[ So, your girlfriend killed herself. Five months ago. Just like that. ]
You try time off. Again. Tell your patients you’re going out of town for a while, reschedule their appointments, do some last-minute-trip research, can’t find a place to go. Never were much of a far and wide traveler. Elise had always planned these things, though you never actually went anywhere. Right before a thing came together, it was replaced by something else, more exotic. Europe, South America, the Mediterranean. She didn’t collect colorful brochures from travel agencies, only serious reading material—books and articles and printouts. It’s all still sitting in the study. Her enthusiasm used to build and build, then she’d see something in the Times and get obsessed about someplace else. In the end, you saw the world from your couch, on cable TV. All the things you’d never do.
You stay home, but don’t tell anyone you didn’t leave. Let voicemail get it. Only go out to eat—and always in the same booth, at the same cafe. Until they start to know you, predict what you’re going to order. The first time they call you by name is the last time you go there. Then somewhere else. Until you’re served at some new diner by the same woman who used to bring Elise grapefruit and granola at another place. After that, you eat your pancakes at home.
You walk. To get outside. To get out. To see people, briefly. Occasionally you meet an old person who needs an assistant on their morning stroll—to push their wheelchair, to steady their walker, to make sure they don’t get lost. Runners are more interested in their breathing or their route than you. Sometimes you see schoolchildren: chasing, performing, huddled in secretive cabals. They are oblivious to you at their bus stop, until you trespass in their bubbled little world by walking through it. You cross the street to avoid kids whenever possible. Dog walkers are your favorite, the most likely to see you, talk to you. Even if not, all you have to do is talk to the dog. What a fine looking pup . . . I hope your owner appreciates you . . . It’d be nice to have somebody like you at home. The walker never thinks you are crazy for talking to a dog. They take it in stride, answer for the mutt, seamlessly slide the conversation to one between people. But it never amounts to much. The dog’s breed, the weather, whatever. Too little. Too much.
It’s been weeks since you’ve been to the office. You feel clouds creeping in at the corners, that you’re . . . slipping. You try normal stuff. Hiking with other dentists, sharing rounds at the pub, wandering the bookshop until someone talks to you. The inanities, the morbid little details, almost adding up to . . . But eventually everything starts to feel a little too familiar. Theatre, books, porn, food, art, exercise. None of it sustains you.
[ You have no more excuses. ]
Back to work. You haven’t been sleeping much, but the likelihood of death during a standard dental appointment is pretty low, even if the doctor is a mess. Most likely just some poked gums. At worst, you miss something. A tooth that might turn crooked, develop a cavity, or cancer. Nothing that would immediately make a person file a lawsuit, or die. At worst, you lose a patient. Much, much later.
Sarah Abernathy is scheduled on your first day back, by herself. Usually you see her kids, too, but you know at least one of them is old enough to be at college now. Her husband is still a patient, even though they’ve been separated for three years. She is such a lovely woman. She is your 11:15.
With your first patients of the day, you are barely able to ask the routine questions: How are you? Have you been brushing? Are you ready? Are you okay? Are you numb yet? Does this hurt? Words come in fits and starts. Some fall out of your mouth all mixed up.
Eventually you find a safe, simple rhythm. The trick is to think of the work like plumbing—mindless maintenance rather than nuanced science. Stop looking for pride or redemption or release in it, even if all that’s left is a way to get through the day. Could be cleaning dentures for all it matters.
But Sarah isn’t dentures, she is practically an old friend. Been coming to see you since her eldest was in junior high. It seems natural to talk to her.
At ten to noon, you enter to see Sarah stretching her legs in the exam chair, wiggling her toes a bit. You lay out all the tools and hear the vinyl headrest creak as she turns to follow you around the room. When you sit next to her and flip on the overhead light, Sarah’s smile doesn’t fade. She isn’t looking away from the glare. She is looking at you.
“Open, please, for me, would you.”
And she does. You poke and probe, gently, with the shepherd’s hook. Ask if her children are doing well. She nods.
You scrape around the 24 and 25 incisors, getting bits the hygienist missed. Sarah grips the armrest.
“Are you still at Kits Camera? Seems like that’d be a fun place to work.”
Sarah rolls her eyes and pulls the corners of her mouth back a bit.
“Do people ever send copies of their photos in? Birthday parties, vacations, trips to the lake, zoo, anything like that?”
“Uh uh,” Sarah says, then pauses for a moment, and shrugs her shoulders.
You draw a little blood, use the water syringe and aspirator to clean it up.
