Was I 15? Could have been 16 or pushing 17, I suppose. Regardless, this is a true story of the power of a toothbrush—or, perhaps more notably, the lack thereof.
Miranda* was a year older and had a car she could use full time—a totally legitimate basis for high school friendship. She was also whip-smart, snarky, and attractive. She was a free spirit with good taste in music and was about as stable as nitroglycerin. Who knows why some friendships blossom so boisterously then fade so silently, but this winter—the winter of the toothbrush tragedy—she and I, we bonded over shared sentimentalities (and instabilities).
We were alike in so many ways; we’d talk about philosophy and religion for hours in between boy-bashing—we shared the same monster of an ex-boyfriend (looking back, maybe this wasn’t all that unique, if you consider the amount of girls he’d “dated” by the end of senior year). But she dealt with things differently than I did. She was pragmatic and unapologetic.
We still found common ground in our worldviews. Take the homeless man we passed every single time we drove through that intersection underneath the interstate bypass, for instance: we harbored genuine compassion for this man. Stranger or not, we saw him most days. He often felt more familiar to us than some students we’d shared locker-rooms, halls, and classrooms with for years.
I’d give him money after I cashed my checks from the salon I worked at… just a dollar or two, usually; sometimes more when I was feeling particularly jovial (or guilty). Sometimes, I had nothing on me. I deposited most of my checks right into the bank account I shared with my mom. I’d sheepishly over-apologize, as if I were the sole reason he was shivering on that street corner. I’d roll down my window often to chat with him while we waited for the left-arrow light to turn green.
Miranda did not give him money. Miranda’s parents told her to save it for college so that she herself would not end up like this man (it was pre-determined that she was going to move on to law school after finishing up her four years at well-esteemed public school). Miranda spent her extra money buying healthy snacks (taking that whole pragmatic thing to annoying levels, I know), new shoes, or vodka. The health foods were to maintain her flawless physique. The shoes were to attract boys to her perfectly sculpted legs. The vodka was to smother the pragmatist in her, so her true spirit could come out and dance for awhile. Talk about a Jekyll and a Hyde of humanhood; innately craving sensible things for stability but also perceiving those very same sensible points of pride as shackles to cut ties with at any given opportunity (i.e. during drunkeness).
We came up with an idea both of us, and all sides of our personalities, could agree to: off we went to the Dollar Store, Dollar General, and a supremely low-scale department store called Ames. Both of my parents and my step-father had jobs, and so did I, yet we still shopped at these places. Surely a homeless man shivering in the snow on a street corner would not care that we opted not to hit up the name-brand flooded aisles of the dreaded mall (Christmas was only a week away). Plus, I felt better about spending $1 on a 16 oz bottle of shampoo versus $7—I still hadn’t yet made it to Best Buy to snag my brother that $50 video game he’d asked for (big brother must be impressed so I could get favorite-sister-brownie-points and special privileges, duh).
We were proud of our winter starter kit: a hat, a scarf, gloves, even a nice sweater. We stocked up on basic toiletries and plenty of delicious treats. Miranda and I hand-wrapped each gift ourselves. We put a few books and crossword puzzles into a giant stocking stuffed with candy, gum, soaps, and razors, with a toothbrush and stick of chocolate wrapped in foil featuring a fat and jolly Santa Claus protruding through the white fuzzy lining atop the sock-shaped gift-cloth.
Wrapping the presents under the soft, iridescent glow of the Christmas tree, singing cliche Christmas carols, inhaling balsam fir flavored air with every note—this brought me real joy. I hate shopping, but I loved buying stuff I thought someone actually needed. I loved the idea that someone would be so moved by our thoughtfulness. I could not wait to drop off his gifts. I was giddier then than I’d been on Christmas mornings in years. I was rejuvenated with a newfound magic in the myth of Santa Claus.
The magic delivery day soon arrived. We put the hazard lights on and pulled over to talk to Homeless Stranger Friend. I can’t speak for Miranda, but I gave him the gifts with high expectations. I guess I wanted something in return. Appreciation.
He seemed shocked, but in a confused way. He didn’t say much, and ripped open the card. I don’t think he read the heartfelt messages we wrote unless he is a super speed reader. He seemed distraught. Maybe he expected the card to contain money. Feeling awkward and not getting the reaction we expected, we left a few minutes later. He uttered insincere thank-yous and took the gifts. We drove away without saying much to one another.
I can’t remember who I was with the next morning, but the weather was crummy. Grey clouds had swelled until they spilled out their innards, all over everything in sight. Freezing rain falling on top of piles of half-melted, carbon-polluted snow mounds makes for quite the eyesore.
But the black-rimmed snowbanks weren’t the worst of it. Next to a pile of melting ice crystals on a street corner under the interstate bypass was an unopened toothbrush.
The closer our car got to this mess of muddied-melting-waterstuffs, I could see it all clearer. All the gifts, hard to miss in those bright, sparkly packages.
I found myself sympathizing with those carbon-trimmed snowbanks. How naive and pretentious those falling, frozen flakes were to think their crystal veneers could shine bright and brilliant enough to mask this city’s decay.
Waiting for the left-arrow to turn green, I looked away from the rubbish to my left and shifted my attention to the right: a line of exhaust pipes causally spitting out their carbon-leftovers, without a care in the world.
The left-arrow turned green and my human-polluted joy melted like the ugly carbon-clogged snow as I caught a final glimpse of the toothbrush in the rearview mirror.
*I have only ever had one friend named Miranda, but it was years prior to this story and in a completely different state of residence. I changed names for privacy reasons, obviously..