Baby Teeth

by Cora Rowe 

 

The summer our parents tried to split up, my sister Teresa drank half a bottle of bleach. The year before that, she’d climbed to the top of the monkey bars and jumped, breaking her left wrist and jolting two front teeth out of her skull. At twelve, she had already lost all her baby teeth, so our parents paid for two shining porcelain veneers that were always a little whiter than the rest. My parents never spent more money than was necessary on our happiness. But they did pay thousands of dollars to fix my sister’s smile.

Teresa had a violent curiosity about how far she could push herself and my parents. In the dentist’s waiting room, her wrist in a sling on which I had doodled monstrous butterflies in red Sharpie, I asked what made her do something as stupid as intentionally falling.

“I wanted to see what was the worst that could happen,” she said.

In the hospital, the doctors pumped the bleach from Teresa’s stomach while my mother sobbed into my father’s arms, and slowly, my sister’s strategy revealed itself, its brilliance subtle, masked in chaos, like those random patterns of colored dots whose hidden image can be seen only by those who know how to adjust their vision. The night before, our parents had bought us orange push pops and told us each to choose who we’d rather live with. My sister had immediately understood the need for swift, nuclear intervention.

The bleach landed Teresa in the ER for only a day, but her disappointment only hardened to a bright, sleek resolve that left her single-minded as a spike. The message had obviously not been clear enough.

After her return from the hospital, each night once our parents went to bed, Teresa dressed in her bathing suit and made me stand guard while she lay in the stream behind our house for an hour. I was to watch for our parents and to make sure she didn’t fink out before the hour was up.

Within a week, she’d successfully contracted pneumonia.

My parents decided that, at ten, I was old enough to stay alone in the house while they kept watch over my sister’s hospital bed. I ate orange push pops and experimented with my father’s liquor cabinet, getting drunk on Jack Daniels and falling asleep to reruns of Family Feud. My own back molar was loose, and I worried it with my tongue, eager for the wish and money that would appear under my pillow.

I made paper cranes to decorate Teresa’s hospital room, and we played chess on her thin blue blanket. Teresa won nearly every game, occasionally letting me beat her so that I’d keep playing. When my parents were out of the room, she’d ask for an update. How did they seem? Were they still sleeping in separate beds? She also had me run “errands,” including getting rid of the antibiotics she’d only pretended to swallow but kept hidden under her tongue. She wanted to stretch her time in the hospital as long as possible, as long as it took for our parents to come to their senses. Surely, next to their daughter’s illness, their grudges against each other would come to seem petty, even quaint, and eventually, like in the rom-coms my sister adored, they would laugh at their silliness, appreciate the hurdles they’d overcome, get on with it, and kiss and make up already.

Together, we were at war with our parents. Only they didn’t know it.

One day, as we ate chewy candy orange slices a nurse had left us (one of her ex-boyfriend’s many attempts to win her back, but she wouldn’t hear a word of it until he got his ass a real job), my molar finally broke free. I held the bloody nub for Teresa and yammered on about how excited I was to make a wish that night.

“You know what you have to do,” said Teresa seriously. She took the tooth and held it to the light like a jeweler would a gem, trying to determine its value.

“What?”

“Wish they’ll stay together.”

That night I buried the tooth under my pillow and stared at the water stain in the ceiling. But instead of following my sister’s instructions, I wished for a pair of rollerblades. I imagined cruising the asphalt, hands easily behind my back, and demanding to join the street hockey game with the pack of boys that ran our neighborhood. I envisioned slamming my body against Carlos Velazquez, watching his face light up with pleasure when he realized I wasn’t like the other girls who stuck to the boundaries of their own driveways, content with nubs of chalk and dandelion bracelets; I could take a hit, in fact, I welcomed it.

In the morning, the tooth was still there; no dime or quarter had replaced it. I planted it again the next two nights, but no money ever appeared. Regret sludged through me, and I knew that because I’d been selfish, my tooth was now worthless.

Then my father found me tossing Teresa’s pills into the cafeteria’s trash. He paraded me in front of my mother and the two of them wriggled the whole story out of me.

“Why would you help her do something like that to herself?” my mother asked and squeezed my shoulders, hard, as if trying to wring wet laundry, and I could see a wind of terror blow through my mother, as if for the first time, she recognized that her child could be guided by a mysterious, robust source, a private self forever hidden from her view, dangerous for its ordinariness and therefore as insidious as the carbon monoxide that might snatch her breath in the night.

