The Saab broke down again. This would have sent me into a panic of money worries, but Dell never seemed to panic. Her previous man had been a mechanic—I knew that. She got on the phone and had the silver beast towed. At the shop she spoke authoritatively to the repairman. She had a list of probable causes in her head she was ticking off, knowing how much each item should cost, weighing the repair costs over the worth of the car. Meanwhile, as the man looked things up on his computer, she was continuing her previous conversation with me, complaining about her husband as girlfriends do, just little annoyances: How he wasn’t aligned with her. How he didn’t understand her completely. How he wasn’t affectionate when she felt low and in need of it. And I thought, Oh, why can’t he be magnificent? Why this sagging gap between men and women? But then there was all that I didn’t see, the mystery that arched between them and them alone. I thought of the men I knew and how they were. How were they? Did I remember? It was the long silences that tripped me up, perplexed me. What I wanted was a blessed communion of souls and I could only come to blank, shamed silences, lying on the floor mute and still. Had men’s feelings been so raw and so stoppered that when they broke such terrible floods burst out and destroyed every tender bridge leaving nothing in their wake? I could not speak to the emptiness I had witnessed. It tore at my own understanding and blurred my belief in the order of the world.
As Dell was talking, I noticed a molar in my mouth had gone wrong. It seemed to be hanging lower than usual, worrying my tongue. Oh! Dell said that her dentist was right next to this shop. He was so wonderful; he always found time for any emergency no matter how small. He wouldn’t mind fixing it for me. She took me straight over to his office. A tan, muscled, and grinning man in a tight short-sleeved white jacket greeted us. I immediately hated him. He kept rubbing his hands together greedily as though he couldn’t wait to get them in my mouth. I wanted to leave, but my tooth! I had to have it fixed.
Dell left me with the good doctor and went back to the repair shop to finish her business there. He sat me down at the base of a small theater with all of his interns blabbing and joking in the seats above us, as students will before class starts. He was explaining the procedure to me. How important it was. He sensed my hesitation. Of course I had the option of doing nothing, he said with a grin, and get along just fine if I wished, for the moment. I could ignore my molar, but at what cost in the future? What about sex? I blanched at that. Was he saying how important it was for my orifice to be the sweet smooth vessel for a male organ? That my oral health was primarily for the good of mankind? Of course he hadn’t said that. Why did my mind go there? I could hear all the students murmuring approval and agreeing. What was he saying, then? I shook my head and blinked and saw that he wasn’t looking at me, but pointing to illustrations of the operation. The molar would have to come out. Teeth were primitive. Enamel and bone in the mouth had served our ancestors, but decades of research had brought modern dentistry to the point where teeth were irrelevant, replaceable by . . . and he showed a diagnostic diagram so fantastic and incomprehensible to me as though it were the inner workings of a massive mechanical Leviathan. And the scrub-wearing youth kept up their loud commentary behind us. Look, I said to the dentist, can’t we do this in your office? It seemed that my private inner workings were being displayed, something so embarrassing and personal and somehow shameful. Oh, she has teeth, then? No one has those anymore. I turned to them and began to scream. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I screamed and screamed at them until a bell sounded and they all left. 5 pm. Quitting time.
I left, too. There is nothing wrong with me, I mumbled to myself. My tooth is fine, a little long and sore, but I’ll live.
I walked to a vineyard where the vines were old, over 50 years like me, I thought. Maybe that wasn’t so old. Dusty fat grapes hung off them, almost brown in their ripeness. I picked one and it split open like a fig and its juice spilled out into my mouth as flavors unrolled like a carpet. New patterns kept emerging, bright and sweet yet threaded with dark notes. I’ve planted all of this. And I’ll keep planting. All these long rows like a pipeline heading . . . I kept walking.
Dell picked me up in front of the theater. The weather had turned cold and her face with rimmed with a fur-lined hood, like Diana, like a fantastical huntress. Her young son was with her. I told him about a man driving 100mph there. It was Dell’s ex-husband, the boy’s father, but I kept that part to myself. I made him into a legend and started to spin a story about him: The dangerous maniac who had flown down streets and terrorized little dogs and children. No one could stop him, no one dared and he had driven the same route we were on. He just kept speeding along until he was airborne, I said, just as our car hit the crest of a hill, just as I looked at Dell and wondered why she was driving so fast. “And then he flew with black hawks and came down into a blackened valley of ravens and cranes.” I continued, “swarmed by plump pigeons colored like koi, orange and white, lolling on wires by a barn.” Her son looked at me askance and went back to his red and blue Legos, smashing one into another.
“Dell, I need coffee,” I told her. “I’m sorry. I forgot to get one earlier.” She glared at me for a minute and then relented. She didn’t want to stop, but she knew a place. We pulled over. I realized that I really wanted a French press, but it would take too long. We entered the coffee shop. A man and his aged father were in line with us. I quickly decided to order a latte, which was the fastest word I could think of. The old man was asking for a burgundy and beef roast. His son was trying to pull him back. “Dad, they don’t have that here, it’s a coffee place.” Dad persisted. “Burgundy. What do you have for burgundy? Meat loaf will be alright if you don’t have a roast, and potatoes, mashed, with gravy.” He turned to look at me. I was trying not to stare back. I lowered my eyes. I felt embarrassed for my rushed order of a latte. What he was ordering actually sounded better. His son was mortified and I couldn’t help but share in his discomfort. But what shame was there in asking for what one really wanted? The old man had a thin blue worn washcloth in his hands. He brought it up to my mouth and began wiping my lips. “Hold still,” he said, “I’ll get it.” He brushed the soft terrycloth over and all around my mouth. I don’t know what was on my lips, but I let him wipe me clean. I don’t know. I don’t know. But I let him wipe me clean anyway.