Betty was on her second bowl of Grape Nuts
when Katherine’s boyfriend Michael showed up
at her door. It was a hot summer night in
Manhattan, a Friday, and Betty had the door
open to get a cross breeze from the north side
of the four-story walk-up.
“Betty,” she said, regretting she’d left her door
“Right, that’s what I meant.”
The few times she had seen Michael, she was
always struck by how his head was dispropor-
tionately larger than the rest of his body. Sure,
he was tall and had the hair of three men, but
that head! She couldn’t understand why
Katherine was attracted to him. She thought he
looked monster-ish—an artist’s caricature that
had come to life with his generous features
easily filling in the extra flesh that came with
having an oversized head. Michael raised his
arm and rested it in the door jamb. If only she
were brave, she would slam that door on him
right now—arm or no arm.
“Can I bum a fag?”
“I don’t smoke.”
He looked at her uniform. “I forgot. You’re a
“Hygienist.” She glanced down at her
impossibly white uniform. There was a
yellowish stain on her left sleeve and she put
her right arm over it.
“I clean my own teeth.” He put a toothpick
between his teeth.
“Funny.” She narrowed the opening of her
“I’m serious. I didn’t have my SAG insurance
back then so I bought a set of tools at a dental
convention. You know the one at the Javits
Center? It was intense. All these drills and cool
chairs you can ride. I got all these state-of-the-
art scrapers and stuff.”
“Where’s Katherine?” Betty nodded at the door
across the hall, where Katherine and Michael
had lived for three months, one week and two
days. Betty only knew this because before
Michael had moved in, she and Katherine had
Of course he wasn’t going to say more. He
didn’t have to. She’d heard it all earlier. Living
across the hall from Katherine and Michael was
like having a back row seat to their
relationship. There were the occasional sexual
cries, but more often, there were the
arguments. Usually it was Michael who left, the
metal door’s quake echoing throughout the pre-
war building’s hollow hallway.
“They’re actors,” Betty told her mother, who
lived in Boston and to whom she spoke most
nights after work. “They hug strangers and
sing on the street.” “Dramaholics,” her mother
had said. “All the world’s their stage.” Her
mother liked putting Katherine down now.
“Deserting friends for a man is the ultimate act
against all women.” Betty smiled, but said
“Hey, I just got this brilliant idea.” Michael
raised his other arm up and put it on the
opposite side of the doorway. He wore a
sleeveless ribbed undershirt. Tufts of light
brown hair spilled out from his underarms and
upper chest. Though she looked down, Betty
still saw him in her mind. Who did he think he
“What if we opened our own business cleaning
actors’ teeth? You know, for artists who don’t
have insurance. There’s gotta be a million of
us out there. We could do it in a totally cool
space with jazz music. And a full bar! People
won’t need Novocain. They’ll just have a few
stiff ones first. We could call it, To Floss, or
Not to Floss: Is It a Question?”
“You’d make a fortune in teeth whitening.”
“That’s hysterical.” Michael didn’t laugh. “I
love that. Can I come in?”
She thought of her Grape Nuts dinner on the
couch. Having cereal for dinner alone on a
Friday night was more information than she
wanted to reveal about herself.
He twirled the toothpick between his teeth.
“It’s important to know your neighbors.”
Was he ever not acting? Betty wondered. He’d
taken over Katherine’s life like an eclipse, and
now he wanted to be friends. Now? Then she
remembered that it had taken longer than that
for her and Katherine to formally meet, and
how it was Katherine, not she, who had
initiated their friendship. They met in the
hallway one night when they were both
unlocking their doors at the same time. As they
spoke, Betty couldn’t help seeing behind
Katherine, into her apartment. Overflowing
bookshelves, cascading plants resting
alongside hardcover editions, earthen pottery.
Betty stood in front of her own door so
Katherine wouldn’t see the cheap furniture, the
pot of dried dirt that, for an embarrassingly
brief time, had been a fern.
“Did you already have dinner?” Katherine had
asked that night. “I’m making a curry.”
