He plucked his toothbrush from its perch, fixating for a moment on the black ceramic holder adhered to the tile wall just above the bathroom sink. He counted the holes: one, two, three — the recurring ache crept into his neck — four, five, six. This world was made for couples and families. Neatly rolling a blot of toothpaste from the bottom of the tube and scoring it with his thumbnail, he ruminated over last night’s conversation. He should have been overjoyed for his friend, instead he hadn’t slept. Concentrating methodically on the top front teeth he worked his way back to the molars. Marriage. When it came to friendships, a wedding was the equivalent of a funeral. His tongue ran over the bottom teeth, inspecting crevices made partly by gum recession, partly by careless dentists.
Nothing worse than stupid people, he spat into the drain.
He set out one Saturday morning and combed Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Saks with no luck. People cocked condescending eyebrows and shook coifed heads in his periphery.
Dejected but not deterred, he abandoned the cavernous over-air-conditioned department stores for the boutiqued side streets of SoHo. Crossing Wooster he found himself in front of a quaint custom ceramics shop. Lovely doodads decorated the window: an elephant tea pot, Roman column salt and pepper shakers. He pushed the door open, reveling in the tinkle of tiny ceramic cowbells.
Nobody was at the counter and he was about to leave when the smallest woman he had ever seen came wandering out from behind a red velvet curtain at the back of the store. She was so tiny that for a moment he thought she was a child. Her eyes were bright and her hands bare of silly jewelry. She disappeared behind a half bookcase full of hand-painted thimbles. When she reappeared he noticed she was wearing heels. “Anything I can help you with?” Her voice recalled the lovely cowbell sound he had heard upon entering. He explained his predicament and she didn’t blink, just simply asked if he would like it in the shape of an animal or in any particular color and smiled.
He left the store, a tune on the tip of his tongue, a receipt between his fingers containing her elegant script with the store phone number and a date informing him he could pick up his holder in three weeks.
Three days later he returned to inquire about the progress. The tiny woman chuckled at his impatience and they discussed the weather at length. She offered him a plastic bag with the insignia of the store as a shield against the gray summer sky. He replied that gray was his favorite color, knowing already that her eyes were gray. Embarrassed at being caught staring, he bought the cowbell chimes before leaving.
The next day he had to be in the general neighborhood on business and took a detour looking for coffee. Stopping at the shop window and peering in he saw the tiny woman arguing with a fat man. Her eyes narrowed and her chin jutted forward. He perused the window display with one eye, the other noting her excellent posture, the complement of her pale green sweater and dark red hair. He reached for the door and she lowered her voice at the tinkling cowbells. He pretended to browse, straining over Gregorian chants to catch only her words, “we don’t make those kinds of things.” The fat man stormed out and the tiny woman marched over and sat down hard on her wooden stool. “Stupid people,” she said quietly, then perked up. Someone had apparently come in the other day also looking for a single-toothbrush holder. “Wife died,” she explained with a sympathetic crinkle of brow slightly darker than her hair. He smiled and invited her to lunch.
They went to her favorite Indian restaurant around the corner, and the waiter mistook him for her father even though they were the same age. He had never felt big before, but her smallness magnified him, made him feel important.
They went to dinner on Friday evening and strolled through the Guggenheim on Sunday afternoon. That night they stayed up talking and she fell asleep catty-cornered on his bed. He watched her tiny nostrils flare as she breathed.
A week and a half later she brought him his holder and they removed the old one, scraping happily at stubborn, rubbery glue and throwing all, including the three-month-old toothbrush, into the garbage can by the sink. They attached the new holder and headed to the Indian restaurant flush with the promise of curry.
He awoke at two a.m., tickled by the remnants of spiced spinach in his teeth and a wisp of soft hair on his cheek. He shuffled into the bathroom, opened a drawer and extracted a brand new toothbrush. Upon lowering his head to spit he swallowed instead.
There was a red toothbrush in the only hole of his new toothbrush holder.
Teja BenAmor is a fiction and screen writer from East Village, New York City. Her screenplay Toothbrushes & Cowbells was a finalist in the Cinema Street Screenplay Competition.