“If Not for RiteAid”

               “Let’s break up.”

               I didn’t look up from my textbook, but I assumed he was reading aloud from his novel again. “Sorry, don’t read out loud right now. I’m almost done with these notes.”

               “No,” he replied. I finally looked up from and saw him looking directly at me. “I want to break up with you.”

               That day, what he said really caught me off-guard, y’know? But I can’t really pinpoint whether it was the timing or the fact that he wanted to break up. Sometimes, when I look back, I think everything was going just fine. Sometimes, I think I saw it coming, that the end of our relationship was inevitable.

               David and I, we were both new to relationships. Didn’t really know what the hell we were doing, but we kept on going and pretending like we knew. There was nothing really between us, and when our friends pointed it out, we always said, “You just don’t understand.” In the end, it was us who never really saw past our own lies. In the end, we should have listened. Maybe we could have been good friends instead of how we are now, estranged.

               I’m starting from the end, but I should be telling you about the beginning, shouldn’t I? It was when I started my part-time job at RiteAid that I first noticed him, I think. I was a sophomore at the time, not really caring about my job since I just needed something to do in my spare time. I regretted it as soon as I started it. I worked in the dingy, smaller RiteAid a few streets down, where no one usually went. I swear, it’s the worse job in the world. I was forced to sit on a stool for hours, and I wasn’t even allowed to look at my phone. Stuff like that does a number on your back, and your mental health. There were barely any customers, so time crawled by. There would be a few regulars like Reggie who swears “the deals in this RiteAid are way better than the one down the block,” and the lady who always came in with sweats and bought a bag of cat food each week (my theory is that she either has a ton of cats or she eats it all herself). Otherwise, the job mainly consisted of me flipping through the store’s catalog, looking at the deals of the week.

               About a month into the job, when working there had hit the peak of dullness, I noticed him. He was maybe the only customer around my age. He would always come in, buying the weirdest combination of things. Once, he bought a container of bleach and duct tape. I was concerned for a couple days that he was covering up a murder (I never did remember to ask why he bought those). Another time, he bought tampons (“They were for a friend!” he cried every time I teased him about it). Soon enough I realized that my eyes would follow him throughout the store as he sped from aisle to aisle. He wasn’t my type—he had glasses, was a bit short and a bit skinny—but I was constantly amused by his perplexed expression when he examined the items in the store.

               I was surprised when my friend Eliza introduced me to him. David Lee. Freshman. International student from Taipei, Taiwan. I could tell he was an international student from his slight accent when he said “Thank you” after paying at the register, but I wouldn’t have guessed that he was a freshman. He had a strong jawline and a deep voice, and he didn’t give off that freshman-y vibe that most have, do you know what I mean? They were in the same dance club and I started seeing him outside of the store more and more frequently. It wasn’t until a week later that he realized that I was the person who always rang him up at RiteAid.

               Eliza and I shared a couple classes, so I would join her study group often. David seemed to be a recurring member, I noticed. Once, by chance, he and I ended up studying alone together late into the night. We didn’t speak to one another. But I think we had both recognized that we could share a comfortable silence with one another. Then Eliza started dating the other boy in the study group, so they hardly showed up anymore. So David and I just started studying together more and more, just the two of us. I guess that led to us getting meals together and talking a bit more. We started hanging out together more and more often. Eventually, it became routine.

               The story of how we got together was strange. Not strange. More like… uninteresting. It was not your typical romantic “I met him in my English class and we got paired up for a project and we just clicked” kind of story. Nothing like “we were in the same club and he surprised me with flowers one day and asked me out.” We declared ourselves as a couple because “study partners” wasn’t a good enough excuse since we weren’t in any of the same classes. People demand a reason for a girl and a boy to spend excessive amounts of time with one another. I don’t think we ever really thought about our genuine feelings about one another. It was sudden and spontaneous, it just happened over dinner one day at the usual Vietnamese restaurant down the street.

               “Don’t you think it’s annoying when people keep teasing us and saying that we’re dating?” I asked, stirring the noodles in my bowl of pho.

               “Sometimes I feel that way. But I’m not usually bothered by it.” He always spoke like that. Always had a touch of formality in his every day speech, the way he was taught back in Taiwan. “Why? Does it bother you?”

               “It’s so annoying! Why can’t a guy and a girl just hang out together? Why do they always have to be dating for that to be acceptable?

               “Would you like to?”

               “Would I like to what?”

               “Would you like to be my girlfriend?”

               “What?”

               “If it bothers you so much,” he answered with composure, “we can just be boyfriend and girlfriend. And then everyone will leave us alone.”

               “And you’re okay with that? With me?” I didn’t know he felt that way. I mean, I was kind of hoping but I was also kind of afraid to find out. I was definitely interested in him at the time but I didn’t think that it was a feeling that was reciprocated. “Are you sure?”

               “Yeah.” Maybe he wasn’t so composed after all. I noticed his ears were turning red and he stopped making eye contact with me. In that moment, I thought he looked really cute.

               “Fine,” I stuttered. “Let’s do it.”

               We didn’t talk for the remainder of our meal, but we held hands on our way back to campus.

               The beginning of our romantic relationship was unorthodox, but I was used to unusual moments with David. If anything, it made things memorable. I remember one day, when we started hanging out together more often, we were walking together—I forget where—and he suddenly turned to me and said, “Fuck you.”

