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Fiction Issue - Medicine

First Place

I waited until the sky was gray and goose-feathered by mist, but you never came. And so I sat on the couch with that novel I bought last year, the one you'd said I might like – you'd seen a write-up in the paper. I don't remember much of what I read. It was a mystery, the protagonist a professor whose wife died when her car went over a cliff. I suppose he felt quite badly about it, because he quit his job and traveled the country on a motorcycle. He eventually solved the case through use of his extensive knowledge of medieval literature, if I remember correctly; I couldn't concentrate, and the words were a blur of gray on white. The dog curled up with me, under the blanket my mother gave us for Christmas, the one you hate. A small rebellion: I'd thrown it over the couch anyway because we had visited your parents instead, again.

Honestly, I didn't think I'd sleep at all. I was so used to the weight of you. Your sleeping body slanted the mattress ever so slightly, pulling the sheet taught and smooth, and each night I'd find myself tumbling in your gravitational pull. My flesh has always orbited yours.

It was a bad night, but I eventually dozed for a short and uneasy shift. It was nearly daylight when I awoke, the cordless phone tucked up against my chest like a child. The dog pressed her nose against my leg in a cold snuffle, telling me that she needed to go out. I shuffled through the house and opened the back door. I saw your space in the driveway empty – my car was pulled so close to the hedges that stiff green leaves brushed its windows. The remaining space seemed almost obscene, big enough for a four-wheeler, for an above-ground pool. You'd instructed me to always park that way. You liked lots of room, for everything.

And what next? I paced the house in bursts, touching the brushed silver coffeemaker, my handbag, the door to the refrigerator. Should I shower? Should I get dressed like it was any other Saturday? Call the police? Would the rules change, as they did in a crisis situation – a death in the family, a breakup? Had this become a time where anything might go? I could eat ice cream over the stainless-steel sink, or spend all day in my nightgown, or look at our wedding pictures. I could call your mother and tell her you cheat on your taxes, or about the stripper at your bachelor party, or that you'd popped in to see your grandmother in the hospital just so she'd remember your name for her will. After all that, I could wish for the heat of your breath against my ear.

Instead I decided on cereal, and coffee with the vanilla creamer I'd bought despite your distaste. Our cereal choices were healthy and healthier; granola rode proudly beside the Fiber One in the cabinet. We're adults, you said. We'll eat like ones. I'd always liked the sticky-sweet cereals, rotting my teeth and dotted with marshmallows and even better, chocolate. I'd sit with it in front of the television, watching "The Smurfs." Sometimes I tore through the whole box, and my mother never said a word. I was a thin child, always moving, and she worried about my bony wrists. Nowadays, I was to pour a serving with a measuring cup – or so you'd told me – and eat at the table. We'd both put on 10 pounds after the wedding, and our bellies popped over our waistbands with a forcefulness that seemed to frighten you.

That morning, I didn't measure anything but time. I soaked my granola in vanilla creamer instead of milk, and added a few tablespoons of sugar, too. I dumped some in my coffee, swirling the spoon until it went thick. It was warm and sweet, and where were you anyway? I would eat what I pleased.

I sat down in front of the TV, the dog at my feet, and tried to remember what you'd done before you left. We hadn't fought, as we usually did on Fridays; you'd come home when I was shaving my legs, had popped in to tell me you were having dinner and drinks with someone from school, and kissed my wet forehead with honest affection. What could I say but have fun? I was off for the summer, luxuriating in the slow slope of my break. You taught two mini-mester courses, faithfully deposited your checks in our shared account, jogged, took fiber, planned for retirement. Who was I to keep you?

There wasn't much on TV. Where were the cartoons? I settled on a program about cheaters surprised mid-act by their spouses. A huge woman in cut-off shorts screamed into the camera, her scattered teeth caught with passionate spittle. I watched her spray her hollow-eyed husband with a garden hose, arm fat jiggling with the exertion, and soon they were both dripping, screaming under the cool streetlight.

A hose. I shoved in a spoonful of granola and chased it with coffee, and it was deliciously sweet.

