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For the past three semesters, after long days of classes at the University of Texas at Austin and shifts at our part-time jobs, my roommate, Selam, and I would pack our bags and jump in the car. Blasting Ariana Grande’s Sweetener, we always wanted to make the short drive worthwhile, but what we were truly interested in was the destination—our local H-E-B.
As we’d sing along, the glowing lights of UT’s campus would dim, and the tower would fade from sight. To the right, rows of houses lined the road; to our left, a golf course stood perpetually green. The end of the ride was signaled by three bold letters, glowing red at the corner of Red River and 41st Street. That’s how we knew we were in Austin’s Hancock neighborhood, seemingly worlds away from the student-filled streets of West Campus.
Selam and I made this trip every other week or so with the excuse of getting groceries, but acquiring daily essentials was only a small part of the equation. On a normal trip, Selam and I could stay up to three hours in the store just hanging out. We’d spend the bulk of our time walking through every single aisle, catching up and gawking over things we didn’t need, ranging from holiday-themed mugs to frozen black bean burgers. As young, busy people in need of an escape from our hectic lives, we saw H-E-B as a haven where we could reconnect and decompress amid shelves of canned soup.
The ritual usually commenced with us enthusiastically selecting which kind of cart we wanted to share. Some days called for a long cart, others a handheld basket. We would make several laps around the produce section. We discussed which bananas were ripe enough to take home as well as frustrations with school and life updates. On good days, we’d buy up boxes of premade sushi.
Following a tour of the various types of bread—which we vowed never to buy but somehow found its way into the cart—we would get trapped in the aisle filled with seasonal kitchenware, discount candy, and pots for plants we don’t own. Despite being young adults, we are both children and old women at heart; we’re suckers for wine glasses with cheesy sayings and buy one get one free chocolate bars.
Other pit stops included contracting goosebumps in front of the fridges holding iced coffee, selecting a variety of dark chocolate, and surveying the frozen vegan “meat.” Sometimes, for no reason other than to delay our return home, we’d walk through the same aisles once more.
We would bag our groceries and check-out lane impulse purchases in reusable bags, then solemnly pack the trunk and sneak a bite of chocolate. Only then would we turn on the car and head home, singing with Ariana once more.
Recently, Selam and I haven’t been able to take part in our joint trips to H-E-B because of the pandemic. Selam is social distancing in her hometown of Plano and I’m still in Austin making occasional trips to the same H-E-B by myself or with my mother. (She’s great company but doesn’t share my affinity for the large center aisle.) Loitering in the aisles isn’t really an option anymore. Grocery trips are now accomplished with speed and face masks.
But things are looking up. Selam and I will be moving back into our West Campus apartment in less than a month, and soon after that we can once again sing loudly in the car before hanging out in our favorite local grocery store.