“Yeah, I guess that would be a little weird . . . why would they?” Sarah is staring intently at you. “I mean, people might be grateful for camera technology on some level, but what would ever make them think to share those moments with you like that. Nothing, I suppose . . .” You think you catch a glint of sympathy in Sarah’s eyes just then. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
Sarah’s eyes, looking right back at you, get big for a moment, then slowly sort of squint. You pull back, taking the aspirator out.
“You and your husband, since you’ve been divorced . . . When did it get easier? Being without him, I mean.”
“I’m not sure if I can say.”
You go back in, checking for cavities, working the 17, 18, 19 molars. “I ask because—I mean, I know it’s not the same. You and Richard went through the whole legal process. Lawyers and paperwork and custody hearings and all of that.” Removing the hook from her mouth, you place a gloved hand on Sarah’s shoulder, your thumb resting in that little cove above the clavicle. “Elise hung herself. But there’s still that sense of loss, right?”
Sarah coughs, sends some spittle flying. You use the neck bib to dab it off her chin and from the edges of her mouth. In that moment, she apologizes, and you wonder what on earth for. Sarah turns her head away, to stare at the posters of happy teeth on the wall. She says something about her kids.
You roll her head back toward you with fingertips to her temple, palm and cheek not quite touching, and plunge back in with the hook. “I know it couldn’t have been easy, the whole divorce process. But with Elise . . . I ask myself sometimes, why. Well, I ask that all the time, really. But you got the other extreme. You probably had the ‘why’ hammered home a hundred times before it was finally done. Still, I think I’d prefer divorce to . . .”
Sarah taps your forearm, saying something about having trouble believing. You zoned out, and while you refocus, on her, Sarah rolls her head back and up, her face full of creases, miles deep. She says, “It’s not ever going to make sense. Ever. But you should still maybe talk to someone about it.”
You want to tell her what Elise looked like when you found her, about the blue nylon cord. But you remember where you are and don’t. Your fingers spasm a little around the shepherd’s hook, and you stammer an apology for starting this conversation.
Sarah was always good about brushing; you rush through the rest of the exam, figuring you aren’t going to miss much. When you finish, you pull off your gloves and hunch over, staring at your hands. Sarah helps herself out of the chair. She looks unsteady. You hand her a toothbrush.
As she step-stumbles next to you down the hallway, Sarah turns and says, “You think kids can’t see the end coming?” She stops to stroke the toothbrush’s plastic packaging with her thumb and whispers, “You think you can hide the frustration, and desperation, and—hatred from them? Because that’s what it is at the end, isn’t it? You never imagined such a thing possible. You loved this person, and you bury it the best you can. But there you are, hanging onto a thread, hating them, and wondering who your children are going to forgive . . .”
“I’m sorry, Sarah. I didn’t mean to—”
“You think . . . you think, What good came from this?”
You put an arm around Sarah’s shoulder and walk her to the front. Tell her she needs to floss more, that it’s very important. She says, “Tell me what you’re really thinking.” You wish she’d told you to fuck off. The rest of the day you wait for a patient to finally tell you that after a flossing lecture. You would ask them to do a naked jig with you around the office. You would turn off the shitty soft jazz piping throughout the office, and make your own music with them. Beat on spit basins like savages. Scream whatever came to mind, right into each other’s cavity-filled mouths. Shoot X-rays directly into your own bare chests. You would read every single patient’s file, each miniscule detail, out loud to each other until they knew everything you knew.
No one says anything except, Sure, doc. So you scrape the plaque still left after the cleaning. Poke around for weak enamel. Fill their mouths with vacuum tubes and water dispensers and fluoride gel until all they can say when you ask them how they feel is “Mrrghhumph.” And after that, you don’t ask them anything at all.
[ What was that thing Elise did before lying in bed every night? She made funny faces at her feet. But first, did she rub one foot over the other? Or slap the sides together, like snow-covered boots? ]
In the days after Sarah’s appointment, you sleep even less. You sit in the recliner at home, stare at the wall until you fade. You’re out for maybe a couple of hours before you jolt awake around midnight and stumble into bed. Then you stare at the ceiling, sleep for a spell, wake up around 2 or 3. Stare, sleep, wake. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
[ Where will you find answers? ]
The encyclopedias are still there, at home. At least most of D and down. The ABC pages, gone. Covers, husks. Elise used to tear pages out, every day. She folded them and put them in her pocket, carried them around with her. She read them, studied them, whenever she got a chance. She’d finish them and she’d give them away. Sign notes and slip pages in random news boxes. She called it knowledge recycling. Over dinner, you used to ask her what she’d learned that day, and she would recite whole paragraphs of obscure information with wide eyes and ecstatic mouth. How much she was able to remember, and all the gesturing that came with it, it made you want to kiss every inch of her except her lips, so she could keep talking and talking and talking. She practically danced while reporting on the inexplicable evolution-in-overdrive of Australian toxic cane toads, and it was all you could do not to jump up and hold her in one place forever.
