What I remember most about that hot and humid summer was the way fear took hold like a rip current.
Petrified: the word tossed around in my head like a buoy – scared to death. My arm hairs stood on end as if they had feeling, as if they were also terrified. Sitting at my desk in the Office of Alumni and Parent Relations at my undergraduate alma mater in upstate New York, I was cold and uncomfortable and shaking slightly from within. I rubbed my palms over the pricks of clammy skin, trying to erase the signs. I did not want people to see that I was anything but fine.
The dizziness came in spells, like the altitudinal drop of an airplane just before a crash: engine failure, death on impact, if not first from the snapping of the neck due to the fall, too dramatic for any body to handle. Several times I felt my stomach sink, as if the floor was being taken out from under, without warning, no time to brace myself. Luckily, I was in the basement of Erwin Hall, the College’s administration building, a floor that rested upon the earth, which shouldn’t give way, I told myself, this was not California where the ground splits apart: it was New York, where things held together. I was quite light-headed and nauseated from the narcotic painkiller: I had just had my wisdom teeth removed.
My wisdom teeth were like cranky children, digging their heels in, refusing to let go. They were hidden under my gums and attached, as if by cement, to my jaw bone. In pulling them out, there was a lot of drilling and excavating –- blood and tissue. It was a horrible, mangled mess. I remember lying there, awake, under the knife, my body full-length on the chair, head and shoulders tilted behind me, almost like a back bend, my neck elongated like an ostrich’s, the nitrous oxide turned on.
“There are risks in undergoing this procedure,” Dr. Burgart had enumerated, “nerve damage, loss of feeling, even death can occur.”
I preferred to think that Dr. Burgart, the dentist, was really named Bogart. Once aggravated by his ego, grown out of proportion by his tendency toward dental sarcasm, I changed my mind about him while under the influence of the nitrous oxide. He was tall and tan and blond and forty-five, and married with three teenaged children, and, at twenty-six, I thought I might be developing a crush. Once or twice, in my head, I rehearsed asking him to elope with me. He would whisk me away from all this chaos.
Dr. Bogart had a strategy to the extraction, approaching each tooth with deftness and care, with an intimacy and an intensity, as if he were making love. I left my eyes open during the procedure. I wanted to see everything as I wore the mask, taking in the gas with each breath, trying to keep my mind intact.
I was running. June 21, 2000, the Wednesday after Father’s Day, a few weeks before my wisdom tooth extraction, I was running, listening to the oldies station, the only station I could access on my radio walkman. The scenery of Geneseo, where my alma mater was located, was magnificent, but radio reception was near absent in the depths of the valley, where the track was, beside the alfalfa fields.
I was jogging to the rhythm of the music, my lungs taking in the air and letting it go. It had been four months since my father confirmed himself cancer-free, almost a year since forty percent of his left lung was removed and labeled: malignant. I recalled that fateful July 1999, and the morning after my father’s cancer diagnosis, when I awoke beneath a blanket of shock, turned on the television, and heard the initial coverage of the disappearance of JFK Jr.’s plane. I remembered the way I thought, how do they know what is true? A few days later, as I stood in the check-out line at the local Wegman’s, I saw the words flickering from TIME magazine: John F. Kennedy Jr., 1960-1999.” The headline read: “JFK Jr. Feared Missing, Presumed Dead.” I stared at this picture: the philanthropic brown eyes, the groomed brows full and dark like mindful caterpillars, the dashing grin – all pronounced dead before the person they were a part of had been found. It had been decided for him. He was wearing a lot of makeup, I noticed, a creamy foundation. I wondered, had anyone ever seen what was really underneath? I was mesmerized by the issue. It churned inside, tossed and turned, ruffled, agitated like rough seas. I could not stop the thoughts from coming, crashing forth like the tide.
This drew me in:
The plane – it had disappeared from radar and had plunged into the foggy depths of America’s collective mind, the remains thought to be mixing with the waves that crashed and lapped in comfortable cyclical motions, gentle as a baby rocked, beside the shores of Massachusetts. According to the article, John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette and her un-famous sister had not yet been found in the flesh. Still, the cover of TIME confirmed: hope was gone.
“Abrupt descent,” are words reporters use to detail plane crashes. They also use phrases such as “stabilizing mechanism,” “final moments,” and “sudden engine failure.” They illustrate the course of massive structural damage on the television news. They show reenactments in slow motion, like cartoons. TV technicians become like children with video games that simulate the event, their appetites insatiable for the vicarious replay, over and over and over again. Correspondents and official sound bites speak of the aircraft at large: the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder, the “black box.” They chronicle those things found: the suitcase, the novel and the bookmark, the toothbrush – the personal effects. These found remains are, of course, all but the person. The person they never find. At least not intact.
