Seeing the Surfaces at the Supermarket

I was in the check-out line of the supermarket. Just another trip to the store.  A couple of people were ahead of me in line. A tall, dark-haired woman was just finishing up her exchange with the cashier.


“Use mine, please.”

It was a pleasant voice.  She had strong cheek bones. And her tresses bobbled, a little like Shirley Temple.  She was a man, though.  I felt this immediately.   I corrected myself for a split second. Surely, I was mistaken. She did not look masculine – she was a perfectly female person. Somehow I was sure, though. There was something more than her appearance showed.  Obviously,  I could not see beyond what my eyes saw.  Maybe I was seeing accurately.  Maybe not.  She was a woman by every marker of her identity.  What upset me was this: everything that I could see about her would never be enough by which to see anything more.

She was walking away from the cashier, toward the exit, her shopping concluded. The checkout line moved up.  I moved with it, but I was thinking about the woman, about seeing her.

My eye took in the magazines and candies for sale on the racks alongside the checkout line. There were helium balloons bobbing overhead and in the aisles behind me the shelves were full of food and supplies.  The people, the paper bags, everything was all strangely empty.

A haze developed between my brain and all these things.  Everything was very familiar, of course, but appallingly so. Everything was known to me, known in a routine way, and worse, everything was known to me mainly for the coverings I could see or hear. I already completely knew all these things surrounding me, having seen them my whole life. But I didn’t really see any of it at all.  Everything seemed to be an icon of the assumed substance.  Gum, the sound of the register closing, even the bottled water, which I often purchase, and the bananas.  My brain was registering all that I saw and heard as conceptions, as pre-formed assumptions. I watched my eyes and ears just skimming the surface of everything. I was knowing my world by superficially scanning.

I was seeing everything as having a sort of wrapper around its entity. My entire life, perhaps, I’d been seeing only the wrappers, and now, I wanted to see inside, but the wrappers were impregnable.

The carts, the sliding doors at the exit, the aprons worn by the clerks. This haze I was in made all the details of the environment something other than what they looked like. Item by item, sound by sound, my feelings dulled as I became increasingly aware that I could only take in exterior characteristics.  This kind of vision made seeing all the normal everyday stuff all around me mortally sad and lonely.

It was like seeing on TV an astronaut walk in space. It’s real, but it’s not, but it is.

The groceries of the customer ahead of me moved forward on the conveyer belt toward the cashier.  The clerk chatted with him while he processed the groceries. Then it was my turn.  He rang up my groceries and asked, “Need some bags”? “Yes, thank you.”  As we finished up, I looked at him squarely. He had dark skin, thick torso, an easy smile. I wondered if he had noticed the woman who was a man. I wondered what, actually, I had noticed? Had I somehow seen something true about the tall woman, or had her wrapping simply confused me. It didn’t really matter as much as the effect I was feeling from noticing her. . . him.

The clerk handed me my receipt and wished me a good day. I took my bags and headed slowly toward the exit.  I knew that whatever I was sensing here in the store would leave me as I went into the next moments of my life. I wasn’t ready to move on, though.

Back in my car, I wept silently. Those last minutes in the supermarket had opened up such a mystery, they had exhausted me.  My sense of reality had been ripped open for a brief time.  I’d seen something worth seeing, but it was not about the deep nature of reality. Just the opposite. I’d seen the surface of reality, how simplistic it is, how deluding.  And what had brought me to this temporary lens of perception was that, somehow, I had seen something, maybe, of the inside of the woman. First, I had seen her physical features, her way of moving. And then without warning, I had seen, maybe, through the packaging.

My eye and brain, released for a few moments from its habit of assumption, had taken in a landscape of facades – facades that were not so much crafted by the entities, but rather, manufactured by me, by my brain, by my brain’s need for simplicity.  The packaging was actually of my own brain’s making – and my brain always believes itself. That’s my reality.

By myself, in the car, I was taken by a dread that there might be, really, only emptiness inside all the externals. Everything felt terribly empty because I had not been able to see inside, as if I’d found the glass boundary of a mirror but could not grasp the depth within the mirror.  In this shocked mental opening, I had become aware of my blindness, aware of my false and superficial vision, aware of only being able to engage the wrappings of my world. The shapes and colors, the garments of the world, I’d been mistaking, forever, as the substance.

That woman, something about her and that moment had cracked me open.  Somehow, I had been let in on my own delusion:  that the woman might not be merely what I assumed.  Nor, perhaps, might anything else be merely what my eyes and my brain had decided it was.

One thought on “Seeing the Surfaces at the Supermarket

  1. What you see isn’t always what is! Those are interesting observations. One thing I’ve noticed when observing people is that many just stare at their cellphones and don’t even make eye contact with their checker during the transaction. What does that say?

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