You start spending all your evenings at the library. Their encyclopedias are even newer, and nicer. You start at the beginning, with A, read for hours at a time. The reference desk girl starts smiling at you before you even get to B. By the time you hit C, she is already making an effort to say hi, every time you come in, even if she’s busy with someone else.
You get anxious as you get closer to D, terrified of what you’re on the verge of learning. Your fingers leave damp impressions all over the Crimean War. When you get to CT scans, you stop. Shuffle over to the reference desk. Measure your breathing as you wait in line. The reference girl sees you and waves you over. The look on her face, it’s as if you were the only one who remembered today was her birthday and she couldn’t wait to thank you.
You say, “I’ve been reading encyclopedias. But there’s no reason to read every volume, is there?”
The girl smiles, says, “If you’re looking for something in particular, I’d be happy to help you.”
You find things on the desk to touch, hoping to preempt the random twitching you’ve recently developed. You play with periodical requests, card applications, dull miniature pencils. You look all around, only managing to steal small glances straight at her.
“I’m wondering, in your professional opinion—or, I guess, personal one—why do you think someone would try to read the entire encyclopedia? Read it like some people read the Bible, I mean. But then stop before they were done.”
The girl frowns for a moment, kind of like Sarah Abernathy did. “Could be they were curious. Or searching for something.” She looks you right in the eye when she says, in the sweetest voice you’ve heard in ages, “Or maybe it’s an excuse for something else.”
You pick up an inquiry card, don’t write anything on it—just ask what she means, an excuse.
“Well, it could be anything really. They might be focused on reading instead of doing whatever they’re supposed to be doing. Or maybe they’re using it as a means to an entirely unrelated end.”
She leans toward you as if it’s your turn to talk now, like you should understand something now you didn’t five minutes ago.
“Have you ever wanted to go to Cyprus?”
“Doesn’t every girl want a handsome, nicely dressed man to whisk her away to an island?”
“I can think of at least one.”
“Well, you could just ask her . . .”
“I can’t.” Your vision starts to get washed out at the edges, a little blurry, and too bright. “She killed herself.”
“Oh, I . . .”
You’re bleeding. You kept skimming your thumb along the edge of the card until you sliced it open. It’s surprisingly deep, but you’re not moving. Your blood isn’t splattered everywhere, it’s just pooling a tiny bit on the desk in front of you.
[ Somebody just say how long . . . ]
You wear at least two sets of latex gloves at work. Because of the gash in your thumb. Because you keep poking yourself during exams. Because it feels strangely right. You see potential cavities, stay quiet. You lay off the floss talk. You wonder what your hygienists are like outside the office. There are bigger problems than this—there has to be something bigger than this.
[ What was it? WHAT THE FUCK WAS IT? ]
You don’t remember how, why, you are downtown—but you’re walking. Slower than everyone else. You pass clusters of news boxes several times, finally pick up a copy of the free weekly. Flip to the back. The part with ads for people seeking other people. You aren’t sure what you’re hoping to find. Probably not sex. But maybe. Probably. Definitely not re-enacting something you did with Elise. But what you want doesn’t seem like something you’ll find by chance in a tavern, like a forgotten umbrella when it happens to rain. Or at least it isn’t going to be found with the immediacy you need.
You skip quickly past most ads. Too many adjectives (“I am an expressive, adventuristic, hilarifying, non-traditional but regular shower-bathing and tooth-brushing almost vegan”). Far too elaborate metaphors (“I’m a wild red hen looking for an Appalachian mountain hound to build a rocket ship with so we can wallpaper the galaxy fantastic”). Or just inscrutable nonsense (“I talk in numbers, I think in elastic—I am the great and everlasting Gunderfüter”). You look for simple. “I live in Fremont, but don’t like labels. I am loyal, and will be there when you need me. Just escaped a rough ’relationship,’ but now am free and hoping to build a good home with someone.” You contact Good Home, swap a few sixty-second voicemails, and after even more e-mails (lengthy ones), decide to meet in person. Her name is Maggie. She sounds honest, and has an honest name, which makes you suspicious of and attracted to her at the same time. You meet at Vessel, a classy, quiet, cozy place, close to downtown (i.e., several hotels—just in case).
