Free Samples of Nothing // Daniel Lupo

For a limited time, oblivion was a Trader Joe’s product I craved more than any other. I first tasted it in the Chelsea store, while staring into a tub of cookie butter cups. The tub doubled in my hands, kept doubling until I couldn’t tell which vision was the product I was holding. The lights brightened; the other shoppers dropped away. The store became a multi-textured rainbow sprinkled with prices in whimsical fonts. Then something inside me fell down a well. My ears were ringing in my abdomen. The tub went down, then I went down, but I don’t remember the crash. Oblivion was silent, violent, with hints of cookie butter.  

I woke up in an ambulance beneath the stony gaze of an EMT. He said I may have had a seizure and asked me what month it was. I didn’t know. I’d never passed out in my life. I wanted to cry, but as always my body wouldn’t go there. Though it had just broken down in a much more extreme way, breaking down in tears was still a limit it wouldn’t cross. Whatever I’d just been through didn’t do anything to loosen the grip of that particular tentacle of internalized homophobia.

The paramedics dropped me off in a shiny, odorless emergency room that reminded me of a giant laser-whitened tooth. I had no idea which hospital I was in, but I knew I’d have to pay more than I could afford for having been there. After making me wait for an hour, the doctor finally came in, reminding a nurse rushing past about his wife’s DJ set in Bushwick. He did a brief neurological exam and ordered some blood tests. After another two hours, he ruled out a seizure, told me I was just dehydrated, and discharged me with a flyer for the DJ set.

Outside, I found myself in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which I thought had closed years ago and been converted into condos like every other shuttered public building. I felt confused for a moment, disoriented in time. But then I saw a sign in front of the emergency room entrance: “Lenox Health Greenwich Village.” Apparently the bankrupt hospital had been repurposed as a profit-making one.

Walking east toward the M train, I texted Ty, who’d recently moved to Montreal for graduate school.

I just got out of the ER—had a little TJ mishap

Are you OK? he responded hours after I arrived home. Who’s TJ?

We had a brief exchange about the importance of drinking water, the weather in Montreal versus New York, and his graduate program’s dizzying bureaucracy-within-a-bureaucracy.

You should get some sleep. You had a traumatic day

Would you call that trauma? It could’ve been so much worse, I typed then deleted. OK good night

He broke up with me two days later, claiming that we’d grown too far apart, that on an emotional level our long-distance relationship had actually started soon after we moved in together, and that now would be a good time to end it. This was all news to me. He was always teaching me new things.

I spent the next two days in bed with his long text message, alternating between variations of I’ll have nothing without you and I’ll live without you as possible responses, unsure of what the difference between having nothing and living would be. Finally I settled for: Call me.

* * *

The room we used to share in Queens was stripped of everything that was his, which was everything that was in it. After he moved I outfitted it with a dusty fern from the corner store and an air mattress I stole from our straight roommate Sergei, who was never home. There, I did graphic design for Pommette, a cosmetics company whose products were made entirely of organic fruit. For their Banana Peel Facial Peel, I proposed a partially peeled banana with brown spots in the shape of a face, revealing a column of neon yellow as bright as the lights in a Trader Joe’s. But they told me it was both too morbid and too on-the-nose, and we couldn’t just show a peeled-off face with nothing underneath. I didn’t care enough about the company to be offended when they didn’t like my designs. Their products were terrible. They made my face feel mealy and teeming, like it was about to jump off my skull and live its own life. But they tasted delicious.

A month or so after blacking out for the first time, I went to the Trader Joe’s off Union Square to satisfy my lingering craving for cookie butter cups. They didn’t have any, so I settled for peanut butter cups, along with two bags of sriracha potato chips and one of each frozen pasta entrée they had. The place was packed with snack-happy shoppers. Amid the chaos, the workers communicated with each other through their corporate-imposed system of bell-ringing, and with customers through corporate-imposed cheerfulness. The straight couple in front of me in line was feeding each other mango chia pudding. To my right, a little girl was picking her nose over a bin of shriveling onions. To my left, a display area stacked with bags of snap pea crisps encouraged me to “Find Inner Peas.” It was my first trip in weeks beyond a two-block radius of my apartment. Ty hadn’t called me or answered any of my calls.

