and focus required a willingness to exist in the moment. I’d order a massive, stupid massive amount of takeout for dinner and eat it for a few days. Even then there was always something uneaten which I’d feel too guilty to throw away, so I’d let it congeal indefinitely at the back of the fridge.


Sometimes on Craigslist, posts would get miscategorized, which must have been what happened to Ace. His post was sandwiched between a lumpy beanbag chair and a broken toaster a junkie would probably swoop up and strip for copper. I actually was really considering the bean bag chair when I saw Ace’s post. “let me pamper you - $$$ for NSA foot massage - [my local area]”.


The body of the post read:


“Professional, discreet 44M iso Anyone (any age) with nice feet who would like a foot massage. $negotiable. Have been told I am kind and not ugly.”


I looked down at my feet, and wondered for the first time if they were nice. Id always just thought of them as foot shaped but I thought now, on the spectrum of feet, they’d probably fall somewhere close to nice. I wondered how much $ “$negotiable” could mean. I wondered how kind and not ugly “kind and not ugly” could mean. It was the first time in the After that I’d been curious about almost anything except the contents of a Lil’ Brand.


Here was my reply:


“Hi. My feet are gorgeous. You can massage them for $$.”


His response was almost immediate:


“Are you real?”








“Pic for pic?”


I hesitated.








[The first time I ever saw Ace. A selfie in his dirty bathroom mirror. Tired sweet eyes. Bad haircut. Older than he looked. The pang of secondhand embarrassment I felt, noting his drug store brand fresh scent aftershave in the reflection behind him, imagining him picking it out. I don’t know. It made him so human, and humans are so embarrassing.]




[A photo from Before. Smiling. My brother is cropped out but you can see my arm is around someone.]




“How many $ is $negotiable?”




“I was thinking 200”


That was like, 30 Lil’ Brands? Like I said I’m bad at math.








“For how long?”




“Maybe 30 min”








“How does this usually work?”




“I haven’t actually done this before haha. I thought we could get coffee to make sure we are not serial killers then go to your place?”


I looked around. I didn’t want anyone to see my place. Not even someone I wasn’t yet sure wasn’t a serial killer.




“Yes to coffee but no to my place.”




“I can get a hotel room.”








“When’s good for you?”


There was a long beat. I watched a minute of Good Days; Gordy was hiding in Miranda’s shower so Tess wouldn’t know they were hooking up. Anyway, the answer was Before. Before was good for me.








“I could do after 5!”






Why was I so enthusiastic? Ace sent back a nonsense phrase that I realized a second later was the name of a coffee shop.




“What’s your name?”








“What’s yours?”






I wish I’d thought to make one up.


I didn’t really care how I looked but I did want him to recognize me when I got to The Gruff Cat, so the next morning when I realized I’d been passed out on the couch for a full sleep’s amount, I decided to take a shower. Showering was always kind of an ordeal. I really didn’t want to get naked, maybe ever again. I wanted to unscrew my head the rest of my body and  chuck it away. I’d run the shower and try to will myself out of my clothes, and sometimes I’d find myself successfully showering, but sometimes I’d wake up hours later, apparently from a nap. This time I was vaguely aware of the sensation of water hitting my skin, then of a towel drying it. I avoided my reflection and got dressed in whatever.


Should I have thought twice about meeting an internet stranger so he could pay me to touch my feet in a hotel room? Sure, but a), like, I wasn’t exactly doing self-preservation at that point and b) I was going to meet him in a public place first, and I was going to walk there. So many of my friends* (*people I’d once considered friends who I’d since stopped speaking to) were constantly getting picked up in cars by internet strangers to be driven to their dates with internet strangers, after which they’d take those strangers to their actual homes. So who was really being reckless?


Ace had beaten me there. I wish he hadn’t. When I arrived he stood and waved a little, and sharp mortification poked its way through my indifference at the idea someone might think we were on a date. I offered a small wave in return, a rebuke of a - god forbid - hug. He asked if I wanted anything to drink and I said yes, just so he’d go to the counter and give me a moment while I got my bearings and noted the exits. He returned with a little plastic card with a number on it in the slot on the end of a metal stick and placed it on the table. He glanced down at my shoes. It wasn’t intentional, but they were closed-toed. I hoped he didn’t think that was unfriendly. He smiled at me and folded his hands on the table in front of him and made eye contact. His eyes were cozy. I looked away.


