Surfing for Bears
I clicked on the confirm-maximum-bid tab, an amount I couldn’t afford. I won’t go any higher, I promised myself, knowing even as I did that self-promises were about as good as the promises I used to make to my mother. She would drop me off at my boyfriend’s house when I was a teenager. “I’ll behave. I promise,” I’d say back then, kissing her cheek before I slammed the car door, fully intending not to. I was the reason I hadn’t trusted my son when he was a teenager, the reason why I won’t trust my nine-year-old daughter in a few more years.
Each time I bid after I thought I no longer would, fear of the deepest kind settled in my gut and brain, and heat flashed through my body. I was behind on my electric and Time Warner cable bills, and knew I would be in real trouble soon if I didn’t quit the auctions. Immediately. My brother-in-law used to brag that he’d quit smoking cold turkey. When I was little I thought he meant he actually had quit smoking turkeys. I’d seen my sister smoke horse feed wrapped in tar paper. I grew up in rural Maine. I knew people did odd things, could get addicted to anything, but I never thought I’d be one of them. When I saw the bears’ black shoe button eyes and their downward turned mouths, the pictures that always included them sitting alone and facing the corner, my heart felt like it was being sucked up into my throat in one big lump, and I couldn’t stop myself from hitting the bid key, from trying to save the sad bears.
“Thank you for adopting Earlene,” one seller wrote on a card to me. “I was so worried no one would love her.”
“I will not stuff Butternut in an envelope so that you can save money on shipping,” another seller wrote in her listing. “He will be shipped in a well-padded box with air holes.” Whose heart wouldn’t melt for Butternut?
I hid my screen from my husband, minimized the windows when he walked into the office, my heart thrumming the beat of guilt, like when my mother caught me eating the chocolate chips. I found myself listening for his footsteps so I wouldn’t get caught. I’d told him I would stop spending money. I hadn’t promised, just said it. It was as if one part of my brain was a parent and the other a child. The parent part ordered, “Stop buying old bears and one-of-a-kind bears. You have enough.”
But could a person have enough bears? What was enough?
If I were to listen to my mother, a person should be satisfied with just one: one serving, one spouse. “More than satisfied,” she might add to any number of my requests for another. What, I wonder, does it feel like to be more than satisfied?
Each time “You’ve won, enjoy your mohair artist teddy OOAK!” entered my inbox, complete with exclamation points of excitement, it was as if I’d really won something. It didn’t feel at all like I’d been willing to pay more than any other person in the digital world.
“They’re an investment,” I told Eric when old bears with missing eyes and ears, torn paws, and thin bellies began to crowd out the photographs of our two children. “They will be worth twice what I paid by the time we die. Maybe three times.”
“Uh-huh,” Eric said. “What does it matter if we’re dead?” Not angry, but confused as he studied a Steiff, circa 1950s. I am certain he was thinking about his long hours working to keep our house well-lit and heated, thinking about the leaking toilet in our bathroom that needed a plumber and my car that needed two new tires.
“For Alex and Morgan.”
“Don’t you think they’d rather have the money?”
Eric held the bear up like he would an infant between his two hands, and its jointed legs, attached by no more than a few thin threads, swung and bits of excelsior floated to the floor. “What are you going to do with all of them and how will you protect them from the dogs?”
The bear’s caramel colored mohair was in patches, rubbed to absence by either small hands or the elements of time. No stories came with the old-timer Hermanns, Knickerbockers, and Steiffs that were purchased at estate sales by liquidators who had eBay stores, only blank histories filled in by my imagination: made-up images of cruel and kind children, destructive and gentle hands, and the prey-driven family pet.
