backhand stories the creative writing blog

No matter how many times the hygienist interrupts her Rod and Gun Club wedding reception story to adjust the chair lamp, it keeps tilting back and blinding me. The torn utensil package lies caul-like, contorted on the metal tray. The white walls are saturated with the charred smell of old drilling.

She peppers her story with warnings like “Not flossing when you brush is like not washing your armpits when you shower” while clamping my tongue down with a nickel-sized mirror and grazing a pick along my gum line in deft arcs. Electric red wires splay from the corners of her eyes. I think she is smiling under that mask.

I want to tell her that the orange cheese puffs and the flat root beer and the chocolate snack cakes, that the honeymoon at the Grand Canyon and the sex on the backyard hammock and the long margarita conversations-that none of it lasts; that the gel one day strains into a few elastic strings between you both, which snap into fewer and fewer each time he leaves in the morning to repair another refrigerator or washing machine. But I can only respond in gurgles and teethe at the instruments.

She rests the base of her hand hard on the bridge of my nose and hums with the buffer. In the eclipse, I can make out the double-bump of two gold bands. A mossy green fleck flies onto her mask, dangles, then falls to my paper bib. She doesn’t understand how slow a demise can be, how imperceptible-from going out for pizza on the third anniversary to ordering Chinese delivery on the fourth. I would choke on spearmint saliva trying to explain.

As I peel away from the plastic armrest covers to rinse, the hygienist wheels backwards on the cushioned stool until she bumps the supply cabinet. She hands me a new toothbrush, throat culture pink with a small head and soft crew cut bristles, and a pamphlet detailing the proper brush jiggle-action. I run my tongue over my teeth, knowing this is as smooth as it gets.

Those first mornings, my gums taste metallic. My orange juice stings. Crumbs stab into my elbows; their shadows stretch across the vinyl tablecloth, revealing them in clusters. Between him and me are the sports section and his slice of cold pizza. I cringe at another sip.

He gives me a prolonged look over the top of his shield and then turns the page, wafting his woody-spicy cologne my way. It burns my lungs and makes me a warped sort of hungry.

“I’m brushing,” I explain.

Everything in our bedroom-the maroon shag, the itchy mauve quilt, the ribbed taupe curtains-exudes that woody-spicy stink. The wet dog smell from the clothesbasket on the closet floor adds even more bite to the pungent aroma of the room. Only the antique bureau, swelling out like a baroque museum piece with claw feet and teardrop knobs, is able to protect my socks and bras and sweatpants from absorbing it all.

“What, your hygienist been threatening you?”

We promised each other we’d never lose the drive–that we’d move cross-country to California and sell T-shirts and surf boards in a little shop on the beach–that we’d never come back. I always think maybe if we leave right now we could still escape. He would lose the weight and his hair would grow in the right places again and his eyes would open as wide as they used to; I’d sleep less and drink more and touch things again with the tips of my fingers.

He downs his coffee and heads off early to work. When the kitchen air clears, that familiar kitty litter odor returns-even though we have no cat. I wash last night’s dishes, watch carved-off bits of chicken fat and overripe broccoli heads swim in slow-motion rewind to the drain as if they were meant to be there all along, then go to work myself.

With the afterimage of the computer screen burnt into my retinas, my voice strained from the customer service falsetto, and a point on the left side of my skull, behind the ear, throbbing from the too-tight headset, I drive to the pharmacy. It smells pleasantly sterile and the carpets are gray. There are rows of floss, pre- and post-rinses, picks and pokers. I choose a little of everything and continue home.

The TV projects varying hues, sad and happy, across the living room. Despite that, his boxer-briefs and wife beater and bowl of stale popcorn bathe in an eerily constant blue. He is stubbled and his eyes are scuffed beads.

I go to the bathroom and whisk the shower curtain closed; I’d rather see the shadows of soap scum on the liner than the paint peeling on the shower windowsill or the torn shade or the dingy traction mat. I tape my pamphlet to the mirror and spend the night learning to use everything. I ignore the tiny square tiles all over the floor and the walls so I don’t get caught up in their complicated patterns. I pretend I can’t smell his Garden Fresh disinfectant spray hanging in the air, though I sneeze every few minutes anyway. By midnight, my gums ache and all I can taste is strong mint mixed with traces of blood. I am done.

When I go to bed he is lying on his back: still awake. I try to change my clothes, but I can’t find the right drawer–every teardrop feels the same–and I decide not to bother. I stub my toe on the bedpost, and the pain swells back on me as I crawl in. He turns his head and says, “My brother once got on some brushing kick. Brushed off all his enamel. Fourteen cavities.” Then he thumps over onto his side, having made his point, and I know he’s asleep when his breathing turns light, steady–like a child’s.

I’m thankful we never installed that mirror on the ceiling like we dreamed we would while we were dating–while we were kissing under feathered down and tangled in each other’s arms, when we would tumble into bed from any side and sleep wherever we landed–so I don’t have to see us now, tranquil as corpses in the sallow morning light, and I’ll never wake to witness myself gripping the edge of the mattress after I’ve tripped down that fjord in my nightmares, my body tensing and my face twisted as if I’m still about to plunge into those icy Nordic waters.

