Tonight, as always, my wife is reading a book in bed, this one about Leonardo da Vinci and his saucy little friend Salai.
“It smells like worms out here,” my wife says.
It’s the beginning of October. We’re coming out of a small grocery store in a light rain one morning. We are not loaded with bags. We’ve bought just one item. Reaching the car, we pull open the doors. She’s on her side, I’m on mine. The doors swing open and we turn, balancing ourselves on one leg, then bend, lean, fold and carefully lower our bodies onto our respective seats. As we do this, both of us emit very audible, slightly embarrassing, simultaneous groans.
What was that? I think to myself.
“What was that?” she says to herself.
Is there such a thing as groan harmony?
Later that day, because I’m listening for it now, I hear both of us heave luxurious solo groans. When I bend down to tie a pair of shoes by the back door. When she lifts herself out of a chair in the living room. When I take a pan out of a cupboard in the kitchen. When she reaches into the back of a closet for an orphan shoe.
That night I steady myself against the bed and start pulling off a pair of jeans that are just tight enough to require some effort. It’s not a difficult job. I’m not exactly shuffling off this mortal coil of mine. But again: comes the groan.
When did this start, I wonder. And why? We exercise, we are not overweight, we are not old exactly. Just beginning to incline… old-ward. But there it is, the age-related groan.
No: the wheels aren’t falling off, but they have begun to wobble. Standing at the bathroom sink one night, brushing my teeth, I hear her say, “I thought it was spine. But I guess it’s just muffins.”
“What?” I say around my toothbrush. Over the hum of the device and the splash of water running in the sink, I can’t hear her. Increasingly, I admit, I can’t hear her even when there’s less circumambient noise. Like the groan, not hearing well is also now a thing.
“Yoga,” I hear her say.
I’m rinsing carefully, trying to keep cold water away from a molar. Yoga. And muffins? I spit, turn to her, and say, “Muffins?”
“Muscles,” she says, with just a touch of pique. “I said muscles. The source of my back pain. It’s not spine. It’s muscles. Why are you making that face?”
“This tooth,” I tell her. “I have to go back to your dentist.”
She rolls her eyes.
I shut off the bathroom light, pull back the covers, and climb into bed, doing my best to enter and achieve a comfortable prone position without a decibel of age-related groan.
I search around the molar with my tongue. “So much for your dentist,” I say.
We both know we are on the edge of a precipice. We take up our books and read, studiously ignoring each other.
For years now my wife and I have engaged in what might be called the dentist wars. I had my dentist; she had hers. Mine charged a little more than hers did. My wife would say a lot more. Her dentist was holistic. I would say kind of nutty. I asked one day, Does he fill your cavities with vitamins? Every six months or so, around appointment time, we talked smack about the other’s practitioner, lobbing fusillades of derision and contempt at each other. Dentists were good for our teeth; they were not good for our marriage. Our children worried about us. If we didn’t watch ourselves, we could bicker at any time, in public, among friends, a loss of self control as embarrassing as an age-related groan.
Eventually I did the math. My dentist did charge more, to the point of too much more. So, with some difficulty, I declared peace and went, finally, to her guy.
We started with a routine clean that day, me and the hygienist. It was fine. She used a power scaler, sonic-blasting away the plaque. Squirting around my mouth for detritus she said something about biofilm and bacteria, assuring me that I was rinsing with ozone water, a good disinfectant and good for oxidation. Then the doctor looked at my teeth.
My dentist always used to compliment my mouth. Poking around in there, she would say that things looked good, that l had a beautiful mouth. She made both of us feel good. This guy just nodded and said, at the end of his exam, that maybe I would want to re-do some fillings, and there was a crown that ought to be replaced. My gums had pockets back there.
I thought I had a perfectly good crown, but pockets are pockets. That way lies bone decay. I also thought, Okay, give the guy a chance. At my next appointment, six months later, I consented to the crown job.
Tonight, as always, my wife is reading a book in bed, this one about Leonardo da Vinci and his saucy little friend Salai. She gives me frequent reports, reading aloud in Italian and chuckling.
This night, as she often does, she tells me I really should read it. Whatever she’s reading, I should read it too. I Dubbi di Salai. She says it’s “kind of a historical, epistolary, satirical who-dun-it, set in Rome in 1501.”
I hold up my Kindle. “Lots of one-syllable words in the book I’m reading, words I’ve never seen before. Bleb, for example.”
“Right now,” she says, “Salai is making fun of one of Leonardo’s flying machines. It’s hilarious.”
“Do you know what a bleb is?”
“English,” she says, “has a lot more one-syllable words than Italian.”
“How about a tot?”
“A small child.”
“‘A tot of booze’ is how it’s used,” I say. “Maybe it’s Irish English.”
She says she heard somewhere that dyslexia is more common to speakers and readers of English than Italian because there are so many one-syllable words in English. She turns back to her book, an actual book, with a red hard cover and 400 and some actual pages you riffle. I tap my Kindle, returning to what I’m reading, Benjamin Black’s Even the Dead. Also a who-dun-it, but without the Italian, historical, epistolary, satirical part.
It occurs to me, as we don’t talk for a while, that lately I’ve been experiencing something like dyslexia. “I think I’ve got late-onset dyslexia,” I say now.
She gives her head a slight shake, which means either “That’s bull” or “Wait a sec” or both. She doesn’t look up from her reading.
“The other day,” I say, “I saw a sign on a store. I thought it said Enema.”
With a slight groan, definitely not the age-related variety, she shuts her book and looks at me. “Really?”
