I woke up and didn’t love my husband. Or at least felt like I didn’t need to see him again for a very long time, or forever. I opened my eyes and couldn’t keep lying next to someone I no longer loved and I didn’t want his first realization upon waking up to be that someone had stopped loving him—I wanted it to be normal, like sunlight or pillow or ow—so I got up and waited downstairs until he came down in his boxers with sleep in his eyes, and I thought he would feel it as soon as he walked in the room—all the love sucked out, as if he’d waded into ice water or was suddenly blinded. But he came in, poured his coffee, kissed my cheek, same as the day before, when we were still going to grow old and die together.
While Gray and I went about our morning, getting ready for our days, I made important decisions. He could keep the dog. I’d keep the house. Dougie, twenty-six and still living at home, could choose who he wanted to stay with—we’d to explain things to him gently, in private, since he was our youngest and more prone to shock.
Later we’d tell Michael, who was recovering—from what, no one knew. He’d found a life coach, someone who talked to him about everyone’s inner child and how we must be kind to the fragile thing inside. Knowing these secrets made Michael feel like life mattered, and made him happy enough for a while to stop and wonder sporadically at the tiny miracles of the natural world, like wind or rain or fingernails. All of us watched him marvel and were happy.
The day felt normal. Gray rode his bicycle to work and I went to the dentist for fillings, a process I enjoyed because of the novocaine and Dr. Green, who flossed after every meal and had given all of her children perfect teeth, and before that, her husband, who after the surgeries and braces and bleachings became Mr. Bethany Green, and moved with her into a big house with jaws and molars in glass cases on the walls and deep purple furniture.
Dr. Green was direct. I liked that. Open. Say ‘ah’. Close. Smile.
I liked her fingers in my mouth and my mouth on her mouth and our mouths together. We both felt deeply about mouths—her about teeth and me about eating—and I thought Dougie could be the first to know this too, once Dr. Green and I made things “official.” I thought we could all bond over our shared passion and because Dougie and I were especially close.
Dougie went to all of my speed-eating competitions and trained with me in our garage on Sundays. We’d set up a white foldout table next to Gray’s Honda and line it with buckets of water and hotdogs, and all of our lawn tools would be looming on hooks behind us—rakes, sheers, saws, shovels—and the room, and my nose and mouth would be full of the meat-sweet smell of hotdog as Dougie cheered at the top of his lungs and I fisted hotdogs down my throat like rope and chewed like it would save me.
Ever since I came in third at the annual fair’s hotdog eating contest three years back, I’d been training and competing across the Midwest, wolfing down everything from apple pie to deep fried zucchini. Dougie was going to take me to first in the hotdog category. He was helping me perfect my power-swallows. He said only losers took third three years in a row, and this year, his mother wasn’t going to be a loser.
Unlike his brother Dougie, Michael didn’t enjoy any sort of competition. He was concerned with the inner battle only, and did not believe in striving towards anything but some semblance of calm within. His life coach said all the shouting and violence in sports were just manifestations of fear—most things were, except things that overtly were not, like hugging or sending one’s light into the world or befriending all of nature.
While Dr. Green drilled my tooth I thought of winning and hotdogs and love. I looked into her muddy green eyes and she stared down into my mouth and a half hour later I left, numb-tongued and dizzy.
Even when I noticed my love for Gray slipping, his love kept reminding me of the love we once had. I would look into his face and think, I’m sorry, and he would say, I love you, and one of our three best memories would spring into my brain so I would say, I love you too. Then he would smile and I would smile and both smiles would be real ones; I would be remembering when we got snowed in without power for three days and played games and let our mouths run all over each other in the dark, and thinking, that felt nice, and he would be there, next to me in our living room thinking, this feels nice. I wanted that exact moment to feel nice for me too. I would sit and think, this is a nice moment, until it passed numbly.
I told this to Dr. Green while we spooned in the backseat of her car on her lunch break—it was the only time we could see each other during the week outside of my routine dental work. I would pack sandwiches for us and we’d drive behind her office to eat them and to hold each other for a few moments before she went back to the office. Today was special because I got to see her twice.
