Jars of peanut butter are arranged in carefully manicured rows on the shelf in Wegmans. Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan. Creamy, crunchy, extra crunchy.
And then you have the peanut allergy-friendly varieties: cashew, almond, pecan, macadamia.
I put a finger to my lips, let my eyes roam over the labels, take my time. I already know what I want but I don’t want to appear eager or excited. I pick up a jar of creamy Skippy, put it in my basket. It sits next to a package of sliced turkey, a box of tissues, a bunch of bananas. Can’t have it look like I’m here just for the peanut butter.
Farther down the aisle a guy in his 20s peruses the jellies, the jams. Only he taps a foot on the linoleum, gives little sideways glances to see if anybody’s looking. I catch his eye, nod, give him a smile, continue on my way. He looks at his feet, hurries down the aisle in the opposite direction.
At Stop & Shop, I roll down the jelly aisle with my cart. I consider the offerings on hand. There’s Smucker’s, Welch’s. Grape, strawberry, fig, apricot. Mass-produced, organic, artisanal. Orange marmalade for the truly discerning.
I go for a jar of Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, with its checkered lid and cursive script on the label. It costs a couple bucks more than the other brands but it’s worth it. I carefully place the jar in the cart, next to a bag of romaine hearts, in the part of the cart where a child would sit if I had a child.
It joins the other items I don’t really need: a 12-pack of toilet paper, a box of instant oatmeal, a carton of pumpkin-flavored coffee creamer, a package of Chips Ahoy. I don’t even eat cookies.
I go to CVS, pick up a bottle of Robitussin, some shampoo.
I peruse the two shelves that constitute their bread section. There’s a few loaves of Pepperidge Farm whole wheat, Nature’s Own multigrain, Stroehmann white.
I select a loaf of the Stroehmann, carry it in the crook of my arm like a baby.
I get home, put the bags of groceries on the kitchen table. I glance at the LCD display on the microwave: 9:47pm. I used to do my grocery shopping in the morning or during my lunch break. I don’t do that anymore. Too many prying eyes.
I draw the curtains in front of the window by the kitchen sink, draw the curtains in front of the living room window. Don’t need any Peeping Toms.
I take out the bread, the peanut butter, the jelly, arrange them on the counter. I could care less about the other stuff, let it all sit on the table.
I undo the twist tie on the bag of Stroehmann, stick my nose in, take a long whiff. Smiling, I remove one slice, another. I open the toaster oven, gently slide the slices in. The toaster oven is a stainless steel work of art. It can slow cook, reheat, roast, broil, bake, you name it. I only ever use it for toasting. But it gets it right every. Single. Time. Best $250 I ever spent.
While the bread is toasting, I unscrew the top on the jar of Skippy, smell that too. I open the jar of Bonne Maman. The scent of toasting bread suffuses the air. My mouth waters.
I take a plate from the cupboard, a butter knife from the silverware drawer, arrange them on the countertop just so. The toaster dings!, and I remove each slice of bread using my thumb and forefinger. It’s hot but I don’t mind the pain.
I wait a couple of minutes, let the bread cool just a little. I spread a thick coating of Skippy on one slice, a couple gooey dollops of preserves on the other. I put the slice with the peanut butter on top of the slice with the jelly. I don’t bother cutting the sandwich, just pick it up and take a big bite.
Gooseflesh raises on my skin, blood rushes to my face. It’s warm and sticky and messy and I don’t want it to end.
How anybody could hate this is beyond me. Yet, being seen with a PB and J in the wrong place at the wrong time could be the death of you. Literally.
Zane says when he was in high school, he told his “friend” that he liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He says that this person went and told another kid who told another kid who told another and on and on until everybody knew Zane’s secret. Pretty soon everybody was calling him “sammie lover.” A few tears leak out of Zane’s eyes, roll past the rims of his glasses. He uses the cuff of his argyle sweater to mop them up.
Blue plastic chairs are arranged in a circle in the basement of a church. Zane’s in good company because each one is occupied by somebody who has endured a situation similar to Zane’s. We tell people we can’t help it, that we were born this way. Most guffaw when they hear that, think it’s a choice.
