Commentary: Just a short one-shot I've had kicking around for a year or so. Also, Spontaneity has been nominated for Most Humorous (Incomplete) in this round of the SKoW awards. See my profile for links and more info.
Discourse on Teddy Bears
There was something inherently comical about a nineteen-year-old guy in a toy store, Anthony was sure. He was mostly trying to decommission his brain as he walked with false bravado down the stuffed animal aisle. There was nothing wrong with sleeping with a teddy bear, he told himself again, and, therefore, there was nothing wrong with shopping for one.
He just hoped to god he didn't run into anyone he knew.
It was ten o' clock on a Saturday, early fall, his second year of college, and he had finally given in and reneged on the bet with his sister. Jody was four years younger than him, but she had never acted the part of the docile, sweet little sister. Ever since she had discovered three years ago that Anthony still slept with a teddy bear, she had mocked him for it. It made him look like a "fairy," she would say—the fact that he was over six feet tall and could bench-press her was entirely beside the point. She had never really seemed to accept it when Anthony admitted his bisexuality in his second year of high school. Maybe she had been angry that he had kept it from her. Regardless, criticizing his teddy bear seemed to be her way of expressing her discomfort with his sexuality. Anthony knew this, but he'd be damned if he knew how to fix things between them.
Anthony had lived at home his first year at college, so sleeping with a teddy bear had never been an issue before. When it came time to move out of the house and into a dorm, Jody took the opportunity to wean him of his "bad habit." They bet a fair amount of money that he couldn't survive a year of college without a stuffed animal.
He had no intention of telling her he had lost.
Anthony picked up a large, purple stuffed dog and squeezed its head contemplatively.
What was so wrong with sleeping with a stuffed animal? It was just like another pillow, only specially shaped. It wasn't like he talked to it or anything.
At least, not anymore.
There didn't seem to be anyone around—not that he cared. There was nothing wrong with this. It didn't make him any less of a man. (As long as no one from the basketball club found out. Then he might as well castrate himself.)
Anthony perused the selection of stuffed animals, cringing a little at the bright colors. Still, there was a larger variety here than at that department store he'd gone to yesterday. He wished he could just do this online—it would be a hell of a lot simpler—but he knew it would be useless. The thing had to be perfect, and he needed to decide that in person. Luckily, after the first two times an employee cheerfully offered their assistance, he was left blessedly alone. Well, if you excluded the occasional screaming child that went barreling by, and he did.
He put back the puppy and reached for a large bear. It was too soft, he decided immediately, and he thought its eyes looked demonic. He shoved it back.
It didn't have to be a bear, actually, but he had found that bears seemed to have the right shape to them. That crook between the head and the body of a teddy bear was just right. That was, after all, what mattered, since it was more a matter of physical comfort than emotional; he had simply grown accustomed over the years to having his arm thrown over a teddy bear. All that had changed now was that he needed a bigger bear.
Anthony rubbed his eyes and patted the head of a penguin. Stuffed birds didn't work well for him. The beaks were too pointy. Jody thought they were cute, though.
He began to pull down stuffed animals at random, discarding the ones that were too soft or too stiff. After he had collected five or six that seemed acceptable, he sat down on the floor and contemplated the pile of plastic eyes and sewn on smiles. He started with the most promising first. It was a very large polar bear, soft on the outside but sturdy enough to support his arm. He tucked it up against him, awkwardly trying to imitate a sleeping position while sitting up.
"Screw it," he sighed finally, lowering himself down onto the tiled floor. It was hard and cold beneath him. Anthony didn't even want to know how long it had been since that floor had been swept, much less how many little kids had puked on it. He grabbed the bear to him, turned on his side, and draped his arm across it.
Not quite right.
He felt like Goldilocks, only he was trying out the bears instead of their beds.
He set the polar bear aside and grabbed for the next stuffed animal. The blue, sparkly cat ended up being too small, and he moved on to a stuffed black bear. Now this … hmm, this one seemed about the right size. The fur was a little long for his taste, but it was comfortable. It was, at least, the best one he had found so far. He hadn't slept well in weeks, not since he had left his old, scruffy teddy bear back at home (held hostage by Jody), and he was desperate. Besides, the cheerful music in this store was beginning to grate on his nerves, and he swore that small child in red overalls had made four laps around the store already, all the while shrieking a warning about what was apparently an imminent dinosaur attack. Anthony reasoned that at least the screaming kid would be the first to be eaten. He would root for the dinosaurs, then.
