Other People’s Mouths

If I have to hear about one more mouth I’m just going to scream. But he’ll be home any minute now.

My biggest mistake was marrying him. No. Maybe there are no mistakes. Maybe it’s true. Maybe everything really is predestined. It certainly seems like it to me.

I had a dream last summer. I have a lot of dreams in the summer. It’s because of the heat, I guess. In this dream I was being pulled down a river at a very fast rate. It was terrifying. Of course, I tried to swim to shore, but each time, there seemed to be something blocking my way – a submerged obstacle of some sort. Something very big, underwater. I swam to the left. Impossible. To the right. Impossible. So I continued to be dragged by the current, faster and faster, and I felt so helpless, not being able to change course. Not being able to change direction at all. In the dream I cried and cried. It felt like the beginning of a horrible eternity. Later in the dream, the submerged obstacles surfaced and I realized that I was bounded on either side by hippos. Floating along beside me. Hippos. I’m not really sure why.

When I woke up, I felt such a sense of dread. Finality. It was as if a fatal disease of some sort had finally been confirmed by the doctor. My path had been decided, I knew then. And of course, I found myself alone in bed. At that point, my husband and I hadn’t slept together for two years. He sleeps in the basement den.

It sure would have been nice to have had someone to talk to that night, though. I felt so alone. And I cried again, this time for real because the bed seemed so big and my life felt so small. Like I had been stashed inside one of those plastic Easter eggs and I couldn’t move.

I wonder if other people feel trapped sometimes. Once when I was a child, my grandfather and I went for a walk. We climbed a big hill in the wooded area behind my family’s house and at the top, we sat down to catch our breath. There was a river running below us. It was quite narrow, and brown. After a moment, he smiled and made a sweeping gesture with his arm, out toward the river.

“Honey,” he said, “I wish I were your age. The world is so big. You are mighty lucky, you know. You can do things I can’t do anymore.”

“Like what, Grandpa?” I asked him, innocently.

“Why, I’d…I’d take a raft and I’d get in that river right there and I’d sail it to all kinds of places. Just like old Huck Finn. You know Huck Finn?


“Don’t they make you kids read that in school these days?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yep, you could go all kinds of places on that river down there.”

As we looked down the river, to where it disappeared around a bend, I believed him with all my heart. And I felt tremendously happy. The opposite of how I feel now. Later on, I found out that the river behind our house was actually just part of a man-made canal system to drain runoff and that, in fact, it didn’t lead to anywhere at all. But Grandpa didn’t know. He was only visiting from out of town.

Root canal. That word always makes me think of an actual canal. Like in Amsterdam or Venice, maybe. When my husband and I were dating, I thought that we would go places like that together. I imagined our beautiful house being kind of a home base. To embark from on our journeys to wonderful places like Amsterdam or Venice or Paris. And then we would come back and invite our friends over and tell them all kinds of stories about the delicious foods we had eaten and all the words in foreign languages that we had casually picked up.

How silly of me! How romantic of me, to have thought such things. I know, I know. But honestly, he had convinced me that he was a romantic, too, the way he’d talk about the things we’d do together in the future. What happened? We didn’t go to any exotic place. We went to Illinois a few times. And the Wisconsin Dells, and even to New York and Las Vegas, but I certainly wouldn’t consider those places too exotic.

What does he want with me? Did he trick me? I’m so weak. No, I’m loyal. No, I’m weak. I don’t know. Oh, please God, I don’t want to talk about teeth tonight. I won’t. Not at the dinner table. Not again. God, please give me a child. Please, God, by some miracle, give me a baby.

No. Why is this happening? Doesn’t he love me? I don’t love him. Would I love him if he loved me? Maybe. But that sense of finality. That sense of finality I felt after the dream. Everything seems decided somehow. Forever. How can he look at those people’s mouths all day? Is that why he stopped kissing me? I know it sounds ridiculous, but….

I have to admit, though, he works very hard for us. My mother called him ‘driven’ once. I thought she had chosen a very appropriate word. My mother is very wise. Or maybe not wise – more like lawyer-smart, I guess. You can’t get anything past her. I try to pretend as if everything is happy when I’m around her, but she knows. When he and I first stared having problems I tried to talk to her about them.

“What did you expect?” she had said. “That man is a driven man. You knew exactly what you were getting when you put that ring on your finger. He wants success and a pretty girl like you is part of that for him. But only part.”

