This story was published in the Winter 2019 issue of the Penn Review and the December 2020 issue of plain china.
Ever since Cecilia Harrison’s father told her that no one ate cinnamon raisin bagels anymore, she had made it her personal mission to order only cinnamon raisin bagels. She preferred egg. Even so, cinnamon raisin was palatable — even pleasant — lightly toasted and dabbed with full-fat cream cheese. She chose full-fat even though half-fat tasted the same because she needed an excuse to buy new jeans.
Cecilia trudged into the dentist’s office where she worked and opened her personal inbox on her phone, marking all her emails as ‘read’ without seeing who sent them. She took off her puffer coat and glanced down at today’s scrubs, her most fun pair, the ones with the smiling bananas on the arms.
“Those aren’t very clever,” said her favorite receptionist, Lucy. “Bananas are already shaped like mouths.”
“So what?” said Cecilia.
“So they should just have eyes floating above them. And a nose. That would be a more creative face,” said Lucy.
“No, that’s overdone,” said Cecilia. “Banana-as-mouth? That’s obvious. But banana-with-mouth? Now that’s downright subversive.”
Cecilia slid her scale out from under a pile of medical records in the closet that she’d claimed as an unofficial office. Technically, dental hygienists weren’t supposed to have private offices, but she needed somewhere to hyperventilate during panic attacks, and going to the bathroom to panic was something she’d vowed never to do again after high school. She unlaced her sneakers — NewBalance, 2009 fall collection — and stepped onto the scale. She’d gained three pounds of cream cheese weight since last month. Another two and she’d treat herself to a trip to J.C. Penney.
She scanned her schedule for the day. Three patients, lunch break, three patients, short break (used, depending on the day, for a quick walk, a yoga salutation, a minor breakdown, or a cup of coffee), two patients, clock out. Cecilia pushed the scale back under the papers and left her closet.
She stood in the doorway of the waiting room, and even though there was only one family there — a polo-shirted father clutching the hand of an eight-year-old with green plastic glasses — she called, “Danny?”
The boy bounced off the couch, his father lurching forward as Danny’s hand remained clamped onto his. The father pushed himself into a standing position. Cecilia noticed the strong cheekbones beneath skin that was just starting to droop into jowls, and decided that she would check whether Danny’s mother was still alive.
“Dad, I can go by myself,” Danny said.
The father glanced at the dentist cubicles and then at Danny. “Are you sure?”
Danny nodded and let go of his father’s arm.
“If you’re certain, kid,” said the father.
He sat back down on the cushion with a heavy thud, his left arm leveraging his weight. Cecilia noticed a cane propped up on the wall a few feet to his left, the same cold medical steel that composed her own father’s wheelchair, and decided that she wouldn’t mind if Danny’s mother was still around.
“Come on, Danny,” Cecilia said, guiding the boy to the set of sinks. “What color toothbrush do you want?”
“Red,” said Danny. “Do you know what else is red?”
“No, I don’t. Do me a favor and brush your teeth while you tell me, okay, sweetie?” Cecilia said.
Danny squeezed a pearl of bubblegum toothpaste onto his brush. “Okay. What’s red is communism.”
Cecilia choked on a ginger mint.
Danny opened his mouth again, toothpaste dripping from his gums, but Cecilia ushered him into the dentist’s chair before he could say anything.
“I’ll be over in a few,” the dentist, Dr. Gerald, called from inside her office. Dr. Gerald’s office was not a closet. Sometimes when Cecilia was staying late to do inventory, and she was the last person in the unit, she stood inside Dr. Gerald’s office and inhaled Dr. Gerald’s lingering perfume. Cinnamon and cardamom, with a hint of something musky. Cecilia once found a perfume bottle on the windowsill with just a few drops left, really almost ready to be tossed in the recycling bin. Cecilia didn’t recycle it. Instead, she tapped out some of the remaining liquid onto the cockroach trap underneath Dr. Gerald’s desk. (Cecilia’s father kept two pet Madagascar hissing roaches in a glass cage with tomatoes and lettuce, and Cecilia didn’t mind the roaches but she would never eat a BLT.) The next time the exterminator came to change the traps, Cecilia saw one wavering cockroach leg extend from the trap just as he tossed it into a garbage bag. Cecilia didn’t know what she expected to feel at that moment. Anyhow, she didn’t feel it.
