The white and green cardboard cartons of various frozen foods were swimming before me, stacking themselves left and right in squiggly patterns. I blinked and hugged my sweatshirt closer to my chest, standing still as a statue, while the normal shoppers passed me curiously by. Keep your mouth shut.
I tried to focus on the ice cream, like a ballerina spotting the audience for balance. I held my neck and shoulders high, imagining the pile of stringy hair atop my head to be a pretty New York coiffe. Without lifting the heels of my feet, I felt the spotlights pull my arches up towards the vaulted industrial ceiling, as my spine lengthened through the crown of my head. But still, the aisle swam, even more so from the exertion, the lurid packages wiggling my guts up into the back of my throat. I stuck my hands into the pockets of my sweatpants and rooted down, cringing in the reflective face of the white lights and white tiles. Just keep your mouth shut and stand still, and no one will notice a thing. I gulped the squirming colors down and breathed in deep.
“Hey, so I got bread and cheese and cookie dough, I’m just gonna grab a six-pack and then I’ll be all set. Hey, are you okay?”
Jon craned his head towards me with concern in his voice. I peeled my eyes away from the ice cream, slowly so as not to lose composure, and smiled weakly with no words. His skin looked good under this light, tattoos crawling down his forearms from beneath his soft rolled cuffs, the only person I’ve ever met who looks like heaven in a bright orange sweater.
I wanted to stay right there in the midst of all those colored boxes, brands and flavors endlessly presented, hoping to be chosen. I loved knowing I could choose and choose and choose, and take the right one home tonight and choose all over again tomorrow.
The base of my stomach ripped itself dully open. I cupped my hand beneath the flat abdomen and breathed in again, letting out a clenched, “Ha” and rolling my neck back over my shoulders.
“Come on sweetheart, let’s get you home.” Jon put his arm around me and gently squeezed. I took steadied steps past the pizzas and the wines and squeezed back, cursing softly every time a wave of nausea rose up to break behind my eyes. “Son of a bitch,” I laughed and doubled over on the sidewalk, my hands to my knees and the laugh dying quickly as the dull ache swelled. I grunted as Jon looked on helplessly.
“I think we’d better not go to that movie tonight.”
When I was seven years old, I thought I’d be a dentist. The precision, the expert cleanliness, the fancy diamonds gently peeking out from behind sterile threads — everything about the dentist glimmered. I used to yank barely loose baby teeth from the mouths of the neighbors’ children, delighting at their trust in my credentials. “I’m going to be a dentist when I grow up,” I reassured them. I slid jammy white fingers past their wild fighting tongues, wrapped them round back molars the size of little peas and pulled until we both felt sinews snap. I couldn’t understand why they were afraid in the first place, but I reveled in their fear. Their fear made me the brave one, the strong one, the one who did what must be done and left them fondling and fascinated with the fresh holes in their heads.
Curled up there on the couch with Jon, feeling the chill of coffee ice cream mixing in with hot red blood, I considered how the lifestyle of a dentist had long ago lost its appeal to me. I could never fit myself into the same small office for so long, performing routine redundant cleanings and delivering the kinds of holy admonishments that kept people like me from ever wanting to go outside. I wondered for a moment if I was being reductive — did dentists have excitement? What kind of excitement did dentists enjoy? Was it big, sweeping, kissing Italian men under wine drunk starry eyes shut dance lights kind of excitement? Or was it, “Honey, I’ve been in this business for twenty-five years and my friends are throwing me a ‘You’re a Success’ party”? Or maybe “Honey, our daughter needs the attention of a professional therapist but I have trouble admitting it to myself, let alone to anyone else, and the next twelve to thirty-six months are sure to be a real interesting hell for all of us.” I was pretty sure I knew which kind it wasn’t.
I didn’t ever want to be a dentist. I wanted to be a writer, or a filmmaker, or a happy bartender with a cozy room in a downtown studio. I wanted to travel. I wanted to give my two weeks, every two weeks.
It was really only just that I had a knack for pulling teeth.
Ordinarily, on movie nights, I would remove the cat from his laureled rest in between Jon’s legs in the leather recliner, which had belonged to his father and was far and away the best seat in the room. It was deep and softened from years spent beneath the weight of big, tired men, wide and colored the chocolate brown of a smooth forest floor after heavy rain. I would lift Tre from the ottoman and plop him lovingly to the carpet, then clamber over denim-covered knees and fit myself into the spaces left between Jon’s skin and the chair’s. What I loved about him was how the space always expanded when he saw me coming. He would rustle his hips and shoulders to the side and draw his arms into a circle so I knew just where I belonged, and I would bury my nose into whatever parts I could reach and draw him in like so many flowers, knowing it was only a matter of time until the cat returned to fall asleep atop us both.
I’d never known anyone to locate me like that, exactly where I was going and not wishfully where they wanted me to be. In Jon’s case, the two were one and the same.
Ordinarily, on movie nights, I squeeze into the chair with Jon, or he fits onto the sofa with me. But that night, with my body all in bloody transit and my energy quite sapped, I lay like a sack of rocks alone along the flat beige couch and let the cat saunter back and forth between locales, as I reached out periodically for Jon’s hand atop the leather armrest. We had left the grocery store with the gallon of ice cream, two packs of cookie dough and a quart of chocolate milk, because I wanted some of all three and saw no reason not to indulge.
“Do you want some cookies, babe?” He finished up the rest of my ice cream and set the bowl aside.
“Yeah, sure.” I stayed put. The movie, a French surrealist trip of Jon’s suggestion about stealing children’s dreams, had drawn me immediately in and I didn’t want to miss a thing. I would start the oven after, and we could read while the cookies baked. But Jon took care of everything, and when the movie was finished and my belly full of caramel goo but flat still from self-expenditure, I crawled into his lap and played with his hands until his roommate’s key sounded in the latch and we flung ourselves apart.
Later on, upstairs in bed, I watched the lamplight glinting off his bone-white teeth, and I imagined how it’d feel to pull one.