A Downward Glissando


First Person

dental x-ray

Photo: Cory Doctorow, via Flickr

Fat little dog trotting contentedly along the sidewalk, right at his master’s side, with a plastic steak in his mouth.

Neil Young sounds like a lonely alley cat, I thought, most poignant when slightly out of tune.

Whenever I got on the subway, I looked around for someone cute to glance at, and if there wasn’t anyone I resigned myself to boredom.

Old queen in the locker room: “When you’re the prettiest one in the steam room, it’s time to go home.”

At forty-three I was no longer in my heyday.

The name of the medication printed in a half circle and the “100 mg” made a smiley face on my new, blue pills.

On the L train, a poem called “Hunger” spoke of walking home “through a forest that covers the world.”

I’d had the same part-time public-relations job since November 1985. It was now February 2001 and counting.

I was drawn to Neil Young not by the specific content of the lyrics (too hetero) but by the overall tone of longing, which I defined as a kind of sadness that had hope.

On the L platform, a diminutive Chinese man playing “Send in the Clowns” on a harmonica, with flowery recorded accompaniment.

I write this in the hope that aphorism-like statements, when added one to another, might accrue to make some larger statement that will placate despair.

“The intensity of certain random experiences,” I wrote in my journal, “is sometimes unaccountable and makes one wish to live more observantly.”

I’d hoped to overcome negative thinking through therapy, meditation, prayer, swimming, and yoga, but now it appeared I also needed a drug.

According to WebMD, Wellbutrin carries a risk of seizure.

Thought: the problem with polyester is that it pills, yet sometimes it doesn’t, and you can never tell which it will be.

After eight years together, John and I still didn’t share an apartment, and I wondered if this was a failure.

Let the seizure come, I thought, and maybe afterward I’ll have some peace.

I supported myself mostly with public-relations writing and only sometimes with journalism, because public-relations writing is always positive, and I like to be nice.

In his spare time, my ophthalmologist is an amateur magician.

I went to look at the sunset and was given a ticket for trespassing.

My arthritis was bad that week, but I hoped that if I thought of myself as a well person rather than a sick one, the pain would bother me less and less and might even go away.

“Colors were brighter,” said a woman of her first week on Effexor, which I had also tried but didn’t like.

My Walkman in my breast pocket, I floated along with the sad tune.

The ronroco, a small Argentine string instrument, sounds like a cross between a ukulele and a mandolin.

In an e-mail regarding the freelance article I was working on, the marketing executive at Jordache tried to flirt with me by offering vintage jeans and asking my waist size.

Journal: “I like Internet porn too much.”

John and I enjoyed how Mae West makes odd, inarticulate, knowing “humph” sounds, sometimes barely audible, and how, when she “dances,” she barely moves.

I wrote that the old 1979 Jordache commercial, which was being shown again on TV, “begins with a downward glissando,” a line my editor took out, even though that glissando is my favorite part of the ad.

Joni Mitchell once wisely observed that disco music “sounds like typewriters.”

My editor also cut: “We only glimpse the blonde girl dancing, in a manner not seen since, say, the New York City Gay Pride Parade in 1989, that is, as if her shoulders are attached to one circular track and her hips to another.”

I noticed that whenever I trimmed my sideburns, I thought of a particular editor I barely knew, and since I liked her, I didn’t mind thinking of her while shaving, but sometimes I asked myself, Why her?

For another article, I spent my day off in Staten Island interviewing once again the teenager with HIV I had interviewed two and a half years earlier.

Noelle, my therapist of twelve years, almost started crying as she spoke of another patient, a priest, who had died of AIDS.

I went in search of a black version of the navy-blue, cotton-polyester shirt I’d seen at Bloomingdale’s, and I found it at Saks.

Though my brother had died of AIDS and we had discussed this many times, I had never seen Noelle cry before.

As soon as I switched from Effexor to Wellbutrin, my orgasm returned.

“The colors of some moments are slightly brighter than others,” I wrote, “and some a lot brighter, and at the moment I’m interested in those just slightly brighter.”

I told John how much I love blood oranges.

I went home and tried on all my new clothes.

John said I’m like that dog with his plastic steak when I have a new shirt to wear.

Articles I might have written for GQ: “Searching for the Perfect Black Polo Shirt”; “Shoe Shopping with My Podiatrist”; “How Can You Tell If a Particular Polyester Blend Will Pill”; “Why Do Certain Flat-Front Pants Wrinkle So Much in the Crotch?”

I was thinking of leaving Noelle and even went to see three new candidates but decided I would just reach the same point with a new one eventually, for reasons that are officially known as “resistance” and “transference,” and which in practical terms meant I was afraid to go forward.

My mother and father liked to playfully call milk “malk” and cooking “coo-king.”

Similarly, John and I repeat the same phrases again and again, phrases from movies or life that made us laugh, as when John overheard a fag in a coffee shop say, apparently of his boyfriend, “I don’t know where she is, I don’t know if she’s got a dick in her mouth …”

Thought: when you feel a strong connection to your therapist, you not only mistake her for your mother, but she sort of really is your mother, because she has taught you as much as a mother would.

In an e-mail, my friend Cathy, who is legally blind, explained to me for the first time in our twenty-two-year friendship exactly what she sees—that is, a rapid series of blurry snapshots because her eyes won’t hold still.