Sometimes, when authorities exhume the wreckage from the ocean floor, they put it on display at the local yard for investigation. It will later be placed at a town museum for the public to look at in awe, or for the schoolchildren to study for a class project, like the pieced-together bones of a dinosaur: this is Tyrannosaurus Rex, minus a few ribs and a femur we could not find. You can look all you want, but please do not touch. It is not practice to put the remains of the passengers, even one or two, on display, that would be too real, it cannot be done. The truth, if you must know, is that the people you knew have become so mangled from what has happened that they are no longer knowable. Why upset yourself by looking at what can no longer be recognized, by viewing what is no longer distinguishable or definable? It would be too hard for you to handle, you would collapse or have a nervous breakdown, you would never be the same. Something would switch off in your brain.
There are attempts to deal with the aftershocks, the emotions, of course, to put them in ordered compartments, to make you feel better, to help you feel more settled, in control, at ease. They call it “closure.” Causes and effects: these labels are explained and digested.
You try to comfort yourself with overused maxims such as “death is a part of life” or “the healing process,” or the practice of religion, “everlasting faith.” You hold on. You tell yourself the deceased is not really gone but is living on in spirit. “The soul inspired” leaves the walls of the body. You picture it. Like steam, it rises through the chest cavity, up through the head, or flows from the mouth like warm blood, with the last exhalation. The personal effects, however, are left behind. Except for the body, the person. Touchable evidence of a life once lived you must let go.
People are sorry, though they are not personally responsible for what has occurred. They did not want it to happen. There are regrets. There comes a list of things to be done differently the next time, a set of instructions, a recipe: “How to Prevent the Fatality.” But there are holes, something is missing. Ruefully, it will transpire again. And once again. That’s life. Yield to those forces beyond your control, it’s the adult thing to accept the imminent. Trying to change the inevitable doesn’t do a person any good. It just makes things messy.
Now it was 2000, a year later, and I still continued to look at the issue of TIME and think with a wistfulness, let it all swirl in my head, the scene: JFK Jr. would appear on some secret island off the Cape, handsome and strong and debonair and above all put-together, as everyone depended on him to be. The Prince of Camelot. The hero. The role model. Possibly, he had needed some time off by himself, away from the eyes of the needy blank faces that made up modern-day America. He hadn’t told anyone, of course, because to do so would’ve sabotaged the whole idea of “time off.” He’d just wanted to be in a place where he didn’t have to play a role, where there were no expectations of him, where he could be anonymous, fallible – human – for a few quiet breaths.
What was wrong with that? It’s what they call denial.
I was running, listening to the oldies station, when the breeze picked up and a large shadowy man parked his red pickup truck and got out of the vehicle, unleashing a big black dog. The animal began to gallop fast, faster, faster, towards me. I stopped breathing, freezing for a moment, cold in my tracks: it was coming right at me a pulsing fear washing over me like an ocean wave –
Lord have mercy on the boy from down in the boondocks –
The dog turned, his black coat shining with a sense of urgency – Go home. I had to go home.
When I reached my apartment, I found my answering machine flashing. There was one message. It was from my brother, Neal. I had missed him by ten minutes.
“Tracy,” he began, “Dad got in a bit of trouble today, he’s okay for now, but he had to have some emergency surgery on his brain. Call me.”
I hadn’t yet caught my breath as I dialed Neal’s phone number. There was no answer. I wanted to demand, where was my brother when I needed him?
I could not wait. I dialed my father’s number, I would speak with Anne, his wife. He had gotten remarried two years after my parents’ divorce, when I was twenty. He had met Anne on the Long Island Rail Road, he said, it must’ve been fate, she had changed his life.
“Your father –” Anne’s voice stalled, like a motor, after the initial greeting, coughed like a carburetor. “He –”
“What?” I prodded. This question stopped my breath: Was he dead?
“He started not feeling well,” Anne said. “He had a migraine, and eventually the pain got so bad he collapsed. I had to take him to the hospital in the middle of the night. He passed out in the car. The doctor says it was a tumor that bled on itself.”
“But I just spoke with him the other day and he was fine,” I said. “When did this begin?” I was not focusing, the words were a dust storm in my mind, the meanings caught in my mouth. I already knew it had begun months ago, my father had mentioned the headaches several times, but he had ignored the signs, had thought nothing of the recurring pain.
