"Can I help you?" she asks, and the first thing that pops into your head is Yeah, I could use your help, all right. She's wearing black jeans and a light blue polo and one of those little plastic nametags that says her name is Lisa and tells you to have a nice day. Everything about her is neat and shiny and tucked in, from her funky black shoes to the top of her blonde head. Her hair's cropped so short that it falls behind her ears without her having to tuck it back, which means that the glittery little barrette she's clipped above one temple is just for show. There are pearl studs in her earlobes, and above them, a winking row of empty holes marching up into the cartilage at the top of her ears; probably the corporate fascists who run the store won't let her fill in all those piercings while she's at work. For some reason, the holes make her ears look especially naked. You want to touch them.
You wouldn't mind touching the rest of her, either.
She clears her throat, and you realize that while you've been staring at her, that little window of time in between her question and your response has widened beyond the boundaries of social acceptability. She doesn't look uncomfortable, though, just faintly amused. You feel the skin behind your ears heat up as your blush rises from your neck to your hairline. "Um. Thanks. Just looking."
"So I gathered," she says, shooting you an under-the-lashes look that makes your blush keep on burning. "Well, let me know if you need anything."
And she walks away, leaving you alone in the aisle with the waffle irons and the blenders and that dry feeling in the back of your throat that you always get when you really wanted to be witty and suave and it didn't quite happen. Still, the flirtation makes your day … and twenty minutes after you've found those coffee filters you needed and picked out another set of potholders that you really didn't, you're still hanging around at the end of the next aisle, pretending to look at an end display full of fake-leather beanbag chairs and hoping she'll come back.
She doesn't disappoint you.
"I bought one of those once," she says over your shoulder, and even though part of you was expecting it, you still jump.
"Did you like it?"
Lisa shrugs. "Until the dog chewed it up. It made him sick, too – he ate a bunch of those little styrofoam beads and then threw them up on the kitchen floor." She points at a chair. "It looked like this one. Leopard print."
"Nice." You're not really listening; it's too tempting to imagine her sprawled in the leopard chair with her head thrown back, making her throat into one long pale curve to her collarbones. She knows what you're thinking, too, not that you're being subtle about it. Her lips curl up and you see a flash of Colgate white that's a bit disconcerting, it's so brilliant. Something's different about her, you think; her hair looks longer, though that isn't really possible, and it's curling softly under each ear like a mischievous tongue. Or maybe it's not her hair, maybe it's just that she's gone and put in another set of earrings, brilliant dots of aquamarine above the pearls.
You like the idea, however improbable, that the aquamarines are for your benefit, that she's sneaked into the back room and gussied herself up for this second encounter. "Are you free after your shift ends?" you ask, and she smiles again and shrugs.
"I'm around, yeah."
The loudspeaker crackles across the Muzak, summoning Lisa to Electronics. She saunters away with another of those backward glances, and the next time you see her she's on her knees next to a carton of computer-game cartridges, putting price tags on them with a sticker gun. It's a good look for her.
"I've, uh, got to go," you say, clutching the handles of your shopping basket. "Can I, you know, give you my number? You can call me when you get off work, and we can have coffee or something. If you want to."
She tips her head to the side, spilling blonde hair over the knit collar of her shirt, and the light sparkles off her barrette. It's shaped like a seashell. "Oh, I don't need your number," she says, and smiles. Perfect teeth, as shiny and scrubbed as the rest of her. "I'll just find you."
You take this to mean that she'll meet you outside the store. "Okay," you say. "See you at five, then?"
Half an hour later, you're still looking for the cash registers.
They were right in the front of the store – in between Women's Clothing and the doors leading to the parking lot. Except that now Women's Clothing is next to Toys and across the aisle from Sporting Goods, and the checkout lanes are nowhere to be seen. For that matter, the doors aren't where they're supposed to be, either.
You're just turned around, you think, and head back the way you came. You're thinking of a different store. They're all laid out the same, really, only sometimes everything's backwards.
You've passed Men's Shoes and Home and Garden at least four times by the time you see Lisa again. She's perched on a stepladder, smiling down at you. Your watch reads five o' clock sharp.
"Hi," she says. "How's it going?"
I can't find the door, you think, but it's so unthinkable to say that out loud that you just shake your head numbly. She climbs down the ladder, and you see the glint of silver rings at the tops of her ears.
For a second, there's a shimmer around her, something watery and translucent like fish-scales, a buzz in your ears that makes your palms tingle, hungry points on the white, white teeth. Then the shimmer clears, and once again she's just a girl in a blue polo, picking up an armful of baby clothes with the hand that's not holding the sticker gun and shaking her hair over her shoulders like a wheat-colored waterfall.
"Well, if you need anything," she says, still smiling at you, "you just let me know."