The Pharmacy

By Heather Wollin

Tasha’s parents owned a pharmacy.  Her mother wore a white coat and stood behind the counter, counting out pills.  Tasha and her sister, Alice, helped their parents on weekends, and sometimes I would join them; our hair wet with chlorine from Saturdays spent at the public pool, the ends of our plaits dripping down our t-shirts and leaving our backs with a damp half-moon. It was fun to pretend we had jobs, stacking the sweets perfectly, or asking customers if we could help them to fill their prescriptions.  Tasha’s mother even had a smaller white coat she would let me wear sometimes, unlike my own mother, who would never let me wear anything of hers.

At the pharmacy, all the non-medical items were ours as long as Tasha’s parents stayed engrossed in their work.  “Take anything,” Tasha would urge, “we won’t make you share it.” But how to choose between the Wine Gums or the Fruit Pastilles; the Wine Gums or the Jelly Babies: desire after desire after desire laid out in front of you in brightly colored cylinders. I felt Tasha and Alice watching me: Jewish girl from the other side of London; daring me to be like them.  Cool, cool, like the feeling of the silver sweets wrapper against my arm, my twelve-year-old heart thumping inside my mouth. “She did it!” Alice whispered, as I sauntered around the end of the aisle with a bag of Licorice Allsorts up my sleeve.  We shared my bounty in the corner by the Cold and Flu aisle, the licorice fusing my teeth in a gummy grimace, something like a smile.

After the first few times, I became a professional. “You’re not eating,” my mother said, weekend after weekend, failing to notice the jammy smears on my cheeks. I emptied my pockets into a shoebox I stashed under my bed, filling it up with lancets, glittery stickers, and pencils. I dreamed about scissors growing legs, about medicines walking up out of the box, thermometers and bandages engulfing me during the night.  “Where is she?” My parents would ask in the morning, but there would only be pharmacy goods, as though they had been inside of me all along.

I was surprised no one wondered why I had packets of denture cleanser strewn around my room or remarked on the pens I used for my homework. But my mother had recently fired the cleaning lady, and no one ever crossed the threshold into my room anymore. “You’re almost a teenager, you need your space,” said my mother, but hadn’t she been giving me a wider and wider berth all these months?

I imagined how my mother would react if she knew.  She’d ask, “What’s this I hear about you stealing?” and I would say “Nothing” and she would say, “That’s right, I thought not.”  Yet my goods would be laid out before me in the living room, organized by category, the way she told me they did with evidence for trials when she worked as a paralegal in America.  Her eyes would become steely as she surveyed my transgressions. Ultimately, she would turn back to her papers with the same clenched lips, and she would make me feel my contrition over and over like a coin I could never spend. I wanted my mother to shout at me: to ban me from ever setting foot in the pharmacy again.   I couldn’t bear the thought that she would just pass me over, like the liquor bottles gathering dust on the top shelf of our pantry, where no one had looked in years.

I didn’t give much thought to stopping, but my stealing soon became more pointed.  I thought about what to take for each of my family members. For my father, I stole stationery so that he could write to us when he went away.  For my mother, I got a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses, though I didn’t know her prescription. I put the lenses on and stared at myself in the mirror for a long time until my eyes crossed and swam.  I wondered if this was how the world looked to her without glasses, and it made me sad to think of her this way: crossing the ocean from Chicago with my father, nothing ever clear or certain.

One Saturday, I wandered through the aisles, wearing the stolen glasses.  Both my pockets bulged with contraband chewing gum. As I reached up to take a magazine off the rack, I noticed a man flipping though a magazine he’d stashed inside of another.  The magazine he was reading contained pictures and stories, but I couldn’t tell what they were with the glasses. I craned my neck to see better.  His face was flushed and his hand trembled.  I was trying to be as quiet as possible, but the man looked down at me.

“I won’t tell them that you’re trying to steal that magazine,” I said, gesturing at Tasha’s parents.