“Two days ago.”
“Why didn’t anyone call me then?” I asked. My heart began to pound against my ribcage as if it was trying to break out of a prison: hard, hard, hard, I thought I might die slow, slow, slow, I thought it might cease.
“Oh Tracy, don’t you give me that,” Anne said, “there were other people who were more important than you to call.”
“But I’m his daughter.” I felt ashamed of my voice, because it sounded small. “Well then you ought to act like one,” Anne’s voice escalated, “you’re never here when he’s sick, you’re only around when he’s well. Some daughter you are, he might be paralyzed and I don’t think I can deal with taking care of that for the rest of my life!”
The words lingered in the air, these price tags of love.
“I want to speak with him,” I said. The backs of my thighs were shaking; my hands, my neck felt clammy. “What’s the number for the hospital?”
“I don’t know,” Anne’s voice scattered like dandelion seeds.
“I want to speak with my father,” I said it again. My ear pressed, ached against the receiver.
“You can’t,” Anne’s voice pushed against me, bruising, like an admonishment. “He’s not able to speak with you right now.”
“Well, his doctor, then,” I said.
“Don’t you dare call his doctor,” she said. I heard it as a growl. Her words bit. “The last time you did that you really embarrassed us.”
“But I’m his daughter,” I repeated, the word “embarrassed” sticking to me like glue. “I have a right to know what’s happening to my father, to hear the truth.”
“The truth,” Anne’s voice turned cold, “is that if your father knew how you really are, how you are treating me, he would be very disappointed in you. In fact, I know he already is.”
“This isn’t the time to be discussing this,” I heard my voice outside myself. “Right now my father is the issue.”
My tongue was flypaper, thick and numb and sticky, and too big for my mouth, for my words. I wanted my father, I felt I’d lost him, and yet I also wished with urgency for him to die. I could not say why.
I shrunk back, then, like a turtle. I hung up the phone and took off my sneakers and clothes and got into the shower and stayed there for a long time, letting the sobs go as silently as I could so that no one would hear me or know what I thought, how I felt, my tears indistinguishable from the pin-needled stream, the rushing sound of the water. Vigilance: that night an old ritual took over – my body’s, my mind’s – of not sleeping. I was a little girl, I regressed, I was afraid of the dark, afraid of the big monster under my bed, hiding in the shadow in the hallway, lurking in the darkness, waiting for the precise moment to spring on me. I remained on guard with fear as my cloak. My eyes remained stuck open, on the watch, unblinking, until eventually, after several hours passed, the lids grew too heavy to support. Finally, I let my body give in, let the dark heaviness take over, and, consumed with restless slumber, I closed my eyes.
I began to have this recurring dream:
There wasn’t much of an event sequence, just this pervasive sense of impending disaster. I was in the passenger’s seat of a car, my father was behind the wheel, driving, despite his blind spot, the vision damage caused by the brain tumor. “I don’t have vision problems,” he said, “my eyes are fine, it’s my brain that isn’t getting the message.”
On a curve in the road, my father lost control of the car. There was the slow-motion skid, and then we crashed. I felt myself dying. I heard a voice – it sounded like my mother’s – saying “oh no,” with sheer morbidity. Then it was over.
In the days that followed, I imagined that when the tumor came apart in my father’s brain it was like a plane’s explosion: first the dull headache and nausea from the drop in altitude, then the disorientation, the pounding, the force of gravity taking over, the body’s tumultuous plummet, down, down, breaking through the invisible shield, leaking a bloody red fire, insides turning out upon outsides. As a word, gravity is a close cousin to “grave.” Meaning: serious. Weighty, like tired eyelids. His condition was grave. Grave: a place of burial.
My father had survived the emergency surgery, but the long-term prognosis did not look favorable, though that was what I thought, not what my father told me. I’m fine, he said so himself. But what I heard from my father and what I held in my heart were separate entities at odds with each other, in conflict, diverged within.
This made my mind run and my heart race.
“Trace?” Dr. Bogart probed, removing the instruments, and himself, from my mouth. His voice lilted, “What’s the matter?”
There were black spots, the edges of my vision were closing in, toward the center, the world before me darkening, like a curtain fall only this was from the sides instead of from ceiling to floor. I thought I was losing consciousness, my heart was pounding hard, and harder. I wondered if this was what it was like for my father when his blood pressure went down to zero during his chemotherapy session, which he had called to tell me about at ten o’clock at night, saying he was only abiding by my wish to know what was going on. He made it sound as if I had brought it upon myself. My mind froze and then, it seemed, my whole being tensed up like a cornered animal. It was all I could do to tell him to never call me that late again before I hung up the phone.
