On Tuesday morning I go to the dentist. After examining my teeth, the dentist tells me I have four cavities. She tells me I need to floss more. She tells me my flossing is inefficient. She tells me to use the string instead of the picks. I hate the string, but I don’t tell her this.
At home later that night, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I tell Kyoko what the dentist said to me.
“It’s never enough for these people,” I say, as the ends of my pointers go purple from the strings of floss wrapped around them. Kyoko nods in understanding and says she’s never had a cavity in her life. Then she wipes and flushes the toilet and asks if she can take a look at my cavities.
For the past few months, Kyoko has suddenly become strangely interested about nearly every aspect of my health, as if my body is her personal little science project. It’s nice to know that she cares, but it’s definitely a change from the laissez-faire approach to my physical wellness she employed during the first time we were together more than twenty years ago. But I guess that’s what happens when you get back together with your old high school girlfriend less than a year before your fortieth birthday.
Still feeling slightly defensive about my teeth thanks to my dentist’s reprimand this morning, I blow out an annoyed sigh and wave away Kyoko’s question about looking at my cavities.
“I don’t think you can just see them like that,” I say.
“Then how does the dentist see them?” she says, standing up and walking out of the bathroom.
After washing her hands in the kitchen sink, Kyoko comes back into the bathroom holding the old-fashioned magnifying glass her grandfather gave her before he died.
Sitting me down on the warm toilet, she tells me to lean my head back and to open wide.
“Wow, okay, so I’m not sure if you know this,” she says, “but there are like, super small people inside some of your teeth here.”
“Yeah, it’s almost as if your teeth are tiny buildings with microscopic people inside them or something.”
“Wait, so my teeth are full of holes?” I say, my heart thudding hard at the thought of a random tooth shattering in the middle of my next meal.
“No, they’re intact, it’s just that some parts are see-through, like windows.”
“Jesus,” I say, closing my eyes and blowing a heavy sigh onto Kyoko’s magnifying glass. “What do they look like?”
“The people inside my teeth,” I say, sliding my tongue along the front facade of my upper incisors.
Kyoko pulls back my upper lip and leans in close.
“Ummm . . . this one here looks like an apartment building, and I can see a couple that looks like us inside one of the windows. The woman especially. She looks a lot like me, but her hair is different. I really like it though. She’s got this short bob kind of thing going on. It looks good on her.”
“What are they doing?”
“They’re standing in a bathroom of their own, brushing their teeth side by side.”
“Jesus,” I say, feeling worse than ever about the sorry state of my teeth. “Can they see you?”
Kyoko waves her hand in front of my face and taps one of my canines with her fingernail.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “It doesn’t look like they can hear us either. They didn’t react when I tapped on your tooth.”
“Jesus,” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t even want to imagine how expensive it’s going to be to get this fixed. And it’s probably going to hurt like hell.”
I stand up and start walking into the bedroom to leave a message on my dentist’s voicemail, but before I can get anywhere, Kyoko pushes me back onto the toilet and pries my mouth open again.
“What are you doing now?” I say, with an acidic mix of desolation and crankiness leaking into my voice.
“Hold on, I just want to get a quick picture of this woman’s hairstyle,” Kyoko says. “I think I might want to try it out this weekend.”
“God,” I whisper to myself with a sigh. “I don’t want to go back to the dentist.”
On her way out of the bathroom, Kyoko stops in front of the mirror and stares at her reflection. She gathers her shoulder-length hair into her fist and holds it behind her neck. Turning her head to the left and right, she examines how she would look with the tiny woman’s hairstyle. Apparently satisfied, she glances down at me and smiles. Squinting my eyes, I study her teeth for see-through windows and microscopic people. I don’t find anything of the sort. Aside from the slight coffee stains, her teeth are straight, opaque, perfect. Catching me looking, she clicks her tongue and shakes her head in mock disapproval. She touches my cheek with a soft hand. She shuffles through the door and starts searching for her phone on the end table beside the bed.
While she’s gone, I walk to the mirror and show myself a toothy, freakish grin. Pulling back my upper lip, I examine a couple of my teeth closely, but I don’t see any microscopic people inside. The magnification of the mirror isn’t strong enough, and my breath fogging up the glass doesn’t help things either. After a few more seconds of staring at my teeth, I search the water-spotted edges of the bathroom counter for Kyoko’s magnifying glass. I don’t find it anywhere, so I pick up the small circular mirror she uses each morning to put in her contacts.
“Did you see where I put my phone?” Kyoko calls to me from the bedroom. “It’s not on the end table by the bed where I thought I left it.”
I close my eyes and try to think back to the last time I saw her phone, but nothing comes to mind.
“I haven’t seen it, sorry K,” I say. “Use mine to call it. It’s on the bed near my pillow I think.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll have to do that,” she says.
I open my eyes and watch her pick up my phone and walk out of the bedroom.
“The unlock code is—”
“I know what it is,” she says, even though I don’t remember telling her.
Swiveling her circular mirror to the magnified side, I look at my teeth again. This time I see the windows she was talking about, and the tiny people inside. In one tooth-window there’s an old woman with a sponge of wiry hair writing complex math equations on the walls of her apartment in blue crayon. In the next window I see a buff young bodybuilder guy with no clothes on, doing biceps curls in front of the TV in his apartment. Holding my breath to make sure I don’t fog up the glass, I see that the bodybuilder guy’s body is very asymmetrical: his left arm pulses thick and heavy with giant globes of muscle, while his right arm hangs at his side as limp and thin as a water-starved twig. In the next window over, I find the couple Kyoko was talking about before. They’re still in their bathroom, but now the man is getting undressed and stepping into the shower. Moments after he slides the shower curtain closed, the tiny woman with the short hair quickly shuffles into their bedroom, picks up her phone, and starts typing a text to someone. As the tiny woman’s husband turns on the shower, the bodybuilder guy in the next apartment stops doing curls and checks his phone. Putting down his phone, he presses his dumbbell to his naked chest and leaves his apartment. My eyes flick back to the tooth-apartment of the tiny woman with the short hair. There I see the asymmetrical bodybuilder guy enter with his dumbbell. The woman with the short hair kisses the bodybuilder guy passionately and points to the bathroom. I gulp a quivering breath and blow it out through the side of my mouth. The bodybuilder guy slowly opens the bathroom door and approaches the shower. Just as he raises the dumbbell and pulls the shower curtain back, the call box of my and Kyoko’s apartment buzzes loudly from the other room. I shudder in surprise; Kyoko’s mirror slips out of my hands; the metal frame of the mirror clatters against the porcelain slopes of the sink.
“Jesus,” I whisper to myself, my heart hammering in my ears. As I pick up the undamaged mirror and search my mouth for the tooth-window I’d just been peering through, I turn around to ask Kyoko who the hell could be at our door at this hour of the night. But before I can say a word, she calls out to me.
“I’ll get it!” she says, with a note of mischievous glee in her voice.
Steve Gergley is the author of A QUICK PRIMER ON WALLOWING IN DESPAIR: STORIES (LEFTOVER Books ’22). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found here.
image: Stephen Ground is a prose writer, poet, filmmaker, and picture-taker based in Treaty 1 Territory (Winnipeg, Manitoba).