I turned away from him back to my monitor, not answering, pretending to check my seller account. My fingers hugged the mouse, clicked on the Mozilla icon, then the eBay icon, I didn’t have to sign in runchocolate and give my password. EBay remembered me. Eric had set the bear down on my desk, its body canting naturally to the left as all good bears did, and put on his headphones. I watched him begin to practice the Liszt concerto on his digital keyboard, move his mind inward. Instead of clicking on selling, I hit the summary tab to check my bears. There the words, “You’re the highest bidder” greeted me. The opposite, “You’ve been outbid,” made me feel like a loser when it happened. The people who ran eBay, who profited from the buyers and the sellers, fostered this feeling by sending alert emails to warn of impending loss: “Don’t miss out,” “don’t let it get away,” and then, in my case, triumphant emails, “Congratulations! You’ve won!”
Some bears didn’t have either eye. Some lacked a nose, wood chips exposed in the hole. They didn’t look horrific, not like a teddy bear version of Voldemort or the disturbing rabbit in Donnie Darko. They looked in need. In need of someone like me who knew how to sew and knit and clean. Some bears had no face, not even ears, just a lumpish head wobbling on its fifth joint. These were expensive, listed with high reserves, early Steiffs with the telltale hump and long gorilla-like arms. The bidding might begin at thirty dollars and end in the two and three hundred dollar range. If original turn of the century Steiffs were in excellent condition, complete with the tagged button in one ear, they might close in the thousands. These bears I watched as only eBay watchers can—the digital version of a peeping Tom—the bidding drama unfolding slowly as the auction spun out its term, speeding up to a flurry of bids in the final two hours. Sometimes I thought I could feel the competitive energy— eBayers’ minds rapidly calculating new max bids—zipping through cyber space to my monitor. I trusted that if someone was willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a bear, the bear didn’t need me.
No, the ones I bid on were from the 1950s and ‘60s, and it didn’t escape my attention that some may have been made in 1967, the year I was born. Before I’d reached my tenth year, I’d seen bulls suffer for three days in the pasture, their urethras severed when my brother was going for the seminal vesicle. I’d witnessed ducks dragging themselves around on their bellies, their legs half-eaten by weasels and martens. I’d seen hundreds of chickens freshly beheaded by the ax, their necks hanging limp against my arms when I was told to pluck their feathers. I’d held the warm bodies of baby rabbits and kittens, stiffening in my hands as they died slowly from malnutrition and neglect. I’d watched mother cats eat their young, and I’d gagged and run to my own mother whose single response was, “I never did like that cat.”
I’d heard the bleating scream of the male lambs when they were separated from the ewes on their way to slaughter. I’d seen deer gutted, their brown eyes sightless as they hung upside down from my play gym, the dogs growling beneath them. I’d watched my brothers and father throw the kittens into the pond, kick the dogs in their ribs and heads, and shoot the woodchucks. I understood enough about myself to know when I looked at the teddy bears on eBay, their fur hanging in tatters, their limbs hanging by threads, that I saw at some level the animal victims of my family. Even as I knew this, I told myself I was silly to feel empathy for a pile of mohair and woodchips just because someone had sewn a compelling face on it.
What I didn’t understand was why I bid on the younger bears, too, those one-of-a-kinds made by German, British and Austrian artists, usually the birthdays were in the 1980s and the early ‘90s. What I didn’t understand is why I couldn’t stop when I wanted to more than anything.
“Maybe it’s a collector thing,” I said to Eric after admitting to him that I’d bid on four more bears when I’d actually bid on six. “A need to own all the different kinds of bears I can.” We were sitting in our music studio slash office. He was practicing for an upcoming recital, but stopped playing to add his opinion to the cause of my distress.
“Isn’t that called hoarding not collecting?” he asked, speaking up to be heard over the toilet refilling with water yet again, because of its slow leak. He got up from his bench and walked around my desk to give me his full attention. “I guess I’m relieved all these bears aren’t puppies. We couldn’t fit another dog in this house.”
“No, it’s not hoarding, but being an arctophilist or arctophile,” I said looking up at him, my tone defensive. I was secretly worried about being a hoarder and had researched bear collecting and the history of the teddy bear so that he’d take me seriously, so that I’d take me seriously.