“No. Nope. Not yet.” Betty wanted to dislike
Katherine. She expected her to be more like
the pretty, popular girls in high school, the
ones who had tormented her. Instead, they
became best friends. “Sisters,” Katherine called
them, which thrilled Betty, an only child. They
made fun of Katie Couric in the morning, and
watched foreign films at night. They kept their
doors open and played each other's CDs,
though Betty didn’t much care for the ethereal
women folk singers that comprised most of
Katherine’s CD collection. They even shared a
pet cat named Fire who went from one
apartment to the other via the fire escape.
Once when Katherine was locked out of her
apartment, she crawled out of Betty’s window,
across the fire escape, and in through her own
window. “Our square footage has doubled!”
Katherine told friends.
Then Michael came along.
Betty supposed she had a responsibility to get
along with him for Katherine’s sake. “Okay,
come in,” She hurried in ahead of him to hide
He walked over to an oil painting and
contemplated it. A large flower took up the
entire canvas. “Very Georgia O’Keeffe.” Betty
blushed. It was true—her mother had been in
her O’Keeffe phase when she’d painted it.
“Tea?” She slipped the cereal bowl into the
“Got any booze?” He moved to examine the
titles of her books.
“No. I guess you don’t share Katherine’s love
“Tea’s a girl’s drink.” He grinned in a way that
said he’d made a habit of saying inappropriate
things like this for fun. His eyebrows were, of
course, thick and seemed opposed to the over-
arching his expression was forcing on them.
“It’s okay. I’ve got some here.” He set his
toothpick down on the counter, opened a silver
flask and emptied the contents into a chipped
floral mug he picked off of her mug tree. Then
he poured a second one and handed it to her.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He clinked her cup.
“Can I take a quick tour?”
Before she could answer, Michael began
walking from room to room. Betty eyed the
toothpick, made a face and followed him.
Instantly, she saw all her belongings from his
perspective. How was it that everything looked
worse than it had five minutes before, when
she’d been alone? Her bed with the pillows all
stacked on one side, her solitary toothbrush in
the bathroom hanging in a rack made for four
all seemed to be screaming, OLD MAID!!!
She took solace in remembering how she hated
his style. The last time she was in Katherine’s
apartment, she was shocked to see how much
it had changed; the antithesis of what it had
been. Gone were the subtle wall colors and the
lace curtains in favor of window shades that
shut out the light. Thickly painted abstract art
covered dark grey walls. Drums, a guitar, and
a huge ashtray with five Zippo lighters sat on
“That’s an awful picture of her.” Michael turned
face down a picture of Betty and Katherine
from their vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Betty
doubted that Katherine could take a bad
picture, though the last few times she saw her
she had looked different, unhealthier. But
maybe this was what she wanted to believe?
He causally walked into her bedroom and
turned. “You have a boyfriend, right?”
She remained in the hall. Standing this close
to her bed with a man felt odd. “What?” she
said. The Gloria Steinem quote hanging on a
plaque in her mother’s office came to mind:
“Some of us are becoming the men we wanted
Jerk. Had Katherine not told him anything?
She’d spent weekends with Katherine’s family.
Thanksgiving even. In retrospect, she wished
she hadn’t. She’d watched in horror as
Katherine’s German father with buzz cut and
pot belly, fork and knife at the ready, shouted
to her Jewish mother bent over a hot stove,
“Hurry up, please. I’m hungry.” Katherine’s
mother was reduced to speaking all her words
in baby talk. Katherine seemed oblivious to it
all and even added to her own mother’s
degradation by having her serve her, too.
“No boyfriend,” Betty answered as
unapologetically as possible.
“I find that hard to believe.”
She shook her head and rolled her eyes, then
backed into the front room.
“You looked like Katherine just then.”
Betty felt caught. There were expressions and
gestures of Katherine’s she’d adopted like hand-
me-down clothes. She doubted that Katherine
had come away with any of hers, though. If
they were like sisters, Katherine was decidedly
the older one.
“You like guys, right?”
“Yes!” she said so loudly that a moment later
she regretted it. She moved towards the front
door, as if to suggest they were almost
finished. He sat down on her couch.
“So, what, you get asked out all the time and
aren’t interested in the ones who ask you?
Something like that?”
“Not exactly.” Was he mocking her? True,
she’d added a little extra weight when
Katherine disappeared from her life. Big deal.
She knew she’d drop it soon. Of course, it all
went to one area. She’d gone back to wearing
the size 12 uniform top with special
adjustments made by an immigrant tailor on
He put his feet up on her makeshift coffee
table/fruit box without taking his eyes off her.