I told her how my love for Gray had flown away in the night, and how I wanted her to meet Dougie because I felt that the three of us were virtually one person, which was too much to come out in one half-hour lunch window—I could tell because it stopped feeling nice in the car and when it wasn’t nice with Dr. Green there were no top three favorite moments to drift to. There were a lot of little moments—the kinds of minutiae Gray and I had by the hundred-thousands, but no forever and ever moments.
Dr. Green liked this about us. She said it was nice because it was less complicated. I said she was just scared because we both had empty holes where love had been, and now that we were spending every lunch break together they might get filled by accident, and then we would have to keep going on like this everyday, and maybe even spoon more times per week or talk on the phone.
She said she had no holes to fill; she was an incredibly whole being.
Dr. Green was interested in teeth, in the logistics of chewing, not the competitive aspects. When I told her the small-town glory I’d gained by stuffing down pounds of pudding, pickles, pancakes, pasta and pound cake—and those were just the P’s—faster than anyone anyone knew, she was not impressed. She said she didn’t even like watching people eat, or going to sporting events with all the crowds, the sticky air, the shouting and cursing, the rumbling screaming rides, the spinning lights, the kind of sweet that sticks to your skin. She hated it, but it didn’t matter.
I thought it was enough for the both of us to love mouths in our own ways, but she didn’t see what I did as love. She could barely stand to think of it she said—all those hotdogs and the great stretching of my stomach. She prayed I flossed after every competition and that I would stray from sugars since she’d already filled six of my cavities. She worried that I could choke and asphyxiate myself during the competition; I could start seizing from the lack of oxygen and brown half my brain tissue like ground beef and die on live television with a mouth stuffed full of hotdogs—it was a possibility.
It made her unhappy thinking of these things, but it sent a shock through the back of my thighs—going out with everybody’s cheering in my ears and a voice in my head screaming go, go, go.
Dr. Green just needed time, I thought. I could show her how perfect we could be together.
Many things we find meaningful are superfluous to the people we love. Like how Gray doesn’t care that our whole family has yellow-tinged teeth, but I do. Dr. Green, who has seen the insides all of our mouths, says we’re genetically predisposed to it—such little enamel—but she could fix that with three-to-six whitening treatments. Dougie and I bleach regularly and our mouths dazzle. Gray won’t bleach, even though it’s scientifically proven that people with whiter smiles get treated nicer. He’s concerned about the chemicals the same way Michael is concerned about fear; their mouths are regular and tarnished but I still like looking at them.
A long time ago Gray and I thought our children would save us. We’d been told everything would be different upon their arrival; that we would hold them for the very first time and feel everything inside us rise to meet the task. We were supposed to have happily traded away anything that would keep us from rising. We were supposed to love much more than we ever could have, but the entire time we were just us—the same us we were up until that morning.
By then I thought maybe Gray could sense the absence of my love. I hadn’t called. I usually didn’t; but today I meant not to. If he didn’t know, I thought he would at least understand. He’s good at understanding. He understands how I need to win the contest. He has never felt the exhilaration of eating thirty hotdogs in five minutes for hundreds of screaming people and he cannot stand the soft-spongy texture of the meat or any meat at all for that matter but he understands something somewhere in me and will be at the fair with my name painted on his chest. He and Dougie will wave their flags and scream me onward and Michael and his life coach will send light from afar.
That afternoon, when Dr. Green left me in the parking lot of Green Dental, she did not kiss me goodbye or say, See ya tomorrow, which she’d always said.
She said, Maybe we should take a step back.
She spun her fingers in reverse and said, Rewind.
She said, You know I like you a lot, and patted my shoulder gently.
She spoke like a person pacifying a large wild animal, like a horse or bull; her words came out in long strokes. It all happened very fast. Then she went back to work.
I sobbed in my car for thirty-two uncontrollable minutes then went to the mall and smelled all the perfumes. I drove. I went to the park then remembered I hated nature. I drove. I went to the gas station for candies because I didn’t mind cavities and I still liked Dr. Green’s fingers in my mouth even if she was appalled by my whole life’s passion.
