This story featured in The White Review 18, published in 2016.
On the way to the dental clinic they talk about going home for Christmas. It’s November and Marianne is having a wisdom tooth removed. Connell is driving her to the clinic because he’s her only friend with a car, and also the only person in whom she confides about distasteful medical conditions like impacted teeth. He sometimes drives her to the doctor’s office when she needs antibiotics for urinary tract infections, which is often. They are twenty-three.
Connell parks up around the corner from the clinic and the radio switches itself off. He has taken the morning off work to drive Marianne to the appointment, which he hasn’t told her. He’s doing it partly out of guilt. A week previously Marianne gave him head in his apartment and complained afterwards that her jaw hurt, and he was like, do you have to complain about everything all the time? Then they argued. They were both a little drunk.
Marianne remembers the incident differently. She remembers giving Connell head for a while on his sofa and then she stopped because her mouth hurt. He was pretty nice about it and they had sex on his couch instead. Only afterwards, when she started talking about her mouth again, did Connell say: you complain a lot more than other people. They were lying side by side on the sofa then. Marianne said, you mean your other girlfriends. And Connell said no, he meant people, as in everyone. He said no one he knew in any capacity complained as much as Marianne.
You don’t like hearing people complain because you’re incapable of expressing sympathy, Marianne said.
I already told you I was sorry the first time you complained.
You like women who don’t complain because you don’t want to see women as fully human.
Every time I criticise you, it turns into a thing about me hating women, he said.
Marianne started to sit up then. She gathered her hair into a roll and felt for a clip to put through it.
I find it suspicious, she said. That you always get into relationships with people you don’t actually talk to.
You’re upset and you’re taking it out on me now, he said. I’m not completely stupid.
She touched her hair with her hands to feel that it was in place and then lay back down beside him. It was a bad sofa, with a pattern of brown flowers.
Me, she said. You see me as a full human being. That’s why you’re not attracted to me.
Yes I am.
Sexually, but not romantically.
She watched him looking up at the ceiling then. Their faces were very close together.
I guess if it was romantic I wouldn’t like you having other boyfriends, he said.
Although actually, you don’t.
I don’t like your taste in boyfriends, that’s different.
Do you want to know what happened with Daniel? she said. I told him I had a dream about getting married and he said, to me? And I said no, to my friend Connell. The rest of the argument wasn’t about you, it was about how I say things purposely to bother him because I enjoy making him feel bad about himself.
Marianne went home after that, wondering if she complained too much. By the time she got back to her apartment her whole head was aching. She took a bottle of gin from the inside of the fridge door and poured a little into her mouth experimentally. Rinsing the cold alcohol around her gums, a gigantic pain shot up the inside of her jaw and made her eyes water. She drooled the gin back out into her kitchen sink and started crying.
She went to the dental clinic on her own the next morning. On the way there she planned sensationalist things she could tell the dentist about the pain in her jaw. It’s not that bad most of the time, she imagined herself saying, but giving blowjobs is out of the question. Instead the dentist took a quick look at her mouth and prescribed a round of antibiotics for what he called a ‘truly nasty’ infection. I’m not surprised you’re in pain, the dentist said. That tooth is slicing through your cheek like butter. He scribbled something on a notepad and then looked up at her. Once the infection’s come down we’ll take it out for you no problem, he said. You won’t know yourself. Marianne takes significant personal pleasure in having her pain validated by professionals.
They are now the only two people in the upstairs waiting room of the dental clinic. The seats are a pale mint-green colour. Marianne leafs through an issue of National Geographic and explores her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Connell looks at the magazine cover, a photograph of a monkey with huge eyes. That night last week, Marianne had called him first to tell him that she and Daniel had broken up. Connell was in the bathroom when the phone rang and his flatmate Barry answered. When Connell came back, Barry said innocently: Hey, what’s the name of that rich girl you went to school with? You know, the one you like to fuck. Believing the query was sincere, Connell replied: Marianne, why? Then Barry tossed him the phone. She wants to talk to you, he said. When Connell lifted the phone he could already hear her laughing.
In the waiting room Connell is thinking about Lauren, his girlfriend of nearly ten months. She moved to Manchester in September and two weeks ago she slept with someone else when she was drunk. When she told him about it, his failure to feel anything unnerved him and he wondered whether he cared about her at all. For a few days he felt vaguely depressed and tired, and then he slept with Marianne, who accused him of not seeing women as ‘full human beings’. He realised then that he did not in fact see Lauren as a ‘full human being’, but as a minor character in his own life. For this reason, what she did offstage didn’t matter to him. After Marianne left that night, he opened a new tab on his browser and typed: Why can I not feel things.