“Did you grow up around here?” He asked.


“No,” I said, and it had been so long since I’d met someone who didn’t know my major details that I forgot to answer the unspoken question (“where are you from?”). “Did you?”


“Yeah, but then I moved back east for school and ended up staying there for almost 15 years. But I missed the weather. Pshrbbmm hdwr lmsnbvhs?”


I nodded. He repeated the question I’d obviously completely missed: “What brought you out?”


“Work,” I lied easily, and I was grateful he didn’t have a follow up. In his mind was receiving foot rubs my full time profession? Is that what he thought I’d moved out for?


“Hold on, you’re into Searats?” I was confused until I realized I’d unzipped my sweatshirt, revealing a t-shirt I had no recollection of putting on. When he pointed it out I remembered buying it, though - back when I went to shows. Back when I listened to music. I loved Searats. I’d almost forgotten. He lifted his pant leg and rolled down his fun sock. I recognized his tattoo as the outline of the squid from the cover of their first album, “Searats II” (they thought they were so clever, and so did I).


“Oh shit!” I said, standing outside of myself. “I almost got the same tattoo.”


“We could have been twins! Chickened out?”


“I was 15 when II came out. I told myself if I still wanted to get it in 10 years I could but honestly after 10 years I forgot.”


“Oof, making me feel old. You could get it now.”


“I could! I might. But I liked Dynasty better anyway.”


“Less cool cover design, though.”


“Much less cool.”


I realized that at some point, the metal stand with the number card had been replaced with a cappuccino, presumably by a server. I’d forgotten about it completely.


“Are you into Mark’s solo stuff?”


He was referring to Searats’ frontman Mark Nangle. In high school I had a photo of him I’d printed from a fansite tucked into the clear plastic cover of my English binder.


“I like it but, it’s a little….”




“Yeah, great way to put it.”


“I thought so at first too, but he’s kind of pulled back on the showboatiness in the new album.”


I didn’t know there was a new album. In fact, I’d almost forgotten about Mark and Searats and music altogether. “I’ll have to listen,” I said.


Ace was fidgeting with something. My pudding brain brought it into focus: an envelope.


“I hope cash is okay,” he said. Oh, duh.


“Sure,” I said. He handed the envelope to me and I put it in my jeans. In retrospect I probably should have counted it to be safe, but I’d later see it was the right amount, a crisp hundred and five crumply twenties. The thought of him going to the bank, in his little carefully selected button up shirt and his dad jeans, hit a note I couldn’t identify. Back when I used to go on dates (not that this was a date), back before Patrick (and very long Before), I would feel a similar pang. The knowledge that I was sitting near a man whose body had needs, and he held those needs inside his legs and his hands with his nubby boy fingernails, and he’d take those needs with him when he went to buy aftershave, because his body also grew hair and smelled different ways. And then I’d have to talk to him about his job and his family, all the while knowing he was just this body made of meat and need, and the worst part is, I was too. Like I said, fucking humiliating.


I didn’t quite know how to proceed, so I was relieved when Ace volunteered: “I got a room across the street. No rush, of course.”


I took a first and final sip of my forgotten cappuccino. “We can get out of here.”


He waited for me to stand up, and then he stood up. I followed him out of the cafe and felt the woman at the counter watch us, and wondered if she thought I’d seen him on a dating app and thought, “yeah, okay”. Or maybe she thought he was my dad. We crossed the street.


We walked across the lot (he’d said “hotel”, you can go back and look, but this was definitively a motel), up the concrete stairs and across the open-air hallway. It had been a few hours since I’d opened my last Lil’ Brand, a packet of Champ’s Ramen, and I thought about picking up another on my way home.


I was surprised to see a little suitcase already on one of the room’s twin beds. In the story I hadn’t realized I’d invented for him, Ace lived nearby, and after he was done touching my feet, he was going to go home to the house he owned with all that “$200 just to give a foot rub” money and sleep in his own bed. But then I remembered the photo he’d sent me, the dirty mirror and the drugstore after shave. The liar didn’t get a room for us, he’s been here.