I begged off having a drink with my boss, saying I had dinner plans, which was true: I had planned to have dinner with myself.

I said I couldn’t have lunch with the salespeople tomorrow because there was something I had to do, which was true: I had to be alone.

Things I liked to do on Wellbutrin: blow my boyfriend; lie in bed switching channels; write one-sentence paragraphs; not get mad at store clerks; masturbate; read stereo-equipment catalogues; plan to go to Rome.

Soaked through after walking only half a block, I said to myself, This weather is absurd. Absurd!

I was discouraged to discover that certain childhood experiences continued to wreck my life, and so I had to look at them one more time.

Subway graffiti: “Admit when your gay and a slacker.”

For five years I’d been writing a novel about my teddy bear, in part because I was (and am) perpetually in need of comfort.

Driving me back to the ferry, the grandmother of the kid with HIV said wryly, as we passed the hospital, “There it is, our home away from home.”

When Noelle nearly cried, I said that maybe she was too fragile to be my therapist, but she replied that that wasn’t the case.

On the telephone John and I tried to imitate Mae West’s inarticulate humphs, but since they’re nearly inaudible, we didn’t have much success.

When I took my trespassing ticket to 346 Broadway, they said I had come on the wrong day.

In Union Square station, a teen to a fellow teen: “You sound like a fucking hibernating bear. Maybe you should sleep six months and shit.”

“Moments of a certain off flavor add up,” I wrote,” “and then you perceive you’re in a new phase of your life.”

In my teddy-bear novel I would have to write about shitting my pants all the time when I was five, and I wasn’t sure how to go about describing that.

After eight years, I related to John very well within certain parameters, and we were working to expand those parameters, but sometimes I was afraid I wasn’t up to the challenge.

His nickname for me: Kid. My nickname for him: Kid.

My dentist pointed to a small dark area on the X-ray.

On the phone John read me a funny article about Kathy Lee Gifford.

“There are certain moments and facts the mind returns to, for whatever reason,” I wrote.

I stared out my office window.

There was nothing more to be done for the tooth, so I would have to have it pulled, and it would have to be done now, before I went to Rome.

Young subway cop, tubby and all in blue, standing by the token booth vigorously chewing his nails.

Thought: Didn’t Dante refer to middle age as a “forest?”

* * *

“You may hear a cracking sound,” said the oral surgeon, who was also named Cliff. He was inserting a pair of pliers in my mouth. I heard the cracking. Occasionally life plunges you into an experience that, for its utter intensity and obscure resonance, may as well be a dream. “You doin’ okay?” Cliff asked. “Uh-huh,” I tried to say, though actually even after the five or six shots of Novocain I still had some sensation in one spot on my gum, but this was too difficult to explain. My mouth was propped open by a black plastic brace, which I bit down on with my left teeth, the side he wasn’t working on. Cliff said, “You’re going to feel some vibration.” I glimpsed the instrument before it went in. I wondered if he wished I’d opted for the Valium or Demerol, so that he wouldn’t have to explain everything he was doing. He was, however, very good at explaining. I felt that high-pitched vibration of the power tool (drill? tiny saw?). Then the tugging of the pliers, as the gray-haired German-accented assistant gently but firmly—Germanly, I thought—held my chin in place. More tugging. This went on for a while, the power tool, then the pliers, first one root, then the other. I kept my eyes closed and the light on my eyelids was bright as daylight. I tried to imagine I was at the beach. Again and again my shoulders tensed up and I would have to remember to relax them. To describe this ordeal as primal might be misleading, since I was too deep in the woods of it to describe it to myself at all. If I were to interpret, I might say it confirmed a nameless and fundamental conviction that life had stolen something nameless and fundamental from me. This might also be called the human condition, but like the protagonist in a dream I was exempt, for the time being, from drawing any such conclusions. At last there was a final tug, which, though I could see nothing, seemed decisive and was. He dropped the pliers in the metal tray with a clang.

* * *

Just as I switched the channel to Jenny Jones, she said, “So, you have sex for money. And you work at White Castle?”

Mouth full of gauze, I had to stop by the office because the goddamn FedEx package hadn’t arrived the day before.

On the subway stairs: “If I hear any more about your anger management class, I’m going to throw up.”

I read that a fever after a tooth extraction is normal.

I began seeing flashing lights on the periphery of my left eye, so I called my magician-ophthalmologist, who told me I had Moore’s Lightning Streaks, a harmless condition that can affect nearsighted people in middle age.

Apparently Barbara Stanwyck once said “Fuck you” to Loretta Young.

I tried to participate in my oral surgeon’s manful matter-of-factness, but I still mourned the molar, designated “number 30.”

I broke down when Noelle said she felt outrage for certain things I had suffered as a child.

Cliff had also been my oral surgeon more than fifteen years earlier, on this very same tooth, which that time was saved, and that time I did choose the Valium and Demerol—

“Cliff … Cliff … Cliff …? Howyadoin’?”

This essay is excerpted from The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities, which will be published tomorrow. Copyright © 2014 Clifford Chase. Published by The Overlook Press. All rights reserved.

Clifford Chase is the author of Winkie, a novel, and The Hurry-Up Song, a memoir. He edited the anthology Queer 13: Lesbian & Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade, and his writing has appeared in publications ranging from Newsday to Yale Review to McSweeney’s. He lives in New York City.