Turning It Down
I HIT ON A GIRL at the grocery store a few years back. It was a disaster. I blame Sting and The Police. I’d been listening to their greatest hits on repeat in my car for weeks. I sang along, straining to hit the high notes in “Roxanne.” I kept the volume low lest another driver hear me at a red light.
For the record, I think Stewart Copeland and that other guy who plays guitar are fantastic musicians. Really, I do. But everybody knows Sting is the biggest one-third of that band. His pointy cheekbones, the pensive brooding, spiky hair so yellow it’s white-hot; he’s that good-looking on purpose, to offset the femininity of his high voice, his seemingly sensitive lyrics. Expert in his deception, he chooses to play bass, an instrument that growls manliness, takes the low road, fills that bottom end, yet his bass lines make grown men dance like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. Sting’s sneaky like that.
And he doesn’t stop there. He has a knack for inhabiting shady characters, brilliantly disguising them within a wholesome pop sensibility. For example, the speaker in “Roxanne” demands a better life for his favorite prostitute. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” rehashes the classic teacher/student forbidden romance. “Can’t Stand Losing You” begins as a jilted lover’s lament but ends with his vengeful suicide note. And the clearest illustration of Sting’s lyrical deception is, of course, “Every Breath You Take,” the most misinterpreted stalker anthem of all-time. “Every move you make / every breath you take / I’ll be watching you.” Think how many brides and grooms you’ve seen dance to that!
I love Sting, but I’m just saying . . . maybe he’s a creepster.
So, these were the songs buzzing round my head that night at the grocery store. It was late. They were about to close. I was stocking up on basics (milk, bread, refried beans), determined to get in and get out.
Then I saw her.
She and I reached for the same jug of milk. Our hands touched.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You go ahead.”
She was gorgeous. Pale skin and long red hair (not as red as Molly Ringwald’s, but close). “No, I insist,” she said. Faint freckles sprinkled her face, her neck, and continued underneath a gray T-shirt that fit her just right. “It’s all yours.”
I almost died. I snatched the milk jug and muttered, “Thank you,” then scurried away. I told myself not to look back at her, man, don’t look back, that’s creepy. But I couldn’t help it. I stopped suddenly, pretending to examine the frozen pizzas, and stole a glance back at the milk section.
She was gone.
I made it to the bread aisle and grabbed a loaf of honey wheat, cursing myself underneath my breath. Maybe she’d run into the store for milk only and was already checking out—I could walk by the registers and look for her. Then, a pale arm appeared in my periphery: she reached for a loaf of bread and said, “Hi again,” almost singing it to me. She held her bread in one hand, her milk jug in the other, and waited for me to speak. I lifted my matching groceries and said, “Great minds,” despite there being nothing genius about milk and bread on anyone’s grocery list.
The Girl smiled politely at my nervous talk. She was way out of my league. “Well,” she said, “the way things are going, I’ll probably see you again in a sec, yeah?” Then she winked, turned the corner, and disappeared again.
Any red-blooded fool would’ve followed her, chatted her up, but I was no good at talking to attractive strangers; I usually dated coworkers or classmates, girls I saw every day for weeks in a row, wearing them down slowly with small, daily niceties rather than one swift, suave move. (That whole I didn’t realize the guy I wanted was under my nose all along thing? I invented that.) Hitting on a girl you’ve just met requires a Stingesque deception: beneath the seemingly harmless chitchat lies a predatory rhetoric not in my repertoire. I was content to quit while ahead, savor the milk and bread moments, and let her go.
But then, something remarkable: Sting’s voice floated overhead, on the grocery store PA. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the rare Police hit that doesn’t get creepy—just a song about a crush. Do you know that part in the third verse, where it builds up slowly, so you know something big is about to happen, and then Sting sings the last line before the final chorus—“Must I always be aloooooone?”—and he holds that last syllable, really milking it, synthesizers swirling skyward to meet him, and you notice you’ve involuntarily thrust your fist into the air, triumphant, and maybe you’re crying a little, too?
Do you know that part?
I shot through the center of the store, looking left and right, left, right, down every aisle, until I found her. And I talked to her. To my surprise, she was a grad student, like me. She didn’t have many friends in town, like me. She twirled her auburn hair and told me her name, which I’ve now forgotten, but I remember thinking it was a perfect name.
Everything was going well, much easier than I’d expected, but I still couldn’t move beyond small talk and into Can I get your number? I started to get nervous. Really nervous. I began swinging my jug of milk back and forth at my side, slowly at first, but eventually more pronounced—not full-on windmill swings, but quarter-windmills at least. A nervous tic on steroids. I had no idea I was doing this, until one of my swings, at its apex, brought the jug up to her eye, dangerously close to her face. She flinched with her entire body, said OKbyenow! very quickly, and then walk-ran away from me.
I paid for my groceries and fled to the safety of my car. I’d forgotten the refried beans. I wished to forget everything. Every move I’d made. Every smile she’d faked. The milk I’d swung, a white pendulum of shame. I started my car, and there was Sting again, right where I’d left him, singing to his favorite prostitute. I turned him down as low as the volume could go, barely audible, which was exactly my problem: I’d listened to The Police for weeks, their creepy lyrics seeping into my subconscious like subliminal messages, transforming me into someone Sting might sing about: the shady grocery-store milk-jug predator.
I turned the stereo off and drove home in silence.
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