“Should I take off my shoes?” Ace nodded, I think more emphatically than he meant to.


I sat on the bed. He sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of me, like I was going to read him a book, or something. I took off my shoes, then my socks. It’s not something I’ve ever thought of with much poetry. He didn’t meet my eyes and said, “slower”, so quietly it might not have been for me. All that was left to reveal was my right big toe; I peeled the sock from it methodically, like skin from a grape. Ace stared at my feet with glassy eyes and dry mouth. He shifted to his knees, and touched the soles of my feet so gently that if they had nipples, they’d for sure have gotten hard.


Have you ever gotten a foot massage from a foot fetishist? It’s not really a foot massage. Ace had his hands on my feet for about twenty seconds before he looked up at me, and I kind of thought I knew what he was asking, and I nodded. He brought my feet to his face and lowered himself so he was laying underneath them, wearing them like a mask. The room was dead silent. He breathed in deeply. Aren’t there professionals for this? Why was he on *Craigslist*?


Have you ever had your foot in a mouth? A literal one? I bet it’s what sex is like when you have a penis. Just warm squishy around something usually tucked away. It’s nice, honestly. I wasn’t turned on. I kept staring at my feet between his lips, and his tongue occasionally darting out inelegantly from beneath them. Ace’s whole body was shaking, little hungry tremors.


Or sobs. There was something wet on the balls of my feet, and I realized he was crying. I wiped my own tears away and then realized I was crying, too. It wasn’t silent tears, either. I was open mouthed, gulping for air wailing. And then he was too. Just sobbing, heaving, racing to push the tears out. Crying with the urgency of fucking. I finished first.


When it was over, everything was static. I wish I could always have just finished crying. It’s the best feeling. Cumming sucks compared to having just finished crying. Someone in the room next to Ace’s was watching TV, loudly. I think it was Zoolander.


Ace sat up and wrapped his arms around my legs, and put his head on my knees, and I stroked his thinning hair like I used to do for the neighbor’s kid I babysat one hundred thousand years ago. Like I used to do for Patrick.


No one said anything until he said, “I’m sorry.” He wiped his face on the hem of the bedsheet which, gross. He stood up and opened the mini bar, which was empty.


“I haven’t done this before,” he said, maybe to the mini bar.


“Yeah, I figured,” I said, as though I had done this before. “Are you okay?”


“No, not really, to be honest. Not you, not anything you did, i want to make that clear. But it’s been hard.” He might have been expecting me to ask a follow up, to give him someone to talk to, but I didn’t care to ask. I know there’s no trauma Olympics, there’s nothing to prove or win, but I was in a place where I very much needed to have it worse than anyone to justify the big giant pile of shit I had become. I didn’t want to hear that bad things happened to other people. I was trauma selfish.


I picked up my shoes to put them on and then froze - on the ground underneath them was a 1x1.5 inch plastic flat of Pep Cola. It was so common I never would have brought it with me. I knew i had a pile of them somewhere on the floor where my bed used to be.


I tried to be nonchalant: “you, uh… is that yours?” I pointed to the Pep Cola Lil’ Brand on the floor.


Ace also tried to be nonchalant, though how can you ever really be nonchalant when someone’s seen you erect? “Im not really a collector. Sometimes I pick them up when I’m at CVS or something.”


“Same,” I said. Then, testing: “I have the rose gold Iceberg Mints.”


Ace’s eyebrows betrayed him. “How long did it take to find that?”


“First package I opened!”


“No shit.” If he left it there, i would have taken the money and gone home, and I’d probably be dead or something by now, but instead he said: “It’s one of two I’m missing. The other is Harlan’s Original Worchestire Sauce.”


“That’s the ONLY one I’m missing!”


“Well, that and series 7.”


I didn’t know there was a series 7. And I said as much. “I didn’t know there was a series 7.”


“It just dropped, like today.” And then Ace, a man who’d just cried into my literal feet, got sheepish. “Do… do you want to go get some?”


I did, very much so, but the implication at the end of that sentence was “with me”, and I surprisingly didn’t hate that idea, especially since maybe he’d offer to pay, but I needed to go home, so so much.


