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The Story You Wrote About Toothpaste

by Lou Cassidy

She commands you to remove your toothpaste from your carry-on.

You dig it out from the books and notebooks in your backpack. The tube is sad looking — beat up, flattened, rolled to squeeze out the last ounce of paste.

The woman takes it. Inspects it. Weighs it by bouncing it in her palm.

“I’m going to have to keep this,” she says. “That or we can carry it under the plane.”

You don’t tell her you have a short layover. You don’t assure her your toothpaste is perfectly safe. You don’t try to reason with her. There is no reasoning with a person who wishes to confiscate your toothpaste. She is beyond logic, less than a cog in the gears of a great bureaucratic device designed to turn travelers into shivering, stuttering examples of shame-faced acquiescence. You swallow all these thoughts in defeat. “Just take it,” you say.

She takes it and you walk through the metal detector. No beep goes off. You’ve passed their test. You did well, though you don’t feel well. You miss your toothpaste horribly and wish you had protested.

As you walk to a bench with your shoes in hand, you dream up a list of insults you could’ve told her. Witty comebacks, humiliating retorts, dreams of physical violence flood your consciousness as you tie your laces. “You want my toothpaste? Here, take it!” You could’ve squeezed it in her face! Your mind is racing now. A story is forming. You want to get it down before it’s too late.

You walk through the circular food court, looking for a good place to write. In the center of the court stands an elevated Starbucks, open on all sides. You usually don’t drink coffee at Starbucks, preferring private establishments with a bit more local flavor, but you decide your current predicament calls for extreme measures.

As you mount its steps, you think of how surreal it must be to work here. The eye of the hurricane. Just look at the customers! Behind you sits a Native American couple working on a crossword puzzle. In front of you a strange man smiles. He looks to be in his fifties, has on boots, a leather jacket, designer jeans, a well-trimmed goatee.

You can’t take your eyes off his hair. It’s highlighted, full of product, immaculately styled. Is he a hairdresser? You look past him. There are four other men sitting at his table dressed exactly the same. You feel as if your brain is imploding. Is there a hairdresser’s convention going on in Spokane? Is this Team L.A.?

You walk past them and order a cup of coffee and a shot of espresso. You drop the shot into the coffee. The barista seems intrigued by your action. You think to ask her for a... but stop yourself. Your flight leaves soon, and you need to get started on this story while it’s fresh in your mind.

After sitting at a table between the Native Americans and strangely styled men, you begin to write. Your story begins: The fat man beeped. This is a terrific first sentence, you think, but you wonder if the term “fat man” is descriptive enough. How else could you describe him? Chunky. Large. Waddling. Walrus-like. You tap your pen on the paper and write: The human version of a strip-mall. Wow, that’s fantastic, you think. What a great description!

But does it really describe this individual? What would the human version of a strip mall entail? And what about the rest of the story? You decide you’ve spent too long trying to describe the fat man. It’s not about him. It’s about you, the narrator, protesting as the security woman takes your toothpaste.

But why does she take the paste? What’s her motivation? You decide your protagonist must be a man, a very handsome man to whom the security woman is attracted. She can’t have him physically, so she takes his paste. It’s all very Freudian, you think.

Your protagonist is much braver than you. He won’t give up the toothpaste, makes the security woman weigh it to see if it passes standards. It passes. She still won’t let him have it. He makes her squeeze the toothpaste onto the scale, scoops it up with his toothbrush and says, “Brush your teeth, whore!”

No. You erase the word “whore.” It’s too harsh. Your narrator is more of a gentleman, more dignified. He walks through the metal detector. It beeps. Now he’s really fed up.

As you ponder what he’ll do next, you look up and notice a blonde woman, maybe thirty-five, with huge breasts, speaking to the hairdressers. “I loved your show last night,” she says. “Did you see me in the front row? I had my arms out like this.” She tosses her arms in the air, sending her breasts flying. “I was like, woooooooh, wooooooh! The whole time you played!’”

The man who smiled at you smiles at her in a polite, tired manner. “Yes, of course,” he says. “Thanks for coming.” The other men ignore her. The Native Americans start chattering. One of them goes over to the man and asks him if he’ll pose for a photograph with his wife. The man stands, poses, a photo is snapped. The Native becomes giddy, asks if the whole gang will stand for another picture.

One of the men tosses his Quizno’s sub onto his plate. “I ordered no mayo,” he shouts. “Look at this!” The man to his left takes him gently by the elbow and pulls him up. Smiles all around. The picture is taken. Everyone goes back to their seats.

