by Dustin M. Hoffman
All day long, I think about my mouth.
It started with a gold-haired boy named Jimmy. He put his hand on my shoulder when he said hi to me in the science hallway during the first week of fifth grade. No boy had touched me before that wasn’t required to touch me in gym class during square dancing week. I knew what this meant. I licked my lips and said hi back with my shiny wet mouth. I started thinking about it then, my mouth, and I haven’t stopped since.
I went home that day and ran upstairs with my sneakers still on to the bathroom I shared with my older sister. I locked the door and ran the faucet so nobody would hear me. I leaned in really close to the mirror and I looked at my mouth, my thin lips pursed, and I stared at it until my crossed eyes began to sting. Then I closed them and kissed the mirror. First with my mouth still closed, then opened, then my tongue licking the cool mirror, my nose smashed against its hard surface, both my palms laid flat next to either side of my head. I didn’t imagine that the mirror was Jimmy or any other boy for that matter. I knew that the mirror was the mirror, that I was kissing myself. I gave it one final kiss, lingering there for a moment like I had seen in the movies. I grabbed a wad of toilet paper, ran it under the water, and attempted to erase the fingerprints and smudges. I turned off the faucet and looked into my blurry, streaked reflection and stared at my mouth. When I walked out, my sister was sitting on her bed, the curly cord of her phone wrapped around her finger, her mouth pressed too close to the receiver to be talking to anybody else but a boy.
I think about my mouth when I’m licking my chapped lips while waiting for the bus in the snow. I think about it when I’m eating a donut in the break room at work, while puffs of powdered sugar escape my mouth like smoke. I think about it when I have my headphones on, while I mouth the words to a song that I’ve been mouthing the words to since the fifth grade, when it wasn’t an oldie but a newbie, when knowing those words meant knowing everything about being cool. When being cool meant being able to kiss boys on the mouth.
I think about my teeth, too. In college, I went with a boy to his fraternity’s special roller-disco party because I didn’t know how to say no to a fraternity boy. I had Philosophy with Mark, and he had this nose that was kind of too small to be trusted. His hands, too, were very small. His friends called him Tushy.
Tushy met me in the lobby of my dorm during dinnertime wearing a soccer jersey that said Zeta Phi Roll-or-Die Disco 2000 on the front and Tushy with the number 3 on the back. I asked him if there was going to be food at this thing and he said yes, there will be refreshments, so he led me outside and walked me down the street, where a coach bus was parked on the hill.
I didn’t know anybody on the bus except for Tushy and this one girl that was in my photography class, but she looked different without the red glow of the dark room, and I wasn’t even sure if she recognized me.
There was no food at the roller disco, just booze. We drank and skated, and during a slow song I felt pretty well obligated to hold hands with Tushy and circle around the rink. My hand was bigger than his, and I could feel it engulfing his tiny palm, emasculating him right there in front of our very eyes. I knew he could feel it too so I didn’t think about my hands, just my mouth, about how much I did not want to kiss Tushy, about how I probably would kiss him anyway if he tried. And that’s when we were going around the curve, when Tushy let go of my hand to high five his Big Brother Murphy, and I flew off into the corner of the rink, my skates slipping under my body, my face heading for the wall, and boom.
My left front tooth was pronounced dead at the campus Health Center at 10:35 that evening. Tushy didn’t come with me because if he didn’t go home with the fraternity brothers on the bus, he wouldn’t receive his participation points for the month, and he really needed those points because last month he didn’t do shit. That was for the best. I lay on the examining table while the emergency doctor, who was also a dentist and a gynecologist and the supervisor of the intramural field hockey team, told me that it wasn’t really a big deal, my tooth wasn’t going to fall out or anything, it was just dead, and it would be dead for the rest of my life, and it would probably turn a little grey, and that’s it.
