Also, a few years ago I wrote a short story that was featured in Spinetingler Magazine called “Jessie’s Toothbrush.” I re-read it yesterday and was surprised at how funny it was (if I do say so myself), so I thought I’d post it here after the gratuitious Maddie photo.
For the last three weeks I’ve been using my ex-girlfriend Jessie’s toothbrush. I don’t know why really, and if someone asked for a rational explanation I’d be hard pressed to come up with an answer. Even if I could, the explanation would surely be undercut by the fact a brand new toothbrush rests unopened on my bathroom counter. Irrational as it may be, I wake each morning and pick up a toothbrush that has a handle shaped like Winnie The Pooh’s head.
It all began the morning after I returned from a business trip to Wisconsin and realized I’d left my toothbrush either atop the commode of a Motel 6 in Madison or on the counter of a relatively posh Holiday Inn somewhere on the outskirts of Green Bay. I groaned dramatically as if there was a chance it might make my lost toothbrush scurry into the bathroom and say with a plumy British accent, “Very sorry, sir,” before jumping into the rack beside Jessie’s “sleep over” toothbrush. Amused by the idea, I imagined my lost toothbrush doing just that, then calmed the minute my eyes fell upon Jessie’s “sleep over” toothbrush. I loved that we had “sleep over” toothbrushes. It’s the perfect step for a young relationship – not as all consuming as moving in together – but a statement about the relationship nonetheless.
“Whose toothbrush is that?”
That was the first thing my brother Carl asked after exiting my bathroom in the days following the arrival of Jessie’s “sleep over” toothbrush. Actually, the first thing he said was “Have you gone fruity?” on account of Winnie, but once I explained it was Jessie’s brush he smiled and said, “Getting serious, aye?” I nodded, proud. And even though after a year of dating we hadn’t furthered our commitment beyond adding “sleep over” deodorant and hairbrushes, I still felt great about what the Winnie toothbrush said about me and my girl. It was my prized possession. So much so that I wouldn’t even touch it. It was too precious.
Jessie and I met at a party thrown by Arnold Felton, a guy I went to college with. I couldn’t stand Arnold. No matter what you said to him he always responded with way too much enthusiasm. Even something as uneventful as getting a passing grade on an exam would cause Arnold to whoop and give you endless high fives. He was same way with bad news. If you mentioned you had a headache he’d act like you’d told him you’d been diagnosed with cancer. The other thing I couldn’t stand about Arnold was that he talked like a frat boy. That was okay when he was a frat boy and invited me to parties with plenty of pretty girls and free beer, but it had considerably lost its charm now that he was a balding, thirty-year-old insurance salesman. I could do no wrong in his eyes, however, and he invited me to parties three or four times a year religiously. For some reason I could never say no to the guy.
“OUT FUCKING STANDING!” Arnold screamed as I arrived, then embraced me like I’d just returned from being held hostage in the Middle East for the last decade. I forced a smile and raised the six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon I’d brought. He threw his arms into the air and cried, “OUT FUCKING STANDING!” I forced another smile, already regretting coming, when luckily someone else arrived. Arnold looked past me to the door and screamed, “OUT FUCKING STANDING!” I took the opportunity to slip into the kitchen.
And there she was. Standing at the end of the counter making a dainty plate of snacks. Though overdressed in a black cocktail dress, she had an understated beauty and something about her that made her look like a flapper. I was immediately smitten. As she finished making her plate, my head raced trying to come up with an introductory line. Offer her a Pabst? Oh yeah. That would be smooth. Ask her if she’d like to dance the jitterbug? No. She’d have no idea what I was talking about. Make a joke that the food was poisoned? That would just be creepy.
“Are you all right?”
She was suddenly right in front of me. I then realized then that I had been staring at her with my face screwed up with a bizarre intensity. I nodded. An awkward beat passed. “Want a Pabst?”
Turned out she’s friends with Arnold’s younger sister, loves Pabst Blue Ribbon, and can’t stand Arnold. We talked the rest of the night and it just worked. Clicked, you know? And though I was thirty and she was only twenty-one, and despite the fact she hated the Beatles, who I love, and loved the Stones, who I hate but told her I loved, I felt for the first time in a long while like I’d met a girl I could get serious with.
Two months into our relationship Jessie mentioned after having slept over that her teeth felt “icky” as we perused the local market’s beer section.
“Why don’t you get a toothbrush?” I said as I reached for a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon without even considering what it meant.
“You mean like a ‘sleep over’ toothbrush?”
I laughed and nodded. Jessie pulled a loose strand of hair from her face and aimlessly kicked at the back wheel of our cart.
“You should too,” she said. “For my place.”
I nodded, and Jessie let out a big, beautiful, open mouth smile. She looked so adorable I had the urge to suggest we buy a “sleep over” version of every item the market had in stock. I suppressed that urge, however, and instead followed Jessie to the Oral hygiene aisle and looked over the potential toothbrushes. My choice was a blue brush with a hard/soft bristle combination, while Jessie picked Winnie from the children’s section. We then hurried to the express line clutching our freshly anointed “sleep over” toothbrushes and stared at each other with big, dumb smiles on our faces.
