Fiction 2011 / Volume 41

What Grows Back — Kate Ristow

I went to the dentist last month and found out that my wisdom teeth had grown back. Not all of them, just two.

“No way,” said the hygienist and called the dentist in. They stood above me and squinted. I stared into the light and made a noise with my throat. The dentist removed his mask, smiled and said, “no worries,” because he is a young dentist, and that is the kind of thing he says. He has kind, dry eyes like he does a lot of winking.

The first time I got my wisdom teeth out I was eighteen. That was four years ago. I didn’t get dry sockets, I just lay on my mother’s couch and ate yogurt and Percocet feeling as happy and boneless as a clam.

The truth is, I’m pleased about my teeth. The resilience of life in my mouth seems like a sign to me. Those stubborn little molars fighting the odds, coming back for more. While the dentist studied my chart I tongued the rough points that had pushed though my gums like new weeds.

After I left I drove to my mother’s house to tell her my news. I knew she’d be there because she’d just been dumped. The house was messy, magazines and cups of weird liquid were all over the place. The house she lives in now is not the house I grew up in. It’s not even the house after the house I grew up in. We moved out of the first house when I was sixteen after my dad left for Alaska. He said he was going to find some

meaning. He said something about wilderness. My mother said something about another woman. She threw things and said we needed a change. Floods ruined the second house in 1998. Everything was lost or destroyed. Now, everything is new. Not new new, but new to me.

My mother was taking a Personal Day from the bank. It’s what she always does when she breaks up with a boyfriend. She sits at home with the TV on and pours whiskey in her Coke.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” she told me when I picked up a glass and held it under my nose.

“Nothing at all. Nothing to go to Al-Anon over.”

“Who said anything about Al-Anon,” I asked. I went to the kitchen and stared at the cupboards. I took out the coffee can and measured some spoonfuls into the maker. My mother is a drinker, but she is not a drunk. There is a difference. I know, because my father was a drunk. She was just doing what she always does which is to stay home and mope for a day or two, then hop in the shower, clean up the house, buy a new dress and find another man.

“Guess what,” I said.

“She turned the volume down, and shifted her position to give me her almost full attention. She has high hopes for me. She believes one of these days I’ll come over with news of a good job, a good boyfriend.

“My wisdom teeth grew back. It’s a miracle. Better clear off the couch, better buy the yogurt.” I know I’m too old for this, but she’s too old to be moping like a teenager because Doug the car mechanic dumped her.

“Does insurance cover miracles?” she asked.

“Guess what else?” I opened the cupboard to look for a clean mug.

“You have an extra eyeball?”

“I’m cutting off my hair.”

“Your beautiful hair,” she said and began to sniff. Her own hair is gray at the roots and coarse as the head of a broom. She says it’s one of the reasons nobody will marry her, one of the reasons she’ll always be alone. She thinks I moved back here because I’m worried about her and that’s part of it, but I’d never admit it. I threw her a box of tissues and slumped in the recliner. In the kitchen, the coffee maker hissed like a cat.

I am not cutting off my hair as a statement. It is not because I’m bored, or because the stylist at the salon where I work as a receptionist says I’ll look like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. My hair is my main attraction. My roommate tells me cutting it off is like beauty suicide. But I’m going to do it anyway.

After I left my mother’s I didn’t feel like going home, so I walked down through town to the marina. This place is the jump-point to vacationland. To the north are hundreds of islands. The mayor calls our town a gateway. Technically we live on an island too, but it’s the fake, drive-to kind that you can reach by bridge. What it really is is a line of fast-food restaurants, gas stations and gift shops that sell t-shirts featuring pictures of Orca whales. From the marina you can see the beginning of the archipelago, scattered down the sound like a trail of crumbs.

I walked on the docks and checked out the yachts which are immense and shining and have puns for names. The year I was seventeen my mother dated a man whose boat was called Sin or Swim. He had red hair and owned two houses, one in Arizona and one in the islands. He took my mother and me there a couple of times and served slick mussels and warm Chardonnay. After one month she said he was the answer to all of our problems. She said “In Arizona it never rains.” She said, “It’s time to get out of this town.” Three months later, he said he had to be leaving and sold his yacht. She put vodka in her orange juice, and I got into college and moved to Seattle.

On my way back to the car I went to the hardware store to buy some paint. I had been thinking about changing the color of my bedroom. But when I was there I forgot about the paint and bought a little garden kit that came with seeds, a flowerpot, even dirt.

“You bought dirt?” my roommate Mel said when I got home.

