Happy Birthday cocktail napkins. Two bottles of Moet & Chandon. Candle in the shape of “40”. Box of Fran’s Salted Caramel truffles. Pint of Haggen-Daz Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. One frosted cupcake. It’s almost 11 pm and Leo Morales is at the end of his eight-hour shift, checking out customers at the A&P. He looks up to see the owner of the groceries is this Nordic-looking six-foot-tall blonde in a sparkly black party dress, a dress emphasizing all the right assets.

Leo rarely chats with customers. If he does, he sticks with the minimum, like “Nice weather today”, or “Got plans for the weekend?” Just enough to show his manager he is “engaging” with the customers. But not enough to distract him from the mind-numbing movement of the groceries from the conveyor belt past his scanner and into the bags. Leo has been working nights as a checker since graduating with a degree in English Literature. He thought the work would be temporary, just until he figured out what he wanted to do with his life. Now, two years later, he is still moving groceries while his life is at a dead stop.

Maybe it’s because he’s at the end of his shift, feeling antsy, but he wants to know more about this woman. “Looks like you’re on the way to a celebration,” Leo says, shyly meeting the eyes of the customer. She’s clearly out of his league. That dress alone probably cost what was for him a month’s salary.

She looks directly at him, her expression cool; “Yeah, you might call it that.” She pauses for a moment, her eyes still locked onto his, making it impossible for Leo to look away. Then she smiles, a big glossy-red lipped smile showing rows of perfectly white, even teeth, sparkling in the harsh florescent lights of the A&P.

“Fact is, I’m 40 years old today; my husband left me last month for some woman who’s practically a teenager, and this is the first time I’ve dressed and left the house in a week. So, I guess that’s worth celebrating.”

Leo surprises himself with the immediacy of his response, “Why would your husband do that to you? You’re so….” He doesn’t want to say she’s beautiful. That seems too much to tell a stranger, especially one whom he finds so, well, so beautiful.

“I’m so…what?” she asks, her icy blue eyes staring him down.

“You…you’re so…perfect.” His cheeks burned. What a stupid thing to say.

She laughs. A big, boisterous laugh that catches the attention of the few customers left in the A&P. Then she looks embarrassed, almost shy, “That’s very sweet of you to say. I certainly have tried to be perfect, but in the eyes of my husband, I seem to have fallen off that pedestal long ago.” She sighs, shakes her head, and Leo sees tears welling up in those lovely blue eyes. She rummages through her big black leather purse, pulling out a handkerchief. Leo doesn’t know anyone who uses a handkerchief. His mom always had bunches of wadded up Kleenex in her purse, to pass to Leo and his brothers for their runny noses, or to wipe their faces. She dabs at her eyes, delicately preventing the tears from smearing her mascara. “I’m sorry. I guess I wasn’t ready to leave the house yet after all.”

“I’m glad you left the house,” Leo says. He hates to see people cry. It always makes him sad as well. “I think you deserve to celebrate.”

She smiles, putting the handkerchief away. “Well, first I better pay for all of this. God knows I’ll be paying for it in other ways later. You’re young yet, but for a woman of 40, most everything that’s in these bags is poison.” She pulls out her credit card, tapping it onto the machine; “But who the hell cares? I’ll never be able to compete with some teenager, right?”

“There is no competition. Just think of yourself as being in a whole other league.”

She looks at him, her head tilted slightly, like she’s trying to figure him out. But she doesn’t reply. She just lifts her big leather purse over her shoulder, going through the motions to move on.

Now with the payment made and the groceries bagged, there is nothing more for Leo to do to hold her there, at his check stand in the A&P, and he so wants her to stay. She also pauses. It was like they were waiting to be hit by lightning, shocking them into some crazy action.

“So,” Leo says, trying to speak loud enough for her to hear, but low enough so no one else did, “I shouldn’t even be asking you this…and…and I’d probably be fired if my manager knew, but….”

She runs her fingers through her long blonde hair and asks, “Are you wanting to join my celebration?” She seems to be jesting, but only slightly. He can’t tell, but then he’s not very good at reading women anyway.

Leo exhales, not realizing he had been holding his breath. “Yes. I’m off shift in 5 minutes. That is, if you would like some company. My name’s Leo by the way.” He points to his name badge, as if validating his claim to the name.

“And I’m Sandra, Leo. But you can call me Sandy. I’d love the company.” She pulls out a notepad from her bag, and a fancy fountain pen, jots down her address, not far from the A&P. She passes it to him with a long, slender hand, her graceful fingers topped off with the same shade of glossy red that surrounds that beautiful mouth.

Leo grins. “I’ll see you soon, then.”

“I look forward to it.” She starts off, but then quickly swivels around, meeting Leo’s glance, as he was still looking at her. “And Leo,” she says, tossing her hair back with one of those delicate, red-tipped hands, “Bring your own cupcake.”

Brian Christopher Giddens is a gay writer of fiction and poetry, living in Seattle. Brian’s writing has been published or is pending publication in Silver Rose, On the Run Fiction, Glass Gates Collective, Roi Faineant, Litro Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Hyacinth Review, and Evening Street Review. brianchristophergiddens@outlook.com