Mine and Raul's Volvos' Sound Systems
and remembering to become the greatest of all time
This is a short story installment of Emily Writes Back, the advice column for brilliant people, by Emily Sanders Hopkins.
Achievement, achievement, achievement.
I have always been focused on being great, becoming great. The greatest. When we were coming up, my grandmother used to tell us (or sometimes just repeat this into the general air to nobody in particular), The one thing you can be the very best at in the whole world is being yourself.
A sad truth, yes, for those not able to achieve supremacy in any other field. But I always wanted to be the very best in the whole world at something else too, in addition to that one freebie.
Then I’d wake up one day and realize I had forgotten to strive for greatness for a while. Instead, I’d been trudging along trying to pay bills, not get fired, not pay ATM fees, not bite my nails, keep the apartment clean. That’s when I’d shake myself and say, “Wake up, Tracey Coolidge! You’ve got this one life. Now go be great! Do not lose the thread of this ambition again! Do not let the flame flicker out and die. Achieve!”
After the True-Health Pacemaker 10 K, which I ran in 43.51, I ate two bagels smeared thickly with cream cheese, under the survivors tent, and then I got into my Volvo station wagon intending to go straight home to shower. But on the highway, it occurred to me that I didn’t have much food in the refrigerator and that I wouldn’t want to shop the next day, when I’d be sore from the race.
The Krogers off exit 20 has an inordinately large parking lot, which of course is always mostly empty, giving the place a sad feeling in spite of the fact that is is the best grocery store in the region.
I like how the cashiers at this Krogers are all like main characters in a good novel, not minor side characters.
They have soulful faces, sharp eyes that miss nothing. You’ll often find them in small groups talking quietly to each other, and when you approach, they glance up at you like the French underground resistance and smile faintly.
I pushed my cart through the produce section, marveling at how pretty their red radish bunches were, slick with grocery store rain. The organic carrots also looked good, very bright orange, already scrubbed clean. I considered grabbing a bunch to add to my empty cart, but something held me back—I didn’t want wet hands. I didn’t feel like chopping carrots or slicing radishes. The lettuces also looked good, full heads of green tresses, crimped and curled, the faces turned away from me forever. Fancy dill, holding clear drops of dew in fine fringe like a spiderweb holds dew. All interesting, but somehow, my cart remained empty.
A woman in a green Krogers apron was piling more apples onto an existing pile of apples. She gave me a smile as I passed.
In the bread aisle, I stood in front of the pita breads for a long time. Some pita bread is so puffy, you wonder what the point is of being pita—why not go ahead and be a hot cross bun? Other pita is so thin and dry looking, like a sad beret hat left in a sofa cushion for a decade, that you think about Palestine and how far away it is and how different their lives must be.
And I could go on, telling you about my trance-like indecision in every aisle. It was strange. The apple-stacker woman and I crossed paths again near the pickles. She nodded and smirked as I ran my finger over a pickle jar label, I nodded back and said, “Hi again.”
“Can I help you find something?” she said, eyeing my empty cart.
And if I could have thought of a hard-to-find item right then, I might have said it, for cover, but I couldn’t think of a thing. (Strawberry kombucha? Almond milk ice cream? Fruitcake? These would all have worked.)
“No thanks,” I said, “I’m good.”
In the frozen desserts aisle, I had the grocery store entrance in my line of site and noticed a woman I know walk in. Mya, who has black hair and the lightest green eyes, a beautiful woman. She and her husband and four children live on my block and when you pass them, they are speaking Spanish, holding coffee cups, and are always well-dressed. I don’t know what they do for a living, but you can assume they have achieved greatness in some area, possibly music or photography.
I have to leave this store, I realized.
I knew that the staff was aware I’d been there for at least 40 minutes without putting a single item in my cart. If I leave now, will it seem like I’m a shoplifter? Or crazy? None of my concern, I decided. I have achieved greatness in eschewing all purchases.
In the parking lot, near my car, was another Volvo, dark grey like mine but newer, with the passenger’s side door flung open. Mya’s husband Raul, leaned against the side of his Volvo. Music was playing, pouring out of his car into the empty parking lot. Geese flew high above in the sky and I wondered if they were too far away to hear the music, which sounded Cuban to me. Dozens of instruments. Very happy music, intricate and sultry.
“Hey,” I said as I checked all my hoodie pockets for my keys.
“Hola, neighbor,” he said with a smile. “Listen to this. I have played this on the stereo at home a million times, but to hear it like this, on this car’s stereo, I’m hearing totally different things. It’s a completely different sound experience!”
“Cool,” I said, trying to imagine what it sounded like on his stereo at home, trying to picture the inside of his and Mya’s brownstone, across the street from my building. I pictured them having a lot of jade plants and floor to ceiling bookshelves.
“No, no,” he said, pushing himself off his car and touching my arm, smiling at me, he eyes warm and perceptive.
I ducked my head inside his car and listened for the count of five. I guess their four dark-haired kids were at a weekend enrichment program.
"Is that the radio, or from your phone?” I asked.
“It’s on the radio now, 88.1.”
“Let’s see how it sounds on my car, “ I said, pointing to the car in front of his. “Same make, just a different year.” He nodded, agreeing to the idea, if not enthusiastically at least gamely.
“I found my keys in my sweatpants pocket, opened the car and slipped in to turn the key far enough that the radio would come on. I switched to 88.1, one of my pre-set stations anyway. Now both our radios were playing the same music in the same empty parking lot. He ducked into his car and turned the volume down on his radio so that we could listen just to mine.
“Oh, wow,” he said after a few seconds. “That’s even better. That’s the best I’ve ever heard this in my life.”
Now we both leaned against the side of my car, our arms crossed.
It was nice that my stereo sounded good, but I had nothing to eat, nothing to sink my teeth into. Had I lost the thread again?
Mya came out of the grocery carrying three bags. She raised her hand in the air and gave a big, exaggerated wave, like we were arctic explorers. When she got closer, I saw that celery and a baguette poked out the top of one bag. She’d also bought red grapes and several boxes of sugary cereal, probably for her kids.
When she got closer, she laughed and said, “You didn’t buy anything! That is amazing! You are so disciplined!”
“I’m the opposite of an Instacart shopper,” I said. “I go to the store for myself and don’t buy anything.”
“It’s very economical,” Mya said.
On the highway, on the way home, I reviewed my options: painting, pastry chef, education, the theater, shoe repair, snow removal, study of birds—maybe migration in particular—transportation, city planning, medicine, linguistics, fiction or nonfiction, sculpture, parenting, friendship, electrical engineering, computer programming, animal habitat preservation, stripping, motorsport, calisthenics and personal training, academic advising, palliative care and hospice, marketing, clothing retail, large animal veterinary medicine, air traffic control (or maybe just piloting planes), babysitting, shipbuilding.
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