For days, their disappointment coated me like a slimy film. But that shame was nothing compared to what I felt when Teresa learned I’d betrayed her. Not just her, she said, the whole family.

“Do you know what will happen now?” she shouted through swollen vocal chords when we were alone.

I began to cry because I didn’t know. My sister stewed in silent frustration, because, as it turned out, neither did she.

Eventually, Teresa healed and returned home, refusing to speak to either my parents or me the last week of her illness.

Then one night, I woke to Teresa’s clammy palm clamped over my mouth.

“Get dressed,” she said and flicked on a flashlight that filled my eyes with bright worms. “We’re leaving.”

On the bed sat the two duffel bags she’d packed for each of us, filled with Snickers, jars of peanut butter, saltines, the quilt our mother made of old camp T-shirts, and my EpiPen. Teresa showed me the note she planned to leave on the kitchen table. She’d drafted it in the hospital. Written on heavy parchment paper with a calligraphy pen from the set she’d received last Christmas, it detailed the conditions of our parents’ surrender. Their daughters would return only if they agreed to stay together and never mention the divorce again. Since we’d have no phone communication, they could let us know their answer by taking out a personal ad in the local newspaper which we would check from our secret location. Teresa provided them the money for this task from her summer job as a dog-sitter, in bills neatly folded and tucked in a Ziploc bag.

The wind burrowed into my neck and legs as we climbed from our bedroom window down the trellis that supported my mother’s roses. Several thorns pricked me, but I didn’t dare cry out. That night, my sister’s eyes were murderous, the way my father’s had been the day he’d hit a small dog on the drive to the airport, my mother wailing and slapping his shoulder to turn around, for god’s sake turn around, and him yelling at her to get control of herself, we were going miss our flight, the dog was already dead.

Earlier that day, Teresa had made sure our bikes were tucked away inconspicuously behind the garden shed. I desperately hoped our parents would wake up and catch us, scold Teresa, and tuck us back under our warm blankets. I felt like I had while watching a Nova special that showed a lion plunging its jaws into the throat of a gazelle: panicked at the incident’s inevitable outcome, outraged at the videographers’ failure to intervene, and left stale with my own puny powerlessness as the scene unfolded.

The wind pounded our bikes as we pedaled over streets glassy with rain, and soon I was silently crying because I realized I’d forgotten Cletus, my stuffed elephant. I sensed this night was our entrance into a bleak adulthood from which there would be no turning back, and it seemed as though he was lost to me forever.

“Where are we going?” I finally asked as we pedaled into town.

“The Greyhound station.”

We would take the bus to the next town over and stay at the YMCA until we found our parents’ agreement in the paper. My sister presented her plan as foolproof, as simple as following the recipes for our Easy-Bake oven, and my need to believe her confidence had grown so bloated I asked no further questions. I was like a soldier, blindly following orders without knowing the ultimate purpose, if only out of fear that any misstep would invite a bullet to my chest.

In the bus station bathroom, Teresa did her makeup, caked her eyes in kohl to make herself look older when she purchased the tickets. The ticket lady didn’t bat an eye when my sister said we were going to visit our grandmother who was sick with pneumonia.

The bus didn’t leave until 5:00am, and my sister anxiously watched the depot door as if she suspected our parents might arrive at any moment.

I tongued the socket where my molar had been, the point of the new tooth just poking through. The momentary halt in our frenzied activity cleared a space for a lump of loss to uncoil itself: Would I ever sleep in my own bed again? Would another girl kiss Carlos first? Who would brush our cat Sandy? Whose arm was skinny enough to retrieve the toys she batted under the fridge?

Teresa bought me a Hershey’s candy bar from the vending machine and told me to relax.

The bus smelled like macaroni and cheese mixed with cherry air freshener, and my stomach sloshed with each step down the aisle. We slung our duffel bags onto the luggage rack and shuffled into stained seats filled with crumbs and wadded tissues. The bus was empty, save two middle-aged men at the front, engaged in a loud discussion with the bus driver about prayer in the schools.