“No one asks me out.” She’d intended to say
something else entirely but somewhere
between the thought and her voice, the words
took a detour.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
“Wait. Give me a minute. I have to work this
out.” He jumped up and sat closer to her. “Let
me see you better.”
As he moved closer, she pulled her arms
around her breasts.
“What are you doing?” He pulled her arms
down to her sides.
“Nothing,” She stood up and walked towards
“What? C’mon, you can tell me. We’re buddies
She couldn’t help laughing. “Where did you
say Katherine was?”
“I didn’t, and don’t change the subject.”
“If you tell me where Katherine is, I’ll answer
“Texas. Starring in Chris Simpson’s next film.”
“That’s fantastic!” Betty lied. It hurt to hear
just how little she knew about Katherine’s life
now. “Is she thrilled? I know how much she
“He’s a hack! Hired some nobody for the lead
who is more wooden than an ark. Did
Katherine do enough to make him use me
instead? Hardly. But we’re not talking about
loser directors and selfish actresses right now.
We’re talking about you. Betty. That’s an old-
fashioned name—Betty. Betty Boop.”
“My mother would have crucified you for that.
I was named after Betty Friedan, leader of—”
“The feminist movement. I know. Don’t change
the subject. Tell me about you.”
“What was the question again?” she asked,
stalling. She’d had one boyfriend in college
and a few crushes through the years that never
amounted to anything.
Michael pulled over a chair for her. There were
crumbs on it, and he brushed them onto the
floor. Then he took Betty by the forearm and
sat her down. His hand felt large, his grip firm.
She hadn’t felt many men’s hands other than
clients’ handshakes, which always felt sweaty
and limp from the anxiety of being at the
dentist. He pulled up another chair for himself.
“Now. I asked you about a boyfriend, and you
covered yourself up.”
“It’s just, you know.”
“My chest.” He had to lean in to hear her. She
felt the places where the air moved under her
clothes: her wrists, neck, and ankles. She kept
shifting her position in the chair to get
“What about it?” He bent forward more and
stared down at the floor. Betty felt grateful. It
was easier to talk when he wasn’t looking at
her. She heard the minute hand on the clock
“It’s just a little, well, kind of large. That’s all.”
“They’re unattractive when they’re this big.”
Michael was quiet. Betty heard a neighbor’s
door shut and the subsequent footfall on the
stairs in the hall. Michael put a hand on his
forehead and shook his head. Betty shifted in
the chair and re-crossed her legs. She counted
five different shades of brown in his hair. She
began to cross her arms, than stopped,
uncertain of what to do with any of her limbs.
Michael composed himself, slung his arm over
her shoulder, and pulled her forward into a
“You really don’t know, do you?” He was close
enough for her to smell. It was a woodsy
smell. Odd, given that they lived in New York
“What?” She folded her hands to stop them
“These are your ticket!” He pointed at her
breasts. “Someone’s been lying to you.”
Betty wondered if she were awake.
“Listen, I’m going to suggest something, and I
hope you’ll agree.” Michael stared at her
uniform. She was conscious of holding her
breath. After an interminable silence, he put a
hand on her shoulder. “I want you to clean my
teeth. Will you do that? I have the
“You weren’t kidding?”
“Hell no.” There was a slight twang to his
words. She knew very little about him from
Katherine. Grew up in Pittsburgh…went to Yale
drama school…impromptu kissed Katherine in
the middle of acting class before they’d even
met…wore only second-hand clothes…
ambitious, Katherine had called him…painted
awful, dark canvases that he called art…used to
date some famous actress…who was it?
“We could put on some Miles and talk more.
I’m digging this neighbor thing.”
“I don’t know,” Betty said, but she did. She
hadn’t had this much fun since, well, since
Katherine. More even. Was it rebellion against
her mother? Revenge against Katherine? All
she knew was that she hoped he wouldn’t
leave yet. A car horn sounded. “I guess it
wouldn’t hurt for me to make sure you’re
cleaning them right.”
He left for a moment to get his tools, and she
ran to look at herself in the full-length mirror
on the back of her bathroom door. She quickly
glanced at her face, pinching her cheeks for
color. Betty knew she didn’t make the most of
her looks. She felt like a clown in makeup.
