I realized recently that a designer toothbrush would save my soul and massage my gums until they’re so relaxed that my face will radiate light. Someone mistakenly left a Val-Pak coupon book in the mail slot the other day. Alone in my bedroom I leafed through the pages flip by flip and realized that I have been tragically unaware of the miracle-status breakthroughs in modern tooth-brushing technology. So many bristles, impossible angles, miracle rubber squeegees that bedevil your tongue. Dentist’s freebies be damned. Give me modern art rendered in Chinese plastic.
I walk down to the grocery store in the first-streetlight glow and exhale steam clouds into the air around me. The store has a bright green sign and I can hear it humming at the setting sun as I pass beneath it. The sign is humming, the sun is humming, the world is humming. I’m getting a new toothbrush.
Inside the store I beeline past the on-sale soup, through the aisle with candy bars and throbbing-member novels, into the gloriously lit drug and personal care aisle. The toothbrushes live here and some have crooked suicide necks, tactical bristle clusters, ergonomic grips. Some sparkle in the grocery store fluorescence. Some are emblazoned with cartoon heroes resurrected from their pulp-print graveyards.
As I hold up my coupon to discern which glory device I may save seventy-five cents on, a young woman stumbles into the aisle looking disoriented. She extends the limits of her woolen skirt with jerky oversteps. The beret she wears lists to the side, sliding toward the floor. She passes me slowly with one hand over her mouth. When she unravels, vomit dribbles over her bottom lip then rushes forth through her fingers, reconvening as a puddle against a cardboard display of dental floss. She quickens her steps, hurrying to the bathrooms at the back of the store. The grey double doors swing and knock back together after she disappears between them. Carrots are on sale for $1.25 a pound, so says a neon orange sign with a marker-drawn anthropomorphic carrot playing an electric guitar.
I find someone in a grocery store uniform an aisle over.
“Excuse me, miss.”
“Yeah?” She is stocking cans, the sort with the pull-tab. She grabs them from a stack of dozens in a shopping cart, shoving them into place on the shelf. Green beans and creamed corn, store brand.
“Ah… a young woman just threw up in the aisle over there by the toothbrushes.”
“Yeah. By those.”
“Do you think you could watch it for a second?”
“Make sure no one steps in it.”
“Thanks,” she says, disappearing around the end of the aisle into the meat section, adding over her shoulder, “I don’t do so good with smells!”
I hadn’t considered smells. I had escaped the aisle before smells came up. Did I do well with smells? No, I did not. I distinctly remember a number of smells I had not done well with.
Disgusted with my callow self, I step back around the end-cap to take up my post as vomit watchman. And there it is. And there are many smells. I immediately recognize sour milk, bile, pepper. Strong notes of oak and berry on the finish. While I stand there trying to keep my eyes forward, I find them tilting magnetically downward. I squint at the slosh on the floor. A doctor could probably identify the different fluids, explain why people throw up. My face flushes with a plume of heat rising from my stomach.
An elderly woman trundles her cart dangerously close to the puddle, bewitched by some grocery or another. I push my hand out and gesture toward the seeping plash.
“Watch your step!” I gasp the words out, my voice lost down a tunnel somewhere miles away. The woman looks down and pivots her cart sharply onto a new course.
“Thanks, that was a close one!”
I nod, leaning against the tampon shelf, weary, my head cradled by the softest maxi pads.
The store employee returns towing a wheelie bucket, soapy torrents forming bubbly trails of mop water on the floor tiles behind her.
“Thanks,” she says.
I grab any toothbrush and toothpaste and leave and outside decide to take the scenic route home. There is more air on the scenic route.
I turn down an unfamiliar street that seems to head in the right direction. The word “escape” forms on my lips, but I don’t push it out into the air. For two blocks the neighborhood is a normal suburb, moderately priced 3/2s and bicycles on lawns. They each have a garage and a little lamppost.
Just past a tree line that bisects the neighborhood the houses end, replaced by four acres of empty lots. The grass in each clearly delineated lawn is pristinely manicured, but there are no houses. For eight, maybe ten blocks in every direction there are no trees, no through streets, and no hills, just flat ghost lawns cordoned into tiny blocks, each with a lamppost lit up bright. I stare at the nearest lamppost as it burns off the grey dusk. It glows on the unused front walk, providing light for a nonexistent family building an imaginary life together.
I walk to the center of the four blocks where the perfectly paved and untouched streets converge, and reach into my pocket. The toothbrush I snatched in my haste to escape the store happens to be the same type I have used for years. The tooth paste is pepsin flavored, identical to the one on my sink at home.
I sit on the curb and brush my teeth twice. I spit carefully into the gutter and wipe the leftover gobs away from the polished metal plating of the grate with my sneaker.
Jared Silvia grew up in Northeast Ohio and other rusty locales. His work has appeared as an Annalemma Magazine web feature and in collections from Burrow Press. He is an MFA student at The University of Tampa and lives in Orlando, FL. You can read more at jaredsilvia.com.