It's 9:10am on a regular Monday morning, and I scurry into the convenience store to buy milk.
My thoughts are absorbed by the day; it's unusually full with work, customers coming by, a play date, an appointment and kids' activities. I'm carefully choreographing the timing of everything, how I'm going to fit it all in, when I notice the woman in front of me in the line to pay.
She holds only one item: a gallon of cheap white wine. She cradles it in the crook of her arm like a baby, and stares steadfastly at the floor.
My heart drops like a stone; thoughts of my day vanish instantly. There is only one reason to buy a cheap gallon of wine at 9:15am on a Monday, and everyone in line knows it.
It is her turn to pay, and she plunks the bottle down on the counter, rummaging through her purse with trembling hands.
"Anything else?" the cashier asks in a casual tone, but he is staring intently at her face.
She avoids his gaze and shakes her head. "No," she replies in a whisper. "Just this, please."
He places the bottle in a brown paper bag and hands over her change. Her hands are shaking badly as she stuffs the bills into her purse and three coins fall to the floor. Without stopping to pick them up she rushes out the door.
The cashier gives me a knowing, sad look as I pay for my milk. Oh, if you only knew, I think as I give him a polite smile, that woman was me. That woman still lives in me, just under the surface. The Other Me.
As I cross the parking lot I notice her sitting behind the wheel of the car parked next to mine. Her face is pressed into her hands, and her shoulders shake slightly. I think she might be crying.
I reach for my door handle and sneak a glance her way. The brown paper bag rests in her lap, and she is crying. She turns her face away from me as she fumbles for her keys and starts her car. I don't want to stare, to make her feel more uncomfortable, but it's hard not to look. I give her a small smile as she looks over my way to back her car out of the parking spot. I don't think she sees it, and as she pulls away I stand with my hand still resting on my car door handle, lost in thought.
I think about all the times I'd chat nervously with the liquor store cashier as I purchased my nightly supply, waiting until 5pm to keep up appearances: Oh, ahahaha, do you think this red will go nicely with steak? Perhaps I should get a white, too? Or: I'm stocking up for an impromptu dinner party, it would be nice if my husband would give me a little advance warning, you know? Every day a different liquor store, every time the nervous chatter, thinking my ruse was working.
And then, towards the end, I was the woman with my eyes glued to the floor, trembling hands handing over crumpled bills, the sun still high in the sky. I no longer bothered with the inane banter. I didn't go to a different liquor store every day. What was the point? I just needed my fix, and I knew that the cashiers and everyone in line knew it, too.
As I watch her tail-lights recede down the road, I send up a silent prayer. Please keep her safe, I think, please let her discover, some day, that there is a way out of that living hell.
I drive off and go about my day, carrying the woman - and the Other Me - close to my heart.