Clingy blouses and skirts looked good on
Katherine; on her they looked as if they were
anxious to return to their hangers. She did a
quick assessment of her features: forehead too
high, too many freckles, and short dark hair
too limp to hide these flaws. She focused on
her eyes instead: her best feature. Then, she
took a long look at her shape, turning for the
full effect, straightening her posture. She
heard her mother’s disapproving voice in her
mind. “What we do to ourselves, we do to all
women,” and “You have to be twice as
careful,” she’d say, “because of your size.”
She’d always made men sound so savage.
“Humm.” Betty blocked out the voice.
She heard Michael return, and grabbed a
towel, floss, mouthwash and a glass of water.
His hair was pulled back in a bandana. She
could see his face better like this. From his
broad forehead to his protruding lips. She felt
a sort of Amazonian kinship with him. “Check
it out.” He unrolled a black satin pouch with
individual slots for each tool.
“Yup.” She fingered the shiny metal scaler,
explorer, and periodontal probe. “This is my
“Sure,” she said, lying. The instruments were
five years passé.
“You sit. I’ll get everything ready.” He handed
her the mug she’d set down earlier, and this
time she took a few tentative sips. His comfort
in his own skin had to work for him in
auditions. The few men she knew well were
nothing like this. Her father was embarrassed
if he ran into her in the hallway when she had
pajamas on. Matt Gibb, her one boyfriend in
college, was so indecisive he made her order
for him in restaurants.
When everything was set, he sat in her twelve-
dollar Target kitchen chair, the one with metal
legs and a plastic seat. The kitchen light was
dim, so she dragged over a floor lamp with a
pale pink hanging shade that Katherine had
given her, distinctive because it had been the
first pink thing she’d owned since her mother
had boycotted pink. There was a shawl with
fringe wrapped around it that she removed to
give more light. She propped a sofa cushion
behind his back, a box under his feet. “This’ll
give you the feeling of being up high—like the
Before she began scraping his back molars, he
told her to go slow, and get all the plaque.
“Tell me the story of your life.” He pointed to
her breasts. “And don’t leave anything out.”
Betty told him about her feminist mother who
was better at organizing a women’s rights
march in D.C. than a school bake sale in
Wellesley, Mass. For a while, she insisted that
like her, Betty go bra-less. But at fifteen, Betty
was already two cup sizes bigger than her
mother. When the popular girls at school
nicknamed her Linda Love-loose, Betty went
from wearing no bra to wearing two at a time.
“It helped with gym,” she told him. “I used to
wear a sweatshirt year round in gym. I even
passed out once, it was so hot.”
“Ouch,” he said.
“That number 24 tooth has a bit of a shadow
on it.” There was a significant amount of
plaque build-up on his back teeth and she had
to frequently stop and wash the explorer in the
sink. “How often do you use these tools
anyway?” She ran the warm water over it,
eyeing his toothpick that was still on the
“Whatever. Go on.” Michael boosted himself
up, filled both mugs, and sat down again.
“I feel bad talking about myself so much.” She
took a deep breath and smelled that woodsy
smell again. Tobacco, probably, she thought.
“Quite a difference from your neighbor.” He
drank the contents of the mug, then said,
“Kumbaya,” as he set the mug down.
Betty considered defending Katherine, but
frankly, she’d sometimes had similar thoughts
herself. The way she’d handed her life to love
was merely another kind of selfishness. Betty
looked over towards the window. She could
see their reflection and for a moment, she
imagined Katherine watching them. Michael
nudged her leg. It was enough to make the
specter of Katherine dissolve.
“My mother is more embarrassed about my
breasts than I am,” she continued. “Buying
clothes? Impossible. Growing up? Summers
were hell. Once, when I was fifteen, I was with
my parents at the beach. A group of guys sat
behind us. I didn’t really notice them until my
mother made us leave. She said the guys were
debating whether my breasts were real or not.
That’s a good one. Like I would ever wish for
these. I wanted a breast-reduction operation
but was terrified of being cut. Sometimes I
wonder if my breasts are the reason I became
a hygienist. This uniform is very binding.”
“Crim—in—al.” Michael tried to speak out of
the side of his mouth she wasn’t working on.
“And your Dad?”