The pudding boyfriend glanced at me. “Van! The Drone Monster!” he shouted with pale orange goo trickling from his mouth. “We haven’t seen you since Palo Alto! What’s good, guy?”

He looked like he’d just stepped out of a real estate developer’s millennial-targeted ad campaign: Duke T-shirt, gung-ho grin, blue eyes twinkling with financial security. As he wrapped his burly arms around me, my cheek brushed against his sweaty neck. I instantly disliked him and fantasized about him fucking me on a bench press.  

“Oh you know,” I played along, “just stocking up like everyone else.”

“Yeah, I’d love to buy stock in this place, but Trader Joe’s isn’t publicly traded!”

“That isn’t Van, dumbass,” the girlfriend said. “I told you I saw Van last week. He has a neck tattoo now.”

He stepped back as if I’d just made a move on him. “Well who the hell are you then?”

​Suddenly I was in two Trader Joe’s at once, seeing double in time: through my right eye, the confused couple; through my left, the tub of cookie butter cups in Chelsea a month before. The onions were making my eyes tingle. They crossed as if staring at a Magic Eye drawing, waiting for a hidden image to appear.  

​“Have you ever had their cookie butter cups?” I said. It was the only response that came to mind. And then I had no mind.

​I came to in someone’s armpit, which I now know was the boyfriend’s, but upon extricating myself I didn’t recognize him or any of the other people crowded around us. I instantly knew I was in a Trader Joe’s, but not which one, how I’d gotten there, or what city I was in. Rather than console me, the strangers’ wide-eyed concern made me feel like I’d interrupted something, caused a kink in an otherwise smooth-running algorithm. I ran out of the store with a shoplifter’s haste.

​On a bench across the street, I tried to gather my thoughts. Having none to gather, I scrolled through Instagram, my thumb moving on its own while my eyes focused more on the sidewalk than my phone. But looking more closely, I didn’t recognize anyone in my feed, or the person in my profile picture, or the name below it. My stomach rumbled with hunger or nausea, I couldn’t tell which. I had no idea who I was.

​After what felt like hours of dazed immobility but could have been just a few minutes, I finally got up from the bench. As if led by an invisible hand, I walked over to Union Square, down Broadway, and into the Strand Bookstore, aswarm with even more products and people than Trader Joe’s. I flipped through as many books as I could, trying to find one I might remember having read. The other people seemed to be staring at me. I was convinced they knew what was going on, as if my amnesia were an outfit as conspicuous as a gorilla suit. And then, in the poetry section, I saw him: tousled brown hair, sunflower ankle tattoo, long fingers wrapped around a black book with two identical, ghost-white dresses on the cover. Unmoored from identity, desire bloomed in me with the voraciousness of a kudzu vine. He was the man I wanted, whoever “I” was.

​I wound my way through the fiction tables, intent on seducing him. But when I reached the banned books, someone else appeared in front of him. He was leaning his head against the bookcase, gazing up at my dreamboat, whose eyes were glued to the page. He had a black-ink tattoo of a broken egg on his inner arm, a long string of yolk suspended between the two halves.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I got the strange sense that their words were getting caught between them, as if they were speaking different languages thinking they were the same one. I stared at them for so long I forgot I’d forgotten who I was. Overheated, I peeled off my sweatshirt, revealing an identical broken egg tattoo on my inner arm.  

When I looked up, they were walking in my direction. I couldn’t move. They looked right through me as they passed, as if I were just another banned book. I wondered whether my amnesia had actually rendered me invisible rather than hypervisible. But as soon as they disappeared up the stairs, my identity arrived like a flaky friend apologizing for being late. I hadn’t been spying on two strangers in the present, but watching a memory of Ty and me from months ago that, having escaped my oblivion, replayed itself in its original setting. Like the delayed audio track of a poorly edited film, the conversation came back to me word for word. Everything I remembered about us congealed into a ball in my gut. I ran outside and puked next to a cart of one-dollar books.

* * *

“Do you think not being able to cry makes me an incomplete human?” I asked him the last time we visited the Strand. I never liked it there. I always felt like I was about to be crushed by a cascade of books or strangled by some rogue Proust sentence that shot off the page in search of some air.