Sitting up, he sighed and held the black bear up to scrutinize. How ridiculous, he thought. Here he was, messing around in a toy store, instead of at the game. It wasn't a club game, of course, just a scrimmage among friends, but Frank and Dez would be pissed as hell if they knew he was cuddling teddy bears instead of lying in bed with a killer hangover like he had claimed.
He should go. This bear was good enough, and he might be able to catch half of the game if he hurried. He stood, clutching the black bear to him, and shoved the rejects back on the shelf.
"You're not getting that one, are you?"
Anthony's first instinct was to hide the teddy bear, as if it were contraband. He stopped himself by instead clutching the thing tighter. There was nothing wrong with shopping for stuffed animals, he thought, but his mouth said, "I'm shopping for my sister."
The man scratched at the side of his nose. "I didn't ask. But that bear's ugly. It's face is all," he gestured about, frowned, and at last filled in, "squished. Pinched? Yeah."
Anthony took another look at the bear and shrugged. "So what?"
The man shrugged back and leaned on the pillar. He was large, a little more solidly build than Anthony, and perhaps about as tall. He didn't have the build of a basketball player like Anthony did, though. He seemed more of the soccer type. He had dark hair and dark eyes, much like the teddy bear Anthony held, only, luckily, that was where the resemblance ended.
"Later," Anthony said, passing him. The man cleared his throat.
"Is it right—I mean, is it true? What they say about redheads?"
Anthony stopped and turned. "Did—what did you say?"
The man stared at him, rubbed a little at the stubble on his chin, and then repeated, his voice quieter, "Is it true what they say about redheads?"
Anthony's bark of laughter sounded loud even to his own ears, but he couldn't help it. "Holy shit—are you serious, dude? Are you hitting on me?"
The man looked away. "You're not straight, are you? I just—you had a Pride button on your bag." He gestured to the strap of Anthony's duffel bag.
"Not the point—shit, you're, what, thirty?" The whites of the man's widened eyes surprised him, but he kept going. "What're you, some creepy pedo? Or you here with your kids? Or both?"
The man seemed flustered, pushing away from the pillar and shoving his hands deep in his pockets. "I'm not—I—" He shook his head, "I'm seventeen."
Anthony laughed. "Yeah, right. Like fuck."
"No, honestly. I'm seventeen. I go to Dayview High. I'm a senior. I'm here with my little brothers. I—I am not a pedo."
"Are you shitting me? You're not seventeen."
"I'll be eighteen in two months."
The man nodded. "Yeah. I could show you my ID."
Anthony stared hard at the man, crossing his arms over his chest. He nodded slightly, then continued to look suspicious as he took the school ID the man handed him. On it was the picture of a familiar clean-shaven young man looking slightly off to one side. Anthony handed the ID back with a mental shrug.
"You look less like a hobo when you shave."
The sudden smile that lit up the man's face convinced Anthony more than anything he could have said. The smile was all tooth, full and boyish, and it made him look years younger. "I'm trying to grow a beard," he said.
Anthony laughed. "Yeah, don't, kid. Damn. I bet you never get carded for buying booze."
The smile got wider, and the man—kid—brushed a thumb across the bridge of his nose. "I'm Jack."
"Anthony. I'm a sophomore at U Westville."
"Cool. What do you study?"
"Basketball," Anthony said, shifting his duffel bag on his shoulder, "beer, babes, boys, and a little bit of economics."
Jack didn't seem to know what to say to that, smiling awkwardly. He finally settled on, "I'm going to state school next year."
"You must be a regular genius." Jack's smile got even more awkward. "Nah, really, that's good for you. Good luck with it."
"Thanks." They stared at each other, and Anthony wondered if he should go, before Jack burst out with, "It's not for your sister, is it?"
It had been a predictable question, but Anthony thought he would escape before he was forced to answer it. Somehow, he didn't seem to care anymore, though. It wasn't like he would see Jack again, so what did it matter what he thought? "No," Anthony said, holding out the black bear again. He had to admit Jack was right about its face. It was all scrunched up, like those wrinkly little dogs the neighbor Ms. Anise kept. "It's for me. I don't sleep well without something to hold, and pillows just don't feel right. Fucking hilarious, isn't it?"
Jack scratched the side of his nose and was silent for a long moment.
"This one time," Jack started, "This one time, I dressed up like Spiderman. For a whole year."
"That's n—how old were you?"
Anthony chuckled a little. "Okay, yeah, that's weird, but totally not the same."
"I made my mom call me Spiderman. She thought I was adjusting to having new baby brothers, so she let me do what I wanted."