And then, I heard a noise, like this: pop. Like a finger pulled unceremoniously from a mouth – like a champagne cork. Pop. And then, pain. It was a dull hurt, brief and somewhere in the back of my jaw, like the hurt that had driven me to the doctor in college. That was before I met you, back when I'd wake up in the bunk beds of boys who played electric guitar, back when I'd steal across campus in the gray morning, panties stuffed in my back pocket. Anyway, the doctor told me I was grinding my teeth. He gave me the number of a dentist who made a mouthpiece to use at night. I wore it until I met you. You told me it was the unsexiest thing you'd ever seen, that I looked like a boxer, and I ended up throwing it away with the cotton underwear that reminded you of pioneers. I'd either stopped grinding or stopped noticing, but the pain brought my awareness back.

I went to the bathroom, and I closed the door (why?); I saw the room as if it belonged to a stranger – the awkward peach curtain, the cheap fixtures, the towels that had started salmon and ended up pink. It was messy in there. I hadn't cleaned the toilet in a week, maybe two – dust settled on the lid like dryer lint. Is that why you didn't come home? Did you see your reflection, speckled by dirt in the mirror, and catch something that I missed?

I opened my mouth and stared inside – nothing. No blood, no inflammation, no swelling at the joint. When I went to rinse with a cupped palm of water, something clattered into the sink. I looked down at the porcelain, and saw a tooth.

And not just any tooth, but a hulking molar, pearl-sized – a yellowed tusk. I looked for blood in the sink but there was none. Was it even mine? I prodded deeply with my tongue. Near the back of my mouth was a raw, tender patch of meat – my tongue slid in easily, creating a delicious soreness. It was a sensation I hadn't felt since childhood, when such gaping nothings were commonplace. Exciting even, with the promise of money – a pillow sewn by my grandmother, with its own special pocket for the tooth, and when I'd wake up in the morning, I'd find a dollar folded in its place. As an adult, what was a lost tooth? Infirmity, alarm. A bill. I picked it up and pressed it in to my palm. It felt like hot marble. Its roots twisted up into stiff, meringue peaks.

It was the weekend, and early; the dentist my departmental insurance paid for was closed. I'd heard of emergency services for mouth-related mishaps ... but there was no blood, no pain. I looked in the mirror and saw my face as it always was: hair black, eyes blue, cheekbones like commas – a touch of worry, but then that was your fault. I was not endangered, and this tooth and its mysteries could wait. I would deal with it during the week, when normal life encroached, when I was a professor, a wielder of red pens and Marilynne Robinson, and not a woman whose husband Had Not Come Home.

I had never been someone who kept things. Birthday cards, corsages, band T-shirts – I'd been mercenary. I'd spent a year in England, only to come home without a single photograph; the music I'd heard, the short-lived pregnancy (fathered by an almost-famous musician – but I never told you that) had been enough. I didn't even own a jewelry box, and had no need for one.

But a tooth that has fallen out of one's mouth and clattered down into the sink is something that must be stored carefully. The fireproof box that held our social security cards, our wedding license? I had no key. The freezer? My tooth would lose itself in a snowdrift; fall behind an ice tray or bag of green beans. It took awhile, but I finally came upon a solution: the tiny aspirin bottle I carried in my purse. I didn't often have headaches – I know I have feigned a few, husband, the truth was that you made me very tired – but my mother had carried one just like it. Mine, like hers, was a dark, opaque green imprinted with the Excedrin logo; I'd gotten it from the travel-toiletry aisle during college and kept refilling it. Ever since, it sat in my purse's side pocket, with the tampons I always worried would fall out and roll across my desk, and the emergency Xanax I hadn't yet needed – although that morning seemed like the perfect time to take it. The doctor had prescribed three for the flight I'd taken to Canada earlier in the year. I'd medicated with alcohol instead, some on the plane and more at the Vancouver hotel when I called home and I couldn't reach you. I'd listened to my conference-roommate fuck in our rented shower. More than anything, I'd wished that night I might orbit around your form.