In the morning, my mouth feels coated with dirt. Orange juice is acid on an open wound. But over the next nights, the red trails against the white sink fade to pink and then to clear. He is awake when I come to bed, but his remarks wither to huffs, then to heavy sighs.

As I wait him out, I think about how we used to laugh at couples that look like we do now.

I remember how, amidst the scent of gardenias and the endless Canon in D of our wedding day, he seemed to let out one long breath–how his tuxedo, the one he wore when he proposed over that dinner of swordfish in light lemon crème, began to crease in rays of strain at the buttons to form a column of dark comets–and how fast it happened–sometime after the vows, perhaps around the time his mother unveiled four pans of coffee cake in a curious substitution for the frosted three-tier double mocha I’d expected, or as late as when we dragged ourselves across the sticky summer leather of the limousine for that final ride to the airport.

I try to picture him young, but the wispy hologram is a film so thin it pops with the slightest pressure–a movement, a breath. I try to fantasize about leaving him, about being left by him, about us agreeing with a handshake to leave each other, but it stops there. I can’t dream up a life to follow.

He comes home late holding a portable, wind-up clock. The hands have phosphorescent strips and the sticker on the face is creased into a liquid-looking line that meanders from the II to the VII.

“What’s that for?”

“The bathroom.”


“Time my showers.” He has never taken a shower more than seven minutes long. “I’ll just put it here,” on the middle shelf of the wicker wall rack, atop a stack of navy face cloths. He sprays his disinfectant and its fierce Garden Freshness sends me into a sneezing fit.

I do end up creating some uses for the clock. Countdown starts the moment I hear him drag his feet down the hallway, over the pharmacy-gray industrial carpeting, past the bathroom and into the bedroom. While time runs, I do other things: wash my face, brush my hair. I overlook the navy blue lint on the rim of the tub, the grime behind the toilet, the lush mold inside the sink’s flood hole. Forty-two minutes later, he is undoubtedly asleep–limp on the mattress.

Then, I can begin:

First, I rinse with a mildly minty plaque-loosener (2 minutes); next, I brush teeth, tongue, gums, lips–everywhere–with baking soda toothpaste (26 minutes); then I floss, twenty-three strokes per gap: ten against each tooth, three sweeping the gum in between (19 minutes); and last, I gargle with a mouthwash that makes my eyes tear, my face burn-so strong in my throat it blocks out the Garden Fresh stench (2 minutes).

I grow more accustomed to the bedroom darkness, learning to count my steps to the bureau, to feel for nicks in the wood, to find pajamas by the texture of the fabrics. Soon, I undress and dress and maneuver as though I never needed eyes at all.

He eats leftover meatloaf slathered in ketchup for breakfast. His temples have seemed to swell and stretch and merge under the skin on his forehead, and the lump rises and falls when he chews; he resembles a feeding gorilla.

Though groggy, I try to remember if my change happened before or after his–whether I was the cause or the effect.

While I rummage for the milk, I notice a pair of never-used pomegranate candles, in block-crystal bases, buried in the nook between the fridge and the breadbox. I used to wear red like that on my lips–that same bright shade. I could never wear it now, knowing how easily lipstick stains–but I wonder what I’d look like. I wonder how pomegranate floss would taste.

Before I add milk to my raisin bran, I pick out the raisins–knowing how readily they catch between the teeth–and they sit like a deposit of frosted rabbit pellets on my napkin. Since I began waking up before him to gargle, my appetite has returned–the mouthwash mint is intense enough to temper his cologne, though not enough to smother it. The metal spoon resting on my middle finger cools the spot where my skin is starting to dry and peel from the floss.

At 1:34 a.m., he knocks. I freeze.

I open the door. He is sitting the wrong way on a kitchen chair–straddling it, leaning forward against its back-facing the bathroom door. I never even heard him out there.

“Do you have to use the bathroom?”

He glares at me. “Yeah.” There is a blanched sliver of food between his front teeth.

“Here. Use it.” I step out. The floss is cutting off blood flow to the tips of my middle fingers.

“After you.” The food is still there, harbored in that crevice.

I step back in. “You’re just gonna sit there and watch me?”

“Yeah.” He wouldn’t bother to get rid of it even if I told him it was there.

We stare at each other. His face and neck are blackened with bristly hair. Weak pulses of blood magnify into painful throbs at my purple fingertips. His thighs bulge off the edge of the seat.

In a flash I grab the knob, and before he can heave himself up and jam his swollen slippered foot in the gap, I have it locked. He slams into the door, somewhere up high–with his fists, or his elbows, or his entire lower arm–and the sound fills the bathroom, resonating in the ceramics.

Right away I release the chokehold and soothe my fingers under cool water. I hear the chair bruise the walls as he lugs it back to the kitchen, then his slipper tread rasp against the rug in weary steps through the hallway toward the bedroom… then no noise, and I am safe.

