SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Linda Davis
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 open.
“Right, that’s what I meant.”
The few times she had seen Michael, she was always struck by how his head was disproportionately 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 monsterish—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 dentist, right?”
“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 door.
“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 been inseparable.
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 nothing.
“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 was? Brando?
“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 the cereal.
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 sink.
“Got any booze?” He moved to examine the titles of her books.
“No. I guess you don’t share Katherine’s love for tea?”
“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 overarching 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 the floor.
“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 to marry.”
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 Mulberry Street.
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 the kitchen.
“What? C’mon, you can tell me. We’re buddies now.”
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 you.”
“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 likes him.”
“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 comfortable.
“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 ticking.
“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 huddle.
“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 City.
“What?” She folded her hands to stop them from shaking.
“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 instruments.”
“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? Winona Ryder?
“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 life.”
“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 real thing.”
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 braless. 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 buildup 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 counter.
“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. Pot, perhaps.
“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 carpenter pants.
“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 off.”
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 today.”
“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 in D.C.?
“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 white ones.
“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 free.”
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 been with.”
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 breakup, but she didn’t want to think about Katherine. “You know, I dream about teeth.”
“I won’t tell you what I dream about,” he laughed.
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, unfazed.
She leaned in. “Almost finished.”
“Take your time.”
At the end, Michael said, “That was heaven. Oral fixation. Even made me forget about smoking.”
He stood up. Betty started to turn. He touched her arm.
“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 there.
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 reread 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 three children.