“In giant letters, on the storefront, Enema. It was actually Emma. But I read ‘Enema.’”
“That’s just you.”
“A few days ago, on a sign in that place we had breakfast, I read ‘hurricane pies.’”
“Yes.” I give her a minute. “Homemade,” I say. “Homemade pies.
She nods a dismissive nod. A few minutes later, guarding against the groan, I reach for the lamp, switch off the light, and cast us in darkness.
“Bleb,” I say.
“What is it?”
“It’s like a blister.”
To make and install a new crown is a routine procedure. First her dentist has to remove the old one, which involves numbing that area of my head and using a hand-held motorized rotary saw to cut the thing into pieces. It takes a while, like ten or fifteen minutes. Time slows down during such procedures. Evidently my dentist spared no expense on material and adhesive. Hers was a crown for the ages.
Once that’s done we are both emotionally exhausted, and my brain is a little rattled. My wife’s dentist quits the operating theater, perhaps to go for an ozone water cocktail, while his assistant rolls a computer to the edge of my chair and fits a camera inside my mouth.
At this point in the procedure, my dentist shoved a huge wad of blue bubble gum back where my molar was and told me to bite down. Ten minutes later the wad, beginning to harden, was extracted, enabling my dentist to make a temporary crown, which she referred to as a “tin can,” which I found altogether charming. She then sent out the blue bubble gum form to a foundry somewhere, which built a crown for the ages. That took a week or so.
What’s going on? I’d ask if I could. But I have a camera in my mouth.
I think the assistant says cad-cam, but I could swear it’s really goddam. That’s certainly my point of view. Cad-cam and onsite manufacturing. That’s a lot of holistic dentistry from the standpoint of technology.
Half an hour later I have a brand new polished porcelain crown. On the drive home I give it an inquisitive tonguing. It feels a little smaller than the other one. But a crown is a crown. Right?
I want to be right about this, I really do, but it would appear that a crown is not a crown. As feeling returns to that quadrant of my mouth I become aware of sensitivity to cold back there. When I take a drink of water, the only reasonable response is a wince and a groan.
I wait a week, protecting the crown, directing everything cold that I eat or drink to the opposite quadrant. Which is kind of ridiculous. In the modern mouth all lanes should be open to traffic.
The week passes.
“Amish children legs,” I say to my wife.
We’re lying in bed reading. Every couple minutes or so, she laughs out loud. Salai is that funny. The guy in my book, an aging pathologist named Quirke, who works in the Dublin morgue, is trying to control his drinking and solve a crime. He’s not funny.
“What?” she says.
“It’s what I read the other day, on a sign. Amish children legs.”
She’s having a hard time pulling herself back from Rome in 1501, back to the present, back to my nonsense. “What?” she says. “What are you talking about?”
“My dyslexia? It’s what I read today. Amish children legs. Instead of Amish chicken legs.”
She’s exasperated, and I kind of love that.
“I also read something funny online this morning,” I tell her. “I thought it said ‘”You can get drunk for free this Friday at Starbucks.’ How about that?”
“What did it really say?”
“I don’t know. Maybe free donuts? Personally, I would rather get drunk at Starbucks. And this afternoon I thought you said you wanted to buy some more handles.”
“When was that?”
“Home Goods. Candles. You said candles. But I heard handles. That’s like auditory dyslexia.”
“No,” she says, “you just need to get a hearing aid.” She gives me a ponderous look that says: Do something about your hearing loss. Be proactive. The look also says: Make her life a little easier. In truth, I sometimes like hearing things wrong.
I tell her I have to go back to her dentist. I’ve waited a week. I’ve tried not to complain. Our truce in the dentist wars holds, but barely.
“Sometimes I can’t use one side of my mouth.”
She says he’ll fix me up. Right. It’s nothing a little holistic tech can’t fix.
I go. He doesn’t fix me up. Back in the chair I explain–I try not to sound like I’m complaining, but isn’t this situation complain-worthy?–I report that I can’t let anything cold near the crown. I open, he looks, I close. He says it’s inflammation. He says I’ll need the low-level laser treatment.
His assistant gives me the LLLT. In a few minutes I’m out of there. Days, weeks, months pass. No change. I weigh my options: go back for the hand-held motorized rotary saw or wait patiently. I decide to wait.
The big red book lies slightly askew in her hands that night in bed. She might be sleeping.
“Singles vaccination,” I say. “How about that?”
“A sign I saw. It said shingles; I saw singles. And here’s another one: Cuvee Turd.” She doesn’t engage on this one. I don’t know what word turd was supposed to be. Nor do I care. I just want to savor the absurdity.
“Can you reach my bookmark?” she says. “I think it slipped under the bed.
I get out of bed, walk around to her side, get down on my hands and knees, and look. Yup, there it is. As I get back to my feet, I let go a long, satisfying age-related groan. Those groaning tennis players come to mind; weight lifters and prize fighters, they groan. I hand her the bookmark, get back in bed, shut off the light. In a few minutes her breathing slows. If she were awake, and if I were good at memorizing poetry, I would recite these lines for her, from a Robert Bly poem:
My friend, this body offers to carry us for nothing– as the ocean carries logs. So on some days the body wails with its great energy; it smashes up the boulders, lifting small crabs, that flow around the sides.
Maybe once my body wailed with great energy, possibly it still does on rare occasion. Increasingly I think of my body as a vintage car carrying me through life, rust spots, soft tires, cracked windshield, indicator lights on the dash that flash on and off, indicating nothing.
Public snore. I’ll have to share that one with her one tomorrow night. Give her a minute to guess before I tell.