For months after that night I beamed every time I saw Winnie sitting in my toothbrush rack. I was happy. Ecstatic. Walking on clouds. Nevertheless, the morning after returning from Wisconsin I pulled Winnie from the rack, applied a dollop of toothpaste, and stuck it in my mouth. Upon finishing, I thoroughly rinsed the toothbrush off, wiped some paste from Winnie’s face, and replaced it in the holder.
As I drove to work that morning I was overcome by anxiety. Why had I used Jessie’s brush? Until that day I’d never so much as touched the thing, and now I’d actually used it. I felt like I had defiled the whole notion of “sleep over” toothbrushes, even betrayed Jessie and our relationship in some way. After a few minutes, however, I calmed, realizing I was blowing the whole thing way out of proportion. It was no big deal, and Jessie wouldn’t have wanted me to go to work with mossy teeth and bad breath. I decided I wouldn’t tell Jessie about it and simply never do it again.
But then the next morning came and there I was staring once more at the empty slot in the toothbrush rack beside Winnie. How could I have possibly forgotten to buy a new toothbrush? It wasn’t like I had an incredibly busy night the night before unless you consider eating a microwave dinner and watching a biography on Tatum O’Neill busy. For a second I considered not brushing, but then I found myself reaching out and grabbing Winnie’s head. Once again I brushed, thoroughly cleaned the toothbrush, and replaced it on the rack.
Sweat beaded on my forehead as I drove to work. What was I doing? One day was excusable, but two days was betrayal! Okay, calm down. We can still fix this. No one ever needs to know. I simply need to buy a toothbrush today and move on.
But then a funny thing happened. As I filled out forms at work I felt a strange sense of liberation. I was having an affair with Winnie the Pooh and Jessie wasn’t any the wiser! That sounds strange. I know. But I couldn’t help it. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That night I drove home past three 7-11s and two Supermarkets, but found a reason not to stop at any of them.
The next morning I awoke before the alarm sounded and skipped into the bathroom. What was I feeling? Excitement? Was I actually excited about using a toothbrush? Adrenaline rushed through me as I reached for the toothbrush.
And that is how the rest of the work week went. I woke each morning and used Jessie’s toothbrush with more and more excitement. It was my secret. No one knew. It actually became the highlight of my day.
When the work day expired on Friday, however, and I was due to meet Jessie for dinner, I became incredibly nervous. Oh God. What have I done? She’s going to sleep over tonight. Would I be found out? No. How could she know? I’d been very good. I’d cleaned the brush thoroughly, acted normal on our phone calls during the week. I was in the clear. But fear gripped me nonetheless.
I rushed to the restaurant making sure I got there before her so I could have a drink to calm my nerves. I ordered a double and forced it down in large gulps. Soon I was feeling better. I even laughed. What was I so scared for? I shook my head at the inanity of it all.
But then she walked in and all my nerves returned. I inhaled deeply. My God. Is this what it feels like for people having affairs? How do they do it? All I could think was that I had to act normal. Unfortunately, I smiled too big, kissed her hello too long, and even had trouble looking her in the eye. Christ. I was screwed! Be calm. Be cool. You can do this.
“Are you okay?” Jessie asked. I realized then I hadn’t said a word to her in over a minute.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine, Sweetie-bear.”
Jessie looked around, mortified. “I thought we decided you weren’t going to call me that in public anymore?”
“Yes, we did, sweetie-bear. Jessie! I mean Jessie! Sorry.” Jessie frowned.
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong? You’re acting really strange.”
Christ! She’s only been here a couple minutes and she’s on to me. Think! Say something! Quick!
“My aunt died.”
“Not Aunt Sally?”
“No. My aunt, uh…”
Jessie stared at me in anticipation as I searched for an answer.
“Like the syrup?”
I nodded. Suspicion crossed Jessie’s face and didn’t look like it planned to leave any time soon.
“You have an Aunt Jemima?”
“Yes. Well, I did.” What the hell am I saying? “She’s more of a great aunt. Not even an aunt really. More of a family friend. But she’d dead all right.”
Jessie winced at me, confused, as I tried to evoke the ghost of Laurence Olivier and seem distraught. Thankfully, it worked. My eyes even wet! Jessie, upon seeing this, welled up herself.
“Oh, Joe. I’m so sorry.”
Inside, I cackled like a mad man. No one will ever defeat me! Jessie is my pawn! My confidence remained sky high until the waiter came and Jessie ordered garlic chicken. Oh my God! She’s going to need to brush when she gets home and thoroughly. I had to step up and say something.
“You don’t want that, Jessie.”
“Actually I do.”
“Sweetie-bear, you know it gives you gas.”
