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Secrets in the Checkout Line

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Rachel Manteuffel is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner.
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By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, May 31, 2009

"I have a secret," he says. "I have something I have not told you."

This man and I have an uncommonly close relationship for what we are, which is supermarket checkout person and supermarket shopper. This is the first time I can recall that he has not stopped what he was doing to greet me with arms spread wide for a hug. I've shopped here since I was 9 years old, when I would get a free cookie if I promised to listen to my mother. He has shown me snapshots of his grandchildren. He feels bad about keeping a secret.

"I have a picture of you."

He looks at me quickly. I can feel my face and neck flush, but I don't think my expression has changed. "I stole it," he adds, looking away. He is still dragging my groceries over the scanner, and his eyes crinkle a bit, in worry, or perhaps mischief. It's time for me to put my phone number into the machine to get my frequent-shopper discounts, but I don't do it yet.

"Where did you get it?"

"It's far away. You were going in, and I was in the parking lot in my car, eating" -- he speaks haltingly -- "and I saw you, and took a picture." Oh, not stole, exactly. Took without permission.

"You took it?" I ask, miming a camera clicking.

"Yes."

I peck in the phone number and get my discounts. The man who bags the groceries at the end of the counter is either entirely unaware of this conversation about secrets or pretending to be. I don't particularly want to see the reactions of the people in line behind me. My brain instinctively flips into woman-on-her-own-in-creepy-situation panic. Rationality, however, tells me this checkout man would never be a physical danger. He is old. I have no idea how old, but a grandfather, anyway. I am a tall, muscled woman and he is a short, slight man. He could, I suppose, slip something into my orange juice, but that seems unlikely.

I know that women make the "he's harmless" judgment more often than maybe we should. But the checkout man is my friend. I say hello, and he beams at me with genuine happiness. He makes sure I know when berries are on sale and tells me about his vacations. He asks about my mom, my dad,

my brother. I always smile at him. He really enjoys the hugs. On those days, whatever else I might have screwed up, I know I've made someone happy.

I find his enthusiasm slightly disconcerting, but it costs me nothing. I'm not responsible for what is or isn't in his head. Except, perhaps, to the degree that I am. I've been hugging this man for years. I knew that I meant it in a friendly way, but I also knew there was a possibility he saw it differently. Even so, how cruddy would it feel to keep my hands on the shopping cart when he opens for a hug? I did what was easier, but not necessarily what was kinder to him.

Here in the store, he's still waiting for my reaction to his revelation, and I don't know what it is. I should do something. There must be a way for responsible adults in polite society to tell grandfathers they've known for 15 years that, though it is not a crime, it is also not okay to sneak pictures of young-women-who-could-be-their-granddaughters from a car.

But ... why not? He's never been pushy or acted as if I owed him anything. If he takes a picture, it's his business, not mine.

Or would have been, if he hadn't told me about it. Why would he even do that? There are people around. This couldn't have been his Big Move. It was, it must be, a confession. Maybe he feels guilty -- for attaching so much meaning to me, for how important it is that a young woman is nice to him and smiles. For making our relationship so unequal in relative importance that we can never really be friends.

I tell him it's okay, that I don't mind. But I keep my face hard. He gives me my receipt after glancing down and telling me what I have saved, as is store policy. He looks sort of miserable. I hate this. I want smiles to cost me nothing again.

"Thank you," I say. "See you next time," and I can't help it: The corners of my mouth are pushing back. A smile still seems like the right thing to do, even when smiles wrought this whole rotten checkout awkwardness. It feels measly and worthless on my face, and I can only imagine how he sees it.

"Tell your mom hi," he says, and doesn't smile back.

E-mail: xxfiles@washpost.com.


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