I was squirming within my body as if it were a prison, which still lay in the chair, trying to break free from its bounds. I thought I might be suffocating. I could not speak. There was fluid filling my mouth, sliding down my throat. I thought it was blood; it tasted salty. I swallowed it, but a thick warmness filled up the space, far back, once more, and again. I started to choke. I could not speak. I grasped at the mask.
“Lower the gas,” Dr. Bogart shot a look at the nurse with the red hair who was positioned on the other side of me. The nurse went through the motions quickly. “Trace?” Dr. Bogart said.
I was thinking about the scene: my father, the tumor bursting in his brain, the blacking out, the pressure dropping to zero, the rush of the oxygen mask, the breaking up of my voice calling to him, Dad! Dad! can you hear me? Dad? He did not answer, for he was no longer there. It was a bad dream from which I could not awaken. This was how it was going to happen. This was what it was like, going under. This was how it felt to just let go.
Cut to black.
“Trace,” Dr. Bogart called to me again, calmly, “I’m turning on the oxygen, just breathe in and out, in, out.” He demonstrated for me, inhaling and exhaling. I looked up at him, at his masked face and surgical microscope glasses, which made him look not only handsome but intelligent. “You feeling better now?”
I was not. I shut my eyes tight. I felt my heart falling, down, down, down, my insides rising up through the top of my head. I was dying. I wanted my father. I wanted my mother. I wanted someone, someone to hold my hand. Someone to hold your hand? A voice berated within. I was twenty-six years old and I was acting like such a child, this was unbecoming. I turned my head, “no.”
“You’re going to be okay,” Dr. Bogart said, unwavering, as if he had seen this scene before. “You had a bit too much of the nitrous oxide, you were hallucinating on me, I don’t wanna know what you were dreaming.” He chuckled at me. “Just breathe, in and out.” Once more he demonstrated for a few rounds. “You okay?”
It was passing. I was actually feeling a little better, the breaths were coming more easily now, the air was more accessible, cooler, in my lungs, I was more in control of my heart, the pounding had relaxed to regular, steady beats. I was seeing things more clearly. I nodded, “Yes.”
“Good,” he continued, “I’m going to ask you that more often than you may want, but it’s just so I know you’re still with me, okay?” I nodded, “Yes.” His voice remained even. “The nitrous is on lower now,” he said, then reinserted his fingers into my mouth.
It occurred to me that if anything were to happen, there was no will.
When my father was first diagnosed with the lung cancer in July 1999, I asked him about this. At the time he was enjoying the sugar on top of a cinnamon bun, which, according to the oncologist, he should not have been eating. We were at the food court at LaGuardia Airport. I was sitting across from my father, waiting for my flight to Rochester, watching, wondering. I wanted to know his wishes, for his future, for his past, for his life, for his death, for me, about me, in relation to – I wanted to know, before it was too late. I wanted to have an understanding. I wanted him to.
He was thinner than usual because of the chemotherapy. He was telling me he had lost six pounds because he wasn’t eating very much, he wasn’t very hungry, he was wasting away. I wanted to tell him I had lost weight too, but I did not say it. I figured he would see it himself if it was noticeable, if it was anything. He should see these things. After all, I thought, he was my father.
When I asked him if he had a will, he didn’t look up at me. He nodded no. “I had one when I was married to your mother, but I don’t have a current one,” he said. He was not paying attention to me. He was preoccupied with the food. “Why? Are there particular personal effects you want?”
I was surprised to be stunned by his question. I had not anticipated it. “All I want is you,” I said.
He spoke like the Cookie Monster, to the food in his hand, “Goooood,” and then to me: “You want some?”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”
It was the forceful tug and pull that alarmed me, like a mugging. The tooth would not budge. I could tell Dr. Bogart was perplexed, frustrated, his arms strained, taut and quivering and fueled with what seemed to be all his strength, and yet still he could not remove it. I thought, there’s something very strange about watching someone pull with all his might for nothing else but to get a tooth out of your mouth.
“She’s got to let go some time,” he murmured. For a moment, he paused in thought. Then, he turned on a drill that looked like a miniature pinwheel one might only find in the country of Lilliput – small but all-powerful, and capable of mass destruction – and put it inside my mouth, into the dark red cavity of bone and gum and tongue, and flipped the switch. There was the sound of a motor running, a salty, chilling spray when he removed the silver machine, a sharp sucking noise as he thrust a thin plastic tube with a rubber-tipped end into the warm, moist hollowness. He continued with the motions.