“I know you won’t,” he smiled.  He had blue eyes, one of which had a large speck of brown inside it.  His eyes were not unkind.  Not like I’d imagined the eyes of strange men would be.

“Trust me, it happens all the time,” I told him, “More than you’d thi—“

“Here,” he said, and handed me the magazines, loping out of the shop.

I peered over the tops of the glasses at what he had been reading.  There was a picture of two women locked in an embrace.  The headline read “Sara’s Subway Escapade.”   The magazine burned in my hand.  I shoved it in my trousers and ran into the toilet.

Sara and her friend were on an empty train, late at night, riding home. Sara pushed her friend against the doors of the train car, nibbling on her neck, kissing her mouth and face.  Kissing her in places — places where, well, could women even kiss each other like that?  These were words I barely understood, had heard only once or twice before. I worried at the words like a loose tooth, pulling taut the strands of fibers and nerves with my tongue, waiting for the moment when the tension broke, bursting fragments of bone and blood into my mouth.

What made being friends with Tasha different from the kind of friend Sara had?  One night when Tasha slept over, I stayed up until she fell asleep.  I stared at her throat, at the strands of dark hair that had fallen there.  I wondered what it would be like to kiss Tasha in the hollow between her collarbones.  That small dip that held all the breath and all the sound. I dared myself to do it. I brought my face close until I could feel her breath on my forehead. Her eyes snapped open. “What are you looking at?” I had veered away, not out of fear, but out of the desire for something better, someone I wanted more.

I knew where I could find Sara and her friend. In Soho, near smoke-filled shops that boasted pictures of naked men. I had been there once with a friend of my parents.  Unlike other parts of the city that were unknown to both of us, it was as though this particular neighborhood was familiar to him: the glances and chin-tilts of recognition from certain passersby.  I had seen women like Sara there, swaggering down the street.  I averted my eyes when they passed, scared to stare the way I wanted to, afraid to see myself reflected in the mirrors of their hearts.

I wanted to ask him if he knew any Saras.  I felt certain he did.  I wanted to ask what they were like, where they went, who they lived with. I also wanted to ask if he noticed anything different about me lately, like the lumpy wads of tissue on my chest that had me running my hand under my t-shirt as I lay in bed at night, convinced I was dying of cancer.  I wanted to ask him all these things, but the questions stopped in my throat and made everything I said afterwards sound muzzy, as though I had a bad cold.

Later , I heard him arguing with my mother.  “You took my child where?” she sputtered.  After that, he didn’t come around as much, and I missed him; missed our excursions to places I knew no one would ever have taken me to if he hadn’t; missed hearing his stories about my parents when they were much younger. I tried to imagine a version of my mother from that time, recalling the sound of her laugh, that certain one, when she threw her head back and sound came cascading out of her mouth in waves.  That laugh was a beacon when I was very small, calling and calling me back to her.

“What are you doing in there?” Tasha pounded on the bathroom door.

I had forgotten how silent the world had become.

“Nothing” I answered. “Piss off.”

I flushed the toilet and thrust the magazine under the bathtub as far as I could.  It brought up clouds of dust as it hit the floor.  I had been gripping the glasses so hard they had snapped in two.  I threw them under the tub as well, running my finger over their imprint on my palm.  I splashed water on my face and came out into the pharmacy.  My hair was wet.  Tasha’s mother looked up at me.  “Are you well?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” I replied, and began to tidy the already fastidious boxes of Aspirin, lining them up in rows and coming back to the beginning of the line when I made a mistake.  My hands were damp and the back of my neck prickled with sweat. I knocked a box over.

“Damnit!” I muttered under my breath.

“Come here, my little chemist,” said Tasha’s mother, and pulled me on to her lap.  “I think that’s enough for today.” She put her arms around me and I laid my head on her shoulder, breathing in her comforting medicinal scent.  We rocked back and forth as she finished up the billing. “That’s enough.  That’s quite enough.”

One Comment

  1. Mindy wrote:

    Love it. the description of things really gives me a visual picture. Keep writing,