Gas? What am I saying? The waiter made a face at me, and Jessie sunk down in her seat. I winked at Jessie with an expression that meant to make light of the whole situation but somehow came off as pompous.
“I’ll order for you, Sweetie-Pie.”
“Why? So I don’t get me gas?”
I shrugged and emitted a strained, awkward laugh. No one joined me, and Jessie stormed out. The waiter glared at me like I was an imbecile and I couldn’t disagree. I threw down some money and ran outside.
Jessie sat on the curb, crying.
“Get away from me!”
Jessie quickly rose and hurried down the street. I followed her.
“Sweetie-bear, I’m sorry.”
“Stop fucking calling me Sweetie-bear!”
Jessie grunted and swung open the door to a local bar. Why had I done this? I loved Jessie. Damn it. Why couldn’t this be a Woody Allen movie? Everyone screws around behind their partners backs in those movies and no one’s the wiser. It’s because they have poker faces, and an illiterate blind man could read mine. All felt lost until it dawned on me how I was going to fix all of this. I was going to get Jessie drunk.
After entering the bar and apologizing profusely, I ordered round after round. Before you knew it Jessie was babbling drunkenly and slurring her words.
“I don’t ca-hare if you call me scchweetie-bear. I like it. I do.”
Jessie then set her head down on the bar and passed out. Again, inside, I laughed like a mad man.
Upon reaching my apartment I put Jessie under my bed’s covers and marveled at my genius. When she wakes in the morning she’ll be too hung over to realize her “sleep over” brush’s thistles are a little less perky than before, and all will be back to normal. I went to the bathroom to prepare for bed, elated.
At that point something terrible happened. My eyes fell on Jessie’s Winnie the Pooh brush. Adrenaline flowed through my body. No. I couldn’t. She’s just in the next room! It’s too risky! Forget it! I splashed some water onto my face. Unfortunately, I kept looking to the brush. No, no, no! This is a mistake. I stood back from the sink, breathing heavily. I then heard Jessie’s snoring. After a second’s hesitation, I ripped the Winnie the Pooh brush from the holder and turned the water on full blast. I lustfully slathered a huge amount of paste onto the brush and submerged it in my mouth. As I brushed hungrily, I couldn’t help but smile. Dude, she’s just in the next room! And I’m using her brush! I am the man!
“What the hell are you doing?”
Jessie stood in the doorway staring at me. I quickly threw down the brush and moved away from the counter.
“Oh God, Jessie! This isn’t what it looks like!”
Jessie moved into the bathroom as I stammered, “I’m sorry. I just needed to brush and I can’t find mine so I used yours.”
Jessie pulled up her skirt and sat on the commode.
“I don’t care if you use my brush. I just don’t know why you were moaning so much.”
“You don’t care if I use your brush?”
“But it’s your sleep over brush.”
“So?” she said. I felt my blood boil.
“So it means something to us. It’s a symbol of the strength of our relationship and I ruined it!”
“It meant something a year ago,” Jessie said as she stood. “Now it doesn’t mean so much.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’ve been together over a year and all we have to show for it are stupid sleep over toothbrushes, Joe.”
“We also have sleep over deodorants and hair-brushes.”
“Don’t you want more? My God, you’re thirty-one years old.”
Jessie stared at me, intent. I searched for some way to appease her, confused.
“Do you want your own shelf in the ‘fridge? Is that it?”
“Christ, Joe, I meant moving in together. Or marriage.”
Things suddenly got way too heavy. “You want to get married, Jessie?”
“I don’t know. I’m only twenty-two. But what I do know is that I don’t want to be in a relationship with a guy your age who hasn’t even considered anything deeper than stupid sleep over brushes.”
Jessie stomped out of the bathroom. I looked at my reflection in the mirror, trying to calm down. “Relax,” I told myself. “In the morning Jessie will want to go to breakfast like she always does on Saturdays and all will be fine.” Calmed, I walked into the bedroom where Jessie was gathering her things.
What are you doing?”
“I’m going to go.”
I couldn’t believe it. “You can’t,” I plead. “You’ve been drinking.”
“I’ll get a cab.”
Jessie then dropped her hands to her side like they were suddenly too heavy to hold. “This isn’t working, Joe. I’m sorry. We’re just not going anywhere.”
With that, Jessie walked out of my bedroom, my apartment, and finally, my life. Woody Allen said in Annie Hall that a relationship, like a shark, has to keep moving or it will die. He then added, in relation to his love affair with Annie, “that it looks like we have a dead shark on our hands.” I guess that’s exactly what Jessie and I have as well. A dead shark. It’s strange. I keep turning the events over in my head trying to make sense of it all, but all I can come up with is that I have to keep moving myself. Growing. Thing is I don’t know if I’m ready to do that yet. In the meantime, I’ve continued using Jessie’s toothbrush. I realize sooner or later it’s going to get too old to keep using, and I’ll have to throw it away and start anew, but for now I wake every morning, enter the bathroom, and, with a heavy heart, pick up a brush in the shape of Winnie the Pooh.