You, Me, and Winn-Dixie

by Noelle Rose

Fiction


 

I’ve got a mangled teddy bear on the operating table when I find you on 1HW, or One-Hit Wonder, the exclusive online forum for singles seeking one-night hookups with former boy band members. You’re grayer, anchored by those same green eyes, that charming crooked smile.

“Text Julie,” I command my phone as I finish stitching behind the bear’s sand-colored ear, the light from my headlamp caught in its bulging plastic eyes.

Weeks earlier: Julie and I stretch out on our stomachs in bed, shrieking into my laptop screen as I type out my hobbies into a profile, Julie’s pink bunny slippers dangling off her toes, the footwear she insists on wearing on since her divorce became final. Looking cute down there has new meaning, her mantra.

*   *   *

What I’d do to get with you: Download and complete the most invasive paperwork of my life. List the exact generic names of every medication I’ve taken in the last ten years down to UTI treatments. Name the remote birthplaces of my grandparents. Tally the breeds of all the dogs I’ve ever loved. I text Julie as I slip the document page by page onto the scanbed at work, looking around to make sure no one is watching—in the clean plastic head cap that crunches over my ears, I feel cloaked in the dirt of my secret.

That’s more work than I had to do before my wedding! Julie sends back with a laugh-cry emoji.

A sensation in my chest like a ripple through water when I imagine marrying you.

*   *   *

I arrive at the restaurant early and camp out in the women’s restroom where there’s a ceramic tureen of mints wrapped in shiny green cellophane. Your eyes—I unwrap three and pop them into my mouth. I scrub my hands—the soap smells like a flower that ends in –anarium. You’ll think I smell like a grandma, I muse, worried the scent will obscure the lonely constellation my body has become.

When I am composed enough, I sit at our table where I imagine I will confess all the times I have loved in the same way you have in your songs, and all the times it went wrong.

I’m studying the door as you enter, your long gray hair sashaying behind you, green shirt buttoned all the way up to hide any hint of your chest. Lilian crawls out from under your sleeve and down your arm in curvy black letters, the name of your only child, mothered by a woman who had loved only the poster version of you. The teenaged hostess with a floppy red mohawk leads you across the dining room in a way that suggests she’s too young to know who you are.

*   *   *

I can’t talk about the picture of you still tacked to the wall of my closet, hidden behind the pencil skirts and cardigans I’ve since grown into. I can’t tell you that yours was my first concert without a chaperone, how I sat quietly in a passenger’s seat next to Julie as she accelerated her dad’s blue station wagon too quickly up the hill, tires squealing against asphalt. How I had dressed myself in a T-shirt that went down to my knees, shrouding the developing curves I was weary of, and how I returned to see you a year later in a belly shirt with a navel piercing given to me by Julie in her basement, the bite of the ice cube against my stomach before the needle. I can only talk to you about what I do for a living.

“Teddy Bear Surgeon …” you repeat back to me with the same trepidation with which you chew your omelet. I watch your arm muscles tense as you move your fork to your mouth, the letters in Lilian locking around your bicep. “Sounds like fun,” though your lack of inflection suggests your sentiment is insincere.

“I think so!” I hear the wine color my tone defensive. “I mean, you’re a doctor without all the medical school debt.”

I tell you the bear hospital is run out of the owner, Miss Lydia’s, coach house, which sits to the side of her main property, how the whole thing sounds like the operation of a woman who would be labeled “eccentric,” though she appears anything but: a lawyer, she leaves for her day job before the sun rises, her suits black and navy and mauve, and on Saturdays, she dons a crisp white lab coat to tend to her bear clinic.

I tell you that on an average day, we receive nearly fifty teddy bears in need of repair. They are delivered to us with their heads torn off, their arms lacerated, their button eyes hanging from threads—the polyester stuffing oozing from their necks and limbs somehow more devastating than blood.

*   *   *

I excuse myself to use the restroom and crouch on the closed toilet seat lid to text Julie. I AM TALKING TO HIM ABOUT TEDDY BEARS.

She responds with a sobbing emoji, then, Wait, where are you?

I send back a smiling turd emoji followed by room.

Ugh, girl! Go back out there and change the subject! Julie texts, followed by … is he cute?!

I respond with three flame emojis.

As I reapproach the table, I see you have it out: the Contract, spread between your half-drunk glass of iced tea and the plastic basket of bread, the undone trifold causing the document to hunch up a little. I look around to make sure no one else sees and feel my cheeks burn.