The next morning, he called Lauren on Skype and told her he thought they should break up. She agreed with him, non-committally. We had fun, she said, but the long-distance thing was never going to work. This sketched trajectory of their relationship bore so little resemblance to anything he thought or felt that he just nodded and said: Yeah, exactly. He has not yet told Marianne about this Skype conversation. She’s had the whole drama with her tooth going on and he doesn’t want it to look like he made a major decision as a result of sleeping with her. Like butter, she says every time they talk. I’m in agony. Connell has actually missed the original import of the butter simile and now decides it’s late enough that he can ask.
What’s this butter thing you keep talking about? he says.
My cheek being like butter.
Your what? he says.
Remember the dentist said, that tooth is slicing through your cheek like butter.
Connell stares at her over the yellow rim of the National Geographic she’s holding.
Fuck, it’s physically slicing through your cheek? he says.
Have you not been listening to me? I’ve been talking about it for like a week.
I think I must tune you out sometimes.
She gazes back into the magazine, looking amused.
A life skill, she says.
So you know, I broke up with Lauren. I don’t know if you heard that.
For a moment she pretends to be engaged in reading. He can see she’s deciding what to do or say. The workings of Marianne’s mind become transparent to him in brief flashes like this before they recede again.
You didn’t mention, she says.
He coughs, though he doesn’t need to. This is a weakness and he knows that Marianne senses it, like blood in water.
When did all this go down? she says.
About a week ago.
She doesn’t perform the ‘aha’. She just closes the magazine and puts it back on the small glass table in one languid gesture. Connell swallows. What is he swallowing for? In school Marianne was ugly and everyone hated her. He likes to think about this sadistically when he feels she’s getting the better of him in conversation. In their last year of school he took her virginity and then asked her not to tell people, although he doesn’t actually feel very good about that any more. She just lay there like: why would I want to tell anyone? He finds this emblematic of something.
Marianne feels humiliated that Connell hasn’t told her about Lauren until now. She disguises these feelings by focusing a slow disdainful attention on her immediate surroundings. She wonders if Connell hasn’t told her because he finds her desperate. As a twenty-three-year-old Marianne is occasionally subject to the same dismal anxieties that characterised her adolescent life. Throughout school she was contemptuous of others, but simultaneously seized by a fear of other people’s contempt. Connell was the first person who really liked her, and even he wouldn’t speak to her in front of his friends. She did degrading things to retain his affection and pretended not to find them degrading. She stayed quiet in the background of his phone calls.
Yeah, I thought you would have heard, he says. It was one of these Skype breakups. Relatively relaxed as breakups go.
Lauren’s a relaxed girl.
That’s probably true. He looks out the window and attempts to yawn. He hates himself. He has no idea what Marianne is thinking. Compulsively and out of self-directed spite he thinks about the fact that all the time he and Lauren were together, he never made her come except by accident. With Marianne he has always found it gorgeously, stupidly easy. Of course he knows this means nothing.
Well, don’t worry, Marianne says. I know we’re both single now, but I’m not going to ask you to be my boyfriend.
Weirdly enough I wasn’t worrying about that.
The door opens then and a nurse comes out saying: Marianne? We’re ready for you. Marianne looks at Connell, and he looks back at her. Momentarily she hates him but the malice always dissipates. He doesn’t mean to touch this terrible need in her. With Daniel she felt so free and empowered, because she never took him seriously. His desire to hurt her only emphasised how much he relied on her. But Connell needs nothing and with him she feels powerless. She touches a hand to her face and follows the nurse into the surgery.
When the door closes, Connell gets up and walks to the window. He looks out over the street, at the tops of people’s heads going by. It’s a clear day, cold and blue like an ice pop. He’s trying not to think about Marianne in pain. He knows they’ll numb the necessary part of her mouth, but this agitates him also. Marianne doesn’t express fear of physical suffering. Connell has seen bad things happen to her. Still, it hurt him when she said she didn’t want to be his girlfriend, partly because of how gratuitous it was. He was never going to ask her anyway. He starts to chew on his thumbnail, until he can feel it become pulpy and twisted in his mouth.
At first he was just glad she had finally broken up with Daniel. He was one of these skinny graphic designers who wore thick-framed glasses and talked about gender a lot. Connell sat beside him in the bar at Marianne’s birthday and in lieu of conversation they watched the Bournemouth-Chelsea game on the big screen. Daniel asked: Does it really matter who wins or loses? Well kind of, said Connell. Bournemouth go back into the relegation zone if they lose this one. I meant on a philosophical level, Daniel said. That was a real conversation that happened between them. Daniel was laughing and saying: Masculinity is a fragile thing. Connell didn’t bring up some things he happened to know about Daniel’s proclivities. You’re the one who likes to tie her up and hit her with a belt, he didn’t say. I bet that makes you feel like a big guy.
