I spent the first part of the cross-town ride enjoying the legs of the pretty girl in the denim skirt down at the far end of the car. I’m a leg man and they were a fabulous pair, nicely toned and tanned. A guy could rest his hand on one those legs and feel everything was right with the world.

She was completely engrossed in a book and didn’t notice me at all. I figured her for a student, twenty-two or twenty-three, tops, which meant if I was going to strike up a conversation with her, I had to do so before we rolled into the SDSU station and she disembarked.

The truth is, though, that while my body might have been into making a move, my heart and mind weren’t. I was freshly single after a relationship that had chewed up and spat out most of my twenties, and still in that phase of rebound where I fall madly in love for ten minutes with any attractive female who crosses my path. This is an emotional bear trap, one I’ve gotten snared in before, and I knew by now to avoid it.

Still, I probably should have gone to talk to her. Having been out of the singles game for so long my flirtation skills had likely atrophied sharply, and a little practice wouldn’t have hurt. But it was enough to see that something like that existed in the world, and to be able to enjoy it from a distance.

A rush hour crowd waited at the next stop, the glut of bodies filling the car obscuring my view of the girl and her nice legs. With a bit of reluctance I turned back to my own book.

After a few minutes I began to notice the woman who’d taken the seat opposite the aisle from me. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her, just your average American housewife type, but somehow she reminded me of a terrified woodland animal desperately trying to avoid being noticed. Where other passengers flipped the pages in their books or poked at their electronic gizmos she sat as still as possible, her gaze lowered to the floor. When she raised her face enough to give me a good look at it, I saw why.

Her face was a quilt of multi-colored bruises, the worst of them concentrated around the left side. The white of her right eye was stained red in places where the blood vessels had ruptured, and her lips were too unevenly swollen to close completely; through the space between them I glimpsed the surgical wiring holding her jaw together.

I’ve been a student of violence long enough to recognize the effects when I see them, and what I could see was that someone had given her one horrific beating, and very recently. Someone—a husband, maybe, or a boyfriend—who’d felt enough hate towards her to take away her ability to speak.

Her eyes flicked up for a second and met mine, a thin meniscus of tears coating them. I wish I knew what she saw—or thought she saw–in my face in the few seconds before she looked away again. Did she feel self-conscious or ashamed, knowing I’d recognized her injuries for what they were?

I tried to allow her what measure of privacy I could, but it was difficult not to look. I couldn’t escape the fact that everyone else in our immediate vicinity seemed to be concentrating as hard on not noticing her as she was on not being seen.  A minor injustice compared to what she had been through, but nevertheless one she shouldn’t have to bear.

I wanted to reach across the aisle, squeeze her hand, and say something nice, to offer some response other than the surrounding apathy, but the words died stillborn on my tongue. Finally I just offered her the handkerchief I keep for cleaning my glasses, feeling like a half-assed caricature of chivalry as I did so. She glanced at it as though I were trying to hand her a live rattlesnake, and shuffled sideways in her seat, away from me.

“It’s clean,” I said. For a moment it looked as though she might take it, but then the train rumbled in to the SDSU stop and she was out the doors before they’d even finished opening. Gone like she’d never even been there.

The train rolled on towards the last few stops before the end of the line, and as it did I felt unsettled by what I’d seen and done. She hadn’t asked for me to draw public attention to whatever private pain she endured; I’d created a narrative around a stranger’s life and written myself in as a character, and in doing so failed to help at all. I might’ve even made it worse.

I tried to read a few pages in my book but quit when I realized I had no idea what they said. I looked towards the far end of the car, hoping the girl with the nice legs might still be there. I wanted the sight of some pretty young skin to distract me from my own sense of futility. To my surprise, she still was.

There was a boy with her now, a skinny kid with a sandy blonde buzz cut who must’ve gotten on at the university stop. They held each other with absolute joy, like those couples you see at airports who’ve been apart for months, even though it’d probably only been hours since they’d walked the campus hand-in-hand. They shared kisses and whispered to each other, unconcerned with any eyes that might be watching.

By herself, she’d been pretty; together they were radiant. It was a celebration to see them. And really, what else could one do but admire them from afar, and hope the tiny sphere of their love kept the bad things of the world at bay, if just for a little while?

That morning Jackson woke with an erection like an iron bar.He lay in bed with his eyes closed feeling it throb between his legs.He imagined Céline returning from work, unbuttoning her blouse and pulling the red regulation sash from around her waist with a practiced flick.She’d step down out of her shoes, unclip her metal nametag and toss it onto the kitchen table where it would land with a clatter. He could see her fingers sliding the zip down the side of her skirt, the fabric falling to the floor with that sweet familiar swish and then there she’d be, thin legs and her hands reaching up behind her, leaning forward, unfastening her bra the way she did.