“Other dads read Sports Illustrated, mowed the
lawn. My dad did all the cooking and most of
the cleaning. Mom had him well trained.”
“I guess he wasn’t one of those dads with a
stack of Playboys in the garage?”
“That would have been grounds for divorce.
Possibly murder.” Betty remembered the first
time she really looked at a Playboy—at her
cousin Kimberly’s house, and how she felt
relieved to see other women with breasts as
big as hers. Up until that point, she’d felt like a
freak of nature. Inflated.
When she finished his first two quadrants, he
gargled, then took her right hand and lightly
kissed it. She left the trace of his wet lip print
to dry into her skin. Betty saw sweat marks on
his T-shirt. She crossed one leg over the other
and looked away.
“Thank you. That felt great. I forgot how nice
it is to have someone else do it.”
Michael crossed the room, ejected her CD and
removed one from the side pocket of his
“Robert Johnson,” he said, nodding to her
speaker. He seemed to take it for granted that
everyone knew the work of those he
considered great artists.
“Ah,” Betty nodded, as if she did.
When he returned, he knelt at her feet. “I have
one more request.”
Betty looked at her sleeve.
“I want you to do my top teeth with your top
She laughed, hoping he would laugh with her,
then say it was a joke. By now, she knew him
well enough to know he was serious. She saw
her breasts in her mind. Sometimes, she felt
like her breasts were her eyes—the way
people’s eyes naturally went to them when
they talked to her. Poor thing, she’d always
imagined they were thinking. Her breasts had
disappointed her for so many years. She didn’t
want them to spoil tonight. Robert Johnson
was singing about a woman named Bernice.
“Listen.” He leaned closer. “I promise I won’t
touch you. If you feel uncomfortable at any
point, you can put something on.”
“I can’t. What would Katherine say?”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re over. We broke up
“I’m sorry. What happened?” She tried to
conceal the excitement in her voice. She
considered not having another drink but then
poured herself one to the brim. She hadn’t had
a drink since Katherine deserted her. For the
first time in a very long while, she was
beginning to feel the curve of her back, the
way her breasts felt against her bra. What did
she have to show for her life other than a few
thank you cards from clients at Christmas?
Eight consecutive women’s rights marches
“If you take off your shirt, I’ll tell you.”
“Now you’re bargaining with me?”
Michael stood so close Betty thought she might
fall into him. She lifted her uniform top off,
just to put some distance between them. The
bra was black lace, which she was happy for.
At least it wasn’t one of her more industrial
“We’ll start here,” he said with a wink.
Betty tried to imagine she was at work, simply
cleaning her next hourly patient. She stood as
straight as she could to lengthen the area
between her breasts and stomach. Five
minutes and two bicuspids later, he asked her
to take off her bra.
“In acting class, we do this exercise called the
Alexander Technique, where we focus on other
parts of the body to free ourselves up,
lengthen and widen everything. Katherine uses
it a lot. Watch this.” He stood up from the
chair and placed his thick hands on the back of
her neck. Then he whispered in her ear, “Neck
Betty hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes
until she looked up and saw him seated again.
“Baby, I just want you to accept yourself and
show you how beautiful you are.”
Had he called her “baby?” The “baby” in the
Virginia Slims’ cigarette advertisements,
“You’ve come a long way, baby,” had been a
big deal for her mother’s feminist group. Why
did it sound so nice when he said it?
“Think of this as being for you as much as it is
for me. More for you.”
“I…” Betty began, but faltered. Her hands were
shaking. Years ago, her mother’s friends had
started a movement called the Code, which
meant that a woman could not go out with
someone who was married or involved with
another woman. It lasted about a month before
one of her mother’s best friends broke it when
she had an affair with a married woman.
She put down the tool and slid her hands
behind her to unclasp the bra. Her breasts fell
halfway to her waist. Michael could not take
his eyes off of them. Could they really be
okay? She felt a small smile slip onto her face.
“Jesus.” He was staring at every inch of her
40-D chest. “I can’t believe you’ve been
embarrassed about this. Your chest is ten
times more beautiful than any woman I’ve ever
Betty pictured Katherine’s modest breasts.
Katherine had often gotten undressed in front
of Betty, though Betty had never reciprocated.
Funny, how she’d always been envious of how
small, almost boyish Katherine’s chest was.