You see her walk in from your table. She’s wearing a cotton dress not quite modestly covered by a cardigan. Happy hour is over, but the after-dinner crowd hasn’t wandered in yet. With only two other couples in the place, there isn’t any background noise of glasses clinking or dull buzz from conversations mingling in the candlelight. Her hair is a barely tamed auburn mess. She walks with purpose unfamiliar to you, and the first thing you think is She’s nothing like Elise.
The second thing you think is Be here now.
Maggie doesn’t so much slide into the chair across from you as magically appear in it. “So, the infamous doctor. How often does a gal meet a medical professional through the paper?”
“I—technically, I’m a dentist.”
“Well, I can still trust you, right?”
Maggie’s voice lifts at the end, as if to be optimistic, or encouraging. But her eyes were searching as she said it. You think you’re losing it before you even figure out what “it” is. You nod silently for a few beats.
You tell her you kind of miss parties. That you haven’t been to anything other than a dinner “party” in a while, and that you used to enjoy all the bouncing around the room and talking. But now, at your age, it’s not like there’s a house party every time someone’s parents slip away for a night. Weddings and funerals. That’s what you have now. And conversations there tend to slant a particular way. So, it’s nice to be here is what you mean to say.
Maggie says you obviously haven’t been hanging around with her old crowd, and that she’s glad of that, because, the ol’ gang, they were a bit like unsupervised children. She says she’s happy to be here, too. And she’s thankful to have a job, working at some refurbished furniture shop. Because, without it, she might backslide. You tell her you know exactly how she feels.
A server brings you another straight whisky, maybe your third. You didn’t quite catch what Maggie ordered, all you heard was Cola with ice.
You say you’re afraid, though. How maybe your job isn’t actually relief, but more like a shunt. A thing that will keep filling hours, indefinitely, with a sheen of normalcy, but all the while keep you precisely wherever you are. Where you’re only too happy to stay, because when you’re not distracted, you feel the weight of the air around you, and it usually feels heavier than you.
Maggie looks like she’s really listening to you, as though she might understand. She says that right where you are is right where you should be. And you have to trust that one day you’ll transcend the everyday feeling, probably without even knowing why. Then she starts talking about animals, as if that’s what the conversation has been about all along. About how some of them literally see the world differently than people do. Not in outlines and details, but more like movement and light. How they look at the exact same thing as you, but not at all the same way. Pigeons can see millions of hues. The eyes and brains of dragonflies work so quickly, everything is in slow motion for them. Snakes can’t see you at all if you’re motionless in daylight, but you can’t hide from their infrared vision at night. You don’t know if any of this is helpful, or true, but you want to reach out and touch her face. So you do.
Maggie turns away from your hand, toward the bar, and lets her gaze linger there a while, wistfully, you think. You pull back your hand. She looks back at you, then stares out the bar’s big plate glass window. You think you’ve gone out too far, or maybe in the wrong direction.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “This is just sort of new for me.”
The hand you offered Maggie is now clutched in a ball close to your chest, quivering slightly. Unnoticeably, you hope.
“Trust is a big thing,” she says. “You can’t force it.”
“But don’t you just know sometimes? I feel like I know you, or am starting to. And that I can trust you.”
She keeps glancing sideways.
“Does this place make you uncomfortable? Do you want to go someplace else?”
Your fingers are striking imaginary keys to a Bach concerto you don’t know. They’ve somehow slipped into spastic panic mode without you noticing. Maggie reaches for your hand, says, “We should leave.”
This is it, you think. But you don’t know how it’s supposed to work. You know the Sarah Abernathys and librarians of the world aren’t posting profiles in the personals section. These women online, they say they’re shy, but really, they’re pretty direct about what they want. Maggie went online looking for a man. And really, when you’re looking for someone like that, what you’re looking for is sex. You’re pretty sure. You just don’t know how to get there from here. Maggie is walking down the street beside you, looking for someplace to go. Her hand is begging to be grasped, but you can’t unclench your fist. You remember how Elise was always trying to get you to have sex in semi-public places. You were excited about storage closets in restaurants, behind bushes near Ferris wheels. When she wanted dark alleys in Tacoma, you were worried you weren’t enough for her anymore. Be bold you think.
“You could gag me,” you say. “I mean, later.”
“Gag me. If we . . . if you wanted to try that. You could gag me.” Maggie seems to ponder this a moment, so you do, too. You imagine your mouth full of her stockings, or bound by a pillowcase, whatever is handy. She will whisper and bark and shout, tell you exactly what she wants you to do. You imagine choking a bit—never having done this before—but softly. Feeling air leak out of your lungs, not replaced fast enough. Maggie will be on top of you, enjoying herself, not even aware that you are drifting away. And you won’t fight it. The last thing you’ll hear, barely, like a yelp from down the hall, will be Maggie calling your name, trying to bring you back.