               “Huh?”

               “That’s how you say it, right?” His eyes were absolutely gleaming, like a puppy’s.

               “Yes,” I laughed. That’s how you say it. He was like a child, testing out the new swear words he’d learned. It was the first time I have heard the words “fuck you” without any malicious undertones; it was so strange, hearing it spoken with such pure intentions. Looking back on it, that may have been the moment I first fell for him. The first glance through the unusual lens through which he viewed my too-typical world. I think it was that, his strange actions but genuine purpose that attracted me. It was so different, so refreshing from my cynical cycle of thought. I wanted to learn more, explore more of the world with him and his naïve perspective.

               He really made me reflect on what I thought was commonplace, and I thought that was the most incredible thing. I mean, not every day do you meet someone who makes you feel like you’re living in a whole new country without ever getting on a plane. There was a similar moment around Thanksgiving; it was about a week before break and right around when we started dating. I knew he wouldn’t be flying home for the long weekend and I was having a small get-together in my apartment, I figured he might be lonely.

               “What are your plans for Thanksgiving? Want to come over for dinner?”

               “Thanksgiving dinner? With a whole turkey? Will you have stuffing? And glazed ham?”

               “What?” I didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response. “Uh, a whole turkey might be tough to get, but my suitemates and I might pick up a rotisserie chicken from Pathmark or something. I guess stuffing doesn’t sound too hard to make.”

               “Really? Yes! Please!” Every word was punctuated with excitement, and I gave him a weird face until I realized: “Oh, you’ve never had a Thanksgiving dinner, have you?”

               “Never,” he said, breathless with excitement. “It sounds amazing.”

               It was exciting like that at the start. But as time passed, his lens became clouded for me. I lost the ability to see through them. I realized that nothing we did together was very exciting. We went to museums, we went to conservatories—we didn’t have intellectual discussions about them or anything, we just went and “ooh”-ed and “ahh”-ed. We always did things that required our attention—we never really did anything alone. We were always at movies, restaurants, stores—we never really just sat down and got to know each other closely. But I never addressed that problem, and neither did he. Even after our relationship lost its initial shine and was stripped down to what it truly was—a boy and a girl with nothing in common, spending meaningless, absurd amounts of time together—we kept ignoring it.

               In all honesty, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. We didn’t share any similar interests, even. He read a lot and really liked poetry and realistic fiction novels and listening to Bastille. I was always on the internet and messing around on social media sites and freaking out over Korean pop groups. When David and I talked about things, it seemed so meaningless. We talked just for the sake of talking.

               “The weather’s really nice today. I wish I didn’t have class.”

               “My teacher was a jerk today. I hate him.”

               “How was your day today? You saw Eliza? That’s nice. How is she?”

               It was even worse during winter break. He went home to Taiwan and I was home. We talked over Skype, but about more meaningless stuff. A long-distance relationship that lacked any longing. If anything, I was relieved to have time to be completely alone for the first time in a while. But I just thought, “This is natural. This is normal.” I feel so dumb now. I couldn’t even see how sick I was of the relationship.

               Everything turned into a monotonous mush. But it’s weird, because we still spent so much time together. Now that it’s over, I just don’t get it. Why? Maybe we only stayed together because we needed the company. Because it was easier reaching out to one rather than racking your brains over which friend to take, and how many.

               One is simple. One is easy.

               Well, it’s over now. Easy as that. I find myself looking back on it so often, though. I think I only noticed him because I was bored. Have you ever experienced that? Falling in love for a moment, because you’re experiencing such a lackluster life that your mind unconsciously finds something to obsess over? And of course, nothing promises more thrill than a first romance. It felt so liberating, to feel my heart race for the first time in months. To think about something other than work, to have someone special on my mind.

Something new occupies your mind when you fall in love. I’m sure you’ve noticed. You begin checking your reflection more often. You begin planning your outfit for the next day while you prepare for bed. Instead of focusing on class, you’re doodling in the margins of your notebook. You can’t sit still. Your mind is concentrated on this fascinating new person in your life.

You can’t fight it. It just happens. And it is merciless.

When you’re bored, admiration is all the more likely. Some cruel replica of infatuation strikes quickly—and if you’re bored enough, to the point of hopelessness, you mindlessly begin following that feeling. And I’m guilty of that. I can see why.

All of my friends were finding their own boyfriends. Eliza, Christina, Connie—it seemed like everyone had someone. And there was me, stuck in my little crappy RiteAid job. But here comes a boy around my age—intriguing, naïve, charming. Of course I would fall hard.

And David? Well, it turns out David was going through a rough time, too. So bored out of his mind that all he did was visit the library like twenty times a day and eat away his boredom with fattening snacks from the convenience store. Plus, there were few international students that spoke his language. I was one of the only people who could converse with him in his native speech, and that was comforting to him.

I think it’s true to say that, if not for RiteAid, we would have never gotten together. If not for my shitty, boring job. If not for the ridiculous amounts of junk food that David bought week after week. I would have never noticed him “like that.” We would have never ended up in that relationship that was so mind-numbingly boring that David had to end it after four months. I wonder how things could have been different. The conversation in the Vietnamese restaurant would have never happened. Maybe we would have just remained platonic friends in the same study group.

In the end, it just turned out to be a boring love story. 

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