I recalled how, a few days after my father almost died from the metastasized tumor in his brain, he told me over the phone from his hospital bed that he saw the Grim Reaper standing in the doorway, “You know, with the cape and the scythe?” he said. “He just stood there, and then he left.”
Was he saying he had been visited by Death? That Death was at his door? I wondered. Was he saying that he had outsmarted him, as in a game, escaped his grasp? Was he warning me he would be back?
My heart began to pound as if all my blood was pouring out, I felt my eyes widen into a silent scream. My body was giving up, I was losing myself… this time it was for real, I was dying. Stop, stop, I commanded myself, thinking such thoughts is enough to leave anyone gasping for air like a fish out of water, they will not help you.
“Trace,” Dr. Bogart was calling me again, firmly. “We’re almost done.”
It was happening again. There wasn’t much of an event sequence, just this pervasive sense of impending disaster. I was in the passenger’s seat of a car, my father was behind the wheel, driving, despite his blind spot, the vision damage caused by the brain tumor. “I don’t have vision problems,” he said, “my eyes are fine, it’s my brain that isn’t getting the message.”
On a curve in the road, my father lost control of the vehicle. There was the slow-motion skid, and then we crashed. I felt myself dying. I heard a voice – it sounded like my mother’s – saying “oh no,” with sheer morbidity. Then it was over.
I saw Dr. Bogart and the nurse with the red hair exchange concerned looks once more across my body. “Turn off the nitrous, give her some more oxygen,” said Dr. Bogart. The nurse did as she was told. Dr. Bogart peered at my face. He tilted his head and looked down at me through his surgical microscope glasses, which made him look not only handsome but intelligent. “It’s all oxygen now,” he said, “just focus on breathing.” He inhaled. I followed his lead. We exhaled together. He cracked a small smile. “I think you’ve had enough of the mask,” he said, removing it from my face. I could feel the air cooling the damp sections of my cheeks, the edges of my nostrils, the bridge of my nose uncovered.
I was in the chair but I was not. I was lost in my mind, which rewound, went back in time, searched desperately for the exact moment when it all went wrong, as if finding the root would allow me to go back, take control, flip a switch, reconfigure history.
My life flashed before me.
“What, did the surgeon remove part of your brain when he took off part of your breast?” my father yelled with bite. I was seventeen and standing in my bedroom doorway, listening to my parents argue in the kitchen in our house. I could hear silverware sparring with food on the dinner plates. I imagined my father was cutting his meat with the jagged-toothed edge of his knife. There was silence. I imagined in the silence that my mother was answering by dishing more peas onto her plate, letting them tumble in circular patterns, poking their middles with the points of her fork.
I heard the smash of pots and pans, perhaps thrown, hitting the floor. I wondered if my father had caused the noise or if my mother had, in response. The sound, and my sense of the consequences, terrified me. I decided to get into the shower, drown it out with the water. I prayed it would be over when I got out, but when I did things had only gotten worse.
Without the mask on, now, the scene was not distorted by curved plastic, and I caught a sharp glimpse of the hands, Dr. Bogart’s, which were covered in latex, the palms splattered with my blood, the fingers drenched with a glimmering, vivid, deep red as they prodded and probed and maneuvered in and out, within my mouth, pulling down on my jaw, the sockets, stretching, opening wider, wider, loosening the joints, which were like the rusted hinges of the Tin Man. My bad habit of gnashing my teeth at night had worsened over the past year: this might loosen the clenching mechanism, Dr. Bogart thought aloud, kill two birds with one stone.
It was happening again. There was this pervasive sense of impending disaster. I was in the passenger’s seat of a car, my father was behind the wheel, driving despite his blind spot, the vision damage caused by the brain tumor. “I don’t have vision problems,” he said, “my eyes are fine, it’s my brain that isn’t getting the message.”
Through the windshield I could see in the distant sky ahead a jet plane taking off. Up, up, up it went. Then there was the nosedive. Then it exploded. It happened in slow motion. I felt my stomach drop. I heard a voice – it sounded like my mother’s – saying “oh no,” with sheer morbidity. “All those people, dead.” Then it was over.
“It’s over,” Dr. Bogart said. “Thatta girl.”