Cecilia nodded to Dr. Gerald. “I’ll get him ready.”
“Don’t worry, bud,” Dr. Gerald said, focusing her reptilian eyes on Danny. “Cecilia will make your teeth shine like my father’s bald head in the summer.”
Danny frowned. “Then what’s your job?”
Dr. Gerald’s mouth hardened into a line. “Cecilia, I’ll take over as soon as I can.”
Cecilia suppressed a chuckle and clipped a bib around Danny’s neck. She jabbed sunglasses on his eyes, twisting the dial on the overhead light to shine just a little too bright for his comfort. The rubber of her gloves snapped against her skin and she knew that her palms would be chalky from the silicon when she peeled them off in twenty minutes.
Cecilia stuck an electric toothbrush in Danny’s mouth and swiped at his teeth. Chunks of beige plaque were wedged between his molars.
“My friend told me a joke about communism,” he said through the toothbrush, toothpaste saliva spattering Cecilia’s goggles. “Do you want to hear it?”
Cecilia did not want to hear it. “Of course, hon.”
“Did you hear the one about the Marxist speaker who charged lots of money to speak?” Danny spat into the tube trailing out of the side of his mouth. “That’s it! That’s the joke!”
“Do you know what that means?” Cecilia asked.
“Yes,” said Danny. He glared at her from beneath the sunglasses. “I hate it when adults do that.”
As a dental hygienist, it was quite literally in her contract to do ‘that.’ If she didn’t patronize at least six children each day she’d receive a salary deduction.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said Cecilia, unhooking the tube from the inside of Danny’s cheek and laying it down on the table beside her. “I’m going to paint your teeth with this special paste, and then swish and spit into the tube, okay?”
“The paste is red like communism,” said Danny.
“Just—swish—and spit,” repeated Cecilia.
She decided that she might have to take her panic break early today.
Dr. Gerald slipped out of her office and padded up to the dental station, then snatched the tube from the table.
“You look like you could use a few minutes, hon,” Dr. Gerald whispered to Cecilia. “If you need, you can take a breather in my office.”
This close to Dr. Gerald’s face, Cecilia noticed the light flick of Dr. Gerald’s eyeliner. It occurred to Cecilia that she’d been a hygienist longer than Dr. Gerald had been legal.
Cecilia nodded and retreated to her own closet. As she shut the door, she felt her phone buzz in the pocket of her scrubs. She read the text. Hi Cecilia. I’m ashamed of the person you’ve become. Xo, Dad.
She opened the door of her closet again and crossed the hall into Dr. Gerald’s office. Watching Dr. Gerald hunch over Danny through the window in the closed door, Cecilia felt something like what she expected to feel after the cockroach/perfume incident. Cecilia opened Dr. Gerald’s desk drawer and found a new bottle of perfume, three-quarters full this time, the translucent rose liquid sloshing inside the glass. She held the bottle to her chest and then slackened her fingers. The bottle plummeted to the linoleum floor and shattered, liquid rushing over shards, then sprawling into a thin layer around Cecilia’s sneakers. The rubber of the soles absorbed some of it. Cecilia would buy a new pair when she went shopping for jeans, which was to say that she would never buy a new pair, because every time she got within a pound of her cream cheese goal the nausea became too thick in her stomach and she heard her voice ordering an egg bagel with butter, and then when she took the Metro to work she ripped the bagel into doughy chunks with her bitten-down fingernails instead of smearing lipstick across her mouth, and when she got into the office on those days Dr. Gerald always offered her a moment to ‘breathe’ and Cecilia — despite her tongue-crushing desire — never offered Dr. Gerald a moment to go fuck herself.
Cecilia stepped over the puddle of perfume and left Dr. Gerald’s office, then opened the gate to the reception desk. She sat down in the folding chair behind Lucy’s rolling one. “You’re right,” she said, leaning forward so that only Lucy could hear her. “The bananas should be mouths. Subversive is practically a cliché.”