I fell in love at age seven. Twice.
The first time was with the exquisite pang I felt when I pushed my loose upper right lateral incisor with my tongue. I’d withhold that sweet ache for hours, as if I was the drug dealer and my best customer at the same time. I’d wait as long as I could, yearning for a fix, and finally another push and the engulfing ecstasy. I never wanted to lose that power. But the damn tooth ditched me while I was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and it didn’t even have the courtesy to give me one last jolt. It wasn’t until I crunched into it that I realized it had come out. I washed it off and stared at that pathetic deserter, angry that our time together had come to a close. Then I put it under my pillow that night as I was told to do.
After that, at the risk of stating the obvious, I fell in love with the tooth fairy.
Claire knew, of course. In our tumultuous beginnings, I’d always tried to remain honest. It was during our longest break-up that I’d decided to buy the ring and tell her about my first love.
“I’ll make you forget her,” she’d said that night as I extended the engagement ring.
“I guess you can try,” I said.
She lowered her bright trusting eyes to me. “Otherwise, if you bring her up again, I’ll punch you directly in the face.”
That certainly seemed fair to me.
She took the ring, so I figured we were all good. We got married, separated for a time, bought a house, another short separation, and then we had a son who slowly grew a mouthful of teeth and got taller and started school and played sports and then finally, after poking it with his tongue for a week, lost his first tooth.
I took a shower and changed into my favorite blue and pink striped shirt.
“Do you have a job interview, Dad?” my son said as I tucked him in after his bath.
“It’s nighttime buddy,” I said.
“That’s the shirt you wore to that job interview.”
“Which you didn’t get,” Claire reminded me from the doorway.
“It’s my lucky shirt,” I said.
“Let’s move on,” I said. I turned to glare at Claire and she curled her upper lip like a feral dog. She had no idea it was the same face she made when in the “throes of passion” as they said in the romance novels she voraciously read. But if I told her, she might want me to prove it, and then I’d miss out on seeing the tooth fairy. And I couldn’t wait for her to see me all grown up. Other than being a lousy husband and father, I’d turned out pretty great.
“Where’s your tooth?” I said to my son.
He looked really confused. “The one I lost?”
“I don’t know.” My son yawned, exposing the place where his lower right cuspid used to be.
“Come on, man. I told you to hang on to it.”
“It’s just a tooth, Dad.”
“I told you it was important.”
Claire clenched her jaw.
“It’s probably on my desk or something,” my son said.
“Go get it,” I said.
“Can’t I do it tomorrow?”
“No.” I gave him my hardest look, eyes narrowed.
“Give him a break,” Claire said. “He can look for it in the morning.”
I looked at my son and talked in that quiet voice I used when I was angry. “You find that tooth and you put it under your pillow. Now.”
He sniffled as he got out of bed, but as I suspected, he knew exactly where it was on his desk. A tear ran down his cheek as I gingerly tucked him back into bed.
“Don’t you want a present?” I said.
“I guess.” Another whimper.
“Of course you do. Now close your eyes and I’ll be right back.”
There was no way I was wearing my job interview shirt when the tooth fairy arrived. I pushed past Claire without looking at her.
By the time she followed me into our bathroom, I’d already switched my shirt three times and stacked the discarded contenders on the sink.
“What’s with all the shirts?” she said.
“I was figuring out which looked better.”
“They all look good. It’s the rest of you that’s a pile of shit.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong. I just want to talk to her.”
“In your best shirt.”
“Sure. Like a business meeting.”
Claire rubbed her temples. “A business meeting with a person who doesn’t exist. The tooth fairy isn’t real.”
I laughed. “Since when?”
“Since forever. It’s a story we tell kids to make them feel better about their teeth falling out of their head.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said and decided on the maroon shirt because it would pop more in the glow from my son’s nightlight.
“I know I’ve been distant lately,” Claire said.
“Distant?” I said and looked up at her for the first time since tucking in our son. She looked hunched and defeated. In my excitement, I’d forgotten that Claire had feelings. And a lot of them had to do with me.
“See, you didn’t even notice. I was ignoring you.”
“You should have told me,” I said.
“That I was ignoring you?”
Claire sighed. “It’s a pattern with you. You push me away, and then, just before I’m completely cut loose, you let me fall back into place. It’s wearing me out. I can’t hold on much longer.”
I almost said it wasn’t true, but I knew it was.
“What we have here, in this house, that’s what’s real. Not some childhood masturbation fairy tale. And now your son is upset. Really upset.”
Claire never looked more beautiful than in that dim light above the sink. A radiance that could only be credited to something internal. She crossed to me. For a moment, I was ready to forget everything and follow her anywhere. Maybe tell her about the face she made during sex and how I liked to read all of her romance novels before she boxed them each month and took them to Goodwill. Then she punched me in my cheek, her knuckle smashing into my upper right lateral incisor.
“I guess we had a deal,” I said and rubbed my chin.
Claire shook her hand in front of her, her fingers slapping together. “God that hurts.”
“Well my entire head is made of bone. There’s hardly anything else there. Can I get you an ice pack?”
“Did you ever love me?” she asked.
I hesitated, even though the answer was yes. An unquestionable yes. Couldn’t she see that I had? But she was gone before I opened my mouth.
Her absence felt final in the same way a tooth can never be reconnected to the gum. I’d always believed she’d never go away, no matter hard I pushed. Now I could never tell her how she’d made me forget about that night when I was seven-years-old, but I’d been too much of a fool to notice. I shut off the bathroom light and stepped into the hallway.
My son was sitting up in bed, eyes red from crying. Hair flattened from where Claire had been rubbing it. “I put the tooth under my pillow,” he said as I sat at the foot of his bed.
“Good boy. That’s a good boy. Dad’s not mad at you.” I poked at my incisor with my tongue and felt a dull throb.
My son peered at me to see if I was telling the truth. “For real?”
“For real,” I said.
“What’s the tooth fairy like?” He asked, and then it all came back and I was in my childhood bedroom, jerking awake as a shape moved under my pillow.
“She takes your tooth,” I said. “And she leaves you a present.”
My son put his head on his pillow and smiled. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
“Go to sleep,” I said and he closed his dewy eyes. “It’s better if you’re asleep.”
I watched his eyeballs twist under his eyelids until they finally stilled. Then I pushed harder at my incisor, my jaw aching with the effort. The pain ballooned, radiating through my gums until it was impossible to feel where it had begun. I pushed again. I looked down at my maroon shirt and a sliver of blood ran from my lip and splashed onto the front. I pushed harder. Again. And again.
I wasn’t going to stop until the tooth was gone.