T.J. Maxx is not necessarily the type of place where you expect to encounter moments of searing emotional honesty with complete strangers.
You can expect to encounter all types of other things at any fluorescent-lit, linoleum-floored T.J. Maxx: cardigans, jewelry, hairspray, throw pillows, napkin holders, martini glasses, and picture frames with the price tag stuck right on the glass so you have to spend thirty minutes with a Windex bottle trying to rub the glue off. But you begrudgingly consent to losing this thirty minutes of your life because you got the picture frame at a deep discount.
I’m a sucker for a deep discount. I don’t necessarily brag to my cooler and more commercially evolved friends about my penchant for deeply discounted T.J. Maxx shopping, but I’ve come to terms with who I am.
I do wonder, though, if there’s a nefarious reason everything in that store is so discounted. For example, did something go wrong with the chemicals in this normally $40 shampoo? Why is it only $12.99? In ten years, will I sit in a doctor’s office while he tells me I have something malignant growing on my scalp and regret the day I decided to lather up with deeply discounted shampoo? Only time will tell, but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take if it means I can treat my tresses to $40 shampoo for just $12.99.
But on this particular day, I wasn’t there to buy a picture frame or $40 shampoo. I was there to buy a frying pan. I picked one with “Emeril Lagasse” scrawled across the handle. I’ll admit — I had qualms about buying a pan manufactured by a TV chef. It seemed cheesy. But the reflective silver sheen and see-through lid ultimately sold me on it.
I got in line behind a half a dozen or so people and began my usual standing-in-line ritual of blankly scrolling through social media on my phone, which, as usual, conjured up feelings of mild interest in and/or resentment toward the lives of my friends and people I’d worked with once upon a time, until a voice on an intercom told me to “please proceed to cashier #4.” Vaguely annoyed by my friend’s most recent Palm Springs vacation, I did as told and proceeded to cashier #4. I set the Emeril Lagasse pan on the bright red counter and began digging through my purse for my wallet.
“Having a nice day?” Cashier #4 asked, jolting me out of my Palm Springs resentment reverie. I looked up. He was young, couldn’t have been more than 21, tall, with a shock of dark hair and an accent of undetectable origin.
“Yeah, pretty good.” I wasn’t, really, but what else was I going to tell the T.J. Maxx cashier? “You?”
“I think I need a vacation,” he replied.
“Ugh. Me too.” He scanned the price tag on the bottom of the pan.
“Maybe a cruise,” he continued, “Maybe to the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.”
Now, the Caribbean, at the time of this conversation, was right in the midst of an onslaught of record-setting hurricanes. TV screens and phone screens everywhere showed the ominous neon Doppler swirls of Harvey, Irma, and Maria as they veered from the Atlantic toward Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean islands. Weather reporters shouted over blasting winds, warning of dangerous sea swells, flying debris, and massive power outages.
“Yeah, but the hurricanes…” I said, “Maybe you should go somewhere else.” I slipped my credit card out of my wallet and stuck in the card reader.
“But if I get dragged down to the bottom of the ocean in a hurricane, I won’t have to wake up again.” This stopped me in my tracks. I looked up at him. His tone was light, but his eyes looked into mine with clear-eyed desperation. He gauged me gauging him. He laughed nervously. Then looked down. He really meant it.
This was uncharted territory for me. I’d never been confronted with a confession as heavy as this while buying an Emeril Lagasse frying pan at a T.J. Maxx.
The heaviness of the sentiment, though, was not uncharted.
For some years in my 20s, I lived underwater. I had a sadness so deep, it didn’t seem to have a bottom. I kept waiting for my feet to hit the ocean floor, but every time I reached my toes down for it, I was just pulled down farther. I’d found, it seemed, a trench.
During the sinking, I ate too little and slept too much. When I woke, I felt hollow. My movements become slowed by the enormous effort that meaningful muscle contraction seemed to require. So I stopped moving. And as I did, the voices of friends and family on the other side became increasingly muffled, remote. The light at the surface dimmed as the water around me grew thick and silent.
I made a break for it one night, kicked my way up to the surface, determined to “reach out” as they say, which is an action ten times harder to perform than it sounds. I needed to tell someone I was sinking, and that I seemed to be losing the will to swim. I needed to tell someone how bad it had gotten. I needed to tell someone even if it was just to have someone hear it. Even if it was just to hear the words come out of my mouth.
I sat in my car in the parking lot of a grocery store and called my friend. I began by asking how she was and listened to her response with an ache in my chest. The ache was the longing to live where she was living – above the surface. And then the moment came. She asked me how I was. I opened my mouth to let it all out. Or to at least say something about the trouble I was in. But just as soon as I opened my mouth, an undertow ripped me away and plunged me back into the deep. All I could get out was, “I’m doing okay. Good to hear your voice.” I hung up the phone and found myself reaching my toes down again. Nothing.
So when Cashier #4 managed to break through the surface long enough to tell me he didn’t want to wake up anymore, it felt as if we’d both come up for air. Treading water with our heads above the surface, we saw each other clearly, eye to eye, if only for the amount of time it takes to scan a barcode, insert a credit card, and sign.
I don’t know why Cashier #4 decided to tell me his dark, sad secret. And I don’t remember what I said in reply. It was probably something about things eventually getting better. It was probably something woefully inadequate.
I went back to the T.J. Maxx a couple of months later, probably for a picture frame with the price tag stuck on the glass. I stood in line, scrolling through social media yet again, when I heard the automated voice on the intercom: “Please proceed to Cashier #4.” It was him. He was on his shift.
“Remember me?” he said.
“I’m doing better. I want you to know that.”
“I’m so glad.” And I really was.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/JJBers