Cavities and Kindness

“Here comes the air.”

“Now water.”

“Now I'm going to insert the cotton.”

That's what my dentist, who looked like Misaki Ito, said. I looked up at the woman, in her late twenties, and her long, curling eyelashes, and wondered, “Did she get an eyelash perm?” A towel was spread over my fishnet stockings. I was leaning back, looking up. She blasted air into my mouth, washed it out with a small jet of water, and stuffed the space between my gums and teeth with cotton. I was getting a wisdom tooth pulled.

The pain had come, pounding my teeth like waves, and finally, receded.

When it receded, I forgot about the pain. I ignored my teeth for a while, and the cavity in my upper right wisdom tooth worsened.

It was almost Christmas, I had a cavity, and I was in the process of getting dumped. I felt pretty depressed.

My lover was four years older than me. He was a twenty-seven-year-old man. We used to work at the same place, but half a year ago he changed jobs, and now he works at a small editing and production company. He seems really busy, and in the past six months we've only met twice. Even when I called he usually didn't pick up, and when we could finally talk, he didn't seem to want to see me at all. “We've been together for almost two years, but maybe it's that time,” I cried.

“Kawanishi-san, are you all right? Does it hurt?”

The dentist, surprised by my teary eyes, removed her tools from my mouth.

“I'm fine.”

I gave a small smile. Then, opening my mouth wide, I tried to remember the first time I went to his apartment.

We ate dinner at an Okinawan restaurant, and then he took me home to his place.

I took my toothbrush out of my bag to brush my teeth, and my lover, Ito-san, said “What? You brought a toothbrush? Had you been planning on staying here all along?” I was embarrassed, and blood rushed straight to my head. Yes, from the very beginning I had planned it. “Today, I will definitely stay over,” I thought, and so I packed my toothbrush. But it's better not to say those things . . . so, indignant, I kept my mouth shut.

After that, I never took my toothbrush. If I wound up staying over, I'd buy a cheap one from a convenience store or a 99-yen shop. And Ito-san would mock me, saying, “The first time you came over, I was happy you brought a toothbrush.”

By the way, I'd buy a toothbrush, but I wouldn't buy toothpaste. There was some in his apartment.

Ito-san always kept his toothpaste in the refrigerator.

“I leave it there because when I brush my teeth it cools down my mouth, and it feels nice.” He looked incredibly cute when he said things like that.

I'd stand next to him when he started brushing his teeth. I'd squeeze cold toothpaste on my toothbrush and brush with him. After his “shhck, shhck, shhck” sound would come my “gshhh, gshhh, gshhh” sound, their tones and rhythms just slightly different. It sounded like strange music.

“Your tooth is out. Please gargle,” the dentist said, and I straightened up faster than the reclining chair. I gargled. The water I spit out was full of blood.

What does this cute dentist think of me? I was wearing a pink Courreges skirt, had a Samantha Thavasa bag, my shoulder-length hair was permed loosely, but under the “sex” column of my insurance card, it said “male.” Up through high school I dressed like a “male,” but when I got into college, I tried wearing skirts. After graduating, and even now, as I continue the part-time job that I had in college, I wear those kinds of clothes. No one I work with has ever even seemed to notice that I dress like a woman even though I have a man's name. I thought there probably weren't many companies like mine, so I didn't have any desire to try and find a real job after graduating. I just wanted to work forever with those nice people.

“Will you take it home?” the dentist asked with a smile, the extracted tooth, on a piece of cotton, stretched in my direction. I looked at it. It was covered in blood and looked hard. It was truly disgusting. I didn't take it home. That tooth became trash.

My anesthetized right cheek felt strange, and when I scratched it, the sound was muffled. The scratching noise traveled through my cheek to my ear.

 

***

 

That night, I fell asleep thinking, “My tooth hurts,” and dreamed about flies.

On a tree branch, stretching toward the surface of a river, were about twenty flies, pretending to be birds. They were each about the size of a bulbul, and gray. For a while, they were completely still, but in an instant they fell one by one, flapping into the river. Each sank slightly, and changed from a bird back into a fly. The scales from their wings melted in the water, glistening.

Then it was morning, I woke up, and thought again, “My tooth hurts.” I lay there and stared at the frayed edge of the sheet next to the side of my face. When I took a breath, the part of the sheet where threads jumped out, shook. I just stared like that forever and ever. I didn't want to get up.

But, somehow, I got out of bed, walked to the kitchen and took a grapefruit out of the refrigerator. I planned to eat it for breakfast, but I still wasn't awake. I thought, “Just five more minutes,” and holding the fruit, got back into bed.

I held the grapefruit up to the lights and thought, “It's a solar eclipse.” But the fruit wouldn't completely hide the light. Lit from behind, the yellow of the grapefruit darkened.

