Small Talk

I wrote this piece a long time ago and it received a lot of positive feedback and has since popped up in various online publications. I’m posting it here today because my mother is very much on my mind as yesterday was her birthday, and we had a great day. At one point we talked about life long ago when we had family over for a barbecue. This remains one of my favorite pieces. 

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A lady in line at the market turned toward me and said, “I so much prefer iceberg lettuce over Romaine.” I did not provoke her. I didn’t make eye contact or in any way use body language to indicate I was remotely interested in conversation. In fact, I was engaged in the celebrity headlines on the rack above the Doritos. But I looked up. Damn it I looked up, which the woman interpreted as “Oh please continue.” So she went on. “Romaine is so dirty. I mean I know it has so much more nutritional value than iceberg, but it is always grimy no matter how much I wash it.”

I know people, good-natured people, who can handle this. I have friends who might willfully and enthusiastically engage this poor, lonely woman in conversation about various greens, their benefits, and possibly even move on to legumes or even poultry. I’m not one of those people. I have never been good at small talk, nor do I care. Halfway through her very innocent observations about the roughness of Romaine, I stopped listening, wanted to say, “Who cares? It’s a head of lettuce!” but didn’t. It seemed rude. Instead, I said simply, “Oh I know,” in a definitive manner, clearly indicating to the average person that “Oh I know” was all I planned to say. She didn’t get it.

“My husband, God rest his soul, loved Romaine lettuce, but he also loved plum tomatoes. Oh my, tomatoes are a whole other problem for me. You know just last week I was trying to decide between cherry tomatoes or plum tomatoes for the salad and I remembered that…”  Shut up! is what I wanted to say, but instead I stared at her with vacuous eyes. I cannot explain this physical reaction, but it is real and akin to the shortness of breath I experienced as a child at mass when Fr Charles at Our Lady of Lourdes parish would go on and on in his homily. I truly can’t breathe in situations like this. My blood sugar drops, time slows to some immeasurable pace, and my left arm starts to hurt.

Once when a woman asked which Chapstick flavor was my favorite I answered in Russian. I used to use Spanish but people started answering me in Spanish and then I had to have small talk in another language. Once I actually abandoned my cart in line and left the store.

When Iceberg Lady left, I paid for my groceries and wheeled to my car still thinking about the difference between the two types of lettuce. I wonder now what I would have thought about had I not be hijacked to think about this. I learned to like Romaine when I was older, and it can taste dirty, she’s right. But at least it isn’t bitter like some of the other dark green ones. See, I can think about irrelevant minutia all day long. But I can’t discuss it. I prefer conversations with depth and direction, meaning and thought. Give me a good Aristotle-like argument over a coupon swap any day.

Most people will say when you’re only passing through someone’s life for a few seconds in line at the checkout, small talk is all time allows. But I insist the opposite is more valid. If I were to hang out with the lady for a while, then perhaps eventually we’d get to ridiculous discussions about lettuce, but we only spent five minutes next to each other. Five minutes in all of time, eternity coming and going, our lives from birth to death and beyond and before, and in such a flash of explosive existence, five valuable minutes are spent with a woman contemplating lettuce! We negotiate neighbors and strangers alike like this, trying to fit in fragments of our lives as we spin along.  Shouldn’t that time, that precious, fleeting time, be worthy of something substantial? When she said, “I so much prefer iceberg lettuce over Romaine,” I should have said, “Yes, that’s interesting. I wonder if it is because of your youth, or how your taste buds formed when your mother or perhaps grandmother cooked for you. Where are you from? Have you ever wondered if hunters and food gathers were picky or did they just grab what they could and move on? Are you afraid of death?

Instead I know this about her: She prefers iceberg lettuce because it doesn’t taste like the ground.

So I put my groceries in the car and wondered when I started eating Romaine. Growing up it was always iceberg. Perhaps because it was so much cheaper, or maybe that was more widely available back when I was young. But I remember standing at the kitchen counter while my mom smacked the head of lettuce on the cutting board to break the core. Then she’d pull it out and toss it, and I’d help her tear the lettuce apart in small chunks for salads in the black bowls we got at Esso for free after so many tanks of gas.

She’d pull the lettuce apart and start cutting Beefsteak tomatoes and ask about my day. I’d tell her stupid stuff like how Jimmy O’Roarke asked if I wanted to come to his house to have some candy. And she’d comment about how Jimmy always had candy, and then we’d talk about our favorite candy; or I’d talk about how I played football at recess with Norman but I just couldn’t keep up with him so I’d end up just watching everyone. Then we’d talk about what cousins might be coming over and what we could do for fun when they did. It was nothing, really, nothing at all. I loved those mornings when she made sandwiches for school. In winter it was still dark out and my siblings were in bed or already in school and just Mom and I would sit in the kitchen and the radio played late sixties music and we’d talk about food. I can still hear an FBLI bank jingle playing right before the news at the top of the hour, and I can sense the stillness of the quiet winter mornings as I walked to the bus stop. I don’t remember caring that it was cold, and my friends and I would talk about the snow and wait for the school bus.

I drove to the next store on my list thinking about my mom, about how little I was against the counter helping her make a salad. I can still smell the cucumbers sliced on the plate, and the hamburgers cooking on the grill, like it was right there with me. That was so long ago. My dad would work the grill, and our neighbor Joe would stand by keeping him company while I leaned against the kitchen counter and Mom would let me have small chunks of ground beef or slices of salted cucumber. I’d tell her about what my friend Charlie and I had been doing and she always seemed interested.

So just for fun I grabbed some bread and ground beef, cheese, onions, and iceberg lettuce because that’s what we used to use on burgers. Of course. And I stood in line thinking about mom and how most of who we are is tethered in beautiful ways to who we were.

I held the lettuce in my hand. It was firm and fresh, and I said, “Iceberg is still the best lettuce for burgers!” to the man behind me in line. He just stared at me.

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