A young man in a tobacco jacket, dark sunglasses jammed into his nest of hair like a caught bat, spun a bright red yo-yo up and down as he boarded. Unshaved and smelling of oranges, he sat in the seat across from ours. It was the first time I’d traveled without an adult and I felt exposed, out of safety’s reach. I pressed my cheek against the greasy window.

“Want to see something neat?” the man said to Teresa. At school, my sister was popular with the boys and often shared their presents of chocolates and braided wristbands with me.

“That’s okay,” she said. Our parents had drilled politeness into both of us, no matter the circumstances.

“Sure you do. Here, look.” The man spun the yo-yo and, with a series of finger swipes, twisted the string into a cat’s cradle, the red center swinging wildly. I couldn’t tell how much older the man was than us. The yo-yo made him seem unnaturally child-like, closer to my age than Teresa’s, but his eyes were hedged in dark circles.

“See? What do you think about that?”

Though she pretended to ignore the man by taking out a book, I could feel her thigh tense beside my own. The crack in her confidence was visible and widening, and for the first time in my life, I could tell my sister was terrified.

“I could teach you. It’s not hard.”

“No thank you,” she said and raised the book to her face. The man continued performing a series of tricks for our benefit, the red yo-yo whirring like an insect. I fixed my eyes on a stain on the seat in front of us, the flashes of red leaping at the corners of my vision.

As the engine began to rumble, I said I needed to use the bathroom.

“Now?” Teresa whispered, shifting her body to block me from the man’s view. “Why didn’t you go earlier? We’re about to leave.”

I slid my hand in my crotch and tearfully declared it an emergency.

“Hurry up,” she said and turned aside to let me pass.

In the lobby, I ran. I unlocked my bike, pedaled home, and did not look back.

#

The police found my sister the next day at the YMCA in the town over from ours. She rarely spoke to any of us with any substance after that, as if she had been emptied of a particular lushness, dried out like a pressed flower. She and I never shared the same intimacy of mutual experience that anchors children to each other, and the blaze of our attachment sputtered to kind of polite coexistence.

Our parents finalized their divorce papers the following spring.

#

Years later, after my own marriage fell apart, I watered the half dozen potted plants I’d stolen off the porch that had gone to my husband in the settlement and said to them, “This is it. This is the worst that could happen.” My husband and I did not have children, no one like my sister, no one to see the way out, to make the sacrifice.

Only then, deadheading those half-dead mums and begonias, did my sister’s childhood logic begin to add up to a strange kind of sense: identify the worst possible pain and neutralize its effects by inflicting it on yourself.

I have not spoken to my sister in many years. I would like to ask her what happened on the bus: if the man targeted her once she was alone, whether she stayed in her seat out of determination or paralysis. Perhaps he was harmless, an unstable but well-meaning transient. But over the years, he has swelled in my mind to a kind of consummate villain, the executor of rape, torture, and murder. Still, to dwell on what could have happened, that I could have let my sister disappear forever, seems a kind of cheap exercise in shabby guilt.

The night Teresa ran away, I believed I was the secret source of her grit, the same force that prompts you to jump into a silent lake at midnight with a friend, but not on your own, never on your own. But it turned out Teresa didn’t need me. She hadn’t followed me off that bus. Instead, she carried the plan through alone, had invited me only out of duty. That night, my sister possessed an absolute strength on her own, a flame that over the years I would desperately try but never manage to light in myself.

Of course, my sister had already known all this. It strikes me now that Teresa hadn’t shared the plan of our escape until that night because she’d sensed I would balk, spoil everything with my limping fragility. Even then, she had detected a weakness, a fundamental deficiency of character that was no fault of my own, just a fact, as unchangeable as my inheritance of my mother’s eyes or my father’s mouth.

“What was it like?” I want to ask her. To slide fire down your throat and to not stop drinking. To climb to the top of great heights, to let go and commit yourself to air, to wonder if it was all worth it, the moment before your body hits the ground.


CORA ROWE hails from Fort Wayne, Indiana. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Oregon where she received the Richard and Juliette Logsdon Award for Creative Writing. Her play On the Street Where We Used to Live won the Best New Voices Award and was produced at the University of Oregon. Her fiction has been published in Creative Loafing and Bellevue Literary Review. She is a third-year English PhD candidate at Georgia State University where she was awarded the Virginia Spencer Carr Fellowship. She lives in Atlanta with her husband.

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