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Self-Checkout: a Story
On the unpredictability and banality of grief
For those who don’t know, I lost my twin brother Jackson in a climbing accident in August. This is the second of a few attempts at capturing some of my thoughts about that tragedy and its aftermath.
You never know where it’s going to hit you, grief. It’s a wave, and as sure as the wind is blowing, the wave is coming, but you don’t start to see it until it’s about to envelop you. And bobbing there in the water, you say to yourself, oh, yeah, this is gonna be the big one, and you get ready for it, but it isn’t; it’s a gentle dud. Then you start to relax and enjoy the water and the big one comes; it’s over your head, the saltwater up in your nose, in your eyes. You missed it. And where does it get you, grief? Well, anywhere. In my case, at the self-checkout at Whole Foods. Let me tell you.
September 8th, 2022. At 3:30 in the morning I arrived back in Austin after an eventful — if a little confusing — week in Europe, gallivanting around the continent where my brother had lost his life only a few weeks early. I had a few nights at parties with friends and strangers, and a few nights to myself. Alone. Magical lights, magical sunsets, magical seashores, magical streets. And the magic all felt a little weird, almost forbidden.
A week before, I had landed — bravely, one friend had said before I went — in Zurich, greeted with the embrace of another friend who came to get me. I didn’t know I needed the hug that was waiting for me. And yet there it was; there he was.
I was supposed to come to see him the week before, at the end of August. To go hiking, of all things. I’ve told that little bit of morbid trivia to a few people and I can’t help but laugh. What else is there to do at the unjust irony of the world? As you might understand, I originally canceled my trip to Switzerland when Jackson died. But at the encouragement of my mother, of all people, I made an amended trek to see my friends.
I would leave, one week later, from the same city to which I arrived, Zurich. The evening just before, I was in France, and I made a call that I wasn’t sure I would make — to the police in Geneva. I called them asking for documents about what happened to Jackson. Anything. Je suis le frère d’un Américain qui est mort à Zermatt. The police knew who I was, they knew about the accident, and told me to call again in the morning, they’d connect me to the right person. I would be in Geneva the next morning.
In Geneva, I called them again and they patched me through to the cantonal police office in Zermatt. Nothing would be ready until the end of the year, a woman said. These documents take time, I should call again closer to the holidays. The holidays? Right, those will be a cheery time. She asked if I had any questions for her. Not really. Easier to read the papers later. Besides, what’s to ask — why? Why me? Why him? I hung up the phone and headed toward the train to Zurich. I had failed my mission that morning and got on the train.
I got off in Bern, where I walked the streets that Jackson and I had walked just months before, in the Winter. It was much warmer now. I saw the same clocks, the same shops, the same cellars. Including one coffee shop, black and gold in color, where we’d sat the previous December to take refuge from the cold. Jackson never drank coffee, so I got him a hot chocolate (a cappuccino for myself). At the counter looking out on the snowy street, he asked me how much I had paid for the two drinks. I looked at him and said, do you really want to know? He nodded. Fourteen francs. He grabbed me by the collar, as he often did, and gave me an inquisitive what?
The walk in Bern was odd. In so many ways the city, really a quaint town, felt much more alive. You could see the surrounding hills; hear the birds; see the brown bear by the river out of hibernation. But I, one of its itinerant visitors, didn’t feel that way; in fact I felt a little less than alive, and after a labored walk up to a vista point overlooking the city, I decided to get on to Zurich.
I got back to my apartment in Austin just after 4:00 in the morning the next day. Standing on the tarmac in the hot Texas air, I decided that when I got back, I’d make coffee instead of going to sleep. I had slept well on the plane and thought my odds were good. I started to work in the morning darkness, and I swear I accomplished more that morning than I had in weeks. The hours fell away, the sun shone through the window, and before I knew it, it was 9:30, and I had to pick up my new friend and colleague to go to a 10:00 meeting. Up we were.