Now I touch my teeth. When I’m thinking about what I want to eat for lunch or, really, about anything else in the world, I bring my index finger to my mouth and let it graze each tooth, one at a time, consciously aware of how subconscious this is. I know the exact shape of every single tooth in my mouth, and if you handed me a sketchpad and pen right now, I could draw these babies to exact scale. The dead one is my favorite because it’s the most useless part of my body. It’s dead. It’s a little grey, but I don’t think anybody has ever noticed. Nobody has said anything, anyway.
I secretly dated my boss last month. He walked past my desk one day and saw my finger pulling down my bottom lip in order to touch Central Incisor No. 1 and mistook this for something sexy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.
He put his hand on my back very lightly and led me into his office and shut the door. He touched his index finger to my mouth, shushing me, but I wasn’t planning on saying anything in the first place. “We’re going to have to keep this very down low,” he said. I looked down to the floor. He took that as a nod.
Mr. John Bloom is an attractive man. All of his limbs and appendages are proportionately sized and he doesn’t remind me of any celebrities or political figures or relatives. He set up our first date via an e-mail that read: “we’ll meet at georgie’s. i know the bartender. it will be r secret. 6 o’clock? –jb.” I knew it wasn’t a question. I had stopped at Walgreen’s that morning on my way to work, so I had to carry my plastic bag full of tampons and a bottle of vitamins and a disposable camera to Georgie’s. When I got there, John was sitting at the bar, a glass of something brown already half-empty, his briefcase under his feet like a step stool.
Things I was thankful for that night: 1. He never said anything along the lines of, “Ever since your first day, I’ve wanted to kiss you.” 2. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to come back to his place. He assumed I did. 3. When we kissed, he licked my teeth. He licked them.
I crawled out of his bed at sometime after one in the morning and walked home. I realized at the corner of 5th and Hill that I forgot my Walgreens bag at the bar. I was going to use that camera to take pictures of my apartment for a classified ad. I was thinking of moving.
When I got back into my own bed, I thought about my mouth. I wondered if Mr. John Bloom could taste my dead tooth.
We went on our secret dates for three more weeks. On the last one, he asked me in his bed, “Are you even into this?” I guess he could tell by the way I kissed him, the way my mouth didn’t really move at all.
I said, “Not really,” before I could think of a better thing to say.
“Then why didn’t you say something?” John asked. He was lying on his back, his chest rising up and down.
“I was waiting for you to ask.”
He brushed the back of his hand against my cheek and said, “Baby, sometimes you have to do the askin’.” I don’t even think he knew what that meant. He just reached into the flipbook of phrases he keeps in his mind and pulled one out. Plucked it out.
When he showed me to the door, he said, “It’s not going to be awkward in the office tomorrow, is it?”
“Of course not,” I said, bringing my hand halfway to my mouth, waiting for him to shut the door before I actually touched my fingers to my lips.
I thought about Mr. John Bloom all day today at work. He was out sick. I wrote myself an e-mail, going through the possible reasons of why I agreed to go out with him, why I agreed to let him touch me on the back and lead me to places that I really had no intention of ever going. I couldn’t think of any good reasons except that this is the way it’s always been. This is the way you’ve always been. Because you’re too busy thinking about your mouth instead of thinking about what your mouth wants to say. Because it’s not a big deal, it’s not the end of the world or anything, it will be like this for the rest of your life, and that’s it.
I signed the e-mail, “Love, Yourself,” and then moved the cursor back and erased the comma and then turned red in the face and put the comma back in. Then I added a P.S. that said, “Be a man! Take charge! Do what you want to do!” as a joke and also secretly as a serious demand. I hit send and my inbox immediately received the message. I read it and pretended it was from someone else. That helped.
Molly Tolsky is a fiction writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Collagist, The Fiddleback, Pindeldyboz, and elsewhere. She is the editorial assistant at Kveller.com. She holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
Michael Renaud is the Creative Director for Pitchfork Media, The Dissolve, and Nothing Major.