It isn’t really a stop, but when I ask him to, the bus driver’s happy to drop me off just before the bridge, right across from the old airfield.
I follow the dirt path on foot. Dry grasses with dun-colored seed-fringes sway in the wind. Low bushes twist knee-height, laden with red winter berries. Everything here is sparse and tight. Salt-stunted growth. The way is turning to sand. I climb the hill and the sky opens to water.
I walk in thick-soled boots over rock and rubble. Stumble on a red brick, corners worn round like a bar of soap. This is not the kind of place where you want to lose your footing.
An alarm clock lies face down. Its winding knobs bubble with rust. A tangle of old nylons snakes through the bare branches of a fallen tree. Stretch and release, stretch and release while the waves lap. Magpie pieces of glass glitter everywhere. Clear shards. Milk white chunks. Cobalt blue. Amber. Bottles, jars. Lidless, neckless. Medicine, lotion, ink, perfume, soda, beer. Now half-filled with water and slick, green algae.
A word lies half-buried at my feet: LISTERINE. Sand-worn. Sea-tumbled. I dig the bottle out and it emerges like a miracle: unbroken.
I carry it home in my pocket, this dwarf vessel, only large enough to hold a few ounces. Sometime in the 1930s, it was somebody’s single morning swish and spit.
The dentist tells him Only floss the teeth you want to keep. It bleeds when he does, but more when he doesn’t. Use mouthwash too. There are large spaces around that tooth where food likes to stick. Pockets.
He puts the bottle in the bottom of the plastic drugstore cart, below the six-pack of toilet paper and the shrink-wrapped duo of paper towels. Plastic, plastic, plastic. He can remember when Listerine bottles were glass. When they came shrouded in a protective cardboard canister and a veil of crinkly paper. When there were no store-brand look-alikes with labels like Duane Reade and Price Chopper and America’s Choice.
He was still married to his first wife then. He remembers the bathroom of their ramshackle newlywed apartment, how they once made love in that old-fashioned claw tub. She seemed to take delight in every single Victorian detail about that place. Wainscotting. Crown molding. Even the old stovepipe holes filled in sloppily with plaster.
When it ended, he replaced her with another lovely brown-haired girl, and then another. Each new love was a fair approximation of the last.
“No, it’s true,” says Petra, staring at her own face in the medicine cabinet mirror. “If you swallow it all down, you won’t get bad breath for a whole week. And if you do it really fast, it’ll make you drunk too.”
She pinches the childproof cap between the fingers of one hand. Each nail is painted a different color, like jelly beans. With a twist of her wrist, the bottle of pale brown liquid is open, and the room fills with the after-breakfast scent of Jo’s father, the strange, distant one he wears each morning with his stiff, white shirt and creased wool trousers as he bends to kiss her before rushing out the door.
“What else is in here?” says Petra, using the toilet lid as a step stool to scale the vanity, then plopping her denim-clad butt down on the pale blue counter. She slides one of the mirrors to the side and pulls out a bottle of chalky pink liquid and then one crammed full of white tablets. “This one makes you poop and then, if you take too much, this one makes you stop pooping.” She slides the other mirror to the other side and grabs a pink razor and a pair of tweezers. “Girls have to use these after they get their period because they grow mustaches.”
“They do not,” says Jo, laughing in spite of herself.
“It’s true,” says Petra, plucking a silver tube from the middle shelf of the cabinet. She pulls off the top and swivels the bottom until a glistening column of pink rises from it. The same pink Jo’s mother leaves on coffee cups and wine glasses and on the scratchy tissues she uses to wipe Jo’s face when they’re away from home.
Petra leans in close to the mirror and Jo can see the brown curls of her hair bounce with each tiny movement. She tilts her head to one side, and then to the other, before lowering her sandaled feet to the tiled floor.
“So what do you think?” Petra asks, turning to face her with a sly, pink smile that widens into a vivid grin, baring gobs of fuchsia blooming on her teeth.
Her heart is thumping. Pits and palms and groin. Sweat. Sebum. Vaginal fluids. The faintest trace of urine. All mixed together in a teeming, bacterial funk. The scent is rising, dampening her clothes. No. Stop.
She pulls away, releasing herself from the electrical-chemical wonder of his lips, from the magnetic mystery of muscle, skin, and sinew pressing beneath his summer suit. She excuses herself, taking pains to make her voice languorous and light.
In a few moments she’ll be ready for him. Clean.
She pulls the door shut and turns on the faucet, releasing a hushed waterfall of white noise down the porcelain sink. Oh, that she could take a shower now. But that would be a strange request in a stranger’s house. Not that he’s really a stranger after these two and a half days of movies and walks and dinners, but she does not want to get ahead of herself.
Listerine. Thank god. It’s here on the counter. That and a bar of Ivory soap. She slips out of her clothes and perches, one foot lifted to the vanity, the other planted on the tiled floor, careful, oh so careful, not to splash. Better now. So much better. She will not use one of his clean towels. She’ll let evaporation do the work.