We thank Zane for sharing, tell him to stay strong.
The meeting ends. I’m gathering up my coat and purse when I feel a light touch on my arm. I look up, see Zane.
He asks me do I remember him from the other night. I’m not good with faces so I tell him no.
He asks me was I at Wegmans the other night, was I there getting peanut butter.
Oh right, I say. You were the guy looking at the jellies?
He lowers his head, nods. He says, Sorry if I seemed a little skittish. He says, That’s how I am in supermarkets anymore.
I put on my coat, sling my purse over my shoulder. Aren’t we all, I say.
Zane picks at the cardboard sleeve of his coffee cup, tells me I remind him of his sister. He says, The way you walked around Wegmans, like nothing could hurt you. He says, Renee was like that.
I say, Was?
He pushes his glasses up on his nose, says, Yeah, she died a couple years back. He says, She loved peanut butter and jelly.
We’re in a coffee shop down the street from the church. After the meeting, Zane asked if I wanted to get some coffee with him. I said sure, why not.
I offer my condolences, ask him how it happened. I say, If you don’t want to talk about it, I completely understand.
Nah, it’s okay, he says. I can talk about it.
Renee was in a grocery store one day, bought bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Zane says that his parents let them have peanut butter and jelly all the time growing up, that they never treated it like it was weird or repulsive. So neither did he, neither did Renee.
She was a freshman in college, doing her own grocery shopping for the first time. So of course she bought those things at one store, not three. Somebody must’ve spotted her, Zane says, because she was found outside the store, her face disfigured and bloody. Her shopping bag was ripped open, the peanut butter, jelly, bread, and other groceries strewn around her broken body.
I wince, tell Zane his sister sounds braver than I could ever be.
He gives me a thin-lipped smile, sips his coffee. We sit in silence for a few moments, neither of us knowing what to say next. Finally, Zane says, You hear about the rally this weekend?
I shake my head.
He tells me a pro-PB and J rally is going to be held in the city, that there’ll be a parade and then a few PB and J-ers will speak.
I must look wary because he says, Heavy police presence, too. He says, Nobody messes with us. He asks me would I like to go.
I swallow, say, Um. Say, Well.
He removes a pen from his jacket pocket, slips the sleeve off his coffee cup. He flattens the brown ring on the table top, jots his number on it. He slides it across to me. He says, Give me a call if you change your mind.
A humongous peanut butter and jelly sandwich dances up to me, hands me a small package wrapped in wax paper. I fold back the paper, catch a glimpse of beige, of purple. I gasp, quickly refold the paper, thrust the sandwich into my purse.
Zane puts a hand on my arm, says, No no, it’s cool. He unwraps his sandwich, takes a big bite, smiles. He says, See?
I look around, see other people doing exactly what Zane is. I take the sandwich back out, remove the paper, bite into it. I say, It’s so. Good.
Zane laughs, takes another bite. He says, Right?
So I changed my mind about the parade. I called Zane, met up with him and his friends.
We stroll through the streets of the city, munching on our sandwiches, smiling, talking, laughing. Several people are dressed as sandwiches, many others are dressed in purple shirts and khaki pants. I see one woman wearing a shirt that shows two cartoon-ish pieces of bread hugging each other, peanut butter and jelly squeezed between them. Letter-shaped clouds above the sandwich spell out PUT ‘EM TOGETHER, NOTHING’S BETTER!
The woman spots Zane, runs over, throws her arms around him. She’s got a sandwich, too.
After they hug, she motions to me, says, And who’s this?
Zane introduces us – the woman’s name is Martha.
Martha says, Haven’t seen you before. She says, This your first rally?
Zane cups his hand around Martha’s ear, whispers something to her.
Martha gives me a look as if to say, “You’ll do.”
The crowd starts to slow and then comes to a stop. We’re standing in the middle of the street, flanked on one side by a stage, a microphone stand on top of it.
Martha says, Be right back. She disappears into the crowd.
I turn to Zane, ask him what he said to her. He smiles, polishes off his sandwich, says, You’ll see.
When Martha reappears, she’s up on the stage, behind the mic. Her arms are raised, and she’s waving to the crowd with both hands.
