On evenings she didn’t have to work, Ruth locked her bedroom door and masturbated to distract herself from the ache, rotating through the collection of vintage Playboys she’d stolen from Todd. Sometimes, she took breaks to read. She liked the short stories the most. The magazines had belonged to Todd’s father, who was now dead.
That night, she pored over the 1978 Dolly Parton issue. On the cover, Dolly wore a black one piece and bunny ears with a white, sequined bow tie. Her face was bright and composed. This issue hadn’t been in Todd’s collection. Ruth’s addition of it made her feel closer to him somehow. She’d found it in her dentist’s lobby, wondering if it was destiny, if the magazine was the other Todd’s, the dental assistant’s. The idea excited her. In bed, she closed her eyes as the sun went down, soaking itself in the spongy hill of Bernal Heights. She thought of the Todds as she took a final, sharp breath before sleep.
Ruth left her desk clerk job at the Hilton an hour early, at six in the morning rather than seven, complaining of a toothache. It was the fifth day in a row that she felt the ache. When she’d asked her manager Mr. Paul if she could leave early that morning, he waved her off with an air of superiority and disappointment like a butler who had confused himself for a king.
Once she left, Ruth walked aimlessly downtown, settling at a bench along the water. The sun rose above the surreally hanging Bay Bridge like a yolk drifting in a pan. The ache had begun in one deft swoop that week, leaving her feeling ripe and exposed.
She arrived at Dr. Russell's office at a quarter after eight and waited fifteen minutes until she was scheduled to see him, trying to resist pressing the tip of her tongue on the cap of her upper right molar. But she couldn’t. Sliding her tongue off of the molar's rocky edge to the slimy floor of her gums was too tempting. Back and forth. Back and forth. She pushed the tip of her tongue firmly against the molar. There was a brief moment of relief followed by the sharp ache, worsened.
The lobby was filled with large, brown leather chairs and coffee tables lined with Sports Illustrated and Good Housekeeping. Ruth came across the 1978 Dolly Parton Playboy beneath a stack of outdated issues of People. She eyed the lobby—it was empty, except for the receptionist only a few feet away—and discreetly picked up the issue.
Dolly was in her glory, confident and buxom. Ruth had always thought of her as a tragic figure, decidedly disproportionate in the name of femininity, but now she was in awe. How had she never noticed how vulnerable, yet self-assured Dolly was? When the receptionist called Ruth’s name, she held the magazine to her chest, stuffing it in her bag as the receptionist walked towards her, saying, “Come this way.”
“This is a nice coat, Ruth.” Todd poked a corner of a wooden hanger into the coat’s right sleeve. His back was towards her, but in a mirror next to the coat hook, she could see him smile. Todd was almost boringly handsome, young with a full head of dark hair, his teeth perfectly straight and white. The only thing that saved him from being so good-looking as to be plain was a large mole on his left cheek.
“Thanks,” she said. “It was the first coat I ever bought myself as a teenager.” She could feel herself blushing. The coat was olive wool with a gray and brown faux fur-lined hood. It looked brand new except for the torn mint green lining. The coat was too big for her, the sleeves hanging past her wrists and the hem almost reaching her knees, her shape lost in the heavy wool. She had the coat throughout her and Todd's relationship. Not dental assistant Todd, but her Todd. Her first love, Todd. Even though she was twenty-five now, sometimes she still felt like the eighteen-year-old girl who met him freezing at the bus stop during her first year of college.
Her cousin had warned her before Ruth moved in that San Francisco was the Eastest-feeling city in the West. She’d told her, she better bring a coat. But this wasn't cold, Ruth thought. It didn't create the pause that took hold of everything like the cold did in Pittsburgh. It was only in the spring that Ruth felt she became fully conscious again. Perhaps that's why it had been so easy to fall in love with Todd. She spent the whole of that winter in his bed, their naked bodies wrapped around each other under flannel sheets. She had felt so warm.
Ruth looked up at Todd from the dental chair.
“Let me adjust the headrest for you,” he said. “Are you comfortable?”
She felt the slender tips of his fingers linger on her shoulder. “Yes,” she said. She closed her eyes.
“Would you like nitrous oxide, Ruth? I know I may have told you before, but it’s free here.”
“Oh, yes please.”
He placed the rubber cup funneling the gas over her nose. She opened her eyes to look at herself briefly in the full-length mirror in front of the dental chair. She looked like a swine. Todd smiled and patted her shoulder. “Dr. Russell will be just a moment.”
She stared at planes flying above her and wondered if dental offices had done any tests, if the decorated ceiling tiles really calmed patients. Anything to be somewhere else, she thought. A life lived anywhere else besides the present has come to be our present, hasn’t it? Daydreams of being outside the office. Wishing to be inside with a lover when you’re finally outside in the sun. Imagining yourself in that war-torn country you just read about, how horrible it must be. The closer we get to having it all, she thought, the further we seem to be from everything that matters.
She was high.
Dr. Russell appeared, his tiny frame crowding her shoulder when he sat next to her. He began with a joke as always. “You know, I went to an interesting therapist last week.”
Todd sat on the other side of her, and from the corner of her eye, she watched him smile. He knew how this one went.