You’ve stopped walking.
“Hey—doc. You with me?”
“I, um—you were saying something.”
“Listen, you’re looking a little worse for wear. We can walk for a while, talk if you like. But you should probably go home and get some rest.”
You look at your reflection in a storefront window. You look like hell. Maggie gently urges you to keep talking, but whatever energy there was feels sapped. You think Neither of you did what you were expecting to do.
[ Why? ]
You never said anything to her. But you did sense it, something. You felt it when you went to work and how you came home. Before, she went through this period of sending CDs with you to play in the office. Not for over the speakers—this was something for your private office, away from the patients. There was usually music on them, upbeat stuff, tunes you could snap your fingers to, but that wasn’t all. There were bits from George Carlin, monologues from Spalding Gray, so many poets. And, sometimes, Elise herself. Short clips of her: whispering, laughing, making purring sounds you knew could come from no one else.
When you first started dating, you made her a personalized guide—notes, clippings, photos—because she was new to the city. But after that, you aren’t sure you made her anything else, except, maybe, a mediocre meal.
[ What’s at the end? ]
You can’t remember when exactly, but at some point you realized Elise’s excitement about the world became . . . tempered. She said it was the same everywhere. But not in a way that suggested kinship, or disappointment. More like something between acceptance and resignation.
You thought, at first, that she’d delved into a whole new level of contemplation, deeper. For a month or so, she seemed completely lost in finding another destination, the one you two were really going to. But then you saw what she’d done to the encyclopedias: cutting parts and gluing them into other sections, nonsensically. Rome ran roughshod over nitrogen, convexities distorted pocket rot beyond recognition. She didn’t get very far. You saw all that right before. You found her maybe a week later.
After the service, after everyone had left, and left you home alone, you skimmed the rearranged Britannica volumes, but didn’t want to touch the travel stuff yet. That took you another two weeks to get to. You had to gather your strength before tackling those twisted stacks of paper, lying silently, patiently, coiled in the study, waiting for you.
When you did decide to go through with it, you poured a glass of whiskey and set it at the edge of the massive pile. You started on the left and moved across the desk. The first things you noticed were the warnings and headlines: a Russian is assassinated every 18 minutes, grindingly poor Brazilians innovate with “quicknappings,” residual sectarian violence plagues Cyprus. Elise’s slashing red ink was all over it: circled text, checkmarks, exclamation points. But she wrote no words herself. You kept digging, but found no reports about dining or tours or landmarks, only accounts of people. You would never understand why she kept it. You were left with nothing, anywhere on that desk, except desperation.
[ Is this it? ]
You stop sleeping altogether after meeting Maggie. It affects your performance. Paperwork becomes sloppy. You knock metal fillings with mirrors, hard. Apply anesthetic to varying degrees. You put a rosehead bur to a tooth that doesn’t need to be drilled, that has no novocaine. If your patients had been able to see around that overhead lamp, under your mask, they’d probably never have reclined back in that chair in the first place.
At the urging of staff, patients, and insurers, you take more time off. Cancel a couple weeks’ worth of appointments. Discover the necessity of numb.
You sit for hours in the study, holding an old woodworking plane. Elise bought it at an antique shop, this thing she had no idea how to use but was fascinated by. You can’t put two hands on it in a way that feels right, so you keep turning the tool over and over. It’s all odd angles, and curves you can’t derive the need for. You remember how her mother had bought her another one, and her old college roommate another one after that, and how Elise never collected them, but they sort of collected themselves. She’d wanted the one because it was so odd-looking, it could be anything. Then she had to find uses for all the ones that followed. They were candleholders, coat hooks, photo holders. She tried, but they kept coming. There are limits, you know? she said. And now your home is full of these fucking things you can’t throw away.
You’re tired of thinking about all the millions of things Elise never told you. How it’s so goddamn horrible that you can’t remember the name of her favorite teacher in high school, the one she said was such a huge influence on her, but never really said how. And that makes you wonder just how many other people there were that lead Elise to this, and about all the other names she’d forgotten, and what that did to her, and to you.
There’s no point in thinking about the school kids you don’t walk by anymore, the ones waiting for their bus. How they used to see you every day, until they didn’t. How they won’t ever remark on your absence, won’t ever say Hey, remember that guy that used to walk by here every day? That will never, ever happen.
Numb means nothing. For a little while.
On the other side, everything will be like new. On the other side will be calm, and Sarah Abernathys, and pages of encyclopedias that haven’t been written yet. You will remember the name of the first dentist you ever went to, and the exact words Elise said when she touched you for the first time. You will know what sustains you.
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