“We’re all incomplete humans,” he said, flipping through a copy of Anne Carson’s Decreation. “Eight percent of our DNA is non-human.”

“OK, but do you think it means I feel things less deeply than other people?”

“Tears don’t mean anything in the long run. They’d really mean something if we could, like, bottle them and replenish the oceans with them. Which isn’t to say that not crying is bad for the ocean, obviously.”

“Well… yeah. Obviously.”

“What I mean is, it’s not any worse than crying about the ocean but not doing anything to help save it. Tears or no tears, we’re all just hanging on to humanity by a thread and losing water in the process.”

Moments like this made me angry at him for never knowing the right thing to say and angrier at myself for never knowing what I needed to hear from him. Neither of us was very good at talking about our problems. Every once in a while I’d throw a crumpled paper ball of vulnerability at him to see what he did with it.

“Anyway, wanna go upstairs and fuck in the bathroom again?” he said. We’d developed this occasional practice as an alternative to our original fantasy, fucking on the “Best of the Best” table in the front of the store, which we knew was never going to happen.

“Yeah, OK. Do you have any Motrin? I’m getting a headache.”

* * *

What began as a frightening recurrence quickly morphed into an addiction I viewed as a hidden talent. I could go into any Trader Joe’s bloated with depression and come out cleansed of both Ty and myself without ever having to return to the ER, so fast-acting were my blackouts. I was a lovesick Victorian lady with several enormous fainting rooms at her disposal, all filled with identical food. My urge to return was as desperate as it was economical. Why try to deal with my feelings about Ty when I could just walk into that kaleidoscope of same-brandness and erase them all in bulk over and over again?

Unlike other products, my Trader Joe’s oblivion didn’t abide by the store’s organizational scheme: I found it in the pasta aisle in the Lower East Side, by the bagged salads in Soho, next to the paltry samples of Reduced Guilt Mac & Cheese in Cobble Hill. Though the location always changed, the experience was always the same. No other store could replicate it. It was as if I’d been infected with a renegade strain of brand loyalty the brand couldn’t profit from.  

​ From what I can gather, the whole escapade from reentering the store to reentering identity never lasted more than a few hours. I don’t know whether I experienced any more historical reenactments like the one at the Strand. I remembered less and less of each spell after that one, but I’d always remember something, which suggests none of them was a total fugue state. When I picture them now, I see my body fluttering through space like a piece of unmarked cardboard the wind blew off the garbage truck.  

The return of identity always triggered the same side effect, an all-over ache I’d try to ignore over the next few days only to rush back to Trader Joe’s to start the process over again. Each time I was certain I’d find the store-bought Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindphenomenon I yearned for: a permanent erasure of Ty from my memory with permanent self-erasure as an added bonus, an opportunity to reemerge as someone new, someone who knew how to communicate, how to cry, how to be angry, how to keep a man, how to move on from one, how to not be whoever I’d been. I wanted to be discontinued like an unloved item that’s replaced with a more appetizing one. A spicy jícama black bean dip instead of mild pinto bean. A bag of crispy coconut-crusted soy nuggets instead of plain ones. A Belgian chocolate pudding instead of tapioca.

​After five weeks of regular Trader Joe’s visits, having been to each store in the city at least once, I began to feel their cumulative effect. I lost less sleep over Ty, stopped calling him, started feeling more and more detached from my former self, more and more like an empty shelf. But when a mutual acquaintance posted an Instagram photo of him kissing someone named “Gilles” in front of a pastry shop, all my negations were negated. I went back every day, knowing deep down I’d never get anything more than a taste of the oblivion I was craving. The full product seemed to be more than I could afford.

* * *

“There’s a Serial Trader Joe’s Fainter on the Loose,” it read on the local news site Ty and I said we’d stop checking after a hedge fund manager bought it but I secretly checked every day. For a moment I thought the headline was referring to someone else, someone who could relate to my mad practice. But when I clicked on it, there I was, lying on my side in front of the red meat, surrounded by red shopping baskets and the people attached to them. Zooming in, I could barely recognize myself: dark circles under my eyes, mouth agape, a stain on my shirt that could either have been a spilled free sample or blood.