There, as I resume my seat, are the 2D renderings of a male and female body intertwined in the Corkscrew, the Winn-Dixie, and the Shooting the Moon—the three positions we’ve agreed to for our arrangement. Weeks ago, I’d sat at my desk and selected these from a list of diagrammed pairs of bodies balanced on each other in seemingly impossible ways, their faceless heads buried in between stick-like legs. Julie giggled as I scrolled down the list, clicking the box next to each position I’d be willing to assume, knowing you would have the final say on what shapes we’d make. Julie took hits on her joint and snorted out laughter as I read aloud the names of each figure, arranged in order of difficulty—the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Little House on the Prairie, the Dethroned Miss America.

“You have to pick at least one hard one so he doesn’t think you’re a prude!” Julie blurted out, smoke curling out of her nose and rolling down her neon sweatshirt as if she were a love-spurned dragon.

Two months earlier, I’d sat with Julie on her bathroom floor as she confessed to me that she couldn’t recall a single time her ex had looked into her eyes over the course of their marriage. An actor, his gaze was always trained on the spot between her eyebrows, she said. I’d squeezed her hands as the radiator clicked and sputtered beside us.

You’re pointing to Winn-Dixie, where the flat woman figure sits atop the lap of the man, her arms and legs stretched open in a star position, her fingerless hands wrapped around her boxy ankles. “I’m really looking forward to this one,” you say, looking into my eyes in a way that unhinges me.

I try to imagine the strength required to hold myself up in Winn-Dixie, the angles my limbs will be asked to sustain. I selected the position from the list certain you would never choose something that would force me to work so hard—in your songs, your love was something you offered me simply because I was there, wanting.

“I haven’t even told you the most important part of my job!” I hear myself say, cupping my hand over yours and Winn-Dixie. “Once we fix up the bear—you know, restuff the torso, find the right color thread, sew the eyes back on—we make a small incision in the chest or back, usually where there’s already an existing seam, and insert a small plush heart that’s tattooed with the name of the hospital and the date of surgery.”

It isn’t until you place your hand on top of mine that I realize my fingers are rattling the flatware. You lift my hand as you would your napkin and sandwich it between your palms, applying a pressure that seems both tender and clinical. This gesture feels more intimate than those pictured below, somehow, but I am unsure if you are attempting to get me to stop talking about stuffed animals or acknowledging the stunning logistics I’m willing to perform for you, while you need only sit and receive.

*   *   *

In my second week working at the bear clinic, a mother, thin and dressed impeccably in taupe, came to the ER desk in tears. Her toddler’s teddy bear—an expensive European make with posable limbs and maple-colored fur composed of a blend of mohair, cashmere, and pure wood felt—had fallen victim to the family pug, who’d taken the mother’s efforts to release the bear from its jaws as an invitation to play tug-of-war. The bear, touted as “indestructible,” was delivered in pieces, its snout detached from the rest of the head, leaving nothing but a stuffing-spitting crater of a face, the severed plush paws loose in a plastic baggy the woman placed on the counter. I began to tell her that I was not allowed to admit special-made bears to the hospital, that the bear’s manufacturer surely had its own rehab program and would allow the woman to send it back for repairs or replacement, but she burst into tears, her small shoulders shaking under her coat. She said the bear had been her father’s, the last object he had gifted her before he died. There was no other bear like it, there’d been no other father like hers.

Moved, I took the woman’s hands. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, then arranged the bear parts on a doll-sized stretcher and carried them back to my operating room—a typical office cubicle with the exception of the sewing needles strewn about the L-shaped desk, the swatches of plush fur used for “transplants” arranged in color order on a shelf, the spools of thread stacked in a pyramid next to a framed photo of Julie and me at a college party, our young faces soft and glassy eyes attempting to focus on the camera as we swirled red cups of beer in our hands.

Teddy bear surgery is similar to human surgery in that it requires a lot of the same supplies—there are rubber gloves to limit the amount of natural oil the fur is exposed to; there are purple and green scrubs with teddy bears printed all over; there are headlamps and hair caps and face masks.

In lieu of an X-ray machine, I photographed the bear and projected the image onto a large whiteboard on the wall of the cubicle, where I marked up my plans for surgery, circling the most concerning areas and noting the type of stitch I needed to use. I had to work quickly but carefully—if Miss Lydia found me working on a prohibited bear, I would be relegated to the incineration room to package the remains of “BBRs” (Bears Beyond Repair) into tiny urns. I poked my gloved fingers through the cavities in the bear’s torso and limbs, the fur brittle and fraying against my hands. I scrutinized my stack of spools for just the right thread.

I worked for three hours, closing split seams with careful ladder stitches, stabbing gold silk thread into the bear’s plush body and pulling it through. I felt myself breathing hard against my face mask, aware of all the barriers between myself and my patient. When I finished, the bear was like new, its fur shining under the light of my headlamp. As I sunk a heart through the chest seam into a soft cotton cavity, I came to understand the profundity of a successful repair.