She cleaned the rest of Michael’s teeth barefoot
and bare-chested. She thought about asking
him about the break-up, but she didn’t want to
think about Katherine. “You know, I dream
“I won’t tell you what I dream about,” he
She saw he was excited, his pants raised in the
crotch, and she felt the hairs on her arms
stand up. He moaned a few times. Betty
pretended she didn’t hear him. When she
turned to get a cup, he shot out of his chair
and went to the bathroom. A moment later, he
yelled, “Ohhhhh!” She pinched herself to be
sure she was awake.
“Supernova,” he said when he returned. His
pants looked wet. Then he sat, legs spread,
She leaned in. “Almost finished.”
“Take your time.”
At the end, Michael said, “That was heaven.
Oral fixation. Even made me forget about
He stood up. Betty started to turn. He touched
“Wait.” There was something in his voice. They
locked eyes. Betty had never looked at
anybody this long. When she was little she had
staring contests with her neighbor Jerome
Sullivan. She always felt like she needed to
win for her mother, or on behalf of all girls,
more than she did for herself. “I know I said I
wouldn’t touch you, but I didn’t know they’d be
this magnificent, that they’d make me
this…nuts. I want to touch you so bad.”
She looked away from him. “I need a drink.”
“I’ll go get a bottle.”
When he left, Betty waited a long moment,
then bolted her door. Her heart was racing.
She looked to the window, imagined him
climbing in and felt herself praying it might
happen. She went to the window and placed
her cheek against it, then closed the blinds.
“Betty? Betty?” He was at the door. She wanted
him to break it down, and take her on top of it,
maybe have a neighbor pass by. “Betty!”
She froze. She heard him pacing in the hallway
and she had to force herself to tiptoe past the
door, hugging the wall, to get to her bedroom.
As much as she wanted him, she could never
imagine herself as that woman—the one who
slept with a friend’s boyfriend, or just-ex-
boyfriend. When she got into bed, she undid
the covers on the side where she didn’t sleep
and traced a finger on its emptiness. She
thought she heard him knock but wasn’t
certain because she’d put the pillow over her
head and inserted fluorescent orange ear plugs
in both ears. The phone beside her bed rang,
but when she didn’t pick up, the caller did not
leave a message. After an hour of watching the
digits change on her clock radio minute by
minute, she got up, tiptoed to the door and,
without breathing, looked through the peep
hole. She was disappointed that he wasn’t
The hallway in the old building was like a wind
tunnel. Betty felt the warm summer breeze
coming in from underneath the door. It made
her look down. At her feet was a sheet of
paper folded in half with her name on it. It
thrilled her to see her name written with his
hand. She sat on the floor with her back
against the door and opened the paper. Inside
was a pencil sketch of her, completely nude,
cleaning his teeth. The drawing had little
likeness to either of them but she knew she’d
save it forever. On the bottom he’d written,
“To clean teeth is to be human. To do it in the
nude is divine. Love, Michael.”
Katherine left New York due to a breakdown—
before Michael had become famous but after
he’d left her. Betty always followed his career,
obsessively collecting newspaper articles, and
taping all his movies or talk show
appearances. Today, she sat drinking coffee
when a headline popped out at her:
"Michael Shelly Set to Direct First Film."
In the article, the producer of the film talked
about a scene where a dental hygienist cleans
actors’ teeth, doing house calls. “Michael says
this really happened to him,” the producer
said, laughing. “Only in reality, the hygienist
was topless—and as hot as Raquel Welch.”
Betty re-read the article over and over. Each
time it was as though the words were doing
cartwheels in her stomach. Finally, she stood
and crossed the room to hide the newspaper
with all her other Michael mementos—the
drawing, the toothpick in a baggie—from her
boyfriend. She walked towards her full-length
mirror. She turned and looked at her breasts,
imagining them—as she had so often—as
Michael saw them that night.
Linda Davis has been a finalist in both Glimmer Train and New Millennium
writing contests. The Literary Review published her story, “The True
Definition of Fat,” in its winter/09 issue. She received her MFA from Antioch
University in 2007. Previously, she was story editor at Wildwood
Enterprises, Robert Redford’s production company, and worked in New York
at Harper’s Magazine. Davis lives in Santa Monica with her husband and