Today my mother called from Texas to say all my grandmother’s teeth are breaking apart and have to be pulled, one by one, from her head. The dentist clucked his tongue and shook his head when he looked into her mouth. As I heard this, I was looking into the mouth of the 30th Avenue subway station in Queens at a sleeping baby draped like a rug over her mother’s shoulder. I was also looking at the man behind the ticket counter resting his chin on his forearms and watching people pass like a schoolboy looking out the classroom window. I was looking, too, at someone calling their little white dog to follow them under the turnstile. A friend of mine has a Goldendoodle who sits like a person in a seat on the train. She once had a long middle row of seats all to herself after the dog, playing with a puppy at the park, accidentally knocked some of the puppy’s baby teeth out and smeared himself in the resulting blood.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about teeth and losing them. When I was young, my parents would stand me against the kitchen wall and take a photo of me holding the little fallen pearls like prizes. It was a milestone; a celebration. I thought everyone’s teeth grew back, regardless of their age, until one Sunday morning when I was nine my dad came home from the neighborhood pick-up game with a whole front tooth cupped like a fossil in his hand, knocked clean out by our next-door neighbor’s elbow. My mom yelled for me to bring a glass of milk. She plopped the bloody tooth in and covered the pinking liquid in plastic wrap to bring to the ER. Her quick thinking allowed the doctors to successfully put the tooth back in his mouth, where it remained another fifteen years before it cracked unceremoniously into a cob of corn. I felt more fear this second time seeing the dark gap in his mouth, a thrill running through me every time he grinned at me, or laughed, or sang songs by Billy Joel or The Eagles, that I’m only now coming to appreciate. It felt like a different kind of milestone: dad’s first tooth that won’t come back.
The thought of my grandmother’s little teeth crumbling like snail’s shells in a dentist’s fingers reminded me of when we threw my grandfather’s ashes into the ocean years ago; as I grabbed from the plastic bag a handful of the quiet man I’d always wanted to know better, a little shard of bone got wedged under my nail. It burrowed deeper into my skin when I dug for it until finally I managed to pry it out and flick it like a bug into the foamy water. That last bit of him vanished from my view in an instant, gone too quickly even for the hopeful seagull that swooped to skim the surface for bread crumbs. This memory would almost certainly keep me up at night if I dwelt on it too long, so instead I said goodbye to my mother, climbed the subway stairs, and moved through the undulating line of people waiting at the tracks, looking for a space to stand.
Here in New York, though I’m a relative newcomer in the city, I enjoy being awash in a sea of people. Whenever a train arrives, we all pool slowly into it like a human tide. My sense of time moves similarly, back and forth with the trains. It is not an endless march forward; it speeds, slows down, stands still on a whim. It comes and goes. Back on the Texas highways I drove almost every weekend to visit family, I felt always a few minutes behind. If I had just passed that slow-moving car or checked for accidents on I-35 before getting trapped in the miles-long lines behind them, I might have been on time for brunch with my parents or dinner at my grandmother’s retirement home. With my hands on the wheel, there was always something more I might have been able to do. Here, all I can do is wait. There’s a sense of freedom in knowing that I have no control. Eventually the train will come, and in the meantime I can watch my fellow riders. I’ve started to recognize some of them on my daily commute.
Today I boarded the N with the girl in beautiful floral skirts who stares at her phone and never looks up, the old, frowning lady hunched over her fabric grocery cart, and the man who has sewn the word “sin” onto all of his shirts, for reasons I am dying to know and too afraid to ask. I feel close to these strangers; sometimes closer than I do to my own family. There is a comfort in knowing that we have never spoken to one another and probably never will, catching only glimpses of each other across a crowded train. When I look at them I see what is there, not what has gone missing. When I see my grandmother again, will I notice not the empty indents in her gums but the soft, thin lips that kissed my baby cheeks, the Midwestern tongue that taught me to love corn and ham casseroles, and the warbling, church choir voice that still sings to me every birthday? The closeness I feel with my fellow commuters is so much simpler, unhampered by questions of loss and the usual forward push of time. We are all on the same schedule. No one gets left behind.
As the train dove underground, I popped my ears by swallowing my spit. I make too much of it; my dental hygienist calls for backup when I come in for cleanings. Once in the first grade, a girl who bullied me punched me in the cheek and watched as a small stream of drool spilled from my mouth.
“Wow,” she said, “you have a whole ocean in there.”
That comment has stuck with me for nearly twenty years. It’s intimate, almost beautiful. She peered into my mouth and saw the ocean.
The train lurched to a stop at the Lexington Avenue station and we poured onto the platform. As we emerged into the wet, cavernous station, I felt that same intimacy with these people who had boarded with me, rode with me. In a minute, we’d climb the subway stairs into Manhattan and scatter in our different directions,—the sleeping baby, oblivious in her mother’s arms to the bustling crowd around her, the woman with her skirt swinging around her ankles, still dutifully buried in her phone, the hobbling grandmother, tailed a step behind by the man who sins, and me. But for a moment, we were all there together.
It is a daily practice of sorts. I am learning to step back. I am learning to look into the mouths of the people I love without fear; learning to peer past the darkness and see the ocean. I imagined what we looked like from above, all of us drifting out like shimmering sardines caught in the surf, or like ashes in the wind, like me humming down 57th on my way to work, thinking of calling my grandmother, just to say hello.
Cover Art: All of You, by Carlos Lorenza