“The finest,” I said. “Look how dark it is.” I mixed the dirt with water in a big bowl like I was making a cake. I poured the mixture into the pot and opened up the packets of seeds. The directions said to separate them by kind, but I mixed them up. I liked the idea of the flowers mingling their roots below the surface is some sort of forbidden flirtation.

“For variety,” I told Mel, who was watching from the doorway.

“Variety is healthy,” Mel said. She thinks this is something she knows about because she goes on up to three dates a week. She’s been trying to get me to double with her which sounds like the worst thing I’ve ever heard of.

“Please,” I said. I know what she’s talking about. It’s not the flowers. “My mother dates enough for the both of us. You should see her right now. At this very moment she’s acting about fifteen years old. That’s where variety got her.”

“The woman lost her house,” Mel said. “And she got left.”

“Seven years ago,” I said and poked a few more seeds deep into the dirt. Mel and my mother have met a few times. They talked about men like college girls in the bar bathroom.

“And every five minutes since then,” Mel pointed out.

“She digs her own grave,” I said and smoothed the soil with my index finger.

In college I went on dates because that’s what you do. But what I wanted was to stay at home, eat a sandwich from the cafeteria and read magazine advice columns about people whose lives are so screwed up they make you feel like your future is the brightest one around. I hid the magazines under my pillow, embarrassed. “What he’s thinking when you’re naked,” the covers bossed above pictures of models with thin, arched bodies. “Seven Days to Slim!”

I’m not pretending to have it all figured out, but I know a few things about myself. I am constantly dissatisfied and disappointed in people. It’s something I’m not working on.

Mel says it’s an avoidance technique.

“You’re afraid of getting close to people,” she said while I sprinkled water onto my seeds.

“Are you a therapist?” I asked.

“It’s better to have loved and lost…” she began from the doorway and I left the room to find my pot of dirt a nice sunny corner to call home. That was a challenge. It was November. The clouds were heavy as sheep in the rain.

Mel’s not a therapist, she’s a waitress at the Compass Cafe down by the ferry terminal. She finished high school, but just barely. What she wants is to find a nice man and settle down.

“In the country,” she says. We both know that will never happen. Mel is what my mother calls a Go-Go-Get-‘Em Girl. I am what my mother calls a Scaredy-Cat. She says, “You’re afraid.” I say, “I’m smart.” She says, “That you are,” and then I feel bad like I said she wasn’t.

There was a tiny bit of gladness that nestled in my chest when the flood ruined the house. It’s still stuck inside me like a piece of glass, a clean kind of pain. I liked that my mother was forced to do something other than wait like some aged Rapunzel forgotten in the castle. I liked the way she looked, moving around the new house with a sort of dignified purpose. She became useful, unpacking boxes full of donated food, rearranging furniture like she cared. I said, “This is starting over.” She said, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Three years ago, while I was in Seattle getting a degree, Mel was down the street from my college getting an abortion. We didn’t know each other well then, but it still depresses me to think of her lying there with her legs open while I took careful notes about Jane Austen. She says it wasn’t that big of a deal, but what I know is that she still celebrates the baby’s due date every year by drinking too much wine and falling asleep with all the lights on.

I finished college on schedule, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at me. The lease on the apartment I’d been renting ran out and I moved back home and then, when my mother and I lost patience with each other, in with Mel who was a friend of a friend and was looking for a roommate. It was supposed to be temporary, just until I could save up enough money to move somewhere better. But it’s been six months. My job at the salon isn’t the kind of job you go to college for, but it’s good enough for now. I like the shampoo smell of the place and the way people try to catch their reflections in the window on their way out the door.

Every now and then someone I used to know comes in and says,

“I thought you were never coming back.”

I nod and shrug and say “Oops.” Then I tell them their stylist will be right with them and flip the pages of my appointment book.

My mother says, “You are the first college graduate in our family and you work at a salon.”

I say, “Be patient. I’m just figuring things out.” But that sounds weak, even to me.

The owner of the salon has this thing about community. Her motto is: “Hair Cares.” Right now she is hosting an event for Manes of Mercy. I’ve signed on. I’m cutting off my hair to make a wig for a kid who has a disease and has gone bald. There are a few places you can send your hair. I chose one in California, because that’s the closest and I want to keep it nearby. The pamphlet was what got me. There’s this picture of a little girl with her hair donor. The donor has a pixie cut and the girl has auburn curls that fall past her shoulders. They are both looking happy. I tried to detect signs of loss in them, to see the effect of the process. But they’re just smiling, standing very close together with their hands on their hips. It has occurred to me that they might just be models.