“I have plans?” I said, and he nodded, like that made sense to him, and I thought, woah, do I look like a person who could have plans? And I liked that maybe I looked like that to him,  so I said, surprising myself, “But another time?”


“Yeah,” he said. “For sure.” He took out his phone and navigated through some stuff to get to a new contact screen and gave it to me. As I was putting in my number, a text came through from Matt. It said, “Are you home?”. I handed Ace his phone back.


Our goodbye is a bit of a blur, but I must have walked home because next thing I knew I was on my couch. After that burst of energy I needed time to decompress, by which I mean hide. For a few days (I think four?) I didn’t leave the apartment, even for group, even for CVS, and when my therapist called, she suggested I get a goldfish. Like the responsibility for another living thing would help. Like any goldfish would have me.


On the fifth-ish day I willed myself into a shower, and afterwards, when I was having my in-my-towel dissociation time, Ace texted. I didn’t recognize the number but I knew it was Ace because he texted a picture of a Lil Brands haul, and because no one else had my number without me having theirs. Series 7 looked really good; I saw a tiny tube of Squeezims Spreadable Butter and a little jug of Fresh Laundry Detergent.


I puttered out to CVS, and Arnaz gave me a little wave. “Haven’t seen you in a few days,” he said. He was trying to be friendly but I pulsed with resentment, like, great, someone’s aware of me. But I waved back, I’m not a monster.


I went to the aisle where the Lil Brands usually were, but all I saw was series 6. I grabbed a few, because I still needed the Harlan’s Original, and then I rehearsed how I could ask Arnaz if they had series 7, but I knew I wouldn’t actually do it. Instead I checked out in silence and smiled a normal amount when he wished me a happy St Patrick’s Day.


It was the Good Days where Gordy’s dad, played by guest star Gene Hackman, comes to visit. I remember because it was during the scene where he chokes on the pistachios and Tess has to give him the Heimlich maneuver. I opened one of the series 6 balls and a tiny rose gold tin of Iceberg Mints fell out. I didn’t know if I could get like, shocked, anymore, but it did feel shocking, because a) I’m bad at math but this seemed statistically very unlikely, and b) I was excited to tell Ace. Excited! I took a picture and texted it to him.




[exclaimation points]




“A second one?”




“Yeah, crazy right?”




“Go buy a lottery ticket”


That seemed like a super weird unrelated thing to say and I must have take a long time to figure out how to respond because he followed up with,




“Because you’re so lucky!”


LOLOLOLOLLL no I wasn’t but I *did* get a second rose gold Iceberg Mints tin so maybe if there was a god it was saying sorry in some insufficient but pretty cool but again, VERY insufficient way. 




“Would you be willing to trade it for a few series 7 balls? I got a bunch last night.”




“Yeah, sure”


I kind of forgot that meant I’d have to see Ace again. That’s a lie; I knew and I was actually happy I’d get to see him again. Don’t know why I was weird just now, sorry. and I was really happy when I got to see him again. But I kind of tried to hide it, like: “hey.”


He gave me a hug in the parking lot outside the motel and he said “aren’t you cold?” And I realized it was kind of cold but I was in a phase of, “fuck you, body, you don’t know what you know”, even when it was a temperature-like fact. So I just shrugged and Ace handed me a bag with the series 7 balls and I handed him the rose gold Iceberg Mints and I wasn’t sure if that was going to be it. We were right outside his motel. Where he was still staying, I guess.


He looked at the rose gold Iceberg Mints up close and whistled low. “The attention to detail on these is…” I let him drift off, syntactically waving to me at the shoreline, and me just slumped there. He gave me a quick smile and started to go back to his room, and I realized very suddenly that I absolutely didn’t want to go home yet.


“Wanna lick my feet while I open these?” I asked. He blinked and nodded before his mouth worked.


It sucked to realize he’d cleaned up before I’d been there the other day, given how grody it had been. But this - the room completely unprepared for company - was so much worse. Unmade bed. Underwear on the floor. The TV was on, just a commercial for allergy medication but he turned it off like it was porn. He grabbed a towel from the bathroom and put it on the bed for me to sit on.