The Native couple starts whispering to each other excitedly. Still pretending you’re concentrated on your writing, you begin to eavesdrop.

“Who were they?” says the woman.

“That was STYX!” hisses the man. “S.T.I.X!”

“Holy moly!” she says quite loudly. “Stix. I saw them with REO Speedwagon ten years ago!”

Perhaps your story about toothpaste, you muse, is not as interesting as the one occurring around you.

Before you forget it, you jot down: “Who were they?” asks his wife.

You look up. The guy from Styx is staring at you.

You look at the paper, write: “That was STYX!” he hisses. You glance up. The man is still staring. The egocentric bastard probably thinks you’re writing about him! In a direct effort not to write about him, Styx, or anything related to them you go back to the story about the tube of toothpaste.

You immediately begin writing a scene where two security guards tackle the narrator after he demands one of them come and take off his shoes. While he’s down, the woman tasers him. He wets himself. Is that too much? you ask yourself. Is urine really necessary?

You take a drink of coffee. Mr. Roboto, you think. You want to laugh, but stop yourself. Domo origato, Mr. Roboto. It’s playing in your head now. There’s no stopping it. What started as a joke has turned into a song playing in your head. It will play all day. You are suddenly angry with Styx. You glare at them as they get up to leave. Nobody’s paying attention to you. A voice booms over the intercom. Your flight has begun boarding.

You return to the story to see if you can finish it before they call your section of the plane. The ending is tricky. If the narrator is tasered, he can’t very well narrate. You decide to switch the perspective from the man who gets in the confrontation with the security officer to a man standing behind him. You like this switch as it seems to lend the story a pleasant, voyeuristic distance. The new perspective also allows you to get out of the urine ending.

Now, after they drag off your old protagonist, the new one sets off the alarm. He starts checking his pockets for change when the head of security walks up. “Hey, is this thing still broke?” he asks, pointing to the metal detector. It’s a bit light, you think, but the fact that you finished a story while waiting to board your plane gives you some satisfaction.

Your seat’s located in the back of the plane near the restroom. Each row contains three seats on each side of the aisle. Of course, your seat is the one in the middle. There’s a burly hick with a goatee sitting in the window seat. After putting away your bags, you slide in next to him. He has very wide shoulders. You shake his hand and look him in the eye. His hand goes limp. He’s not looking at you. That’s rude you think. His face twists into a look of awe mixed with terror. You turn, follow his line of sight, then lurch back.

Coming your way is the largest man you’ve ever seen. He’s white, about 7’ 5”, wearing a clean, unwrinkled shirt with the words Cabo San Lukas ironed onto the front. He’s in shorts that hang below his knees, new shoes, low socks, new haircut, lots of gel, freshly shaved. He must weigh over three hundred and fifty pounds — most of it in his belly. He comes to your row and stops.

Please let him sit in a seat across the aisle, you think, before beginning a short prayer: God, I know I haven’t spoken to you in a while, but I think you owe me. I went to church almost every Sunday as a child. That’s a lot of credit I’ve built up. If you’re listening, I’m cashing out now. Please, please don’t let this giant sit next to me. It’s a long flight, and I’ve got a fairly large man to my other side. It may be physically impossible.

The hick asks you who you’re talking to. You glance toward the aisle.

The huge man’s stomach is in your face! It’s all you see! He’s putting his bag above you! God, this is the last straw! You’re a thief is what you are! A black hole sucking up prayers and giving nothing in return!

The huge man lowers his girth on and around you. He smells surprisingly good.

“I hate planes,” he says to you in a friendly voice. That’s his greeting. He reaches over you, shakes hands with the hick, then shakes your hand.

“I wish they made these seats bigger,” he says. “Oh well, what can you do?”

Somehow you like this man’s friendliness, the fact that he smells good, that he makes no excuses for his mass, that he does not deny what he is. He gets along fine with the hick. They’re chatting about work, about Spokane, about nothing. They may as well be going boop de bloo bleep bloo bloo...

You realize the huge man is gigantic yet vacuous. Oh my God, you think, I’m sitting next to a human strip mall. Wow! This is incredible! You’ll be able to use this in a story someday, you’re sure of it!

You lean back in your seat and adjust your left arm under the strip-mall’s roll of fat. It’s not so bad, you think, There’s almost nothing that isn’t of use to a writer.

Copyright © 2012 by Lou Cassidy

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