There are nights that Mel and I sit in the living room and turn the lights low and count the people passing by. The most we’ve gotten is seven in one night. Every now and then someone we know will walk past and we’ll consider this new angle, the top of heads and shoulders, and make up new names and lives for them. We drink cheap wine from the jug and eat crackers, and sometimes Mel says, “Let’s go out,” so we dress up in jeans and shiny tops and go to the bar across the street which is new and not someplace frequented by locals. The bar is called The Net and has themed nights, but it never really changes. Ladies Night means cheap well drinks, Salsa Night means stale tortilla chips and an empty pinata. We order Gin and Tonics and walk out on the dance floor with our shoulders back and our eyes straight-ahead. It seems like we’re the only ones that dance at this bar. I like to think we do the floor a favor, resuscitating it with our shoe bottoms. A

few men usually watch from the sidelines like parents at a soccer match, and I sort of like it, knowing they aren’t a part of our game. Every now and then Mel grabs one and pulls him out on the dance floor, and weaves in circles around him.

At the dentist’s office I sat in the half-reclined chair and tried to look composed even though I felt like a freak. He explained that he couldn’t explain why the teeth he pulled out grew back. I asked him if I might be a dental miracle and he said no, though he looked fascinated and a little bit unsure. Then he winked at me and called me shark-girl because sharks have two layers of teeth. I looked this up when I got home and found out that was true, that sharks can lose tens of thousands of teeth in a few years, but that they always grow back. I pictured the dentist studying the teeth of animals by lamplight, and wondered if he slept alone. The dentist is not from this town. On the wall of his office is a certificate from the UCLA school of dentistry.

“You must miss the sunshine,” I said to him when I saw the certificate. He nodded, smiled out the window at the rain and I wanted to reach over his desk and touch his forehead.

Mel is most like my mother in the moments before she goes out on a date. Whatever they have lost they have decided to fix with lipstick and perfume and a certain kind of smile that distracts attention from the look in their eyes. They pull and prod at themselves in front of the mirror and say, “Okay?” I nod and say, perfect.” But they can’t be convinced. Mel is worried about the size of her nose, since she read that it never stops growing. My mother is worried about the flat and heavy sag of her breasts, the flesh

around her middle, the blue veins that are fighting against the surface of her skin like worms in the dirt.

Once I cut off my hair, there is no telling how long it will take to grow back. The pamphlet assures me I won’t even notice how fast it is coming in. How thick, how glossy, how like a child’s it has become. And perhaps, one day, you will donate again, it tells me. They have a star system for repeat donors. It goes from bronze to gold, like in the Olympics.

Mel said, “You should at least let me set you up with Ray before you cut it off.” Ray is the one she wants me to go out with. He’s new in town and works in the kitchen at the Compass Cafe.

“But seriously,” she said. “He’s super smart.”

“So why don’t you go out with him?” I said.

“He’s not my type. Anyway, my hands are full at the moment. But he has a pet turtle. Isn’t that cool?”

I said, “No way,” but I’m starting to consider it, just to shut her up.

I stared at my pot of dirt for one week before two sprouts pushed to the surface. Now there are five. I check them morning and night. I can tell they are getting bigger by the day, their little stalks pumped up with liquid. One of these days I’ll need to transfer them to a bigger pot. Maybe even a garden. There is no garden at my apartment. There is no garden at my mother’s house. There is only a parking strip like someone spilled their lawn while they were driving it to their better house.

I like to get up before light, when the leaves outside are black. It has been raining for four solid weeks. Everyone is worried about flooding. But my garden grows in the lamplight. On the day I had an appointment with the stylist who was going to make me look like Mia Farrow, I did up a braid and reached for the scissors myself. Tiny pieces of hair fell around my toes, tickled the tops of my shoulders. The braid was heavier than I expected and coiled in my hand it looked as gray and strange as a dead pet.

Before I went to the dentist to have my teeth pulled, I put lipstick on. He stood over me with a scalpel and said, “I guess nothing’s impossible.” He smiled at me like an experiment and I thought about my sprouts, pushing their way out of the dirt towards my open face. The dentist has good, careful hands. He lifted my chin with the tip of his finger and I shut my eyes and tried to look serene.

While he put the metal up against my gums and said, “Hold tight,” I pictured him studying books about cavities and plaque removal under palm trees.

I like to think about California. I picture a beach house with room for a garden. I imagine that I’m sitting on the sand and I look up and there is my donated braid, back from the dead, running after a ball or doing cartwheels in the sand. I’d know my hair anywhere. My mother is right. It is beautiful hair.