I had a little ritual for opening Lil’ Brands. I liked to take the plastic wrap off completely, and then tear it into a few little strips. Then I’d peel the tape off the plastic ball’s equator, and fold it in on itself. Then I’d open the ball, and take out the little opaque package inside, and then I’d put the plastic wrap and the tape inside the ball and put the two halves back together. Then I’d feel the package and make a guess about what was inside. I was getting pretty good at it. I’d never had someone there to watch me do this, but Ace wasn’t really watching - when I looked down I learned he had taken off my right shoe and had my whole foot, sock and all, between his teeth. Shows how much attention I was paying to my body.


“I’m gonna call it,” I said, and he hummed around my toes. “This feels like Glitz Wipes.” I tore the package open, wringing the last drops of dopamine from my shitty body, and it wasn’t Glitz Wipes. It was Pompiette Napkins. Right, these were series 7, I didn’t have these yet. I held up my trophy.Ace looked up at me and his eyes smiled. He popped my foot out of his mouth and said, “It’s the same design mold as Glitz Wipes.”


“How do you know?”


“The forums.”


Oh my god. There were Lil’ Brands forums. Like, of course there were but also, this was a revelation.


Ace unwrapped my foot from its sock like it was the world’s most obvious Lil’ Brand, of a much bigger foot somewhere I guess, and he looked at it like it was metallic. Ace brought his fingers up to lace through my toes, I realized he was wearing a wedding ring. I don’t know if I saw that the first time around. Maybe the first time we’d met he remembered to take it off. I thought, “I bet I should ask about that,” but I didn’t. I turned the Pompiette Napkins over and admired the detail. It was small, but you could still read the description on the back if you squinted, the same description as if you’d bought them at a real store, for half the price of the Lil’ brand: “Spills and spots have met their match with Pompiette’s premium napkins. As soft as they are strong, Pompiette’s premium napkins have twice the absorbency of the leading brand without sacrificing that luxurious Pompiette feel. Make your next party pop with Pompiette’s premium napkins! Restaurant quality for a fraction of the price - now that’s something to party about!”  Sweet facsimile of life.


I opened another Lil’ Brand. Plastic wrap. Tape. Ball. Guess: I couldn’t! A new shape! Rip. Snapz Cheeze Snackz. It felt so good to have new safe stimuli that I laughed. Plus Ace was tickling my heel.


That afternoon I opened 8 series 7 balls: Pompiette Napkins, Snapz Cheeze Snackz, Cinnablast Cereal, Melvin’s Frozen Broccoli Strips, Wheat Valley Bread, Softdry Deodorant, Softdry 2 in 1 Shampoo/Conditioner, and a second Snapz Cheeze Snackz, which I gave to Ace. I lost myself in the plastic and he lost myself in my feet. A fair trade, but he still handed me $200 in cash on my way out. On my way home I stopped into CVS (Arnaz wasn’t there) and used most of the cash to buy my weight in frozen dinners and Wheat Valley Bread, which wasn’t a huge improvement over takeout but it was actual food to store in my actual freezer, and it felt like such an achievement that I went to group the next day.


I had two good days, three bad ones, and two very bad ones that week. On the second good day, I took a shower, ignored a call from my therapist, watched season 3 of Good Times, and finally responded to the text Ace sent me four days earlier asking if I wanted to go to Target to get some more series 7 balls and a few series 2 balls if they still had any (series 2 has Harlan’s Original Worchestire Sauce). I said, “Okay”.


Ace picked me up and his car made me very very very sad. It was an old station wagon with a dancing hula girl on the dashboard and crumbs on the floor and a sweatshirt crumpled on the passenger seat that he moved when I got in a carsest in the back. He had put on Searats for me, which was nice in a way that made me sad too. He turned it up and smiled at me, which made me the saddest of all.


He said, “Thanks for coming with me,” and apologized his car was messy. I wanted to say “I live among trash in my home and my head” but instead I started to sing along to Searats, and he turned it up more and sang too. His voice was pretty good, actually.


“I used to be in a band,” he said.


“Yeah? Would I have heard of it?” I said, because it was the thing to say.


“I don’t know. Maybe. We broke up a long time ago. We had one song that was kind of— ‘Petty Girl’?”