After my fingers recover, I finish flossing-and I add extra strokes, just to be sure. Then I brush again, massaging every flesh surface, stripping away anything dead I may have left the first time. The mirror reflects a flush, clear-eyed face; my lips seem fuller, darker.

When I go to the bedroom, I take time to appreciate the scratched wood, the sad cold knobs, the weaves of the fabric. While I’m exposed in the dark, I take time to stretch, to knead, to memorize the softness of my skin.

I’m flossing between the top left canine and lateral incisor when I spot a single stubble hair in the sink-not quite a centimeter long. I run the water, but it won’t wash down. I use the blunt end of my brush. Then the bristled end of his. My fingernail finally does the trick. I clean my finger with antibacterial hand soap, then I clean the sink with a wad of toilet paper. Then I dry my hands, and I look around.

The first thing to go is the Garden Fresh disinfectant spray. Hoping to neutralize any lurking hint of it, I wrap Gardenia potpourri in gauze and hang it everywhere: the doorknob, the window lock, the sink drainpipes. I replace everything navy–the face cloths, the bath towels, the shaggy rug, the fuzzy toilet seat cover–with white lint-free things never drenched in Garden Freshness. I cut the curtain liner down and tear away the traction mat-the suction sounds like packing bubbles popping. I scour the tiles on the walls and floor with lemony-pine cleaners. With a mixture of bleach and baking soda, I polish the tub, then the toilet, then the sink; I add some to the bristles when I use his brush to scrub inside the flood hole.

When I step into the tub to toss out the torn shade and re-paint the flaking sill, I notice the moon, high up and pale as bone. I open the window. The cool night air falls in, and trees rustle outside. I discover that if I stand here in the tub, and it’s past a certain hour, I can always see the moon–so every night I open the window to wait for it.

Whenever the clothesbasket overflows, whenever he drapes his belts over the back of the recliner, whenever he spills beer on the living room Oriental, whenever he brands the light switch with grease-prints–I leave things as they are. The distinct odors of the house worsen as neglected rooms surrender and deteriorate, but my bathroom stays pristine.

I walk on the cold bathroom tiles barefoot now, and my dreams take me to the bathhouses of ancient Pompeii instead of the Norwegian Sea. When I crouch to study the festive mesh of green mint and red cinnamon floss at the top of the trash, I catch myself humming carols the next morning. The curled-up toothpaste tube begins to remind me of a young ballerina on her tummy, stretching her toes to her head.

Sometimes I floss leaning against the newly satin-finished sill, and I tell the moon that I was once a dancer-that when I was seven, I would pirouette for hours–I would sleep in my tutu. Then I extend my arms through the window, as I once would have in third arabesque, to floss between the moon and the sky–to scrape away the parched, ancient craters–and again I can imagine myself a prima ballerina princess.

And only very late at night, when the trees have quieted and the door is locked and the window is open wide, the moon talks back to me. It tells me how dizzy it gets, how it questions its purpose.

A sudden snap.

The roller keeps spinning, and the last of the white unwaxed floss–about five inches–droops from my fist. It was my last reel, my spare.

I have no choice. I gargle, shut the window, and leave the bathroom. The neighbors’ driveway light streams through the Venetian blinds in the bedroom like so many suns, a prison stripe spotlight for me as I tiptoe in.

He is on his back. I undress and dress awkwardly, shrinking away from the bright bands, thinking that he could see me exposed at any moment–but he does not sit up, does not open his eyes. I sneak into bed, stare at the ceiling and wait.

I listen to the irregular rhythm of his breathing, but it never steadies, never strengthens. Other than that, the room is black and silent. I can feel the threads of cotton on the back of my arms and neck.

The light in the neighbors’ driveway clicks off. In the void above I catch glimpses of the ghosts of the veins inside and behind my eyes, cast in strange pulsing yellows that move with me no matter where I look.

I close my eyes, turn to my side and try to force sleep. Despite the mint in my throat and on my tongue, I smell his cologne deep in the fibers of my pillow, where it will seep into my skin overnight. I hear my own blood coursing in spurts through my ears. The bed seems both incalculably large and small. My teeth are slick against my tongue, but I know gritty sugars linger in places I never reached. Before long, bacteria will consume the sugars and produce acids, then the acids will sear the soft tissue at my gumline, dissolve the minerals in my enamel, dig further for the dentin, then the pulp…

He rolls toward me. It takes him years. “What’s the problem?”

“Ran out of floss. Can’t finish.”

He lets out a long breath–so long I think he might deflate. “So go and get more.” He eases himself back over, no thumping or huffing. His breathing becomes shallow and regular within seconds.

Now that it’s dark I can dress quickly, counting nicks and knobs, sorting through piles of familiar materials, pulling things on and over, zipping up and buttoning down. I smile as I go, admiring my own adeptness. I find his wallet in the pants on top of the dirty clothes mound, which is waist-high and spilling three feet out from the closet.

The night air has made the car door handle cold. I pull out, shivering with the moon by my shoulder but expecting the sun on my back soon enough. I don’t worry about leaving my toothbrush behind. I’ll buy a new one in San Diego.