Back in high school I needed a root canal due to an overindulged sweet tooth. The day after my 33rd birthday the tooth started giving me problems again. A painless bubble formed along my gum line. An abscess, the dentist said, caused by bacteria finding its way into the emptied-out socket. We’d need an oral surgeon to remove the crown and redo the procedure. Make sure each canal was clean.
I was not looking forward to this; I’ll never forget the courteous violence the first oral surgeon had used to dredge those roots. I’ll also never forget the sensation of metal deep inside my jaw where the Novocain hadn’t fully penetrated. Not pain, exactly. Recognition; awakening, even. There were places in me no one had touched.
The day arrived. The oral surgeon, a woman not much older than myself, had numbed me and was cracking off the old crown. The room was freezing. Jim Croce’s “Operator” drifted from the ceiling like sad snow. The walls were hung with canvas prints of flowers, the images zoomed in on the flower’s centers. Chrysanthemum, lily, tulip—protruding pistils, sticky stamen. Sex organs everywhere. When the old crown was off, the oral surgeon grabbed a tiny flashlight and looked inside the dead tooth and said, “Oh my god.”
“Aua?!” I squirmed. What could be so terrible? Wasn’t she a professional? Hadn’t she seen everything?
Her mouth gaped under the paper mask she wore. “I’ve never... I mean, I’ve heard of all kinds of things getting trapped inside dead teeth. But this.”
I pounded the armrest.
She’s living in L.A., sang Jim Croce, with my best old ex-friend Ray.
“Dark hair. His eyes change from light brown to dark. I can actually see them do it. Creepy.” She slipped her fingers out and suctioned me.
I swallowed. “I haven’t thought of that guy in years.” This wasn’t completely true. He showed up in my dreams regularly—ecstatic dreams in which he adored me, dreams in which the world was perfectly ordered.
“Welp. He’s in there.”
I thought of my molar’s roots going down into the gums. Fleshy rubbery pink. The blossoms on the wall mocked me. I started coughing. Until then I had figured there were only nine entryways into my body but now I saw that my mouth was rife with extra access points, and each went straight to a raw white nerve. Of course that’s where he would be.
“Numb me more. Whatever it takes. Dig him out.”
The word I wanted was excavate.
I will do my best to explain.
It happened a few years after college. A mutual friend invited some of us to a lake cabin. That’s where we met. We were both involved with other people but those people were not at the lake cabin. His lashes were thick and long and straight, and stood out from his color-changing eyes like awnings. He was very tall, but slouched out of politeness. There was a ferret-like quality to his movements. He didn't blink as often as other people. Afterward I found it hard to look at pictures of him. The frank look he gave the camera, the same look he had given me during our walks, made me feel like I could no longer have secrets. Nothing happened between us that weekend. Nothing physical, anyway.
We lived in different states, and after we left the lake and went home, we began to exchange letters. Their heft came to require two stamps, then three. We had a lot to tell one another, and the more we said, the less satisfying words became. I crafted each P.S. with care.
I was doing some research for a film I hoped to make in West Texas, only a few hours from where he lived. It was the perfect excuse for us to meet. I needed to scout out-of-use places—old hospitals, gas stations, motels. I invited him to come with me, as he’d expressed a similar interest in abandoned things. He agreed.
God, I was nervous. But the day went beautifully. The awkwardness fell away like meat from a bone; we’d tenderized ourselves with those letters. We never lacked for conversation, and the unplanned stops we made bloomed into adventure. His eyes were light the whole time. We picked up an armload of tragic cassette tapes for five cents each at a garage sale and sang along to them in my truck. We saw a movie star at a gas station. We wandered around an outdoor art installation made of reclaimed trash, the only people there, as far as we knew, the only people on Earth. Our shoulders brushed and we both pretended not to notice. I thought of a line from a poem I’d read years ago: I’ve spent eight months almost touching you—something like that. We arrived at my last stop, a long-forgotten motel, around five. The light was wonderful. The brightness and heat of the day had been overwhelming, but now it was as if the sun was surrendering, saying, Fine, let’s see your brilliance.