Yesterday, before going to bed, I called Ito-san.

“If you can't keep seeing me, I'd appreciate it if you'd please just hurry up and say so. This half-assed thing is wearing me out. And if we split up definitively, I can look for someone new, too.”

When I said that, he responded, “That's really true, very true.”

Then he apologized, saying “Yes, yes.” “Just like you said.” “I'm sorry,” and said unrelated, abstract things like “From now on, I'll treasure each and every day.” And finally, he repeated, “I'll call you back,” and “Let's talk about this in person.” There was no point in talking any more, so I hung up.

Ito-san’s a little different on the phone. It's his low, cloudy voice. In person, his voice was lively, and he was small, so it probably sounded higher pitched than it actually was. I liked his voice on the phone, too.

I had an appointment at the dentist’s in the afternoon, so I put on my makeup, except for lip gloss, and went out. She found another cavity. This time, one of the back teeth on the bottom, left side.

Today, the dentist had her bangs up, exposing her forehead. Her curly eyelashes were cute. I, on the other hand, had my mouth open like an idiot. Furthermore, since she was looking down at me from above, I was worried that she might see my nose hair. I scolded myself. If you have to do this sort of thing, you should check your nose hair in the morning. I brushed my teeth well, but I neglected the nose hair check.

“This will probably hurt a bit. Would you like an anesthetic?”

“I'm not sure . . .” I hesitated.

“It's the middle of the afternoon. Shall we try without it?”

No, I didn't care about lunch. I have some reservations about anesthesia, so if I can get by without it, I don't like to use it.

My dad went to another world while he was getting a dental operation.

When he was still young, my dad was anesthetized while getting a cavity fixed. Then he lost consciousness.

He came to and was standing in a field of flowers. His body was extremely light, and he felt high. When he looked into the distance, he thought it looked even more fun over there, so he started walking.

Then, a voice came from behind him. It sounded like my mother’s voice. He suppressed the desire to go off into the distance, and somehow, he returned.

Then, he woke up.

“Kawanishi-san. Kawanishi-san! Are you all right?” the dentist said, while lightly slapping my father's cheek. “It's dangerous to wander off like that.”

My father later told me this story with a very serious face.

My father and I had never been really close. And we haven't seen each other for five years. Since I started college and began living on my own, I haven't gone home once. I thought about going home, but when I imagined my parents, surprised at their son dressed in such a frilly way, I grew reluctant.

“I'll deal with it. So, please, no anesthetic,” I told the cute dentist.

 

***

 

Exercise 8020. An exercise in preserving, past the age of 80, 20 or more teeth.

“I think I'm about number 100 for the nicest teeth in Japan. I think I can accomplish that. I like brushing my teeth, and all.”

Ito-san always washes his hands and gargles when he gets home. I don't have those kinds of habits.

“You like things clean, huh?”

“Yeah.”

Ito-san nodded. Whenever I went to his apartment, everything was neat. My mouth was full of cavities and my room was always a total mess. I don't suit him, I thought, sitting idly on the floor, when he came and hugged me.

“Kawanishi-san, you're the cutest in Japan,” he said.

“Really?”

“Appearances really do matter.”

My appearance? Was there something wrong with his eyes? Or did he think that since I used to be what's called a “man” not a “woman” I would be happy to hear it? Anyway, Ito-san kept saying, “You're cute. You're so cute”

The dentist was cheerful today as well. Her thin, cute fingers pressed down on my lips. She was drilling down close to the nerve. It hurt, so I tried to recall old memories to get over the pain.

Ito-san and I worked together at a company that made television magazines, and we became friends. There were lots of TVs always turned on so we could watch television shows on all the channels.

On break, I was drinking coffee, staring blankly at one of them, watching a variety show. From the looks of it, a male actor was making eyes at another male actor to get laughs. I didn't understand what was funny.

I asked Ito-san, who was sitting next to me, “Is this funny?”

“Hmm, no it isn't. I guess people laugh at the difference between our cultural code and that person's sexuality? I don't get what's funny about female performers who are single or unpopular with guys either. What does it matter to people?”

“That's right. I’d rather laugh at their jokes or their performances.”

“Plus, it's not like the people who play these characters just make people laugh all the time in their real lives.”

“Right. TV's like that. People who get laughs on TV for being unattractive might have other, bigger problems in real life, or they could actually be more popular than some beautiful women. TV doesn't show that side of things.”

“Yeah. Each person's appeal is really their own. Only their own . . .”

When I recalled that conversation from two years ago, the dentist said, “Please bite down. Your teeth aren't lined up strange, are they? I drilled quite far, so it might hurt at night.”

“Umm, how much will it hurt?”

“Pain depends on the way you feel it, so it's different for everyone. If you can't handle it, bufferin will work. Or, would you like me to give you some painkillers?”

