A song about soaking in the sun plays over the loudspeakers. I wait in the aisle with the wrists braces and heating pads and watch the pharmacist frown at his computer. His haircut is new, and his coat is ironed crisp. Sometimes he gets sweaty and takes it off and rolls up the sleeves of his button-down. When he’s busy, he’ll hold the pharmacy phone in one hand and wipe the sweat off his brow with the other.
“Penny?” one of the assistants calls from the window. She doesn’t smile at me; it’s a chain pharmacy, not a small-town apothecary, and there’s no time for niceties.
“Yep,” I say, but my voice is so small because as soon as I start to speak, the pharmacist looks over at me from the back, and he smiles a little so I choke on my own saliva. I cough and try again. “That’s me.”
“You can wait outside the booth,” the assistant says. She gestures at a makeshift cubicle with frosted glass walls and a red cartoon Band-Aid on the door. It’s got a smiley face and sunglasses, and it’s giving me a thumbs up.
I’m sweating and my shirt is sticking to my underarms. I am suffocating, and I smell like shallots, and my mother is calling for the fourth time today.
“Mom, I’m busy,” I say.
“Doing what?” she says. A blow-dryer’s going in the background.
“I’m getting my flu shot.”
“I get sick every time I get one of those. And this year, when I didn’t get one? Guess what? Didn’t get sick.”
“Listen I have to go.”
“What, are they about to stick you right now?”
“I’ll call you back.”
“Text me, then.”
“I miss my Blackberry, it was so much easier to text.”
“Wrong, those buttons were tiny.”
“They were not, they were better, and my screen never broke, you know how many times I’ve shattered this one? Seven times!”
The pharmacist rounds the corner with a syringe rolling back and forth in a plastic tray. My stomach flips. He will be able to smell me.
“I’m hanging up,” I whisper.
“You’re always so annoyed to talk to me on Sundays, I don’t get your deal—”
I slip my phone into my bag, a tote from the Paris Review. I reposition it on my hip so that my pharmacist can see it and think that I’m literary, or maybe that I’m French, or that I have enough taste to not wander around with a tote bag from Trader Joe’s like a purse.
“You can call me Penny.”
“Go ahead and have a seat.” He grins and opens the door. His teeth are so white, and there’s a little stubble on his chin, and my vision blacks out a bit.
His name is Paul, Paul the pharmacist. It’s the first time I’ve gotten close enough to his coat to read the name tag. He never helps at the pickup window so I only see him in the back fluttering around with pill bottles, clicking at computers. But his name is Paul, and I try my best to commit it to memory because mine is shit, and before you know it I’m at the pharmacy thinking it’s Phil because I’m too busy asking for my Prozac in a hushed-enough tone so he doesn’t know it’s mine.
He tugs on a pair of latex gloves. “Any allergies?”
“None,” I say, breathy as if he’d find a functional immune system attractive.
“Have you had a reaction to flu shots before? Any other routine vaccinations?”
Flecks of dry skin work their way up and out of his scalp and skitter down to his shoulders. It humanizes him.
“Do you normally work on weekends?” I ask.
“Do I work on weekends?” Paul smiles. “Sometimes.”
I nod as Paul rubs an alcohol pad on the side of my upper arm. He grips it hard, palming my muscle to plump it up. “One, two, and a pinch.”
I don’t feel it. Paul’s eyes are green. Kind. I imagine looking at them at Christmas across the dining table at my parents' house—who would absolutely love Paul even though it wouldn’t matter because I’m my own woman—and he would smile as he passed the potatoes. I would be victorious in bringing someone so nice instead of my other boyfriends, one of whom is in jail for statutory rape, and he didn’t do it to me, it was after we broke up, but it’s still tragic. My high school boyfriend was a cocaine dealer and I didn’t know until I was twenty-two. But Paul would be lovely, and Paul could take care of me if I were sick, or at least get me the best drugs, and it would be a relationship I would work for.
“Feeling okay?” Paul asks. “Penny?”
He waves a hand in front of my face. I have zoned out. I didn’t mean to. But now he’s even closer, and he smells clean, nothing like body odor, and Jesus Christ, he is going to kiss me. He grips the back of my neck as if it’s going to roll onto the floor, and I appreciate the gesture, but it’s making things worse. He’s staring at my eyes and I lean into him, and I delude myself into thinking it’s cinematic and slow, but it happens at lightspeed.
“I’d eat your dandruff,” I whisper, and ram right into him, my lips crushing against his.
Stiff and unprepared, he recoils.
I blink fast and shake my head, trying my hardest to look alive. “Sorry,” I say. “Shit, I don’t know what happened.”
He tugs on the sleeves of his coat, clears his throat. “No allergies, right?”
I shake my head. I touch my lips. I cannot speak and I think I am going to shit right here, right in the cubicle with the smiley band-aid, and of course he saw it all, too.
“Just be sure to stay put for a few minutes.” He leaves, tripping over my tote that looks sadder crumpled on the floor, less chic, and does not look back at me.