The lock on the chain-link fence that surrounded the place was open, as promised. I photographed the space and took notes while he went room to room, exploring. Every so often he’d come tell me about a discovery and always, always his eyes would fix on mine and I’d stop breathing. There was a ghost at the bar mixing gin fizzes, he said. We were having a lot of fun. I grinned at chairs with their springs showing. My heart was a bottle of shaken champagne. It was going to happen. I even had the thought, This is the kind of day you tell your grandchildren about. The hair on my forearms stands on end when I remember it.
The motel was a single-story strip of rooms with an outdoor swimming pool at one end. The pool was empty, totally dry. Ten feet at its deepest. I stepped in at the shallow end, which was still lit by the sun, and walked toward the shadow of the deep end. Since it was Texas there weren’t any leaves collecting; the blue-white bottom surface was rough and bare. I’m not sure how long I stood there in the deep end, both rod and lightning bolt. I whispered, sang, practiced birdcalls. The whistles echoed. I lay on the pool bottom and looked at the framed sky. The waiting didn’t feel like waiting. The moon was almost full. Venus was out. Venus had been created 4 billion years ago! My knowledge about the universe filled the pool. The sun must have been just above the horizon because white lines were hitting the depth marks on the tiles at the pool’s edge and even the shallow end had grown dark.
I was enjoying these thoughts so much that I briefly forgot about him. I was still lying there when he hopped in at the shallow end. I stood, disoriented, leaned my back against the wall. His sneakers make a sucking sound with each slow step toward me. Tetrapods climbed out of the sea. Still he walked. My face felt hot; I was breathless. He did not waver or stop to examine a crack or the drain when he stepped on it. Amphibians laid eggs in water but spent nearly their entire lives on land. He was whistling a tune from one of the cassette tapes, hands buried in his pockets, eyes flicking between me and the pool walls. My heart beat like I’d sprinted a mile. But also like I was at the end of a long race, a race measured in something other than distance.
Light from the setting sun bounced crazily along the pool walls and its gently rounded walls and bottom. The side nearest me was striped gold and magenta. Something—a broken bottle up top somewhere—acted as a prism and cast a rainbow near where it said NO DIVING. I could hardly bear to look him in the eyes but I couldn’t look away, either. His shoe sounds grew louder. Was I smiling? Dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Was he? Suddenly the skies were filled with birds.
Our hot hands touched and then, my god were we kissing. Homo erectus hunted and gathered. Humans flourished. His hands at my waist. My hands on his shoulders, his face. Humans faltered. He smelled like horseback riding. Our teeth knocked together. The universe finished expanding. The universe was collapsing again. We took off our clothes. I had never done such a thing. We were almost at the singularity.
I read somewhere that every relationship gets one perfect day. It really isn’t fair to have it be Day One, though.
We went back to our respective states, and the letters continued, buoyed now by texts and phone calls, and there were a couple trips involving airplanes and at every point of contact I felt him backing away, contracting when I wished he’d expand. He backed away so slowly that it was only perceptible to someone—to me—who had tuned to his frequency, learned his spectral signature. And of course I fought it and of course I lost. One of the hardest things to accept is that what you feel, you feel in a vacuum.
So there you have it. Time passed and I thought of him less and less frequently, as friends had promised would happen, though the intensity of feeling I experienced when I did think of him never diminished; these thoughts have never ceased to invoke a paralyzing sense of loss and yearning and waste. Years passed, I turned 33, and the bubble showed up.
The oral surgeon did a good job. She wasn’t covered under my HMO, but she was worth the extra cost because she’d recognized what was happening and she’d understood the importance of her task. She fitted me with a temporary crown and two weeks later I went back for the permanent one. A hygienist put it on. It serves me well, that crown, and it’s a good fit, though my bite’s never been the same.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, which won the 2013 Foreword Review’s Editors Choice Prize. She’s a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, is forthcoming from FSG.
ул. 6-ти септември, 22
Hambara is a bar in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's hard to find, down an alley, no sign on the door. Inside there's no electricity, just hundreds of candles melting precariously onto wooden stairs, benches and tabletops. It's terribly romantic, a fire hazard for the body and soul.