Into the mic she says, Put ‘em together!
Everybody around me shouts, Nothing’s better!
Martha whoops and claps. She thanks everyone for coming out, says that every rally gets us a step closer to equality. She talks a little more about how we, how “sammie lovers,” are people, too and that being out in public is the best way to show we aren’t scared.
She says, So now I’d like to welcome a new face to the stage. She says, This is the first rally she’s attended, and I don’t know about you guys but I’d like to hear what she thinks. She leans into the microphone, says, What do you say?!
The crowd claps and howls in response.
Martha says, That’s what I thought! She says, Come on up, Justine!
My breath catches in my throat. Zane lightly elbows me, says, You heard the lady.
I swallow, hand my sandwich to Zane.
I get to the stage, take Martha’s place behind the mic. The cheering and clapping die down. I adjust the mic, clear my throat.
I say, Thanks. I say, Um, let’s hear it for Martha!
More clapping, more cheering.
It gets quiet again, and I say, Like Martha said, this is my first rally. I say, And she’s right, you know. I say, Things like this. They’re important. It’s scary to be different but it shouldn’t be. I say, Some of us have lost things just for being who we are, and that sucks.
I pause, look over at Martha, look out at Zane. I say, My parents disowned me when I told them I liked peanut butter and jelly. I say, People say honesty is the best policy. I pause, say, They never tell you that honesty can feel so shitty.
It was a couple of years after I graduated college. I’d gotten tired of hiding who I was from my parents so I decided to tell them. Actually though, I wasn’t that direct.
We were in the kitchen one morning, Mom, Dad, and I. They were at the table, having their coffee and reading the paper. I said good morning and without saying another word, started making a PB and J. Mom and Dad didn’t notice anything until I sat down at the table with my sandwich.
Mom looked over, made a face, said, What. Is that?
I said, Peanut butter and jelly.
Mom put down her paper. Dad did, too.
Mom said, Is this for real?
Dad said, How long? He said, When did?
Since sophomore year in college, I said. So for a few years now.
They sat there for a little while, processing. I ate my sandwich, put my plate in the sink. Put away the peanut butter, the jelly, the bread. Took my place back at the table.
Finally, Mom said, Well this is completely unacceptable.
Dad said, You try not liking peanut butter and jelly? He said, Maybe give ham and cheese a chance?
I said, Guys. I said, This is who I am. You need to accept it.
Mom said, Please leave.
I said, Daddy?
He said, Justy. We can’t be seen as. He lowered his voice, said, Sammie lovers.
Tears in my eyes, I got up from the table, looked at each of them in turn. I said, You’re such fucking cowards.
I left and never went back.
I finish my story, and the crowd is silent. Then Zane yells, We love you, Justine!
Everybody starts cheering, whistling, shouting my name. My eyes well up, and I move to leave the stage. Martha grabs my arm, spins me around, hugs me. Her eyes wet with tears, she says, Thank you so much for doing this. She says, Stories like yours save people.
She releases me, says into the mic, Let’s hear it again for Justine!
The applause continues as I step off the stage and into more welcoming arms. I’m like a president, a rock star, glad-handing and hugging the members of what feels like my new family.
I make my way to Zane. He hugs me, too. He says, See? He says, Aren’t you glad you came?
I smile, nod, start sobbing. I fall into his arms again.
Martha plucks a jar of crunchy Jif off the shelf at Wegmans, tells me she usually goes creamy but likes to change things up every now and again. She puts it in her basket, sits it next to a loaf of raisin bread.
Days after the parade, Martha calls me, asks if I want to run some errands with her, says she could use the company. What she doesn’t tell me is that she wants to go to the grocery store to buy exactly three items.
She moseys down the aisle, selects a jar of Welch’s grape jelly. She holds it out, wiggles it at me, says, I keep it real. She adds it to the basket, proceeds toward the checkout lanes.
I bite my lip, look around.
Martha says, What are you doing?
I say, Uh. Say, Nothing.
As we near the end of the aisle, a man and his teenage son pass us with their cart. The man glances at Martha’s basket, grunts, says, Fuckin’ sammie lovers.