*   *   *

I study the diagrammed bodies that are to be ours in a matter of minutes. You let go of my hand and lift your glass, tilting it toward me to invite me to toast. We clink and finish our remaining beverages at the same pace. I gulp down Chardonnay in an attempt to become thirteen again, when I knew that what I felt for you was love.

It’s 1 p.m., and most of the diners have emptied the restaurant to return to their normal nine-to-five desk jobs, leaving me, Teddy Bear Surgeon, and you, Dream Hunk, almost alone. The sun slides out from behind heavy clouds and floods the dining room with afternoon light, catching the hairs of your beard—more of a wintry mix than I had noticed before, speckled with bits of egg white. I imagine kissing you for the first time, tasting the sour slurry of iced tea and crème fraiche behind your lips, the same mouth you opened in song to me years before as I drifted off to sleep with the radio on, as I stood on a grassy hill that seemed miles away from your stage, our bodies separated by beach towels, coolers, and a herd of awkward, gyrating children.

I must be staring too long at your beard—you quickly wipe away the egg flecks with a napkin. Our server comes to collect our plates, and I snatch up the Contract before she can see it. I look at her in a way that suggests I don’t need a box for the mostly untouched BLT in front of me.

“Well, let’s make this official,” I say with all the confidence I can muster as the server walks away perplexing over my plate. I flatten the Contract in front of me and check off the listed guidelines to reflect that I have adhered to each: I have selected a “1HW-approved” meal option; I have not consumed enough alcohol so as to cloud my ability to grant sexual consent; I have brought along a toothbrush, floss, mouthwash, and red negligee (purchased with teddy bear wages) per your request; I have fully waxed my legs (below and above knee), arms, arm pits, any wisps on my face and chest, and most of my pubic area, save for a small, curly heart. I understand that I am allowed only one friend to confide my experience to (Julie), who must in turn sign a nondisclosure agreement, for which she can create a free profile on 1HW.

There is a place with a large X for me to sign, along with the implications of what will happen should I sign and choose not to go along with the hookup: an unflattering photo pulled from my Facebook profile, edited with a crude black mustache and devil horns, permanently posted on the website’s Gross Groupie List.

I consider the new rawness of my body, an untouched glacier in need of melt, the floral scent of hand soap fading from my hands, and sign.

*   *   *

You lead me to your hotel room three blocks away. We walk alongside each other in relative silence—we don’t hold hands. I look around to consider who inhabits the world on a weekday afternoon: the knot of women with identical blow-outs carrying pink square shopping bags; an elderly man and woman on a bench, the man sleeping against the woman’s shoulder, his mouth open and eyes shut—in the same way the woman sustains the man’s head, the afternoon dwellers seem to prop up what would otherwise be a listless time of day.

I imagine the old woman I will become, the woman who serves teacups of grape juice to her grandchildren and tells them the story of how she met Grandpa because of Winn-Dixie. “What’s a When-Dicky?” little You the Third will ask, his green eyes sparkling and teeth stained purple, and I’ll look past him to the sun streaming through the window onto the carpet, considering an appropriate response.

You turn to look at me as if unsure I’m still beside you. Your eyes are hidden by your sunglasses, your mouth pursed around a cigarette. You point to a gray building across the street and grunt, “There,” and a little plume of smoke clouds my face.

I let you walk ahead of me as I remember the girl I thought I’d grown up and out of—the girl to whom a pop song is a deeply blue sky, the girl seated next to You the Third, sipping grape juice and waiting for Grandma to share the world’s most perfect love story.

We arrive at your hotel and the bellman holds the door open for us, desperately trying to be as useful as possible. You turn to me, your face expressionless. “Shall we?”
The woman I am considers making one more repair.

*   *   *

In the morning, Julie hurls a balled-up garment at me from across her bedroom. I unfold a garish yellow T-shirt with a logo for Tommy’s Tacos that had been her ex’s. “I’m not going to sleep in this anymore. And you need something for a proper walk of shame!” I slide the garment over my head and arms—it falls to my knees, shrouding the spaghetti-strap dress I never took off. “Is it really a walk of shame if there’s no sex involved?” I ask her, wondering if what I feel shares any bloodline with shame.

On the sidewalk, I watch the line of trees in front of me sop up the sun like hundreds of glowing sponges. My T-shirt bunches around my thighs, the ironed-on Tommy’s Taco logo sticky and warm against my chest. I walk home, a human version of one of my patients, gowned and carrying a new heart no one can see.

 

 


Noelle Rose received her MFA in Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was awarded a graduate fellowship. Her most recent work can be seen in Hobart and Pioneertown, and her first chapbook, Floor Plan, was published with Dancing Girl Press and is available at dancinggirlpress.com. She lives in Chicago. www.noellerosewriter.com.

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