She was a cashier at the local Sprouts market and caught me in a slightly frazzled post-work state as I loaded the conveyor belt with my groceries. I hadn’t heard what she’d said, and when she repeated it, I was even more confused. Then she gestured at me, glancing down at my shirt.
“I love Joan Jett,” she said again.
Still baffled, I looked down at my shirt and then I was embarrassed because I’d forgotten I was wearing a Joan Jett & The Runaways t-shirt. When I shifted my gaze back to her and saw the youth in her face and the lilac hair falling to her shoulders, I suddenly became acutely aware of every grey strand on my head. I attempted a half smile, muttering thanks, but I don’t think it came out very pleasant, or perhaps hadn’t even been audible, because she didn’t say anything after that.
Self-consciously smoothing out the faded wayward wisps near my forehead, I avoided eye-contact and watched her scan plastic packages of flat wraps, spinach leaves, and cellophane wrapped compostable containers of mushrooms followed by packets of brown rice and noodles. It was impossible not to see the display of tattoos on her forearms and knuckles. There were varied symbols like arrows or dots and names or quotes all inked in a haphazard fashion, and I thought they were horribly tacky. I was already predisposed to being irrationally biased against tattoos, but her skin had been etched upon like a bar’s dingy toilet stall with its scribbled or scraped accumulations of desperate and drunken pleas or proclamations. Nevertheless, my heart skipped a beat when I noticed the name Morrissey near the crook of her left arm. I could tell by the tattoo’s distinctive font that it wasn’t any random person’s moniker she’d had permanently imprinted into her pale skin; it was unquestionably the name of a certain famed English singer.
In the twenty-odd years I’d been trapped amongst the dust, goatheads, sunny skies, and metal heads as an involuntary transplant from the West Coast to the southwestern desert, meeting others who shared my obsessions in music proved difficult. Most people I’d met who had even heard of Morrissey seemed to enjoy going out of their way to tell me how terrible they thought he was, either as a person or as a vocalist. I had stopped wearing t-shirts with his image or name on them so that strangers wouldn’t be obliged to insult me with their unsolicited opinions. I’d only met one other girl at a book shop who was also a fan of Morrissey and was so determined to meet me and tell me that she’d practically followed me home. That was years ago, and she’d turned out to be an alcoholic drinking her way toward a collection of DUIs. With a taste for tea over beer, I’d quickly lost interest when I realized she’d been driving me in her Jeep while she was two sheets to the wind.
But it was different then: I’d been younger, and she’d been my age. I’d also still been young enough to hold out hope that I’d meet someone else slightly less toxic with whom I shared my passion. But any remote sense of desirability had deflated as the years stretched further and further away from such romanticized fantasies. After spending the last half decade stumbling around looking like a pensioner in drab cotton joggers, I’d only just begun to regress back to my early days when I cared about appearances and had the general feeling of being alive. The Joan Jett t-shirt had been a new addition to my wardrobe, but I wasn’t quite ready to think about adding a partner to my life’s daily ensemble.
Thus, I stayed quiet as I focused on punching my debit card code into the payment terminal’s keypad instead of sharing my appreciation of the lilac-haired cashier’s taste in music. While the bagger bundled up my items, I was on the verge of reconsidering my silence, but the tattooed cashier had already turned her attention to the next patron in line. Thankful I hadn’t subjected myself to potential mortification, I took my bags and hauled them to my bus stop, shaking the silly notions of camaraderie out of my mind before I latched onto them.
I’d managed to dispel any thoughts of her until the weekend when the threat of a bare pantry compelled my return to the market. Perusing the shelves for nearly an hour, I was oblivious of her until I spotted the lilac hair contrasting against her green uniform once again. In my cowardice, I avoided her register and slithered unseen out the exit. It was unfathomable to think she’d be slightly interested in whether some middle-aged woman agreed with her preferences in music, much less presume she could be interested in anything else.
When I got home, I angrily shoved my purchases into the refrigerator and cupboards. Fuming with myself, I thought I must be totally ridiculous pining over a supermarket cashier who couldn’t have been thirty yet and was about a hundred times prettier than me. The age gap was just the beginning of the absurdity, even though I’d fancied plenty of men fifteen or more years ahead of me. The potential heartbreak wasn’t the worst of it, either. It was the way that I always managed to let people down or simply become irritating—and that was when they weren’t irritating me instead. It was the mundanity of relationships with people who I knew would drop me at the slightest hint of trouble.
Later that night, I curled up in the dark beneath my covers and let Morrissey’s melancholic song “Lost” stream through my iPhone’s earbuds on repeat. Maybe I wasn’t so alive, after all, I thought. I was still just existing, and that I was still breathing because there wasn’t an alternative. I felt lost in the world, lost in the dust, and the blinding sunshine: the desert is a place where one could disappear and no one at all would notice.