Sitting shotgun in Crystal’s tiny Datsun 210, I shift my legs and ass around subtly, trying hard not to make blatant my discomfort, but five or six empty Mt. Dew two-liters under my feet make it impossible. I try to put on my seatbelt but it’s broken. An empty Twizzler’s bag, a Milky Way wrapper, and a bag half-full of Tootsie Pops stuffed between the front seats crinkle with every shift. Crystal opens a grape Tootsie Pop and sucks on it while she drives. Gabby, Crystal’s three-year-old, sits in the back seat, her bobbing red curls hanging in her face as she focuses intently on trying to get the wrapper off her own Tootsie Pop. She looks up at me and smiles. I smile back. I shiver inside. Her mouthful of rotten old man’s teeth throws me every time. We’re on our way to get them all pulled. As we ride the swerving river road past corn fields dripping with dew and acres of shimmering elm, with no sound but the sucking of sugar, I suddenly want the window open. I need freshness.
We get to the clinic late so we have to wait extra long. The waiting room perimeter alternates grown up chairs and those little orange scooped-out ones I remember from Sunday school, which are all filled, and the overflow of children sit dwarfed in the big black chairs or scattered around on the floor. There are no men in the waiting room, only women and children, and I imagine the world exactly like this during war, with nothing but women and children and candy and rotten teeth. They have Gabby drink a cup of a slippery Valium potion, and we go back to the waiting room to wait for it to take effect. Gabby slowly tips over in her chair, and we upright her. She speaks with a slow drawling lisp: “Maawwmaaww. Iaee waahhna reeeeaaad thith thtooorreee.” Everyone giggles and shifts. Finally she walks as though someone has removed all the bones of her little legs. It’s time.
Three blue-clad doctors lay Gabby on a small cushioned table and tell her they are going to “tuck her in tightly like at night when it’s really cold.” Gabby says that’s when she sleeps with Mommy and Daddy. Crystal asks no questions and says okay no matter what they say or do. They cover Gabby’s tiny body in a blue sheet and belt her in across her legs, her hips, and her chest like a criminal; the only thing left unwrapped is her freckled face and her thick auburn curls. She fights her sleepy eyes and the straps like a puppy trapped in a pillowcase and when she loses, she aims heavy wails directly toward her helpless mother.
Crystal cries for 45 minutes, silent wetness and an occasional snivel while the dentist shoves his large hands into Gabby’s tiny mouth. Small and crumbling, her teeth are difficult to grip. Three nurses stand around the table, their mouths masked, their eyes toughened like black marbles, the need to disconnect forcing them into unnatural hardness. I imagine endless children here, sobbing for comfort and safety while strangers torture them and their parents look on, not rescuing them. Crystal grabs my hand, tears rolling onto the kitty on her lavender sweatshirt. Above her breasts are dark, wet spots. “I am the worst mother in the world,” she whispers and walks outside. I start to follow her. “One of you has to stay” the nurse says, so I stay. I can do nothing for either one.
I stand there and think about my mom staying with me after my first baby was born. That baby cried every time I laid her in her crib, even if she had been asleep in my arms. I was exhausted from always holding the baby. “She’s spoiled,” my mom said, but it was so much easier to pick her up than to listen to her cry. She made me leave her in her crib every four hours, wailing, for five minutes, then ten, weaning the baby from my weary arms. Every sob and gasp and scream of that baby broke something in me. I could feel crackling inside, something splintering to shards, like I was nothing more than eggshells and someone with heavy boots was trampling me. We played cribbage and turned up the radio. Eventually the baby would sleep, exhausted from the fight. Each night she cried less. At last she didn’t cry at all. I look at Gabby, finally asleep with her mouth wide open, three hands inside, bloody cotton stuffed in her cheeks, and a small tray beside the doctor sprinkled with rotten black tooth stumps the size of young corn. Her eyes are swollen and dry. We spoil our children out of love and convenience, hating their cries, never dreaming they’ll suffer because we hold them or give them Jujubes.
After the operation, Gabby sits quietly for half an hour in her mother’s arms. Crystal gently rocks her, lightly humming a tune I don’t recognize, their heads tilted together like wilting tulips. While we wait for the go-ahead, I don’t know what to do with my hands or my eyes, so I keep fiddling with the pages of the book I’m pretending to read. But my words have dried up and all I can do is notice, notice that all these waiting women have dull hair, no matter what the style, cut or color, the sun would not bounce off this hair and it would barely move no matter how hefty their headshakes and that sad hair matched their sad muted voices and I really hated the gloom, the reality of consequences, the despondency I couldn’t shake. Together, Crystal and Gabby have quit crying. I look over at them, swaying like a breeze, and click my healthy teeth together.
We get permission to leave, having waited the prescribed amount of time with no side effects. Gabby sleeps in the back seat, her head resting on a grubby heart pillow with Happy Valentine’s Day on it in gray letters. She kicks around empty Doritos bags and a few McDonald’s cups till her feet are comfy. Crystal turns down the radio and asks me for directions home. “Maybe you’d like me to drive,” I say. “You look tired.” She says yes and we switch. She closes her eyes and the sun through the windshield falls on her dull hair. Her hands are clenched in fists. I want to reach over and unclench her fingers. I know she needs touch and some words to make her feel better about what her daughter has just been through, but I am inadequate. All I can think of is tossing all that sugar out the window. Instead, I help myself to a red Tootsie Roll pop.
M. Ellen Wendt writes, teaches, edits and loves to cook. Her nonfiction work has been published in Central Review, Temonos, A Summer’s Reading, Albion Review, and the Pine River Anthology. She teaches various writing courses at Central Michigan University, everything from freshman composition and technical writing to graduate courses in creative nonfiction and alternative rhetoric. She earned her PhD from Michigan State University in Rhetoric and Writing in 2011.