My godsend was that I had to help my friend that day. No, I wanted to help my friend. Needed to. Got to. Whatever. Was it for him? Nominally, yes. I mean, I was the one driving him around and explaining things and answering every question and waiting outside the Apple store. But was it really for me? Yes, yes it was. I sort of forgot how to take care of myself that day.
When I got back to my apartment for what I thought would be the final time that evening, when everything was done and so was I, I realized that I didn’t have any food. Hadn’t had any, either. Oops. It wasn’t like me to forget to eat all day, but I guess I had been unlike myself in a lot more ways than that. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I was painfully hungry all of a sudden and had to fix that problem. Time to walk to the grocery. And that was when I began to fail, over and over. I walked three blocks in the Texas heat to the Whole Foods. To my credit, I did make it, but walking in the door was about my last victory.
I should have ordered food. But that’s the thing about a death in the family, it’s all food being brought to you. A casserole of this, a bag of that. Frozen food, catered food. Cupcakes. Candy. Can we make you dinner? Please, God, no, not another dinner. Spare us!
I needed to make my own. Spaghetti it was, and I needed a few things. Tomatoes, some cheese, a head of garlic, and a pack of noodles. At the Whole Foods, that palace of prosperity, I didn’t get a basket — I don’t know why. Grabbing one thing at a time, I loaded them up clumsily in my arms, which were still covered in sweat. I grabbed an apple to eat on the way back.
Have you ever spent 10 minutes trying to buy your groceries at the self-checkout? There I was with my handful of items and the damned thing wasn’t working. The apple wouldn’t scan at the kiosk. A nice employee coded it in. Next up, the cheese. I tried to scan the sticker. Nothing. Oh no — my sweat smudged the barcode. I waved the employee down. I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened, but I can’t scan the cheese. Sorry. She squinted at the barcode and punched in the number. 20 digits. Thanks. I could feel myself breathing heavier. You can do this. I scanned the other items and tried to pay.
Please work. I felt myself start to lose it, felt a tear welling up. I motioned to the nice employee that something was wrong, but wasn’t able to verbalize anything. I had to go to a different register. She wasn’t sure what was wrong with that kiosk, sorry about that. And she stood there with me, a man crying at the grocery store, and looked real close at the cheese label again and punched the number in, again. The kiosk accepted it. Shit, could you help with the apple again? Thanks. Thanks again. I kept my head down and walked back out into the Texas heat.
Sadness and fatigue are twin feelings, so to speak. They exacerbate one another. They come together. One invites the other. Is one lonely without the other? I should know. And walking out, with my food finally purchased, the bag was so heavy, even though it wasn’t. There wasn’t much in it. I’m probably just tired, I told myself. But what if I’m turning into an idiot? I’m not an idiot. I can’t be. My life doesn’t work if I fail at the basics like that.
I don’t allow myself to become emotional in circumstances when I need to focus. I just turn it off, and can’t really explain it. Adrenaline, maybe. In the preceding days and weeks before my Whole Foods disaster, I managed to handle myself perfectly well while arguing and pleading with the Swiss police — in French, mind you — and with U.S. diplomats on the phone in my underwear at 7:00 in the morning on a day in mid-August, and with dentists’ offices that morning and my best friends and Jackon’s, and while filling out paperwork that nobody should ever have to fill. But what got me was the self-checkout kiosk and a block of cheese at Whole Foods. My failure to do the one thing I’m best at: feed myself.
I should have just gone to the regular checkout and let someone else do it for me! The people at Whole Foods are nice, and they’re paid to help you get your groceries. You put the groceries on the conveyor belt and that’s it, they do it for you. No favors needed, no need to ask; service is assumed. There’s a lesson here. The problem is that I hate feeling like I need help, but the truth is that at that moment — standing there like an idiot, whimpering at the self-checkout with a block of cheese with a smudged barcode — I needed it. And I didn’t ask. I still do. But will I ask? Nope. It’s just how I am. I’ll ask to help others, though, because that’s what I do to help myself.
It’s just how I am.
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