The first funeral. It was achingly hot. The crushed sand and shells that covered the drive of the funeral home glinted and sparkled in the sun and made soft squeaking noises beneath the feet of the mourners who filed into the open air chapel. I am hyper aware of my white undershirt beneath the blouse of my Girl Scout uniform. I don’t yet have anything sufficient to warrant wearing a bra so my mother still insisted on the undershirt even though I was twelve years old. The cotton was saturated with sweat and stuck to my back between my shoulder blades where I couldn’t reach to peel it off even if I tried. The stiff green polyester blend of the uniform shirt rubbed my skin raw beneath my arms and around my waist where it was tucked into the skirt.

We had come here together in a station wagon as a troop driven by someone else’s mother. We are minus one and our leader. I hadn’t even wanted to be a Girl Scout. I would have stopped at being a Brownie. But before we left New York I had walked over that bridge, looked into the reflecting pond and pledged to be someone better and that person became a Girl Scout. When we moved to Florida, my mother filled out the paperwork I reluctantly carried home from school. She thought it would help me make friends in a new town and it only served to make me incompetent. If there had been a badge for spending all your free time in the library reading books, I would have twenty. So far the only badges I had sewn on my sash were the ones we had earned as a troop. The other girls all had individual badges they had completed or were working on. Amy had accomplished the most of all of us, individually, although I imagined, unless there were Girl Scouts in Heaven, she wouldn’t be advancing much further.

In the car on the way over Jeannie, a girl who smelled like tuna fish every single day, had shared the way, way, back with me and she had whispered into my ear as we crouched in the open trunk that she had heard Amy was buried in her scout uniform. It made me want to rip mine off my body and hurl it out the window but instead I said nothing and concentrated on breathing through my mouth until we filed into the funeral home and took our seats in the row reserved for us, as if we were special guests or dignitaries, behind Amy’s large family.

When we were seated Amy’s mother, our troop leader, turned to us assembled neatly in a row. She smiled but didn’t really look at us individually. Her face was tracked with tiny cuts made darker and deeper by threads of dried blood that had already begun to scab. Glistening over the cuts was a layer of tears, the collar of her shirt was darker than the rest from the water that ran off her face and on the floppy lapel I saw the glint of her Girl Scout Leader pin. She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

I was so taken by her face that it took me a moment to focus beyond Amy’s family, her four brothers, three steps below her and one above and her father, who owned the Snack Shack down at the town dock. He recognized all of us scouts in Amy’s troop and always gave a mound of chips with the hot dogs or free French fries if he had extra. Today he kept his face focused forward and he wore a short sleeve white dress shirt that strained across his back. His sweat stains echoed my own and the sight of them made me sit slightly off the back of the pew, leaning forward so that whatever air the fans pushed out above my head would circulate around my body.

That was when I saw the glossy white casket. Its lid was closed and on top was a framed picture of Amy. Her school picture, I guessed. Since it looked just like the one my mother had of me sitting on the shelf above the television. Amy smiled out at us, her blond hair waved around her face and disappearing way past her shoulders. Her chin was tiny and pointed and her eyes were a pale green that echoed the color of our uniforms.

There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up. Tulips, roses, and carnations the ruffled edges dipped in green, spread atop the casket and around Amy’s picture.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight when Amy’s mother began to cry. Her sobs quieted the entire congregation of mourners. Even the priest who was standing at the head of Amy’s casket seemed to know that God could offer no comfort at the sound of a mother’s anguished cries. Before I closed my eyes I saw Amy’s older brother look agitatedly around the chapel. His gaze angry, embarrassed, bewildered. His father put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he not so much jerked as slid away from his father’s attempted embrace and sat as close to the aisle as possible – one foot ready poised for escape.

I knew more about the accident than most, but I kept it to myself. My mother was a nurse and a good friend was on the emergency crew first to get to the scene. I knew something was wrong right away when I came home from the library and found my mother and Paul huddled close together in the driveway of our house. My mother was still in her uniform even though her shift had ended at three and it was nearly five. Paul, also a fisherman, had brought a bucket of crabs for dinner and it was between them on the ground baking in the hot sun. I dropped my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, as my mother reached out to me. She pulled me to her side as I stared down into the crab bucket. I watched the bodies move listlessly as she told me the details of the accident.

Amy’s mother had been driving way out on Pine Ridge Road, a well-traveled trucking route from the Sugar Cane fields, to pick up one of the boys, when they were hit. The impact forced Amy through the windshield. Her body hung there, suspended by shards of glass, and her mother panicked. Maybe, had she not pulled Amy through the window, onto the hood of the old station wagon, Amy might have lived. By the time Paul got to the scene Amy had lost too much blood. They didn’t tell me this but I pictured it: Amy’s mother covered in her daughter’s blood as she held her in her arms and told her it would be alright. Although from our Red Cross and CPR badges she probably knew that Amy wouldn’t make it. Before the priest finds his voice, before Amy’s parents realize what has occurred, her older brother stands up and runs down the aisle. His fists are shoved into his pockets, his head is bowed, and his shoulders are moving up and down. His grief is so electric it is terrifying and no one, not even his parents’, move to go after him.

