About a year ago, my girlfriend Fang Deng confessed to me that she hadn’t eaten breakfast in about a decade, and as a result we headed to the grocery store to rectify this problem. She was living in Beijing at the time, and on the weekends I would stay at her place as a guest. And as her guest, I had to take credit for getting the ball rolling on the breakfast thing, because simply having a guest over at one’s apartment can really help a person get their shit together. I, for instance, didn’t clean my apartment at all for months until Fang Deng first came over to visit me. Then in those few days before she showed up, my brain suddenly switched on, and I found myself sweeping the dust off of my windowsills and taking out the trash left from 2014.
It was about eight o’clock at night when we arrived at the grocery store, and I was surprised by how packed the place was. There were loads of people, all quietly floating through the aisles or weighing fruit on that little silver fruit scale thing. Fang Deng kept asking me what to get for breakfast but I wasn’t sure, as Chinese grocery stores don’t always stock cereal that my Western tastes deem as edible.
We kept walking around, and I kept looking at the people shopping for groceries along with us on a Saturday night. There was an old man with a goofy newsboy hat walking around super slow with a plastic bag full of avocados. Then there were two women in hiking gear shopping with big smiles on their faces. A gang of old women chatted idly by the checkouts. A weathered looking guy with eyes so small they looked like pin pricks slowly glided across the floor with an enormous jug of cooking oil.
I looked at all these people and it made me feel nice. This is why I’ve always liked grocery stores. Loved them, even. Because, man, there was a time in my life when I went through a terrible, dark depression the likes of which I hope to never see again. During that time, I fell into a deep cave of loneliness and despair. Few places could take me away from that feeling. I’d go to bars and find a few desperate people sitting around drinking in silence, and it would just bum me out more. Or I’d go to church and feel like an imposter, an outsider, someone who had to smile a lot in order to hide his true feelings of agnostic uncertainty and being-around-religious-people uneasiness. Or I’d go to the library and the heaviness of the books mixed with the general absence of people would immediately make me think about death and late fees.
But the grocery store was never like that. It was different. The grocery store, it seemed, was my one true respite from all the weariness. There’s happiness in the grocery store. Life. You buy food with a small sense of excitement, glad to know you’re doing something that will keep you living. Everything is bright in the grocery store and inoffensive pop music plays at a very reasonable volume. There are always people in the grocery store, too, always doing exactly what you’re doing. And there’s no social pressure, none whatsoever, in the grocery store. You don’t have to talk to anybody, nobody is going to try to be your friend, and there’s no self-imposed pressure to meet girls. Nope, you can simply walk around in the midst of lots of other people while pushing along a big massive metal cart, feeling a tiny sense of belonging that you can’t seem to find anywhere else.
Fang Deng eventually settled on yogurt and pears. We left the bright grocery store and stepped back out onto the dark street, where a few people were smoking cigarettes and some dogs ran around playfully biting each other. Breakfast was secured, my sense of belonging in the world was rejuvenated and, as we walked home, my girlfriend reached out and took one of my hands, the plastic grocery bag gently swaying in the other.