Eric rubbed my back. “I think the sellers prey on people like you and purposely make their bears look pathetic. Why don’t you try collecting money for a while and see how that hobby goes.” He kissed the top of my head as I sat there wondering when he was going to leave so that I could check on my auctions. “EBay makes spending money too easy,” he said as if he were above temptation. He squeezed my arm and returned to his keyboard, slipping the headphones over his curly hair onto his ears.
Yes, I thought. It was easy to press the make-a-bid, confirm-your-bid tabs. It’s when it came time to pay that the hard part began. But, then, the entire surfing and bidding process was uncomfortable to some degree; the need to win an auction gnawed at me so that I couldn’t stop checking, couldn’t stop raising the stakes. The most painful part, the part that felt so personal was losing the competition. I yearned for endless money so that I could outbid every person who tried to get what I knew I must have in order to be happy.
“That’s exactly how eBay wants you to feel,” Eric had said when I’d told him how much I wanted to fight for Peebles, a golden colored one-of-a-kind mohair made by British artist Janette Wilson. Peebles’s upside-down v-smile beneath her large black stitched nose pulled at something inside of me that made me need to buy her. He’d added, “You’re letting eBay win. In the end you lose by giving them your money.” He was trying hard to be nice, supportive, but I’d spent over $600 on bears in the last month.
I was angry with myself for waiting until he went to work to surf for a bear that looked like Peebles.
I browsed through pages of bears at Help Empty my Attic dot com, a store in Great Britain. I scanned, moving my curser dismissively by bears named Smashing Smithy, Gorgeous Dexter, Oskar, Max, Bernie, and Ivor and then I saw her. Olivia. One of a kind made out of cinnamon mohair that curled around a face that seemed filled by her large won’t-you-love-me black eyes. Her shaved muzzle tilted at an angle as if she had asked a question and was waiting for someone, anyone, to answer her. The OOAK in block caps stood out beside her name. Olivia. She wasn’t a buy-it-now bear, but up for auction. I put in a max bid of 40 pounds, hoping that would be enough to win her. That was about 63 US dollars. As soon as I placed the bid I was filled with worry. PayPal credit, the “Bill Me Later” program, was my only payment option, but what would happen in six months? I tried not to hear the toilet that whooshed as the bowl refilled with water every hour. I tried not to hear the what-are-you-doing-what’s-wrong-with-you mother-like voice of reason in my head. Much like when my actual mother asked these questions when I lived with her, the child part of my head answered, “I don’t know.”
Lying in bed that night after I turned the lamp off, I stared into the darkness of my bedroom, listening to Eric’s breathing deepen as he neared sleep, I couldn’t stand the weight of the guilt any longer. “I bid on another bear,” I confessed.
“What?” he asked, surprised because he thought it was over. I could hear the fatigue in his voice, indicating how tired he was of this bear obsession. I felt his weight shift beside me and knew he was getting up on an elbow. “You know we can’t afford it.”
He was silent as he calculated the rate. “That’s like 60 dollars. Come on,” he said. “I want you to be happy, but you need to be careful. I don’t think you understand how stressed we are financially right now.”
“I do understand, but I felt like I had to have her.”
“Her?” Eric said. “It’s a stuffed bear we’re talking about, right?”
“Yes, her name’s Olivia and she has such a sad sweet face.”
“She’s not really sad, you know. Or sweet. She’s cloth, yarn, and plastic.”
“I do know.”
He sighed and lay back against the pillows. “These bears really better be worth something someday because they’re going to have to be what we leave the kids. Let’s wait until the auction ends to worry. Maybe you won’t win. I don’t need to ask you not to bid any higher, do I?”
“No,” but I suspected I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.
“Good.” In a few seconds I heard his breathing begin to deepen again and then change as he took a breath, “Olivia? Isn’t that what you wanted to name the baby you miscarried before you got pregnant with Alex? It was something like that,” he mumbled as he fell into sleep. “Maybe Olive. I don’t know. I get those two names confused.”