Inside the surgery they have given Marianne an anaesthetic. The dentist sticks a sharp instrument into Marianne’s gum to see if she can feel it, and she can’t. Then he sets about removing the tooth. At first she can hear grinding. A glowing white lamp reflects into her eyes from the mirror above her, and the latex of the dentist’s gloves tastes sadomasochistic. Something is whirring, and a strange thin liquid is filling Marianne’s mouth. It does not taste like blood. Then she feels something slip down onto her tongue, something smooth and heavy, and suddenly she is sitting upright and the dentist is saying: spit it out! She spits something into the dentist’s hand. It is a small yellow part of her own body. Now she can taste blood, and something else. Her head hurts. The tooth glistens like cream in the dentist’s palm. Good woman, the dentist says. The tooth has fronds like an anemone. Marianne is trembling.
Connell is afraid that he is an emotionally empty person. He tries to look at the issue of National Geographic on the table, but he lacks focus and thinks recurrently about Marianne’s pain. Marianne involves herself in things that are bad for her. That’s an opinion Connell has that he feels guilty about. He knows that she attracts blame for things that aren’t her fault simply because of her tough personality. People have taken advantage of Marianne, but maybe she allowed that to continue when it didn’t have to. She told him some of the things Daniel made her do. She showed him things. I know it’s kind of fucked up, she said. I don’t enjoy it. And she laughed, he hated that she laughed.
The dentist packs Marianne’s mouth with gauze and gets her to bite down. She’s feeling woozy, as though the tooth is a sick child she has given birth to. She remembers that Connell is in the waiting room and feels a tidal gratitude which drenches her in sweat. The gauze rubs her numbed tongue and her eyes begin to prick with tears. The medical part of the procedure is over now. They scoop her out of the chair as if she’s a piece of newspaper.
The surgery door opens and Connell turns from the window. Marianne points idiotically at her mouth. They have given her the tooth in a jar and she rattles it at him. Her face is lopsided and misshapen like a deflating tent. He experiences certain feelings. In school he used to fantasise about making intellectual or witty remarks in front of Marianne. It’s a fantasy he still engages in compulsively during moments of stress. Her imaginary laughter soothes his nerves.
Are you all finished then? he says.
She nods, she tries to swallow. Her mouth feels wrong, she’s in the wrong body.
That was fast, he says. How are you feeling?
She shrugs. She feels the shudder that precipitates a sob and tries to repress this particular kind of ugliness. It’s too late. She’s crying. Clumsily she rubs her eyes, her nose, the numb abyss of her right cheek. She shrugs again. At least the crying is silent.
Connell has only seen Marianne crying once before, when they were teenagers. Her mother had a boyfriend then, called Steven. He came into Marianne’s room at night sometimes to ‘talk’. She went to Connell’s house one night after it happened and she cried and said: Sometimes I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person. He had never heard anyone talk like that. He felt sick, and from that moment the sickness would always be there, even if he couldn’t feel it. It was outside him then.
Let’s get in the car, he says.
In the car she’s small and lonely. In one hand she’s holding the jar with her tooth in it, and in the other hand she has a small roll of replacement gauze for her mouth. Placing both items into her lap carefully she reaches for the visor above her seat to look in the mirror.
I wouldn’t necessarily, he says.
She pauses with her hand on the mirror.
Do I look that bad? she says.
Her voice is muffled and thick.
You don’t look bad to me, he says, but you seem fragile now and I don’t want you freaking out.
At first he thinks Marianne is coughing, but then he realises he’s making her laugh.
So I look bad, she says. Why didn’t you tell me about Lauren?
He kneads the steering wheel under his hands. She watches him. She darts away the threat of a tear from her left eye, discreetly, with her sleeve.
This little speech you gave me, he says. About seeing women as human beings. It kind of disturbed me actually.
What, and that’s why you broke up with her?
In some complex way this question, combined with the fact that Marianne is visibly crying, excites him. He thinks, involuntarily, of her naked body. He considers it an image of vulnerability rather than something sexual, but it feels like both. He knows that she’s crying simply from a residual physical pain, which he doesn’t take any pleasure in. But her desire to be cared for touches him. A fantasy that beneath her cold exterior there’s something else.
She notices that he doesn’t immediately answer her question. He’s watching the traffic as if he’s thinking of something else. She hopes that her brash curiosity appears dismissive. This is one of many dynamic strategies she employs to conceal from Connell what she feels for him. What she feels is not easily expressed anyway. People love all kinds of things: their friends, their parents. Misunderstandings are inevitable.
You’re still crying, are you? he says.
The feeling is coming back now, she says. That’s all.