There are the kids, too, lending an air of frazzled casualness to my errand. Wobbly offspring hanging off the front of the cart are threatening to fall to the ground and test the “hold on or you’ll crack open your skull” theory. The more determined ones are trying to root out the box of fruit snacks that’s buried under the real fruit. They think they’ll free the fructose before we get to the car; they’ll only crush the chips.
There’s a moment during every tightrope walk across the parking lot that I swerve to the opposite side of the road to avoid a miniature elderly woman backing out blindly. Then I need to negotiate a crossing back while a kindred, but hassled, mom in a minivan trails me at two miles per hour. If she’d just let me cross, she could have my spot next to the cart return.
The spot next to the cart return is my favorite. I can wrestle the groceries and the kids into the car and return my cart without leaving them alone while I run a marathon across 12 lanes. I have this irrational fear that clown-masked abductors will strike when I’m jogging an empty car cart to the corral. If that happens I’ll never be able to take the kids to a circus after I rescue them from kidnapper clowns. It will be just like when I watched Poltergeist in my fifth grade class. It was some kind of bonus fun time the teacher engineered. Just what every fifth grade girl wants: pee-stained shorts and a lifelong fear of spongy red clown noses.
The space next to the cart return and clown phobias: That’s how I keep my kids off of milk cartons.
But there are times when I manage a trip to the store alone. A solo shopping experience, while it may include picking up things for the children back at home, also includes the lone walk across the parking lot.
When I go it alone, there is no child releasing a sister’s grip to traipse between the still running Suburbans driven by newly licensed teens. There are no catfights between the twins over who gets to help push the cart back to our van. Little feet aren’t rolled over when I attempt to realign the cart for unloading. Bread and tomatoes aren’t helpfully tossed at fastball speed into the trunk. But the best part is that I don’t need a car cart.
When I’m alone in the parking lot, I transform. As soon as the car door thunks closed behind me, I straighten my spine, lifting my less-splendid-than-it-was-in-its-heyday bosom and letting my jiggling belly flop over the top of my briefs, a consequence of my torso being held upright for the first time in months. My shoulders are pushed back and my feet move one in front of the other, taking steps like a runway model or, more truly, like someone who is not walking like a penguin as one child tries to traverse the parking lot from between her legs.
I’m a lady, damn it. I have a purse and only a purse on my arm. Not my purse and three toddler purses in varying themes on princess that my girls needed to take into the store but have tossed to me less than 30 seconds after exiting the car.
I’m a parking lot prima donna. My shirt is covering my bra because a young boy isn’t trying to get my undivided attention by pulling my V-neck tee below my belt line as we cross in front of stopped vehicles. Guy I recognize from the YMCA: My navel says, “Hello!”
I look Ray-Ban chic because my sunglasses are in the right spot on my face. They are not, as they were last week, dangling from one ear because they were knocked askew in a scuffle between the kids while my hands were occupied in the dragging of one reluctant child while keeping her skipping counterpart reined in.
When I’m the only shopper, my pants are not drooping. My lip gloss is not entrapping stray, wind-whipped hairs that I can’t dislodge for fear of losing my lifesaving grip on my kids. No one has spilled my latte. I actually have a latte because I didn’t need to avoid the drive-thru for fear of demands for cake pops and chocolate milks.
I’m me again. I’m not “Mom,” I’m just “Ma’am,” who doesn’t get carded when buying wine any longer, but yippee, I’m old enough to buy wine. And if it weren’t for the My Little Pony sticker one of my kids stuck to my rear before I left the house, I’d be the lady I imagine I am.