2 Mar 2013

Ketchup for one

When I was 17 years old, I left home for university and moved into my first flat. My parents were paying my rent and I had a small allowance for food and expenses until I got a part-time job. I had been waiting for a place of my own since I was 14, I was so excited to be making my own rules, decorating with my second hand furniture and charity shop crockery and doing my own grocery shopping. That task alone signified my journey to independence. I had accompanied my mother on countless expeditions to our local supermarket, I knew what you bought for five people and how to make your dollar go far enough (mince, not steak, ice confection, not ice cream). I still waver between the budget range and the posh range at supermarkets to this day (though the posh range wins  more often now that I'm earning proper money).

On my first visit to the supermarket as a not-living-at-home teenager, I realised I not only had less than one-fifth of my mother's grocery budget, I also only had to buy things for one. I don't really enjoy cooking (though I'm told I'm quite good thanks to parents who insisted I knew the basics before I left home) and I'm often happy with something-on-toast. So I was pretty much after staples. Coffee, sugar, bread, butter, ketchup. I bought the cheapest coffee on the shelf. It was instant coffee and the absolute worst, worst, diabolically worst coffee I've ever tasted. Pablo brand coffee if you're interested (and here's an equally bad TV ad for it http://youtu.be/m3uSVIZEuvM), I don't think they make it any more. Probably because it's carcinogenic. But I bought it because it was cheap and it came in a tiny little jar, which I thought was quite sweet. I also bought a bag of sugar, a small tub of butter and the smallest bottle of Heinz tomato sauce I could find (we don't call it ketchup in Australia). I was so proud of my first purchases for my new life. These small items, so insignificant, so mundane, so ORDINARY, were symbols of of fearless independence, of making my own decisions, of freedom. And I couldn't wait to embrace it all.

Twenty-two years later, I have just come out of my only serious relationship, eight years with a good, kind man, who remains my friend, even though he's decided he needs to make his own choices about his future. It's been three weeks since I moved into my own place, a tiny flat by the seaside and I'm not going to pretend it's been anything but difficult to adjust. Once again, the insignificant, the mundane, the ordinary, have been the momentous emotional triggers - seeing the dishwasher open in the 'wrong' kitchen, making toast for one in my four-slice toaster, scanning the supermarket shelves and the disappointment of remembering I don't need to think about what he'd like for dinner. Coming home to an unfamiliar place, without my friend there to talk to - it's been hard.

But tonight, I went to the supermarket with only two purchasing goals - dessert and ketchup. There were individual chocolate sundaes on special (I'll let you know how they turn out) and I found the ketchup at the end of one aisle. I saw the big bottles first, the kind I'd always bought two of, because we tended to get through them quickly and they were often two-for-one. I frowned. I didn't need a bottle that big and they weren't on special. Then I saw the little ones beside it. At half the price. So I picked one up and suddenly I was in the kitchen of my student flat in 1989, putting the tiny jar of Pablo into the empty cupboard - MY empty cupboard - the vague smell of Formica and carpet cleaner in my nose and the thrilling anticipation of my independent future ahead of me.

And for the first time since my relationship ended, I realised I was excited about making my own decisions again. I realised that I could go back to being the strong, creative, vibrant person I was before I decided taking care of another person (even though he'd never asked me to) was more important. I realised that desperate, aching pain underneath my breastbone might not stay there forever. For the first time in weeks, I felt good about something, without the sharp, bitter taste of loss tainting it. I was going to be okay. Not all the time, not every day, not even every hour, but I was going to be happy. Happy about my decisions, happy about my plans, happy about my future. Happy buying ketchup for one.

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