“Are they made half from kindness?” I joked, quoting the old ad.

And the dentist laughed.

That night, I took the medicine I had been given and went to sleep, and in my dream appeared an old woman I didn't know, and we went for a walk together. That old woman kept doing nice things for people walking by, so we really didn't walk very far. She soothed the children, gave people directions, and agreed to take dogs on walks. I said, “Please be my kindness,” and the woman melted into me.

And when I woke up, somehow, I was talking on the phone. I seemed to be talking to Ito-san.

I had got a call in the middle of the night, and had picked up. Even though I was sleeping, I insisted I was awake.

“Sorry for calling so late. I was thinking about some things and I got excited. I wanted to talk to someone.”

Then Ito-san stared talking about his “dream job.” He seemed to think his current work was his dream job.

“Yes, yes. Good luck. Yes. I will keep trying. I'll find my dream job, too,” I replied, gradually waking up.

“You said you wanted to eat ramen, right?” Ito-san said, suddenly changing the subject. It's true that about a year ago, I had said “I want to eat some delicious ramen.”

“Ramen. Let's go eat ramen,” I added.

“Let's go,” he said.

“OK.”

“When are you free?”

We promised to meet in a week. We'd probably finally discuss our breakup.

 

***

 

With a pink scarf wrapped around my neck and a black guitar case in my hand, I took the north exit of the station where we planned to meet. Ito-san wore a beige coat in the cold wind. He was there before me, waiting.

He wasn't the least bit surprised that I showed up with a guitar. He put a bookmark between the pages of the book he was reading, looked at me, and made himself look happy.

“Long time, no see, Kawanishi-san. You look good.”

I showed him the guitar case and asked, “What's inside?”

“An erhu,” he answered.

“Erhu?”

“It's a Chinese instrument.”

“No. It's a classical guitar. Want to see it?”

“Yeah.”

We sat on a stone bench in front of the station, under the Christmas lights.

“We're having a guerrilla concert,” I declared, taking the guitar, which I bought in high school, out of its case. I taught myself to play, and sometimes, even now, I play this guitar in my apartment on days off.

“One, two, three!” Ito-san cheered for me.

“Wait. If you don't clap, I can't play. Clap your hands. A really slow tempo.”

And he started clapping slowly for me. I played the Beatles' “In my Life” in time with his clapping.

Men try to look cool and say things like “I don't like the Beatles,” but I knew that Ito-san had all the Beatles CDs on a shelf in his apartment.

When I was going to play the interlude, the sheet music almost flew away in the wind, and Ito-san quickly stopped it with his left hand, and kept keeping time for me with his right hand and his thigh.

When the song was over, and the two of us applauded, someone wearing a navy uniform came up to us and said, “You can't make noise here.” We apologized.

After that, we went to eat ramen. It was a light niboshi and soy sauce ramen. Until they brought our ramen, we played thumb war and when the ramen was placed on the table, we drank the soup with our right hands while holding each others' left hands. We never worried about people looking at us.

“I like you, so even if we break up, I'll still think 'Wow, Ito-san was a great person.' I won't look for another lover for a while.”

“I see.”

Ito-san brought some noodles to his mouth. I asked, “Why don't you want to see me anymore?”

“Right now, my work is really important, so I can't really make time just for you, and I don't really have the emotional energy for it either. But then, you get irritated, right? You've been angry this whole time, right? Even when you call me, you're kind of in a bad mood. When that happens, I get a little depressed.”

I drank the water he poured me.

“But eventually work will calm down, right?”

“I don't know whether I'll feel the same way about you when work calms down.”

Suddenly, my eyes started to bother me. I couldn't sleep last night. I couldn't help but cry in my bed, thinking that this would be the last time we'd meet.

“Are my eyes puffy?”

“Not at all. They're the same cute shape I’ve always loved.”

“Really?”

Ito-san nodded slowly, then he said “Kawanishi-san, you're a fast thinker, and talking to you is really fun.” When I heard that my heart froze. Did Ito-san ever like me as much as I liked him?

“I don't like you because you're smart or interesting, you know. I really like how you put your toothpaste in the refrigerator.”

And then Ito-san stopped eating. His head drooped until his bangs almost went into the soup. And then he covered his face with his hands.

When I asked “Are you crying?” he shook his head. But his cheeks were wet, so I reached out my right hand, and wiped away a tear with my thumb.

“I'm going to wonder why I can't date anyone so cute anymore.”

I wanted to thank him for that line. Yes, I'm cute.

From the spot where my wisdom tooth was extracted, a little blood puddled on my tongue. It was salty.

And then I turned, smiling to Ito-san,  and said, “Good luck with work.”

© Nao-Cola Yamazaki. Originally published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in Don't Laugh at Other People's Sex. Translation © 2014 by Kalau Almony. All rights reserved.