Clean Up On the Produce Aisle

Sydney’s picking her nose again.

You want to scream, even bat her hand away from her face. She is standing in the produce aisle, next to the loose leaf lettuce. People are staring. It’s all fun and games until someone finds a booger on their radicchio, you think to yourself.

“Sydney,” you say to your sister, your tone patient, but there is tension under the patience, tight as a rubber band about to snap. “Stop picking your nose.”

She looks up at you. Her features — part you, part Down syndrome – are reminders that you love Sydney in spite of her behaviors. “Sydney’s special,” mom used to say. “You’ll always be sisters and someday you two will be all each other has. For now, at least be each other’s buddies.”

It would have been nice if someday had come later rather than sooner. Instead, it came after you finished college, but before you earned an editorial seat at The Independent. It came after your break up with Todd and before you bought yourself a cat, then another for Sydney, because it wasn’t fair that you had a cat and she didn’t. It came before either of you were prepared.

The minute you turn toward the apples, Sydney stuffs her index finger up her nose again.

“Sydney, I swear to God –“

“That’s bad,” she tells you. “Swearing is bad. Swearing to God is badder.”

“Worse,” you correct, ever the grammar Nazi. “And stop picking your damn nose, Sydney, it’s unsanitary and you’re in a grocery store.” You hand her a produce bag. “Here. Hold this with both hands while I put apples in it. How many do you want this week?”

“None,” she characteristically replies. “I hate apples.”

“An apple a day keeps –“

She interrupts my cheery reminder with, “That’s baloney. I see like five doctors a week.”

“Slight exaggeration,” you say, rolling your eyes. “But fine. How about bananas?”

“No.”

You raise a brow at her. “Sydney, we’re eating healthy, remember?”

“I don’t want no stinking bananas,” she flatly states, indignation puckering her forehead and pulling her eyebrows together. Her lisp is slightly more pronounced and you realize she is getting edgy. In public. Again.

“Fine.” You realize too late that maybe “fine,” should not have been punctuated with the implication that you feel she’s merely being difficult.

Honing in on your tone, Sydney screeches, “When I eat bananas I can’t poop!” Her shriek pierces through the hum of voices, the steady shift of shopping carts, a baby screaming somewhere in a center aisle, and the spray of water freshening the loose leaf lettuce. Heads turn.

You stand there for a moment, your cheeks burning, heart racing, stomach flip-flopping, and what feels like a thousand tiny needles stabbing the back of your neck. After eighteen years, she could still take you down with these episodes. You were tired of the struggle and definitely tired of being the responsible one. Sick of verbally walking on pins and needles. Counseling never helped. Medications had side-effects often worse than the episodes themselves. A brief tango with a cocktail of anti-depressants, anti-agitation and anti-anxiety medications once put Sydney into a weeklong comatose state.

You take your sister by the hand and make your decision. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” You drag her behind you, the entire while Sydney snivels about bananas and pooping issues. Shoppers and Safeway employees stop to gawk. A part of you so badly wants to “Norma Rae” the situation, leap onto the conveyor belt of check-out stand five and inform them, one and all, that bananas keep Sydney from pooping, and what an atrocity that is.

Once outside, the sun is blinding. Your vision blurs. Sydney slaps a hand over her own eyes, her tears for bananas and constipation changing to bona fide complaints about how bright and hot it is. You stand there with Sydney, trying to collect yourself. Your sister takes a celebratory plunge into her right nostril with her left index finger. You glance at your watch.

“I have to be back to the office in an hour, Syd,” you tell her. She watches you wordlessly, every bit of her attention focused on removing the persistent booger from her nose. “We still need produce.”

How did mom do it all those years? You simultaneous realize that mom had been a solid rock, and you are a twenty-six year old copywriter with no life outside of work, Sydney and the two cats.

“Got it!” Sydney is beaming, holding her index finger up for you to inspect. Because this was the first smile she has had all day, you rejoice in her booger-picking skills and hand her an antibacterial wipe.

She walks to the trash and throws it away, brushing her hands together in satisfaction. “Peaches,” she says. “Peaches are good.”

You smile at her, reach out and brush a lock of brown hair from her cheek, and her grin broadens. “Farmers’ market?” you suggest, knowing you are dangling a nice juicy carrot. Sydney loves the farmers’ market and all of the free samples it offers. Its only competition, in her mind, is Costco.

“Kettle corn?” she asks hopefully. The farmers’ market kettle corn folks always fawn over her.

You take her hand and lead her toward your Prius. “If you promise me something.”

She groans, but the smile is still there. “Fine… what?”

You cast a sideways glance at her, grinning, drinking in her smile and the sparkle in her eyes. Your heart swells. In that moment, you realize what mom meant about having each other. Then you wink, reach out, and playfully give her cheek a gentle tweak. “You have to promise me that you won’t pick your nose while we’re there.”