But it was not over. Dr. Bogart was still breaking the fourth and final tooth. He was breaking it piece by piece, now, determined. He inserted a knife, and another knife, carving at the fleshy gums, reaching for the root. Then, twisting with a wrench-like tool, he turned it like driving in a screw, but really the motion accomplished the opposite as the tooth finally lost its grip, giving out a resounding crack as it broke off the jaw frame. Dr. Bogart grunted slightly then stood back, holding the bone between his forceps, high up to the light.
I was lost in the past.
I found myself at the family dinner table, at seventeen, in an emotional prison, locked in by silence. My parents were dead, though their bodies still appeared in the house, in front of me as tormented spirits in Limbo, tortured and ghostlike. I observed them taking in their meals, my father swallowing his anger, my mother swallowing her self-worth. I could do nothing but wait and watch, watch for the shoe to drop, wait for the imminent end. What I wanted was resolution. What I wanted was for them to make a decision: if this was going to be the way, then end it – abort, abort! like a pilot shouting from the cockpit. Swerve off the runway before take-off, before that point of no return, try, try with all your might, with your judgment, to avoid casualties. Do it for the sake of your passengers, who hold their breaths in your lifelong moment, who depend on you, the pilot, or co-pilots, at the helm, who look to you who are trained to know how to fly aircraft – aren’t you? – you, who they count on to carry them all to safety, to handle emergencies like these. This is your responsibility, this is your job, this is your role. They put their trust in you, they put their lives in your hands.
Once and for all, don’t let this drag on like torture like that endless ride in that cargo train packed with bodies and souls on their way to their final destination: Auschwitz. What, who they wanted to hold onto they could not. Neither could they let go.
“It’s best to stay ahead of the pain,” said Dr. Bogart, as he placed a prescription for Norco, the narcotic painkiller, in my hand. I was to take one pill every six hours. He also handed me a prescription for a bottle of orange-pink pills; these were the anti-inflammatory drugs, two every four hours. “You’ll probably bruise quite a bit, with your coloring,” he continued. “You’ll want to ice it once you get home. For such a little girl you had some pretty big teeth.”
I did not want to be pitied. I was aware I was shaking slightly from within. I imagined that on the outside I looked a wreck.
“Here,” said Dr. Bogart, handing over my teeth, two at a time, wrapped in a mound of gauze. “You can keep them.”
I held these four fossils, my bones, in the palm of my hand. They were oddly-shaped, I thought as I stared, these hooked roots of spiraled corpses. The dead ends were stained a brownish-red. It upset me more than I thought it should have to see these parts of myself, which belonged inside, not on the outside, once attached, now removed, severed from me. Family of four: gone. And yet strangely there I was holding them, together, in my grasp.
My thoughts, my memories, came in dismembered pieces.
I remembered the day I heard the news that my father moved out of the house. It was my freshman year of college, just before Thanksgiving. I had called home. Your father is gone, my mother said, he left the house this morning. Dad took his things, said Neal, the lamp from the family room, the grandfather clock, the television set, he did not even say goodbye, he just left. And that was that. I took it in and when I hung up the phone I thought to myself, how could I blame my father, when I had just left too?
(And now, I thought, now, how could I blame him now, he was not liable now that he was sick.)
I remembered how he had asked me so many times the months after I hit puberty, the summer I was thirteen, he said, You know I love you, don’t you? And I answered so many times, always, Yes, but he kept asking as if the need for this affirmation was insatiable. Maybe he left because I did not love him enough. Maybe he left because I loved him too much. Maybe he had not really loved me at all. Even if he had wanted to, perhaps he just couldn’t, or he had tried and it just was not possible, because of something about me, within me. These questions ate at me like children of want, swallowing me with their unmet needs and hopes, with love’s beggary.
“The good news,” said Dr. Bogart, “is you won’t ever have to go through this again. The bad news is you’re going to be in a lot of pain when that Novocain wears off.” He leaned on a padded stool. “I want you to rest here for a while, you’ve been through a lot.”
I did not reply, mostly because I couldn’t with all that cotton and gauze he had stuffed in my cheeks, but also because I had decided answering no longer mattered.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes to check on you,” Dr. Bogart said. He put one hand on my shoulder as he walked away.
“Thank you,” I managed as he left the room, forgetting the wads in my mouth, my words muffled and dazed. Numb. I felt nothing at all, except a little sorry for Dr. Bogart; I hadn’t done very well in there. I hadn’t been able to control my fearful reactions. I hoped I hadn’t upset him. I remembered that dentists had the highest suicide rate of all people in America. It’s because they don’t know what to do with all that pain.