There are too many options in the toothpaste aisle.

I stand there for almost a minute and just stare. AIM, Crest, something called Polident…I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone use a toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes? Was that ever truly a thing? I never saw an inorganic source of electricity, as my grandparents had often mentioned. I couldn’t believe people had ever used it to do something as mundane as to clean their teeth.

I slide my tongue around inside my own mouth. I’ve got 19 remaining, and they seem fine. Around me, the aisles of the looted store are virtually empty. Plastic, empty cans, litter and empty shelves surround me. Utensils are all gone, snatched by looters who use everything, even whisks, against anyone and everyone. I can’t remember the last time I could speak out of line even in our tribe of 8. The world as I’d known it had always been desperate. I do recall running into a pair: a father and daughter who were walking along the edge of the broken highway, parched and confused. She held a small plastic spatula and he had a long pair of metal tongs from over 100 years ago. It was an easy takedown.

So many toothpastes. I try to think of a time when these sorts of needs had purpose. Trivial upkeep and tiny vanities. I cannot picture it. The long aisle, nearly untouched after all these years, speaks to how much has changed over the generations after the fallout.

Why did my great grandparents ever care about these small things? I question, running my hand over a filthy stand with a rotten rubber conveyor belt under a sign reading “self-checkout”. Abandoned now, looted and all the scanner’s copper pulled out and stolen. Frozen food? I can’t even imagine how that would have looked or tasted — there hasn’t been electricity for over two decades. What were diapers? Why did people need dog treats? Those seem to last forever.

I run my hand over the empty shelves and let my fingers dance up across the tops of strange nail polish remover bottles and sun-ruined concealer bottles. Was anyone ever that color?

Hundreds of people had flung themselves into this tiny store after the fallout. What they took spoke volumes. I always tried to remind myself of that when I snaked my way up and down through the store. There couldn’t be anything of value, now, left. I heard the stories: produce and fresh food and people taking time to read and learn and diaper their babies. To buy these very concealers that matched their pale skin.

We learn to shoot and loot and run fast. You have to distrust, be bandits, sing the songs of the elders and walk without shoes for days. Learn to identify the rabbits that would make you sick from the ones you could actually eat. There is no need for the old indulgences: those are strange snake oil products that have no bearing on us today — things like hospitals, doctors, dentists, people called acupuncturists, meter maids, cashiers, plumbers: all gentle jobs from the past, which I couldn’t say was real save a few diaries I’ve seen in abandoned houses and a few newspapers in hoarder’s houses.

I look at another section next to what was once the lip balm area. “Floss”. People once had the time to run tiny string through their teeth. A whole section devoted just to that. It’s full. No one took that while they ran.

I pick one of the floss packages up. I turn my back to face the dusty, dark front of the store. I’ve never seen the sun, but my tribe says the dust might finally clear in a few more decades. Maybe. I don’t know what to believe, but what else can I do. There are too many options in the toothpaste aisle, and I can’t imagine a world where there aren’t.

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late October, 2011

There was something so poignant about it. So final. I cried when I walked away, down a hotel hallway that twisted and turned for miles. I cried at the space in between it all. The stuff that grows like a scarf you never stop knitting. Pooling at the floor near your feet, growing longer and more unmanageable every day.

 

Work and life and careers and goals get in the way. It’s no longer magical when you’re not just two kids with no scarves yet. You weave in their own thread; it becomes a part of you. But you lose the stitch, and it’s too late; you can’t stop and pick it up. All that living robs the magic. Makes you calmer maybe, and just more sad. Frustrating because this is the sort of living that makes you forget the magic. Ouroboros. What was once standing on the corner, eyes locked, everything unsaid, nothing unfelt, becomes knowing when to leave. Knowing it gets duller. This person doesn’t exist, it’s just a slightly changed, aging version of that person with a list of stuff of their own. Lives aren’t rife with possibility. You’ve flown the coop, you’ve got to keep flying. 

 

He had some of his familiar compendium of ticks, but his eyes seemed different and body slower. His smell was the same, oh god, exactly the same. His lips, too. His teeth shifted slightly, but he moved the same. But this time it wasn’t exactly the same, it was just softened. A pair of old jeans you are just slightly too big for now. But you’re always dreaming of how good you felt in them. If I could just squeeze into them…Can I? I want to.

 

His touch wasn’t as narcotic. Was it? Yes. Maybe. I think so, but he didn’t care anymore. His kisses were sweet and good, but his distance was apparent and my craving for connection wasn’t there. I could have done better, I’m sure, but I knew how it would end. Those sparks just can’t last. He didn’t want that. I liked it like I liked an old movie that was once a favorite.

 

A dream, all a dream. It crushes me that we’ve all been flung out from the roundabout on the playground in our own separate trajectories, and we’re not coming back. We’ll never fight and we’ll never date and we will never dance and never vacation and he’ll never show up in LA for me again. He’ll never come visit and I’ll never sleep in my car with him. I want to feel that again, so badly, but I won’t. 

 

I’ll never end up in Brooklyn, so mad I can’t breathe. Won’t show up the next year, so intoxicated by being together that we can’t breathe. We won’t meet at a bar for a drink, expecting nothing and end up kissing and staring and craving and feeling and evaporating into some electric nightmare. It’s not about the untouched, raw people in us now. It’s our jobs and how we pay our bills and choose our lives. We’re no longer kids defined free of care, through testing dreams and desires and all the little things. We are defined now by the path we take in all the big things. 

 

And I cried and left and walked away because for a moment there it was just us, just two scarfless kids wanting one another and feeling one another. Needing one another. A snowy hug, an appreciation for a touch on the thigh. Just who we were once, the secrets we had and the big, wide future ahead of us like an empty plain. Now we’ve built our cities, and paved our streets and I erected my shrine somewhere in there for him. And I’m not sure how his city is; he might not even be building one. He doesn’t open all the way. At least to me. He shut down somewhere along the way. Chose this path. Pretends he likes it. Like we all do. We all pretend.

 

A few minutes there we lived without that; still a game, still a chase. Still a distance we long so much to bridge. Laughter: we laughed together. More than I remember. Kids. Snow. Braving it because there is something there and always was. Will always be. Whispers in private, spoken with two different languages. Gone when the game is won, a short round of tag. 

 

Unsolved, floating out there somewhere in the stuff between.