The gas station was green-yellow lit and cold in inside. All of the bright packages made me tired. Outside on the curb a shoeless woman was selling puppies from a box, and like everyone else, I have an unbridled yearning to care for soft, small things so I asked her if I could hold one.
All of the little brown things slept in a pile; to pick one up, I had to follow the path of its body with my hands and unfold it tenderly from the others. I held one after the other after the other. I asked the woman what their names were and she said they didn’t have any since she was trying to get rid of them. They had fleas. They were inbred and going to have problems.
They didn’t look like they had problems to me and I thought they should have names, being four weeks old and mostly aware of their namelessness. That alone, I thought, would be problematic.
I decided they needed me. No one I loved needed me in the ways I needed to be needed; Dougie and Michael didn’t depend on me anymore to feed and teach them, and Gray preferred to masturbate instead of needing anyone.
The woman and I negotiated. She got my shoes and a bag of nachos, and I got the puppies. I put the box of them in the backseat of my car; I named at least one of them Dr. Green.
I might not have even cared about nameless inbred puppies if it weren’t for Michael’s life coach who was always going on about fear, how it starts as microscopic sadness and eventually turns into anger and how it would rule our lives if we let it. Michael said it was the media causing all the fear; Gray thought it was the meat. He said meat had memory. He said maybe all the fear and loneliness of chickens and cows raised in cages got passed on to us when we ate them. This is why all creatures need things like names—to ward off the fear.
I already loved them and didn’t know what to do now, especially with them rocking in the box in the backseat of my car, waiting for me to do something.
I stopped and looked at them a long time. I went back to the park and sat with the box of them in my lap. I told them things, like how there was something starved in Gray and he didn’t want to feed it, how all of his want had faded away with time and the ghost of it just followed my want around. I told them there was nowhere Gray wanted to go, so I would have to be the one to do it, and that being the case, I asked them where I should go, because I hadn’t decided.
I only knew there was something about hunger. I needed it.
I took the puppies to a shelter where the kid at the counter did not have to know they were inbred. Fleas would be killed and names would be given. I held them each one last time to ward off any fear they might have had about their ability to find love in a world like this. The kid said they’d make it; they were soft enough looking to be needed.
I felt lonely on the drive home. I was lonely even with all the people in the world around to possibly love me and a sure three or four who did not want me to die soon or painfully which should have been comforting but wasn’t.
Gray made spaghetti for dinner. I told him about the puppies and he told me about his employee picnic. We talked about what to get Dougie for his birthday. We talked about Michael and hoped this recovery was the one. I did the laundry and Gray did the dishes. There was nothing else to talk about by the time we climbed into bed and in the dark, we were both somewhere else thinking different things.
I felt Gray’s warm shape next to mine and thought of Dr. Green. I didn’t think she would understand the way I would get up in the middle of the night to eat out of her Tupperware containers. She would be very put off, I thought, waking in the dark to an emptiness in the bed and me rummaging, sleep-drunk, through her kitchen. But maybe that was practical of her and I liked it.
She gave me that steady weaving in my stomach that would hit when I saw the crowds gathering around the stage at the fair with their homemade t-shirts and cardboard signs, their faces painted, their tongues wagging from their foldout chairs, waiting for us to take our seats at the competitor table behind our red and yellow buckets and platters of hotdogs while the announcer’s voice soared and plummeted. I knew it was just a rush, but I liked that too.
I was thinking all of these things with my damp hand inside of Gray’s. He was fast asleep so his hand just laid loose over my fingers.
I wanted his love to die painlessly while he slept like mine had, so I kissed him on the mouth, the kind of kiss that says goodbye, that says this is the last of where I came from, and then I waited to watch the rest of everything between us drain away.
I waited hours into the night, staring through his closed eyelids, and felt nothing change until I knew what I had to do.
I would go while he slept so when he woke up, he would know what had happened, and everything would be different. I would lie here a while longer, and eventually, I would go.