I rooted through my purse, and found my bottle – it felt cool in my hand – and I tipped out two aspirin, and one Xanax. They looked frighteningly similar; I wondered if I'd ever popped the wrong pill. The tooth fit perfectly. It nestled in safe against the pills, surrounded and protected by chalky white cushions. I put the bottle back, wondering what a woman with a missing tooth might do with her day. Finally, I started another pot of coffee, and I picked up the phone. I was going to call my best friend, who was a veterinarian and engaged and couldn't stand you, or my mother, who quietly disapproved – and I thought I might start with the tooth and maybe, if the conversation meandered, mention that you hadn't come home.

The dial tone pulsed in my ear, and the Xanax made me pause. Did I want their pity? Everyone else's lives fit together neatly, folded like smartly packed carry-ons, and my mouth was thick and slow and I wouldn't be able to explain the nuance, the parking spot, the bath-time kiss, and I would smother under the blanket of their pity until I went back to bed and stayed there for a week.

But then you decided things for me, as you so often do. The front door swung open, yawning in the sunlight, and our dog, that traitor, ran to greet you with a wet tongue and open heart. I stood in the kitchen, phone in my hand, and tried to remember if I had brushed my hair.

"Hey," you said. Your hair was mussed, and your shirt was wrinkled, and you smelled of faint fermentation – beer. Cigarettes, too. You'd quit last year, because you'd turned 30 and realized your own mortality or at least that's what you told your father on the phone. Now I looked so closely at your face, at your angles, but your eyes were dark as always, and told me nothing. You weren't going explain where you'd been, and I wasn't to ask.

I stood next to the refrigerator, helpless, my hands floating at my sides like sheets. If I opened my mouth, I knew the words would fall out in a rush of water, and that you would leave again, maybe for always, and I didn't know what I'd do about the mortgage, or the dog.

"I have a headache," you told me, frowning, unconcerned by anything but the bright sun and your hangover. You dug your proprietary hand into my bag, and I suppose there is a metaphor there. I watched you, saw the odd, sleepy press of hair against your cheek, and that your shirt had been rebuttoned incorrectly. It was all so textbook that I wondered if you were conducting an experiment for your psychology students: how wife responds to cheating stimuli. It was that thought, husband, that kept my lips pressed silent as you opened my aspirin bottle. I watched as you carelessly tipped it back, dry-mouthed, and the dog pressed in against my leg as you began to sputter, and then cough. Your eyes were pools, saucers, giant white voids, and you were very afraid. I remembered a story you'd told me early on in our dating life – we'd just started fucking in your car because your mother was a light sleeper – about how when you were 6, you'd swallowed a gumball and nearly died. You told me that it felt as if you were drowning in light and sound, that you'd fallen into a sea of green smears and that you'd been surprised to see your mother's face hovering above yours like a balloon, bathed in naked fear. Your father had finally managed the Heimlich.

"My tooth fell out," I told you, watching as you bent over the sink, your shoulders shaking. Your throat made a horrible sound – a pop. Like a skull under a tire. Like a marble in a garbage disposal. Like something breaking that couldn't be fixed. Delicate bones? Us? It echoed in my ears, releasing pressure like I'd just come up from the bottom of the pool. You stretched your lips so far that your mouth was a black hole; if the pop came again, I thought the tooth might fly back at me – another rejection.

And then, your cell phone began to ring. Who would call so early? I looked at the phone, at you, the gasping-goldfish. Whoever it was wasn't giving up; the phone chimed again and again, filling the space around you with artificial cheerfulness via bossa nova. Your hands clawed at your throat, fluttering like lost birds, and, husband, it became apparent that you'd forgotten to slip your wedding ring on again. The pale, soft skin stood out on your ring finger, an accusation. Had you pulled it off without a thought, popped it in your glovebox, and moved on?

And so the dog and I sat, me at the table and her at my leg. Pop. Pop. Your eyes never left mine. It was nice. I had forgotten how golden yours looked in the right light. I sipped my coffee. Pop. Like the champagne corks at our wedding. Your knees began to buckle. Pop. The dog whimpered at the noise, so I rubbed her favorite spot – the bridge of her nose. She sighed, you heaved, I sat so very still. Pop. We all waited to see what would come next.

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