“Oh yeah? What'd they say?” Ruth asked.
“She told me I was dog in a previous life.”
“Oh really? I could see that.”
“I know! I'm loyal...and fun.” He laughed. “She said my owner used to make me wear a collar that was too tight and it left a welt on my neck.” He moved his hand slowly to the edge of his shirt collar.
“Oh, yeah?” Ruth hated this part, waiting for the gag. Her ears were ringing. She wanted him to shut up and find the rotten tooth he must have missed when she came in earlier that month for a cleaning.
“Feel it. I swear,” he said, leaning towards her.
Ruth looked at Todd and silently pleaded with him to make it stop. He smiled at her and mouthed “sorry” before she finally reached for Dr. Russell's collar.
Her hand inched forward until the tips of her fingers almost touched the collar of his shirt. Dr. Russell jumped from his seat and barked. She could hear the awkward laughter of everyone in the office.
Dr. Russell laughed while wiping tears from his eyes. “So you're back again? You must have missed me.”
She suffered through the next day. Day six of the ache. She felt it now in her left and right molars. Her ears continued to ring. She wanted to take the night off from work, but she’d only been in San Francisco three months and had already used almost all of her sick days. The day before, Dr. Russell told her he couldn’t find anything wrong with her teeth. There were no cavities or signs of future decay. Her teeth were pristine.
“It’s remarkable, really. You’ve got the teeth of a candy virgin.” He asked if she’d been stressed lately.
“Not any more than usual,” she said.
He suggested she might be grinding her teeth in her sleep. He saw no physical signs of this, however. He asked if her sinuses were bothering her.
“No, it’s my teeth! I promise you, it’s my teeth!” Dr. Russell’s normally open, jovial face tightened with concern as though he were watching someone fall from afar.
Ruth bought a mouthguard at the drugstore and wore it to bed. The next morning, the ache was worse. She felt a sharpness in all four molars that permeated her gums, sending the ache to her throat and chest. She thought, yes, I am dying. She’d been taking too much of the Ibuprofen in her cousin’s medicine cabinet, but she felt only a slight, fuzzy dulling of the pain. In her cousin’s kitchen, she pulled a half-full bottle of whiskey from atop the fridge and drank as much as she could stomach. During the middle of her shift behind the front desk, she threw up on her feet in front of Mr. Paul. Under his breath, he whispered, “If you don’t figure your shit out soon, girl, you’re gone.”
She dragged herself through the next several days as the ache crawled deeper inside of her. From her chest to her shoulders, to her elbows to her forearms to the tips of her fingers, she ached. She imagined the ache finally settling in her feet, paralyzing her. She could no longer look at Todd’s Playboy collection, not even at Dolly. It was too depressing. Her head hurt. Her hands felt tight and stiff. The thought of anyone touching her made her want to scream.
When she could no longer sleep after getting home from an all-night shift, she’d lay an arm over her eyes and attempt to recall every sickness she’d ever experienced. Had she ever felt an ache like this? As a child, she’d had terrible growing pains that would keep her up all night, feeling sore, bored, and lonely all over. It made her wonder, if her body stopped working, would she still exist?
Back at Dr. Russell’s office, Todd was quieter than usual. His eyes were red and puffy. Ruth had been up all night crying because of the ache. It looked like he had too. Maybe she was imagining it. Or maybe he was stoned on nitrous. She always wondered what she’d do if she worked somewhere with easy access to gas or pills. She’d never been good at moderation.
Dr. Russell took a look around her mouth, poking her gums and molars with gloved fingers. It was clearly a charade.
“Ruth, I'm sorry to say, but there's nothing. It must be TMJ.” He’d explained what this was to her before—a disorder with indeterminate causes, creating pain in the jaw or aching pain in the face. But it was usually temporary. He assured her the ache would, eventually, go away.
“For now, there’s not much I can do besides prescribe you something to manage the pain.”
Ruth began to cry but pretended as though she wasn’t, saying calmly, “I don’t understand how I’m supposed to live like this. It hurts all of the time.” She wiped the tears from her face quickly.
“I’ll prescribe you the strongest thing I can,” Dr. Russell said. She’d never seen him look so serious.
Todd looked away from her as she stood and thanked the doctor. He got up and grabbed her coat, and for a moment, as he handed it to her, she wondered why he didn't ask her to stay. He could locate the source of her pain, she thought. She felt pathetic.
At home, Ruth cried on her cousin’s expensive twill couch that only Ruth ever used because her cousin worked so much, she was never home. Her cousin was the most successful person in her family, earning more as a programmer than anyone Ruth had ever known. She also happened to be her childhood best friend, the only person in her family that she told everything. Her cousin had offered her a place to stay for free, for as long as she needed, but except for the occasional glass of wine at home, they barely saw one another. The last thing Ruth wanted to do was complain, but between her student loan payments and low-paying job, she was barely getting by. She knew that, soon, she’d have to give up and move back home. She kept crying until her stomach hurt, until she thought she might throw up, until the sobs left her empty and elated, feeling more clarity than she had in months. She left the apartment immediately and ran.
