Why do all frozen food products look the same? The shapes of the letters even matched. Arielle was holding a box of lasagna in one hand, and in the other a differently-colored box of lasagna. They looked exactly the same, but for the brand. The cold was beginning to bite into her hands, and maybe seep into her brain. It was taking her an awfully long time to decide on a frozen meal. She snapped herself straight and tossed both boxes into her cart. One of them would be better, and then she’d know.
A pudgy man whose face was red and blotchy pushed past her in the aisle and she smiled at him. It was a reflex, sort of an automatic wish to make people happy that appeared on her face without her quite willing it there. He barely glanced at her.
In the next aisle there were cans. Cans of everything – it seemed to her that everything that possibly could be put in a can had been, and they were all on the shelves in front of her. She was contemplating black beans when a middle-aged woman with short curled hair and an enormous handbag reached past to snatch up two cans of kidney beans, and Arielle smiled. The woman flashed her the face she saw most. It was that tight, pasted-on smile that people wore to be polite and took off as soon as they could. It usually looked more painful than pleased. Arielle twisted her mouth at the black beans, who looked back without sympathy.
The only thing she had left to find was fruit. She had promised Jon that she’d bring home some apples. He had asked specifically for Golden Delicious, and she was walking down the row of bright round fruits when she nearly bumped into an old man. He was tall but bent, with a withered face that sagged around pale blue eyes. She looked up and smiled at him, beginning to back up to go around him.
His face went through a transformation. At first his eyebrows shot up and his mouth opened a bit, as if he wasn’t sure what she was doing. Then, so slowly, a smile widened across his face. He grinned at her like a kid with candy. He looked positively delighted, and her smile deepened. She muttered an apology and rolled the cart to one side so he could pass. For the rest of the day – standing in the checkout line, on the subway home, cooking dinner – that happiness was spread on her face. It felt like she’d seen a very beautiful thing in that one surprised smile.