“It’s like when you’re excited about a girl and you see a couple holding hands, and you feel so happy for them. And other times you see the same couple, and they make you so mad. And all you want is to feel happy for them because you know that if you do, then it means you’re happy, too.”
― Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Sometimes loneliness can pick the strangest times to sneak up and grab you by the throat. For me, the grocery store was my own personal version of Hell. The first time I ventured out to get groceries after the breakup, (let’s just say that fridge hadn’t been so empty since the day I moved in) I wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles. Old Spice deodorant..orange juice..Crest mouthwash…little reminders of old lists written like love notes, in handwriting I could recognize in a heartbeat. Just the way I knew which one was him. A field full of men in yellow jerseys, I could watch one take a step from three fields away and just know.
I spent over an hour there at Kroger and drove home with a bag of dog food, two containers of soup, a jar of Nutella and puffy red-rimmed eyes that seemed destined to leak oceans. Over the next few weeks, I avoided the grocery store and was grateful for the weekly dinner invitations from friends and occasional tupperware containers full of leftovers from my sweet neighbor.
I lost 16 pounds.
Most mornings, I dreaded my alarm going off, wishing instead for sleep and the comfort found under mountains of blankets and 90 pounds of clingy dogs. Koda would sprawl across my legs and stomach as if he could ward off any extra hurt floating in the air. Lily found her place, curled around the curve of my shoulder, with her head tucked into my neck..feeling the steady pulse of a heart that I swore would have stopped beating. No, it wasn’t comfortable..but I needed the weight their love gave.
The days at work passed more slowly than I could have imagined. My students unknowingly opened fresh wounds each time they asked about the wedding. My co-workers gave an endless supply of hugs and would check on me during the quiet moments when I didn’t have a class. They would find me at my desk with my head in my hands, tears splashed onto grammar worksheets, and the Bon Iver Pandora station filling the room. (Do NOT! I repeat..do not..listen to his cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Rait) Some of the best advice I ever received was from my department head, Terri. She told me…
“It is ok. You have to let yourself feel. To be sad. To hurt. You HAVE to allow yourself to feel these things for a while. And it’s going to take a WHILE to feel better, to feel happy, to feel normal again. No matter what anyone else says about being ‘better off,’ how they’re ‘so happy for you’ to be rid of this person who didn’t deserve you, it is OK feel sad. You are ALLOWED to be sad.”
And I was sad…For a long while. Then came the moment when I realized I wasn’t as sad anymore. That I was making my way..slowly but surely..toward being happy.
I could no longer continue ignoring the fact that my fridge looked like it belonged to a 21-year-old frat boy. A half-empty container of oj, one onion, and an expired jug of 2% milk were not going to cut it. I LOVE to cook. Call me crazy, but I love chopping vegetables and the sound they make when you slide them off the cutting board and into a hot pan. I love the fact that you can mix ingredients and create something that brings people together, makes them happy, fills them up. My parents rarely used measuring cups and it was more about a feeling and a look..and they’d know when something was right. I suppose that idea could be applied just about everything in life. Sometimes no matter how carefully you measure, no matter how precisely the temperature is set, at the end of the day..no matter how much you want a recipe to work out..sometimes they don’t. You end up with cheesecake pudding..crumbly meatloaf. And then sometimes, when you let go and stop trying to measure so carefully, you get something so perfect, you know that all of those epic failures were just leading you to that one dish.
In this case, I knew the solution to my problem would come in the form of one of my favorite casseroles. There is nothing more homey and comforting than a casserole. And so, off I went to begin my assault on the grocery store. Once there, I moved with purpose, filling my cart with chicken, fresh broccoli, long-grained wild rice, cans of soup..up and down the aisles I went like a woman on a mission. I was GOING to cook. I was GOING to be happy. And then the test..I don’t know why, but Sunday is “couple’s day” at my Kroger. At every corner, I’d spot them.. holding hands..pushing a cart.. picking up a bottle of wine, steaks to grill, greek yogurt for her and power bars for him. I felt the clutch in my stomach and waited for the squeeze in my throat that always signaled tears. Except..there.. in the dairy aisle..she handed him a package of sharp white cheddar and the look that passed between them made the corners of my mouth lift. Looking at them, I couldn’t help but smile..couldn’t help but feel..not so much happy, but rather..hopeful. It gave me hope to see that even in front of the fresh pasta display and blue cheese crumbles, there were two people who loved each other. I felt hopeful that maybe one day I too will find someone who will look at me the way that man looked at that woman.
It is strange to think you can have an epiphany in a grocery store.
Later, at home, I fell into the old joy of my kitchen. I made the best damn chicken and wild rice casserole you have ever tasted. I curled up on my couch with a plate and the remote, and for the first time in a while..instead of feeling lonely..I just felt content. And for me..that is enough. Happy can come later.
*I added a link to the recipe for this awesome casserole. I love to add broccoli and mushrooms into mine. I also “accidentally” splash a little extra white wine in there 😉 Happy cooking!