Martha smiles, says, That’s right, my good man. She says, It’s a taste sensation. You should try it. She looks him right in the eye, says, You know you want to.
The man grumbles, pushes his cart past us, his son trailing him.
As we approach a checkout line, I say, That was amazing. I say, Does that happen often?
Martha puts the peanut butter, jelly, and bread on the black conveyor belt, says, More often than I would like, yeah. She says, But what am I gonna do? Go to three different stores?
I guffaw, scratch my head, say, Yeah, I guess that would be, uh. Pretty stupid.
She says, We’re here. She looks at me, says, They need to get used to it.
Talking heads on TV tell me there’s anti-sammie legislation that’s being voted on in a few days in D.C. They’re saying that, if it passes, it will be illegal to consume a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in public.
I grab my cell phone, call Zane. I ask him if he’s seen the news, ask him if he’s heard this bullshit about anti-sammie laws.
He sighs, says yeah, he heard.
On television, pundits debate the proposed legislation. A couple of them call PB and J “disgusting” and “revolting.”
Zane says, Justine? He says, You there?
I say, Yeah. Say, I need to call Martha.
Cops pace back and forth in front of metal barricades. They scan the crowds behind them, eyes alighting on each face before moving on to another.
In front of the Capitol building, protesters have gathered. We, the sammie lovers, are behind one set of barricades. The anti-sammies are behind the other.
Standing flush against the barricade, Martha holds a megaphone in one hand, thrusts a PB and J into the air with the other. The megaphone to her lips, she says, Put ‘em together!
We respond, Nothing’s better!
Across from us, anti-sammies hold signs that say “Ham and Cheese – Sure to Please!” and “Peanut Butter and Jelly – Bad for Your Belly!” They chant, PB and J! They chant, No way!
This continues until a young woman in a pantsuit walks down to where we are. We fall silent, and she says, The bill has been voted down!
We cheer and hug each other. The anti-sammies boo, shake their signs. We wave to the cops, thank them for being there. Some break character, smile and wave.
Our mission accomplished, we disperse.
Zane, Martha, and I walk back to my car. We’re about to cross the street when a full jar of peanut butter slams into Martha’s head. She stumbles, falls down the steps of a nearby Metro station.
She tumbles down a long flight of stairs, comes to rest on a landing.
She isn’t moving. She doesn’t get up.
The pastor says that Martha was like a bulldog, that once she had her jaws locked on something, forget it, that was it, she wouldn’t let go. He smiles, says she would’ve taken that as a compliment.
In the distance, a chorus of acidic voices shouts, PB and J! It shouts, No way! They wave signs, make a show of stomping on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They’re standing right outside the cemetery gate.
Whoever threw that jar of peanut butter at Martha’s head, he or she wasn’t caught. The police said the fingerprints from the jar couldn’t be matched to any they had on file. Whoever it was, though, Zane and I are convinced he or she was an anti-sammie.
Now, like a metastatic cancer, the anti-sammies have spread to Martha’s funeral.
The pastor’s eyes dart in the direction of the protesters. He looks at us, offers a small smile, his lips pursed together. He clears his throat, gets on with the ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Soon one of the protesters is on a megaphone prattling on about how peanut butter and jelly is an “aberration,” a “gross misuse of foodstuffs.” He calls us “freaks,” “malcontents.”
I huff, stomp away from Zane and the other mourners.
I go to my car, dump my purse in the front seat. I grab Martha’s megaphone from the backseat. It’s been there since D.C.
Brandishing it like a pistol – held near my hip with my finger on the trigger, I march to the wrought iron gate. I bring the megaphone to my mouth, shout, Put ‘em together! I shout, Nothing’s better!
A voice joins mine, and out of the corner of my eye I see that it’s Zane’s.
Before we know it, everybody else at the funeral joins us, and it’s D.C. all over again – them on one side, us on the other.
A jar of peanut butter comes sailing over the gate. I duck and Zane swoops in and catches it. He says, Thanks! He says, I was almost out!
There’s a commotion among the anti-sammies, and a group of cops converges on a guy with a backpack. They open it, find jars of peanut butter, jars of jelly.