Like a pie in my face, the Gilligan’s Island variety, realization wholloped my bear addicted mind. “It was Olivia,” I answered, knowing he was beyond hearing me unless I kicked him. I remained still and stared into the dark, remembering.
Three months of throwing up followed by a persistent pain in my right side.
“It’s probably just gas,” Dr. Larrabee had said when I went in for a checkup. “But we should schedule an ultrasound just to be sure.”
A week later, I entered the hospital and lay on the exam table. The technician rolled the wand over the cold gel on my firm and slightly rounded abdomen. It had amazed me to think a baby could be swimming around inside my uterus. I stared at the screen which resembled weather maps on the news, searching the gray lines and dots for a face. From the second I found out I was pregnant, I’d been convinced the baby was a girl.
“It’s likely to be a boy,” Eric had said. “There are more boys on my side than girls.”
“Think what you want,” I’d said, supremely confident.
The technician’s face was as unreadable as the ultrasound images. I didn’t dare ask what he saw on the screen. He wiped the gel off my stomach with a towel and slipped the wand into its holder on the machine.
“The doctor will be right in,” he said and left.
In seconds, a gentle double knock and Dr. Larrabee entered. “How are you doing today?” he asked conversationally as if this was just like any other day, and he wasn’t about to tell me that there was no baby.
“You have what we call a nonviable pregnancy, a blighted ovum,” he said after swiping the wand back and forth across my abdomen. “In other words, your pregnancy is terminating itself.” He spoke as if the screen images were just cumulus clouds, not a baby gone wrong. “Come out when you’re ready,” he said after wiping the gel off my stomach.
I went out, but I wasn’t ready. Not ready for the happiness my mother displayed at my loss or the relief expressed by everyone in my family and Eric’s.
“Well, that was a close call,” my mother said, not smiling, but no longer shouting.
“You really dodged a bullet there,” my father said when he heard. “That was luck if I ever saw it.”
Eric hugged me, resting his chin on my shoulder. “I know,” he said.
We were not supposed to feel sadness at our loss. We were sixteen and, instead, supposed to be exultant at our gain, our win, and to never forget our good luck. Yes, shame was the proper emotion along with relief that we’d gambled and, in the last second, success was ours.
I lay in the unlit night of my bedroom, hearing the dogs breathe and scratch themselves, listening for the whoosh of the toilet that I knew would come, and I rested my hands on my flat stomach, much as I had when I was sixteen and terrified. Back then I’d promised myself I wouldn’t have sex again with Eric if I started my period. Another promise I probably wouldn’t have kept. I nudged Eric with my knee, once softly, the second time harder. “Am I weak because I can’t keep promises to myself?”
“No,” he murmured. “As long as you keep them to me there’s no problem.” In seconds he was breathing deeply again, sounding like he was about to snore. I coveted his super power of being able to fall asleep instantly. Once after Morgan was born and I got up with her at two in the morning, he fell asleep with his head in the nightstand drawer when I’d asked him to get a pacifier. I’d pushed him to his pillow where he smiled, asked if everything was okay, and began to snore as if everything was. Although he and the kids often claimed I promised when I didn’t, I never broke promises to them.
Babies and bears, pets and bears, I could see the connection clearly. I had to figure out how to separate them all, the real from the pretend, the stuffed from the living, the living from the dead. Just thinking through these differences and trying to understand what they all meant made me feel more in control. I rolled over onto my side, listening to Eric’s snuffling grunts, which sounded like what I imagined a bear would if I heard one sleeping. I closed my eyes, determined not to bid on any more bears, determined not to get in a bidding war over Olivia, the cinnamon mohair 10 inch bear with the sad upside-down-v smile and the large begging-love black eyes, determined to remember that although I couldn’t have the first Olivia, it was okay to feel sad to have lost her. She too, had been one-of-a-kind.