I'm standing there, with my middle-class guilt and my cart full of canned cat food and hair products, as the woman makes her way up the aisle. Her cart is full. Frozen pizzas, gummy snacks, plastic buckets of juice the color of markers, all manner of foods shaped to look like the real thing but imitating it all the way to the molecular level.
The woman is red-faced and sweating, and she is huffing as she pushes the cart. Two little girls trail along after her with sticky, wondering fingers. They want to touch everything. Their mother was against this tactile learning in the Wal-Mart. A skinny, limp-haired boy lopes casually behind them, occasionally trying to corral one of the girls with one hand while holding onto two liters of soda in his arms. He looks dazed.
I squeeze myself against the rows of vitamins and protein bars. I'm looking for Gu; that addictive sports substance that tastes of something vaguely medicinal but is nonetheless a crucial part of running long distances (or a very well-marketed placebo effect); and she is looking to move past me with her overflowing cart and parade of children and bewildered man behind her. She is white-knuckling the cart, and as hers crashes into mine, she lets loose a pent-up AAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH that sounds like it's been building for years. Her little girls choose this moment to get in a fight with one another, and their father, with his cut-off jean shorts that come mid-way down his calves and his white tank top, gets a panicked look in his otherwise vacant face.
"WOULD YOU MAKE THEM GIRLS BE QUIET? THEY ARE YOUR KIDS TOO, ASSHOLE," she screams.
"I know, I know," he's muttering. He again tries to herd the girls into something of a line.
This woman is angry. I can see it in her face, I can hear it in her voice. She is muttering a mile a minute as she passes me, forcing her cart past mine. I am looking at the rows of supplements and avoiding eye contact. She is probably five years younger than I am, with two kids and a man who looks equal parts terrified and checked out. I am the girl with the B-complex bottle in my hand, studying the ingredients for purity. Over-educated, underpaid nonprofit worker, saving the city one memo at a time before heading out to happy hour. It's moments like these that I am blatantly, embarrassingly, aware that my problems are vastly contextual. But, then again, depending on the viewpoint, so are hers.
Maybe it's just a bad day. Maybe she's usually a happy person. Maybe Wal-Mart on a busy afternoon is just too much for her. Maybe something else occurred. She looks weary to me, totally exhausted and ready to give up, but what the hell do I know? Maybe her girls are her world, maybe her man steps up at home and makes her dinner. Maybe she is happy.
I judge her because of her food choices, her accent, her vocabulary. I decide she is a miserable woman who got pregnant young, and then got pregnant again without catching a breath. I decide she is undereducated and poor, and that her boyfriend (and I've already decided he can't possibly be her husband) contributes little. I decide these things, and then I feel terrible for deciding. Who the hell am I?
Maybe she's judging me. Maybe she doesn't know how my heart breaks, how I see the injustice, how I feel guilt for things like worrying if I need to buy whitening toothpaste or cut back on caffeine. Maybe she thinks I don't give a shit. I do. I do give a shit. I just don't know what to do about it.
I never know, in these situations, what to do with these rampant thoughts. Or if anyone else thinks them. If I am alone in my weird analysis of the world; the "world" being Wal-mart on a rainy afternoon.