 

Four years later. Another white casket. Mounds of flowers. At sixteen, mourning was something I clung to, stroked and feted like a beloved pet. For days I have barely slept, or eaten and only today have I showered and dressed in a white eyelet sundress to say goodbye to my beloved friend. In my fist I clutch a ball of tissues that have become slick with snot, but I am unable to contract the muscles in my hand to part with them. Had I gone with my friends as we had planned I would have been in the car that killed one of them and left the rest in the hospital, still so broken they are unable to attend the funeral. Instead of my friends I chose a boy who I won’t even allow to share in my grief. I blame him although he has nothing to do with it. I had been waiting a long time for him to notice me and when he finally did, I chose him. I. Chose. Him. I felt sick at the thought of what I was doing when she died. Of what, shamefully, I still want to do although I will not allow myself. His hands were all over my skin and I welcomed them. His mouth hot against my ear, my neck, the two of us twisted together on a blanket on the beach. I can still feel him all over me when there should be nothing left to feel.

When her mother and father see me they draw me to them and close their arms around me. They moan low and soft and we sway as a group before her casket. My dress swishes around my bare legs and brushes up against the metal stand. There is no air in our closed circle but I don’t struggle to get out. I deserve this, I think, turning their tragedy into mine. I have a hard time believing she is gone. I am swollen and sodden with grief and anger. I feel leaden, untouchable, as her mother whispers in my ear that she tucked all of our pictures into the casket. When I am able she wants me to come to their house to pick something out of Terri’s to remember her by. Even then I know it is something I will never bring myself to do.

 

When I extricate myself I look across the room crowded with teenagers in all states of distress. In the far corner I see him standing there. Unlike the first time he is not poised for escape. He knows what to expect. He has been here before. He has lost everything once and it is not impossible to imagine it won’t happen again. Our eyes meet across the room. He doesn’t need to say a word as he slowly begins to pick his way through the crowd to where I am standing. He knows all to well what happens next.

 

 

 

 

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.


Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • E-mail this story to a friend!
  • Facebook
  • Technorati
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Furl
  • Ma.gnolia
  • Sphinn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Mixx
  • Pownce
  • YahooMyWeb
  • blogmarks
  • BlogMemes
  • Blogosphere News
  • Reddit
  • Spurl
  • TwitThis

Tags: 

RSS feedTrackback URI

23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.








As soon as I enter the room I want to fuck someone. A kaleidoscope of colors and words assaults me.

While other students filter to their seats, I’m bewitched by a canopy of poetry scribbled in bad penmanship on all the walls and ceiling. A banner of Blake reads:

The unfolding of the imagination is the only true education.

The bell rings and a buck-toothed dancer in pink tights and high-waisted tweed shorts brushes past me hurrying to her desk. I scan the room for a seat and find one near the back corner underneath a verse of Poe.

While I’m reading the wall, Tom Dillon walks through the door in a white t-shirt, ripped Levi’s and clunky motorcycle boots, duct tape holding the soles and buckles digging canyons into the leather.

 

We make eye contact and time goes all gooey while he walks to his desk, a desk I long to mount. Instead, he climbs atop, the desk, not me, unfortunately, and roars, “I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”

Ok, maybe I don’t want to fuck him. Maybe he’s just a dork who watched Rebel Without a Cause orEasy Rider one too many times. Maybe he won those boots off an East Side Rider in a back-alley gambling ring. My dad once won a 1969 Jose Ramirez classical guitar in a poker game.

Mr. Dillon pounds his chest, another yawp I presume, but I’m not really sure because I’m no longer listening. I’m watching his mouth, the way it puckers when he comes to the end of a phrase.

He reminds me of a rooster my grandparents once had who used to chase the dogs with his chest puffed out.

“Full of hot air,” my Grandpa used to say before the IRS killed him.

I look around to see if any of the other kids in my class are buying what Mr. Dillon’s selling. Three inky-haired goth girls wiggle their asses in their seats, and the boy next to me wearing a shredded Day-Glo jacket and oversized rhinestone earrings checks out Mr. Dillon’s package.

It is a nice package, I note. Nothing like a dick in Levi’s. I can imagine the boxers underneath. Probably light blue. Maybe striped. I sneak my hand into the cotton hole; feel the steamy warmth, the flesh of the balls, warm and soft, like fresh baked dinner rolls.