And now her breath. Why did she order the souvlaki? She swigs the liquid back, and her mouth surges with a caressing, tingling warmth.
Her ex’s familiar voice rises up around her now, vaporous, as though embodied in and carried by the antiseptic fumes. He has a word for her: halitosis. He says it in his most emphatic, lecturing tone. An obscure medical term revived by pharmaceutical marketers sometime back in the 1920s. Until then, what we now think of as an iconic, brown mouthwash was largely used for the purpose for which it had been first created: a surgical disinfectant. Hard to believe now, but there was a once a time, not so long before, when surgery was performed with dirty hands on dirty flesh with dirty scalpels, when the deadly possibilities of bacteria and other tiny, invisible pathogens were something that not even doctors knew.
Dangers? Invisible pathogens? Is that what he’s shown up in this other man’s bathroom to warn her of? Or is it to politely inform her she now smells like medicine?
She tightens the cap, sealing the specter of her ex back in the bottle. She swishes again and spits everything out.
She slips into her sundress, then steps into her underpants. Completely clean. Bone dry.
“Grenadine. Tangerine. Trampoline.”
“Oh, God,” she says, pressing the button to lower the car window. “I feel like I’m traveling with a toddler.”
“A toddler with a very advanced vocabulary,” he says, keeping both hands perched on the wheel, elbows up, as though performing some showy parody of driving. The green car that has been following behind them these past few miles now shifts abruptly into the passing lane and speeds away.
“Wol-ver-ine,” he whispers, mock-seductively.
She glances at the stream of traffic funneling around them. “Don’t you think we should try to get out from behind this truck?”
“What’s your hurry?” he shrugs. “Quarantine,” he adds, pleased with himself.
“Longfellow’s Evangeline,” she says, trying to make her voice take on a note of authority.
He just shakes his head.
“You’re following too close.” She can hear her own voice rising with irritation. “How can you even see the road?”
“Okay, okay. There. I’m hanging back.”
“Crystalline. Peregrine. Sistine,” she rhymes off. She can’t help it. The words are coming to her now unbidden, speeding, revving, careening through her mind. Tangerine. He already said that one, but it was a song too. If she sang the word, would it count as a something different? “Calamine. Valvoline. Listerine.”
The brakes squeal. Her body jerks forward, her right shoulder, chest and hipbones slamming against the seatbelt, then drops back against her seat. Her skin feels clammy. Her heart’s pounding hot and hard in her ears.
She sees now that the truck is a mere yard away from them, its dusty steel cargo doors rising high over the headlights of their car, like a towering concrete wall.
She turns to him and he turns to look at her.
“No,” he says. “There have to be rules to this. Proprietary names don’t count.”
There is a hush in the operating theatre. The gaslight glints off all the scrubbed surfaces of this freshly disinfected room. It looks much the same as it has these past forty years, but today it seems to have been scoured of all familiarity.
The surgeon’s age-spotted right hand wields a scalpel. Ever the showman, he holds it aloft so that it catches the warm gleam of the lamp’s flame. His left hand longs to nuzzle and burrow into his waistcoat pocket to caress the comforting wooden shape. His fingers grasp reflexively, but find only starched, smooth emptiness. He is no longer wearing a waistcoat, but instead an unfamiliar white coat.
“Nurse,” he intones, sotto voce. “Fetch me my pipe.”
“Doctor,” she whispers. “I cannot,”
The patient lies motionless on the table. A splendidly muscled young man drowsing under ether, a small line like a cipher marked in India ink curling on his upper abdomen.
No one in the crowd says a word, but the old surgeon can now hear nothing but their collected respirations, their small, impatient stirrings. Leather-soled shoes scraping against linoleum. One silk-stockinged leg rubbing against another. Damp wool shifting against varnished oak.
“My pipe,” he pleads. If he could only taste its sweet smoke now, he would surely re-gather his wits.
The pretty nurse’s lips are covered today by a white mask, so he cannot fully discern her expression, but it now seems to mock him. When he draws closer to her, a harsh, unyielding scent masks her natural feminine one. It burns his nostrils with the same contemptible, newfangled sterility as the brown solution he is now required to wash his hands in, that the charwoman now cleans the floors and tables with, that the young nurse is just this moment using to stroke the patient’s sleek chest with a bleach-white sponge.
The surgeon’s hand trembles. He stands lost in a vast, brightly lit room.
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she says, her liquid brown eyes defiant. “I cannot.”
Nora Maynard’s recent work has appeared in Salon, the Ploughshares blog, Drunken Boat,Necessary Fiction, and The Millions. She has been awarded fellowships from Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, the Millay Colony, and Ragdale, and is a winner of the Bronx Writers’ Center/Bronx Council of the Arts Chapter One Competition. She is completing her first novel. Visit: http://www.noramaynard.com/