It rains diamonds on Neptune, Zoe reminds herself. She knots her face and clamps her hands on her thighs, the better to ponder the impossible through the streaked windows of the bus. A small bird bounces off the glass, and Zoe looks back at it twitching on the road’s yellow line. She watches it recede into the distance; she knows what it is to feel small.
The guy next to her is coughing up his TB or whatever, and Zoe concentrates on statistics that have some bearing on that, i.e. the fact that a simple sneeze can propel itself through the air at 200 MPH. Or maybe those are stats on an orgasm. She wracks her brains while he hacks away. They have not made eye contact the whole trip, and maybe Coughing Guy doesn’t know she’s there; she can’t know for sure, but he doesn’t even try to draw in his knees when Zoe crawls over them at her stop.
She signs in at the dental office, and the receptionist pushes the new-patient form at her from the hole in her window. Zoe carries it to the seat at the end of the receptionist’s finger, and spreads the paper across her knees like she wants to spank it. How do you feel about dentures? How well do you tolerate pain? She writes out the same answers as she did last time, and the time before, her purple sleeve dragging across her green plaid knees. When she dressed this morning, she’d stared at her mirror until the clash of colors began to vibrate. She wanted people to see her. She was sick of being invisible.
In the examining room, the hygienist who always matches her make-up to her uniform beams the overhead light into Zoe’s face. “You’ll enjoy being a new patient here,” she says. “The staff is very caring.” Does she rehearse that line in her sleep? Zoe wonders. The zebra-finch dreams of its own song while it sleeps.
A high-strung drill screams from the next cubicle. Last night she had the crumbling-teeth dream. What does that mean again? Powerlessness? Anxiety? She breathes through the nose while the dentist’s familiar voice, muffled, floats in under the door. Spit! he says. Spit! Spit! In the corner, a pillow with an embroidered tooth has a hypodermic aimed at it. Zoe smiles because that’s what it says to do on the pillow. She focuses on the fact that while frogs have teeth, toads do not.
The dentist enters without a greeting, motions to open wide. Electrical impulses travel from the skin toward the spinal cord at a rate of up to 425 feet per second. Dentist and hygienist divide and conquer Zoe’s mouth expertly. There’s sucking and stretching, buzzing and puffing at the usual intervals and in the usual order. While the professionals work over the abyss of her mouth, Zoe realizes she is witnessing an affair. It’s in his showmanship and her admiration for it. They finish up, congratulate each other, and move on out together like shepherd moons herding the particles of Saturn’s rings. Zoe manages a wide grin, even with all the instruments stuck in her mouth. Many minutes pass. The screen on the dentist’s new computer reflects his image from the next room. It’s the room where they keep the records, and the door is cracked open. Zoe watches her dentist slide in behind his assistant. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the lovers fuse. The dentist moves his hands over the woman’s body, and Zoe keeps her eyes open voyeur-wide, all the while thinking about phantom kisses in mathematics.
A moment later: “How could we have forgotten you?” the hygienist groans. She hastily removes everything from Zoe’s mouth, brandishing the instruments so that Zoe has to duck. Someone has turned up the muzak and the heat. Zoe lets herself believe that’s what annoys her most. She gives the lead apron a smack as she heads for the lobby. Syllables slide over her swollen tongue; she’s practicing for the last hurdle – how to get the receptionist to look up out of her hole and take the money.
A familiar voice a man wakes up the little hairs along Zoe’s forearms. “Wait here. I’ll handle this,” he stage-whispers, wrestling the bills out of her fist. She does as she’s told, though she eyes the door like a fugitive while he transacts her business. She tries to decode the message her brain is straining to explode into words, but nothing comes. The brain uses up 20% of the body’s energy although it makes up a little more than 2% of the body’s weight.
Zoe waits for the man to play his pointless game with the receptionist. She waits on his say-so. The man begins to walk her, and she recalls that seeing-eye dogs are color blind. They lead by watching the flow of traffic, not the lights. The man unlocks his car door for her, and she just stands there, dazed. Suddenly she shoots her hand out at him, a warning flare. He takes her hand, shakes it a joke. “We need ice-cream” he declares. “It’ll be good for us.”
Inside the car, the air won’t move. It’s clamped down like a lid. The two dental patients travel for awhile on a road she could have driven blind. The man points out the tourist attractions anyway. She doesn’t respond. The man says accusingly, “You’re a lot quieter than you used to be.” Zoe points to her swollen cheek, and he says, “Oh yeah, Novocain. Never touch the stuff myself.” Zoe once admired his abnormal pain threshold—nothing seemed to hurt him. Not like her. “You’re a bleeder,” he had once said with satisfaction.
On the road, he softly curses all the other drivers, and they pass too many ice- cream stands to count. Zoe sees the old apartment building looming stonily on the horizon just like it does sometimes in her dreams “I knew that was you in the dentist’s office today,” he says, as he parks the car. “You give off a certain smell when you’re scared.”
She gets out and walks the gangplank to the front door she never thought she’d open again. What was she expecting? She’d never let her fantasies get this far. She searches the living room for signs of herself, pieces that might have gone missing. He goes straight into the kitchen, bangs around in there looking for something not past its expiration date. He hates to part with anything. The fact diminishes her.
The aquarium still has no fish or water. Her books, which she had smuggled over one at a time so as not to startle him tower on the sagging shelf. She picks up her withered African violet from the windowsill, and its single remaining petal crumbles off with just that slight motion. She had stacked two months worth of casseroles in his freezer the morning he told her goodbye “Now this is truly interesting,” the man had said, finding her still there when he came home that night. “Zoe, you’ve finally piqued my interest.”
“You look awful,” he smiles now, handing her a cherry Popsicle. In the face of this cruel observation, the one good memory Zoe has of him pops up. She had been sprawled across his bed, in tears again after a fight. He had crawled in tight beside her and taken her in his arms. He had smoothed her hair, murmuring comfort words, nonsense words that always calmed her down. But he never asked what was wrong, that time or any other.
“Too cold?” The man points at the Popsicle.
“You get used to it,” Zoe shrugs. She feels the pins-and-needles of Novocain beginning to wear off. She has a long way to go before she can really feel anything. The prickling in her jaw continues to maul her like a bad day, and she closes her eyes, shuts them down. She sits there in pieces, trying to connect the dots. A point is that which has no part.
“You’re all swollen.” The man enjoys his observation. A prickle runs rapidly along her spine, and Zoe notices he hasn’t once called her by name. She gets up heavily and goes into the bathroom. She puts the Popsicle in the basin and examines her features in the mirror. She wants to find out what he means, but she has trouble finding her true face. The mirror shows a template of features no more specifically hers than an eigenface on a computer screen. She could be anyone at all.
The bathroom door cracks open and the man slides in behind her. Zoe keeps thinking about the properties of heat, but now that’s taken a turn. Neither pair of eyes leave the mirror. When the man’s hands fall away from her body, Zoe still feels untouched.
“What a mess,” the man says, scowling at the red-streaked basin.