“Stop staring,” the boy next to me snaps.

“You’re the one who was staring. I was just trying to figure out what you were staring at.”

He scoots closer. “He’s fucking hot, don’t you think?”

I glance over at Mr. Dillon possessed by the Whitman rant.

“His teeth are kinda small,” I break. I don’t want to be one more groupie.

“You’re fucking crazy,” my Day-Glo pal snipes. “You can’t tell me you’d kick him out of bed.”

“Eh,” I reply, shrugging my shoulders like he’s no big deal.

Mr. Dillon seems enraptured by the poem, but I can’t help wondering what the big fucking deal is with Whitman and why Mr. Dillon seems so moved by him.

Or is he? Maybe he’s just another poser sycophant teacher who wants to ride the clock and fuck all the little girls. He keeps reading:

I think I could turn and live with animals,

They’re so placid and self contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…

Though I don’t want to, I love him. His small teeth. His big feet. The way he colors his world with bright hues. The way he smirks when he gets to the end of a stanza.

I’d never loved a teacher before. Some of the girls in junior high were crazy about Mr. Nuggins, but I thought he had a big butt. There were also rumors at my last high school that Mr. Millie raped a student, but then that student was expelled, so I gathered it was all bullshit.

My earliest teachers were nuns with nose hairs and halitosis. Not very fuckable nuns. Not like Julie Andrews or anything. Except Sister Brigettte; she was pretty, even if she didn’t wash her hands all the time. They always smelled of cigars and shrimp.

When I switched to public school after my parents divorced, I spent most of my time practicing my super powers to turn invisible, so I didn’t pay too much attention to my teachers, which worked out great because they didn’t pay too much attention to me, either.

“I heard he’s fucking Amy Wattingen,” my new friend purrs, pulling me out of myself.

“Who’s Amy Wattingen?” I ask, scanning the room of fluttering eyelashes.

Day-Glo examines his navy blue nails for chips. “Oh, she’s in regular English,” whispering the word like it was pedophilia or cancer.

“Is she pretty?” I ask, regretting it immediately. I sound jealous.

I am jealous.

“She’s tall and thin,” he laments, sucking in his cheeks like a New York junkie. “Go ahead and hate her. I do.”

I turn to my book, ashamed of myself. Ashamed that I’m jealous of a girl I don’t know. Ashamed that I love a man I don’t know. Ashamed that at the end of the day I’m just like everyone else, falling for some scruffy boots and a line of poetry. Not like he wrote the goddamned poem. 

I didn’t want to be like everyone else, so I vowed to fall out of love with Mr. Dillon immediately. Love was a choice, and I would simply make another. But as he climbed off his desk, I noticed a small hole in the crotch of his jeans. Though but a fleeting glance, what I saw made time stop and go all gooey again. 

Mr. Dillon wasn’t wearing underwear. No boxers. No briefs. No tighty whities.

Blake me now.

 

I Envy Everyone

By Paul A. Toth

Humor

“Envy eats nothing but its own heart.”  ~ German proverb

I envy everyone.

I envy you my love with your wobbly leg and neurological condition. I wonder what it’s like to have a physical reason for suffering and I wonder why my infirmities teach me nothing yet you seem to learn with every fall.

I envy other writers. I won’t read your words too closely unless you’re dead. It goes that far.

I envy people with a few good friends and those with many superficial friends and others with no friends at all. They seem content in their social standing.

I envy those who set themselves on fire. I wonder what it’s like to care that much. I pretend to care that much but don’t.

I envy those who learn not to drink and those who maintain drinking at a safe level. Sometimes I wish they would trade places just to make me feel less lonely.

I envy homeowners with barren houses and I envy homeowners with things placed everywhere so that I can’t move a toe without breaking something of questionable value but which they value. I envy those who value nothing and I envy those who value everything. I’m always in between, wondering which one to be.

I envy people who exercise in the Y across the way from my apartment. They take care of their bodies like their cars and I guarantee their cars are in better condition than any car I’ve ever owned. People live until an an age computed from the average mileage their cars reach before the engines blow.

I envy people who worry about smoking and others who don’t worry about smoking. I wish I cared more and I wish I cared less.

I envy dog owners with the patience for barking. I can only imagine such patience. I wonder if dog owners are better for it but I can only wonder. I am always wondering.

I envy people who buy things and love them like people. I often move away from everything I own and then I wonder if I love anything and worse whether I love anyone. I wonder if people who love things love people. Only they can tell but I’m too shy to ask.

I envy people who constantly talk and I envy the silent types. Both seem comfortable with their social skills.

I envy everyone. I easily assume the German accent of a not-so-gentle man seeking liebestraum for his endless wondering and wandering. I hope he finds his answers and loses the phony accent that hides his envy when he smiles at you and says, “Hello.”