METRONOME TICKING
By Cecil Court Copeland

"Then we came to the toilet paper..."

I held out for maybe long enough when I asked her to move in with me. Her answer was not so much yes as not no. Two weeks later we shopped together for groceries to put in "our" apartment. Nothing happened while shopping, nothing at all. We said nothing. She put in one item, I put in another. We went through the entire supermarket twice without saying, "Let's go through one more time just to be sure." We just went through twice. I don't remember what we bought. I do remember coming home with six roles of toilet paper and no mustard. When we passed the mustard, both our eyes met for a moment on the label of a particular jar, and then we walked on. Then we came to the toilet paper and without speaking a word she put some one-ply in the basket while my hand practically brushed against hers as I reached for some two-ply of the same brand. We both sort of giggled but neither put back their choice. Hers was a pack of four roles of one-ply, which makes four. Mine was a pack of two roles of two-ply, which also makes four. I think that's why we both laughed, although I'm not sure. No, I'm sure. That was why we laughed. Months later both our hands went to the same package of I forget how many ply, but I remember being astounded at how far or rather how close we had come together in some of our ways. It was a good place to meet. But what about the mustard? I don't like mustard. I don't think she does either. We never discussed it. But the fact that both our eyes met on that label of French's mustard, the smallest jar they sold, both our eyes on the smallest jar, was a sort of sore spot between us throughout our entire relationship. It seems neither of us wanted to buy it but thought the other did. It remained not a spoken, but an unspoken source of separation between us. Even though our eyes had met at the very same time on that very same jar. Crazy as it sounds, we never would travel down the mustard aisle together for the entire nine months of our relationship. I would go. Alone. Or she would go. Alone. Then we'd meet at the other end of the aisle, pretending the other had to get pickles or something. Then one of us would say, "Wha'd ya get?" And the other would answer, "Pickles." We really were like children. Oh well, it's over now. It really is. Now I do a funny thing. Whenever I go shopping alone, I pass the mustard aisle completely, and then finish all my shopping. Then as I'm about to place the last item onto the moving belt at the checkstand, I suddenly say, "Jesus. I forgot mustard. Can you wait a second? You ring this up and I'll be back by the time you finish." Then I stop myself and say, "Oh. Wait. I think my wife bought some last week." I'm not really sure why I do this. It gets me absolutely nowhere. I did it last week and the girl cashier looked at me and smiled, like she knew what I was doing. I smiled back and cleared my throat at the same time. Suddenly the manager was behind her changing the paper roll of the register, even before my order was finished. I said, "Do you have to ring it up all over again?" The manager said, "No sir. Everything's under control." And he smiled. Why did he smile? It was as if he and the cashier girl, she was kind of cute, both knew about the game with the mustard. Then, in a moment of brilliance, I said, "Jesus. I got two-ply instead of one. Can you wait?" And though they looked perplexed, they smiled, and one said "Sure," while the other said "sir", as if they were forming a reply together. Then, leaving the toilet paper on the slowly moving belt, I ran as fast as I could to an aisle and instead of one-ply or two-ply I brought back mustard. I had done it without thinking. I handed it to the girl and she squeezed it and smiled and the manager said, "Don't squeeze the Charmin." They both laughed and then she rang up the last item of the sale then taxed and totaled my bill. I took the groceries home and put them all away except the two items I thought maybe I was failing to distinguish between. I assumed the cashier and manager were right and I was wrong. After all, it was two against one. I put the toilet paper and the mustard side by side on the kitchen table, pulled my chair back about three feet and sat down, thinking I could better distinguish from a distance than if I was up close. On the left was the mustard and on the right was the toilet paper. I forget how many ply now. Two. One. I really don't think its important. My eyes shifted back and forth between the two items, like a metronome ticking. I knew what I was seeing and I could tell the two items apart very easily. I felt totally safe in my observations. I was confident. Then I did a strange thing. I stared blankly at the mustard and toilet both. I ceased to focus. By doing this my vision became blurred. The two objects ran together until the white paper became yellow with French's written across it, while the mustard grew large and round and white. It wasn't as if they had totally interchanged. Not at all. It was more that they merged and became one, or one took on characteristics of the other, and as I stared with my blurred vision, the two objects changed and rechanged before my eyes. French's became Charmin and Charmin French's, but then French's would become French's again and Charmin Charmin, or it would be Charench, or Fremin, or it would be French's Charmin or Charmin's French. It may all sound very strange, but actually it was kind of fun. For a while. Only because I was truly able to distinguish between the two was I able to play that game with these two items. After a while I stopped and looked back and forth at the mustard and toilet paper, steadily. Then I was able to relax. I sat and looked at nothing in particular, and thought about nothing in particular. I must have sat for a good five minutes like that until I grew tired. I got up, put the mustard in the bathroom, the toilet paper in the refrigerator and went to bed. I lay awake for a long time and pretended that I was not alone but that she was next to me on the bed and that we had made love and were staring contentedly at the ceiling. Pretty soon the ceiling sank lower and lower until it was on top of me almost. For a moment I lifted my hands to stop it from crushing me. Then I realized it was all a dream so I relaxed and went to sleep. In an even deeper dream I awoke to a phrase that seemed to startle me from my sleep. "The trauma of birth is equal to that of the trauma of separation." Or was it the reverse? It was the reverse. It came out like a mathematical equation that did not so much have to be solved as felt, or at least understood. So I lay awake and played with it in my mind while the clock on my left ticked in my ear. Birth divided by separation equals. Or, separation divided by birth equals. Or whatever. It was just a phrase that came to me in my sleep that kept me awake playing with it for the rest of the night. In the morning the alarm went off. I reached over and turned it off, rolled over to my right side, and fell asleep. I slept the entire day and woke to the moon shining white and soft through my open window.

END

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