I move closer to the fence, get a better look at the guy with the backpack. He’s the same guy from the grocery store, the one shopping with his son.
We later find out that his prints match those of the ones on the jar that killed Martha.
A sea of flickering orange dots stretches out before me. A tear-streaked face hangs above each one.
Perched on a stepstool, I hold a microphone to my lips. It’s sweaty in my hand. I clear my throat, and it booms from the speakers. I say, I didn’t know Martha that well. We only met recently. I say, But I can tell you that she was one of the bravest, most passionate people I’ve ever met.
The candlelight vigil was Zane’s idea. He said it’d give other sammie lovers a chance to mourn, to pay their respects. He organized it but insisted I be the one to speak.
I motion to an enlarged photo of Martha, which Zane, standing beside me, is holding up. In it, Martha holds a PB and J in one hand, gives a thumbs-up with the other. She gives the camera a closed-lipped smile since her cheeks are bulging, ostensibly with masticated sandwich.
Martha wasn’t ashamed of who she was, I say. She never hid, never apologized.
Tears gather at the corners of my eyes. I blink, and they roll down my cheeks. I say, We should all strive to be more like her.
I sniff, say, She was taken from us too soon. I say, And that’s the point. Because even though there are those who would hurt us, who wouldn’t think twice about taking our lives, we cannot back down, we cannot hide. I say, We cannot give them what they want because Martha wouldn’t.
I raise my candle, say, To Martha.
The crowd joins me, raises their candles. In unison, they say, To Martha.
There’s one person who doesn’t say anything, who doesn’t raise a candle. He’s wearing a sweatshirt, has the hood pulled up. His hands are jammed in his pockets.
I glance at Zane, mouth the words You see that?
He shakes his head no.
When I look back toward the hooded stranger, he’s gone.
The hooded stranger tells me I ruined his life. He says, It’s all your fault.
With his hood up, I can’t tell who it is. I squint, say, What’s my fault?
The vigil over, Zane and I are at his car packing up the speakers, the leftover candles.
The stranger folds back his hood. It’s the kid from the grocery store, the son of the guy who killed Martha. He says, It’s your fault that my dad’s in jail. He says, My life is ruined ‘cause of you.
Zane puts a hand on my arm, says, Hey. He says, Let’s just go.
I shrug Zane off, level my gaze at the kid, say, Are you fucking serious? I say, Our friend is dead because of your asshole dad! I say, He can rot in prison for the next hundred years for all I care. I say, And believe me, you’re better off without him.
Zane tries again to pull me away, says, C’mon, Justine, it isn’t worth it.
The kid pulls a knife, says, Better listen to your friend.
I yank my arm away from Zane, step toward the kid, say, Oh, what? I say, You gonna pick us off one by one? Follow in Daddy’s footsteps? I say, Is that your deal? Just keep killing us, hope we’ll go away? I say, We’re never going away! I thump my chest, say, C’mon. Take your best shot, champ.
The kid closes the distance between us. He huffs and puffs but doesn’t do a damn thing. He just says, Fuckin’ sammie lover, and walks off.
Zane gives me a ride back to my place. He’s silent the whole way.
We’re parked in front of my house, the engine idling. I lean over, give him a kiss on the cheek, say, Thanks for organizing the vigil. I say, I think Martha would’ve liked that.
Staring straight ahead, he says, Mmm.
I poke his arm, smile, say, What’s your problem, grumpy?
His eyes don’t leave the road. He says, You shouldn’t have antagonized Emo Boy back there.
I say, What? I say, He antagonized me.
And you shouldn’t have engaged him, Zane says. He turns to me, says, I mean, what was all that “Take your best shot” crap? He says, You don’t know what these maniacs are capable of. He says, Jesus Christ, Justine, he could’ve killed you! He turns his attention back to the windshield, says, It’s not worth dying for.
I say, Not worth dying for? I say, I would rather be six feet under the cold fucking ground than have to hide who I am. I say, I’m done playing by their rules, I’ve had it. I say, And what’s with you, huh? They kill your friend and you can’t man up and defend her memory? I say, You just gonna keep rolling over for them, keep shying away every time you go to a grocery store to buy peanut butter or jelly? Is that how you want to live?