I thought there was no way in the fucking world I’d know any song he’d said just then, but everyone knew ‘Petty Girl’: Think you’re pretty pretty but you’re just just petty petty.  Remember? It was in that movie with the guy who turned out to be a monster. It’s one of those songs where you forget there’s a real band with real people behind it, it just exists to play in the background of other stuff and you can’t imagine anyone paying money to see it played live.


Ace drummed on the steering wheel, which made me sad.


I kind of regretted agreeing to go to Target as soon as we got to the parking lot. CVS was one thing but Target was big and unknown. I hadn’t been in… whatever measurement of time it had been since Before. But I thought, “Jill, do you want the metallic Harlan’s Original Worchestire Sauce or not?” And I did.


CVS was all hypothetical normalcy; Target was the real deal. Families don’t go to CVS together; at Target they flaunted their wholeness in my face, clumping together through the automatic doors. When Ace picked up a shopping basket and an employee smiled at me I thought - do we look like a family, or can everyone see the rotten meat of my thoughts pouring out of my ears?


I immediately knew coming here was a threat to my rapidly deteriorating sense of reality by the Christmas display as I walked in. Was it almost Christmas? Had it just passed? Were we months away? If I were watching current TV I could have marked time by a special. But right past the little battery powered dancing Santas was a rack of discount swimsuits. And beyond that was backpacks.


I thought, “five things I can see, five I can touch, five I can… smell?” I couldn’t remember all the senses my therapist told me to access when things started getting blurry, so I focused on Ace. Ace is wearing shorts. Ace is tall. Ace is blond, which is undignified. Ace is attractive. Is Ace attractive? I didn’t like who I was becoming at Target.  He turned to me and asked if I needed anything else besides the Lil’ Brands and I shook my head. Ace has brown eyes. Ace looks maybe 45? 50? And I decided he wasn’t attractive but he was the first person who looked at me with anything but fucking pity in a really, really long time. If anything could be attractive to me in that moment, that would be it.


We arrived at the Lil’ Brands aisle. Aisle. This was here the whole time? I felt drunk with something that might have been a cousin to lust.


“How many do you want?” He asked. I shrugged and he grinned at me, tipping an entire series 7 display box into his basket. I examined the rest of the merchandise. There are spin off lines? “Lil’ Brand’s Lil’ Toystore”? “Lil’ Brand’s Lil’ Candy Shoppe?” I’ll admit, this was the first time I’d even half considered Lil’ Brands might be intended for children.


“Fuck, dude. Did they discontinue series 2?” I asked out loud. Ace looked worried. “No,” he said. “No, I got some here last week —“ but Ace started searching for series 2 with me and was coming up similarly short. “Where are—“


“Here!” I had pushed aside a box of series 6 to find the cardboard series 2 display - the metallic Harlan’s Original Worchestire Sauce was prominently featured on the key art, like an oasis, or an albatross. I reached inside and pulled out only one ball. I picked up the box and shook it. One ball left. That was it.


“Looks like everyone had the same idea as us,” he said. I put the ball in the cart. We started walking to check out.


“Us,” I thought.


I thought: a world where It had never happened. Where Patrick and I broke up because of the pedestrian dissonance that would have broken us up anyway. Where I moved on through wine nights with Priya and getting into jogging. I thought: I met Ace on a dating app. I met Ace at work. I met Ace at The Gruff Cat when he saw my Searats shirt and said hi. We went on a date. We went on two dates. We went back to my place and watched a recent movie until we couldn’t take it anymore and started making out. He told me, “I’m a single dad”. He told me in this world, “I’m into feet.” I said, “those things are okay,” and, “I just got out of something so I’m not looking for anything serious”. But we got serious anyway. And we came to Target to get supplies for being Us.


It might have sucked. It most probably would have sucked.  But it would have been an easier kind of suck than wading fucking endlessly through the After.


“Adrian?” Someone asked. Ace looked up. I looked up because he looked up. A woman with normal hair and a green towel in her shopping cart. Ace swallowed. “What the fuck?” She asked.


“Why are you in [my local area]?” He asked.


“I’m on my way back from my in-laws’,” she said. “Where the fuck have you been?” She looked to me and then back at him. “Oh, you prick.”


