Tuesday, August 30, 2011

the lady at the store

Last week, we had a moving day at work. We were moving our office one station away, and a few coworkers and I sort of went back and forth to carry things to the new office. The new office is pretty rad. It's a tiny, cozy space surrounded by cool temples and nature and right across from a preschool so you can enjoy hearing little kids happily chirp and shriek through the window glass as you work. We all liked it the moment we saw it.

Excited as I was, there was also a bit of sentiment. Moving is sentimental because you are usually leaving something, somebody, somewhere you've come to know pretty well behind. I knew I would miss our old office, an aged Japanese-style house. I would miss hiking up the hill every morning. I would miss sitting down on the tatami mattresses and even the spiders and moths who quite peacefully shared the space with us. 

There was another thing I would miss: that convenience store down the hill. It was basically the only store where we could buy lunch unless we wanted to eat at an ancient-looking Chinese restaurant nearby every day. Though I would usually bring my own lunch, it was pretty much my habit and rare chance of exercise to go down to the store to get something--tea, juice, ice cream, sweets, chips, anything.

There was this lady who was always there around lunchtime, a skinny woman with long, dark hair, with a charming smile, probably around ten years older than me. She was already a pleasant cashier the first time I saw her, but in the weeks and months that followed, we had slowly warmed up to each other. Now when she saw me coming in, she smiled a bit more widely than usual. I could hear a bit extra friendliness in her hello. I'm sure I did the same; I smiled bigger and said thank you more enthusiastically when I received the change and left. On every visit, I would glance around to see if she was working and was a bit disappointed if she wasn't.

On the moving day, before I stopped by for the last time at our now-former office to fetch some things, I went into the store to get coffee. I was hoping the lady was there, but at the one open cashier was an elderly lady who was also pleasant but not to the point of the friendliness I shared with the younger lady. Disappointed, I stood behind the guy who was paying; then, my favorite lady came out from the staff room like a blast of wind (well, not really, she just trotted out happily) and called out to me from the other cashier, "Next, please!"

We grinned and she scanned my coffee. "One fifty," she said. I paid. As she gave me back the change, I blurted out, "We're moving the office to the next station, so I won't be able to come here anymore." The truth is that I could still come here, but somehow, it felt as if it was truly the last time to see her.

She looked a bit surprised, but then the smile returned and she said, "Oh, really? Where did you work?"
"Up the hill. You know, you go straight by the bakery and make a left at the temple, then up the long stairs."
"Oh yeah, I know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, but we're moving a station away. Guess I have to find another convenience store."
"Will you be closer to the beach?"
"Kind of. We are near the temple."
"Oh, I see."
We were smiling at each other. A customer was waiting behind me.
"Well," she said. "Goodbye, then. Good luck with your work."
"Thank you. I'll see you around."

As I walked out the door, I realized it was the first real conversation we had ever had. Until then our interaction had been strictly limited to business without a single case of small talk. We still knew we recognized and maybe even slightly looked forward to seeing each other. It's funny how things happen just like that, being there simply felt and sensed but maybe never acknowledged. It's that girl you met in your second grade homeroom who would always smile at you when your eyes met even though you would never really talk because she belonged to another group of friends. It's that favorite hair stylist who would take your hair seriously and actually enjoy conversing with you, who you would one day remember realizing you had stopped going to that salon. Later you wonder if it was only you or you both felt the same--happy to see each other--though there's no way to confirm. That's fine. That's whatever you believe.

But I'm glad I got to confirm something with the lady at the store before I stopped going there. Even that confirmation might be something only I imagined, but that's the meaning that little small talk will hold in me, which after all is all that matters.

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