I get out of the car. I look back at Zane, see him hunched over the steering wheel, say, Martha didn’t die so you could tuck your tail between your legs. I say, And Renee didn’t either.
I slam the door, watch as Zane slowly drives away.
The cashier at Stop & Shop makes a face, scans the three items I’ve placed on the conveyor belt: a jar of crunchy Jif, a jar of Welch’s grape jelly, a loaf of raisin bread. A tribute to Martha.
She exchanges looks with the customers standing in line behind me.
I look at her, look at them, look back at her, say, I’m standing right here. I say, At least try to act like human beings.
I tossed and turned most of the night, dozed for maybe an hour or two. After the thing with that dopey kid and then Zane, I just lay in bed, slapping at the rumpled sheets and seething. These people are lucky I don’t stab them.
The cashier forces a smile, bags up my purchases.
I snatch up the bag, turn to the cashier, the morons in line, say, Get a fucking grip.
Striding out of the store and into the fresh air, I smile, feel like I could kick a hole in the sun.
When it comes to PB and J, I’m a white bread fan. Always have been. I have to admit though, Martha was on to something with this whole raisin bread thing.
I sink my teeth into the toasted crust, get a nice, big mouthful of crunchy peanut butter, of grape jelly, of raisins and cinnamon.
I’m spread out on a park bench, enjoying the sandwich in the open, as I should be. I found the most crowded park I could, made a big show of taking off my jacket to display my “Put ‘Em Together” t-shirt, which is just like Martha’s. Then I unwrapped my sandwich and dug in. Another tribute to Martha.
People give me looks, wrinkle their noses at me. I wave at them, say hi. Nothing can ruin my mood. It reminds me of that first parade I went to with Zane.
I’m about to take another bite of my sandwich but lower it, take my phone out of my purse. I call Zane, get his voicemail.
I say, Hey. Say, It’s me. I swallow hard, tell him I didn’t mean a word of what I said, that I was only angry and upset, that he was the one who got me out of the house, that I would never have done that if not for him, that I have him to thank for getting me out of my shell. I take a breath, say, I’m sorry, Zane, okay? I tell him to meet me in the park if he can, that I’m enjoying a sandwich and that he should really try it. I say, Call me when you get—
The phone is slapped out of my hand.
What the fuck, I say. Who—
I look up, see that idiot kid. He’s still wearing the same hoodie. And he’s joined by two of his friends.
One of them takes the sandwich off my lap, bites into it, spits a chewed lump at me. It hits my nose, rolls down my cheek, my chin. The kid says, Fuckin’ disgusting.
Another one says, Completely unnatural.
I scan the park. It’s suddenly devoid of people. Like they’ve cleared out. On purpose.
What’s unnatural, I say. Is that you’ve ruined a perfectly good sandwich. I add, Douche bags.
The kid in the hoodie slaps me across the face, and it’s hard enough that I fall off the bench and into the grass.
My hand goes to my face, and I kick out hard, catch the kid in the shin. He curses, stumbles sideways. One of his friends grunts, another laughs. I get to my knees, punch one of the cronies in the balls. He grabs his crotch, moans.
The kid in the hoodie recovers, sends a sneakered foot into my ribs. I cough, fall over.
They all take turns kicking me. I cover up as best I can, try to deflect the blows, but eventually one of them boots me in the head. The edges of my vision begin to blacken.
I see Zane sitting across from me in the car last night, telling me that this isn’t worth dying for. I hear myself telling him I’d rather be dead than hide.
Things are getting darker, and the kids aren’t slowing their onslaught, and it’s looking like I’m going to get my wish when I hear Zane shouting. The kicking stops. My attackers flee.
Then Zane is leaning over me, strands of hair hanging in front of his glasses. He puts a hand on my shoulder, says, Hey. He says, You okay?
I take a painful breath, groan, say, Think so.
Zane slowly sits me up. There’s a small, brown paper bag lying next to us in the grass. He says, Funny we had the same idea.
I say, Whaddya mean? I say, Wha’s in the bag?
He says, PB and J. He smiles, says, We can’t hide, right?
I nod, return the smile, say, Right.