I thought she would be more sympathetic. She continued, “Besides, he’s not a bad man. You have a fine home. You have security. You certainly don’t want for anything. Things could be a lot worse, you know?”

Could they? Could they really? If only it wasn’t teeth. If only it wasn’t plaque, caps and molars. What could be more horrid? Only maybe gums and the angry colors they can be. But he loves that sort of thing. It’s what he does. He fixes them. He’s a perfectionist, you know? My mother told me that his perfectionism is manifested by his choice of work. That’s exactly what she said. Manifested.

Of course, he really isn’t a bad man. Well, he’s not a terrible man. He just knows what he wants, right? That’s what I liked about him in the beginning. It was comforting. I never know what I want. Some people might accuse me of having a weak mind. But I think a lot. About many things. And I have opinions. I’m not naïve. I know exactly what’s going on with Melissa. I’m not stupid.

Although I was dismayed when I found out, I wouldn’t say I was angry. It was more like looking into a mirror one day and discovering a birthmark on your back that you never knew was there. That’s all. Dismayed. These things happen in many marriages, right? But if only I had married somebody different! I wouldn’t have to hear about bicuspids. And about Melissa’s cute little antics in the office. Damn her. Goddamn her! He thinks I don’t know. He thinks I’m so passive.

Maybe I should buy a pet. It gets lonely in this house all day. Maybe I should buy those mini turtles – the ones I saw at the pet store the other day. They were cute. Or maybe something more cuddly. Like a cat. Or a dog.

No. He hates animals. Not that we couldn’t afford a pet. We can afford a lot of things. Just the other day we bought that set of hearth tools he wanted, with the stupid tongs and shovel and the whiskbroom and the poker. The poker that never does anything – just sits there shining with no embers to poke in the fireplace that just sits there looking fake and not doing what a real fireplace should be doing which is warming a family in a real home.

That’s not a hearth. This is not a family. This is a hell and I listen to my CD of whalesongs that I bought at the mall to help me relax but it just makes everything seem so big and so isolated and so cold-blue like the blue in the stupid x-rays of the jaws he’s looking at all the time.

I’m sorry. Sometimes I get these thoughts, you know? These ideas. They are not completely nice, some of them, even though I know very well that I should be trying to count my blessings. But why does everything feel so impossible these days?

When I was growing up, I asked my father why he drinks a glass of whiskey every night. After he had thought about it for a second, he grinned and told me that it makes him feel expansive. I really liked the sound of that. Feeling expansive. What a great way to feel! When I heard that word I wanted to feel expansive, too. But later, when I was much older and I tried whiskey for the first time, I found that I didn’t care too much for the taste.

If you were to ask me at what point my husband and I stopped loving each other I couldn’t really tell you exactly. It might have been the time he called me “dumb”. That hurt a lot. I still think about it. I’m not dumb. I simply drove the wrong way down a one-way street. To me, that is not a reason to call another human being “dumb”. Everybody has driven the wrong way down a one-way street before,  including Mr. D.D.S. himself. He apologized later. It was a hot day, he said. We’d been in the car a long time, be said. You know, there are many, many bad, terrible words to call people, but the one he used that day somehow hurt the most.

He thinks I’m helpless. If I am, maybe he made me this way. I went to college. I earned a degree. I wanted to be a social worker, or a counselor, and help people. I’m a very good listener. And I usually give pretty good advice. But he never let me get a job, and now I have nobody to give advice to, or counsel, in this big empty house all day with the totally sterile fireplace pretending to be a family hearth and this expensive shiny poker that makes your hand smell like brass when you hold it.

And when he gets home, all he wants to talk about is his work. About dentistry. About other people’s mouths.

My biggest mistake was marrying a dentist. My biggest mistake was marrying him.

Well, I hear his car now. He’s back.

Maybe I should leave him. No. Of course I can’t. I won’t. I know I won’t. Because I’ve forgotten how to be strong. I can’t even fight the current, Lord. I’ve forgotten how to be strong.

As his key rasps the lock, I feel the cold solid heft of the poker as I raise it above my head. I don’t quite remember picking it up, but thank goodness I’m wearing dental gloves. I very much dislike the smell of brass, you see, and I simply can’t talk about teeth again tonight. I just can’t.

So I’m going to do this, dear God, then let it take me where it may – the fierce river that runs finally, mercifully, within me.

The door swings open.

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