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Toothpaste.

It shouldn’t be a hard decision, but it is. Garishly decorated boxes scream their benefits. What is more important? Cavity protection? Fresh breath? Teeth bright as a beacon, beckoning the unwanted gaze of bystanders? She can feel her heart beating faster as her finger brushes the boxes and she sucks on her lip in indecision.

A child grins a merry greeting as he scoops up his box. The cartoon monkey advertises strawberry-flavoured delight, and for a moment the shopper is tempted to follow the child’s lead. She wishes someone would make this decision for her.

It has been years since her feet last trod the artificially illuminated aisles of a supermarket. The tinkling Christmas tunes piped through ceiling speakers set her nerves on edge. She tries to remember if she is normally so aware of the heart beating within her chest.

The toothpaste still taunts her.

It is all she needs to buy today. She expected the challenge, and has separated her essential shopping into small daily tasks. After all, she doesn’t need to travel three hours on a rutted road to reach the one store that offers such luxuries as toothpaste, and shampoo, and soap; she can afford to make multiple trips. The shopper shudders as her eyes slide across the shop to the thousands of bottles claiming miracles of regeneration and beauty.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

The shopper glances at her watch. She has been here for ten minutes, losing a staring contest with shelves of cardboard boxes. The shop assistant looks curious. Concerned.

The shopper lets out a nervous chuckle, watches the assistant squirm nervously, clearly regretting his intrusion.

“Which toothpaste do you use?” the shopper asks.

The assistant smiles, happy to help. He hands her a box. White, with blue writing.

“This is a good brand. Or if you want something more…”

She cuts him off, grasping his sleeve with her fingers.

“No. Please. This will be fine.”

She takes the box from his hand and clutches it to her like a talisman. Like the charms to ward off bad health, and cavities.

The assistant shrugs and walks away, but she can’t tear her eyes from the display. She can feel her lip trembling, feel the tears forming. This is her world, the country of her birth. For years she shopped these aisles, mindlessly pushing her trolley, picking up toothpaste with no more than a cursory glance and throwing it atop the pile of food and sundries that would see her through the week.

This world hasn’t changed. Only she has changed.

It seems impossible that a supermarket could seem less hospitable than the jungle she called home for the last five years. How could faces which match her own so closely seem so much less familiar than the gap-toothed grins the women who trekked miles to the clinic would offer in payment, along with a chicken, or bananas, battered and beaten from their journey through the dense undergrowth.

She draws a shaky breath and turns to leave, eyeing up the Christmas aisle that bars her way to the checkout. Children point at plastic and scream their demands. Trees are dotted with more lights than those that sprinkled the dark night sky, a fourteen-hour plane ride away from where she finds herself now.

She steels herself, but she isn’t moving. She can feel a scream rising in her throat, desperate to rip from her mouth at the cultural conflict that boils within her. The short nails on her fingers, chewed to near-nonexistence, bite into her palm, and she holds the toothpaste so tightly that the box crumples in her grasp.

“Excuse me.”

The shop assistant is in front of her. He’s young, a lad in his late teens, filling the need for Christmas extras and earning a few coins for his efforts.

“Can I help?”

The shopper turns her terrified eyes on his.

“I’m ever so sorry. I seem to be stuck.”

The boy nods, as if he understands, and ever so gently he takes her arm. She’s afraid of hurting him with the fierceness of her grip, but he seems undaunted as he walks her through the seasonal selection.

“You’re not from around here?”

“I used to be,” she says, and tells the boy a tale of trees and terrors. Spiders and snakes and mosquito nets. Homes of wood and mud and dirt, and the diseases she helped to treat with wholly inadequate supplies. She talks of people who would laugh at a breeze and dance in the rain, who would bring her a slither of their nothingness to pay for what medicine she could provide. She doesn’t realise they have stopped short of the checkout as she talks on and on of a world so different it could be found in the pages of the stories she read as a young girl.

The boy nods along and says nothing, but his eyes reflect the wonder of her tale.

Eventually, the shopper’s words run dry and she wipes away the tear that mars her wrinkled cheek.

“Thank you,” she says, and waves her toothpaste with a smile.

“Any time,” the boy says, and gives her arm a final squeeze.

She fears defeat again, facing down the mechanical monster demanding that she relinquish her hard-won toothpaste to the bagging area, but there is the shop assistant, walking her through. He frees the box from her numb fingers and places it in a small paper bag, then he pays for the purchase himself, before she can stop him.

“My treat,” he says with a smile, and places the bag into her outstretched hand.

It’s a short walk to the shopper’s apartment, and she swings the bag with each step as she walks. Suddenly the faces before her don’t seem so distant or hostile, and her smile awakens a reply on their lips.

She stands before the mirror at home and brushes her teeth vigorously, silently thanking the shop assistant who spared her his time, and his ear.

March 04, 2020 14:56

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1 comment

Victor Lana
21:04 Mar 12, 2020

I don't think I'll shop for toothpaste without thinking of this story. Such a mundane thing, such a thing we take for granted, but you have turned it into something like a Herculean task. It is nothing about the size or weight of the object; the heft in this story is in her mind. You lay out enough of a back story that we can put pieces together. It also feels like a nice slap in the face of a consumer culture where there are so many things from which to choose in some places and scarcity in others. I wasn't sure what would happen, but th...

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