“…is a failure to communicate.”

My armpits smelled and I owed gas money.

So it was decided that while my friends Neil and Martha stayed in the car and tanked it up, I’d make a run into the shop at the rest stop. Travel-size deodorant for me, and water and soda all ‘round, which would cover my share of gas money.

I walk in. A quick once-over shows that all the HABA is safely secured on shelves behind the clerk at the register.

So it really is that kind of a rest stop, I think. I’d heard stories—we all had—of the Vince Lombardi on the New Jersey Turnpike. Drug deals, glory holes. The kind of place where Health And Beauty Aids are stolen so often they have to be kept behind the counter.

I grab a variety of sodas, waters, and sports drinks from the cooler, and stand on line. Behind a man whose shirt collar has a sticker telling me he’s a 15M Fitted. I’m about to tell him that dude, you’ve still got a sticker on your shirt, when I notice he’s wearing several shirts. On a sweltering afternoon in late July, in New Jersey. And…all of them still have labels attached.

I see.

I wait quietly.

And wait.

And gradually become aware that the reason it’s taking so long is because Mr. 15M Fitted and his companion can’t decide on what color toothbrush they should get. They are making the clerk take all the brushes off the peg, one by one, while they debate back and forth: “But we had a blue one before.” “But I don’t like green.”

In the meantime, the mother of the teenage girl in line behind me has popped her head into the shop. “What are you doing?”

“Getting a Vitamin Water.”

“But I just bought you all this water!” Mom raises her arm to show a plastic bag filled with bottles of water.

“But I want a Vitamin Water.”

“But I bought you all this water!”

“But I want a Vitamin Water, mom.”

“But I have all this water! I just bought it for you!”

“But I want a Vitamin Water!”

“But I bought this water!”

A man tries to enter the shop past the mom: “Excuse me, can you let me in? I’d like to buy something.” Mom moves a few inches to one side in the entrance, but doesn’t even skip a beat: “I bought you this water!”
And so it goes.

“But I don’t like pink!” (Mr. 15M Fitted)

“But I want a Vitamin Water!”

“But I bought you water!”

“How about purple?”

“But I want a Vitamin Water!”

“Excuse me!”

“What about all this water I bought you??”

“I want a Vitamin Water, mom.”

“Well, why are you even out of the car? Where’s dad?”

“He’s walking the dog.”

“He’s walking the dog?”

“He’s walking the dog.”

“Why is he walking the dog?”

“I don’t know, mom!”

At last, Mr. 15M Fitted and his companion seem to settle on a toothbrush. Except, as 15M’s paying, his companion walks away abruptly. “Where’d he go?” 15M asks me, as he turns from the register to find himself alone with their mutual toothbrush. Dear God, I think, don’t ask me! I’m too busy ignoring your stolen shirts!

I shrug.

15M walks out into the blazing Meadowlands sun, lost and confused.

In the meantime, Vitamin Water and mom seemed to have finally established that a) mom bought a bag of bottled water, b) Vitamin Water is buying Vitamin Water nonetheless, and c) somewhere in this world, dad is walking the dog, although what reason anyone would have for walking a dog on a long road trip, they can’t fathom. Vitamin Water’s younger brother is now in the store, apparently annoying his older sister by touching everything in the shop, but I don’t care, because it’s my turn.

“Just these, and some deodorant, please.” I say.

The clerk looks at me. “Deodorant? We don’t have that.”

“No?” I’m confused. I look over the shelves behind the clerk. Razors, cotton balls, shampoo, and, of course, toothbrushes, but…no deodorant?

The clerk rings up my beverages. “No deodorant. That’s $5.43.”

Just as I’m paying, I spot a tube of Speed Stick on the bottom shelf behind the clerk. “You do have deodorant!” I crow. “Look, Speed Stick!”

The clerk looks where I’m pointing. Frowns. Picks up a packet of pain killers just to the left of the Speed Stick. “Excedrin?” he asks.

“No, Speed Stick. To the right. No, right. There. Ye—no—yes. No. There. Speed Stick. Deodorant.”

The confused clerk picks up and tries to give me any number of items from right around the Speed Stick as I feel myself slowly sinking into the morass of this, this Vince Lombardi rest stop, this confusion and lack of basic human connection, when from behind me I hear, in that distinct southern drawl:

“What we have heah…”

Cool Hand Luke has never been so welcome in my whole life. Cultural literacy! Tossed like a life preserver!!

“I so need to see that movie!” I squeal, turning to find myself face-to-face with a man wearing a straw cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a trim beard.

He grins. “You haven’t seen it??”

No, I admit.

The clerk has now victoriously discovered his own Speed Stick, and, miraculously, understands what I mean when I say I’d like one that makes me smell like a girl (“Aw, come on, what’s wrong with smelling like a guy?” says Cool Hat Luke with a smile), and, miracle on miracle, he manages to produce a tube of Secret from behind the Speed Stick.

I pay, joke with Cool Hat about finding a lighter with no ads on it—“Thumb Friendly!” gets a thumbs-down from him; he settles on one that tells the world he’s a Leo—and go merrily forth into the sunny afternoon, connected with the world and smelling like a woman.

Hooray, Vince Lombardi.

Grazina Strolia is a photographer, singer, artist, and writer. She lives in Highland Park, New Jersey, with two cats and a string of brightly colored lanterns.


One thought on ““…is a failure to communicate.”

  1. Sometimes, you find a tiny oasis, when you least expect it, where one of your tribe is standing, winking at you, or rolling his or her eyes with you at the absurdity of it all. Instant recognition! Maybe we should wear ID badges, or maybe that would take the surprise and joy out of it.

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