August 28, 2011

A Trip to Costco

Quite a few of my friends have been quite encouraging about my dream to write a novel, and they've asked to read my work. I am only in the outlining stage of my novel, but for those who are interested, here's a creative nonfiction piece I wrote for one of my master's classes. It's modeled after GK Chesterton's "A Piece of Chalk" and Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting." Enjoy!

It all starts with a box of lettuce. But you certainly can’t visit Costco and make a beeline for your item, retrieve it, and walk straight back to the cash register, especially if your item is in the very back of the store in the produce section. If that’s the case, you’re doomed, a captive for at least an hour, one forced to eat a variety of samples—from piping hot chimichangas to turkey wrapped in Swiss and a tortilla—and browse countless displays of items you’d never buy because you’ve never heard of them or because you already paid top dollar for them somewhere else.
Oh Costco, you vicious captor, kidnapper of time! Horrid place, really.
My own experience begins when I pick up my husband from the airport after a weeklong business trip. It is a Friday, and we are planning to watch a movie at home. We eat dinner at Sweet Tomatoes and start the drive home. But first, we need lettuce for a party two days later, and we’re in the neighborhood. So we head to Costco, home of the cheapest lettuce around: $3.79 for 4 lbs of lettuce spring mix. No sooner have we entered the voluminous cave then we gasp for air at the gasp-worthy sight before us: large, glorious paintings, as tall as me, with sweeping strokes of brilliant darkness and light, contrasts that both delight and terrify me with their reality. Cowboys ride broad-shouldered horses across the open prairie, the pink and purple sky a magnificent backdrop as it rolls past the moon. A round basket of red grapes lies on its side, grapes spilling one, two, three at a time, and I want to stomp them like they do in A Walk in the Clouds. A lone glass of red wine sits prominently, seems to inch forward out of the picture, whispering, trembling. Finally, Venice beckons; its winding highways of water are narrow and yet the opening to a world of possibilities.
I want to dive in, stand on the precipice of that Tuscan patio, there, arched and awaiting. How is it possible to lose yourself in a painting when you’re in a familiar place? How can another world, one you’ve never seen, seem like home, a place you’d love to raise your kids, the perfect place to linger with your husband, running your finger up and down his arm and leaning against him, your white muslin skirt blowing slightly with the breeze, which whispers a faint hint of wine and cheese?
Ah, smell the Gouda.
And just like that, we move on, leaving that faint world of Italy behind, onward toward a nearby display of cheeses: goat, cheddar, Swiss. I say no thanks, I’m full from overeating at Sweet Tomatoes. Why do I always overeat at a buffet? I try so hard to hold back, to stay glued to my seat instead of running like a crazed cheetah to the foccacia cheese bread, ham and pineapple pizza, blueberry muffins, chili, and—oh!—tomato soup, my eyes glazed over as I search and search for the perfect combination that will mean nirvana. I try to be the dancer, the cheerleader, the supermodel, who resists the carbs and goes instead for seconds on the salad bar, taking only greens, veggies, and a small dab of vinaigrette—but I can’t do it. My love handles would never forgive me. Instead, I go back to the pastries bar one, two, three times as if I think something new is going to be added—perhaps a platter of chocolate chip cookies?—and when it’s not, I “settle” for “the usual.” Poor me. I eat all of this within 30 minutes and then wonder why 15 minutes later it feels like my insides are going to rupture like Mount Vesuvius.
But hey, at least I went to a salad bar in the first place, right? Wink wink.
Back at the cheese samples, my husband takes one of each kind of cheese.  Three of the four go down like little kids at a waterpark, slipping and sliding as fast as possible. Number four is not so pleasant—it takes two bites to get it down, kicking and screaming—but my husband eats it because it’s free. What is it about free food that makes us eat when we’re not hungry, finish what we don’t like, and wait in long lines, even when time is money, to get it?
And we’re off again, headed slightly in the direction of the lettuce but veering off when I see a pair of lamps that catch my eye. We’re redecorating our bedroom and they look like a good fit, but upon closer inspection, they have ivory lampshades and I need white. Costco has a larger selection of furniture than I would have thought and I browse until I come upon a beautiful oak crib and changing table for only $800. We don’t have kids yet, and I’m not yet in need of ointment for that famous of all Itches, but I’m calculating in my head, and I’m thinking, wow, it’s not as expensive as I thought it’d be. Then I chide myself, because I have a perfectly good hand-me-down crib waiting for me from my sister-in-law as soon as we say the words, “We’re pregnant.” I am proud, because I will save a lot of money come baby time—and yet, here, now, I have almost fallen into the trap I’m sure I’ll face down the road, that is, to have a designer baby room like my friends, who have spent at least $1,500 on furniture alone plus designer crib sheets, curtains, bottles, and who knows what else. I ask myself why I shouldn’t buy “the best” for my children, who surely will deserve it as much as my friends’ babies do. But what is “best”? To be spoiled with new furniture when one’s parents’ haven’t even bought one new piece of furniture in their 5 years of marriage? When people say they want “the best” for their children, don’t they usually mean they want the best material goods, the best economic situation, for them? They want not just provision, but provision that’s better than the Smiths have, and—of course—the Jones.
I manage to pull myself away from the crib set with my pride still intact, on the outside at least, and we make our way to the lettuce. Victory! I grab the perfect box, with an expiration date a week out. At this rate, we’ll never make it to our movie, so we walk purposefully to the front. We’re almost to the register, and my husband veers off toward the books, says he’s looking for the new Kissinger book, teases me and asks me if I know who that is. I slap his arm, feigning indignation, and let him wander off as I wonder about how he could enjoy nonfiction so much when fiction is my drug of choice. There is an inexplicable draw that fiction has upon my soul, leading me into its depths, never to return until the high is over and I have to surface in just enough time to find another book, another adventure, another romance—another impossible situation. I equate reading with relaxation, and relaxation with slothfulness—so my habit causes extreme guilt when I spend a day wiling away on the couch, reading, doing nothing extremely productive and yet visiting worlds I’ve never seen before, so in reality, I’ve been there and back again and am more productive than I have ever been. Of course, doing anything in excess ruins you; but books are the treatment for my daily stress. Without them, I’d be efficient and successful but inhuman. Reading fiction is necessary for my health and wellbeing. But reading about Kissinger would just be a counterfeit drug to me—unless Kissinger was a spy, murdered by a band of gypsies and pirates, and I had to discover his murderer with 400 pages to go.
Finally, my husband returns Kissinger-less and we make it to the end goal, the checkout line—and it is short. The race itself may seem to take ages, may take endurance, perseverance, regret, imagination, and tough love, but the end of a race flies by in a moment—the breaking of the ribbon, the crunch of a car crash, the last breath drawn in a fight to the end. The least satisfying part is walking out of Costco. Why, when that was my goal? I’m learning that the ending doesn’t define the trip; not even the lettuce defines the trip. The trip in reality is about the details, the beautiful tapestry of paintings, the taste and smell of cheese—some we like, some we don’t—the crib set calling my name and beckoning me toward a future I didn’t expect, and the gold mine of fiction laying before us.
Next time, I won’t be so resistant. Next time, maybe I’ll even idle intentionally.

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