As she ran, she thought of one of last times she’d seen Todd. From afar, in the backseat of her car in the empty mall parking lot, his dick moved swiftly in and out of a Clinique counter girl. The Clinique girl’s eyes were closed, her teeth clenched together in the same way Ruth’s did when she felt pleasure bordering on pain, the ache of someone being so close that it made you feel both fragile and strong.
When she’d discovered them, Ruth immediately looked behind and around herself as if she was in a movie theater, wanting to see how everyone else was reacting, asking silently, Can you believe this? She began to walk away, then stopped. Where would she go? He was in her car. It was dark and cold. He was supposed to pick her up and take her to Steak ‘n Shake for fries and a milkshake after her closing shift at Pop Pop’s Pizza. She’d closed ten minutes early. She walked back to her car and stared into the window, waiting for Todd to notice before she knocked hesitantly on the window.
He looked up. “Fuck!” he mouthed as he pulled out and fumbled to lock the doors. His father had died only a month before. Aneurysm. He was fifty. But in that moment, Ruth didn’t care. Todd was now a guy she could generalize. A guy whose particulars, whose quirks and habits that constituted the stupid, saintly love she had for him, were now being copied to a file in a neat mental folder labeled with thick black marker: EVERY ASSHOLE I’VE EVER DATED.
Once clothed, Todd and the Clinique girl morosely unlocked the doors and climbed out of the back as Ruth crawled into the driver’s seat, the keys still in the ignition. She heard Todd outside of the car, “I thought you weren’t done for another twenty minutes! I’m sorry, Ruth!” The car smelled like the Clinique girl—dank and floral—but it also smelled of him, like peppermint soap and sweat.
She began to cry.
Before driving away, Ruth watched the Clinique girl amble away in her white heels, looking aimlessly around the empty parking lot. She didn’t feel angry. She felt sorry for her, although in that moment, she was uncertain why. When she got home, she became infuriated with herself for not being infuriated with him, for feeling nothing but sharp despair.
She fell asleep that night thinking of the Clinique girl, wandering away in her bright white heels, and she felt a warm sadness because she realized she was also ambling, uncertain of herself and scared, waiting to be chased after, waiting to be told who she was or could be by someone else, like every woman Ruth had ever known and never wanted to become. A month later, she had quit her dead-end job and moved across the country.
She ran until she was out of breath, walking as fast as she could until she reached the small hardware store below Bernal Heights. Everyone appeared to her as blobs as she walked the aisles purposefully. She left with an X-Acto knife and needle nose pliers.
At home, she set her tools in front of her on the kitchen table. Momentarily, she wondered if she was losing her mind, but not for long enough to care. The ache outweighed anything else. She filled a pot with water and waited for it to boil. She placed the instruments in the boiling water, then she poured herself a glass of wine. If it didn’t go well, her cousin would find her, eventually, on one of her stops home from whatever startup job she had that month. She downed the glass of wine, filled another, then another.
In the bathroom, Ruth brushed her teeth and pulled hydrogen peroxide from the cupboard. She looked for cotton balls, but there were none. She’d overlooked this. How could she proceed? She left the apartment again quickly. The warmth of her skin and the cool breeze made her feel as though she were dreaming, as if everything before this moment were more real than anything else she would ever experience.
In the drugstore, she tried to stop thinking of Todd, how loving him did nothing but hurt her. But she knew that wasn’t totally the truth, that nothing was ever wholly anything. It was with this thought that Ruth picked up a bag of cotton balls and walked down the aisle towards the register, only to see Todd, the dental assistant, positioned squarely in front of the section marked “Pain Reliever.” She froze in the middle of the aisle, the cotton balls held tightly to her chest.
They made their way through hellos and blushing and small talk. Then they pushed themselves through the crowded Mission streets to bar stools with beers in their hands. She wanted to ask him about Dolly, about the 1978 issue she’d found, but she knew asking might ruin the magic of her discovery, so she didn’t. How they ended up at her cousin’s empty apartment with their clothes off, she could not totally say. She was still within the dream of the ache. How the pain didn’t fully consume her for a few hours, she could only guess was from the thrill of her anticipation, of imagining her mouth on his, of the lightness she felt when he smiled with those bright white teeth, the mole on his cheek moving with his every expression.
In bed, she traced a scar, unaware of its origin, on the nape of his neck with her cheek pressed against his warm back. She could feel his heart beating, slow and reliant.
“My dog died. He was really old, but still.” He told her this when she asked why he seemed so upset the last time she saw him. She thought he’d tell her about some girl or boy that she’d feel embarrassingly jealous of, but it was a dog who’d broken his heart.
As she felt the ache return, Ruth told him all about the other Todd, how surreal it was, how it was beginning to feel more like a story once told to her. She wondered, had she ever really known him? What did that even mean? The file containing everything she loved about him in her head became more difficult to locate every day. Dental assistant Todd knew what she meant. Already, he felt like someone else from this new kind of hurt he was feeling.
As she fell asleep next to him, she ran her tongue over her right molar, where the ache first took root. In the kitchen, she watched herself standing in front of her instruments, exactly where she’d left them. Confidently, she picked them up, carrying the sharp ends in her hands.