Don’t buy fat-free anything.


You know what frightens me on an existential level, in re-telling this story? How close Stephanie and I came to never meeting. Heck, we lived a thousand miles apart, and just chanced upon each other because we traded zines. We had written each other a few notes, and the notes became letters, and at some point in one of the letters I made a flirty wisecrack, and she wasn’t offended. A few letters after that, I invited her to visit San Francisco, and amazingly, she accepted.

But what if she’d had the good sense to say no? Of course I’m not going to visit you in San Francisco. I don’t even know you. What, are you crazy? If she’d said no, there’s no telling where I’d be – certainly not in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s no telling who I’d be, but undoubtedly I’d be much crankier and meaner than I am. I’d be a 60-year-old man with no happy memories.

If she hadn’t had the courage to fly out to Frisco and fall in love with me, what would I even remember about Stephanie Webb? She would’ve been a pen-pal I’d had in the late 1990s. She’d be an old acquaintance I’d lost touch with. A distant memory. My life for the past twenty years would’ve been as empty, lonely, and meaningless as it was before I met her, and as it’s going to be now that she’s gone.

* * * * * * * * * *

The first time we went shopping together was while Stephanie was visiting me in San Francisco, spending a week that stretched into two weeks. On our third or fourth day together, I was running out of groceries and she was yearning to cook – or to see if she even could cook in my residential hotel, where all I had was a single plug-in burner and a microwave oven. Both were against the house rules, of course – the hotel had no kitchens, and cooking wasn’t allowed.

We happened to be walking around in the Marina neighborhood, talking about what to do for dinner, and we turned a corner and – poof – there was a great big grocery store. It was the Marina Safeway, which I later learned was legendary among locals as a “pick-up” spot. Romantic entanglements at that Safeway are prominently featured in Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, but back then I hadn’t yet read the book.

We went inside, wandered the aisles, and bought potatoes and onions, noodles and soup and some other sundries that Stephanie did indeed turn into a delectable pasta concoction. What I remember most, though, is when Stephanie asked, “Do we have bread?,” and then paused, while we both lingered on the word “we.” There was something about the word “we” in the context of shopping for groceries, that said more than just “we.” It said, a couple. Romantic entanglements. It said something more serious than a loaf of bread, and it told the truth – we were “we.”

“We” lasted the rest of our lives, and wherever we lived, we preferred to go shopping for groceries together. For the next fifteen years we almost always did. She especially loved the produce section, where she could tell a good cantaloupe from a bad cantaloupe, and she taught me how to choose an avocado. She was a wizard with the budget, and when we could only afford $30 on a shopping trip she could do amazing things with coupons and specials, and somehow morph it all into a full cart and a week’s worth of food. She knew which brands were better and which brands were “good enough” and which brands weren’t. She rarely bought Stove Top™ after they changed their stuffing mix from “ready in ten minutes” and delicious, to “ready in five minutes” and noticeably not-so-delicious.

For the past few years, though, Stephanie’s disability made everything more difficult for her, and shopping was no exception. From her wheelchair, she couldn’t reach the upper or bottom shelves, and if she’d forgotten something and had to loop back seventeen aisles, that distance felt a lot further on wheels than on foot. So Steph would make a list, but shopping was usually one of my chores.

Stephanie’s rules of shopping: Annie’s or Trader Joe’s Macaroni and Cheese, but no Kraft. Town House crackers please, not Ritz. Melba Toast in the original flavor only. “And don’t buy fat-free anything; they might as well call it ‘flavor-free’.” Generics are allowed, but if Steph doesn’t approve of the taste or texture, don’t buy that product in generics again. Thus generic mustard and mayonnaise was OK, but the ketchup (catsup, says Steph) had to be Heinz. Generic milk was approved, but butter must be Land-O-Lakes.

Doug’s rule of shopping: Stephanie likes little surprises, so I’d always buy something that wasn’t on the list if I knew she’d like it. Crumpets. Sugar Babies. Tootsie Pops. Ice cream or sherbet. But remember to rotate the surprise treats; just because she liked crumpets last week, doesn’t mean she’d want crumpets again this week.

Once in a while, even in the wheelchair era, we still went shopping together, so she could personally pick the ingredients to prepare an especially marvelous recipe. And after paying for our purchases, we would “train” through the parking lot toward the car – I would push Stephanie in her chair, while she pushed the cart full of groceries. We called it our happy little train, and now it’s another happy little memory as I walk out of the store, pushing a cart instead of Steph’s wheelchair.

These days I shop for one, or one plus a cat. It’s a sad task when I think about it, so I try not to think about it. Virtually every aisle, every shelf, every corner in the store holds something I bought for Stephanie. That’s her preferred salad dressing, and we always had a couple of jugs of that juice in the fridge, and that’s the jam she liked, and those are her allergy meds, and we should always have a supply of her favorite yogurts in the fridge.

But we don’t. There’s no yogurt in the fridge, and most of those ordinary purchases have ended. I don’t have much appetite, and no need for most of Stephanie’s staples. If I’m still buying it, though, I’m still following the rules. If it’s catsup it’s Heinz. If it’s butter it’s Land-O-Lakes. If I ever have a hankering for mac and cheese, it won’t be Kraft. Accept no substitutes, and no fat-free anything.

Posted 11/2/2018.

More about Stephanie.

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