The truth is, there is a part of me that thinks she’s got it right a lot. She’s always crying over movies and things in a way that makes me feel like I’ve missed the point. I

admire people who cry a lot because it is a sign they are alive. My problem is I don’t know what is in me unless it is yanked out with pliers.

“You cut your hair,” the dentist said after he had my head exactly where he wanted it. He kept his hand on my chin for a moment. I nodded and was glad for the lipstick.

“You look different,” he said.

“I donated it.”

“If only you could do that with these guys.” He tapped my jaw. The dentist’s eyes flickered like they might go out. He didn’t put me under while he pulled out my teeth.

“You won’t even feel it,” he said, though of course I did. But the teeth were hardly there. Just babies, their roots were thin as string. It was only a tug, like the way someone takes your hand.

“That’s it!” he said, when it was done. He held the teeth in his palm, and when he took the cotton from my mouth there was just a small spot of blood. I took off my bib and left the office, my new teeth in the trashcan like leftover food. I found my car on the street where I left it, but sitting in the driver’s seat I forgot which way was home.

By the time I started the engine, the bleeding had stopped entirely and there was no pain in my mouth, only the tinny taste of raw skin. The dentist had said there was no need to put myself out. No need for yogurt or painkillers, or lying around on the couch like I’d just had a liver removed. But I went to my mother’s house anyway.

When I walked in the door it smelled good, like laundry. The living room was mostly clean. She had a dress on and her hair was up. From where I stood it looked mostly brown, hardly gray at all. She was standing at the kitchen sink, just standing there, not doing anything.

“What’s his name,” I asked.

“Clark,” she said. “As in Gable. Your hair!”

“It’s a nice name. I told you I was cutting it.”

“I guess you did.” She looked startled but said it suited me. “It reminds me of something,” she said.

“Rosemary’s Baby?”

She put her hands on her hips and came towards me. Over and over she said, “What is it. You remind me of something, of someone,” like she’d forgotten I was her own.

I stayed at my mother’s for a while and told her about Manes of Mercy.

“You’re a good girl,” she said. But she kept checking the time and twisting her dress around, so I decided to go home. It was Friday, Mel was off work at five, and I figured maybe we’d go across the street. On Fridays The Net hosts Funktown, which means a sign on the door that says “Welcome to Funktown” and not much else.

I’d decided to tell Mel I’d go out with this Ray person. If I said it once, I wouldn’t be able to take it back. I’ve never seen this guy, but I’ve imagined him a few times, feeding his pet turtle pieces of lettuce and checking the temperature of its cage.

The other day I read that shrimp keep their hearts in their brains. I told my mother that and it made her laugh and laugh.

“So they think with their hearts?” she asked

“Or love with their brains,” I answered.

For their first date Clark took my mother to a restaurant at the top of a little hill where you can see almost all the way across the sound to Canada.

“It was perfect,” she said, and more than anything I wanted to believe her.

My hair has already grown about one quarter of an inch. But my neck still feels exposed, like a broken bone, jutting through skin. I don’t always recognize myself in shop windows. Meanwhile, some kid just lost another sweep of hair in her mother’s brush. When I see the flash of my neck reflected in glass I think of that new bald spot, fresh as anything. I think of my mother’s beat-up heart growing a light pink shell, slick a pill, and the layer of flesh that covers Mel’s hollowed out stomach. You don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. I guess that’s the point of all those sayings.

It’s true what the pamphlet said. My new hair is soft as a child’s. When it’s long enough I might cut it off again, and go for the silver star. What I now know is that it will always grow back. But this time, I think I’ll drive my braid down to California myself. I’ll have moved my flowers to a larger pot by then. I’ll strap them in the passenger seat like a kid, and when I get to California I’ll stay there and go barefoot until I no longer need shoes to protect my feet. I’ll get a tan, sitting there on the beach and beside me the air will be as real and warm as a body. Leaving here will be easy. Everybody will have been expecting my departure for a long time. But I won’t say I told you so and when I drive over the bridge to the mainland I will keep my eyes straight ahead.

After the flooding had stopped, but before the evacuation crew dragged her away from her ruined house, my mother got the photo albums, the good dishes, a few of her dresses and a trunk full of letters. Everything else grew bloated with rain and soft from rot. She said the flood was like divorce since it distorted the shape of everything. Made it seem more valuable or more worthless than it probably was.

I said, “Things are just things.”

She said, “You are so young,” and held my face the way a person holds a book when the light is almost too low to read.

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