The woman reached for her phone. Ace held out a hand. “No no, it’s not like that.”


“We’ve been—“ her voice cracked. “I don’t want to make a scene here.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “It’s been fucking weeks. Do you know what Georgia’s going through?”


“Of course,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”


“Don’t apologize to me. She told Luke you’re on a business trip so he wouldn’t fucking hate you but it’s been three weeks and he’s asking why you haven’t called him.”


Ace’s face turned red. I wondered, should I go? But also i was frozen. And also this was juicy.


“I couldn’t watch her… the last round was —“


“I’m going to the hospital now. I’m going to tell her I saw you.”


“Please - Melissa. You’ll just upset her.”


“More than walking out when she’s fucking dying? I’ll upset her more than that?”


Ace opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again: “I’m not having an affair.”


Melissa rolled her eyes and walked away, phone in hand. She left Target dialing.


Ace didn’t look at me. He kept his head down and stepped into a checkout line and I’ll admit i was relieved because for a second I thought with all the drama he was going to forget we had Lil’ Brands to buy.


He put the whole basket on the conveyer belt like an asshole. He abandons his wife and child while she’s dying and he doesn’t even have the decency to make the cashier’s life easier? I haven’t even allowed myself to sleep in a bed in months. Where’s his sense of healthy self-flagellation? Surely I didn’t deserve worse than he did. Right?


Ace paid in cash, handed me the whole bag and walked all hang-dog to the parking lot. Like poor him, right? I followed him to the parking lot. He opened the passenger door of his car and I took a step back. I held out the bag to him and he shook his head.


I really thought there was too much dark fucking shit clogging me up for anything else to hurt the way it did when Ace got back in his shitty little station wagon without saying a word to me. It hurt like I hadn’t let it when Patrick left. He was this warped fucking shape of a person but he’d let me hold onto him and float for a moment. And now it was just me again. I cried there for a long long time.


I think I took a cab home? I took a sleep-length nap and when I woke up at 4am I opened the series 2 Lil’ Brands ball, and I kind of half thought, “wouldn’t it be ironic if—“


The metallic Harlan’s Original Worscestire Sauce. In my hand.


My throat lumped. My brain barfed. I had found it.


I had wanted it as bad as I had been capable of wanting anything in so, so long. It had a perfectly rendered logo, and text on the back: “No soup, sauce, or marinade is complete without Harlan’s Original Worscestire Sauce.  Go to for recipes and more.” I turned it over in my fingers and opened the teeny tiny cap. I held it up to my face and looked at it with just my right eye, then just my left.


And then—


I stuffed it in a drawer and turned on Good Times.


I don’t know how to explain how bad I felt in the days that followed. I guess it’s sort of like: in the Before I was really into skincare. When you start a new cleanser, sometimes your skin gets worse because shit gets brought to the surface, right? So your skin looks worse than it your never cleaned it at all, even though it was probably good to clean it. So that’s what I was feeling like. Just all of it smacking me in the face at once: The Bad Thing happened to me, and then it happened over and over again, inside of me, and I had become this open sewage of pain and now it was spewing everywhere.


Good Times wasn’t working. I turned it off.


I had thought, for a while, if I let myself feel this level of bad, it would never stop. And for a while it did seem like that would be the case. I cried on the couch. I cried on the floor. I screamed into a pillow. I let it all ooze. I slept for 19 hours.


And then I woke up.


My brain felt a little quiet.


I took a shower. I put on the cleanest clothes I could find.


I took the Harlan’s out of the drawer and put it in an envelope and wrote “Adrian” on that envelope and walked it down to the motel and slid it under his door. Let him feel the pain of a closed loop. I walked home and put the rest of the Lil’ Brands in a garbage bag and threw them out.


(I lied, by the way. Ace’s post wasn’t miscategorized. I was browsing personals when I saw it. I don’t know why I lied about that. I’m sorry.)


I went back to group. I went back to therapy. Priya surprised me by texting. I surprised myself by texting back. She had an air mattress. I borrowed it. This was all many many years ago. The more I think about it now, the more I think, maybe I just needed some to not heal well so I could get to the part where I could heal better. Or maybe all of it was healing, maybe it still is. This interminable process of processing. I don’t know, man.

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