"Superman woulda been better. He could kick Spiderman's ass."
"What? No he couldn't. Spiderman would—"
"Dude, superpowers. Not that crappy—"
"—in his face—"
"—like bitten by a radioactive spider."
"He's allergic to a rock!" Jack's hands waved wildly in the air before he shoved them back in his pockets. "Besides, Spiderman had Mary Jane, and redheads are so much hotter than brunettes."
The connection to Jack's earlier pickup line, whether intentional or not, hung awkwardly between them. Anthony reached up and rubbed at his short, rust-colored hair. "She could have been dying it red."
"She wasn't. And it wouldn't matter."
"Yeah. Well. I should head out. Later." Anthony tucked the teddy bear under his arm, but he didn't even have a chance to take more than two steps when Jack called out to him.
"Um, wait, um, Anthony?"
"I was serious." Anthony looked at him inquiringly. "Before. I was serious—um, I mean, are you single? Are you busy tonight?"
"I'm seventeen," Jack interrupted, sounding frustrated, "My dad is ten years older than my mom. So can't we just—"
"So, what? You're hot, I'm hot, so can't we just screw? Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. You—okay, yeah, maybe in clubs and frat parties, but definitely not in the stuffed animal aisle of Toy World. You don't know anything about me."
Anthony thought he had made his message clear, but all Jack had to say was, "You think I'm hot?"
"For Chrissake," Anthony sighed and rolled his eyes. "Shouldn't you be watching your kid brother? Or did you really come to a toy store to pick up strangers?"
"They're busy building a giant robot out of those connect-things. Also, coffee, tea, or—"
"You feed me one more bad pick-up line, kid, and I'm gonna smother you with a technicolor bunny." Anthony pointed to the weapon in question, its floppy ears dangling from a nearby bin, and Jack smiled like a little boy. Anthony said, "Listen, I just got out of a relationship, and I'm not really looking for something right now. Are you even out of the closet?"
"I am. My old man didn't talk to me for three weeks. When did you break up?"
"A month ago."
"What was his name?"
"Her. I'm bi. Is that a problem? Jenny."
"No. Who broke it off?"
"What's your phone number?"
"Nine sev—hey. Real funny, kid."
Jack laughed nervously. "Sorry. I was just kidding. But, seriously, couldn't we just—um, go see a movie or something? Are you really that hung up on her?"
Frowning, Anthony fingered the ear of the teddy bear that had somehow found its way back into his hands. "No, not really." He paused, looking Jack over. Jack wasn't the type he had been involved with before, but it wasn't as if he were unappealing. They didn't know each other at all yet, though, and it had already been proven that appearances were certainly not everything. Jack might look like he was ten years older than his real age, but he acted as excitable as a puppy. Anthony wasn't sure how he felt about that, but it wasn't as annoying as it should have been. "You're not a serial killer, are you?"
Jack looked startled. "I—no?"
"How tall are you?"
"Wh—uh, six-three? Six-four? Why?"
"Huh. Taller than me. Do you know where the park on the corner of Main and Brookes is?"
"The one by the middle school? Yeah. I drive past it every day to work."
"Me and some guys play basketball there weekend mornings. We start tomorrow at ten. Wanna come?"
Jack's eyes lit up, his hands emerged from his pockets once more, and he started moving them as he spoke. Anthony wondered if he even knew he was waving them around. "Yeah, sure! Basketball is great. I haven't played in a while, but I'm not half bad. I bet I could beat you."
"Yeah, right, kid." Anthony grinned. "I'm gonna kick your ass."
They both looked up as a boyish voice shouted from a few aisles away, "Jaaaack! Mattie broke it!"
Jack blanched. He shifted his weight, as if to run, then froze. "Oh, hey, um, Anthony?"
Jack hesitated, then stepped closer and leaned in. "I could—you know—I could be your teddy bear instead."
Anthony opened his mouth to snap back a reply, but Jack was already gone, jogging down the aisle and just barely missing a woman with a shopping cart full of baby toys. He stopped to apologize, picking up the stuffed caterpillar he had knocked from her cart. As he handed the toy back, he shot a quick wave over his shoulder, then turned down an aisle and out of sight.
What a moron, Anthony thought with amusement. He stroked the teddy bear's fur again, rubbing his thumb over its glassy eyes and leaving a greasy smudge. His duffel bag made a soft thud as it hit the ground, and the bear landed perfectly beside the colorful bunny in the nearby bin.
"Score," he said with satisfaction and threw his duffel back onto his shoulder.
Maybe he had outgrown such small teddy bears after all.