​ ​The author assumed I was faking it. “If this isn’t just a dumb prank, then it must be some kind of protest piece,” she determined. “But if you’re going to protest a big-name supermarket (which I’m not advocating here!), why choose Trader Joe’s instead of Whole Foods? Isn’t that a more obvious target of anti-gentrification ire? What did Trader Joe’s ever do to anyone?” After a brief anecdote about throwing up in the Soho Uniqlo and feeling too embarrassed to return, she ended the article with a video of fainting goats.

​ ​In a rare bubble of self-reflection, I tried to figure out what was happening to me. Was there some dark Trader Joe’s marketing force behind all this, something lurking at the back of the shelves or in the blank space of the Fearless Flyer? Had I displaced the trauma of Ty’s leaving me onto the first fainting spell, which I kept reliving? What if I was faking it on some deep level, so starved for affection that I was only pretending to faint in order to gain sympathy, but believed I really was fainting? What if my craving for nothingness was actually just a really bad craving for cookie butter cups? Was Trader Joe’s making me crazy or was I going crazy at Trader Joe’s? How would I know the difference?

​ ​I was worried that someone might recognize me from the photo, but even more worried about having been reported in the first place. The article mentioned that I’d been spotted at every store in the city, which I assumed meant that someone was surveilling me. I imagined some Trader Joe’s executive in a red Hawaiian-print suit gazing at a row of screens, each displaying a video of me fainting in a different store, noting the slight variations in each event, calculating any loss of profit they may have occasioned, trying to find a pattern….  

​I knew I couldn’t go back to any of the New York City stores for a while. But my fear of identification was no match for my drive for erasure. So I did what I had to do. I went to New Jersey.

* * *

After spending an hour and a half beneath the Hudson River in a stalled PATH train, and another hour sweating through Hoboken with a dead phone, I finally spotted the Trader Joe’s sign glowing like a mirage at the end of the street. But wandering up and down the uncrowded aisles, I felt oddly stable. The hole in my belly wasn’t a vacuum sucking me into my usual abyss. It was just plain hunger. Something was wrong.

​ ​In search of a substitute abyss, I stared into the peach bin, fixating on a particularly bruised one that had attracted a cluster of fruit flies. I imagined it rotting at high speed until there was nothing left but the pit, which stared back at me and attempted to depersonalize my dejection. It told me how heartbreak is a scam meant to encourage social isolation and increased consumption of unhealthy food, drink, and entertainment. How depression didn’t exist before the rise of psychology in the nineteenth century. How, now that most of our experiences are filtered through digital platforms fabricated by a handful of corporations, emotions are becoming less and less distinguishable from each other, feeling things deeply less and less distinguishable from not feeling anything at all. When the skin grew back, I was still standing. The pit sounded a lot like Ty.

​I bought two frozen pizzas and a tub of peanut butter cups for $9.67. I knew that doing so would overdraw my bank account, but still, I felt ripped off.

* * *

Back home, I plugged in my phone and froze. Ty had texted me while I was in the store. I read his message over and over again until I was sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

Just reread this and thought of you. Hope you’re doing OK.

​Attached was a screenshot of Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” its final line underlined in bright orange ink:

​ ​...what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

​ ​It didn’t occur to me that he might have sent me a poem about a supermarket simply because it reminded him of the time I fainted in one, or because he’d read the article and learned I hadn’t stopped fainting, or that he might have underlined that line before he knew me, or that it might have been the work of a previous reader. Instead, I was convinced that my attempts at erasing him from my mind had actually brought our minds closer together, that he could sense my efforts to forget him and out of pure sadism had marked that line just for me, as if mocking me for assuming I’d stumbled upon my own private Lethe. But he was right, of course. Like the river of forgetfulness, Trader Joe’s is a public place.

​I was going to reply with a line from the beginning of the poem: In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! But it looked pathetic when I typed it. I left it in the text box for a few days, talked to some friends I’d lost touch with, briefly considered a juice cleanse, bookmarked some cheap rooms for rent, scheduled my first physical in ages. Finally I replaced it with a single space, resulting in an empty blue speech bubble. It was almost like not responding at all. Almost nothing seemed just enough.

Daniel Lupo is a writer, translator, and dancer based in Queens.

Image by Mike Mozart

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