On Sundays I wait for Lou at the street corner near the house, a wedding cake of a home. I hear the whiny hinges of the metal gate, scraping a wide arc on the driveway, my heart lifts like a boy’s. But we keep our eyes down, and it is just as well, because there is a death in this. Every Sunday a death. A mutual disgust, a “who is this dog I’m waiting for”, and “who is this dog I’m walking towards”. And this ritual, I wonder if it’s a chore for her. More servitude. Because it is increasingly clear I need Lou more than she needs me.
In the beginning we had clung to each other, something about the fear, the constant news, we’d fucked like crazy. There were times, after we would moan and shudder, Lou collapsing on top of me, when she put her face close to mine and cupped her hands over the gaps so that it was just us in a tiny enclosure of skin, a cocoon lit pink, and she’d say over and over, You have to be quiet, Terry, you have to. Do you understand me? Shut. The. Fuck. Up. But how do you shut up a man with 493.5K followers?
You deactivate him.
Oh, hello Lou.
I do still love you.
It’s the least I can do.
Can you believe Baby Elephant was right?
She wasn’t right, Ter, but yes, she had a point that was, in hindsight, surprisingly wise. Please don’t call her Baby Elephant, Terry.
Because it’s not safe.
From the street corner, we walk to the bedsit, Lou showing her papers twice on the way, and inside we undress, climb into bed and I hold her, trying not to take from her. Lou’s legs flop open, resigned. I go down under the covers and in this dark I can open my mouth without shame, working my tongue, searching for that pearl hidden just beneath the surface of Lou’s slowly opening flesh.
I am stirring my wife to life.
It’s always too fleeting, the sounds rippling out of my wife, her knees pressing on either side of my head and I want to be crushed, to die undercover at this small wet lake like a horse that has finally found water, but she releases me, pulls me up. I wipe my mouth on her stomach as I emerge, blink in the light. She kneads me, guides me, and I almost loathe it, the starting gun, the machinery of me.
They let us stay married.
We said thank you.
Right on 2 o’clock I come with a whimper, keeping my mouth closed so as not to repel her, and Lou wraps her arms around me.
Lou, do you know what I keep seeing?
Animals. Birds too. But when I get closer it’s just stuff making the shape of an animal. Two metal stakes close together. Some old tin. A rock.
I heard you.
Do you see them too?
And the kids?
At 3 o’clock Lou gets up and goes to the sink in the corner. She rinses the cloth I have hanging on a nail, folds it carefully and uses it to sponge herself clean. She dries herself, puts her clothes on – faded floral dress, dingy brown coat over the top – squeezes her feet into boots. She returns to the bed and I lie staring at the wall as she puts her lips on my cheek, tucks me in like a child, checks she has her papers, then leaves. I close my eyes as she clicks the door shut. This history of ours is short because well, it was short.
And you know, it wasn’t just Baby Elephant we ought to have listened to.
It was the teeth too that ought to have alerted us as to what lay ahead, our milky spades forming grey bows of enamel in ever-looser nooks, our gums raw and fetid. Even in the womb, our teeth precipitated this, tapping into this nationwide decline, something askew in our development, brittle as shellac, newly formed jaws packed with clues, and when the baby teeth came in, they looked like tombstones.
“Alarmingly, one in three teeth,” said the dental literature we’d been given after our youngest grew chalky talons instead of teeth, “are found to have poor developmental structure and emerge decayed.”
For a brief spell it made money.
Dentists surgically installing metal tracks and screws inside gum walls, the eyelids of children butterflying as they went under, fake teeth spinning on screws. Lightbulb teeth. Coral reef teeth. Glow-in-the-dark teeth. Bling teeth, sealed with miniature quilts of grafted gum. Ka-ching. Of course, it went underground, dentists popping up in sheds, in bedsits like this one, a greasy rag trade in fake teeth, metal caps, root canals, purloined gold teeth. Rope to stop patients from kicking out, biting down on bits of wood to get the caps glued on good. But the money got scarce, the hep C got big, and it was a creep, the way we put our hands over our mouths when we spoke, voices muffled, our words becoming coarse and blunt. And as we shrank, our shadows drew large – the shit they said about us.
Well – we settled right down. Grey slug-lips shut tight as we waited – the paperwork I tell you – and it seemed only natural for the eyes to go the same way. Mouths shut, eyes down. And this time nothing for the quirk, no tools or backyard trades, no allies; just drag those peepers down to the bitumen, bitch. Then it was all in the feet, the way a man – a real man – stood in front of you and the sharpness of a lady’s pleather slippers, the anchorage of well-clad heels all betraying menace, an agitated tap-dance precipitating cruelty.
In all of it, an absence of light.
493.5K followers, gone.
Like I said, if we’d paid attention to Baby Elephant, if we paid attention to the teeth, noted the pattern of snaggle-toothed babes, listened to the monsoon patter of enamel being spat into sinks, we could have seen this coming.
Eyes and teeth are key, remember this.
Last week: Eyes and teeth (Part 1)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Eyes and teeth (Part 2)".
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