Toothpaste

by Anna

My work colleague dropped me off outside the dentist. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to wait?’

‘No, that’s okay, I don’t know how long I’ll be. Will you be able to find your way back?’

‘Yeah, should be fine. See you tomorrow!’

I fumbled at the door lock and stepped out of the car in the only way I could. Ungraciously. ‘Bye!’

‘Bye!’

‘Bye!’ Dammit.

I pulled my phone from my bag as the car drove into the distance. I called my Grandad to ask if he was in- he was- as I was in the area, hadn’t seen my grandparents in a while, and was eager for caffeine. I would call in on the way back from the dentists where I intended to postpone next week’s appointment for another six months, as that amount of time was never likely to happen.

The receptionist was on the phone as I stood ineptly at her desk. She avoided my gaze which gave me ample opportunity to see the coffee stain on her desk, and the button she had missed on her beige cardigan. Coffee and beige do not go well together, yet somehow she had retained her classiness (albeit with missing button) and had not spilled brown liquid all over herself, as I would have done. She had blonde hair and large bosoms, purposely barely retained under her white blouse. She was beautiful, but ultimately flaccid. I hated her. The television above her head showed a video on the correct way to floss, and made me feel nauseous. A child in the waiting room behind me grabbed his mother’s purse and flung the contents all over the floor. It contained nothing of interest.

I collected a tiny toothpaste tube from the barrel in front of me while the receptionist waggled her pen between her fingers, and pushed it into my pocket. I also took the accompanying leaflet so no-one could accuse me of just being in it for the free toothpaste the whole time. I didn’t even really want any free toothpaste, I simply needed something to do with my hands.

The woman hung up the phone, and after inanely typing for a few moments, turned to me and asked if she could help. I cleared my throat. There would be no excuses this time, I would just tell her straight. Damn straight. I would not tell her that I had another appointment for toenail removal at the exact same date and time (again), or that I couldn’t get the time off work, or that I didn’t have any teeth left for them to butcher, anyway. I just wanted to postpone my appointment and she was going to let me do it, because I had actually bothered to come in this time. And how long for? Six months. Certainly, and what is my name?

I told her my name and that was that. It seemed much too easy. She took her time writing my appointment details, and I caught sight of a string of saliva falling from the mouth of the man who was being forcibly flossed on the television. Gross. The receptionist passed me my card. I thanked her and fumbled at the zip of my messenger bag, the bright lights of the waiting room having caused my scarf to become quite unnecessary. The kid behind me had started to slide around on his buttocks, like a dog with worms. Then all of a sudden a noise enveloped my attention.

‘Did you used to dance for Astrid Lafelle?’

I looked up and realised that the receptionist had asked me a question. Her gaze was unfaltering, but her enquiry had taken me entirely by surprise, and beneath the heat of the lighting equipment I couldn’t think of a lie quick enough and felt my mouth forming the word ‘yes’ before I could even recollect much detail from my senior school years, within which such dancing had taken place. Yes. Yes, but. Yes, but, who were you? I looked at the woman and tried to pinpoint her face. She certainly wasn’t Astrid herself, as Astrid was still teaching indignant three year olds to pirouette, according to posters occasionally stapled to the notice board at the Guildhall in town. She also wasn’t Michelle, a student teacher, no; she was much too thin to be Michelle. But she wasn’t Jo either- her blonde hair gave this away, and the fact that she wasn’t African, and also the fact that I didn’t feel a twinge of childhood love for her kind charm and sweet-smelling skin. I did not know who this woman was and Astrid Lafelle was such a silly name. Frustratingly, my hesitation did not cause her to fluster.

‘I recognised your name. I’m Caroline, Holly Greene’s mum’.

The name pulled memories from down my spine. I knew Holly, but I didn’t remember her mother. I felt surprised that she would remember me after all these years anyway, and it made my skin feel uneasy against the inside of my clothes. Holly was always beautiful, petite, nimble, athletic, an incredible dancer. Occasionally she would speak to me at school because we knew each other at dance class, and occasionally she would speak to me at dance class because she didn’t want to speak to me so much at school. The remainder of our time together was spent in effervescent silence. I remembered her well.

‘Oh’, I faltered, ‘hello- it’s been so many… years’.

I wanted to scream in her face that I didn’t recognise her, and how could she possibly not have told me that she worked here before I walked in? Besides, why couldn’t I have worn something other than my work clothes, and what could be done about the scarf which was now stifling the inside of my lungs, fabric weaving between my air sacs? What? What?

‘It has, hasn’t it? How have you been?’

I had no idea. Or perhaps I had heard her incorrectly. Her face did not move when I answered. ‘I’ve been good, I’ve been… good. And how have,’ realising as soon as I began to speak that my insincerity would fill the room, ‘you been?’

‘Yeah,’ she responded, turning slightly towards her computer and beginning to scroll meaninglessly. ‘I mean… you know Holly has kids now? Two of them. A boy and a girl.’

‘Oh, wow’, the genuine nature of my response, surprising even myself. Holly has kids now. I couldn’t possibly picture Holly, with her slight figure, and grey-brown hair, nursing children from fat breasts, chapped nipples, succumbing slowly to the natural bodily decline of motherhood- sagging, stretch marks, cerebral despondency. I hadn’t thought about Holly Greene in many, many years, but realised that inside the dusty box I had placed her in, she had never aged, never stopped being perfect.

‘That’s incredible,’ I said, because it was. ‘Anyway, it was nice to see you.’ I made my excuses and left. I had no lungs left to speak of, no lungs left with which to speak. The receptionist waved me off and smiled at the next customer and asked if she could help.

The cool air of winter opened my airways as I stepped out onto the pavement. As I walked in the direction of my Grandad’s house I began to realise that I did know Holly Greene’s mother afterall. Without her staring intently into the empty vast behind my eyes, I could picture her as she was all those years ago: voluminous dark hair, extravagant jewellery, black stilettos with scuffs on the heel. She didn’t seem to have aged though, she seemed to have reversed in time, and I realised at once the reason for her emotionless stare. I also realised with awful trepidation that I was desperately shamed by our encounter. I couldn’t have changed all that much in 13 years. I was uniform, shambolic hair, breathlessness, and evidently postponing my dentists appointment through absolute fear. But Holly Greene had children, and her mother worked as a dentist’s receptionist.

Of course I knew other people who had birthed children, but for some reason Holly’s news made me so aware of the itchiness of my work cardigan. I did not want children myself at all, they would not suit me and I might hurt them, but it was as though my entire history had changed. What could my mother say about me in reception conversation? Now I had always been a failure, and it was likely that my teeth had really needed cleaning all along. I felt exhausted to finally apprehend this.

I hadn’t taken the route to Grandad’s from the dentists for a long time, not since we had lived there during the divorce, but my feet led me while my brain was otherwise occupied. I looked up only once and found that I was walking through the grounds of the nearby Catholic school. I had never really found out if the public were allowed to walk through the school grounds, but it was the fastest way to my destination and I couldn’t bring myself to turn back, not now. I briefly saw the children through the windows, sitting at their desks. Their lives were not yet wasted, even if Holly was all of their mothers. But I didn’t want to think about Holly anymore, or her hundreds of children, so reached blindly into my pocket to find my music player to drown out the noise in my head. As I withdrew my hand, the tiny toothpaste fell calmly into the road.